Jade Mountain is said to be the tallest mountain in East Asia. Not everyone agrees on that, but that doesn’t matter. It’s still really tall — 3952m to be exact.
I used to live in Taiwan. That was where I developed a taste for taking on ridiculously difficult challenges with little or no preparation. I had a friend there named Jeremy Taws. He also liked to take on ridiculous physical challenges without considering the consequences.
Jeremy and I would meet at night to go for 20km runs and stop along the way to do pushups and sit-ups. We’d finish around midnight and then go for Chinese food at a local restaurant or get drunk.
Individually, we believed in our ability to do anything we put our minds to. When we got together we talked about epic journeys, like cycling from Hong Kong to Casa Blanca and kayaking from Taiwan to the Philippines.
We also talked about climbing Jade Mountain — which is normally a two-day trip — in a single day. When the opportunity came up, we grabbed it. Physically, we were up to the challenge.
Mentally, however, it would be a different story. Our combined intelligence, as it turned out, would not be sufficient to get us to the summit.
The Jade Mountain (Yushan) Trail
Jade Mountain is a symbol of national pride in Taiwan. Like I mentioned, it’s considered my many to be the tallest peak in East Asia. Not everyone agrees on that because there are all sorts of different ways of measuring mountains and interpretations of what area “East Asia” includes. Argumentative geographic douchebaggery aside, it’s a very popular mountain to climb.
Taiwan is densely populated. It has a population about 2/3 the size of Canada’s in an area smaller than Lake Superior. The trail to the peak of Jade Mountain is possibly the most popular hike in Taiwan — which means there are a lot of people in the country that want to hike the trail each year, and that’s before you factor in peakbaggers coming from Hong Kong, Mainland China, Japan, and Malaysia and the rest of the world.
For safety and environmental reasons, the trail is limited to a certain number of visitors each day. To deal with the excessive demand for hiking permits, the parks department holds a lottery for permits several months in advance.
If you are lucky enough to win the lottery, you’re given a permit for dates that cannot be changed. If the weather is bad, you’re out of luck. If you can’t get the time off of work, too bad. I had twice obtained permits to climb Jade Mountain only to have the trips cancelled because of circumstances.
The hike to the peak is very steep. From trailhead to peak is only 10.9 kilometres, but it climbs nearly 1400m. The vast majority of permits given are for two-day trips, during which one night spent at the Paiyun Lodge in the park. Although it’s possible, relatively few climbers attempt to summit Jade Mountain in one day.
Last fall, however, we learned that the Paiyun Lodge was being renovated, so the park was not issuing two-day permits and, since few people try to climb the mountain in one day, there was no lottery. We would be able to get a one-day permit — and we did.
Climbers who attempt one-day ascents of Yushan usually leave the campsite around 3:30 am. The drive from Tainan to the campsite would take about four hours. So, we decided to leave Tainan mid-afternoon on Saturday, arrive around dusk, and try to get a few hours of sleep before starting the climb on Sunday morning.
The trip required little preparation. We both brought tents, sleeping bags, headlamps, and water. On our way out of town we stopped at a large grocery store to buy provisions. I stocked up on fruit and trail mix for the following day.
“Hey, you want a luchbox for dinner?” Jeremy asked me at one point.
“Sure.” I replied.
A lunchbox is a staple of Taiwanese dining. It is a small box that usually include a piece of chicken or pork, a couple of sides of vegetables, and some rice. The quality of lunchboxes varies greatly. Some are healthy delicious packets of nutrition, and some are greasy slabs of soggy nastiness, depending on where you buy them.
We arrived at the campsite near dusk and set up camp. Then it was time for dinner. The lunchboxes that Jeremy had bought were greasy slabs of soggy nastiness — some of the worst I’ve ever seen. I ate a few bits of the chicken before throwing it away. Luckily, I wasn’t very hungry.
Jeremy, however, is not as picky as me. He ate his whole lunchbox and then we climbed into our tents to try and get some sleep.
I woke up around 2 a.m. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep, so I went to the van to read. Jeremy heard me walking around and got up too. Since we were both awake, we decided to get an early start — but not until we had some breakfast. I ate some trail mix and fruit. Jeremy ate another one of those nasty lunchboxes (he had bought three). How he managed to force down that disgusting chicken leg covered in congealed grease is beyond me.
Jeremy is an animal.
We started up the trail at a brisk, but sustainable, pace planning to stop every couple of hours for a short snack break. Jeremy complained that his stomach was upset. I made fun of him for eating so much greasy nastiness. After a while, though, it became clear that the food was having a significant effect on his performance.
Jeremy began walking slower than me, which was definitely not normal for him. Jeremy was usually the one trying to go to fast while I’d try to slow him down.
We arrived at the Paiyun Lodge, just two kilometres short of the peak, around 10am. Jeremy was feeling awful, talking about having chills and stomach pains. We were both also exhausted and starting to slow down. We took a short break.
At the lodge the trail split. One narrow trail ran along the side of the lodge and appeared to dead end behind it. The other started uphill toward the park ranger’s cabin. We started up that trail.
As we traversed a hillside in the dawn, I began to realize that Jeremy was becoming delirious. We’d walk in silence for a while, and then he’d suddenly ask me something like, “Did you hear somebody shout?” or, “Is there somebody up on that ridge?”
Those were things that he possibly could have noticed that I had missed while lost in thought, but I was sure something was wrong when he commented, “Somebody had a good time up here.”
“Why do you say that?”
“The Taiwan Beer can.” He replied, pointing at the ground.
There was no Taiwan Beer can.
“You’re hallucinating, Jeremy.”
“Shit, really?” He squinted and stared at the spot on the ground. “Whoah,” he said, shaking his head.
We were very close to the peak, and there were no sketchy parts on the trail, so we pushed on, but I was concerned. We were on a steep hillside and would likely have to do some scrambling before we reached the summit.
The trail continued to climb and entered a forest. Suddenly, we found ourselves standing in the middle of the forest with nowhere else to go. The trail ended. We could see no ground above us. At the end of the forest was a cliff.
This was not right. I had seen photos of the peak of Jade Mountain. It’s a rocky peak with a 360-degree view (which I had been hoping to photograph).
Then I recalled the sign on the trail near the cabin. I had barely noticed it. It said, “East Peak”. It had not occurred to me that there could be more than one peak. We had climbed the wrong one.
Not that our mistake had saved us any effort. The East Peak is 3869m, which puts it less than 100m lower than the summit at 3952m.
We got all the work, and none of the view. We could hardly see anything. So, after walking around in the forest and a nice long rest, we started down.
Jeremy stopped hallucinating, though his stomach continued to bother him. We passed numerous hikers coming up the trail.
We had been on the trail for nearly twelve hours at that point. Our muscles were overflowing with lactic acid, and every step was uncomfortable. We began complaining.
“I can’t wait ’till this is over.”
“I am NEVER coming back here.”
“Yeah, fuck this place. Lets get home.”
We spent the drive home vowing along never to put ourselves through such an ordeal again.
Back to Normal
The next day Jeremy called me.
“Dude, I can’t believe we didn’t make it to the summit. We have to go back. They didn’t even check our permits. We could totally sneak up in the dark.”
“Well, it’s still a few weeks before the park closes for the winter…”