Off to Five Fingers
Trek Across Five Fingers
In no way do I consider myself Herculean, although I do fancy myself in reasonable physical condition; I work out religiously five days a week. Yet tonight, 10/8/13, I am drained of energy, hobbled by lameness of the limbs and punctured by a heady assortment of thorns, insects and leaches.
On Saturday, Oct 5th, after a frenzy of organizing the gear we felt necessary for two nights on the mountain, we left for the trail head -about an hours drive from our hill station of Sa Pa, passing the devastated village of Ban Khoang enroute; a landslide there three weeks prior during heavy rains had sadly swept much of the settlement away while taking the lives of 12. Near the trailhead, we stopped to pick up our prearranged local guide who waited for us along the road. Our own guide, Uoc le Huu, had never before taken this route that was meant to take two long days.
Our less than ideal camping site on our trek across the mountain
Predicatably, our trail lead immediately up through pastures with sweeps of Luculia, Osbeckia and Oxyspora, all in full blossom and none of which are grazed by water buffalo; the latter two would be easily recognized as members of the Tibouchina family, Melastomataceae, while the former, in the coffee family, carried beautiful heads of fragrant pink flowers.
Within three hours of hiking, we were well into the lower jungle, slipping and sliding our way up steep, extremely deep, eroded tracks of red clay Though the day was warm and dry, the leaches were particularly bad in open areas where buffalo had grazed. At 6,000', recognizable hardy trees and shrubs began to appear, of course in concert with many subtropical genera; amongst these were Hydrangea (aff heteromalla), Acer, Magnolia and Cornus. The Hydrangea was most curious, possessing the foliage of what I consider to be typical for H. heteromalla ( related to Hydrangea paniculata ) but with the lovely bi -colored flowers normally seen in Hydrangea aspera and its kin.
A curious Hydrangea found along our hike on Five Fingers with foliage of H. heteromalla and flowers similar to H. aspera.
The barely discernible path, used primarily by local cardamom farmers, took us to a razor back ridge, often less than 18" wide, falling away precipitously on either side; the sparse thickets of thin stemmed Sasa bamboo gave us only a false sense of security. Where the ridge widened, an enormous assemblage of Rhododendron species were found, including a most curious autumn flowering species with wide spreading flowers of gamboges; it was Rhododendron sororium, one of the hardiest of the so called Vireya species normally found in the sub tropics. Here too were large specimens of Daphniphyllum and a striking species found within the witch hazel family- Rhodoleia- whose buds were soon to open to startling cerise flowers.
As we occasionally dropped on either side of the ridge, into the shadows, we were treated to a richness of shade loving minions, including ferns, Begonias, Disporum, Polygonatum and, of course, epiphytic orchids. Most excitedly, we observed an epiphytic lily high on a fern covered tree trunk which may prove to be Lilium arbicolon. Along a stretch of 150' or so, we marveled in extremely tall stands of a sensational fern, Dipteris sinensis. This most curious and beautiful fern refuses to be brought into cultivation although it seldom prevents us from collecting spore for yet another try.
By 5:30 pm, and still 1000' below the pass we were meant to cross, the decision was made to set camp, well above any source of water and with a paucity of any ground considered tent worthy. By 7, the stars shone brightly with the occasional firefly bejeweling the darkness of the surrounding forest. Our porters and guide set to preparing a splendid meal over coals in the middle of the path itself. That night, the starry skies were extinguished by heavy downpours of rain that would continue throughout the next day.
Early the next morning we were on the move again soon after post dawn breakfast. The trail showed no forgiveness, leading us straight up to yet another razor back above. Along the way, we found one of our target species, Magnolia cathcartii. This evergreen rarity is little understood and mostly unknown in cultivation. The forest here was primarily comprised of enormous specimens of Illicium ( the genus from which star anise arises ), Magnolias, evergreen species of maple and a snowbell relative known as Rhederodendron. The later littered the forest floor with walnut sized fruit which must decompose over many years before germination can result. In late winter, the hillsides here must appear to be covered in a dusting of late snowfall when they are in full blossom.
Once achieving the precipitous ridge, we were forced across exposed landslips that, speaking for entirety or our party, were well beyond our comfort considering we had not secured rope for such situations; fortunately our local guide sensed our concern and showed us foot holds, though for nearly 100' up a sheer and wet granite ledge we had only tufts of a short sedge on which to hold.
