Yushan (Jade Mountain) is not only the highest summit in northeast Asia, but also forms the high point of its own mini-mountain range. Yep, Yushan is officially (and I suppose there’s geological evidence to support this) the smallest of central Taiwan’s three big mountain ranges, boasting eleven peaks on the ‘to do’ list of any budding Taiwan peak-bagger.
Most of these are grouped around the majestic main summit itself, while the two almost forgotten remaining summits rise to the east above Tungpu, seemingly lumped into the Yushan group simply because they wouldn’t fit in as part of the far larger nearby Central Mountain Range.
These two summits, Mount Junda (郡大山, 3,292 or 3,265 meters, depending on whom you believe, lying at no 54 on the Big List ) and Mount Xiluanda (西巒大山, 3,081 meters, near the bottom of the Top 100 at number 97) are almost always overlooked by casual trekkers, since they’re not especially high for this part of the island, and remain little-known. That’s a shame though, because they’re relatively accessible to the weekday-working trekker (the two can be climbed together in a weekend), and obtaining permits for them are (by Taiwanese standards) a piece of cake, since only the simple police permit is required to climb them.
From pics I’ve seen on the Internet and in trekking books they apparently also offer remarkable mountain views, including a breathtaking panorama of nearby Jade Mountain itself. Even after (successfully) climbing both peaks last weekend though we have to take that on faith, as the weather was AWFUL! Considering the fact that at least Mount Junda is only worth climbing if the weather is clear, I’d be tempted to suggest aiming for a date and then cancelling plans if the weather isn’t looking good (permits can be obtained on the way up the mountain, so there’s no problem there); on the other hand there’s much to enjoy on its slightly lower but much more demanding partner, even if the weather is shite.
Now for a logistical problem: both peaks lie far, far down rutted forest roads, and unless you arrive on scooters, you’ll probably need to rent a 4-wheel drive (don’t even think about driving a low-clearance vehicle up the horrible, 32 kilometer-long road to the trailhead for Mount Junda).
We met a pair of 7-seater 4WD cars (and drivers) at Taichung train station Saturday morning at 6 am for the 80-minute drive to the start of Junda Forest Road, which leaves route 21 (the New Central Cross-island Highway, which links Shuili and Alishan) near the grape-growing village of Fenghou (豐后), south of Shuili.
Once a policeman had let us through the locked gate at the start of the road we began the long, looong drive to the trailhead for Mount Junda. The first 15 kilometers, although rutted and very narrow (with a scary vertical drop on the left for the first couple of kilometers), aren’t too bad, and we made reasonable headway, but then the surfacing runs out and it’s incredibly slow and bumpy for the remaining 17 kms, past the Wangxiang Work Station and the impressive adjacent ancient tree, where we took a break.
It took up a full 2½ hours on that forest road to reach the little work station hut (with possible sleeping place; there’s also very limited room beside the track for camping) and wooden sign marking the trailhead. Once at the trailhead, much of the climb to the summit of Mount Junda has already been done by the vehicle, and after a fairly stiff 20-minute climb up the trail to Mount Wangxiang (3,007 meters) with its tiny weather station, it was a straightforward march along the arrow bamboo-covered ridge (it’s important to follow the plastic trail ribbons carefully, as there are loads of side turns), cresting several small summits, to our goal, 2 hours or so from the trailhead.
Photos of this ridgewalk taken in good weather implyit’s quite a fine walk, with some magnificent views. The truth of the matter is that much of the time the trail is thrashing around in a forest of tall (but not quite tall enough) arrow bamboo, which is constantly lashing the face and hands. During our trudge up the mountain, strong winds were blowing thick cloud and squally rain showers into the bamboo, soaking everything, which transferred to us as we pushed a way through.
The summit was (for me at least) a joyless experience – a small concrete trig point in the center of a small clearing surrounded by more of that blasted bamboo. There would probably have been a wonderful view from here, but visibility while we were there was maybe 20 meters max …. To make matters worse I’d refused to put on my rain pants along the trail until it was already too late and my hiking pants were wet, while – still worse – my Goretex raincoat had been borrowed from a friend, and was so old that all its waterproofing ability had long ago worn off and was letting water in like a sieve.
