Thursday, April 17, 2014

Hiking matters #397: The hike up Mt. Kosciuszcko, the highest mountain in Australia

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - Yesterday, I did the hike up Mt. Kosciusczko, at 2228 MASL the highest mountain in Australia and as such, arguably (and per the Bass List) one of the Seven Summits of the world. Although it was a very easy hike (my grandmother can do it), every mountain is special, and having come all the way from the Philippines to do it and having faced some unexpected challenges to get there, it turned out to be an exciting adventure.

Getting there proved to be an obstacle much more difficult than the hike itself. This is partly because we were doing the hike off-season and since it was also the school holidays, there was no way to get to Thredbo, the jump-off point. To the rescue was my Nepalese friend Surendra, and his buddy Pravash, who decided to join us and do the long drive to the Snowy Mountains. Joining me in Australia was my brother Jonathan - he’s not really into hiking but has done Kinabalu and some PH mountains - as well as my Mt. Elbrus teammates Jun Carnate, Koko Roura, and Cynthia Sy.

We stopped over at Canberra- a three-hour drive from downtown Sydney- spending the night there before proceeding to the Snowy Mountains the following day. We took a wrong turn and ended up taking all of five hours to reach Thredbo! Originally, we had planned to do a longer hike passing by Charlotte’s Pass, but since we were running late, we had no choice but to take the chairlift up the shortest route, which is already 1900 MASL and just 6.5 kilometres long.

By the time we started hiking, it was past 1400H. The hike was truly easy; the slopes were gentle and there was even a steel footpath for most of the way. But the scenery was beautiful! There is a feeling of vastness when you are in the Snowy Mountains, with endless mountains in all directions; but it is a subdued majesty, not like the dramatic heights of the Alps or the Himalayas. We are
After two hours the summit was already upon us, and I was raising the Philippine flag by 1607H. A stone altar marks the summit, with a tiny metal plate that inscribes it as Australia’s highest point. We all made it, and Surendra and Pravash unfurled the Nepalese flag, celebrating the Nepalese New Year, which coincided with our hike.
On the way back, with the chairlft closed, we descended all the way to Thredbo via Merrits Nature Trail, adding 4-5 kilometres to our day’s walk. So in total we did 17 kilometres. Even though we were trekking in the dark, at least we were able to somehow maximise the trip by having an extra two two hours of hiking.

Back in Thredbo, we drove to back to Sydney, this time taking the correct road. It was another epic drive, but several hours (and several kangaroo sightings later) we were back in the familiar environs of George St. in Sydney, where we are staying now. To put things in perspective, the distance between Sydney and Kosciuszcko is like Manila to Camarines Sur, so we were really thankful to Suren and Pravash for doing the drive. Of course, we could have driven ourselves but as in the UK, they drive here on the opposite side of the road so it’s complicated.
I am really happy that I was able to do Mt. Kosciusczko. It will surely give me inspiration to pursue the Seven Summits, well aware that there there is a very long road that lies ahead. But like the journey from Sydney to Kozzie, the journey is bound to be fascinating. There will certainly be kangaroos along the way.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Hiking matters #396: Jade Mountain / Yushan (玉山) Part 3: The descent from the summit / Postscript

BLUE MOUNTAINS, AUSTRALIA - Continued from Hiking matters #395: At the summit of Jade Mountain, it was magical: Snowcapped peaks illuminated by the glorious morning sun rising above blue skies. As the team leader of the hike, I couldn’t ask for more. As I told them, it was probably the best view I’ve seen after six hiking trips in Taiwan. Unfortunately, we had no time to loiter around the peak; it would still be a long day ahead. Aside from the 11-kilometer descent, we would have to endure the long drive back to Taipei. A more pressing concern, however, is the snow, which could fast melt as the sun rises. Wet snow is of course slippery, and could unsettle some rocks above us.

