As it turns out, there isn’t much to tell. We didn’t make it any further than Cilai cottage. We made it to Hehuanshan parking lot late in the evening on Saturday. We had to go extremely slowly upwards because the fog was so thick we could barely see three meters in front of the car. Every place was full, so we continued on to Kuanyuan (or something like that) and stayed in a cozy attic space of what was apparently an extremely popular (albeit ramshackle and clapboard) hostel.
We woke up early and drove back to Hehuanshan, descending to the Hehuanshan East Peak trailhead. The weather was generally awful: cold, wet, foggy, and windy. Mojca and I hiked quickly - more to keep warm than because of any sense of haste. We reached the peak by 10am, stayed for about 30 seconds, then descended. Our compatriot, Cathy, was barely halfway up. We went back to the government building/hostel to consolidate our backpacks and get ready to hit the trail. We were already soaked through – only the determination that comes with making ambitious plans kept us from accepting what was already obvious.
When we began walking, the rain had stopped, but we still couldn’t see a thing. We talked together for a little while, but when the trail started to ascend, I found myself getting further ahead. Mojca and I met up again and shared a snack on the descent through what pictures had identified as a beautiful alpine meadow… only we had to use our imaginations, because all we could see was dripping-wet Yushan cane all around, with one narrow dirt path cleaving its way ever forward through its midst. We made it to the first cottage at 3.6km around 1:30pm, and we waited… and ate… and waited… sensing a theme here… Cathy arrived shortly thereafter, in good spirits and looking forward to our night’s respite in Chenggong cottage, just another click down the trail. Only we hadn’t planned to stay there, and it would have thoroughly spoiled any possibility of climbing the main peak, so long as we wanted to continue all the way to Taroko Mtn, Liwu Mtn, and beyond. So I told her that we needed to make for Cilai cottage, another 3.5 hours of walking further on. We were pushing our luck in regards to making it in the daylight already.
Mojca and I stayed close through the uphill slog to Chenggong, and there we… waited. It was nearly 3pm by the time Cathy arrived, and we didn’t leave again until at least a half hour later. I let her lead, but she didn’t relish the position, saying she “felt pressure.” I did my best to remain polite, but every stop was a slap in the face of our plans - the plans that we had formulated, refined, and stoked ourselves about for almost a month. It was dark before we reached the crossroad at the shoulder of the ridge.
The trail splits here; one branch leading to Cilai North Peak and the other to Cilai Cabin. Near Cilai cabin the trail heads towards the north peak directly over the ridgeline. The trails form a triangle, with our current location being the lowest point. Little did we know that the most treacherous part of the trail was ahead, and we would be doing it in thickening fog, cold, and darkness.
The trail turned into a 45-degree climb over loose boulders and scree, with only half-buried ropes to show the way. It would be more difficult to go back at this point, I thought. Trying to keep their headlamps in view behind me, I forged ahead, until Mojca yelled something at me, of which all I caught was, “Cathy… down…” I yelled back, “WHAT?!” No response. I started to panic and began booking it back towards them… down the steepest, rockiest section of trail. I turned a corner two minutes later and saw them… they were fine. They had simply been unsure as to whether or not going down was the right way. In fact, I was only sure because I had seen a trail marker when I turned around to find them. “Just follow the ropes,” I said.
Eventually, some time around 8pm, we reached the ridgeline, where you could go south (to Cilai cabin and the main peak) or north (to the north peak). We were welcomed by sustained 30km+ winds. The trail seemingly disappeared, but the cabin was only 200 meters away, so together we scanned the ridge, until we caught the glimmer of sheet metal in our headlamps, and were able to descend out of the wind and into the relative serenity of what would become our temporary home. The floors were wet. The solar generators were off. The door didn’t close properly. There was a lot of garbage. But at least we had shelter. We had accomplished our goal for the first day, even if it had taken three more hours than he thought. In our mutual elation, I forgot about my decision to tell them that we had to turn back. We ate dinner, smoked some hash, laughingly reflected on our miserable day, then conked out.
