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February 02, 2005

Climbing Doi Chiang Dao: Part 1

I have conquered alot of mountains in my time.

Doi Chiang Dao nearly conquered me.

As usual, I woke early on Sunday morning, watched the sunrise and packed my backpack. Our hostess, Wiccha, had requested that we catch an early breakfast and get started on our climb before the weather got hot. Likewise, the resort was having their annual "kitchen blessing" that morning, and the place would soon be crawling with guests, monks, and family members.

By 8:30, the place was busy and we were itching to leave. We stashed our bags in Wiccha's bungalow and met our guides for the trek, who would soon become our saviours. Our guide was Rung (pronounced: "Lung"), a 41 year old Thai man who didn't know any English other than "okay". He stood around 5'6" and had a wirey frame. His young assistant, Chat, was 23 and similarly built. Wiccha teased us that we would get to practice our Thai skills, and indeed we did.

The four of us hopped in the back of a Nissan truck along with our packs, tents, and food. We drove about 20 minutes through the woods to the entrance of Doi Chiang Dao National Park. Thailand has alot of national parks, but very few of them are properly funded. In this case, the park had a few basic services, but the trails were not maintained and the roads were rough.

Our driver dropped us off about a mile up the road on the side of the mountain, and we gathered out belongings together. I nearly flipped when I saw what our guides were using as backpacks. They had tents, sleeping bags, cooking utensils (like pots and pans), and enough food and water for four people. They stuffed all of this into rice sacks onto which they tied towels for shoulder straps. Once the straps were on, they continued to tie additional gear (like a frying pan) to the rice sack until they were totally stuffed.

The bags looked like they weighed a ton. Being a regular hiker, I started to feel a little self-conscious that these guys were carrying so much weight. I saw a large Coke bottle full of water sitting on the ground, so I offered to stuff it into my pack. They looked at each other and snickered.

"Okay", said Rung. I stuffed the bottle into my bag along with my fleece, clothes, and additional water bottles.

Before we ventured up the trail, Rung pulled out a tin of tobacco and rolled himself a cigarette. Then he proceeded up the hill with his huge pack on his back and smoking like a chimney. His assistant, Chat, stayed behind and followed far behind for most of the day.

The first thing I noticed about the trail was the incline. Unlike most American national parks, which have a 20 to 30 degree incline, this trail headed almost straight up the side of the ridge with inclines of 30 degrees (in the flatter areas) to 60 degrees in the steep areas. After 20 minutes of this torture, Rung stopped to let the fat American take a break. I felt like my heart was gonna leap out of my chest. Rung merely rolled another cigarette and pulled out a glass bottle of energy drink (similar to Red Bull, but without the carbonation). When he was done, he through the bottle on the ground along with the butt of his cigarette, which we learned was a widely-practiced habit. The entire mountain was littered with the trash of previous treks.

Eventually we were back on the trail climbing through dense brush, palms, and thick bamboo forests. An hour later, we cleared the trees and got our first glimpse of the countryside. In the distance we could see more mountains and a nearby Lisu village. As we climbed the massive ridge, we occasionally stopped to take breaks and exchange simple words in Thai. We would take turns flipping through my Thai phrasebook and laughing.

We cleared the ridge around 11:30am. At this point, the trail took a sudden turn downhill into a flat jungle thicket consisting of banana trees, ferns, and shoulder-high grass. Under the shade of some trees, we ran across another group of trekkers who were coming down from the mountain. A very friendly (and gorgeous!) Thai girl approached us and spoke to us in good English. She told us about the mountain, about their group (8 trekkers and 13 guides/assistants), and about their bus ride from Bangkok. Her friends were friendly, too, although they were not as fluent with English.

After our break, we proceeded across the plateau to another banana thicket. We stopped for lunch and an extended break. Lunch consisted of fried chicken wings, fried eggs, fried rice, small cookies, and apples. Rung smoked another couple of cigarettes before motioning us to start climbing again.

The trail went straight up another ridge with spectacular views of the mountains. By this time, our legs were screaming at us. Shaunna is much better climbing up mountains than I am. On the flip, I am better coming down than she. On this trip, both of us were challenged well beyond our abilities. I have climbed taller, larger mountains than Doi Chiang Dao, but the incline nearly put me under. At times the steep trail headed straight up through rocks, under fallen trees, around bamboo thickets and into dense brush. We had to grab onto vines, roots, plants and anything else in order to prevent from falling over backwards and plummeting down the trail.

We asked Rung about monkeys (called "ling" in Thai), and he motioned for us to look up into the trees. Despite our efforts, we never saw any monkeys, but once we could hear them scampering around in a thick area of vines and trees. This was a pretty big let-down.

At 4:30 we reached our campsite which sat just under the peak. The place was littered with trash and ash from past campfires. Rung and Chat set up camp as Shaunna and I rested our lungs. The site itself sat in the middle of a bowl surrounded by peaks. The view was stunning.

At this point I noticed how incredible Shaunna is. I've known alot of people (women in particular) who will not go camping in the backwoods. Mountain climbing would be absolutely out of the question. Although she is still new to the adventure, Shaunna has never turned me down when I proposed a mountain hike. Instead, she toughens up, grabs her gear and tackles the challenge. Sitting underneath the peak, she looked composed and somewhat relaxed, while I was sitting back, sweating bullets, and praying that my heart would hang on.

At 5pm, Rung motioned to us to head towards the peak. We dropped all of our gear except for our camera, water and flashlights. He rolled another cigarette (like the 12th one by this time) and guided us up another steep set of rocky paths.

The view from the top was amazing. Northern Thailand is filled with mountains, plateaus, and scenic bluffs. We couldn't see too far thanks to the surrounding fires and smog, but the silhouettes of mountains filled the skyline. We took pictures and enjoyed the scenery a bit before heading back down towards the campsite.

Posted by coywest on February 2, 2005 02:55 PM
Category: Out and About

wow! stellar! that would have killed me. yall are amazing!

Posted by: wendy on February 2, 2005 11:07 PM

bad ass! this post rocked - damn I cant wait to see all the pictures from this trip..

lets face it coy, our ladies our tougher than we are :) hee hee!!!

Posted by: waxmatik on February 4, 2005 12:23 AM

wow! this sounds awesome! I've climed emory peak, the tallest in big bend natl. park, twice now. the last mile that actuallly goes up to the summit is really really steep too. this sounds so cool. i love hiking so much. I know I would have just loved this trek. I'll make it happen one day!

Posted by: alex ferrier on February 4, 2005 12:39 AM
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