Mount Tapochau, 1555′
Mount Tapochau (myriad spellings; on older maps, a ‘k’ gets slipped in there) is the highest point on the island of Saipan in the Mariana Islands, at 1555’ asl. Yet the peak (an upthrust of ancient coral) has a grandeur that belies its stature. Saipan is a small oceanic island, and so to stand on Mount Tapochau’s summit is to be the highest point on the horizon in a seemingly infinite ocean, with a view of the island’s every contour, privy to the spectacle of an ever-unfolding tapestry of tropical weather and light playing across its green and textured body, and over the sea beyond.
Historically, Mount Tapochau is significant for the brutal battle and months of ensuing guerilla fighting that took place on its flanks during World War II, as the American invasion force strove to retake the island from the Japanese. On the high pleateau below the summit, a swordgrass (Micanthus floridus) savannah became known as Death Valley, and with its solemn memorial plaques and Catholic shrine, it’s a melancholy place. The cliffs that flank the mountain are home to a healthy population of Mariana swiftlets (Aerodramus bartschi) which flock in undulating clouds of tiny black bodies, and below that cling fragments of native karst forest, a stunted habitat dominated by the tree genera Premna, Aglaia, Cynometra, and Psychotria, among others. As most of the original vegetation of Saipan was decimated during the war and subsequently replaced by the exotic legume Leuceana leucocephala (known locally as tangantangan), these cliff-band forests are the last representatives of the island’s ecological past.
And of course, Mount Tapochau is a good thing to run up. The summer I worked in the Marianas our field house on Saipan was about three miles and 800’ to the summit via a rugged limestone road — a stretch that could be repeated without getting too bored, and satisfying daily summit that made up for a paucity of runnable trails elsewhere. The first time I made the trip with my friend Jonnie we ended up watching the sunset from the summit as a storm blew in with fiercer and fiercer winds and dark clouds and pelting rain, us shirtless and in our split shorts, and Jonnie grinned and remarked how remarkable it was to be so exposed to the elements and yet so comfortable. We pushed the pace back down the road and each furrow in the gravel turned into a milky rivulet as the deluge hit us, the air so saturated that we seemed to be at risk of drowning.