Getting to the Mountain… Not as Easy as it Looks
My alarm woke me up at 0400. It was time to stumble out of bed after 2 hours of sleep. The taxi will arrive at 0430 to take us as close as he can to Phnom Aural. There’s no coffee today…
We were supposed to be doing all this yesterday, but as yesterday approached we quickly realized we were dreadfully unprepared for this climb. The biggest issue of the climb is actually just getting to the mountain. It’s definitely a hair short of being known as a popular mountain to climb. Originally in our planning we couldn’t even figure out where to go because none of the villages are labelled on Google Maps. There was the Cambodia Expeditions way to go which cost a whopping $1,000. Yea, wasn’t doing that. Finally just two days before leaving I stumbled across an older blog from 2011 that was written in pretty brilliant detail and gave us the information we needed to get to the mountain. Hopefully this helps one of you one day as well.
We attempted to pack light but my pack was still around 40 pounds. I decided to carry my big pack and put the majority of supplies in it so we could store our gear we didn’t need in Joey’s big pack back at the hostel. Joey carried a day bag with camera equipment and a few supplies at about 15 pounds. It wasn’t my first hump so I wasn’t concerned about 40 pounds especially since half of that was water and would diminish over the course of the hike.
Paly met us downstairs just before 0430. We asked him originally if he wanted to climb the mountain with us but he could not get the the time off work. Thankfully however, he agreed to ride out with us to the villages and help us find out where we need to go and who we need to talk to. Paly for the win again! We highly recommend you find an English speaking local in Phnom Penh to bring along as an interpreter if you plan on climbing the mountain. No one in the villages speaks English.
We met the taxi driver and informed him how to get to where we need to go with the little information we had which was a google pin in the middle of nowhere with a lat/long grid, and the name of a village… Srae Kan. It’s a little over two hours from Phnom Penh to arrive at the end of the paved road. There’s a lot of dirt roads leading to many villages so the taxi driver and Paly stop and ask some shop owners for directions. They point us down one of the dirt roads and we are off.
We’re starting to really see Cambodian village life for the first time. All the houses are built on stilts 10-12 feet tall to protect them from floods. The fields are a sea of green from rice paddies and sugar cane nearing their time for harvest and small heards of giant white cows linger on the roadside with no fence to keep them confined. More than once we have to stop and wait for cows to get out of our way.
Srae Kan is actually a collection of three villages lined along a 10 mile strip of dirt road and are so originally named Srae Kan1, Srae Kan 2, and Srae Kan 3 in order from largest to smallest. Srae Kan 3 is where you need to go. It’s the village under the mountain and where all the guides live. The taxi can only get us to what I assume is a community center in Srae Kan 2 before the road gets too small for cars. Just getting us to Srae Kan 2 put some wear and tear on the taxi and he refuses to come back down that road again, so on our return we’ll need to find a way to get ten miles back to the paved road.
There are some men lying in the hammocks at this little community center so we go out to talk to them. After we tell them what we want, they make a phone call for us to the head guide in Srae Kan 3. They claim he speaks English but I think he knows about 20 words and most of them had to do with him getting paid. He originally tells us on the phone that he was sending motorbikes to pick us up, so we pick a hammock and chill out for a bit. Paly and the taxi driver assume we are good and take off back to Phnom Penh. Ten minutes later, a local at the community center brings us his phone and it’s the head guide again. In very broken English he says “No motorbike, I wait here you.” Great….
Srae Kan 3 is also known as a logging village and has these lorrys coming in and out. They come out with logs but they go in with a nice empty flat bed so we hop on a lorry bound for Srae Kan 3 and he knows exactly where we want to go. After a bumpy 30 minute ride we arrive at the house of the head guide. The head guide doesn’t actually guide anymore, he handles the money and assigns the actual guide that will take us up the mountain. Our guide we are assigned is named John, or so they say. We go to negotiate the price and pretty much get shafted. It’s currently the wet season in Cambodia and very few people want to climb a jungle mountain knowing it rains almost everyday, so business isn’t good for them this time of year. So to make up lost wages, they raise the price of everything. Instead of 25-30 dollars a day in the dry season, they adamantly wanted 40 dollars a day from us. It takes ten minutes of negotiating just to get the price down to $35 a day. We agree to pay it and with that there is nothing left to do but climb this mountain!
