Catching an Epic Sunrise on Taiwan's Snow Mountain
Hoping for summit views. Getting something better.
It’s disappointing watching your trip plans seemingly fall apart. Months earlier, I’d planned a backpacking trip in Taiwan with my wife. We were going to spend four days on the Holy Ridge, an epic route that stays above 3,000 meters (9,800 feet), razor thin in sections, with dramatically exposed cliffs—some of the most stunning mountain scenery you can find on the island. The Holy Ridge includes summits on several prominent peaks, including Snow Mountain, Taiwan’s second highest mountain (12,749 feet). But the weather forecast kept getting worse and monsoon-like rains were headed our way. Taiwan is prone to torrential rains, earthquakes, and subsequent landslides, which means you really don’t want to be in the high mountains when storms come through. Our permits and other plans with friends and family in the country gave us a narrow window, and now the forecast gave us even less.
We decided to make the trip, but cut it short. Instead of hiking the 4-day loop, we’d do a 1.5 day out-and-back hike up Snow Mountain, taking advantage of the one good weather day in the forecast to climb from trailhead to summit, and hoping to beat the rains down the following morning. From the few hiking blogs I managed to find, the typical time to allow for this was 2 to 3 days. But it seemed these itineraries were written for guided groups, so we figured we could probably move a little faster and lighter. We hoped.
Our first day was gorgeous. We hit the trail at 5:45am and put our trekking poles to work. Left, right, left, right, stopping every few minutes to catch our breath. Just the day before we were barely above sea level, so hiking fast at nearly 7,000 feet meant our lungs lagged far behind. We gained momentum after a section of relentless switchbacks opened up to sweeping views of the surrounding mountains. “Jia yo!” fellow hikers encouraged us as they descended, a few checking to make sure we knew bad weather was on its way.
The trail was beautiful. Pines. Blooming rhododendron. Ancient trees. I’d spent several years in Taiwan before, but never saw this kind of scenery. By 10:45am we’d climbed 4,000 feet and made it up to the highest shelter, still several hours below the summit. This is where most groups spend the night, setting out early the next morning to reach the summit by sunrise. But we knew clouds would be rolling in soon, and if there was any chance of a summit view we had to keep hiking. Tomorrow the whole mountain would be covered in clouds.
We rested for nearly an hour, recharged after a cup of green tea offered to us by fellow hikers in the shelter, and then pushed on. Soon after, we entered the Black Forest, a thick and dark forested section of trail with rich moss and huge evergreens. We crossed over scree fields, the trail winding all throughout the forest, eventually opening up to the base of the cirque that leads to the summit. Clouds completely covered the top of the mountain. Around us, they moved quickly in and out, giving us only brief glimpses of the surrounding peaks. It was exciting to be close, but we were exhausted, and wary that the clouds weren’t going to let up.
This last stretch would be tough going. Our quick ascent to over 12,000 feet left us light headed, and gave me a pounding headache. Our trail zigzagged up the cirque, as the side of the mountain gradually got steeper. By now we were in thick clouds, able to see maybe 50 feet above or below, uncertain how far down we’d fall if we took a bad step. Half-kilometer distance markers alongside the trail seemed to grow further apart and our breath-catching breaks grew more frequent. We watched our boots as we took small and steady steps up, and up, and up.
All of a sudden the ground leveled out, and a pile of rocks in front of us told us we were on top. 12,749 hard earned feet. After all that work, we only spent a few minutes on the summit. Even in May in tropical Taiwan, temperatures at the top were nearly freezing. Completely immersed in the clouds, we dropped our packs, snapped a quick photo, and headed back down.
There was certainly a sense of accomplishment. More than anything, we were excited that we’d hiked as far and as fast as we did, and it was cool that we’d summited the second tallest mountain on the island. But I’d seen photos taken from the summit. I knew what we were missing. If only the clouds would roll away, even for a minute…
Back down in the shelter we ate a quick dinner and pulled out sleeping bags, totally exhausted and not looking forward to the tough hike all the way down the next morning. My headache wouldn’t let up, and we both tossed and turned most of the night.
Since we both slept poorly, the alarm was almost a welcomed sound. I peered through the foggy window from the bunk to see gray skies that were very slowly getting brighter. As we started packing up our gear, I looked out again to find the clouds were beginning to open up just enough to barely see the sunrise. It was tough to see through the little hazy window, but I grabbed my camera and ran outside.
Standing in the cold morning air, I watched as the heavens opened up. A burst of sunshine illuminated clouds below us, the whole scene framed by dark clouds above and the valley below. Wispy clouds danced over silhouetted treetops and crashed against the mountains like ocean waves moving in slow motion. The light, the clouds, the colors seemed to change within seconds and every time I put down my camera, I quickly pulled it up again, shooting away. “Woah.” After I decided I’d taken enough photos, my wife and I stood next to each other just watching. Taking it in. Enjoying the beauty of it all. And then, in just a few minutes, the clouds rolled back in and covered the mountain. Incredible.
Energized by the spectacular sunrise, we hit the trail and hiked all the way down.
I’m glad that I have photos of that sunrise to help me remember. But I’m also glad that I can never recreate that moment. There will be plenty more sunrises and epic sights to see, but I hope to remember moments like these uniquely, not replacing the wonder of the last moment, but adding to it.
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