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Climbing Xueshan Mountain (3,886m), Taiwan

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What a way to close off 2014. The trek was from 13-December 2014 to 20-December 2014. Over a period of 5 days we scaled two of the highest peaks in Taiwan – Xueshan and Yushan. The third was the East Peak of Xueshan which is on the way to the main peak. I will cover Yushan in a seperate post. But, first is Xueshan and it’s East Peak.

Xueshan, also called the “Snow Mountain” is the second highest mountain in Taiwan standing at 3,886m above sea level. Although not that high, it is notorious for it’s strong winds and chill.

This entire trek was a group trek comprising of 16 people from Singapore. So, i was not really alone unlike other treks. We had our briefing sessions with the tour guide prior to departure and were very well informed about the nature of the trek, what to expect as well as the gear/packing list.
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Xueshan at 3,886m is not one of the higher peaks that i have climbed. But the view and the trek was amazing. The breathtaking scenery and the panoramic view of the Xueshan mountain range is spell-binding to say the least.

Day 1

We arrive at Taipei, the capital of Taiwan and board the tour bus that takes us to a villa at Wulin Farm for an overnight rest. The drive to the villa took about 6-7 hours taking into consideration stops for breaks, lunch and a waterfall visit. The villa was very well maintained with basic amenities required. As a climber and a trekker, you cannot expect 3-star facilities. So, what was provided was quite a good facility. Being a vegetarian, i am quite surprised by the variety of Chinese vegetarian dishes that were prepared specifically for me. The food was amazing and i really indulged myself.

After dinner we were asked to separate the gear that we shall be taking up to the lodge and summit from the rest of the items. So, with some re-shuffling, i got my gear together and hit the bed after some small talk with my room mates.

Day 2

We board the bus to the starting point of the trek (the trailhead), which is about 2 hours from the villa. The excitement was high and everyone was pumped up. Our guide was a wonderful lady who has scaled the peaks so many times that she cant remember. I must say that a lady guide is much better than a man guide in terms of patience, compassion as well as understanding. She made sure that the group stuck together and also adjusted her speed to match ours compared to the other way around.

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We reach the starting point of the trek, where we are registered with our passports and a short video introduction of the peak and the trek is shown to us. This is where we meet with the porter who says a short prayer before we commence on the trek.

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We commence on the trek at 10 am and being a 6.7km trail to the lodge, the expected duration was about 8-9 hours. The initial trek seemed quite fine with a gentle climb upto about 3 km. There are sufficent rest spots at approximately 1-2 km intervals. However, the group soon started to have problems with altitude, leg cramps and knee injuries. This made the trek a lot slower as we had to re-group at each rest spot before we proceeded onwards.

Towards, the middle, we come across a steep section that can be quite challenging for a first-timer. Aparantly, the taiwanese call this section the “crying slope” as many find it hard. For me, it was not that difficult and most of the physically fit in the group managed to get through the slope pretty fast. A few of them however did suffer from knee injury at this stage.

Following the slope is where we come to the East Peak of Xueshan which stands at 3,201m. We stopped at this point where we waited for the rest to re-group. It was coming close to sunset and we were well behind schedule. However, the positive side is that we managed to take as many pictures of the beautiful surroundings and also see the sunset.

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Standing on top of the peak with the clouds below you was surreal. A sea of white with peaks poking out.

At sunset, the clouds covered most of the peaks except for those that were above 3,200m.

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Soon after everyone joined, we sped up to reach the lodge, better known as “369 hut”. Apparently, the name “369” came from the initial assumption that the hut was at 3,690m. However, the real height at this location is more like 3,100m.

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The facilities at the hut were just bare minimum with a military bunker style double-level flooring. The cabin in the picture is where food is served. Again, vegetarian food was prepared for me. However, i did not do justice to the amount that was prepared as i normally do not eat much on the mountains. So after some vegetables, rice and ginger tea later, we went to our respective places in the bunk to sort out the gear to take to the summit.

The surprising thing is that there is cellphone signal available at the lodge allowing you to make a call or send an SMS. However, there is no WiFi.

All during the trek, the weather held out pretty well and we were expecting the same on the summit day. The weather did not disappoint.

Day 3

This was the summit day. We started out late at around 6.30am. Initially we were to start out in the night at around 2-3am but given the condition of some of the trekkers, we decided to take sufficient rest and hit the trail when the sun was up. After a quick breakfast we started the trek and came to the “black forest”.

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The name comes from the fact that the trees are tall and dense and covers the sunlight completely giving the forest a dark gloomy appeal. The picture above shows the starting point of the forest. Although it was not so dangerous during this time of the year (december), it is considered to be quite so during the months of Jan-March when it snows. The pathway is quite narrows and when covered with snow and there is a high possibility of getting lost.

The trek through the forest lasts for about 2 hours after which we come out to the open space. We walk into a circular valley from where we can see the summit.

The winds are quite strong at this point and we are asked to take extreme caution when walking. Some paths were covered with ice and were quiet slippery.

