We left Hanoi on the train the day Typhoon Rammasun was going to hit, according to all the weather reports. We didn’t want to sit inside for a couple days while it rained and rained with nothing to do. Instead of sitting inside a hotel in Hanoi, we decided to head to Sapa. Sapa is a town in the northwest of Vietnam, renowned for its vistas of terraced rice paddies, trekking through local Hmong villages, and French colonial architecture. As we napped and read on the train, we congratulated ourselves on our travel flexibility in ditching Hanoi earlier than planned. We saw only a few raindrops on the way; we thought we had beaten the typhoon.
The typhoon had other ideas. It met us in Sapa. The picture above was the clearest that it ever got during our time there, so we didn’t take many. Despite the consistent downpour, I got it in my head to climb Mt. Fansipan (Phan Xi Pang), which is the majestic highest peak in Southeast Asia at 3,143m/10,312 ft, but whose name I can unfortunately only remember by thinking “fancy pants”. Unlike back home, people don’t take off and climb on their own in Vietnam; in fact, it might be illegal to climb Fansipan without a guide. The legality was always unclear to me. Regardless, I ended up with a guide, Su, and three other climbers: Lucas and Maxime, two friends from France on break from dental school; and Gene, an Italian who seemingly has climbed every major mountain in Europe. According to our overly enthusiastically helpful hotel receptionist, people generally climb the mountain in two days with an overnight camp halfway up. We were the four crazy assholes who decided to climb it in one during a typhoon, and Su was responsible for making sure we didn’t fall off the mountain.
The taxi arrived at our hotel at 8:20 on July 20th. Twenty minutes late for what I already considered a late start (5:30 would have been more to my liking for the expected 10 hour climb), we proceeded up the winding road to the trailhead. We finally got on the trail at 9, and a wet trail it was: since it had been consistently raining for a few days, there wasn’t a foot along the trail that didn’t have either a) sticky mud trying to take your shoe or b) super slick rocks/tree roots. The first half, distance-wise, was fairly flat, with minimal elevation gain. Up to the first camp, we only gained 200m over a few kilometers. The first section also had a couple river crossings; on one crossing, we had to walk about 50m up the river to regain the trail. This is where I would have gotten lost if I were on my own. We took a short break at the first camp for water and a snack.
After the first camp, the trail was almost exclusively class 3 or 4, with slippery rock that often had water flowing over it, gaining and losing elevation consistently for 1000m of total elevation gain. The trail was one of the most challenging I’ve ever undertaken. Sharp, slick rocks were the staircase, with each a foot and a half from the other. The big, slippery steps meant that there was no relaxing on the trail: every step was a balancing act that required precise concentration. Long metal ladders were provided in a few sections, but they were often just as slippery as the rock. Part of the climb had a railing, as you can see in the video below, which did make that section a little easier. The entire climb was a stress test for my aquatic hiking shoes (Salomon TechAmphibian 3, for those that are interested) – the grip, flex, and water capability was tested on nearly every step, and the shoes held their own. I highly recommend this type of shoe for wet-weather climbs.
The second, steeper half of the climb is where we started coming across local Hmong on the trail. Instead of the colorful garb we had seen the Hmong wear in town, they were wearing shorts and t-shirts under cheap plastic ponchos. Their presence was a mystery until I saw the 8-foot bamboo poles with machine parts attached. The Hmong were carrying 40-50 kilograms per pole, two people per pole, over the same terrain we were struggling on – only they were wearing plastic flip-flops. Su told us that a company is installing a cable car to the top of the mountain, and the local Hmong get paid $1 per kilo carried up the mountain. Shortly after passing the workers’ camp, where they will live and work in rain and snow without descending until the cable car is finished three years from now, we found the famous summit pyramid at 1:10pm. It marked the rocky summit at 3,143m, but the typhoon ensured we could only see a sea of gray otherwise. Just over four hours since we started walking, we returned to the workers’ camp, where Su had cooked up a lunch of fried egg and cheese sandwiches. It was delicious, as is any meal properly earned, yet we had only half-earned this one. The descent promised to be as great a test as the climb.
We got back on the trail at 2pm. Large steps on the slick rock and mud weren’t any easier to descend than ascend, and our legs were all fried long before. Everyone spent a bit of time in the mud as we slid down the mountain; I even managed to fall off a log bridge when my left foot couldn’t find a grip. Luckily, it was the only ravine on the entire mountain without water rushing down, and the drop was only three feet. I walked out more surprised than wet, with only injuries sustained to my pride. One of the Frenchmen slipped when crossing a rocky riverbed, then slid down the river about 10m until his feet could find purchase again. Nobody suffered any serious falls, though, and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief when we saw the trailhead building at 6pm. Even our guide, who climbs the mountain twice a week, was rubbing his knees by the time we hit the first camp on the way down; Mt. Fansipan and the typhoon had humbled us all.
“Because it’s there.” George Leigh Mallory, asked why he was attempting to summit Mt. Everest
I sometimes wonder why I do climbs like Fansipan. There was no fantastic view from the top, and we knew there wouldn’t be. Most of the climb was in dense jungle; even if there were no clouds, we couldn’t have seen much. The way was hard and potentially dangerous. We didn’t see any “traditional” Hmong villages or buy trinkets from Hmong villagers, the usual activities for visitors to Sapa. I shared some trail mix with the Hmong we did see carrying cable car parts up the mountain and received a few thanks from those that knew the English word, but the total interaction was two minutes. There wasn’t even much conversation among our group during the strenuous climb, partially because of language barriers, but mostly because there was not much to say. We didn’t see any other climbers that were there by choice rather than work. I can’t justify the day in any way other than to say that I had to climb it once I knew it was a possibility. It’s a compulsion that those who don’t get it will never get, and those that do will completely understand. For those that do understand, I implore you: carve out some time for a trip to Vietnam, and climb Fansipan within the next three years. After that, the cable car will turn it into just another tour site in an over-touristed area. Instead of a climb, you’ll get a ride to the top for the views, clouded not by a typhoon but by Hmong trinket-sellers; instead of slick rocks in a bamboo forest, you’ll get a covered cabin; instead of a majestic mountain, you’ll get a mountain that has lost its soul. And climbing a mountain that’s lost its soul is never worth the work.