Ozzie Johnson holds the foliage of Dipteris conjugata, a remarkable but notoriously difficult fern species
Taking a short break at the top of the pass at 11:30, and knowing that we had miles ahead, we immediately set down the other side of the pass, lulled into complacency by a relatively gentle slope through tall bamboo and few rocks to negotiate. Here grew a species of Polygonatum or Disporopsis of which I had not yet encountered, with brilliant purple fruit. Slightly below, at 8020', we entered into a wonderland of dozens if not hundreds of specimens of Magnolia sapaensis, a species not described until two years ago. Though rare in cultivation, it was hardly rare here, and the added altitude in which there grew may offer hardier forms to cultivation.. Also growing here is one of the most handsome and hardiest of the Scheffleras, S. alpinia, whose new growth in spring is cloaked by a seductively beautiful purple indumentum.
Rather than dropping in altitude as we expected, our guide took us on a seemingly endless traverse across the steep slopes, down into drainages, across swollen creeks, and back up again; holding steady at 8,000' until 1:30pm when we broke for lunch. An abandoned Cardamom drying hut served as a redoubt from the rain that continued to fall heavily.
Though we realized we were in for a long afternoon, it did not prevent us from taking time to admire the diversity of Begonias that grew along the trail, some with enormous leaves to 15" across, others with brilliant flowers and handsomely mottled foliage.
At 4:30 pm, after fording the main river drainage for the 5th time, and climbing (yet again) to ledges above in order to avoid areas too steep along the river itself, and with our legs showing signs of less confidence in each step, doubt grew amongst our party that our local guide was even remotely familiar with this side of the mountain. He assured us there was only an hour left to the closest road so all continued, some with less reserve than others. The ascents after each fording proved to be as precarious as the previous.
At 6 pm, with darkness closing in, and a crescent moon above towing Venus on a taught line, Scott and I, ahead of the others with our local guide by a full hour, made the decision to halt. The area was riverside, relatively flat but extremely wet. An hour later, the remainder of the party arrived with torches, crossing the river and collapsing in exhaustion. There remained 3 packages of ramen noodles to feed 11. The porters set to cutting banana trees for their bedding, while pealing the pith from the stems and chopping the flowers for their soup.
There was a mishap with the lighter during the night, so we were unable to boil water for the remaining hike out. My morning meal consisted of a package of Starbucks instant coffee dissolved in a cup of water with a tablespoon of Gatorade; delicious and sustaining. Our anxious drivers met us along the road, a welcomed sight indeed, at noon the following day. All is well that ends well; the adventure will long remain vivid in our memories.
Nearly to the road at the opposite side of 5 fingers three days later, with splendid views of Fan Xi Phan, the highest mountain in Indochina. Osbeckia crinita blossoms in the foreground
The fruit of Rhederodendron, a member of the Styrax family common in the upper elevation forests of northern Vietnam.
Ban Quan to Bat Dai San
A mid morning departure from SaPa on 10/8/13 allowed for our boots and associated gear to be dried at a local laundry, but would put us to our destination much later than we had hoped. The 8 hour drive to the northeast, through idyllic minority villages in a celebratory mood at the height of the rice harvest, would take us to the frontier town of Ban Quan. It is a modest and remote town built amidst a fanciful and highly weathered geology of karst limestone. Arising even amongst the town itself are symmetrical cones several hundred feet high, suggesting more ancient ruins of a former civilization than a natural geological process.
I was last here in 2006 to look for a newly described conifer whose official taxonomic nomenclature continues to transmute between the genera of Xanthocyparis, Callitropsis, Cupressus and Chamaecyparis. Though the few remaining specimens in the wild are native to relatively low elevations of about 4000', I have been encouraged by its hardiness and handsome growth habit in my garden from my collections on that year. Severe reduction of its numbers left in the wild continues due to deforestation for building and firewood. Subsequent visits by Ozzie Johnson and Scott McMahan during our 2008 trip here revealed other fascinating conifers, piquing our interest to return again for a more detailed survey of this area.
To the north of Ban Quan exists a series of peaks running east/west called collectively Bat Dai San (9 Peak Mountain) in the altitudinal range of five to seven thousand feet. Our attempts to reach altitude during previous trips here were from the river valley on the northern flank; though the pitch was much steeper, the total mileage to the altitude we sought was considerably less. Today, however, we would begin our trek on the Ban Quan plateau, and hike across the width of the range and down to the river on the northern flank; a gentler incline up and over but a considerably longer distance.