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After another hour of relatively steep climbing we reach the summit. And what a view it was. Amazing panoramic view of the entire Xueshan range.

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A few of us had reached the summit quite early and had to wait there for the rest of the folks to drop in before we could take a group picture. It was a 100% success and all, even those fighting their individual demons, had made it to the top.

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At the distance, we could see the Yushan peak, Taiwan’s highest peak, sticking out in the picture below. That was our next challenge. In the next 2 days, we will be standing on top of Yushan.

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A full 360 degree video from the summit of Xueshan is shown below.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ya81Fu77Zvc]

After the group photos and the congratulations and the high-fives, we came back to the “369 hut” where we spent the rest of the day lazing around. We spent that night at “369 hut”.

Day 4

We woke up quite early at 2.30am and had a quick breakfast and headed down to the Trailhead. The trek in the dark would have been easy were it not for the strong winds that were blowing. We had to maintain a brisk pace to make sure that we quickly moved past the open space and into the the cover of the forest. We reached the trailhead at around 9am. Without wasting much time, we got onto the bus and were on our way to the next challenge – Yushan Mountain.

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Throughout the trek, we were lucky to have good weather and sunshine. The weather from the mountain forecast website also provided accurate estimates. On an average the temperature was somewhere between 7-8 degrees at the “369 hut” and fell to between 0 and 2 degrees at the summit.  Several paths were covered in ice which was quite slippery. Other than that, it was a pretty safe climb.

 

Khardung La (5,602m), J&K India

Khardoung La is the world’s highest motorable highway across the karakorum range in the Himalayas. I had a chance to hire a taxi to take me to the highest point after my Stok Kangri trek. This happened on the last day before i flew out of Leh back home.

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View of Stok Kangri from the road to Khardung La.

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The roads are much better now than a couple of years ago.

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The first check post “south pulu”.

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The roads become more treacherous towards the top of the pass.

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A notice informing you that you have reached the highest point in the Pass.

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The World’s Highest Cafeteria. Had some noodles and Masala Chai (Tea) here.

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A buddhist temple at the top.

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Looking at the other side from the highest point. This goes onwards towards Siachin and Nubra Valley.

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I had forgotten to take my sweater and was freezing cold at the top.

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Evening sunset view of Stok Kangri.

Climbing Stok Kangri (6,153m), J&K India

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from wikipedia

This has been one thrilling experience. An experience of failure and success within a span of 24 hours. I have been planning on stok kangri ever since the mountain climbing bug bit me late last year. Initial plan on stok kangri were clouded by the inability to decide on the agent to go with in part. The other part was work commitments that kept me tied to the office.

Inbetween i managed to sneak out for a couple of days for Kerinci and Rinjani. However, Stok Kangri is in the karakoram, Himalayas and at 6,100+ m isn’t something that you can do over the weekend.

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After a lot of emails, forum posts in a couple of websites and blogs, i decided finally on an agency and set the dates for 2-august to 10-august. Not particularly the cheapest, but they responded to my emails and the boss really took the initiative to call on ISD to enquire if everything was OK. I liked his sincerity and also the fact that his was a start up and i saw myself in him 10 years back. I liked giving the under dog a chance. So, i decided on him and i was not disappointed.

The plan came to fruition sometime in early July after which i began some serious exercise on cardio. Needless to say, it was not sufficient and the climb was much harder due to the lack of good fitness regime.

2 days before the trip i started taking Diamox so that i wouldn’t have any health related issues. But upon arrival in Leh i had stopped it and didn’t feel any problems with AMS.

Day 1 (3-August) – Arrive Leh
Leh, located at 3,500 m is one of the most beautiful places i have ever visited. The calm, easy going and friendly nature of the people gave me immense pleasure and peace. Having landed in Leh in the morning from two stop overs, one at Kuala Lumpur and the other at Delhi, i was pretty tired. Checked into the hotel, had some breakfast and slept.

Luckily, i did not show any signs off AMS since Delhi was at sea level and Leh, at 3,500 m. The rest of the day was spent walking in the bazaar and buying some items for the climb.

Day 2 (4-august) – Rest at Leh
Spent the whole day resting and reading books. Took a cab to the Shanti Stupa. In the evening, met with the guide, porter and cook. Asked some questions with my limited climbing knowledge to check the guide’s competency. Felt good and comfortable with him. Tried the crampons and ice axe. Rented out all the items.

Day 3 (5-august) – Leh to Stok Village. Trek to Mankarmo
Today was the starting point of our trek. The guide picked me up at 9 am. We picked up the other climber, a British woman in her late forties who seemed to have done a lot of travelling. We stopped over to buy vegetables on the way to Stok Village. At about 10 am, we started the trek through the valley and stopped at lunch. The pace was brisk and we reached Mankarmo by 4 pm. The camp was setup and we mingled with the other tourists. The dinner prepared was fantastic and we ate well and retired to bed early.

