Transcendence at the Summit of Pintianshan

This is the summit of Pintianshan, with the south side of Dabajianshan in the background. Most people see only the north side of Dabajianshan (which is also the face shown in most photos of Dabajianshan), so seeing the south side of Dabajianshan felt special to me.

I recently read A Wild Faith: Jewish Ways into Wilderness, Wilderness Ways into Judaism by Rabbi Mike Comins. In chapter four, “Finding God in Nature”, he says:

It’s so difficult to talk about the who and what of God. Often the same words mean different things to different people, and our conversations get bogged down in contradictions and misunderstandings. But when I say that I have “God-moments” in wilderness, people know exactly what I mean.

I’m an atheist, and I knew exactly what he meant, even though I would not use the word ‘God’ to describe it.

Specifically, what came to mind when I read that was my memory of being at the summit of Pintianshan in Taiwan. It’s called ‘Pintianshan’ because the boxy shapes of the rocks look like the Chinese characters 品 (pǐn​) and 田 (tián​).

Here is a picture of Pintianshan. Imagine trying to hike to the top (hint, even the safest approach requires scrambling up/down nearly vertical rock right over a very long drop).

Pintianshan is, without a doubt, the most difficult mountain I have ever successfully summited. I have met hikers who are much more experienced than I am who, when they saw what they would have to do to reach the summit, decided to turn around and give up. I almost gave up too. It’s dangerous and scary (I did not take a photo of the scary part because I did not want my parents to see how scary it was). And of course, once I pressed on to the summit, I committed myself to going through the scary section a second time during the return hike.

But it was worth it! The view from the summit of Pintianshan is one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen in my life. Pintianshan is right in the middle of the ‘Holy Ridge’ (聖陵線), which was named by a Japanese mountaineer who was completely convinced that he was in a sacred place. The indigenous people also believe that these mountains are sacred – Dabajianshan is possibly the most sacred of all mountains in traditional Atayal culture. Furthermore, one section of the Holy Ridge is known as ‘the four beauties of Wuling’ (武陵四秀). Pintianshan is one of those four beauties (the other three beauties are Chiyoushan, Taoshan, and Kelayeshan).

One of the things I thought to myself while I was at the summit of Pintianshan was ‘I can die now because I have seen this.’ This was not a suicidal thought – I had no intention of dying. Instead, I felt that there was no such thing as intention. I was so overwhelmed with the magnificence of the world that I felt myself completely submit to it, including submission to my inevitable death.

Snow Mountain, as seen from the summit of Pintianshan. Yes, Taiwan, a tropical island, has a place called ‘Snow Mountain’ (it snows on Pintianshan in winter too). Snow Mountain is the highest point of the Holy Ridge, and the second highest mountain in all of Taiwan. It is higher than Mt. Fuji in Japan.

Looking back, I think the scary experience of reaching the summit of Pintianshan put me in an emotional state which made me especially receptive to being awestruck by the beauty of the landscape. As Rabbi Mike Comins says in A Wild Faith:

Statistically, I am much more likely to die from a car accident than a grizzly attack, but I’m constantly aware of potential hazards when I’m far from a hospital. Outside the human comfort zone called civilization, I am less prone to falling into routine. The risks prod me to greater awareness.

In the city, I employ a different strategy. I avoid anxiety by “forgetting” what I know about accidents. When I drive, I’m rarely thinking about driving. Neither wilderness nor the freeways are forgiving, but in the city, I deceive myself and act otherwise.

In nature, the awareness of mortality is constant. Unlike the sanitized world of the supermarket, birth and death are encountered together in the natural world. Yet most of us see beauty, not terror.

By the way, the #1 cause of death on the Pacific Crest trail is being hit by a motor vehicle while crossing a road. There is no recorded instance of a human being killed by a bear on the Pacific Crest Trail. This implies that motor vehicles are actually much more dangerous than bears.

Nanhudashan and Zhongyangjinashan, as seen from the summit of Pintianshan. Some people say that Nanhudashan is the most beautiful mountain in Taiwan, but sadly I’ve never gotten close to it.