Ascent to High Camp
Before we can begin climbing the actual mountain we have to hike the 6 miles between Srae Kan 3 and the base of Aural. Normally climbers take motorbikes to and from the base saving their energy for the ascent, but we do not have that option this morning. So, off we stepped. It’s miserably hot outside as you would expect during the summer in Southeast Asia. As I’ve also mentioned it’s the wet season so we are hiking around giant puddles of green mucky water, a prime habitat for mosquitoes. Soon puddles turn into streams that we have to cross. There are three or four, luckily never more than knee deep and they are crystal clear, running off the mountain.
After two hours of humping under the brutal sun with no shade or cloud coverage, we get to the last stream and decide to take our first rest here, cooling off in the chilled mountain water. It felt amazing, however, all good things come to an end. After ten minutes we’re off again.
The trail that is used at the base of the mountain is a logger road that is still traversed by lorrys. It starts off pretty flat with bamboo on either side. Sometimes the bamboo forms a big archway blocking the sun which is nice. Soon the road begins a gentle incline. At this point we are walking above the mountains main river. We can hear it rushing below us and can see that there is clearly a canyon to our right but the jungle is to thick to see down to the river. The sound of the rushing water only reminds us how hot it is.
About 45 minutes up the mountain we come to camp 1. There is a tarp over a wooden table and a lot of trash around. This is clearly a rest area used by many locals and will be our next rest area as well. There is one last small creek at this stop where we can use an empty bottle to pour chilled water over us to cool off some more. It’s easily 95 degree today with high humidity. It’s at this stop that we begin to worry that we did not pack enough water for this hike. We decide we need to start taking it easy on how much we consume. We eat a snack and the guide shares some rice with us and then we are off again.
The gradual incline has been left behind now as the mountain steepens to almost a natural staircase. The past couple of days I had been developing some minor flu or cold like symptoms and only getting 2 hours of sleep the night before really brought them out. I feel absolutely wrecked climbing this mountain. I cant breath and part of me wants to throw up while i’m also just generally tired from lack of sleep and in a haze from lack of caffeine. I see it as a challenge and a test of my mental endurance and take it in stride. I will summit this mountain.
We get to our next stop after about another 45 minutes. Some big flat boulders with a clearing in the trees. It was the only real view from the jungle covered mountain but it was spectacular overlooking the valley. ten minutes later and we’re off again. Had I stayed there any longer I would’ve fallen asleep.
We keep climbing for hours with breaks now every 30 minutes and watch as our water supply dwindles away at every stop. 3 hours after beginning our ascent the trail starts to level off. We think we are getting close to High Camp but we keep on pushing. We don’t have an issue with mosquitoes because we sprayed our clothing with DEET 100 before stepping off, but that doesn’t stop the gnats from annoying the piss out of us by flying in and around our hair and ears. At one stop there is also bees and for some reason they quite fancied just me. For 10 minutes I have several bees flying around me and landing on me. Even following me up the mountain a hundred feet or so.
We keep hiking over a relatively flat trail for quite a bit before it starts to descend. It descends a lot. That’s when I realize that Aural is a fat mountain and we hiked up the side opposite of the peak. We are following the ridge of the mountain and it has to dip before ascending even higher. A nice little hit in the morale as we’ve been hiking almost 6 hours now including the hike to the mountain, and at this point I am completely miserable from my flu or cold. The key though is simple. Just keep putting 1 foot in front of the other. So, we push on.
Soon the guide stops us to point out an animal footprint in the ground. It definitely belongs to a big cat. Whether it is a tiger or a clouded lapboard, we don’t know for sure as both are indigenous to this region. It’s both exciting to see evidence of such endangered species as well as a bit frightening obviously as we are still not at High Camp and the sun is going to go down in a couple of hours. Also, the tracks are heading in the same direction as us along the trail. My only hope at surviving a tiger encounter at this point is to hope he thinks I’m too sick to eat because I have not an ounce of energy in me now.
We push on and the big cat tracks disappear eventually. Then the decline we are on turns back into an even sharper incline than we have yet encountered. An hour up this incline and we finally reach High Camp. They have recently built a 1 room hut at High Camp where you can string your hammocks up or sleep on the floor. The guide sleeps outside by the fire in a hammock. He begins to cook rice for us but we decline. We are too exhausted and sick to even eat so we roll out our bags on the floor and rack out. About two hours later I wake up sweating with a high fever. I pop some Advil and pray for about 30 minutes and hope things don’t get any worse. The fever dehydrates me more so I have to take some swigs of water, At this point we have already begun rationing our water. We each have half a liter for tomorrow and we haven’t even gotten to the top yet.