A single inquiry at a local farmhouse, with the aid of a photo on my phone, and of course the interpretive skills of our guide Uoc, commenced a discussion of the trees that the farmer had cut from the hills in the distance. He scraped away the outer tissue of an old beam supporting the roof of his pig sty to reveal the aroma (indeed along with associated after notes of its current use) of a highly resinous conifer. Within minutes, he had packed his basket; we swung our packs on our backs and began to follow him with our own porters leading the charge.
Though weathered karst provides good footholds forclimbing, the associated sinkholes and ledges camouflaged by vegetation does not allow one to look at plants and safely walk at the same time. Our pace was slow, but even at 3000', the rock formations here-refugia from grazing livestock- offered a fascinating and unexpected inventory of plants to keep us entertained;. Begonias, Asarums, Polygonatums, ferns and a plenitude of orchids.
We met numerous local people, nearly always women, carrying large loads of firewood on their backs, confirming the existence of forests ahead as well as the continued human pressure on the last intact remnants of anything that had once existed here.
Within three hours of hiking we had gained 1000' in elevation and entered the welcomed shade of trees and taller shrubs. Sadly the largest trees here had recently been felled, no longer by the axe but by chainsaws, portending the accelerated pace of future deforestation in the years ahead. Still, calls of Latin commenced from ours party as each of us recognized those things our individual eyes were most conditioned to see: Andrew; Magnolia, Ozzie; Aucuba chinensis var chinensis, Scott;Amentotaxus, myself;Acer.
At 1:30, our breakfast of noodle soup had worn thin and we stopped for lunch at a saddle of 4000'. As leeches were prevalent along the trail, I suggested we climb to the top of the knoll to take advantage of the distant views and much desired breeze. It was a fortuitous decision, as we settled ourselves into a paradise of botany, enjoying the satisfying shade of one of the rarest conifers on earth. Around a wizened and partially cut specimen of Xanthocyparis, where we contentedly dined on sticky rice, grew no less than five additional conifers, including Cephalotaxus, Keeteleria and Podocarpus. Here too grew a splendidly foliaged Mahonia in late flower, while both Disporum and a dwarf evergreen Polygonatum conjoined a thick carpet of orchids that cloaked every available surface of rock or bark. With hours of walking ahead, however, we were forced to leave this splendid territory all too soon.
Our altitude remained steady for another three hours, stopping briefly in an isolated Dao homestead where we were invited inside for a glass of hot water and a small cup of rice spirits. Across the door of one of the two rammed-earth homes here had been hung a freshly cut stem of tobacco, a sign forbidding entrance due to a recent birth.
Dusk enveloped the slopes and valleys as we began our steep descent to the river below, but not before we gathered foliage for later identification of two additional Magnolias. Excitedly, three sausage shaped fruit of a Holboellia were found on stems clambering through the shrubs and trees growing trail side. My associates at Monrovia Growers know too well my annoying commitment to this genus of mostly underappreciated evergreen vines that blossom in late winter. This collection possessed the most leathery 5-parted leaves of the many species I have collected and introduced over the years.
Frank Kingdon-Ward, a plant collector during the early years of the 20th century said it best. Plant hunting is a process consisting of days of mind numbing boredom interspersed with seconds of undiluted joy. We climbed into our transport at dark , again a crescent moon stained to apricot by the smoke of burning rice rose in the eastern sky, and we were satiated in a way that only those who look for plants can fully understand.
Daniel J Hinkley
Climb to Fan Xi Phan
While en route to SaPa from Ha Giang, the four of us had hastily changed our game plan to finish our time together in Vietnam. Perhaps it was the diversity of what had been seen at higher elevations of the NE combined in equal parts of simply wanting to witness another part of the country; in any event, Scott, Ozzie and Andrew decided to drive with Uoc to examine possible future areas of examination, while it was decided I would hike up the north side of Fan Xi Phan over two days, on a route I had never done previously. I was more than happy to put my boots on again and hit the trail. And while I had seen the NW of the country in 2006 during an extended trip here, I had never seen this side of Vietnam's highest mountain during my many visits here.
The four of us left our lodgings in the early morning at about the same time. The skies were lucid with no portent of change in the weather. Other than a glitch in translation at the trail head between my guide and myself ( his six words in English vs. my four words in Vietnamese) our porter, he and I were hiking on familiar ground by 8am.
To have said that I had not been this way before on Fan Xi Phan is quite dishonest. In 1999, this was no man's land with no decipherable trail system; Bleddyn Wynn-Jones and I had wandered these very same slopes, in an erratic fashion. In 2005 and 2006, I had penetrated deeper into the mountain and hiked along the river drainages that abound here. In 2010, Scott, Ozzie and I began at the same trailhead, though we split from the trail at mid day on a more southerly route to the top, in pounding rain. Today, the weather was resplendent and I was buoyant with the hopes of seeing new territory and new plants.
