Man of the Mountains

Meet Edgar Chang, Outdoor Lover and Adventurist

TEXT / AMI BARNES
PHOTOS / EDGAR CHANG, VISION

Much ink has been spilled on the subject of Taiwan’s manifold natural delights, yet the trails and peaks here remain largely unknown in the international adventure community. To get a sense of what’s out there, I spoke to Edgar “Alpinist” Chang, an experienced mountaineer who draws on his love of nature to help others enjoy the great outdoors.

Taiwan’s Outdoors

Despite being pretty compact (just 35,808 square kilometers), Taiwan boasts more than 260 summits over 3,000m high, and an impressive range of natural landscapes. Spanning both the tropics and the subtropics, over 50% of the land here is cloaked in vegetation, and it is possible – in under 24 hours – to ascend from the coast up through lush forests dominated by figs and laurels, through several distinct ecosystems, to high alpine environs where only the hardiest of shrubs survive.

Hiking in Taiwan’s Central Mountain Range

This unique terrain is a gift bestowed on the island’s outdoor enthusiasts by its position on the boundary of the Eurasian and Philippine Sea tectonic plates. The natural forces involved in their collision have formed a steep landmass riddled with rugged rivers, streams, and waterfalls, wild hot springs, and soaring cliffs.

For people wishing to immerse themselves in the great outdoors, the options are as diverse as the geography. Long, hot summers lend themselves perfectly to visiting waterways and waterfalls or exploring the beaches and islands, where there is no shortage of activities on offer. The popularity of watersports has surged in recent years, and water lovers can now try their hand at surfing, scuba diving, snorkeling, stand-up paddleboarding, or kayaking. And those who prefer not to get wet can take advantage of the drier, moderate weather in autumn or winter, which is perfect for exploring the hills either on foot or two wheels. Walking and cycling in particular are national pastimes, and as a result there is a seemingly infinite number of hikes to choose from, as well as miles and miles of bikeable roads and dedicated bikeways.

Rock-climbing on the Northeast Coast

Outdoor Expert Edgar “Alpinist” Chang

There are two types of people in this world: the kind who after climbing their first mountain remember the aching muscles and the tiredness, and pledge to find a more sensible hobby, and those born with the kind of faulty memory which cloaks all of those discomforts under a sheen of awe so that even as the stiffness nips at their heels they’re already planning the next adventure.

It doesn’t take long to work out which group Edgar Chang belongs to. “My first baiyue? That was Mount Beidawu, it was beautiful…” – he pauses, a grin spreading across his face – “…and painful!” (Note: The Baiyue isa list of hundred mountain peaks higher than 3,000 meters in Taiwan.)

This formative experience came when Chang joined the mountaineering club as a student at National Pingtung University in southern Taiwan. The way he tells it, it wasn’t too much of a surprise, he was majoring in horticulture (already an outdoorsy subject), and his experiences in the Scouts had long ago sown the seed of his future outdoor passions. After graduation he followed his interests, joining a research team tasked with scouring the remotest regions of Taiwan’s mountain forests for traces of the elusive Formosan clouded leopard: “We saw a black bear, mountain goats, sambar deer, basically every animal you can think of, but no clouded leopard.” (It has since been officially declared extinct, though sightings have been reported in the past few years.) Later, after a brief and failed attempt to assimilate into life as an office worker, he turned once more to the mountains, embarking on a journey to become a professional guide. At the time, Taiwan had no official accreditation system, so Chang picked Canada and the reputable Association of Canadian Mountain Guides for his training.

Mountaineering abroad; Mt. Aka in Japan

After testing his mettle on various international slopes, Chang returned to Taiwan and now draws on his expertise to facilitate outdoor adventures for others. His company, Adventure Taiwan (www.adventuretaiwan.com; Chinese) provides trained leaders for small groups wishing to hike, river trace, rock climb, or canyoneer, in Taiwan and beyond, and also runs courses for individuals who want to become accredited guides themselves. Asked if he ever suffers from the interest fatigue that people can be susceptible to when they make their passion into a career, he says: “No. If I don’t want to hike, then I can go canyoneering. If I’m tired of Taiwan, I can go abroad.”

Waterfall abseiling

His professional life spent in pursuit of helping others fulfill their adventure goals doesn’t stop Edgar from having an overflowing bucket list of his own. Current dreams include completing an ascent of one of the eight-thousanders (an earlier attempt was thwarted by poor weather), the world’s 14 highest peaks, and meeting the requirements necessary for receiving the prestigious Snow Leopard Award.

Recommendations for Experiencing Taiwan’s Outdoors

When it comes to his advice for adventure seekers keen on exploring Taiwan’s wild side, Chang seems almost overwhelmed with the possibilities.

For total novices, he says, the trails in the Taipei area (for example around Four Beasts Mountain and within Yangmingshan National Park) are a safe bet. They’re easily accessed using public transport, tend to be well signposted in English, and offer great views for the effort you put in.

Easy-to-access Mt. Hehuan

Outside of Taipei, non-Mandarin-speaking travelers may struggle a little in terms of communication and understanding signage. But such obstacles can be overcome, and visitors with a modicum of trekking experience could try something like the Jiaming Lake trail in Taitung County, or perhaps challenge their first baiyue. He says Mount Hehuan (Hehuanshan) or Snow Mountain (Xueshan) would be good picks as well. Both can be accessed by public transport, and there are plenty of accommodation options close to the trailheads so that hikers can take a while to acclimatize to the high altitude. (Chang cautions that failing to recognize or act on the early signs of altitude sickness is one of the most common mistakes he sees in the mountains here – Taiwan is so small, that you can go from sea level to over 3,000m high in just a few hours, far too quickly for our bodies to adjust.)

Hiking during perfect weather
Hiking in the snow (photo courtesy of Shei-Pa National Park administration)

Finally, thrill-seekers with a solid mountaineering background might want to look into Nanerduan, a stunning multi-day traverse through Taiwan’s Central Mountain Range that will leave you feeling like you’re on top of the world.

And this is just barely scratching the surface. Chang says that Taiwan’s different seasons each have their own appeal, and whether that’s a refreshing summer dip in a mountain stream or scaling the highest peaks in the wintery snow season, you’ll never be short of something to do.