The Final Ascent
My alarm goes off promptly at 0500. It’s still dark outside and the temperature is roughly 60 degrees. It feels amazing and the mosquitoes can’t take it so I was able to sleep with my head out of the bag and enjoy the fresh air. We break open some crackers for breakfast but soon realize they make us too thirsty and decide being hungry is better than being dehydrated. I’m feeling a lot better this morning after a good night sleep and it feels amazing outside. We hear John getting ready outside and we quickly do the same. The sooner we start pushing the more cool air we’ll have and the less water we’ll use. Since there is no mosquitoes at this altitude, we both decide to do the remainder of the ascent shirtless to sweat as little as possible.
The final ascent is an endless series of incline and turn, incline and turn, incline and turn. Every time we think we are almost there we are actually not even close. Today is Joey’s turn to feel miserable. It’s his first real time climbing a mountain and he feels it everywhere, but like me, he will not stop. Especially not this close.
After over two hours of this, we see some structure ahead and the guide stops, looks at us, and says “here, top”. We are ecstatic! Joey doesn’t have enough energy at this point to show it but he is too. There is no view from the top as the jungle is too thick but there is a Buddhist shrine in the center of a small field with a plaque that simply reads Oral 1,813 m. We each crack a victory beer and just take in the moment for now. After we finish our beers we decide we need to get going. The longer we stay on the mountain the longer it will be until we can replenish our water and the hotter it will get. We can’t leave without photo evidence though of course so in true American fashion I break out our flag that I keep in a protective bag and hold it up for a summit picture in front of the shrine. We made it… but we’re not out of the jungle yet.
We begin our descent now back down to High Camp where we left the main pack for the final ascent. The biggest downside of being tall in the jungle is managing to find every single spider web with my face. How I’m avoiding the actual spiders is beyond me but I’ve managed to take out about 30 webs now. The descent is nice and about 3x as quick as the ascent so it only takes about 45 minutes to get back to High Camp.
I don’t want to stop as I’ve explained earlier. Every minute sitting down sweating is a minute of wasted water. Our guide however speaks about 4 words of English and has no idea what I’m saying, so I accept the rice he offers me and so does Joey. Joey in particular is pretty famished and needs some food. He lets us each take a shot of Redbull that he keeps in a plastic bottle and then we begin the final descent.
We now have a quarter of a liter of water between the two of us and are only taking a quick swig at every other stop. My biggest concern at this point is not just getting to the bottom, but the 6 miles across swampy and brutally hot terrain. The chances of once of us having heat exhaustion is very high in these conditions. We stop and I ask the guide if it is possible to have motorbikes meet us at the base of the mountain. He happily says yes but for a fee of course. At this point I care more about water than a few bucks so I agree. The guide pulls his cellphone out to make the call. It’s dead.
We sit there for 20 minutes as the guide tries to figure out how his satellite phone works. He’s finally got it figured out but after three phone calls he still says no good on the bikes. Finally after the fourth he says we have bikes locked on and we can move. It takes us about two hours to get to Camp 1 from High Camp because the guide is moving at the speed of a turtle trying to walk across peanut butter, and he wants to stop and play with his satellite phone every 300 meters. It is quite frustrating but there’s not much I can do.
At Camp 1 we take our last swig of water. We are severely dehydrated at this point so I go to the creek and pour cold water all over my head, neck, and wrists to give my body a break from sweating and we push on. I’m really hoping the bikes come because we’re already in bad shape. We walk down the gradual slope listening to the rushing river below and wish we could just plunge ourselves into it. We come across a clear, fast moving stream straight off the mountain and decide to each take just a couple handfuls of it. It tastes amazing.
The Ride Out
Finally… the guide says to stop and within a minute I can hear the motorbikes in the distance approaching. Sure enough 3 motorbikes pull up. We get on the back and we’re off on a sketchy 6 mile ride through mud, streams, and tall grass. They still won’t let us stop for water yet because we owe the head guide the second half of the 70 dollars we agreed upon. That was aggravating but they agreed to take us the remaining 10 miles to the paved road where the taxi is waiting on us. We finally convince them to stop in Srae Kan 2 at a small shop for water. We each down two of them without so much as a breath between them. Water has never tasted so good.