Tuesday, October 18, 2005

A Sea of Clouds - or - The Curse of Trapper's Trail

The plan was simple. For a weekend camping trip we would hike into Taroko National Park from the back side. About 70 km through the mountains from Ilan towards LiShan, we would drive our motorcyles up an old logging road to 2300 meters before finally hiking a long ridge into the park that would end on a 3500 meter peak. A little ambitious perhaps, but it appeared doable. And so, armed with topo maps, GPS, and a little Taiwanese camping stove, Brett and I headed out early Saturday afternoon after morning classes.

After a nice hour and a half drive on the mountain road up to about 1000 meters, we turned east into the mountains at the little aboriginal village of SiJi (Four Seasons). On the logging road we quickly found that 135 cc engines are not as powerful as they sound. After the fourth road washout - caused by the big Typhoon we had in July - and after the tenth time I got off my bike to push Brett and Brett's bike up the mountain (he was carrying our packs on his rack), we decided to ditch our bikes at about 1800 meters and hike the remaining 4 km / 500 meter elevation gain to an old workers hut on the map. At this time it was 430 and, according to the trusty GPS, the sun would set at 530. So at about 600, we found ourselves staring at our map, unable to determine where the hut was, or indeed where we were. In fact, we could not read the map. We realized that the reason we could not read the map was the fact that it was already half an hour after sunset and it was dark. We found our flashlights and turned them on. Now we could read the map, but still could not find the hut. We decided that, as it was dark and we could not really see, we must have over shot the hut by about 300 meters. So, we headed back. There was no hut. Did I mention it was drizzling? This is why we were searching for the hut. We eventually found two flagged "trails" heading up a cliff where our hut was supposed to be. We consulted the map and decided the hut must be 300 meters off the trail. We dropped our packs and each chose a trail to climb. About 20 meters up I realized that it was very stupid to climb a wet cliff at night with a flashlight in your mouth (I also realized at this time that a flashlight in the mouth was the original head lamp). I imagined what my father would say if he saw me on this cliff at this time in this weather. I quickly got off the cliff. We gave up the search for the hut and found a flat place to set up camp.

After a bit of snacking, I set up the trusty camping stove that I inherited from Tom. I remember him well extolling it's virtues when he bought it. "It was only 300 NT!" (about $11 CDN). I also remember watching a TV commercial for another kind of camping stove. The selling point of that particular camping stove was that it did not explode like our camping stove sometimes would. Remembering the surprising fireball that occurred the last and only other time I started the stove, I found a stick that we could use to light the stove from a safe distance. With the stick lit, I started the gas and backed up while Brett lowered the stick to the stove. The Fireball was just under half a meter in diameter. Everything looked good. I moved in to adjust the flame. As I lowered the flame, the entire stove burst into flames. We turned and ran for cover. Why? Did I mention the design of this stove? There are these disposable high pressure butane gas cans that you attach DIRECTLY to the stove, about 5 cm from the flame. When I say the stove burst into flame I mean that this gas can too was engulfed in flames. We ran to a safe distance and watched and waited for the stove to explode. We raised our arms to quickly shield our faces if needed. As the heat increased in the can, flames grew and grew until they were about a meter high. Actually, in the end it didn't explode. It only burned itself out in about 5 minutes. This did give us enough time to compare stories on similar situations we had witnessed in the past, and imagine exactly what this explosion would be like. For example, did you know that when you throw a spray paint can in a fire it explodes and throws flaming paint in all directions?

Anyway, after that we lit a couple of fine Dominican cigars that Brett's father had given him, and started a game of chess. We ate dry ichiban noodles straight out of the bag as we carefully contemplated every move. I lost.

Just before I went to sleep there was an 7.0 earthquake located about 150 km off Ilan's coast. Although it was only a 3 in Ilan - basically a gentle rocking - it was pretty amazing. Before this I had always been in buildings during the earthquakes.. The energy is transferred into the building and there is always a little bit of fear that the building could collapse. Lying on a mountain you realize that the entire mountain is moving right under you, and you feel awe instead of fear. Amazing.

The next day we awoke bright and early at 900 to a beautiful day. A bright blue sky and not a cloud in the sky. All the clouds in the sky were actually under us. In the valley the clouds were thick but white, and from our vantage point we could see the tops of the mountains coming out of the clouds. It was a spectacular sight I had never seen before this. We sat in the warm sun and dried off all our wet clothes. Then, we headed to the trail head, still a kilometer down the road. Now, the trail was apparently an old logging trail as well, because there was a base of logs in parts that I think were used as skids for the logs. Horses or mules would pull the logs along these small trails, and the logs would easily slide along the logs on the ground. The trail became smaller and smaller, until we were bush whacking through thick young bamboo. It was not pretty. There were many mountain pig traps along the trail - you know the spring loaded kind with a loop attached to a bent over tree. Fortunately the traps where not set. As we bush whacked through this bamboo hell we thought of Vietnam. Imagine how hard it would be to see anyone in the jungle. Impossible. Someone could be a meter away and you would never see them.

Alright, long story not so long... we eventually came to the abandoned trapper's camp, and after that the trail disappeared in a landslide. We crossed it but could not find the trail on the other side. We tried to climb to the top of the ridge, where we imagined a relative highway of a trail would be waiting, all to no avail. Eventually we gave up. By this time we had spend 4 hours wandering around and had only traveled about a kilometer and half. We decided to head to our bikes and hike up to a little lake (read: pond, read: slew). On the way we started a long conversation about dumplings and all the different mixtures you could possibly put in dumplings. It was a mistake. We then decided we should head back to Ilan and cook Indian food. Delicious Indian food. Hot Indian food.

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