Hopefully, at the time this post is being published, I am hiking through Washington on the PCT and all is going well with me. I’m not expecting experiences like I had on Pintianshan on this backpacking trip because I think it would be a self-defeating prophecy. But I’m sure I’m having other kinds of interesting experiences.

Why Am I Hiking through Washington?

Hopefully, by the time this post is published, I am already hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail through Washington. I can not be 100% certain that is the case, because shit happens, and I scheduled this post way in advance.

Anyway, why am I doing this?

It’s not for the beautiful scenery – if I just want to see beautiful scenery, there are much easier ways I could do that (though the scenery is a lovely bonus). Ditto for the exercise.

Well, first of all, I’m curious. I am curious what it’s like to go backpacking for more than a month. I’m curious about the state of Washington, which I’ve never visited before. That’s one of the reasons this stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail appeals to me more than the Sierras – even though I’ve never gone hiking in the Sierras, I have in fact been in the Sierra mountains when I was a little kid (and I passed through the Sierras by train last winter). I am curious about what the Pacific Northwest is like (yes, I’ve been to Oregon, but I never went north of Eugene before – I’ve mostly been to southern Oregon, which is more like California than the Pacific Northwest in terms of climate).

I also think the idea of crossing all of Washington without visiting any cities is also really cool (I’ll have to pass through Seattle on the way back home since I will only be allowed to re-enter the United States by land or sea, but at least during my first visit to Washington, I won’t ever go to a town with more than 600 residents – assuming everything goes according to plan).

It’s also been years since I’ve been in a real alpine climate (except in a train). I look forward to being in an alpine climate again.

I’m also drawn to the people and culture of the Pacific Crest Trail. I want to visit the trail towns.

However, there is more. As people who follow my blog may have noticed, I am drawn to the idea of pilgrimage. ‘Pilgrimage’ is associated with religion, but in my reading about the Shikoku henro pilgrimage, I’ve learned that even ‘religious’ pilgrimages can have many secular elements, and many pilgrims are drawn to the pilgrimage for non-religious reasons. A journey like this, when one withdraws from one’s familiar environment to plunge into a completely different environment, can foster a heightened experience which can be used for personal development. I definitely am planning to try this with some meditative exercises.

Part of me does not like withdrawing from my day-to-day life at all (in fact, one of the reasons I think I will never do a thru-hike of the PCT or other 1000+ mile / 1500+ km trail is that I do not want to withdraw for such a long period of time). But less than two months? I think I can do that. And while I don’t want to withdraw, I also like some of the benefits. For example, my internet access will be EXTREMELY limited while I’m hiking, and I look forward to that. While the internet has brought many good things into my life, I think occasionally disengaging from the internet is good for my mental well-being.

I also hope that this trek will make me more resilient. Not so much physically – I think any physical benefits will go away shortly after I end the trek – but maybe I will pick up a few useful skills and, more importantly, I hope to develop non-physical forms of resilience.

And, if I am going to be completely honest, I am resisting the aging process. Yes, I know I am still less than 30 years old, and yes, I know that many older people go hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail, and I know that I’m not being graceful about the aging process. I reaching my physical youthful peak when I was in Taiwan, and I know I will never completely return to that state. But I don’t want to quietly submit to the process of physical aging. I want to go on this trek to remind myself that, even if I am no longer at the peak of my physical youth, I still have a lot of my youthful vigor, and I’m going to use it damn it!

Oh, and I’ll reach Canada. Hopefully – shit could happen to stop me from reaching that destination. Sadly, even if I reach Canada, I probably will only stay there for a week, but hey, I’ve never been to Canada before, and staying in Canada for a week is better than never going to Canada ever, right?

Hiking without Blisters Is Amazing – and Maybe This Is What I Did Right

One of the most common things which can ruin a hike is getting blisters on the feet. In the past, I’ve generally gotten blisters by my third day of a multi-day hike. But during my hike in San Diego, I went hiking for eight days in a row (even during my ‘rest’ day I did a couple of hours of hiking) without getting any blisters. Which was amazing. And many of the other hikers were getting blisters, some of them terrible blisters, so clearly it was the kind of hike which could promote blisters.

