Climbing Mt. Fansipan
When we entered Vietnam, I had never heard of Mt. Fansipan (or Phan xi Pang). At 3,143 meters (10,312 feet), Mt. Fansipan is no Mt. Everest. But it does rightfully claim the superlative of the tallest mountain in Indochina. Since I am hoping to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in a few months, I figured this would be a good start to my training regimen.
When we arrived in Sapa, I shopped around for a tour operator in town and, in the process, found two folks who were also interested in climbing Mt. Fansipan: Austin and Chloe.
The big challenge to climbing it is making sure it doesn’t rain when you’re trying to summit. Aside from making the climb less enjoyable, heavy rain makes summiting impossible. Navigating the weather is a little more luck than skill since the weather is difficult to predict on the mountain and it rains all year round. I checked the weather forecast anyway, crossed my fingers and booked my trek.
The morning of the climb, I woke at 5 am to pouring rain. Not good.
A few hours later, I said goodbye to my lovely wife and walked the three blocks from the hotel to the trekking shop. I was pretty wet when I stepped in the door. On arrival, they turned me away and told me to come back with a rain poncho — my waterproof jacket wasn’t enough. Definitely not good.
I had signed up for a two day trek even though a three day trek is common. There were a few accounts of one day treks online but they were described using phrases like “the most difficult day of my life” or with words like “masochistic”. Two days sounded just right.
Our plan was to hike to Camp 2 on Day 1. Summit the morning of Day 2 and come back down. I took some abbreviated notes during the climb. I think they tell the story of the climb pretty well, so I’ve left them as-is (bracketed text has been added for clarification):
10:30 AM begin trekking. Light rain. Trail is indistinguishable from small creek. Some clambering up rocks, making our way on the edge of an actual river. Guide in wellies, telling. Eat wild berries.
11:45 AM rain stops. Small snack.
12:15 PM Arrive at camp 1 for yummy lunch of fried rice and chilies prepared by our porter Ca. Azune [our guide] smokes tobacco out of what is essentially a bong [at every opportunity].
1:35 PM resume hiking. Starts to rain again. Pretty heavy now. We see our first ladder [used to navigate the very steep terrain]. Stop for 5 mins along the way a couple times. Stair-master. Very steep. Wild mountain goats. First ray of sun. Treacherous footing the whole way. Trails are so filled with water that it’s testing the limits of my waterproof boots.
4:00 PM Arrive at camp 2. A bit tired, but mostly wet. Camp 2 is essentially three buildings: an A-frame hut that sleeps 20, a cooking hut and an outhouse. We hang clothes wherever we can and huddle by the fire to dry things out. Austin offers me a beer he carried up the mountain. Austin is my hero.
5:45 PM dinner of rice, pork stir-fry, chicken stir-fry, squash and squash soup and rice wine.
6:30 PM get into dry clothes and crawl into sleeping bag. Nice
6:45 PM end day one
7:45 PM first sleep
8:45 PM wake up
9:15 PM back to sleep
[10:00 PM wake up
10:45 PM back to sleep
11:30 PM wake up
12:00 AM back to sleep]
2:15 AM Wake to guy looking at tools in the shed. Back to sleep
4:00 AM getting a bit cold
5:00 AM we’re supposed to get up, but breakfast isn’t ready so we keep sleeping.
5:45 AM actually get up. Not great sleep, a feeling that’s universal. Back into wet pants and shoes. Not fun. Things hanging out to dry appear to have collected moisture from the air achieving the opposite of what we hoped to achieve.
6:00 AM breakfast of beef noodle soup and coffee. Fire warms us up.
6:30 AM pack our daypack for the summit leaving unnecessary gear at camp
6:45 AM we leave. Austin sings British army songs [He’s in Britain’s army] — I’m grateful for American military modernization since there are references to bows and arrows in his songs. “Crazy dog” joins us for the final hike.
7:45 AM 5 min break
8:45 AM Summit. Woohoo. Can’t see anything but white fog. Pictures. Food. Crazy dog.
9:15 AM leave
10:45 AM back at camp 2. Hot tea.
11:00 AM leave camp 2. Good weather, best view yet — not saying much. Discover going down is as hard as going up.
1:15 PM arrive At camp 1. Eat lunch – cheese and tomato sandwich. Starts raining.
1:45 PM leave camp 1
2:15 PM after talking about how much easier it was to do this part without rain, it starts to rain. Stops after 10 mins. Starts back up again.
3:15 PM finish. Sign says “See you soon”. Not happening.
The climb itself was definitely challenging. Most of the trail was straight up, with only a few passing moments of flat ground. The trail had been cleared of trees, but not their roots or rocks, so footing was pretty treacherous. Fortunately, it wasn’t very slippery despite the rain. For me, the walk down was harder than the ascent.
Unfortunately, because of the weather, on most of the hike we were surrounded by a dense fog — the summit included. I am sure the hike up is beautiful as is the view from the summit, but I certainly wouldn’t know. Back in Sapa, I took a hot shower and got an amazing foot massage (Sasha says it was mediocre).
Below is a GPS track of the hike. It was 13 miles and a little over a 3,000 foot (1,000 meter) ascent (the the starting elevation was around 2200 meters). For context, the climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro in will be three times longer and will have an ascent that’s nearly four times greater.
For people planning a climb up Mt. Fansipan. I would look for the following in a good company:
1. A warm sleeping bag. Ask to see it yourself. Everyone on the mountain was the cold the night I was up there (from multiple companies) and it wasn’t a terribly cold night.
2. A sleeping pad. In addition to making you warmer, for two of us it was hard uneven wood floor that was more uncomfortable than the cold.
3. An English speaking guide.