How (Not) to Camp in a Typhoon

Matt was visiting Taiwan for only a week and eager to see Long Dong, a rough sandstone precipice perched high above crashing Pacific waves.  Without a doubt, Long Dong offers Taiwan’s best rock climbing and happens to be one Taiwan’s most beautiful spots. During the winds and rains of a typhoon, however, that same ocean side beauty is transformed into a frightening showcase of Mother Nature’s capacity to thrash the land.

It was before one such typhoon that Matt and I departed for our trip. The plan was to spend three nights camped in Second Cave, giving us four days of solid sandstone climbing.

Already we had made our first mistake: Not checking the weather. At the time, who could blame us?  The weather conditions had been ideal the days leading up and the Thursday we left Taipei for the coast, clear skies and gentle breezes awaited us.

After an hour and half ride, we exited the bus and stepped into warm seaside sunshine, the kind that raises your hairs and sends a chill through your body.  Before us, the bright sky hung cloudless over darker waters, delineating a horizon between two blues. We stood for a moment at the top of the trail to breathe in the blues, greens and yellows of the landscape then descended the sixty degree path used by fishermen into Golden Valley.   

That whole first day we had our faces glued to the rock. We climbed until our fingers couldn’t untie a Figure Eight knot and then climbed some more, anxious to take advantage of the long sunny day.

For two days we kept the same schedule. After a breakfast of granola and nuts we would each bag a day’s worth of climbs and, with temperatures rising above ninety degrees, cool down in the chilly August water, efflorescent with pink and green coral. At the end of the day the campsite in Second Cave was always a welcomed site.

Second Cave is more of a tunnel than a cave, really. The main entrance opens to the North East and funnels the ocean gales out the back, a smaller opening set at the top of a dirt hill where I set up my tent. In the heat of the late summer, the wind tunneling effect of the cave is a blessing. Yet, the decision to set up in a wind tunnel would prove disastrous.

***

Around two in the morning, I awoke to my tent bending and swaying in the wind. Under the gusts, the thin canvas flapped and the poles shook with the kind of intensity seen in Everest footage.

By 7:00 am Friday morning, the skies were heavy with fast rolling clouds and outside the cave the waves crashed against the rocks with an echoing boom.  The gales had only grown stronger since the middle of the night. A storm was approaching, a typhoon, forcing the airstream through the North East entrance and out the back. While the gusts outside grew mild from time to time, the inside of the cave experienced an endless stream of wind, warm and heavy with water. In addition to all this, light showers kept the rock moist all morning. There was no chance of us climbing.  We were cave-bound.

We sat around the campfire for four hours Friday morning, unsure whether the approaching typhoon would make landfall or pass over. To kill the time we told travel tales of Thailand, Laos, and China. We showed each other climbing knots and made crack climbing gloves with damp rolls of tape.  Even the tiny, smoky fire was built, not out of necessity, but to stave off boredom. It was only 11:00 am.

Finally, Matt stood up from the misshapen rock he had been sitting on and acted out an exaggerated stretch.  

“I’m going to take off at the next break.”

He made for his corner of the cave and began unclipping his hammock.  

I took a look outside the cave. The thick, grey clouds were moving fast and the water below was creeping closer to the cave with each hurling wave. Letting the flames die, I retired to my tent.

***

The rustle of the tent walls was so loud I never heard Matt walk over.

“You awake?” He asked.

Crawling through the door of the tent I saw him standing ready, white knuckles gripping the straps of his backpack. He had found his window. He didn’t have any rain gear and only an old pair of Chockos to carry him over the wet rocks.

We shook hands and congratulated each other on our individuals climbs the days before. Then he turned into the wind and fell into a sprint. The window looked good. The rain had stopped and the wind blew fainter.

Once out of sight, things seemed to grow even calmer—almost silent—as if the whistle of the wind was merely white noise and the hollow echo of the crashing waves my own breathing. I was alone in the cave. A cave at the bottom of the cliffs. Cliffs facing an ocean that carried a looming typhoon.  

