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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Making our way up Mount Fansipan


Mount Fansipan is only half as tall as Mount Everest. Yet this mountain, perched at the eastern edge of the Himalayan range in Vietnam’s uppermost Lao Cai province, is hardly an easy climb.
Together with a group of friends, I’ve opted to take the chance.

It takes about two hours to reach the campsite from the clearing where we have lunch, according to our guide Dung. From there it’s two more hours to the summit. The mist is thickening.

When we reach the next plateau, it billows around us, covering everything more than ten feet away in a wispy shroud. We decide to save the final ascent for the morning. Dung says he’s only seen the sun shine on the summit twice, but we hope for the best.

The weather is not encouraging. By the time we reach the campsite, a hilly clearing surrounded by bamboo forest, the wind blows in gusts so hard it sounds like rain.

We crawl into our tent, a long blue tube that could have about twenty people cocooned sardine-style, and take refuge in our sleeping bags. Although it is barely 4pm, we can only think of rest. Dung fills a bowl with rice wine from a plastic water bottle.

“The first time I came here I didn’t drink any. Then I couldn't sleep,” he says, taking a generous swig. “It was so cold!” He passes the bowl around. It goes down harsh, but it makes us feel marginally warmer.

Dinner arrives, prepared by local H’Mong women: stir-fried chicken and ginger, tofu steeped in tomato sauce, garlicky strands of cabbage. We devour ample bowls of rice. Between bites, Dung asks us about America; we ask him what it’s like to grow up in Sapa.

"Around here many children speak English before they can speak Vietnamese,” he says, flushed from the wine. “They don’t go to school. They follow tourists and try to sell them stuff.”
Within minutes, he is sleeping soundly. I fall asleep but wake up soon after, tossing and turning in the darkness. A few feet away the tent flap has come undone, and the wind rushes in, sharp and blistering. I burrow into the hood of my sleeping bag.
Waking again, I see a fierce white light through the crack in the tent. The wind feels more bearable in the sun. A hurried bowl of ramen noodles laden with cabbage and strips of soft omelet, and then we’re headed for the summit.

The first few minutes are easy walking, and we keep a rapid pace. When we emerge from the shade of the bamboo forest, Dung lets out an ear-splitting “Woo!” He is always happy, bounding up the mountain in a red fedora and tight jeans. It seems like not even the cold can unnerve him. I step up a final rock after him, onto a broad plateau.

We’re above the clouds now: surrounded by the gentle curves of terra cotta peaks, speckled with trees, and beyond that harsher green ridges. In front of us the mountain slopes upwards, and someone asks if that’s the summit. Dung laughs.
Now we are clambering up boulders again, and the rest breaks grow more frequent. We are not talking anymore, only dragging ourselves forwards with vines and carefully placed bamboo rods.
The current record for scaling Fansipan is one hour and thirty-five minutes. We feel accomplished enough when, two and a half hours after leaving camp, we stumble up the last incline onto flat ground.

The wind hits hard at the summit. Clouds drift across sprawling ridges, mountains that would seem formidable if we were standing anywhere other than the peak of Fansipan.

Somewhere down the Himalayan chain, Mount Everest beckons. Three thousand metres in the air, gazing into the foggy blue distance, I feel a little closer to reaching it.
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