Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Ropes of Nangang Mountain (南港山)

The four beasts mountains (四獸山) in Taipei are a classic hike for weekenders and those looking to enjoy nature without going too far afield and getting in over their head. With the opening of the red line MRT, weekends now host throngs of families slowly scaling the modest incline up to Elephant Mountain's rock garden and and the much-loved photo zone for the Xinyi business district.

The view from Elephant Mountain's stone garden on a clear day. 

Set just behind the beasts is Nangang shan which is a steeper, taller - and frankly - better and more rugged mountain which attracts far fewer visitors. Hikers who want to take a longer trek can access Nangan mountain via a lengthy set of stairs from behind Elephant mountain which slowly lead up to its summit and then back down around again to the back other side of the four beasts.

Or you can skip the lumbering, jabbering masses along the paved pathways and literally climb Nangang mountain from one of several vantage points. This story recounts climb no. 2 - I think - but there are five possible trails in total. Note that none of the trails are well marked so you'll have to explore a bit or start at the top and work backwards.

Our adventure began at the Houshanpi MRT station and we walked to the Fengtian temple (奉天宮) where we took the stairs to the top of Leopard mountain. We were steeped in a week of hard Chinese New Year eating and drinking and had enjoyed a few beers on the overlook at the top of leopard mountain. A rock paper scissors game ensued to see who would be hauling the empties back down to the temple when an older man, bag in hand and dogs in tow, took the burden off our hands.

The temple was in full swing for the new year.


Wood relief on a column in the temple

Now somewhat influenced by the hike/booze combo we decided to avoid the crowded crush of Elephant mountain, instead making our way towards Nangang mountain along a flat pathway. To get to the pathway you take the stairs on the left side of a single story temple with a large concrete pavillion. It's situated on the road near where the leopard mountain trail lets out as you head towards elephant mountain.

After making the steep hike up stairs the flat trail was thankfully deserted. Just as we spotted our first family with straggling children emerging on the trail ahead and to the right of us we spotted a trail that, while well beaten, was off the main path. We stopped, looked at each other then the trail, and back again at the family. Deciding to see where it went, we launched into what was, given our recent beers, an awesomely memorable (bad) decision.

The trail was muddy and wet, tilting its way upward offering tree roots and rocks for footholds. After about five minutes of walking we stopped to decide if all this was a good idea, and - on a vote of 2 to 1 - we continued towards our ultimate destiny. In a spooky turn of events, there was - I decided - a miniature temple/shrine constructed in a small cave under a massive set of boulders covered with tree roots which supported a gargantuan tree. Unlike the main paths everything was quiet, and as the wind picked up I got a suspicious feeling the figure in the cave was related to a dead person.


We continued on unabated, smacking the trail periodically with sticks to keep snakes away. The mud and overgrown grass slowly gave way to large flat rocks and gravelly conditions. Before long we arrived at a relatively sheer rock face of about thirty feet, with a set of ropes dangling down from the top. It was a lot of fun to scramble up them, but there was a volume of actual pulling to be done on the rope to get to the recessed flat space behind it where the trail continued. There was an awkward moment here when I dropped my water bottle out of my pocket on the climb, and it skidded far enough down the mountain that the lone wolf hiker behind us had to partially dive to save it. 

Looking up the rock face

Blurry, but looking down the rock face at our best climber

We let the lone wolf pass and noticed that he promptly hooked left at a fork in the road where we went straight. The path had become a series of knee to hip height boulders and eroded rises in the trail and we scrambled our way every upwards laughing and enjoy our post-beers-mid-workout euphoria.

Another split in the road prompted us to stop and consider. Straight ahead was a set of holes carved into a sheer rock face which led straight up to what seemed like another set of ropes and more holes in more rocks. To our right and left looked flat, a trail which skirted around the steepest part of the mountain to other access points.

An easy trip up to the final set of turn offs.
Then a middle-aged woman dropped down on us seemingly from nowhere, missing several of the footholds on her way down the rocks above. She landed on her feet, her face a mask of pure terror and foreboding which confusingly quickly led to the same 2 to 1 vote in favor of heading up the area she had just come down. Apparently she had decided to go down a trail looking for the bottom of the mountain and had spent over an hour hanging from some ropes somewhere and thought she had nearly died once or twice when she slipped. We spent a while trying to get her to tell us the basics like "how far to the top" and "where are we, exactly" and were met only with mild hysteria.

