Shei-pa National Park: Holy Ridge Trail
While preparing for our honeymoon, which was admittedly a bit scattered due to the wedding madness, Sam and I looked for information on the Holy Ridge in Shei-pa National Park. There isn't a ton of information out there, at least in English. We ended up with a handful of blog posts and few maps to guide us, and I'm documenting our adventure to add a small amount of knowledge for the next people who are attempting it.
· Necessary Permits: one through Shei-pa National Park and another through the local police. We applied for the Shei-pa permit about a month in advance of our trip, via the website, and received confirmation shortly thereafter. We applied for the police permit a day before the trip, once we had arrived in Wuling, and that involved a fair amount of pantomime and smiles.
· We took the bus from Taipei straight to Wuling and stayed at the Hoya Resort for the night before the trip. The resort is one of the fancier ($180 USD/night) options in Wuling but the room rate includes unlimited buffets for both breakfast and dinner. This is nearly a priceless option when traveling with Sam’s hunger. They also let us store our camping backpacks while we were out in the woods for a few days- all in all, a good choice for us.
· Based on the few trip reports we’d read, we thought we could do the Holy Ridge O Route in 4 days and 3 nights with lightweight packs. As a disclaimer, I am not recommending that. We gauged our fitness and abilities and planned accordingly.
· Lightweight backpacks: I carried running-specific Salomon one and Sam brought a North Face daypack.
· Water: we each carried a 1.5L bladder as well as a 12oz hand-held water bottle. We used Aquamira for purification.
· Sleeping: We brought Sea to Summit Spark II sleeping bags. These have 850+ fill down and compress very well. They’re temperature-rated to 35 degrees Fahrenheit, and I would estimate that we tested that limit. Bizarrely, Sam was cold in his sleeping bag and I woke up sweating. We also carried inflatable sleeping pads. Mine is a ¾ length pad, which works for me but may not be as great if your feet need to be off of the floor.
· Food: This will be a highly contentious subject, as everyone’s needs are different and we chose to go on the lean side. We brought dehydrated meals and then boiled water using our small pot (4 cups), denatured alcohol and our cat food stove. The cat food stove has worked very well for us in the past- it’s ridiculously cheap, lightweight and effective. We also brought forks and matches, which were very tightly waterproofed. For breakfast, we had oatmeal with Justin’s squeeze packs of peanut butter, and for snacks we brought clif bars and powerbar gummies.
· Toiletries: Travel toothbrushes and toothpaste, sunscreen and lip balm with sunscreen.
· Outerwear: rain jackets and lightweight down jackets.
· Clothes for sweating (ie, for hiking during the day): I wore running shorts, a sports bra and a tank top. I was very hot on the first day, when we headed out of Wuling Farm, but comfortable for the rest of the trip. I wore merino Feetures, just in case of wet feet. Sam wore basketball shorts, half-tights and a tank.
· Luxury clothes (when we arrived at each hut): I had a headband for cold ears, ¾ length tights, extra socks and a dry sports bra. Sam brought an extra pair of half tights and running shorts, but thought he might’ve brought full tights for comfort.
· Shoes: Salomon Speedcross 3 for me and Salomon Fellcross for Sam.
· Luxury items: iPhones, a deck of cards, toilet paper, an external power source for the iPhones (the Jackery), Suunto Ambit3 for GPS and navigation.
Day 1: Hoya Resort to Snow Mountain Trailhead to 369 Cabin
Total Mileage: 6.82 miles
Total Vertical: 4,951 feet
1,467 feet from Hoya to Snow Mountain TH
3,484 feet from Snow Mountain TH to 369 Cabin
East Peak of Syue (10,501 feet/3,201m)
We started from the Hoya Resort in Wuling, thinking that we might be able to hitchhike to the Snow Mountain (Xueshan/Syueshan) trailhead. No such luck- we walked on the road through some idyllic campsites and tea farms to the trailhead. Once at the trailhead, we watched a quick video on what to expect on the Snow Mountain trail. We also received a phone call from one of the rangers, who told us that we had a hard day ahead of us and that maybe we’d overestimated our abilities. Keep in mind that we’d been walking since about 8:30am and had rolled in to the trailhead at 10:30am with tiny, lightweight backpacks- not exactly the picture of responsible hikers. We reassured the rangers, left our permit at the trailhead and started the trek to the 369 hut, thinking it was going to take all day.
