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This is an extremely detailed account of my climb of Mt. Fuji.
If you read all of this, you're an amazing person because it's long. Thanks for being such a good friend!
It's interesting to hear different people's accounts of Mt. Fuji and the climb. Some people call it a relatively easy climb. They say that it's not terribly long and you can do it in a day…others quit early, don't make it to the top, sometimes develop hypothermia and claim that it's miserable.
Why such opposing viewpoints? I’ll tell you:
If the weather brings about clear skies, no rain and reasonable winds, perhaps 70% of people (those who can handle the physical aspects) fall in the first group. If the weather results in rain and strong winds…those same 70%, along with the leftover 30, would fall into the second group.
I’ve been planning to make the climb since May of 2009. Sasha was coming to visit me and I thought it’d be a great sibling experience and a way for her to develop a bit of bragging rights about her trip here. I scheduled a couple days in the area so that the option was open. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to make it due to a variety of minor setbacks and so I decided to postpone it until this year.
Now it was time to find someone willing to give it a go with me!
I posted on some climbing forums and talked to various people about doing it but was having trouble finding a climbing buddy. If you ever climb it, I highly highly recommend doing it with another person. Not only to pass the time but to be able to encourage each other and help each other out.
Anyway, after having little luck finding a climbing partner, I finally talked to Merlyn about it and he was totally for it.
Here’s some info about Merlyn:
Merlyn’s from California. He’s (recently turned) 29 and he’s married to a Japanese girl here in Japan. He just arrived at the beginning of this year and responded to a classified ad looking for a bass player for my previous band. Merlyn’s the kinda guy that’s up for anything. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Yes Man” with Jim Carrey, that’s basically what he’s like. He’s also an Anthony Robbins fan which says a lot about the way he views life and living.
I was pretty happy to have Merlyn coming along. He threw out the idea of inviting Daisuke just a few days before the climb. He went to the same music school in L.A. as Merlyn and is an extremely talented guitarist/composer (mainly jazz). Daisuke was ready to go on a whim and we were starting to get excited!
The night before the climb, the three of us spent a night celebrating Merlyn’s birthday at a British-style (yet not quite) pub called “The Hub”. Merlyn and I stayed out til about 5:30am (when the first trains start rolling) with some friends, doing karaoke and demolishing our voices. As we were planning to do a sunrise hike (start late in the evening and reach the summit for sunrise), we decided that that was a good way to get our sleep schedules set up for the hike.
The next day we planned to meet up at one of the central stations along the route at 4:00pm and head off.
Our day had finally arrived!
Daisuke was running late so Merlyn and I took off from the meetup point to make sure we could get to where we needed to be, Gotenba Station. We had to get tickets for a bus that was gonna run us up to the trailhead. That last bus was scheduled to leave at 7:25 so we had to hurry.
Merlyn and I took off and the adventure began!
But…we took the wrong train. (well…that’s not the best start)
That one mishap set us back about half an hour. After course correcting and finding a new route on my cell phone’s internet service, we were back on course.
But…we then passed the station due to an engaging conversation. (Lord)
Now we were set back another half hour. Fortunately, Daisuke was still on schedule so we asked him to make sure to get bus tickets for us and we’d pay him back. He obliged. (one point for Daisuke!)
After watching a mediocre hip-hop dance off at the station, we jumped on the bus and made our way to the 5th station.
There are a variety of trails to the top. The main four routes all start at their trail’s relative 5th station. The other routes (continuations of the four I just mentioned) start considerably lower and take about three times as long to do. Of those four main routes we chose to do the Subashiri Trail. This one is the second longest of the four and has a higher tree line than the others…which basically means you’re covered from the (potential) wind and (potential) rain for a longer time as you start the climb. Most people climb a trail called the Yoshida (Kawaguchi) Trail which starts at 2300 meters above sea level. Ours started at 2000 and promised to be less crowded.
At that 5th station, we got all our things in order, pulled out our hiking sticks and started the hike at 8:45pm or so.
I was pretty confident in my gear and such as I’d done a lot of research as to what to prepare. I put on my first layer light sweater (at 2000 meters it’s already about 20 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than normal), my beanie, my headlamp and my jeans…I had forgotten my belt…oh well not a big deal. I ghetto-rigged a waist strap for my backpack to keep pressure and weight off my shoulders (easily the best decision I made on the trip).
About 10 minutes into the climb, the rain started up so we stopped and put on our raincoats.
The first 30 minutes was ridiculously hot as we warmed up quickly from the movement…not for long though.
