An Extreme Test of Will and Endurance
Witnessing a Rite of Passage on Mt. Dawu
What do 18 year-olds know about hardship? What kind of rite of passage can have a lifetime impact? Pingdong County's Mt. Dawu treks are an extreme test of physical ability and willpower, a study in humility and the true meaning of cooperation.
Witnessing a Rite of Passage on Mt. DawuBy Tao Yun-fang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 470 )
This is not reality TV. A bunch of 18 year-old kids lugging backpacks with 15 kg of gear up a 3,000-meter mountain, the rugged and precipitous trail testing their endurance, discipline, perseverance and teamwork. The Pingdong County Government has been staging this annual rite of passage for 18-20 year-old residents for the past 13 years, each summer taking to the craggy slopes of Mt. Dawu.
In early April, CommonWealth Magazine sent a reporter and photographer to tag along on an exploratory trek with a nine-man party led by Pingdong County deputy magistrate Chung Chia-pin, where we came to fully appreciate the daunting challenge of this life-altering educational experience.
Typhoon Morakot caused a major portion of the slope of Mt. Dawu to collapse, washing away the road leading to the trailhead, cutting off access and forcing a tortuous detour that turns what was once a 10-minute trip into a two-hour odyssey.
It was former Pingdong County magistrate Su Jia-chyuan who initiated the Mt. Dawu expedition. In hopes of providing inspiration for hometown youths during the course of their upbringing and better acquainting them with their native environment, he realized that summiting Mt. Dawu, the lush "Mother of Pingdong," would be a perfect rite of passage.
"It tests physical abilities, and also cultivates team spirit. This is not conquering the mountain, it’s approaching learning from a mindset of reverence for nature," says Chung Chia-pin, adding that the entire process is "life education, forestry education and also environmental education."
Without proper preparation, one should not even think of heading up Mt. Dawu. Applicants for the trek must first pass through two stages of training, requiring completion of a three to five km run or cycle, training in the handling of a canoe, and uphill training carrying 10 to 15 kg loads. Additionally, applicants must attend courses in ecology and safety lectures and pass equipment inspections and other trials before being deemed qualified to go on the Mt. Dawu trek.
A Vow of Service to the Mountain God
Huang Li-juan was a sophomore at National Hsinchu Girls Senior High School when she was inspired by a TV report on the Mt. Dawu trek. She thereupon embarked on a year of physical training to prepare and, after wheedling and sweet-talking her parents into giving their written consent, set off on her first unaccompanied trip away from home.
"Although it was a long and arduous process, it was my first time seeing the beauty of Taiwan’s high country," Huang says, recalling her experiences on the sixth annual trek. "I gave an oath to the mountain gods that I would endeavor to preserve Taiwan and continue to discover her beauty."
"Initially, a lot of the more spoiled kids will gripe and complain about how tough it is, but in that sort of setting, with team members urging one another on, they can be fired up to reach their potential. They ultimately succeed in reaching the summit and completing the rite of passage," says former Pingdong County magistrate Su Jia-chyuan.
Su says that after his own daughter completed the trek, it was like "a spiritual cleansing, and she felt she had grown up." Su insists that the experience brought "visible change." I found that my daughter had become more proactive, more grounded in dealing with other people and getting things done," he says.
The aches, pains and exhaustion soon subside, but the memories are firmly imprinted for a lifetime. At the trailhead, the young trekkers offer their devoted thanks to the mountain god, swearing allegiance at Dawu Temple where they receive totem names and the seal of the county magistrate before drinking a toast with their elders, the mountain gods and spirits of their ancestors, bearing witness to this moment when they enter into the joys and sorrows of adulthood.
Hsiung Bo-ching took part in the second annual trek up Mt. Dawu, which gave him both a better understanding of Pingdong County and a better feeling for the importance of group cooperation.
"When other team members couldn’t go on, we’d help them carry their backpacks. We definitely wanted to keep the whole team moving forward," he recalls.
According to Gu Shih-min, trek leader at the time Hsiung took part, among his team members, Hsiung would always take the initiative in helping others. The young man’s mother believes that her son’s experiences in this rite of passage awakened a new maturity in him.
"After that tough challenge, his thinking has become more positive and engaged," she says.
Given the totem name Zhongzi ("Seed"), Hsiung has true to form now become an environmental educator in Wanluan, Pingdong County.
He says he made an oath to the mountain gods to "give back to my community, protect the mountains and forests and maintain the sustainable development of nature."
Hsiung has fulfilled that oath these past several years by planting trees, working in logistical support for the Mt. Dawu treks, and performing volunteer disaster relief and rescue work.
Today, this "Seed" has grown into a sturdy sapling.
Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy