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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The new MRT line to Elephant Mountain is open. Took my cheesy camera phone with me hoping for some good views. 

I visited YangMingShan last weekend but in all honesty I’d considered the trip a failure. I hiked three tails that weekend, none of which lived up to the expectations the maps and guides gave me. Plus, I missed out at hiking Qixing, the tallest mountain in the Taipei area. 

So this weekend I went back to trail run the Qixing trail, a roughly 5 kilometer up and down trail, blessed with spectacular views of the city and even the distant north coast. But cursed with way too many steps.

I brought along with me only my camera phone in hopes of good views.

The rain held off but unfortunately humidity made for poor visibility.

Taipei is a city of beautiful paradox. Traditional ways of life here impress upon a high tech culture. Markets of hanging flesh can be seen next to Apple stores. Temples puff out bitter smelling incense onto sidewalks crawling with posh professionals. Coffee, cigarettes, or thousand year old medicine? All three can be found at any 7-Eleven. 

The most obvious contrast is not within the city, however, but between the city itself and the nature that surrounds it.  Withdrawing to the hills is easy in Taipei. Follow the roads long enough and they will take you into a sweet air, nutritious with the smell of mountain springs.

 

Farther still, perhaps in the direction of the northeast, and those roads bring you to the coast.  The verdant hills on the right extend for miles and to the left the pacific ushers in warm, moist wind that brings the taste of salt to your lips.

This is where I come when the contrast of the city loses its equilibrium; when the pull of the hills is stronger than the appeal of the weird and wonderful city.

I come here a lot.

A few shots from the hill at Shuanglang “Soft Core” crag, across from Erhai lake and the Cangshan mountains in Yunnan, China. 

HOW I MEDITATE

I have a hard time meditating. Sitting still and NOT thinking isn’t easy for me. After halfheartedly attempting meditation for a month, I was told that I was ”doing it wrong,” thinking only about money or dinner or boobs.

But I found that “the style” that worked for some, didn’t always make me comfortable or give me the benefits I was looking for. So I decided to break it down in a way that I could relate to in hopes of sticking to the practice and maximizing it for myself.

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There is the theory of metric expansion, the theory saying the universe and the space between celestial bodies has been expanding since the beginning of, well, the universe. If this is true then that same “star stuff” we are made of is running wider and wider on the fringes of the universe. According to some even, parts of you and me that we have no notion of are circulating on the fringes of the universe.

Apply this to living. Your universe is constantly expanding. Of course, things like your social network or knowledge on a specific subject. These are deliberate extensions of yourself and your effort. They should be expanding outward and you should be acting to expand them.

But your thinking, your reactions, your actions also expand your universe and interact within it. Whether you mean them to or not, these aspects of existence change your universe daily. This is not necessarily a breakthrough notion, but it is important to understand. 

Now, how many thoughts do we have in a single day? How many seconds do we feel impatient? How many people wearing our favorite color do we see? These incalculable micro facets of life are on the fringes of our personal universes, rushing this direction or that direction, speeding off so exponentially fast we lose track of them. They’re splashed like paint on a canvas with no symmetry or consistent rate of expansion.  

(Think, how did that one thought about Kix Cereal grow into a web of thoughts and ideas and memories that changed your whole day or even week. No need to follow the chain, but realize it is there. For actions and reactions just as for thoughts.)  

That is the precondition I imagine before meditating; a multicolored canvas of everything we think, do, and feel stretching infinitely.

                                image

With each inhalation I shrink that splash a little. IN…work. IN…family. IN…patience. IN…attitude. IN…anything that flashes by. This may be seen as reflecting more than meditation, but I don’t sit on these ideas. I just store them. 

Before long, I stop that thinking and picture everything in my life that I have been, seen, or caused directly or indirectly to be combined within a single sphere. It is like the beginning of my universe. It is a reset. 

And I keep it there. 

Only after I’m finished does that egg crack and things rush out again. But they rush out slowly. Things are controlled under a consistent rate of expansion that I allow.

That’s how I’ve been approaching meditation. I’m curious to hear from others. 

      

Dali, Yunnan. Hours from any major city its set between Erhai Lake and the Cangshan Mountain chain. With its strategic location, it was once a key military site hundreds of years ago. It made a perfect home base for my China trip.

Thankfully the city retains much of its medieval charm, not yet giving itself irredeemably away to tourism. I hope to go back and find it just as I left it.