I stayed at the back of the group keeping a relatively slow pace. I’d read a lot about altitude sickness and shortness of breath if you climb too quickly. The guys kept jumping ahead of my but I kept it slow knowing that they would wait for me…sure enough they did. We had a good routine going.
We hiked about 400 meters (~1320 feet) vertical in that first stretch to the 6th station and I was feeling pretty good. No shortness of breath and I wasn’t tired really at all. The other guys, near the end were having a little trouble in terms of breathing but nothing too serious. Merlyn noted that the air was already a bit thinner and it was really noticeable when inhaling deeply.
For the last 10 months I’ve been going to the gym twice a week and pretty much practicing vegetarianism…so I was in good physical shape for the climb. I’m pretty sure that’s what kept me energetic and ok throughout the climb despite the length and intensity of it. However, when I was born, I inhaled some amniotic fluid and so I suppose I’m prone to lung conditions like asthma and shortness of breath. I’ve never ever had problems with it but since the current situation was unlike anything I’d done before, I was a little bit concerned (and so was my mom). Fortunately, this didn’t affect me at all during the climb.
Anyway, at that 6th station, the rain was starting to sneak into our raincoats. I was lucky to have a separated jacket and pants rainsuit. Daisuke and Merlyn were wearing only long ponchos. Upon comparing ourselves to the other hikers around us, we realized that none of us were properly protected from the rain. If you’re gonna climb this thing in the rain, you HAVE to have quality rainwear. Conversation over. First lesson learned.
So the rain kept on, though not terribly heavy at this point. We were slowly getting wetter (especially Merlyn and Daisuke’s exposed pants). I could feel the moisture on the back of my neck and my gloves were pretty wet.
Maybe we’d get lucky and the rain would slow up though! (HAHAHA ha….ha………ha)
As we broke free of the tree line, the air was getting colder and a bit thinner but somehow the hike to the second sixth station (yeah there’re two for some reason) was relatively quick and easy. We were pretty happy despite the rain situation. Another 300 meters (~1000 feet) vertical finished! We were making stellar progress.
At that next station we decided that we needed something to eat to fend off the now intense cold around us. We all dug around in our backpacks for the instant ramen cups we’d bought (Yes!!!!!!!!!) and paid 200 yen each (about $2.00) for hot water…
…best $2.00 I’ve ever spent.
The hot water warmed up our bellies and our souls. As we sat there though, the wind started picking up and the rain was a bit heavier (a small test of more to come). Merlyn (apparently the rocket scientist of the group) came up with the brilliant idea of standing next to the station hut to eat, instead of out in the middle of the elements. Thank god we brought this dude along! haha.
Despite the weather getting rough, we were happy that we made it to that station with relative ease and were able to ignore the wind and cold as we were stocking up on excitement and instant-ramen deliciousness.
Our bodies were at this point completely soaked. Finding a dry spot on our bodies was like trying to find a sober Japanese business man on a Monday night (they don’t exist…it’s a building-good-relationships-in-business thing). We put on the last layers of what we had…if anything was left, and started onward. My jeans which were sagging halfway down my @$$ were quickly becoming a pain (damn non-existent belt!). I used the ghetto-rigged waist strap mentioned earlier. I looped it through the front belt loops of my pants in order to keep them up. This was a considerably smarter moment for me than was the one in which I thought eating ramen in the open was a good idea.
With our spirits high, knowing we were making great time, we started our way up to the 7th station which I will, going ahead, refer to as Hell’s Station.
Between the “second” 6th and the 7th is a vertical of about 400 meters (~1300 feet). Upon reaching that station, we’d be at about 3100 meters (10,170 feet) above sea level. Only 670 meters (2200 feet) from the top!!
Life changed rapidly in the next hour. Our spirits fell fast, the wind was ruthless and the cold mixed with our clothing was really starting to cause problems. We made it to Hell’s Station about 5 minutes after the wind had picked up to full strength and the rain was coming down in sheer buckets. At this point of the hike it was 7 degrees Celsius (44 degrees Fahrenheit), we were completely wet, annoyed and starting to get tired. The slope to that point was steeper and rockier. Maintaining balance in that kind of wind with a backpack on is not easy. The fact that our bags, their contents and our clothes were soaked added a plethora of weight that was making the climb tough.
We spent a little over an hour at Hell’s Station trying to plan our next move.