I cannot be 100% certain why I managed to avoid blisters during this recent hike when I’ve had blister problems before and other hikers were getting blisters. But I think there are three things which I had never used before which made the difference.

1) Trail runners

Trail-runners are a type of shoe which are designed for long-distance hiking which are lighter and dry quicker than hiking shoes/boots at the cost of offering less protection and durability. I had never used trail runners before because, well, trail-runners are freaking expensive. However, I went ahead and used Brooks Cascadia 11 GTX – and now I’m sold that trail runners really are the right kind of shoe for a Pacific Crest Trail hike (though, obviously, not the right kind of shoe for every kind of hike). I think switching from hiking shoes to trail runners made it a lot easier to avoid blisters (and the fact that they dry quickly was helpful when I had to ford a creek).

Now, a lot of people have complained that the toe box of the Brooks Cascadia 11 tends to cut into the toes and cause blisters. The thing is, it is so hard for me to find a shoe which fits my feet that I’ve spent my whole life making compromises when it comes to shoes, so if the worst thing about a shoe is that it has a toe box which cuts into my toes, that seems acceptable, especially since I did not get blisters on my toes after all. And I think I did not get blisters on my toes in spite of this flaw in the Brooks Cascadia 11 is…

2) Leukotape

As soon as I figured out that the toe box of the shoes was causing hot spots on my toes (hot spots precede blisters) I slapped Leukotape on my toes. This was the first hike where I ever used Leukotape, and given that I did not get blisters on my toes, I suspect it really works. It’s comfortable enough that I do not feel it on my feet when I’m hiking, and it does last a few days. It’s certainly better than the sports tape I had used before.

And finally…

3) Gaiters

Last year, when I was hiking through the Russian Wilderness and Trinity Alps Wilderness, my feet, shoes, and socks got incredibly dirty. My feet were washable, but I was never able to get those socks or the insides of those shoes completely clean again. I decided I did not want that to have that happen again, so I decided to buy some light gaiters.

The gaiters definitely work. My feet, socks, and the insides of my shoes came out of the 101 mile hike remarkably clean. While I do not think my most recent hike was quite as dusty as the Russian Wilderness, I am fairly certain that it would have been much harder to keep my feet/socks clean without the gaiters – especially since the gaiters themselves got pretty dirty.

What does this have to do with blisters? Well, during my hike, someone told me that one reason why people get such awful blisters on this particular trail is that there is lots of fine sand which easily gets into shoes/socks and irritates the skin of the feet, promoting blisters. I did not get the gaiters for blister prevention, but maybe they also helped prevent blisters.

This seems to work for me. I do not know if it will work for you, but if you are concerned about getting blisters during a hike, especially on the Pacific Crest Trail or a similar trail, these may be things to consider.

SPECIAL UPDATE: During my 2-day hike from Samuel P. Taylor Park to my home in San Francisco, I did wear trail runners, but I did not wear gaiters or bring Leukotape. Not bringing the gaiters was a mistake. I did, in fact, develop blisters on the first day, though the blisters did not cause any pain (which was weird, but painless blisters are way better than painful blisters). This implies that trail runners are not enough to prevent blisters, and that gaiters and Leukotape also play an important role.

My Upcoming 500 Mile Trek

At the end of my 101 mile (~ 160 km) trek on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), I was in high spirits. In fact, I felt like I could have gone on hiking some more. Now, I did not do continue hiking for various practical reasons, but it gave me the confidence to attempt an even longer backpacking trip. Thus, I soon plan to attempt a 500 mile (~ 800 km) backpacking trip on the PCT. 500 miles is only five times longer than 100 miles, after all.

In some ways, my upcoming trip will be easier. Specifically, there will be a lot more water sources, there will be a lot more shade, and most of the time the midday temperatures will be lower than the midday temperatures during my San Diego backpacking trip. Also, the days will be longer, which means more daytime hours for hiking.

