The Holy Ridge 雪山聖稜線 is one of Taiwan’s most famous big hiking trails. It’s a stunning hike along a long ridge line that usually takes about 5 days. It crosses several high peaks, including Taiwan’s second highest, Snow Mountain 雪山 (Xueshan) at 3886 m (12749 ft). The ridge is so long that three full days can easily be spent at over 3,400 m.
My friends and I hiked The Holy Ridge recently in a four day blitz. We achieved this by starting at midnight and hiking in the dark for an hour, then skipping the Snow Mountain Peak.
Day 2 – The Hard Slog
If Day 1 was the night hiking, Day 2 was the hard slog. We climbed about 1,500m vertically over the course of about 8km. All while carrying nearly 30kg (~60lb) packs. I should mention now that we actually did the hike in the reverse direction that most people do it. The usual way is to go counterclockwise, to be able to descend the four cliffs that are encountered on it. We went clockwise.
The second day actually wasn’t that difficult until we came to a very steep scree field covered in snow. The scree field was about as steep as it could be and we climbed nearly 300m on that one push alone.
At the top, we finally arrived at the ridge line, which we thought would be an easy, flat walk to the Xuebei Cabin. It turned out to have many steep slopes, lots of snow and wind, and was covered in juniper bushes that seemed to have claw-like fingers grabbing us and pulling us back. To make matters worse, night was setting in and we had no idea how long it would take us to get to the cabin.
My first walk on the ridge was probably the two hardest hours of my life. I can’t begin to tell you how tired your mind, body and soul can become after such a difficult day. Carrying 30kgs and ascending so much, and the further stress of not knowing how much farther the cabin was, was almost too much to bare.
But, we came to the cabin just at dusk and collapsed on the floor. “Fatigued” doesn’t even come close to how I felt. As I passed in and out of consciousness throughout the night, I really didn’t think I would be able to walk, much less carry my heavy pack the next day.
Day 3 – Rejuvenated Spirits
To my utter surprise, I (and my companions) awoke feeling… not too bad! Honestly, I wasn’t even that sore! We had awoken to a spectacular morning that had refreshed our spirits, and our conviction, to finish the hike. All that, and the fact that we knew we only had a four hour hike to the next cabin, energized and motivated us, and away we went!
We found that we had the next cabin (Sumida) to ourselves, so after setting up shop, we had enough time to hike to the nearby Mutelebu Peak. Unfortunately, as often happens in the late afternoons in Taiwan, the weather set in and we had to be content to watch the clouds swirl and hide the fantastic views that we had been seeing earlier in the day.
Day 4 – The Supidest of my Life
The weather on the morning of Day 4 had been like the night before: foggy and a bit windy. We set out early, knowing that it would be another difficult day… we had no idea just how difficult…
After about an hour, we came to what would be the first of 4 dangerous cliffs we had to climb that day. We had difficulty on the very first section as we had never climbed cliffs like this before with full packs and we had a little trouble getting comfortable. Add the wind, fog, snow, ice, loose rocks and sketchy ropes, and you’ll know why I yelled back to my friends as I got to the top, “That was the stupidest think I ever did in my life!!!”
The truth is, despite the fact that we are all very experienced hikers, with the confluence of all these bad weather conditions, we were pushed to the limits of our abilities. On a clear, dry day, this, and the cliffs that followed, wouldn’t have been a problem. But at about 1ºC (35ºF) with rain setting in, we
were fucked could barely manage.
I actually yelled back that they should turn around and not attempt the last part of the cliff because it was too dangerous, but this would have split us up at a very dangerous part of the trail… and would have left me on my own, in a high-mountain-very-bad-place.
They finished climbing the cliff, and we pushed on. We knew there were still the three Pintien Cliffs ahead: two infamous 20 meter walls and one at 10 meters. What we weren’t expecting were the ever-present 1,000 meter tumbles down the sides of the ridge that could have taken our lives anytime the knee-deep snow might have decided to give way.
This was the first day of my life that I spent the entire day in fear. Fear for my own life and that of my friends. Each of us had a moment or two of such deep fear and doubt as to think that we couldn’t go on. But we all stayed strong and helped each other through the difficult moments.
Day 5 – Did we Really Do That?
The hike down was sunny, warm and uneventful. It seems that we had bad luck and bad weather for just that one day… go figure.
Have a looks at Stu’s account over at Hiking Taiwan.
You might be wondering why I don’t have many pictures or video illustrating all those bad cliffs that we encountered on Day 4. At the time, I though I just didn’t have the motivation to get the equipment out in the bad weather. But, as I reflect on that day, the truth is that I just didn’t want to have the footage of one of my friends falling to their deaths. I guess principles are sometimes more important than telling a story.