It may seem obvious I should have left along with Matt. Without a climbing partner there is no climbing. Not to mention the risk involved with camping alone during a typhoon. Yet, in the cave neither of those posed as serious dilemmas. I kept to the opinion that the storm would pass. The wind was in fact getting calmer and the rain was hardly torrential. In the event it did pass by Saturday, Long Dong would be full of climbers to partner with.

I just needed on more night to be sure.

***

Matt had left at the best time. Not only did he make the last bus to Taipei, he made it out during the most peaceful time of the storm. The eye.

At 7:00 pm the poles started whipping out off the stakes causing my tent to collapse. Multiple times I got out to secure them but always in vain. The wind was changing direction, blowing through the South entrance of the cave and getting stronger by the minute.

With arms outstretched, I gripped the poles to keep the tent upright, holding it like a huge kite in a hurricane. Letting go even for a second would cause the whole thing to flatten. But how long could I stay like that?

Soon, the rain started coming down in sheets. Flood rain.  I had pitched my tent near the South entrance at the bottom of the hill and despite a trench I had dug at the bottom of the hill, water was starting to trickle under my tent. Clinging to the tent with extended arms, I now found myself in a flash flood scenario. And it was getting dark.

Without thinking, I let the tent flatten and crawled into what was essentially a bag. In the wind, the canvas wrapped around my body and the contorted tent poles began snapping.

Rope, quickdraws, harness, food. The cold wet canvas of the tent pressed against my face so that even with the headlamp I had to pack everything blind.

Amid the gusts of wind and torrents of rain, I took a long pause to settle myself. There was still a greater obstacle ahead. Getting out.

The path to the left, the usual exit, was completely flooded and exposed to fifteen foot swells colliding with the sandstone walls. To the right though, over the 100 meter boulder field, there was the dangerously inclined footpath where we entered. Sixty meters up the path would put me on the trail atop the cliffs and lead me to the road. It was my only option.

With all my gear thrown haphazardly together, I strapped on my sandals and draped a heavy flannel over my shoulders. I had no raingear.

I was cautious and took my time trekking over the boulder field. It continued to downpour and my headlamp did little to illuminate my path in the dark rainfall. My rope and the rest of the gear weighed me down enormously, making climbing over the wet boulders a daunting task. Normally a ten minute hike, that night it took thirty minutes to get to the Golden Valley entrance.

When I finally found the footpath, I was not surprised to see a tiny raging river. I wasted no time and began the ascent. Without any anchored ropes, I had to crawl on hands and knees uphill against the hours-old stream, constantly getting stuck in quagmires and knocked down by the wind. But I leaned forward and kept going. I could not afford to rest and stand still, though. It was getting cold in the rain and I still had a short hike to find the road.

When I got to the top, above all the cliffs, I looked down at the rocky shore where I had just been. The waves were swelling further and further inland. The sound of their crashing echoed off the cliffs like a sonic boom. All the while, wind blew so strong I imagined the cliffs would crumble.     

It was near 9:00 pm, long after the last bus to Taipei, so I walked to Route 2 and stuck my thumb out. In twenty minutes I saw only two cars.  The first did not bother to turn off the high beams. The second was a police cruiser.

***

Inside the Yilan County Police Headquarters a Taiwanese game show played from an old television set. I watched comfortably from a sofa in the center of the room, wearing a dry T-shirt one of the officers gave me. It said “2012 Torch Run.” I still own it.   

Urging me to remain seated, the officer who had picked me up brought over an instant rice meal with a cold apple cider. He asked what I was doing there, where I was from, my name and then what it meant. I answered all as best I could and then told him my name.  

“It means ‘defender of man’ I think. And what’s yours?”

“Officer Ān,” he replied. “It means ‘safe.’”

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