But in most ways, my upcoming trip will be harder. First of all, there will be a LOT more rain. I am guaranteed to encounter at least a little snow (at one point, the Pacific Crest Trail crosses a glacier), and though I am going during a season when there will be no snowstorms, lightning storms are still a real and frightening possibility. Also, there will be mosquitoes. There will also be bears, which are not much of a danger, but does mean I will have to be more careful about food storage than in San Diego (in other words, I will be taking my bear can – yes, it’s heavy and bulky, but it’s the only food storage method which does not require me to be clear-headed when I set up camp – and ursacks don’t give me peace of mind). Since I got started as a hiker in Taiwan, I know something about hiking through rain, mosquitoes, and bear country (yes, there are wild bears in Taiwan) but having to deal with those conditions for multiple days in a row while sleeping in a tent will take the challenge to a significantly higher level. The trail will also be steeper, with more ascents and descents.

However, I predict that the greatest challenge will not be physical, but psychological. One of the things which kept my spirits high during my San Diego trek was that I was running into dozens of people on the trail. That is probably not going to happen during my upcoming trip. I will be going with the traffic instead of counter traffic (going with traffic means fewer encounters with people), and there will be fewer people in general regardless of the direction of traffic. I will probably have to spend many nights camping alone, and it is conceivable that I might spend days without seeing another human being.

I recently read The High Adventure of Eric Ryback, an account of what was supposedly the first PCT thru-hike in history. He had to hike through much more demanding physical/weather conditions than what I expect, and he was carrying about 80 lb (~ 36 kg) of supplies, yet for him, the loneliness was still the most difficult challenge. He speaks of ‘hunting’ people because he was desperate for companionship, and sometimes he hiked an extra 10+ miles just so he would not be alone at night.

One of my favorite passages from the books is:

I had had enough of nature’s cruel temperament and endless and destructive rites of initiation into her realm. I didn’t care to be alone with her, to retreat from humanity and civilization. I was on the side of people now – the many nice, intriguing people I had met along the trail. I had been disappointed in and frustrated with people from the many bad experiences I had had in high school and even before. I had cared only for my family and thought that only my family cared for me. I knew better now. Humanity was too kind and caring to give up on, and nature was too cold and brutal and fickle to endure as my only friend. I had gone in search of nature but instead discovered something I had never known before – strangers who cared and for whom I cared.

I am fairly certain I will encounter more people than Eric Ryback, but it will still be hard to deal with being alone with nature.

At this point, you may be wondering just which part of the PCT I intend to hike. First, I intend to hike about 70 miles (~ 110 km) from Seiad Valley, California, to Ashland, Oregon, which will take me over the California/Oregon border. That’s just the warm up hike. After that, I will hike from Cascade Locks, Oregon to Manning Park, British Columbia. Yes, I intend to cross the U.S./Canada border, which will be especially exciting since I’ve never been to Canada before.

I will have to stop at various cities/towns/ski resorts for transfer or resupply. Except for the towns in California and Ashland, Oregon, these are all places I have never, ever visited. If anyone is interested in meeting me in any of these places, you may drop a comment, and we’ll see if it will work out. Here is the list of places I intend to stop, in the order I intend to stop there:

Dunsmuir, California (transfer)
Yreka, California (transfer)
Seiad Valley, California (trailhead)
Ashland, Oregon (trailhead)
Portland, Oregon (transfer/resupply)
Cascade Locks, Oregon (trailhead)
Trout Lake, Washington (resupply)
White Pass, Washington (resupply)
Snoqualmie Pass, Washington (resupply)
Steven’s Pass, Washington (resupply)
Stehekin, Washington (resupply)
Manning Park, British Columbia (trailhead)
Vancouver, British Columbia (transfer)
Seattle, Washington (transfer)

I’m excited and nervous about this. It will probably be both awesome and awful. I will try my best to (em)brace the awful.