In 2010, we had stopped for lunch fully drenched at what we referred to, at that time, as Camp Dismal. It had been cold and very wet, and we had huddled under a tarp covered structure for a bowl of hot noodles and instant coffee. Today, though warm and with no need to sit inside the hut, there was outside the troubling ordeal of a slaughter of a dog, so I again retreated as far as I could into this redoubt. ( the locals taste for dog tends to zenith during the new moon of October, as this was) For one with an enormous affinity to all things canine, it was not pleasant, however I realize the need to transfer such emotions to another cultural plane. I took the extra moments before we left after lunch to provide affection to two additional dogs on short chains near the camp, and give them the excess from my copious quantities food.
The forests here were remarkable and recognizable. At 7500', the lower elevation forms of Schefflera hoi ( hardy in the PNW ) were prevalent, as were numerous species of Magnolia, Oaks, Begonia and members of the Ginger Family ( Zingiberidaceae). Camellias, as well as their close relatives, Eurya, Cleyera and Polyspora, were common as were many members of the Erica family; Rhododendron, Gaultheria, Lyonias, Pieris and Vaccinium.
The going got predictably more challenging as we broke away from our 2010 route and began to head up a series of ridges that would take me to the top of the mountain. This is no longer an uncommon route to the top of the 'Rooftop of Indochina'- in fact, it was the height of trekking season here with too many ill-equipeed, unconditioned tourists that had perhaps been sold on the easiness of the experience by guiding companies eager for the trade. I met up with more than one party hastily retreating due to various and sundry reasons.
As we gained in altitude, towards 9,000', the plants became increasingly exciting, just as the oxygen began to diminish. Our first large leaved Rhododondron, R. sino-falconeri, became prevalent, with leathery foliage to 12" in length. One of the hardiest of the Schefflera, S. alpinia, became common, while even denizens of upper altitudes- Streptopus, Maianthemum and Primula, became commonplace. In just over a thousand feet, I had traveled, botanically speaking, from Louisiana to northern British Columbia.
My guide and porter stopped my progress at just over 9,000 feet. The light had diminished, the air had cooled and a new moon rose in the eastern sky. My guide, porter and I shared a wonderful meal prepared by them, of fried spring rolls, chicken, fried morning glory vine and rice; I was satiated and quite cold and was fast asleep in my tent by 7:30pm. A midnight call took me outside of my tent to a hyper-chilled infinity of stars and planets and those streaks and stripes across the sky that had once been stars or planets or will become them again.
By prearrangement, or ostensibly so, I was to be awoken by 5:30 am for a cup of coffee and a quickened push up the final 1400' to the summit. My wakeup time and light breakfast was lost in translation, as a platter of delicious crepes with honey and banana in sufficient quantity to feed a sizeable Russian assault force was brought to my tent in darkness.
Only Zin, our porter, and I set off for the peak, leaving our camp at 6:45 am, leaving behind my guide. Though I was irritated to have been leaving later than I had anticipated, had I been hiking with my headlight only, I would have missed much of the very truncated bands of numerous species that quickly came and departed along the route. Short stops were made to observe superb specimens of Rhodoendron, Lindera and Schefflera. Especially exciting, a species of a bold foliaged Senecio were observed along the way towards the top and one that I feel deserves greater trial.
We lingered only shortly at the peak; the weather and views were splendid however I had eight hours of hiking ahead of me, over an hour's drive to my accommodation, and hours of extricating the collections from my bags and applying accurate collection data. In truth, I believe I irritated my guide and porter by my pace down slope, who were collectively relieved when I saw a plant that deserved greater inspection, allowing them a breather from the pace. How gratifying it is to make someone more youthful than one's self actually feel resentment…. Yet, I knew the work ahead and our imminent departure from SaPa the following evening for the night train to Ha Noi.
With stars and moons, lovely souls and a fantastic intact flora, this will remain in my memory one of the best hikes I have experienced during my numerous trips to northern Vietnam. Andrew, Scott and Ozzie, bone shaken and dust covered from roads and new hydro projects under construction that had imploded their efforts to get to elevation, and I reconnoitered the following morning to share our collective experiences.
Our eyes were upon our departure the following evening, and fully realizing precisely how much work we had to accomplish before our farewell to this remarkable country.