Did I ever tell you about that time I climbed Fansipan? No? Well count yourself lucky. Because for the past 9 months I have bored family and friends stupid with tales of:
“That day I climbed Fansipan”
“Did you know that I climbed Fansipan, the highest mountain in Indochina, in a day”
“Fansipan was way harder than this”.
In fact, I can almost hear my boyfriend rolling his eyes as I write this post – him having borne the brunt of my Fansipan-related rants for the past few months.
Fansipan is located just outside the mountain town of Sapa in Northern Vietnam and is the highest mountain in Indochina – standing tall at a mighty 3,143 metres. We had already written it off after hearing tales of torrential downpours and a gruelling two day scramble up the side of a mountain. Instead planning on taking easier treks through the abundant natural beauty that surrounds Sapa.
When it came time to book our treks we (myself and my friends Annie and Anita) sat down with tour guides from our hostel and began to discuss our various options. I left them for all of 5 minutes. 5 minutes! And yet somehow in those five minutes they managed to get us signed up and on board for Fansipan.
Now we’re not people to do things by halves. So not only did we agree to climb Fansipan in one day instead of the usual two, we also signed up to do another pretty strenuous 18km trek the day before that. Just for context, this is Wikipedia’s take on the climb:
“Tour companies in the area will arrange hikes to the summit taking from one to three days. Most will recommend taking the two- or three-day options and few guides will take tourists on the round trip in a single day.”
An Early Start
We started early – 5.30am – waking to the sound of heavy rain and thunder. I had failed to stock up on enough water to get me through the day and to my great exasperation the hostel refused to sell me any. Apparently 5.30am was too early for them to open the tills. They also forgot to make our breakfast and as a result we set out on our mammoth trek with just two dry slices of bread and a banana each. Things weren’t going to go well – I could tell.
The start of the walk was easy enough – walking through largely flat forest. Despite our waterproof jackets we were soaked almost immediately and the thunderstorm had turned the small streams into wide rivers that we had to wade through.
The Going Gets Tough
It wasn’t long before the climb began to get tougher and we started to make our way uphill. The guide was baffled as to why on earth we had chosen to do the climb in a day and was trying to hurry us along. But rather than motivate us, the quicker pace just made us feel distressed – it was a bit too fast for us to handle comfortably. We were already starting to struggle, none of us fit enough after months of backpacking to do justice to that climb.
I remember thinking “There’s absolutely no way I can do this for the next 6 hours – I’m going to cry or give up in a minute” (anyone who has ever done a difficult trek with me will tell you that this is my standard response when the going starts to get tough). And just when we thought things were bad, the guide turned around and told us we needed to go faster – we had another 6 to 7 hours of climbing to do (we had already done 2 hours by this point).
That was enough to push Anita over the edge – she was the first to crack. Getting emotional, she stopped and refused to budge another inch. Anita is nothing if not headstrong and she was having none of it. Eventually though she pushed through and rejoined us again.
We didn’t realise at the time how far we managed to drag her until we were on our way back down later on. It was at least another hour. But a bit further on, we passed a group who were making their way down and Anita decided to head back. She was the sensible one of the group. Me and Annie decided to continue on, against all our better instincts.
And Then There Were Two
The rest of the day was gruelling to say the least. The climb was one of the steepest I have done and relentless. The paths were rough and we found ourselves dragging ourselves over boulders, up ladders, across waterfalls and through small crevices.
The guide, wearing flip flops, sprung up there like a mountain goat whilst me and Annie, in full hiking gear, would slowly try to catch up wondering where on earth he had got to. Rounding a corner we would see him perched on a rock not-so-patiently waiting for us. A boring day for him! Every now and then we would be passed by workers (heading up there to build a cable car) who undertook that climb regularly in order to get to work. Again, this walk was easy for them. They were putting us to shame.
I hated the World at this point – I hated the guy who had sold us the tour, I hated the guide and I hated anybody else who walked past me. At one point I snapped at the guide when his answer as to how far the summit was wasn’t what I wanted to hear. As if it was his fault that the mountain I had willfully decided to climb was so high! The only person I didn’t hate was Annie – she was in as much pain as I was.
At least once every 15 minutes I considered giving up. And yet somehow we continued (no doubt helped along by the jelly sweets and chocolate that I was consuming at an alarming rate).
The Final Ascent
About one hour from the summit the terrain became really tough. Thick black mud interspersed with bamboo platforms acting as steps. We were slipping and sliding everywhere and struggling to climb onto the high platforms. I was really starting to struggle.
At some point during that endless last hour we met a couple on their way down the mountain and I made the mistake of asking how long it was to the summit. When they told me it was another 30 minutes it was just a bit too much for me to handle and I broke down (I blame the altitude). After the intense 6.5 hour climb, it was that last half an hour that broke me.
Annie somehow managed to drag me up the last bit, keeping me motivated despite my occasional outbursts of tears (which provided our guide with much amusement). And then just like that the summit was upon us. I rounded a corner and saw a flag sticking out from above a rock. I couldn’t believe it – we were there. We had done it! I felt so emotional I started crying (no surprise there) and hugging Annie.
There was no view – the whole valley was obscured by the heavy rainclouds that had earlier been pouring down on us. But we didn’t care. We were ecstatic.
And we finally got to eat! Our first proper meal of the day. The guide handed us cheese baguettes and hard boiled eggs and I honestly don’t think I have ever eaten anything quite so delicious in my entire life. Our hands and face were filthy from clawing our way up the last muddy stretch but we didn’t care – we ate anyway, regardless of how muddy it was.
We had hauled ‘Victory Beers’ all the way to the top, with delusions of sitting there, chilling with a beer, overlooking the valley. But we had another five hours down and in parts the downhill was as difficult as the uphill. So instead we shared a can of Coke and saved the beers until later.
The Home Stretch
30 minutes later, fed and rested, we began the descent. The five hours down were challenging still but this time we were on the home stretch. With the thought of a hot shower and food (lots of it) keeping us going. And I finally started taking some photos (I had been too distressed on the ascent to consider even looking at my camera) – although there was very little to photograph besides cloud.
Finally, nearly 12 hours after setting off, we were back at the carpark meeting back up with Anita, who was in much better shape than us. Our legs and feet were sore and aching but we were ecstatic. And very proud of ourselves. We finally got to drink our ‘Victory Beer’, sharing it with the guide (who I no longer hated), before heading back to the hostel for some much needed rest.
It may not have been Everest but Fansipan is a tough climb. Tougher than I ever expected it to be and perhaps the hardest I have ever done. But, as much as I hated it at the time, the sense of achievement (and the bragging rights) made it all worth it in the end. Although I can’t say I’m brave enough to rush back and do it over again.