The next day, at 5:30am, more of the same. Cathy decided not to come with us to the main peak. Mojca and I started out by 6:30am and made good time along the way. We reached a lookout point and caught a break in the clouds, from which we were able to see the ridgeline as it extended south to the main and south peaks. It was a stunning sight, one that just tantalized us with the potential beauty of our position. It would be our only clear view of the day. Just a few dozen meters further, the trail dropped onto the north side, and we were slogging through snow a meter deep. We emerged shortly thereafter, and continued through cane and rocky shoulders, at some points facing winds of 30km+, until we finally reached the climb to the main peak. At a specific point on the way up, the winds jumped to sustained 50-60km. We had already climbed some 300 meters, so we knew we had to be VERY close to the top, but it just wasn’t worth it. We turned back and trudged our way home. Thankfully the weather hadn’t gotten any worse - no rain, temperatures above freezing, just that harsh and constant wind.
When we got back, Mojca and I were simply done. We would stay put for the rest of the day. Unless the weather were to change in the next 24 hours, we would descend. We ate, we joked, we smoked hash, we generally tried to enjoy ourselves, given our circumstances. I actually read through the most riveting part of The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo - a highly recommended read! In the afternoon, it started snowing, and came down continuously for a few hours. Everything was blanketed in soft white. Still we remained inside: eating, smoking, waiting. Eventually we passed out. Some time in the night, Mojca left to relieve herself, and found the night drenched in moon- and star-light. The clouds and fog were gone. Millions of stars looked down from the black arch of the sky, illuminating the imposing figures of Cilai north, main, and south, with the Hehuanshans to the west, and the ridgeline of Panshishan, Tailugedashan, and Liwushan extending to the northeast. Standing atop the ridgeline - fresh snow at my feet, the moon and stars overhead, and everything so clearly visible - was by far the most memorable moment of the trip.
The next day we awoke to a disappointing realization: conditions had returned to exactly what they had been the day before. We waited until 9am, hoping that things might improve. They didn’t. We made a dash towards the north peak, and were stopped not 10m past the trail junction for Chenggong by 50-60km sustained winds. Just 50m down the descent trail, the wind died off. We had done all that we could given the weather. It was time to go down. We returned to the cabin, told Cathy the news, and packed up. It would be unnecessary to draw it out, or emphasize my discontent enough – Cathy took nearly two hours more to get herself on the road. We descended, slowly but surely, thankful to leave the wind behind, trading it for wet ropes and rocky and/or muddy slopes. We reached Chenggong at 4:45pm. The evening ritual ensued. Mojca and I jokingly agreed, “If it’s sunny tomorrow, we’ll try for the north peak.”
The next morning I awoke at 6am and went out for a leak. The fog seemed thinner, the halo of the sun more pronounced, but visibility was still nil. I went back to bed and reveled in my lethargy. By 8am, Mojca was up and about, and eventually came back with a smile to say, “The sun is out.” Har, I thought, and rolled over. But it’s hard to sleep when you’ve lain for 12 hours on a hard floor in a stinky sleeping bag in a leaky cabin when you know there’s only five kilometers between you and your ticket back to civilization. I arose, packed, and looked outside - the day was GORGEOUS! The fog was gone, the air was warming up, the birds were chirping, and there was hardly a cloud in the sky. Of course it would be nice… now that we were going down! Mojca and I followed the sun up the valley as it rose over the trees. Neither of us wanted to take the initiative to tell Cathy to move her bloody arse and pack her isht pronto… so we just waited; basking like lizards on the rocks.
Eventually, she was ready, and we hiked back. “Black” Cilai looked rather menacing as it loomed overhead, its jagged rocky slopes suggesting that perhaps it was best we didn’t make it any closer. The path we had taken up the landslide was clearly visible, and we laughed off our disbelief that we had been stupid enough to climb that. In the dark. The rolling meadows soothed our souls as we marched… slowly… slowly… slowly… back to the car.