Hiking Ku Ha Nuo Shin Shan
Ku Ha Nuo Shin Shan
(and Guan Shan)
from Taiwan’s South Cross Island Highway
by: Richard Matheson
Taiwan is an incredibly steep island, going from sea level to 3952m and back down to sea level again in the implausible span of only 140km at it’s widest. Although this is the extreme of the island, it is safe to say that the mountains of Taiwan are steep. For me, the trail climbing from the South Cross Island highway to Guan Shan epitomizes the steepness of Taiwan. It is however, well worth the climb.
My girlfriend and I set out from Tainan on motorcycle a little after eight and arrived at the Guan Shan trail head on the South Cross Island highway before noon. Unfortunately, with two people and two hiking bags weighing down my poor old Sanyang 125, that was the last time it climbed Highway 20. The engine now spews thick black smoke and a mechanic suggested that buying a new motorcycle would be cheaper than repairing it. Perhaps a preferable way of getting to the trail head is by a public bus that runs from Tainan in the morning and arrives at Tienchih around noon. Two friends left Tainan by bus at 7:20 and arrived minutes before us. From Tienchih the walk to the trail head is only a couple kilometers and takes about 45 minutes at a leisurely pace, but a ride will likely be offered before reaching the trail. Although the trail receives little typhoon damage, the trail head was devastated in last summer’s typhoons and two new bridges that cross the river will take you to the trail head.
The 1.6km from the 2404m trail head to the 3026m hut on the ridge is some of the most sustained vertical trail that I have hiked anywhere. Oddly, on this typhoon lashed island, it is one of the trails that has shown the least changes through the years that I have been hiking in Taiwan. This durability in the face of avalanche threat is because at least 80 percent of this trail is stairs. The stairs, often raised off the ground and sometimes embedded in the ground, prevent the constant tread of feet from making deep water ruts and denuding the mountainside of stabilizing vegetation. The stairway also accounts for the steepness of the trail. Whereas a stair-less trail would slowly switchback up the mountain, there are places that these, sometimes gargantuan half meter steps, relentlessly plough straight up the mountain.
The trail is gorgeous; it shoots up through verdant moss covered old growth forest and near the top, only in the last few hundred meters before the hut, levels off into a waist height field of grass and bamboo thickets. From the hut you can continue to the 3666m Guan Shan or branch off to the lesser 3114m Ku Ha Nuo Shin Mountain. The trail to the Guan Shan Peak is at times quite difficult and there are steeper sections where ropes are necessary. Being late in the afternoon, we opted for the 1.7km to Ku Ha Nuo Shin Shan rather than the 3.8km and 500m higher Guan Shan. This pleasant trail first drops and then rises up to a final tree covered ridge that traverses to the peak.
The hike up the mountain was a pleasure but the real treat awaited us at the top. Arriving around five o’clock, we didn’t have much of a view in any direction and were expecting to be in darkness within the hour. In spite of expectations, the hour brought a spectacular clearing of the cloud cover that lasted us through the night and well into the next day. Furthermore, the light of the full moon illuminated our camp so well that we didn’t need flashlights. The peak has just enough flat space for a cooking stove and two tents and the views of Taiwan’s great peaks is one of the finest I have yet seen in Taiwan. Ku Ha Nuo Shin Shan is a great vantage point for viewing Yu Shan, Guan Shan, and Hsiang Yang Shan. The view of Guan Shan bathed in the cool light of the moon against a cloudless backdrop of stars was a great reward for the grueling walk up the stairs earlier in the day.
Re-published in China Posts magazine Discover Taiwan
What’s changed since 2002? Well, not much but…
*My girlfriend is now my wife.
*Permit-less hiking seems to be a thing of the past. All the mountains we used to go up without a permit now require permits and this is strictly enforced. The first time I went up Yu-Shan in 1991 we were welcomed into the hut overnight, fed and sent on our way up. Since that highly pleasurable experience it has become increasingly harder as the years go by. We began being turned away at the entrance, so would hike around the back via Lu Lin Shan and be on our way. But the last time we snuck around Lu Lin we met some policemen at the saddle who asked for our permits. One of the officers was Bunong(same aboriginal tribe as my wife) and he told my wife to wait until they had gone and continue up (my wife doesn’t need a permit because her ancestors hunted in the area), but we were going to the east peak and were worried about other non-Bunong officers so we decided not to continue. I will probably be going up next week for my first ever hike with a permit!
*I will let Barking Deer Tour Company sort that out for me.
*Guan Shan (關山) is 3,666 m.
*The hike up Guan Shan is considerably more grueling but well worth the effort as well. There are some great camping spots between the hut and peak in lovely old forests, but there is no water. Rainwater is collected at the ?? hut now (as well as solar energy), but you would still be advised to bring your own.
*I once hiked Tainan to Peak to Tainan in a day with a guy named Donald who had forgotten his glasses up there the week before. Even had to push my bike for a while because I ran out of gas. Not advised if you are not in good shape and/or young. Never found the glasses, and yes, I just wrote that ‘cause I’m kind of pleased with myself for having done the hike in a day.