Text & Photos: Stuart Dawson
Taiwan’s second-highest peak, Snow Mountain (3,886m), is often overlooked by Westerners who come to the island for hiking. Mt. Jade, being the tallest, is the one that everyone wants to bag, but for me, Snow Mountain is a far more interesting and scenic hike. The terrain and views vary greatly, and even though I’ve been to the top some fifteen times, I still look forward to each and every trip.
My favorite time to be up Snow Mountain (雪山) is during the winter. It’s a relatively safe hike to do when there’s snow on the ground, and the scenery is stunning. This January we had the pleasure of leading a group of fourteen hikers to the peak, and were lucky enough to have perfect weather.
Arriving at the trailhead late on a Friday evening, the temperature difference between Taipei and this mountainous area, not far from Wuling Farm (武陵農場) off Provincial Highway 7A, was immediately apparent. Everyone jumped out of the vans and started digging through backpacks to find fleeces and gloves. As the group tried to stay warm, we handed out the communal equipment and the crampons we’d need to make it to the top in icy conditions.
Once everyone was ready, we headed up to the Qika Cabin (七卡山莊), where we spent the night. It’s an easy hour-long walk to the cabin, which is very basic.
The second day involved a slow walk up to the 369 Cabin (三六九山莊). It typically takes five hours, so we had plenty of time for everyone to get to know each other over coffee and bagels for breakfast at the Qika Cabin. By the time we left, some clouds had rolled in, and I was beginning to worry that we wouldn’t get to see anything that day, but as we ate lunch on Snow Mountain’s East Peak (3,201m), about half-way between the two cabins, they began to part and we caught teasing glimpses of the surrounding valleys.
With the sun now shining through the cloud cover, everyone seemed invigorated once more, and we made it to the 369 Cabin by mid-afternoon. Our porter and cook, Shi-Gua, had arrived earlier in the afternoon and had already prepared an enormous bowl of ginger tea for us. He then spent the rest of the afternoon preparing a delicious and hearty feast for dinner.
Once the sun set, it quickly got very cold on the side of the mountain, and with us looking at a very early start the next day, everyone was tucked up in their sleeping bags by 6pm.
When we got up, Shi-Gua was already preparing breakfast for the group. We huddled up in the kitchen and ate together. Then, after a short safety briefing, we headed up toward what is called the Black Forest. It’s very easy for hikers to get lost in the forest in the early morning before sunrise and after heavy snowfall, and we therefore walked slowly, stopping frequently to keep the group together. As we cleared the forest, the rocky path gave way to thick, hard ice, and we paused for a moment to put on our crampons.
The last section of the hike involves walking up one side of a glacial cirque before finally reaching the main peak. Climbing up the cirque in icy conditions is always very dangerous. The trail itself isn’t that steep, but the drop to the right is, and hiking without crampons would be very risky. We slowly and carefully made our way up.
Around 400m before the top, a stunning orange and red glow appeared over the horizon behind us. It was almost sunrise, and we began the final push to make it up in time to see the sun come up over the sea of clouds.
Everyone made it with time to spare, and we were treated to amazing views of the Central and Snow Mountain ranges. It was freezing on the top, literally – our drinking water and chocolate snacks had all frozen! But that didn’t matter, as we had achieved our goal and felt we were standing on top of the world.
This article was published in Travel in Taiwan magazine (Mar./Apr., 2013)
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