Day 4 (6-august) – Mankarmo to Stok Kangri Base Camp
The trek today was more tedious than yesterday. The altitude gain was significant and the route was quite tough. Base camp is located at around 4,200 m. It is already higher than the highest point i have ever climbed in my short history of climbing. We managed to reach the base camp by 4 hours. I felt a bit of head ache to which i took some aspirin.

The plan was to start for the summit at 12 am and reach the top at around 6 am. Towards the evening i took an practice walk around the area. We ate an early dinner which was excellently prepared by the cook and we went to our respective tents. I couldn’t sleep much due to the headache and the noise from the nearby river flowing.

Day 5 (7-august) – The climb
I was awake the whole night and was out of my tent all ready to go by 12 am. The cook made us some delicious chai and some soup and potatoes. I didn’t want to eat anything but the guide insisted that i eat something before we commence our climb – big mistake.

Soon after we started the climb. The move up the trail started well, but soon after Advanced Base Camp, i started to feel sleepy and the head ache came back with a vengeance. I took one more aspirin and started the climb. We walked towards the glacier. One look at it and there wasn’t any need for crampons or ice axe.

Once we crossed the glacier, the climb became quite steep, and at about 5,200 m i decided to turn back because i became extremely sleepy and the head ache was worsening. So, i turned back and the guide followed me across the glacier. From there the route was pretty straight forward, so i went all the way to base camp. I reached base camp at around 8 am and i hit the tent. There i had a very disturbed sleep.

I woke up at lunch and by that time, the British lady was back from the summit telling me the details as i listened with a sense of awe and disappointment.

Then It struck me. I had a spare day planned into my trek. The day was to be used for the summit if in case of bad weather. I immediately turned towards my guide and told him that we are going up again that night. He was mighty shocked having witnessed my failure that morning.

He instead asked me if i wanted to climb Golep Kangri instead which shared the same base camp and was lower in altitude to Stok Kangri. I thought for awhile and insisted that i still wanted to climb Stok. He agreed with a smile without any reservations. The only thing was that the porter who carried the emergency oxygen tank the night before would not join us on this climb. I was fine with that.

A renewed sense of confidence surged inside me. Something that I did not have the previous night. Yes! I was already in pain and weak. But the thought of coming here and not being able to summit was something that i couldn’t accept. All was not lost. There is another chance.

That night i ate very little and managed to sleep for a couple of hours.

Day 6 (8-august) – The climb Redux
Was woken up at 11pm. Had a glass of hot Masala tea. Again the cook insisted that i eat something before climbing. I responded with a stern no and instead had a biscuit. The climb started by 11:30pm and we made good pace as compared to the previous night. We reached the glacier two hours ahead of the previous day and started the steep ascent. Till that time there was literally no one on the mountain other than me and the guide. At the distant we could see torch lights making their way towards us, but they were more than an hour behind.

However, in the steep climb, my pace slowed down dramatically and found those distant lights had actually caught up with us. By 7 am i was down to a snail’s pace but managed to reach the ridge where i rested for about 30 minutes. By that time the torch lights had caught up with us, overtook us and were on their way to the summit.

From there it took another 2 hours to reach the summit. It was around 9am. By that time, i was completely done spent and absolutely had no mood to rejoice or take photos. I handed over my camera to the guide and asked him to snap away. This was another mistake as he didn’t take decent enough photos of the prayer flags or me sitting in front of them. A close up shot of me lying on the summit is all i got. Anyway, the summit was bagged and i wanted to get down as quickly as possible.

We started within 15 minutes as the weather was turning against us. The eastern side was a complete whiteout and the western side was cloudy. The climb down was pretty straightforward but required extreme concentration.

We hit the base camp by 11 am and i just dropped to the ground. The guide was quite impressed and after the high fives and the hugs i sat around aimlessly unable to fathom the previous 24 hours.

The same day we descended back to Stok Village and back to Leh after some rest in Mankarmo. I was so damn tired with about 16 hours of walk that i had a quick shower and hit the bed. I slept like a log.

Day 7 (9-august)
Woke up the next day but felt good. The whole episode went through my mind and i felt really satisfied with the turn of events. Had a nice breakfast of egg and sandwich and hot coffee. In the whole trip i managed to do without Diamox with only aspirin for the head ache.

Decided to go to Khardung La before i left for Delhi and back to Singapore the next day. This i will write on the next article.

Summary
Stok Kangri is a very beautiful mountain and doesn’t require any technical skill. It gives you the ability to reach 20,000ft in a short span of time due to its proximity to Leh. But don’t be fooled by the level of fitness that is required. Also, the season of climbing is very important. My august climb did not see much snow or rain other than occasional drizzle. We didn’t have to use crampons or ice axe. But, i’ve heard from our guide that June period was waist deep in snow even at the base camp. Groups waited for 3 days and had to return back to Leh without a summit.

Initial ascent up to glacier is on very slight elevation. The going gets tough soon after the glacier pass where the rate of climb is tremendous. From base camp to summit is a 1,900 m height gain in about 6 to 8 hours.

I did it in a very short time of 7 days, but i think the most ideal number of days would be about 10 days.

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