• Charli Elliott

Hiking 奇莱南華 : Taiwan's 100 Peaks

Updated: Apr 13

As I've expounded on before in previous posts, Taiwan's mountains are stunning. But for a long time, this was a fact only known by the most avid of hikers. Then in 1970, The Taiwan Province Alpine Association began putting together a list of 100 of the most worthwhile hikes in Taiwan. The criteria for the list (or 百岳 as it's known in Chinese) started at peaks over 3,000m (almost 10,000 ft) and considered uniqueness, danger, height, beauty and prominence. Once the list was finalized, it achieved the goal: people were invested in high-altitude hiking in Taiwan.

As a hiker, it was always a low-level goal of mine to cross a 百岳 peak off the list. But you need a lot of gear, permits and transportation to make it work. So before I get into the nitty gritty of making it up the mountain, I have to give a huge shoutout to my friends for borrowing and lending me all the gear I needed for this hike, including backpack, hiking poles, rain suit, gortex windbreaker and puffy jacket, head light, altitude sickness medication and more. Without friends like Chu, this trip would not have been possible.

Now, to the good stuff.

I agreed to this because Chu asked if I wanted to go hiking. I had no idea I was agreeing to a two day, 40k, 3am summit hike. Once the cat was out of the bag, I was both daunted and raring to go. 奇莱南華 (Qilai Nanhua) are actually two separate peaks. While both are some of the easier rated hikes on the list, Qilai South Peak (3,358m) is known for its beauty, with stunning views of the surrounding mountains and the "Golden Sea" which occurs when the rising sun hits swathes of grass at the peak.

Day 1

Chu, Jessica and I took the train up to Taichung to meet up with the fourth member of our hiking party, Lu. We had a lovely afternoon visiting a Polish restaurant and a soufflé pancake shop. It had been nearly a year since I'd last been in Taichung, so it was fun to revisit some of my old haunts.

We started the drive to the mountains as darkness was falling over the city. After an hour and a half of driving up winding mountain roads, we reached our bed and breakfast. The place was packed, evidenced by the shoes neatly lined up by the door, but not a person was in sight. Everyone was asleep in preparation for the big hike the next day. We quickly packed our bags and settled in for the night.

Day 2

By the time we woke up at 7 the next morning, the rest of the crowd had already departed, evidenced by the jumble of slippers inside the door. In the light of day, the mountains rose on all sides. Birdsong was the loudest sound as we rolled out of the hostel and over to breakfast.

After fueling up, we drove some country backroads to the trailhead. Little villages were cut into the tops of the mountains, terraced farms squaring off the ridges. We blasted Taiwanese oldies and jammed out on the drive.

After a struggle to find parking, we donned our hats, extended our hiking poles, hefted on our packs and checked in at the trailhead. ID's were checked. Warnings were given about landslide areas. The Leave No Trace policy was instituted. And then we were on our way. Well, until Jessica made us go back to the trailhead to take a picture. Then we were truly on the way, with 13k (8mi) between us and the lodge.

Sunshine drifted through the trees beside the trail. At times, we passed through a clearing and huge swatches of cascading mountains ridges dropped away before us. The trail was an easy walk, carrying us at a gentle slop up the mountain. Before long, we arrived at our first stopping point, 云海. At 4.8k into the hike, it was a nice moment to set down the packs, use a bathroom that wasn't just a bee infested side trail, and break out the snacks.

Taiwanese hiking snacks are a different world from what I'm used to. In the US, I typically carry granola bars, dried fruit, nuts and other "healthy" foods. When we found our seats on a smattering of rocks, Chu and Jessica busted out the snacks, which included a wide array of chocolates, cookies, crackers and sweets (We did have some rice balls as well). Delicious, for sure. The best option, perhaps not. But still, shout out to them for helping prepare all the snacks.

For most of the hike, I found a good rhythm and just cruised. Occasionally we'd break and chat, or walk in pairs. But once I was moving, I reached a nice flow state, and it wasn't long before the lodge came into view, waiting for us around one final fold in the curtain of mountains.

天池山庄 (Heavenly Pond Lodge) was first built in 1918 during the era of Japanese colonial rule. It was originally a police office, used for mail delivery, road maintenance and military purposes. It was set on fire in 1930 by the aboriginal people of the Atayal and Seediq tribes in the Wushe Incident, in response to long-term oppression by the Japanese. It was rebuilt and remained until Republic of China took control of Taiwan. Under KMT rule, the lodge was rebuilt as a power maintenance station, linking electricity to both sides of the island. It burned to the ground again in 1986, this time because of a forest fire and was eventually rebuilt in 1993 as a solution for overcrowding of hikers in the area.

