Mount Baiguda (3,341 meters, no 45 on the ‘Top Hundred’ list) on the border between Nantou County and Taichung City doesn’t seem to get nearly as much love as some of the other summits on Taiwan’s Hundred Peaks list. Permission to climb is easy to get (only a police permit is required), yet there were few other people up there this last weekend, despite the absolutely perfect weather. It’s among the tougher peaks on the list I’ve done to date, especially since we did it in 2 days (meaning a 14-to-16-hour second day of hiking!), but it amazed us all with its beauty. Photos I’ve seen on blogs and elsewhere are usually of the deceptively gentle, rounded, wooded summit dome, which looks boring as anything, but is in fact steep and very rocky, with a stellar 360-degree view from the top. Even more rewarding are the series of crags which the trail follows on the way to the final slog up to the summit peak – nothing technical or difficult, but plenty of tough, knee-breaking ups and downs, and absolutely stunning views over the surrounding wilderness. Definitely one of my top five high mountains so far, and among the tougher ones too!
The trailhead is at the end of a long, narrow and winding farm road that climbs up from the little aboriginal village of Hongxiang (紅香), itself reached by a long mountain road from Wushe to the south or Lishan in the north. The road is so narrow that anything bigger than our eight-seater minibuses wouldn’t have been able to make it. Vehicles stop at the highest farmhouse on the road, guarded by a lovely black pup, sadly kept permanently chained to a post on the veranda of the building, and rather shy of strangers.
The unsurfaced road winds uphill through cabbage fields for about another five minutes’ walk, with magnificent views over the deep valley in which Hongxiang lies and the mountains beyond. At the end, a red metal sign rather sternly announces that Mount Baiguda is an ‘advanced’ trek, potentially dangerous in parts, and only suitable for experienced hiking groups. The apprehension level rises.
Mount Baiguda has a certain reputation among hiking groups, mainly because in the past it was often climbed from near Deqi on the Central Cross-island Highway to the north, an extremely steep and strenuous route. Since the stretch of the highway on which that trailhead lies was closed following the great earthquake of 1999, The present trail, from the south, has become the only way to climb the mountain. Tragically, it was while climbing Mount Baiguda in 2011 that solo hiker Zhang Bowei (張博崴) became lost and fell into a gorge not far from the start of the trail. He was only found after a seven-week search, and had died only six or seven days before his body was found. His mother, Sharon, later went on to found the Taiwan Mountain Association, which has since been fighting to improve education, safety and access to Taiwan’s mountains, holding an annual international conference, and among much else successfully campaigned for easier access by hikers to PLBs (personal locator beacons), the import and use of which at the time of Bowei’s accident were strictly controlled and extremely hard to obtain. I had the good fortune to meet Sharon on several occasions, and she’s a truly extraordinary woman.
Passing the slightly ominous sign, the road becomes a track through the forest, gradually descending, passing a swampy pool, and eventually narrowing to a trail beside some water pipes. After another ten minutes, the trail veers left and starts the long climb up the flank of the mountain, ascending through the lush forest in a series of gentle switchbacks.
Although really fit hikers with a light daypack scale the mountain and return in one very long (16-plus hours) day, most trekkers climb Mount Baiguda in two or three days, spending a night or two at the campsite beside Siyan Pond (司晏池), four hours’ walk from the trailhead. The first day, therefore is fairly easy. The trail is never especially steep; the main obstacle is the remarkable number of huge ancient trees that have fallen across the trail, along with some beautiful huge still-living specimens standing beside the route.
Even with full backpacks, we made good time, easily beating the suggested walking times on the hiking map. About two hours after leaving the vans at the trailhead, we reached the summit of Mount Sanzhui (三錐山; 2,570 meters), a forgettable height with no view, just a clear area on the top that’s convenient for a short rest. After the summit, the trail descends gently down the far side – the first of many descents that make climbing Mount Baiguda more tiring than it appears on a map at a glance. After a short descent, the trail starts climbing again,through the forest, past a flat area suitable for camping. Dwarf shoulder-height bamboo slowly becomes the dominant vegetation as the trail climbs higher, and about two hours after leaving Mount Sanzhui, reaches the first of several open, grassy areas where most people camp the (first) night.The only reliable water on the mountain is at the third grassy camping area, which has a series of three of four dirty-looking brown puddles collectively called Siyan Pond. The water looks disgusting, but tastes tolerable and seems fine after boiling – three days after drinking large quantities of the coffee-colored soup I’m still fine!