The descent, however, was pleasant, taking us just half the time it took us to ascend. Back at Paiyun Lodge, a second breakfast of noodles was served - coupled with some really tasty milk tea. Tita Rios was fully recovered and was in high spirits, even though she still wasn’t able to sleep. We packed our bags and began the descent at 1000H. With the weather considerably better, we took the time to take pictures. Slopes of dwarf bamboo with the snowcapped peaks at the background; misty pine forests; and rock-strewn stretches of mountain slopes emptying into a vast wilderness: these and more comprised the visual feast.

By 1400H we were done with the trek, and our guide took us to a sumptuous sampling of Taiwanese dishes - and unlimited rice. The long ride to Taipei then commenced, but it was no longer a bore since I created a wireless hotspot - and everyone was all too eager to share the good news of our successful ascent.

Now I am back in Taipei, and excited about my rituals in this city: Having milk tea at Ximen and visiting the kaiten-zushi place that serves great (and very cheap) sushi, a final look at the outdoor shops, and others. These little things make me realise that it is ultimately every traveler that creates attractions for himself.

Jade Mountain was such a great hike and we had formed a great team, which is why I feel sad that the trip has come to an end. I’m very thankful to every member of the team for the positive energy. I must also add a complement to the Taiwanese people we’ve met; they’ve all been very nice to us. I remember in 2011, during our first trip, a Taiwanese woman even drove us to the trailhead after we mistakenly dropped off the wrong place. The hikers were all very helpful, and showed a genuine concern for our welfare. For all the geopolitical conflicts, at the individual level, all men truly have the potential to be brothers, good neighbours, and friends.

After six hiking trips and over a dozen mountains in Taiwan, I am eager for more. I look forward to hiking Nanhu Mountain, Bei Da Wu, and many others. I hope my Jade Mountain teammates can join me again!

Hiking matters #395: Jade Mountain / Yushan (玉山) Part 2: Ascent to the main peak

BLUE MOUNTAINS, AUSTRALIA - Continued from Hiking matters #394: The stars were heralds of good news, and the promise of a beautiful day ahead. We woke up at 0230H, had breakfast at 0300H, and then set off for an ascent of Jade Mountain's main peak, at 3952 MASL the highest mountain in Taiwan - and for that matter, the whole of Northeast Asia - making it one of the three mountains in the 'Asian Trilogy' along with Mt. Fuji (see Hiking matters #16) and Mt. Kinabalu (Hiking matters #254, among others).
With only 2.5 kilometers of trail and 550 meters of altitude to gain, it was a relatively doable challenge, but spring snow can be tricky, especially after the bad weather we faced the day before. Still, we were very optimistic when we started the assault.
Surprisingly, the trail was easier than it looked on the map - at least at first. The switchbacks made gentler what would otherwise but a direct ascent. At face value, 550 meters is just the vertical distance between the Ranger Station and Mt. Pulag summit; but make it 1000 meters higher and you have snow, less oxygen, and subzero temperatures.
The sun rose as we were ascending. It brought to realisation the promise of good weather, as it illuminated the South Peak of Jade Mountain, and the other high peaks of Taiwan's Central Mountain Range.
The pictures of the trail in the final 500 meters do look dramatic- and for good reason, not least of which is the perilous incline of the slopes. However, there were metal chains to hold on to, and the snow was not really deep, so it was still fairly manageable.

I am very thankful that I brought my full crampons - the one that I bought in Kathmandu and used in Mt. Elbrus - which allowed me greater traction (and confidence) in the snow. The park authorities actually require everyone to have crampons - even half-crampons would do nicely. Some overeager hikers were actually wearing crampons from the start of the ascent, even though there wasn't snow yet!

We reached the summit at 0624H, and it was a majestic sight: snow-capped peaks, the beautiful colours of dawn, and distant mountains, pale blue, in all directions. I've been to over a dozen summits in Taiwan but not all of them greeted me with a view; in Snow Mountain we were met with rain, and in Sumida Mountain we were met with foreboding clouds. But in Jade Mountain, I was blessed with my most beautiful summit view in Taiwan, to date.

