23.6978° N, 120.9605° E

Gusts of snow are blasting me in the face. I’m at end of a line of trekkers zigzagging our way up the final 50 meters to the peak of aptly-named Snow Mountain. The only thing I can see through squinting eyes besides snow in every direction is the back of the person in front of me. We move at snail’s pace. Every step I take, I have to lift my crampon-clad boot purposefully up out of the snow, then stomp it down in front of me. I breathe deeply after every step, keeping the mild, altitude-induced throbbing in my head at bay. Every muscle in my body is fatigued. I feel like an injured soldier, weighted down by gear, stumbling drunkenly and ever-so slowly, but determinedly, toward a safety tent. I remind myself that I chose to do this. I wanted it.

At that point, I hadn’t seen a flake of snow in my five years of living in Taiwan. Growing up in the Canadian prairies, we deal with snow for well over half the year. We drive our cars through blizzards to work at -35°C. Zero degrees? We’re dining on patios in T-shirts, drinking beer, celebrating the warm weather.

Almost everyone I grew up with claims to hate the snow and winter. It’s just too long and too cold. Personally, I never claimed to hate it, nor did I love it. I just lived with it.

I didn’t realize how much cold weather and snow are a fundamental part of who I am until I moved to Taiwan.

Taiwan is an island nation off the southeast coast of China. It’s the size of Vancouver Island, but with approximately 30 times the population. At the meeting point of tectonic plates, it’s the most mountainous island in the world, with soaring peaks that rival those of the Canadian Rockies.

It’s also hot as hell in Taiwan. With the Tropic of Cancer bisecting the country, it’s subtropical in the north and tropical in the south. Summer (and for me, spring, and fall, and sometimes even winter) are overbearingly hot and humid, pretty much the opposite of where I lived in Canada.

There’s no respite from the heat in Taiwan. Even at night, it barely cools down, because the moisture in the air retains heat. My apartment had an air conditioner in almost every room, but it still wasn’t enough to sleep well at night. And using it too much made it even harder to step outside.

Although many of my expat friends from various corners of the world reveled in the heat, the novelty of “feeling like you’re on a tropical holiday all the time” wore off for me after year 1 or 2 of living there.

Going to work to teach little kids, I had to bring an extra shirt to change into when I arrived at school, because the first one would inevitably be drenched in sweat by the time I got there. As the years passed in Taiwan (I made it to 11 years in Taiwan, got married, had kids, and ultimately moved back to Canada), I thought it would get easier as my body became more and more adjusted to the climate.

But exactly the opposite actually happened. With each year that passed, I struggled more and more with the heat, even after I had transitioned to a stay-at-home editor, blogger, and Dad. I fantasized about skiing all the time. I took my holidays to Japan and South Korea in the coldest months of the year to breathe their crisp, cool air.

In Taipei’s winter, which sometimes (although rarely) drops below 10°C (yes, that’s a +10), the locals dress like they are going on Arctic expeditions. And then there’s me, the one wearing the shorts and T-shirt.

It actually does snow once in a blue moon in Taiwan. In the winter of 2016, and again in 2019, for the first time in a many years, snow fell in various parts of Northern Taiwan, even on some mountain slopes on the outskirts of Taipei City. Having never seen snow before, excited locals raced in their cars up mountains roads to see the snow, throw snowballs, and drive back to the city with little snowmen on the hoods of their cars, watching them melt as they drove into the city. It was big news.

Some mountain peaks in Taiwan, like Snow Mountain, Taipingshan, and Hehuanshan, get snow almost every year. Hehuanshan can get so much that there even used to be a little ski resort up there.

When I saw scrolled past an ad for a guided trek to the summit of Snow Mountain in February, I instantly signed up. February is typically the coldest month of the year in Taiwan, and seeing snow up there was almost guaranteed. I had to do this.

The trek was operated by Taiwan Adventures, a dedicated crew of four mountaineering expats who organize regular high mountain expeditions throughout Taiwan’s Central Mountain Range. The four of them personally picked up our group of a dozen or so trekkers, mostly English teachers, in Taipei after work on a Friday evening.

In three hours, we were standing in the dark with our packs on at Wuling Farm, a resort town in Taichung where locals go to escape from the heat or see cherry blossoms in early spring. Snow Mountain loomed invisibly before us.

The name Snow Mountain is a direct translation of its Mandarin name, Xueshan (雪山). Less commonly, it goes by Mount Sylvia in English. At 3886m, it is Taiwan’s second tallest peak, surpasses only by Yushan (玉山, or “Jade Mountain”). They are the tallest two peaks in East Asia, with Snow Mountain beating out Mt. Fuji by a mere hundred meters.

I had actually hiked Yushan a few years earlier, the first time I’d ever summited a high mountain peak, except that time had been in summer. Like Yushan, Snow Mountain is not a particularly difficult mountain to summit. Anyone in reasonable shape can do it, and there were even some older kids on my Yushan trek.

Snow Mountain is still a serious hike, especially when there’s snow at the summit. As someone who normally sticks to leisurely hikes in the 2-3 hour range, I did train for weeks for this one, and the did still tested my limits.

Like most, we did Snow Mountain in two nights. On night one, we hiked a mere 2km to Chika Hut (2463m), where we tucked in to bed. Inside, we joined the ranks of dozens of local trekkers sporting headlamps, arranging (and rearranging) items individually wrapped in crunchy plastic bags well into the night and again starting from the very early morning. It wasn’t a great sleep, to say the least.

The next morning, we set off for 369 Hut (3100m). It was a pleasant, steadily uphill trek through subalpine forests, including a summit of the mountain’s east peak. Still no sign of snow, however.

If my first night of sleep was bad, it was non-existent on the second. Probably the pressure of knowing we’d have to wake at 2 a.m. for the final push to the summit prevented my brain from turning off. The hard wooden bunks we were crammed upon, with hardly a foot of space between each of us, didn’t help, either.

Around wake up time, though, a whispered rumor of snowfall was spreading through the room. 下雪了!, “Snow has fallen!” people were saying.

We rose, dressed, ate a hot breakfast, and congregated with our guides outside. We were pack-free and are spirits were high. Our group departed last, but soon overtook others as we began the slow but steady climb. We trekked through the stunning Black Forest, which we wouldn’t actually see until we later descend the mountain in daylight.

Eventually we reached a clearing where we stopped to put on crampons for the final steep ascent of the rocky summit. Also on cue, the snow started falling, only increasing in intensity as we pressed on.

If snow was what I wanted out of this hike, I sure got it. It DUMPED on us. Standing on the peak, we couldn’t see more than 10 meters in any direction. The only sign that we were on a mountain peak was literally a sign – the summit sign. I took my gloves off long enough to snap a few pictures for my companions, and quickly put them back one once I realizes how quickly they were freezing. Time to start the descent!

The snow itself is what made my Snow Mountain hike. It dressed the slope’s windblown vegetation in a dusting of white, creating a surreal landscape. The Black Forest was also wearing white, another out-of-this world scene of dark and light contrasts. The hanging icicles we passed on the way down were equally mesmerizing.

Passing by Hut 369 on the descent, the mood among locals taking a break there was celebratory. Miniature snowmen stood on the picnic tables outside, while adult trekkers frolicked in the snow like children and threw snowballs at their trek mates. It was a scene I’d never imagined laying eyes upon while traveling in Taiwan.

For the remainder of the day on the trail, passersby said 加油, the usually words of encouragement trekkers in Taiwan always say to one another, but their smiles that day were even larger than usual.


Nick Kembel