People like to talk about Taiwan’s 100 peaks (百岳), a shorthand reference to the quite considerable number of mountains along Taiwan’s Central Mountain Range that exceed 3,000m in height. The 100 peaks, and the many mountain trails in the high places of the Central Mountain Range, are popular with Taiwan’s mountain climbing fraternity, but despite the wide appreciation of their scenic beauty, the physical demands of exploring these peaks mean only a very small minority of Taiwanese have ever experienced these mountains in person.
This is something that Lin Cheng-han (林政翰), a long-time mountaineer and founder of Miasan Outdoor Center (米亞桑戶外中心), wants to change. His aim is not simply to get people up into the mountains, but also to develop their understanding of a unique mountain environment. In the past, the high mountains were the preserve of Taiwan’s many trekking associations, ad hoc gatherings composed mostly of students and hearty retirees, who often, though far from exclusively, saw climbing as a test of stamina. In recent years, there has been a burgeoning growth in more commercial climbing groups in which trekking companies cater to the demands of tourists by providing convenience and comfort, but which also lack commitment to educating the public about Taiwan’s mountain environment.
Slightly over a decade ago, my own experience as a novice climber was one of bewilderment and occasional fear. Pre-trek meetings were usually half-hour briefings about the route, which to someone without map reading skills were completely incomprehensible, the handing out of a list of essential equipment that I should procure, and encouraging remarks about not worrying too much as all would be fine.
This is how I found myself in running shoes, inadequate thermals, a superannuated backpack and a woeful state of physical fitness preparing to make a four-day assent of Nanhu Mountain (南湖大山) with nearly 30 others, uncertain what I had got myself into. My climbing companions were friendly and often sympathetic, but this did not altogether compensate for my lack of knowledge and proper preparation. It was not a situation that I would have wished on anyone I greatly cared for.
While the large loose groups of the trekking associations which provided my own introduction to climbing in Taiwan are still a major presence on the mountain, there are those in the mountain climbing community who are eager to change Taiwan’s climbing culture.
For Lin, the way to do this is through a mixture of old knowledge and new technology. Miasan, with its mix of educational and social center, is designed to cater to people interested in not just conquering Taiwan’s 100 peaks, but in actually getting to know the mountains. For this reason, Lin is a strong proponent not just of climbing mountains, but learning about them and the skills required to survive outdoors.
“Without these skills you are never on equal terms with the mountain,” he said. “You can’t really know the mountains if you can’t survive there.”
Lin, a former rock climber competing at the national level who has also taken part in research projects on the Formosan Black Bear and Clouded Leopard, said that a seminal experience for him in appreciating and learning about Taiwan’s mountains was the long periods of time he spent working closely with Taiwan’s Aboriginal people.