Luckily, the hike before us was not too bad. It’s a staircase and there’s a ton of vertical gain (3500 feet), but nothing is too technical or terrifying. The Cika hut is very close to the trailhead and it gave us the opportunity to fill up our bottles before hitting more stairs and switchbacks. There is a tough section before the summit of the east peak of Snow Mountain (Xueshan/Syueshan), called the Crying Slope. The grade is probably about 15% and the slope will take about 20 minutes. After the Crying Slope and the east peak summit, the rest of the hike to the 369 hut pleasantly rolls through bamboo forest.
However, in terms of food this trip was the opposite of our adventures on the Milford Track in New Zealand. There, everyone was eating dehydrated backpacking meals to save weight and we’d carried in pounds of fresh vegetables and fruits. To the amazement and eventual delight of our fellow trampers, Sam also carried a 3-liter boxed wine. We were obviously not very concerned with weight on that trip. But in Taiwan, we were obsessed with keeping everything as lightweight as possible and moving relatively quickly. One of the families staying at the 369 hut had pots of dumplings and a whole chicken. We were positively jealous as that feast appeared.
The 369 hut is relatively large, with separate structures for the toilets and for cooking. There are bunks for probably 80 or so people, although only about 50 people were staying there that night. Most people were trekking with their families, and there were several very impressive kids climbing the 12,000 foot mountains in the area.
Most of the trekkers in the 369 hut were going up Snow Mountain, Taiwan’s second highest peak, or to the North Peak of Snow Mountain. Very similarly to Colorado, Taiwan has an obsession with bagging peaks. In Colorado, there are 58 14,000 foot mountains and many people make it a life goal to summit all of them. In Taiwan, there are over 100 12,000 foot mountains and the equivalent goal is to summit 60 or more. Several of the trekkers at the 369 hut were looking to cross new peaks off of their lists. We spent some time with two college friends, now in their 50s, who had completed 50 peaks and were working on those last few with their teenage children in tow.
One last note on the first day: the trail was pretty heavily traveled and well-maintained. There were small wooden signs every 0.1km in both languages.
Day 2: 369 Cabin to Sumida Cabin
Total Mileage: 4.25 miles (including backtracking for water)
total vert: 1,451 feet
peaks: Kailantekun (12,110 feet/3,691 m), North Peak of Syue (12,149 feet/3,703m)
We were probably the last ones to leave the 369 habit, given the Taiwanese habit of leaving at 2-3am to catch sunrise from atop a mountain. We rolled out around 7am, full of oatmeal and peanut butter and enjoying the sunshine. The weather was very typical mountainous summer weather: sunny in the morning, with clouds/thunderstorms in the afternoon.
The trail heading toward Kailantekun went through a very thick forest, and the trail was not as well-worn nor as well-traveled as the previous day’s. We became slightly lost and then noticed that, in addition to the wooden sign posts, the trail was further marked with ribbons hanging from the trees. These ribbons became the new standard for navigation, as they were far easier to spot than the lower sign posts.
I also brought along my Suunto Ambit3 for navigation. There weren’t any .gpx files of the route to preload, but I was able to add in several of the mountains as waypoints. Then, whenever we reached a sign post with ambiguous markings, we could use the watch as a compass to point us toward the nearest waypoint. It was remarkably easy to use and it was a great backup option.
The dense forest eventually gave way to a scree field. Climbing up the scree field was a two-steps forward, one-step back sort of maneuver, with some gnarled bushes on the side for support. Once at the top of the scree field, we’d reached the Holy Ridge. The Holy Ridge is a thin dragon’s spine that connects several mountains, and the views from either side were incredible. No trace of civilization, just mountains and mountains.
