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.
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.
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.
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.