Hiking in the landslide capital of the world
Despite its propensity to earthquakes and typhoons, Taiwan is an excellent hiking destination. (Sheed/Getty)
If you build it (a trail and a cabin) then they (eager hikers) will come. At least that’s what officials at Yushan National Park in central Taiwan are hoping, after constructing a two-storey steel-framed solar-powered lodge on a narrow bluff below the park's eponymous mountain, the 3,952m coxcomb-peaked Yushan.
According to park deputy-director Wu Hsiang-Chien, Paiyun Lodge will open in April 2013, replacing the aging structure that was last refurbished in the 1970s. The first cabin hosted more than a million (largely uncomfortable) overnight visitors before they headed off for the summit, and the park is hoping for equal success with the latest iteration.
It seems like a reasonable goal, but on an island that suffers a near legendary vulnerability to natural disasters, the mere mortal park officials have limited control.
"Taiwan is in a unique geological and climatic setting," said Dave Petley, a landslide researcher from Durham University in England, who spent more than 14 years studying Taiwan’s mountains. "Geologically [the country] is on one of the most complex and active tectonic collision zones on Earth. Simultaneously, it is also affected by some of the world’s largest rainstorms. Typhoon Morakot [in 2009], for example, delivered what in the UK would be about three years worth of rainfall over a long weekend."
High rates of tectonic uplift, weak rocks, steep slopes, frequent earthquakes and extreme rainfall, all translate into a place Petley calls the "landslide capital of the world". And if you think building and maintaining trails in such an environment is tough, you would be right.
It is something Yushan National Park head ranger Fang You-shui knows well. A stocky aboriginal from Taiwan's Bunun tribe, Fang is the man who goes out after every typhoon, earthquake or monsoon rain and determines the state of the trails. He has seen an "entire mountainside collapse" deep in the park. When he closes a trail for repairs, it is closed until he gives the okay to reopen it.
According to Fang, the steep 10.8km trail to Yushan’s Main Peak has never been shut for more than 10 days, but other routes have not been so lucky. The Batonguan Historic Trail, a 90km path across the heart of the national park, suffered so much destruction after a massive 7.2 degree earthquake in 1999 that it was closed until 2006. Three years later, Typhoon Morakot bashed the park even harder and the trail was once more declared off-limits to hikers; it will not likely reopen until late 2013.
Earthquakes, typhoons and monsoon rains cause yearly damage, and not just in Yushan National Park. The east coast's 118km-long Su-hua Highway, which runs along some of the world's highest and steepest seacliffs, is in such awful shape that Taiwanese authorities are forced to close it multiple times each year, sometimes for weeks at a time. Roads into the island’s many forest reserves are wiped out so frequently the reserves seem to open and close with whack-a-mole like consistency. And the Nenggao Cross-Island Trail, which cuts into the rugged mountains of Nantou County in central Taiwan, was closed when access was cut off by a landslide, just as a beautiful new wooden lodge on the trail was finally completed.
Despite the hazards, Taiwan is still an excellent hiking destination, whether in the country’s high treeless mountains or in the lush sub-tropical lowlands. In general, trails are well-maintained and signed, and almost always give a palpable sense that you are in the heart of something rugged and wild.
After Yushan, the most popular high mountain trail is to the summit of 3,886m Snow Mountain, the second highest peak in Taiwan. It is a relatively straightforward 10.9km hike, taking around three days round trip, but there is a great range of scenery to enjoy, from dense forests of dark fir to mustard coloured grassy slopes to sheer cliff walls with crinkled boxfold rock formations. The trail extends, for the adventurous, into a five-day circuit along the Holy Ridge, a narrow craggy ridgeline with sheer drops of 1,000m on both sides.