The lodge only runs electricity between 5pm-8pm, until then, headlamps are used. Hikers staying in the lodge can also register for meals, which include dinner, 3:00am breakfast and 9:00am "brunch". As we arrived at 3pm, we had some time to kill, so we set down our packs and hiked another 2.4k out to a ridge with a view of the entire valley, called 光被八表. Towering above us was Nanhua Peak, which we would climb the following morning.

As we hiked back the weather started to turn. The wind kicked up and clouds started to roll in. Back at the lodge we donned our hats and "masks" (when I asked at the trailhead, Jessica had said they weren't necessary, so we had to make do with bandanas) and organized our things while we waited for dinner.

At 5:00pm the lights flicked on. Dinner was served in a row of large steel basins containing rice, pork, boiled cabbage, cucumbers and other veggies. We packed in with all the other hikers, elbow to elbow chowing down on food. Afterward, we made hot cocoa and chatted over dessert.

The sinks and toilets were outside, so when we went to clean dishes and brush our teeth, we huddled next to each other against the cold. Through the beams of our headlights, we could see fog sweeping across the mountain ridge. It didn't bode well for our ascent the next morning. Nevertheless, we snuggled into our giant bunk bed (six people on the bottom, six people on top) and when the lights went out at 8:00pm, we went to sleep.

Day 3

At 2:30am, all the snoring ceased as everyone's alarms went off. In muffled quiet, everyone packed their final items, ate congee breakfast in the beam of a red-light headlamp, and geared up. The cabin slowly emptied out as hikers set off on the trail.

Outside, fog whipped by the windows, carried by a vigorous wind. When we stepped outside, the mountain was pitch black. Even at the brightest setting, our headlights barely made a dent in the darkness. We started walking and quickly encountered two groups heading back to retrieve their raincoats. We stopped ten minutes in to don our rainpants and jackets. Then it was up, up, up.

We hit the fork between the two peaks and found the trail for Qilai South Peak in the darkness, forging between a sea of grass until we found the path. A light mist clung to every leaf and branch. The wind howled over the ridges. When swept around, our headlights showed only dark foggy sky and the path in front of us.

To pass the time we told ghost stories (one so scary I could no longer walk at the back of the group). We sang songs. We came to three different false peaks. We doubted whether Jessica knew which way to go. And we walked in easy silence.

At this point, while the hike was not exceptionally difficult, the altitude was taking its toll. There were times when no matter how many breaths I took, I couldn't seem to fill up my lungs with air. It was dark and cold and grueling. Finally, at 5:15am we arrived at our first peak, Qilai South Peak. One other person had arrived before us and was tucked into the tufts of grass scattered across the mountain. Still in complete darkness, we hunkered down behind a bank of grass to shelter from the wind and waited for the sun to come up.

The sun never did come up though. Instead, the fog across us slowly lightened to a white wall. We took pictures at the top, rested a bit longer, and then, without a view to keep us, decided to move on to the next peak. Back down the path we went, this time able to see the sweeping mountainsides of golden grass, though sometimes only as far as a few feet in front of us.

The view on a clear day

When we made it back to the fork, the weather was, if possible, getting worse. A light drizzle dusted our shoulders. The wind was kicking up, howling over the ridge toward us in spurts. By the time we reached Nanhua Peak, the winds were at an estimated 50mph, kicking up dirt and sand into a frenzy. I was nearly blown off the path a few times by particularly vicious gusts. We stayed long enough to take a picture and then bailed.

We returned back the the lodge at 8:45am, just in time to have second breakfast (leftovers from last night plus noodles). It was still before 9:00am and we had already hiked 15k (9mi).

Since the weather showed now signs of improving, we decided to head back early. We rested for an hour (me with my legs up the wall for half the time) and packed up all our belongs before heading out around 10am. We made a brief stop at a waterfall near the lodge, and then we were on our way for the final 13k back to the trailhead. As we came out of the mountains, the weather improved until we finished back in sunshine. The last 2k I finished at a hobble because my feet were so sore and tired. But we made it. My first 百岳 Mountain was complete!

The experience of climbing 奇莱南華 Qiliai Nanhua was grueling. We hiked almost 30 miles in two days, got over 11,000ft and all we got to see was some fog. It was cold and rainy and windy. I almost collapsed my arches from walking without good support. It hurt. And yet, I had an absolute blast and would do it again in a heartbeat. That is what draws me to hiking. I love the challenge of just making it to the top, views or no. And the fact that I get to share the experience with some other rad people makes it all the better.

Taiwan has definitely opened the door for me into higher elevation hiking. By having a lodge with food and sleeping bags, it makes the mountains more accessible for beginning hikers like me, while at the same time maintaining the principle of Leave No Trace and environmental protection. Now that I've done one, I feel much more confidant that I have the ability to make it up the next mountain. Which is good, because next on the list is the highest peak in Taiwan, Jade Mountain. Hopefully May will bring a successful permit application and a chance to continue my hiking adventures.

If you want an even more immersive recap of the trip, check out the video I made to hike up to the summit along with us.

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