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Sierra magazine
Explore | A Wild Place

"Our way is not soft grass,
it's a mountain path
with lots of rocks. But it
goes upward, forward,
toward the sun."

--Ruth Westheimer

At 3 a.m., an alarm clock jangles in Paiyun Lodge. The Taiwanese man I'm bunking with rolls over onto my head. Time to climb. For Westerners, Taiwan typically evokes little besides the words "made in." But most of the island is covered by mountains so spectacularly wild that trekking is a national pastime. That's why I've joined my friends Wyatt and Daniel for a pilgrimage to Yushan, or Jade Mountain, the nearly 13,000-foot pinnacle of northeast Asia.

Like most Taiwan journeys, ours began with the prolonged near-death experience of maneuvering our motor scooters through throngs of teenagers and around bubble-tea stands. One train and two buses later, we reached Yushan National Park, where such rare endemic species as the Formosan black bear and the Swinhoe's pheasant have been spotted. Heading up the trail, we crossed slopes blanketed by dwarf bamboo and ancient stands of cypress. A distant cloud slipped between two rock faces and anchored there like a boat at a dock. By the time we reached the lodge six hours later, it was near night. Ghosts of cold mist were pushing through the woods. Headlamps bobbed in the darkened doorway. "Come in," someone said in Chinese. "Have some noodles!"

The next day, after my rude awakening, we start for the summit. It's a short path, but steep and soggy. The subtropical flora dwindles to junipers, then alpine flowers, lichens, stone. "Like...Mordor," Wyatt says, wheezing. Even earlier risers returning from the top urge us on. "Chaiyo!" they say--a rallying cry meaning, literally, "add gas." Soon we crest the summit, buffeted by frigid winds. Still, we're smiling when a Taiwanese woman takes our picture with the clouds.

Only on the descent do we realize that we've spent all our money getting to Yushan. Luckily, we're able to hitch a ride home with two hikers driving back to Taichung. We thank them for their kindness. Don't worry, the woman tells us. Hikers share a certain outlook on life; strangers you meet in the mountains aren't really strangers. --Michael Parks

Photo: Lu, Li Shan (; used with permission.



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