Fansipan: Jeremy Finn Chronicles His Climb to the Top
Sunday 10th December 1995
I'd spent seven days in Sapa and each had been cold, wet and foggy. This morning brought thick fog again and my spirits dropped. I'd been told that today the weather would change and we'd set off for the summit of Fansipan. Two days ago a party had tried to make the trip and failed as a result of the poor weather and I knew that without the sun we'd never make it to the top.
The small town of Sapa, built by the French at 3,000 feet and perched on the side of the valley facing Vietnam's highest mountain ridge, gets pretty cold and damp at the end of the rainy season. Then, in December the winds change and the skies clear for about a month before they veer round again and bring bitterly cold weather and snow from the north. Just my luck that the rainy season finished late this year.
However, by 7:30 am the sun had begun to shine through the blanket of fog and the landscape facing the town slowly came into view. I'd agreed to go up the mountain with the manager of my small guesthouse, Thahn, partly because I thought he might be able to translate a little and partly because he was so keen to come. Our guide was Mau, a local man from the Hmong minority who spoke no English and only halting Vietnamese, though he communicated considerably throughout the trip.
We breakfasted on pig's heart and noodle soup as we waited for Mau. Mau arrived, barefoot and wearing traditional Hmong clothes: pajama-style trousers rolled to the knee, shirt and jacket with an embroidered collar and cap all dyed in non-permanent deep indigo blue. Thahn picked up his pack (containing a blanket and little else) and I mine which until then I'd thought to be quite light, and we set off descending steeply through the rice paddies to the floor of the valley below Sapa before we commenced the long climb into the forested foothills of Fansipan.
As we set off we came across a solitary wooden house in the rice paddies guarded by a large, noisy dog. This was Mau's house and we had come here to pick up some rice and a couple of pots for cooking. We drank tea by the fire as Mau packed sacks of rice into his basket and then finally set off up the trail. After negotiating the first of several bamboo bridges (if that's what you call ten large bamboo shoots strapped together over a ten-meter drop) we began to climb up the hillside, ascending 600 feet to the shoulder of the hill where we immediately stopped for a rest.
Actually, it would be more accurate to say we stopped for a smoke as that's what my two companions did at every such interval. As we paused, three small boys came into view having descended from the forest dragging three logs nearly twice as long as they were tall (they looked about three feet tall and were perhaps six years old). Their job, it appeared, was to pull these logs down to the valley where they would be sold for firewood. We moved on, climbing through the scrub and vegetation denuded of trees by the attentions of generations of such small boys and their fathers. The path narrowed and began to climb up almost vertically through the roots of trees and then descended sharply to a cool, dark swampy area through which we attempted to pass by walking along logs. Needless to say I was the first to fall off and we ended up wading through the mud. We climbed up out of the swamp and came to a forest hut in a small valley carpeted with betel plants where we had another smoke stop.
Later we came to another hut with smoke gently seeping through its roof. Inside in the murk I could make out a Hmong woman with a baby on her back. The hut was set into the side of the hill and the fire was at the back. There was smoke everywhere, but after a while one becomes accustomed to it and can manage to stay inside for up to ten minutes at a time. Living in such an environment I leave to the Hmong, but I'm sure it contributes to their health problems'their life expectancy is less than fifty years.
This was to be the spot where we cooked our midday meal and out came the pots, packs of noodles, rice and a large lump of pork. Mau produced his knife and cut a log lengthwise for a chopping board. Then he sliced some of the pork as if it were butter and fried it in one of the pots. The other pot was filled with water for making rice. I had a strange sense of foreboding, how many variations on this theme could there be?
As we ate, the woman's husband produced from his bag four rats he had trapped. He held them by their tails over the fire and singed off the fur. I tried to imagine how best to prepare them; fried, grilled or stewed?
We carried on up the trail to the foot of a hill which reached like a wall above us. All that was stopping the soil from sliding straight off were the roots of the trees and vegetation matted together in a carpet. We climbed for about a half hour often using the roots as handholds. Through a gap in the canopy at one point we looked down over our shoulders at Sapa a thousand feet below and then on we went until through a gap in the trees we could see the summit of Fansipan 5,000 feet above us.
At about 3:30 with the sun about to set behind the mountain we stopped near a stream and began to set up camp. Mau got out his knife which now became an ax and proceeded to cut down trees for the fire and bamboo brush for the bed. We rigged up a canopy over the "bed" to cut down on frost and sat next to the huge fire which cooked our fronts while our backs froze as we prepared pork and noodle soup with rice. Later, as we sat staring at the embers, Thahn thought he heard a rustle in the undergrowth. He'd fought for five years against the Khmer Rouge in Kampuchea in the early eighties so I figured if he thought he'd heard something I'd go along with it. I grabbed my torch and shined it into the vegetation and stared hard, only to meet the glare of a mountain rat. Mau, the cunning forest hunter, leapt forward with a stick to brain the unfortunate rat only to flail wildly, miss widely and curse loudly.
Monday 11th December
The next morning Mau got moving early and made a rat trap before breakfast (noodle soup with rice). We made slow progress pushing through the bamboo. I was finding it almost impossible to tell which would take my weight and which would snap at the base. It was unwise to pull yourself up on the growing stems as they had razor sharp sheaths around them that sliced your fingers. My pack kept snagging on the stems, often catching on both sides and wedging me like a cork in a bottle. Then the bamboo changed suddenly to dwarf bamboo: seven feet high rather than fifteen. Here there was no real trail at all, just animal tracks.
We reached 8,800 feet and climbed on to a rocky platform to look down on Sapa and along the ridge towards the summit. We were going to have to go down 2,000 feet or so before we finally went up to the summit. We began the knee-crunching descent and as the sun was lowering began to look for a place to camp. Unfortunately, Thahn who was meant to be carrying our water, had decided that it was a bit heavy and had poured it away. We now had to look for water and that meant going down still further until we found a stream where we set camp and cooked the increasingly rancid pork with noodle soup and rice.
Tuesday 12th December
We broke camp at 8:00 am after the requisite pork and noodle soup with rice which was beginning to stick in my throat. We left our packs at the camp and climbed slowly round the base of the peak to see the view of the ridge which continues on to the north in the direction of China. Finally, late in the morning, we reached the summit and were rewarded by spectacular views of the peaks towards China and south toward Hanoi.
Mau had his mandatory smoke atop Fansipan and Thahn took the opportunity to pose impressively for the camera and then we were off down to the camp to collect our packs.
Wednesday 13th December
The next morning, after a meal of noodle soup and rice (no pork left), we made good progress down to our first camp and found in our rat trap a dead (and rather flat) rat. Carrying our catch in his basket, Mau led us down through the forest to a hunting shelter across the valley from Sapa where we paused for rat and noodle soup. We then proceeded down to the valley floor and Mau cut right to his house while we turned left, crossed the very last of the bamboo bridges and started the hike up the side of the valley to Sapa.
We were back. We sat on the balcony of the guest house and looked up at the mountain. We were joined by two Americans who were preparing to make the trip the following day. Over a bottle of Chinese beer I told them a little of the journey and exhorted them above all else not to carry too much and make sure their packs were not too wide or they'd get stuck in the bamboo. The next morning as I sat in the cafe having a coffee I saw them with their two friends, huge packs on their backs, slowly making their way past and down to the valley floor, their guide skipping ahead carrying a satchel. I smiled, ordered another coffee and let the morning sun soak in.
Published on 8/1/96