A new middle aged man appeared and escorted the woman valiantly to safety, promising his way had no ropes to speak of, and warning us that we were about to embark on "the hardest climb on the mountain". This is about when the third and fourth beer on the overlook began to seem like a suspicious choice.

So up we went, hand over hand, foot over foot, scaling the rock face to another landing. At this point, going one at a time securing hand holds along the slippery rocks and weathered ropes, there was plenty of time for jokes about looking up one another's pants and the inevitable fall that would turn into an avalanche where the leader fell into the second, then the third person. 

The start of the final climb. Hard to see in a picture but nearly straight up.

The final climb, as it turned out, did take us longer than it probably should have because it was built at what must have been an 80%  angle, with several boulders requiring a (admittedly short) suspended hang at an angle which well exceeded the triple digits. While everyone loves a good rock climbing experience and in reality going past 90 degrees is wildly engaging, there wasn't a lot to be said for our safety in the event that we fell. Except of course for whatever would break out fall on the flatter portions of the mountain now hundreds of feet below us.

So up we climbed, finding purchase along mud covered steel rings driven into the rock face and knots in the tangled assortment of ropes. To be entirely fair most of the climb was spent waiting with my neck craned up listening to the jeers of our leader who had gotten to the top nearly effortlessly while waiting for our reluctant group member who still describes that hike as "the time we almost died".

Twice I was hanging on the wall with one hand and one foot, and once I was holding only the ropes in my two hands and my feet were totally off the wall.I did end up going the dumb way around the two boulders near the top and definitely got into the triple digits angle-wise although my grip on the rope and steel ring above managed to hold without issue. Perhaps the scariest part was vaulting the slippery metal guard rail set onto the path to make it to actual safety.

The sign for the top isn't a lot to look at because its next to a giant radio tower.

When I got to the top there was a small gaggle of curious folks looking straight down the mountain off the edge of the path and congratulating us on finishing the climb. I still don't understand why the woman would start DOWN that path, since it looks like an entirely vertical drop that some idiot fixed ropes onto.

View from the top

In either event, we walked the twenty or so feet to the rock jutting out of the concrete pathway and took photos flexing our now adrenaline-soaked muscles with a waning sun in the background. A few families looked on as we took the photo, and then waved goodbye as we made our way down the (very) long path to Elephant mountain. A great outing, awesome climb, and everything went well (namely, safety wise) but I have yet to mount another expedition, instead living vicariously through youtube videos of others mounting the beast while retelling this story over a few drinks.

This felt much cooler than it looks

A post-hike hot pot back at the homestead.

Practically speaking, if you're going to go you shouldn't go when its raining or just rained like we did because the steel rings are impossibly slippery. Don't go up this ascent if you can't climb up a mountain face, because quite honestly, you'll die if you fall and you won't be the first one either. Only later did we find out that people have actually died trying this one.

Make sure you take plenty of water, ideally in a water bottle that is hooked to your pants. It was both unsafe and embarrassing to lose my water on the first rocks. Local guys like to use white utility gloves with a grooved grip surface so they can really get a good grip on the ropes. I'm not sure how good they are on the metal bars, but I've never been one to use them. The ropes aren't soft or new, or entirely that well maintained, so fair warning if you come out of this with rope burn.

The top of Nangang mountain is still a ways off from the nearest public transit, convenience store, hospital, etc, so plan on at least another hour of being on the mountains after you reach the top. 

It's probably good to highlight that doing this after a round of fairly heavy drinking mid-hike was completely stupid. Drinking and driving is dumb, and let's be honest, drinking and hiking is too. Don't drink and hike!

Finally, this path is incredibly beautiful, peaceful, and at least for me a quality physical challenge without actually going into a real danger zone. I felt a rush of positive emotions and connection with my physical presence in nature afterwards that slowly faded into alienation and disgust as I reached the swarms of panting weekenders on the final slope of Elephant mountain. 

Hopefully you have time to hike all five different paths up this mountain. One of the greatest things about Taipei's mountains is there is always something new and magically secluded lurking down that side trail, and in this case, there was real climbing to be done too.

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