Top of the world, ma! Well, Indo-China anyway

It didn’t break that promise. I was woken as promised/threatened at 6am for a healthy noodle soup breakfast. Just before 7am we started the assault on Mt Fansipan.

Briefly through forest and onto mountain path, the route seemed not too troublesome. We ambled past some mountain goats (I’m assuming they were mountain goats. Goats. On mountain. Mountain goats). They were possibly the healthiest goats I’ve ever seen, though they’d have had a damn good wash in the pelting rain overnight.

The way got harder. And harder. I can honestly say that I don’t think I have ever attempted anything as physically demanding. I can only wonder if I’d have found it any easier immediately after I left the UK and 12 months of well-used gym membership.

The route seemed ot be getting steeper. As we climbed higher, mud also became a factor. At 2800m we passed a hut used on the 3-day trips.

After this is the hardest section.

As we progressed – slowly – I asked Paó “how much longer?”

“Half an hour. No more,” was the welcome reply. Any longer and I’d have handed him my camera with orders to get pictures from the top. Then Photoshop would have been my best friend and none of you would have been any the wiser!

Somehow, don’t ask me how, we made it. Paó let me go up first. It was 9:25. 2 1/2 hours after we started. My legs ached. My lungs burned. My head was light. I didn’t care. I literally danced around the monument at the peak, unaware of the cold wind blowing over.

I barely even noticed the chill round my nethers courtesy of the stitching in my cheap Nepalese trousers giving way early in the day. At least that had made it easier to take some of the larger steps required to get up some of the steeper parts.

I’d been concerned that there’d not be a decent view when I got to the top due to cloud. I needn’t have worried. Not because there was a view – there wasn’t – but because I simply didn’t care. I’d done it.

For those few minutes I was the highest person in all of Indochina. That’s well over a billion people. In fact, I’m fairly certain that’s the highest I’ve ever been outside of an aeroplane. OK, not including the skydive I did in Taupo.

As the cold started to bite, along with hunger pangs, we began our descent. The easy bit. Right? Wrong.

On the way up, it’s a lot of effort. For those who’ve forgotten why, go back to physics class. For those who didn’t do physics, why not? It’s a great science.

Oh, OK then. When you go up, you’re pushing against gravity. Gravity’s like that stubborn kid in class who had no friends and probably turned into the school bully. It pushes back. So it’s more work (that’s a technical physics term – seriously) to go up than down or along. Unless you’re sat in a plane or stood in a lift or something. Anyway, the assumption is that down is easier, especially as on the way up the air is thinner so you get less oxygen with each breath.

Now, if you could curl into a ball and roll down, or slide down a 3000m helter skelter then great. Big bad gravity becomes your friend. But walking and jumping down plays merry hell with your knees and calves. It’s also very easy to slip. Gravity still shoves you down, often faster than you want to go.

As we neared the rest stop we’d started from, I actually looked forward to the handful of upwards sections. They gave my knees and calves a rest. On the other hand, they were the sections where the burst blisters on my heels rubbed on my boots.

Finally, another 2 1/2 hours later, we reached the village for lunch. Four French people had arrived at stage 1 of their 3-day clamber and as I sat necking my expensive but welcome Coke (d15,000), two more arrived who I recognised from Hanoi.

Our natter was ended by Paó calling for lunch, which we wolfed down before I gingerly donned by socks and boots for the final section.

The path was certainly less steep than the leg down form the summit. We passed several large groups – I think all Japanese – who had stopped for rests or who were simply struggling to get up some sections. They were all easily 20-30 years younger than the Japanese gent I’d seen the day before and far less fit than he was! I really held out little hope of many of them making the summit.

We went past a few spots I recognised from our walk up the previous day, and the ground got more treacherous the further we got. All the water from the rains had run downhill (damn you, gravity) making earth muddy and rock slippy. As we walked through an open area of grassland, thunder sounded. Within a couple of minutes, rain was belting down all around us.

Quickly, we unpacked and donned waterproof jackets and kept trudging. And sliding. And slipping. And falling over. OK, that was mainly me. Paó was wearing trainers by this stage. Wet, but with good grip on the rock. I fell over maybe five times, managing to gash my hand on one of my downward expeditions. Alright, it’s more of a nick, but “gash” sounds more dramatic.

My feet were soaked. Although my boots are waterproof, the driving rain drenched my trousers which transferred the water to my socks – and the traitors opened the way for water to spill into my boots. Then the insoles started to slip around and my toes got jammed to the front with every downward step. Ow.

As the rain eased, the sun came out. By the time we had passed through a quiet village, the waterproofs were repacked, socks wrung out and footsteps somewhat less squishy. We proceeded down one of Sapa’s stunning valleys along a riverside to a slightly busier village where a 4×4 waited to take us back to the town. Paó pointed out Fansipan from where we were. I couldn’t believe I’d walked all the way from there. And the top was still covered in cloud.

From peak to jeep was around seven hours including the lunch stop. Amazingly, allowing for the annoying wrinkly insoles, I felt like I could walk for another seven. I guess I was just relieved to be on flat ground.

I’m incredibly happy I did it was only minor casualties – two blisters, one cut, one pair of trousers (repairable) and every muscle from my waist down likely to ache like merry hell come morning. But the best things in life don’t come easy. I’d never do it again… but then – I don’t have to.

I asked Paó how many times he’d climbed Fansipan and his answer was “Today is 42”. I couldn’t explain to him why I found this so funny!

5 thoughts on “Top of the world, ma! Well, Indo-China anyway

    • 52? Absolutely as long as they (you?) are reasonably physically fit. The last stretch up to the summit is quite steep, but a good guide will let you take your own time.

      The Japanese man I saw on his way down was definitely older than 52. I’d say that anyone with any reasonable level of fitness should be able to do it. The challenge will depend on how quickly you want to do it.

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  2. Hi Mosher,
    I am looking for references to climb Fansipan in November.
    I am from Spain and I don’t know if I understand very well your post.

    You said you go up and down in one day (7hours) and that you are not very fit ?

    I was looking to do it in 2 days because I read lots of people saying it was difficult, but I climb mountains in Spain, walking more than 10 hours in one day, so I am thinking to do it in one day.

    Can you tell me how much did it cost to you ? And do you have the contact of the guide ?

    Thx a lot !

    • Hi Alex!

      Easy question first – sorry, I do not have contact details for the guide. I booked my trip through the Hanoi Backpackers’ Hostel ( when I was staying there. They organised everything for me, including the train to Lao Cai, bus transfer, guide, accommodation…

      At the time I was quite fit, but the day was *very* hard. Usually it is three days, I asked to do it in 2. Normally this would not be too difficult as the guide *should* have taken me most of the way up on the first day. On the second day, there should only be a short walk to the summit and then all the way back down.

      Instead, we climbed only a small amount the first day and arrived at a camp much lower down the mountain at an early hour. As a result, the second day was a very early start and a *long* climb. I did meet one man who did the whole thing in one day and he said it was very hard work indeed.

      If you are fit, I would say you will find 2 days – if your guide splits it properly – a nice challenge and about right. There are not (or at the time I did the climb there were not) many guides who would do the trip in a single day. This may have changed.

      I hope this helps. Please do get in touch if I can make things any clearer 🙂

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