Daniel Rios is one of the few foreign nationals to have completed the baiyue – a list of mountains in Taiwan that many hikers dream of summitting.
PHOTOS BY DANIEL RIOS
A sea of clouds – or yunhai (雲海) – is the striking phenomenon of a uniform cloud layer viewed from above, resembling a contoured ocean surface. It’s photographers’ gold. In Taiwan, Beidawu Mountain in Pingtung County is one of the best places to snap an especially gorgeous yunhai.
I’m looking at a photo of just this sensation, taken by American teacher and part-time mountain guide Daniel Rios on the top slopes of Beidawu in 2018, just as dawn was breaking. It shows a rolling blanket of violet-hued clouds burnt orange by the rays of a rising sun. In the foreground are the moody silhouettes of Chinese hemlock trees.
“You can see this kind of thing on top of almost every mountain in Taiwan,” says Rios, 37, who has seen his fair share of yunhai by now. He is one of only a handful of foreign nationals who have completed the baiyue (百岳), or 100 peaks, a list of mountains in Taiwan – including Beidawu – that are mostly over 3,000 meters and deemed worthy of climbing because of the scenery, the distinctiveness of the route to the top, and geographic diversity.
Most serious hikers in Taiwan aspire to complete this feat, some spending decades to do so. But Rios took less than four years to climb all 100 summits. Between 2016 and 2020, anytime a long weekend holiday loomed, he would apply for a day or two of extra leave from his job as a cram school teacher and set off on a trip – sometimes bagging several peaks in one journey as many are adjacent peaks along the same mountain range. The baiyue wasn’t just a challenge for him; it was a way to escape into another world.
“The views are great, of course, and there’s kind of a sense of freedom up there,” he says. “You stop thinking about your bills, your bosses, and stuff like that. It gives you a sense of achievement when you get to the top.”
Sitting at the boundary of two colliding tectonic plates – the Eurasian and Philippine Sea plates – Taiwan is primarily made up of mountains, and mostly high mountains at that. The tallest peak in East Asia can be found here: Jade Mountain (Yushan) at 3,952 meters. Taiwan is believed to have a total of around 285 peaks over 3,000 meters tall. A comparison with another mountainous island country in the region, Japan, which has just 21, shows how impressive that number is.
Hundreds of years ago, indigenous peoples and later Chinese settlers forged footpaths across Taiwan’s mountains for trading and transport purposes. During the Japanese colonial period (1895-1945), Japanese mountaineers hacked out even more routes. In the past decade or so, hiking and mountain climbing have become hugely popular pastimes in Taiwan, prompting the development of tourism infrastructure and a proliferation of blogs, guiding services, and Instagram accounts.
Back in 2015, Rios, a business school graduate, was growing tired of the high cost of living in the U.S. He started considering different places to live in Asia and ultimately picked Taiwan. The island was affordable compared with Japan, and it didn’t have the censorship problems of China. The fact that it had accessible and explorable ranges was just icing on the cake. Back in the U.S., Rios liked to hike and camp “a bit,” but coming to Taiwan ignited his love of hiking.
Rios recounts how he joined a tour group in his first year here to climb Jade Mountain. He was immediately hooked.
“I got addicted to it right away,” he says. Not long after he decided he would attempt to complete the baiyue. “It seemed like a good goal to have, and I didn’t have any other hobbies. It was a good way to stay in shape and gave me something to work towards that not many people had done.”
For the next three and a half years, Rios set about teaching himself everything he needed to know about hiking in Taiwan – from trails and bus routes to how to apply for and secure permits (all but 20 of the peaks require permits) to having the right gear, and then climbing each one. It was intense. He summited 30 in 2017 and 40 in 2018. Most of the peaks he tackled alone or with friends, only opting to go with tour groups for four of the 29 trips it took in total.
When Rios first arrived in Taiwan, he would eat in 7-Elevens because, unable to speak Chinese, he was “too nervous” to go to restaurants. And while he hasn’t had time to study the language, his “hiking Chinese” has gotten pretty good, and he rattles off a list of names of routes and peaks with ease.
Rios is a nerd when it comes to planning. He shows me spreadsheet after spreadsheet on his phone. They list Taiwan’s mountain summits (some of which he has not yet completed), including names, elevations, routes, national parks, GPS coordinates, and rankings in the 100 peaks list. The spreadsheets also include upcoming hikes, which have been color-coded blue for pleasure, red for profit as a guide, and brown for unconfirmed. Rios has also written numerous pages of itineraries of all the different routes he has taken, day by day, even hour by hour.
“I don’t really watch TV,” he says with a laugh. “When I’m at home, I’m usually researching a route I want to do in the future, applying for permits, or researching gear.”
I ask him to tell me more about the kinds of things he has seen mountain climbing in Taiwan, apart from the famed yunhai. He describes waking up in the early morning, unzipping his tent to find 50 sambar deer surrounding his camp along the Nenggao-Andongjun Trail between Nantou and Hualien counties. Along trails, he has spotted the skulls of wild boar, monkeys, muntjac (barking deer), and other deer species with their antlers intact. Other routes wind past airplane wreckage and spilled weaponry from World War II.
