Friday, 2 November 2012

Battling Mount Fansipan

It has been two days since I came down from Mount Fansipan and I now feel just about rested and recovered enough to recount the gruelling experience. On Tuesday morning we were collected from our hotel in Sapa by our guide, Chinsu, to begin our three-day trek up and down Indochina’s highest mountain. We were joined by a German man whose name I’m not sure of (I think he was called Andy). Jessica called him Adam, so I shall refer to him as Adam here. Our group of three was accompanied by two porters, both small and slender men, aged eighteen and twenty-five.

We arrived at the station at the base of the mountain and studied a map on a board. The peak of Fansipan is 3,143 metres high, and there are two camps at 2,200 and 2,800 metres. We were standing at 1,900m and were to climb up to the first camp, an ‘easy’ route, in time for lunch. In the afternoon we would climb the ‘hard’ route to the second camp, where we would spend the night. On the second day we would ascend to the peak in the morning and then descend back to the first camp, where we would spend the second night. On Thursday, the third day, we would walk down the mountain and continue down to a village to be picked up, making it a full day’s walk. Adam was doing the trek in two days, so he was to join us for the first day and then go ahead of us at a faster pace on the second.

It was just after ten o’clock on a cool, overcast morning. We set off at a solid pace to begin with. Chinsu made walking canes for the three of us out of bamboo growing in the forest- they proved invaluable over the next three days. While we were wearing walking boots, Chinsu wore wellies and the porters wore sandals! Chinsu was an interesting man. He was only twenty-two and had worked as a porter from the age of sixteen, until his English was good enough for him to become a tour guide. For six years he has ascended Fansipan about twice a week; he estimates that he has been to the peak 150 times. Like most Hmong people, he married young, when he and his wife were sixteen. They now have two children. He proved to be a fantastic guide for us- he was always patient, accurate with his time predictions and had a sense of humour. He even became our personal photographer towards the end of the trek. We quickly came to understand Chinsu’s unique vocabulary, whereby a ‘flat’ route meant ‘you don’t need to use your hands’. Most of the morning’s walk was this kind of ‘flat’. It was a pleasant walk through the forest and along a river, with occasions of clambering up steep slopes knotted with tree roots and rocks.

Tent at Camp 1
We reached the first camp in two and a half hours, feeling high-spirited. I was naïvely expecting to sleep in portable canvas tents, so I was very happy to see that our bed for the second night would be under a large tarpaulin tent with a wooden floor inside. Besides this building, there was a kitchen and the wreckage of a campfire, where two blonde puppies were playing amongst the litter. We were to find that Fansipan was lined with litter from the base to the summit (strangely, the national park guidelines did not mention littering.) At one point at this camp, I climbed onto a small knoll to get phone signal, and could see through the bushes that the other side of the knoll was used as a rubbish dump; a huge pile of festering garbage had accumulated on a ledge part-way down the steep slope. Chinsu told us that tourists have no interest in climbing the other mountains in the area, most only a little smaller than Fansipan, the ‘roof of Indochina’, so the environmental damage is concentrated on this mountain. This was confirmed by the large patches we saw where all the trees were burnt down to bare trunks due to forest fires started by campfires. 

First lunch
We enjoyed a lunch of bread, eggs, cheese, sausage, vegetables and fruit. After a rest it was time to get going again. The first hour of the afternoon’s walk passed without trouble and we were at a height to be able to see some of the mountain around us through the fog. However, at around three o’clock the fog set in heavily and it started to spit with rain, causing us to stop and get our rain coats on. I didn’t know then that this would be the start of twenty-four hours of misery...

The rain became heavier, and we became cold. We had two hours to go until the second camp and the route was unforgiving. We spent more time clambering up steep rocks than walking along paths. Our fingers hurt from the cold and from grabbing onto bare rock and branches to heave ourselves up. Often there were metal step ladders propped up against inclines that were too challenging to climb without. The worst moment was having to climb for several minutes up a steep rocky incline, only to have to climb down a perilous descend on the other side, and then begin up again. I felt thoroughly miserable. My clothes were soaked and I was in dread of not having dry clothes and a dry bed for the night. I didn’t know when I would feel warm again. By now Jessica was very tired and we had to go slowly and stop frequently for her to rest. By the time we reached the camp I was completely drained of energy and felt no relief for having arrived. The camp was shrouded in fog and I felt very deserted.

We entered the tent, where two Frenchmen sat silently in the near-dark. Jessica and Adam started changing out of their wet clothes but I could only sit shivering, shaking and clapping my hands in an attempt to get some feeling back into them. One of the French men kindly lent me his gloves. Slowly I changed into dry clothes. I was sure to put on all of my dry clothes- two pairs of trousers, three tops, a jumper, two pairs of socks, a hat and scarf. I was given two sleeping bags, but with all of this I still felt no warmth- there were gaps around the door of the tent, so the temperature inside was similar to that outside, at 2,800m altitude. We were offered the opportunity to sit by the fire in the kitchen, but at this time the idea of leaving the tent to venture into the rain outside seemed ludicrous. We were brought a hot meal, which was a real comfort. Jessica, Adam and I sat around a metal tray with plates of chicken, pork, vegetables, potato and tofu, with a candle in the middle, the only source of light in the room besides our torches. We bent low over the food in so we could see what we were eating. After we had eaten it had gone dark, and with no light there was nothing else to do but to try to sleep, even though it was only 6pm. I didn’t feel tired, even from the walking, but I had at least twelve hours to get through until the morning. In reversal to usual life, bedtime was the most uncomfortable time of the day. It was a long, cold night. Luckily, I managed to get some sleep; Jessica claims not to have slept a wink. 