Already seriously wet, I was getting chilled after only a few minutes at the summit, gritting my teeth and trying to smile for the summit pics. Following the bamboo-lashed trail back, I was constantly basted by freezing cloud-water trapped in the leaves, and by the time I made it back to the trailhead (4 hours after leaving it) I was colder than I’ve been in many long years; maybe it was only the steady energy supply provided by handfuls of almonds and chocolate bars on the way that prevented the onset of hypothermia. At least I learnt to never again borrow untested gear on a high mountain hike in future!
After a change of clothes and several cups of hot tea (thanks Stu!) I was back to normal, and ready to face the long bumpy ride back down to the main road, en route to the trailhead for the second summit of our weekend trek, Mount Xiluanda. Back on the main road (route 21) midway between the forest roads that lead to the two mountain trailheads, a large 7-Eleven stands beside the road: a compulsory stop for a hot latte, an early dinner (steaming Guandong Zhu!) and a temporary plastic yellow raincoat to use for tomorrow’s hike.
The 17 kilometers up Renlun Forest Road to the trailhead for Mount Xiluanda is in better condition than this morning’s bump-fest, although after the first couple of kilometers it’s still slow going, and took at least an hour. After arriving, and persuading the guard to come down and open the gate at the end a kilometer or so before the trailhead, we set up camp in the little Japanese-era work station hut beside the road (basic but dry space for 10 or so people to sleep on the floor inside), and were surprised to see patches of starry sky as we sat on the road outside the hut, cooking up dinner.
Mount Xiluanda is a lower summit than Mount Junda, but climbing it is a much more strenuous task. Usually done in a long day, this entails over 1,500 meters of vertical ascent (and the same descent on the way down!) on a trail that is very steep in places and very rough with small rock faces, scrambles, and lots and lots of ropes; the arms get almost as much of a workout on this trail as the legs. It’s a long hard day, but a marvellous experience, even in poor weather. Today was undeniably a better weather day than yesterday, but apart from a short, magical blast of warm sunshine in the afternoon, about two-thirds of the way down, it was very overcast, with mist drifting past much of the time, and there was little view to see. The trail is such a delight in itself though – interesting, challenging, exciting, highly varied, and often through very beautiful forest – that for once the absence of any view doesn’t matter.
About half-way up, a squat wooden lookout tower built many decades ago and falling into ruin provides a good resting spot (check out the old-style pinup girls inside!). It also divides the relatively easy first half of the hike from the much steeper, more demanding second half to the summit. Immediately after the tower the trail dives into a thick (but mercifully brief) thicket of arrow bamboo, and shortly after begins the long, and often very steep, climb to the summit. It’s quite a strenuous clamber in places, with at least one (for me) scary rockface to climb up, and it never seems to end!
About five hours from the trailhead, the summit of Mount Xiluanda is marked by a small concrete hut (reasonable protection from the elements, but only for two or three people) and another wooden lookout tower (which is falling down and offers very little shelter at all). It would be a brutal anti-climax if we didn’t already expect very little (a quick look at photos on other blogs made it clear that this wasn’t an especially scenic summit). Here though, for once, it doesn’t matter. The attraction of climbing Mount Xiluanda lies in the journey there – challenging, exhausting, sometimes precarious and dangerously slippery (as we found out on the long descent), but extremely rewarding and full of beauty. I don’t expect it’ll be an outstanding favorite of mine after I’ve done another twenty Top 100 summits, but for sure it’s well worth putting aside a weekend to conquer!
For those that read Chinese, permits for the two summits are quite easy to obtain through the Mountain Permits section of the National Police Agency website (http://eli.npa.gov.tw/E7WebO/index02.jsp) or at any police station in Nantou County, on the way to the trailheads.
A bigger headache is getting to the trailheads. We rented a pair of 4-wheel drive vehicles (seating 7 each) through Mr Chen (陳大哥 cellphone: 0919-651-966). The round-trip, 2 day journey from Taichung to the two trailheads cost NT$10,000 per car, and he is helpful, very knowledgable about hiking in the high mountains (he’s done many himself) and comes well recommended. In Taipei his friend (also named Chen) is also a (7 seater) driver, and can be reached at 0919-572-783.