Everyone who did the summit attempt made it, and I was very happy with the performance of the whole team. Later on, some of them would say that they found Jade Mountain colder than they expected. Indeed, temperatures can drop very quickly in the high mountains, which is also why the rising of the sun is always welcome - it brings not just light, but warmth. To be continued in Hiking matters #396.

Hiking matters #394: From Tataka trailhead to Paiyun Lodge
Hiking matters #395: Ascent to Yushan Main Peak
Hiking matters #396: Back to Tataka trailhead

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Hiking matters #394: Jade Mountain / Yushan (玉山) Part 1: From Tataka trailhead to Paiyun Lodge

PAIYUN LODGE, JADE MOUNTAIN -  We are now all set for the summit assault tomorrow! At 3405 MASL, the cabin where we will spend the night is perched on lofty altitude, and in a perfect spot from which to assault the 3952m Jade Mountain, the highest in Taiwan.

I am of course very excited to climb Yushan. This is my sixth hiking trip in this country - after Holy Ridge, Cilai Ridge, Snow Mountain among others - but the opportunity to climb its highest peak has eluded me. For one, they have a complex process of raffling out permits, making it difficult to even be allowed to hike (this, though, is a good way of limiting the number of participants and should be considered for Pulag). Secondly, this lodge was renovated for two years - making access even more restricted. So it's really a great blessing that I'm finally here.

In this trip I am joined by Singapore-based Pinoys Tyrone Nanad, Dada de Silva, Kenneth Valencia, and as well as JB Cunanan, Tita Rios, and Joel Grande, making for a team of 8. There would've been more, but due to the raffle, another part of the group didn't make it, and they instead climbed two rewarding peaks as part of the Nenggao Historic Trail.

We left Taipei for a lodge near the trailhead at 1600H yesterday, and, after a long, Baguio-like drive, arrived at 2300H, leaving plenty of time to rest. The next day, after breakfast, we started trekking.   The trail starts off on a saddle that offers a great view - the starting altitude after all is 2400 MASL. We caught a glimpse of the spring blossoms, specks of white amid the evergreens that cover the mountains.

The trail was very gradual. We had lunch past the 5 kilometer mark, in a covered pavilion. Thrushes  and squirrels, not unused to human presence, would lie in wait for breadcrumbs and rice, as in Mt. Kinabalu. The trail doesn't really get steep, though some of it passes through ravines so one must always concentrate. The forests - pine, spruce, juniper - were lovely, reminding me of Snow Mountain's Black Forest. Something Filipino hikers are bound to notice are the wooden planks and staircases, metal chains, bridges - all sorts of implements to make hiking safer. The artificiality of it make some anathema to some but they actually make less impact to the environment and minus.

We arrived here at Paiyun Lodge at 1400H, allowing us to have a siesta before an early dinner, and now we,re back to our bunk beds again. As in the eve of many summit assaults past, many thoughts fill my mind and writing about the day's adventure helps me calm down. As the organizer, I want everyone to reach the summit but Tita already said she would just rest - a decision that I respect. I think reaching this altitude is already a nice accomplishment for everyone and we can always go back and better prepare for the next time.

 It is still raining here at the lodge - and likely snowing at the peak. One of the Taiwanese hikers commented that it feels like winter: indeed, it did, especially during our siesta when we really felt the cold on a visceral level. This reminds me of one of my favorite Basho haikus:

First cold winter rain /
Even the monkey seems to want
a tiny raincoat.

Though we are prepared for the snow, I do hope that we will have good weather tomorrow so that we will have great views and we will all be rewarded. But whatever happens, this has been a fun trip. I've always said that the we must enjoy every moment of every hike. Still, the summit awaits. What wonders - or perils - will it reveal for us tomorrow? Continued in Hiking matters #395

Paiyun Lodge, Jade Mountain
April 4, 2014

Hiking matters #394: From Tataka trailhead to Paiyun Lodge
Hiking matters #395: Ascent to Yushan Main Peak
Hiking matters #396: Back to Tataka trailhead

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