Rios is hoping to transition to full-time mountain guiding this year. He currently contributes to Taiwan Outdoors, a portal for hiking, diving, surfing, and other exploits in nature. He also works as a guide for Parkbus Taiwan, a company geared at foreign nationals in Taiwan who wish to travel to hard-to-get-to locations in nature. I ask him what advice he has for anyone thinking of following in his footsteps. His response is rapid fire. “Hire me!” But if you want to do it independently, he suggests five rules worth following:
1. Get and stay fit. “Don’t assume you can do it. You’ll be hiking about eight to 10 hours every day.”
2. Invest in good gear. “Don’t just go to Decathlon,” he warns. Buy quality boots, rain jackets, and sleeping gear. Rios’ leather hiking boots cost US$400 (around NT$12,000). But some things, he concedes, you can “cheap out” on. His Taiwanese rain boots (favored by older local hikers) cost just NT$300, and they are excellent for routes where you know you’ll get wet – such as river tracing or during rainstorms. He pads them with thick insoles to make them comfortable. Hiking shirts, too, can be cheap. Rios also advises hikers to bring trekking poles. “They will really help your knees and your balance.”
3. Learn how to read offline maps. Tools like Gaia GPS or AllTrails will work on your phone without a cell signal. Learn how to use them so you will never get lost. “It could save your life.”
4. Do your homework. Before any big trip, scour blogs of hikers who have already done the route so you know which parts are dangerous and where water sources, cliff sections, and any escape routes are located.
5. Learn how to pack. Put gear you won’t use until the evening, like sleeping gear, on the bottom. Stash heavier items like cooking gear in the middle and place stuff you will need in a hurry, like snacks and rain jackets, at the top where they’re easier to reach.
While generally safe, mountaineering carries some risks. Inclement weather, falling rocks, altitude sickness, and attempting routes above the hiker’s skill level contribute to injuries and sometimes death. Unfortunately, fatalities occur almost every year. Rios himself has powered through a twisted ankle, dodged a falling rock “about the size of a baseball,” grabbed onto a rock “when [his] rope snapped,” and traversed narrow ridges where “you will die if you fall.” His one pet peeve is leeches, which are common along jungled routes.
On one of his early trips, back in 2017, Rios embarked with a guide and one local climber on an eight-day hike to Mabolasi Traverse, one of the baiyue’s “four obstacles,” a name for the four most challenging hikes in the list. (The baiyue is peppered with colorful names for peak subsets such as the “five greats,” the “harsh ten,” the “four beauties,” and my favorite, the “one ogre.”) It was just hours into the climb when disaster struck.
“I heard this rustling and a sound like a falling rock,” says Rios. He and his guide turned around to look, and “our eyes became as big as dinner plates; we knew instantly what had happened… that sound I heard was [the other member of their group] tumbling down the mountain.” When they peered over the cliff edge, they spotted the man 20 or 30 meters down – his fall miraculously broken by a tree. “He flew down so hard his shoes fell off.”
The duo gingerly inched down to rescue and carry the fallen hiker back to the trailhead. Later, they found out that he’d escaped with a concussion and a few broken ribs. “That was the most stressful day of my life,” he says. “I thought for sure that guy was going to die.”
For those who like the idea of a challenge but may not have the time, the skillset, or the head for heights for the baiyue, there is also the xiao baiyue (小白岳, or “100 small peaks”), a list of scenic mountain trails that are more accessible day-hikes and generally easier to tackle. They range in height from the substantial, like the 2,663-meter Datashan in the Alishan Mountain Range, to the diminutive, like the 20-meter Shetou Hill in Penghu.
Having finished the baiyue, Rios has now set his sights on a new hiking challenge: the remaining 150-plus peaks over 3,000 meters in Taiwan. Rios plans to do them all by the end of next year.
“No foreigner has done them yet,” he says with a gleam in his eyes.
Daniel Rios’ Top Five Accessible Hikes From the 100 Peaks List
Where: Nantou County
Duration: Two days Permit: Yes
Public transport: Yes, but only a few buses a day
Why go: Tallest in Taiwan (and in East Asia)
Appears on the NT$1,000 note
Good facilities, including cabins
One of the three big things to do in Taiwan (the other two are swimming across Sun Moon Lake and cycling around the main island)
2. Jiaming Lake
Where: Taitung County
Duration: Three days
Public transport: No
Why go: Gorgeous alpine lake
Snag two peaks of the baiyue in one trip
No technically difficult sections
“Nice food” in the cabins
Where: Taichung City
Duration: Three days
Public transport: Yes
Why go: Second-highest mountain in Taiwan
Almost guaranteed to see wildlife such as the serow (a cross between a goat and a deer), muntjacs, and pheasants
4. Mount Dabajian
Where: Hsinchu County
Duration: Three days
Public transport: Yes
Why go: On the NT$500 note
Unusual barrel shape
Best cabin food in Taiwan
Bag four peaks in the baiyue in one trip
5. Mount Nanhu
Where: Taichung City
Duration: Four to five days
Public transport: Yes (same bus as Xueshan)
Why go: Beautiful sunsets
Rocky peak looks like a castle
Tons of wildlife