Being Terrified by the Unfamiliar

I have never felt classic culture shock – the type which goes in stages such as ‘honeymoon period’ ‘frustration’ ‘acceptance’ etc. (some models of culture shock have four stages, some have five, but they tend to be similar). The closest I came was when I lived in Mountain View, and I’ve even told a lot of people that that is when I felt classic culture shock, but now I think … if so, it was a really mild case of culture shock. I think at this point, I had been trying to fit my experiences in Mountain View into the culture shock model just to find any way to relate to the idea of multi-stage culture shock.

I recall, about six months after I moved to Taiwan, I was talking with another American, and she said ‘oh, you haven’t felt culture shock yet, but you will, it will hit you.’

In the three years I was in Taiwan, I never experienced anything like the four-stage or five-stage models of culture shock.

I recently read Pacific Crest Trials by Zach Davis and Carly Moree, which talks about how to psychologically prepare for long distance thru hikes (i.e. hiking over 3000 km on foot). Though it does not explicitly link the mindset of thru hikers to the culture shock models, it seems to be describing something pretty similar. They even use the term ‘honeymoon period’. And it makes sense that adjusting to life on a thru-hike would be like adjusting to life in a completely different culture. That is, first of all, it is a different culture (hiker culture is very distinct), but also, even though most people who do thru-hikes in the United States grew up in the United States, and some people do them in their states of residence/origin, life on the trail is really different from life at home, even if one’s home just happens to be a trail town (a trail town is a town near one of the trails frequented by thru-hikers – for example, Big Bear City in California is a ‘trail town’).

An example of how life is different is, even though most hikers carry watches, people generally do not live by the clock when they are on trail (unless they have to go into town and be there when a post office is open or something). Water is generally only available once every few miles (or less – one might sometimes travel 20+ miles between water sources, depending on which trail and under what circumstances). Food – well, a little foraging is sometimes possible, but generally food is only available in towns. I could keep going, but I think you get it by now that life in trail!United-States is different from life in most of the United States.

Anyway, so if I don’t go through classic culture shock, what do I experience?

I remember, when I was a girl, I dropped something on a sidewalk near my home. I wanted to go back and fetch it. My parents told me to go by myself to fetch it. I had never walked outside without adult supervision before. I was astonished that my parents thought it was okay for me to go outside by myself. Yes, it was my neighborhood, so the odds of me becoming lost were practically zero, and though people occasionally get murdered when they are outside in my neighborhood (in fact, IIRC, there had been a murder on the very street where I went to retrieve whatever I had dropped), the odds of myself becoming the victim of a violent crime were really low. But since I had never done it before – I had it ingrained in my habits (at that age) that I do not go outside without an adult – I was really nervous and terrified.

Nowadays, if you suggested that it would be a bad idea for me to go outside on my own without the supervision of my elders, I would be baffled. I’m a freaking adult right now, I don’t need to be escorted just to walk around my own neighborhood.

That is the pattern I experience. When I am thrust into an environment that is too unfamiliar – especially if I am alone – I experience terror.

I experienced the terror in Taiwan – twice, once when I first arrived in Taiwan, and the second time, when I moved to Taoyuan City. I liked the idea of moving to Taiwan when it was far in the future, but when it became imminent – and then it happened – I was frightened. It was the first time I had ever been outside of the United States by myself, and I had no return ticket. What made me stick with it – both staying in Taiwan and staying in Taoyuan – was that those decisions were difficult to reverse. That made me tough it out until the terror passed and I had adapted.

By contrast, when I hiked up Ishizuchi in Japan years later, I had read about how scary the ascent to the highest peak is (in fact, most hikers do not go to the highest point because it is so scary). When I got there I found … much of the path is a slanted uneven rocky scramble, with a sharp drop of hundreds of feet on one side – and it did not look that scary to me. I had done so many hikes with similar (or more extreme conditions) in Taiwan, that the final scramble of Ishizuchi felt familiar – it even gave me a sense of nostalgia. In short, I was not scared of that slope because it felt familiar to me.

This is me in Taiwan (yes, I am the person in this photo). Specifically, this is me at Wuliaojian.

Last year, I went on three section hikes along the Pacific Crest Trail. On none of those trips did I complete my planned itinerary.