Walking along the ridge during this section was mostly protected. The trail was wide enough to be oblivious to the big drops on either side, and there was also a fair amount of foliage. The only exposed situations were the north summit of Syue and one other rocky bump on the spine that popped out of the forest. There was also one small rock climbing section, but the slant was not very sheer and it was more of a scramble than a pure rock climb.
We had planned to stop at the Xinda hut for the night, but we’d hiked over Kailantekun and had arrived at that hut at 10am. Instead we elected to continue to the next hut, the Sumida hut. Both Xinda and Sumida are far smaller than the 369 hut; they are simple A-frames with about 20 beds each. There are large water tanks behind each hut, but some were half-full and others were empty. We ended up backtracking from the Sumida hut to the nearest stream to fill up our bladders and handhelds. Many of the guidebooks recommend inquiring about water conditions upon encountering other groups, and several blogs had mentioned side trips specifically to find water.
We were the only ones staying at Sumida that night and it had been hours since we’d seen another group. The hut was also located deep in the forest and the fog had rolled in, creating a Baba Yaga atmosphere from childhood nightmares.
Day 3: Sumida Cabin to Hoya Resort
Total Mileage: 9.13 miles
Total Vert: 262 feet
peaks: Sumida (11,538 feet/3,517m), Bushoulan (11,279 feet/3,438m), Pintian (11,561 feet/3,524m)
We woke up to sunshine and a group of trekkers breakfasting on the front porch of the Sumida Hut. I knew that today was going to be a hard day. We had read several blog accounts of the Pintian cliffs, a group of three climbs required to complete the Holy Ridge loop. Several of the accounts involved crampons, ice axes and freezing weather and I was hoping that the climbs would be much easier without those obstacles, especially as we did not have any rock climbing equipment.
Not far from the Sumida Cabin, we reached the first climb. This was not the Pintian cliffs and only one blogger had mentioned this climb, in his account of a 12-hour day of hiking. This climb was to reach the top of Sumida, and it was an absolute beast. The route was exposed and funneled climbers toward a drop of a few hundred feet. There were leftover ropes knotted to the gnarled roots of bushes, but none of these felt or looked particularly stable.
The climb itself was not a particularly difficult bouldering problem, but the margin of error was tiny and we were also carrying more equipment than I ever carry when bouldering. I had a complete meltdown during the first hard move, and told Sam that I didn’t want either of us to die. I had the shaky adrenaline pumping through my muscles, the kind that makes me hyperaware of the smallest movements of my body in space. After some tears, I made it to the top and we continued down the other side of Sumida. The descent was all large rocks and boulders, along a windy exposed ridge with huge drops on either side.
The ridge meandered along, popping in and out of thick trees. We summited Bushoulan without incident, probably because it’s actually lower than Sumida. I was still coming down from the adrenaline high at this point and I felt exhausted. I was deeply dreading the Pintian cliffs but I also knew that there was no way I would be able to go back down the Sumida climb we’d just completed.
By the time we reached the Pintian cliffs, I was collected and much calmer. There were three separate climbs, each in the corner space of an L-shaped area of the rock. Sam was a champ, giving me beta on where he’d tried placing his hands and feet on the way up. There was one section where I remember seeing his feet very near the edge, with a long drop behind him. Other than that moment of fear, these climbs felt much more controlled and manageable than the Sumida climb.
Once over Pintian, there were two more rope scrambles and then we were descending through bamboo forests to the Xuebei hut. We thought we might want to stay at Xuebei for the night, but we reached it around noon and instead decided to complete the Holy Ridge and head back to Wuling Farm. The descent was mostly on rocky trails, which were a bit slick from the rain. Once we hit the Taoshan Waterfall Trailhead, we mistakenly thought that we might be able to hitchhike back to Wuling Farm. Again, no luck. But it was a glorious night at the Hoya Resort- showers, unlimited buffet, free wifi, and best of all, no cliffs to climb!
We ended up doing the Holy Ridge in 3 days and 2 nights. As you can see from our mileage, it’s not a terribly long route. Doing the whole route in a day is likely a brutal endeavor, but I think it would be possible to do it in 2 days and 1 night with the proper combination of good (mountain) fitness, rock climbing skill and route planning.