Siyan Pond makes a comfortable and soft camping place, and offers one of the first views of the trek. The sea of clouds we witnessed in the valley far below at sunset on the first day of the trek was one of the highlights of the trip.
It was a very cold night, so perhaps it was just as well we had to get up at 3 am on the second day. After a brief cup of hot instant coffee for breakfast we were on the trail, getting an early start on the long day’s trek, warming up as we climbed quite steeply through the bamboo and dense forest to the southeast peak of Mount Baiguda (白姑大山東南峰 3,035 meters). Again there was no view from the summit. Beyond, the trail descends steeply, loosing three hundred meters of altitude in the first of a series of tiring ups and downs on the way to the final summit climb. On this second (and last) day of the trek we would gain 1,100 vertical meters, and descend 2,000 meters!
After a very short saddle, the trail begins climbing steeply again through the forest, passes the tiny ‘Guitar’ camping spot (吉他營地), big enough for only one, maybe two tents (although why anyone would want to carry a heavy backpack all this way is anyone’s guess, when the only practical way out of here is back along the same trail). It’s another steep climb, although towards the top the trail veers close to the cliff-lined southern escarpment of the ridge, offering the first fantastic views of the trek (or so we’d find out on the way back – sunrise finally came about an hour before we finally summited, a long way further up the mountain!).
After yet another short descent, the trail lies right on the cliffs and things become interesting. The next section follows a very narrow ridge with sheer drops on either side, some impressive crags, and lots of fairly easy but eventually tiring rocky pitches to scramble up. It’s slow going, but here the mountain now for the first time reveals its real character, with stunning cliffs, beautifully weathered coniferous trees hanging over vertiginous precipices, and panoramas over a huge expanse of rugged, unpopulated wilderness.
It’s getting light, and the wooded summit dome of Mount Baiguda has been visible for some time. before (after a final short descent) the trail climbs gently (for once) into a last patch of grassy meadow before the final slog to the top. The summit peak is a big anticlimax so far, as it looks gentle and much like countless other small wooded hills in Taiwan’s low-lying hinterland. It’s a cruel deception though – a few minutes after leaving the meadow, the trail dives back into the forest and down to the foot of a huge and very steep boulder slope, which is the only way to the top. It’s an exhausting climb – the toughest part perhaps of the whole trek, strongly reminiscent of the climb to the top of Yushan Front Peak, but even longer and steeper.
Finally (after perhaps 40 minutes), however, we reached the top of the boulder slope, and the ridge on the far side immediately falls away precipitously in front. The gentle rounded hill is anything but gentle or rounded. The trail swings right along the narrow ridge through the low-growing bamboo, and in less than five minutes reaches the trig point and a small but shapely rock at the summit of Mount Baiguda.
The view is almost 360 degrees, and sublime in this clear, cloudless morning. To the north is the huge gorge of the Dajia River, a mysterious places these days, since the Central Cross-island Highway, which once threaded through it, has been out of bounds for nearly twenty years. To the west, several of the Guguan Seven Heroes can be seen (Mounts Dongmao and Baimao are especially distinctive) and beyond, the huge sprawl of Taichung city spreads over the plains in the distance. We even fancy that we can see the sea in the slightly different shade of blue on the horizon.
We’ve made it, and it’s about 8 am when we start the long, long trip back down. With all those punishing ascents on the way back, though, it’s going to be a long day. The last members of our team finally get back to the trailhead, the farmhouse, and that lovely black pup, just after dark, at 6 pm.
Après-Trek: Two great places to see near the trailhead
If you climb Mount Baiguda in just two days, it’s unlikely there’ll be any time for anything but getting to-and-from the trailhead. Trekkers that takle the mountain in a more relaxed three days, however, can enjoy a dip in the hot springs at Hongxiang village, on the road through the valley just beyond the turnoff where the farm road climbs up to the trailhead for Mount Baiguda. The hot springs are a no-thrills kind of place, in a metal hut, but their remote setting makes it unlikely they’ll be busy, even on weekends, and they’re a perfect reward after the strenuous trek!
During summer at least, there’s also the chance to cool off in the fantastic swimming holes of the Tiebilun Canyon (帖比倫峽谷), below a small waterfall. The waterfall and canyon is just a short (signposted) diversion off the road to Hongxiang, on the left shortly before the turning (also on the left) that leads up to the trailhead. Park at the house at the end of the road, take the track on the left, and it becomes a trail which soon leads down to the little canyon just below the waterfall.