One time, my choice to quit was very sensible – there was a heat wave (temperatures over 90℉ / 33℃), and the next section of the trail was steep, uphill, exposed to the south (i.e. very little shade), and all of the water sources for the next 14 miles were dry. I have ZERO regret about quitting at that point. I still want to hike that section, but I want to do it when it’s cooler and the water sources are actually sources of water. Besides, I had already hiked over fifty miles during that trip.

But the other two times? It wasn’t due to trail conditions, it was because I was not prepared for the psychological shock. I’ve read a lot of hikers can get through the beginning of the hikes on the ‘honeymoon’ euphoira and the psychological shock hits them later, whereas for me, it seems the shock is front-loaded.

I do not like admitting this publicly on my blog, because it runs counter to how I see myself – or rather, how I wish I were. I like thinking of myself as intrepid. These experiences do not give me the self-image I want.

Well, when something is hard to do, and you want to get better at it, it’s sometimes a good idea to TRY AGAIN. And that’s what I’m doing this week. I’m going to attempt another section of the Pacific Crest Trail. Specifically, I plan to hike from Barrel Spring (it’s literally just a spring near a road – it’s four miles away from the nearest town) to the border with Mexico.

It will be a backpacking trip unlike anything I’ve tried before. I’ve never hiked through a desert before, so yes, I will carry a lot of water, but at least the slopes are fairly gentle in this section, and because I will go south, I will hike uphill on the northern (cooler) slopes. Also, I’ve never had to deal with temperature swings of 25-90℉ (-4-33℃) within 24 hours while sleeping outdoors, so that will be interesting. I look forward to the novelty and challenge, while I am also aware that I might not like it at all.

For some reason, I am fixated on the danger of rattlesnakes. This is bizarre because Taiwan has snakes which are deadlier than rattlesnakes (most rattlesnake bites will not kill an adult human, even without treatment – Taiwan has snakes whose bite kills any human who does not get timely treatment), and the Taiwanese venomous snakes do not even warn you of their presence with a rattle, and yet I was never scared of them. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t raised in a culture which fears ‘hundred-pacers’, whereas I was raised in a culture which fears rattlesnakes. Rattlesnake bite is far from the most common reason why hikers need medical evacuation in this section (the most common reason is dehydration – which, thankfully, is preventable with good planning), but it’s still what has grabbed my imagination. Oh well, hopefully my paranoia will at least make my odds of being bit by a rattlesnake even lower (and yes, I have a plan for what to do if I do get bitten by a rattlesnake). What I’ve read is that many hikers freak out when they first see a rattlesnake, but after the third or fourth time they encounter a rattlesnake, it’s much less terrifying.

So, why am I doing this hike if I expect it to be uncomfortable, and suspect I may hate it? First of all, there are my ego issues (described above), but if that was all there was to it, I would stop myself because there are easier ways to address ego issue. I am also really curious what it is like to hike in a desert, and even if I never do it again, I want to know what it feels like. Furthermore, I am fascinated by hiker psychology, and while one can learn about hiker psychology just by reading books, it’s not the same as first-hand experience (in particular, a book cannot tell me how *I* will react in certain conditions). I also hope that, maybe, just maybe, I’ll gain a little mental resilience which I may need later in life. Finally, I enjoy hanging out with the type of people who hike the Pacific Crest Trail, and the best place to find them is, obviously, the Pacific Crest Trail.

Why am I posting all of this on my blog. Remember how I mentioned the book Pacific Crest Trials, about how to psychologically cope with the trail? One of their recommended techniques is to tell everyone, and to announce your hike on your website, so that peer pressure will help you get through the tough parts. I’m trying this technique right now. I’ll see if implicit peer pressure will help me deal with the psychological shock better than before. But I’m not sure it will work, since most people I know think that hiking a hundred miles through desert mountains is so far out there that they aren’t going to think less of me if I do not complete the hundred miles – even my parents, who are calmer about this and find it less impressive than anyone else I know, wouldn’t hold it against me.