Typical climbing conditions
Adam and the Frenchmen had left the camp by 6am but Jessica and I had a few hours longer before we began the day’s climb. I was woken to a hot bowl of noodles, which I ate even though I wasn’t hungry. It was a misery to climb out of the sleeping bags and to put on yesterday’s wet boots. We had hung up our wet clothes on the rafters the night before but they were all still dripping wet and cold. With the choice of two ways of freezing, I chose to wear fewer clothes than to put on wet clothes. Luckily, I had a disposable yellow rain mac to replace the rain coat I wore the day before and was now too wet to wear. We could leave our luggage at the camp for the time being as we would return there for lunch after we had been to the peak. Chinsu, Jessica and I set off for the final 343 metres to the peak. Today it was Jessica who was fighting fit and I who was trailing miserably behind. As soon as we began to walk my stomach started hurting, probably because we had eaten breakfast so soon before setting off. It was very cold and everywhere around us was grey-white. The route was as it had been the day before- all climbing up steep, cold rocks and wading through black mud. Along the way we passed Adam and the Frenchmen who already had been to the peak and back, and some people who were doing the whole climb in one day. One man had reached the summit in 3 hours and 20 minutes from setting off from the base of the mountain, with no guide or porter. 

A chilly morning on the mountain

Eventually we made it. The summit was a strange place. In a clearing in the bushes was a pile of rocks, with a metal pyramid marking 3,143 metres height. The area was littered with sweet wrappers, cigarette packets, an empty wine bottle and a used celebration banner hanging from a bush. This was all we could see as everywhere was enveloped in fog. There was no way to know we were towering above all of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos; it felt as though we were nowhere. I slowly climbed onto one of the rocks to sit with Jessica for a picture in this strange white world, but I didn’t feel much elation. The wind whipped through us so we quickly left to begin the descent. The way down was dreadful. My stomach hurt horribly, especially when we climbed up rocks. I took every movement slowly because every movement hurt me. I really didn’t know how I could carry on- if there had been a road suitable for vehicles I would have asked to be taken home. As it was, I didn’t think my illness was urgent enough to justify mountain rescue by helicopter; I had no choice but to keep going. When we arrived back at the camp for lunch I didn’t want to eat anything, I only wanted to lie down and sleep, but I couldn’t. The first hour and a half of the walk after lunch was much the same, although now I had to carry my bag as well. Eventually I decided I would have to think positively if I were to get through another day of walking and another night of camping. I’m glad my feet aren’t hurting, I thought, and I’m glad we’re on the way down- we’re getting nearer to the end with every step. This started to work, my stomach started to feel better, and finally the fog lifted, giving us beautiful views for the first time. I started to feel that we had earned something.

At the peak!

On the way down

From here on we reached the end of the hardest part of the route, and spent the final two hours walking along a path rather than climbing rocks. It felt wonderful to be able to walk instead of climb. When we reached the first camp we knew we were nearly at the end. It had been an incredibly hard day, but we had reached the peak and come most of the way down the mountain. Jessica asked to change our plans so that we would be met at the bottom of the mountain the next day, rather than doing the walk to the village. This meant that it would only be about two hours of walking the next day. I still had no appetite so I went to bed without dinner, but luckily it was a better night’s sleep as it was not so cold, and we now had three sleeping bags each.

I packed my things together in the morning to begin the descent of the mountain. My body ached with every step, particularly my poor legs and knees. Although I moved wonkily and slowly I was keen to get down in good time. It was a warm day and I felt much happier. Just over two hours later, we were back at the car park. We climbed into the van to be taken back to the hotel. On the way out, we passed under a sign that read ‘See you again!’ I didn’t think so. I was glad to have completed the hardest pursuit I have ever attempted, but I have no desire to do it again. I’m still unsure whether it was a good experience or not. Even so, I feel proud of myself. Although I have climbed (small) mountains before, I had never actually climbed a mountain. I had no idea that most of the route would be climbing with hands and feet; if I had known, I probably would not have thought I could do it. It’s amazing what we are capable of when we push ourselves, and have no other choice but to keep going.

Back on the ground

We were taken back to the hotel, but as we had already checked out we did not have a room until the night train to Hanoi in the evening. I had a shower and brushed my hair for the first time in three days, and then Jessica and I went into Sapa with six hours to kill. We spent this time having lunch and foot massages in town. I still felt unwell but luckily was able to eat something. In the evening we took the train to Hanoi. It was blissful to sleep in a real bed, without having to feel my hipbone against the ground all night long.

 We arrived at 5.30am in Hanoi. As we came into the city it was still dark, but the morning markets were bustling. We left the train and walked through the dusty station, it was just starting to become light. Jessica had arranged for us to meet her friend Nguyet and her husband who live in Hanoi. As it was still early and not too cold, we sat outside their apartment watching the people of Hanoi doing their morning exercise until it was a reasonable time to call. They invited us into their lovely apartment, then took us out for the best pho ga (chicken noodle soup) in Hanoi. Unfortunately, I was feeling dreadful. My stomach and back hurt and I felt lightheaded when I stood up and walked around. I tried to be stoic for as long as possible but after a full morning I was flailing. Nguyet and her husband are lovely people and took good care of me.

Later Jessica and I took a taxi to Ninh Binh, where we are spending the next few days in a resort in the national park. I spent the rest of the day in bed while Jessica went out to see the resort, but was able to enjoy an evening meal by the pool with her. This morning I am feeling better. Our friend Jasmine has arrived to spend some time with us here, and shortly we will be going out to do some sightseeing.  It has been a surreal week. I have seen several different sceneries, I have climbed a mountain and I suddenly find myself in a luxury resort in another new setting. Travelling has made the past few days seem to pass very quickly and now is my first real chance to rest and recover from the toil of Fansipan.

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