Now, let’s get something straight…
I’m not a drama queen and I never have been (except when I cried at everything when I was little). I can’t stand when people are dramatic and exaggerate things out of reason. I find it immature, obnoxious and a little bit representative of someone who craves attention.
That being said and without over-exaggerating, we were in a scary and potentially life-threatening situation. That hour was by far the most difficult hour of not only the climb, but of anything I’ve experienced. We hugged the side of the hut to stay out of the wind and the rain—which was gliding horizontally off the roof of the bathroom stalls next to us. People were fighting to get as close to the hut as possible.
Imagine standing inside a walk-in refrigerator (like they’ve got in restaurants) with 2 pairs of wet pants on, two t-shirts and two sweaters (all of which are completely wet) in front of an industrial-strength fan on full speed (which is probably STILL not as strong) with a wet backpack filled with more wet clothes and gear after having climbed about 2,300 stairs…in the same conditions of course. Oh yeah, and a couple of your friends are spraying you in the face with water guns.
It’s not exactly paradise.
Our bodies hurt, our spirits had crashed violently, we were tired, sore and really had no idea what to do. We tried to get inside the single hut but as they’re reserved for people sleeping (like a hotel), we couldn’t get inside. We were shivering and huddling up to stay warm but it wasn’t working.
Have you ever been in a constant state of shiver? Usually when people shiver, it comes in quick short spasms. This kind of cold was keeping us in that state permanently since we weren’t moving…we couldn’t. The weather had us immobile against that hut.
We had three options:
- Keep climbing (and risk getting blown off the mountain in the cold and wind)
- Wait it out on the side of the hut
- Give up and climb down (and again risk getting blown off the mountain in the cold and wind)
For the time being, we went with the second option.
We began to discuss the option of quitting but I wasn’t totally ready for that when it first came up. It came up again a bit later when we were starting to realize that we had literally zero options. The second time it came up, it was a bit more mentally feasible for me but after hyping up this day for the past year, I wasn’t exactly happy about that situation. The problem was that quitting would require us to go back into the wind and rain that we were trying to avoid to begin with. We realized that either way involved us going back into the elements without the shelter of our hut. In the time we spent at that point, about 4 crews had left the station…
..none of them went up.
Just as we discussed it that second time, the wind slowed and the rain calmed down a little bit.
This is the point in which Merlyn took the reigns. He basically just said, “Alright, let’s leave for the next station in 15 minutes while the wind has calmed down.” We thought about it and decided he was right.
“Actually, let’s just go now,” he then amended.
We got our gear and went for it. Seriously awesome.
Current time: Around 3:00am JST
It was a tough trip to that next station but not as hard as the hike to the 7th. We made it to the 8th in reasonably good time as it wasn’t too far away. The trail was pretty rocky at this point. Reaching the next checkpoint showed us that we really could do this. Just the fact that we made it that station was enough fire to fuel us up. The rain and wind had died considerably and we realized that we were doing it and getting through it. It’s hard to describe the power of the mind but that’s all we had to keep us going and it’s actually all we needed.
During that next stretch, we could occasionally see the lights of the towns below us. The height was just incredible.
The sky started brightening with daybreak. We punched through station after station every 50 minutes or so and kept going. We were tired as hell but were close and could feel it although we couldn’t see it.
I didn’t mention it earlier but all we could see throughout the majority of the climb was about 40 or 50 feet in any given direction, sometimes less. Once or twice during the climb, the clouds would split and we could see out across Japan…or rather, the cloud layer above it with tiny bits of land and sea smattered about through the gaps. It was stunningly beautiful and sheer magic for our will power. Words just don’t do anything to describe how stunning that view was. We were so high up it was unreal. Having the view like you’re staring out an airplane window yet having your feet firmly planted on the side of Japan’s tallest mountain was a humbling experience for all of us.
We only stopped for 2 or 3 minutes at each station because the only way to keep the cold out was to move. Just stopping for those few minutes was enough to put the freeze back into our bodies.
We finally hit the summit at just around 7am.
Because of our setback at Hell’s Station and the increasingly strenuous nature of the trail/tiredness of the group, we couldn’t make the sunrise at the top of the mountain but it didn’t matter because the weather was soooo cloudy and nothing was visible anyway.
The summit greeted us with a shrine as well as a “come inside and sit down” restaurant of sorts. We hadn’t seen a heated space (the bus) in 11 hours. The man at the door yelled out to us (in Japanese of course), “Please come in, sit down and rest.” I’ve never been so happy to be under a roof as I was at that moment. We went in, ordered a bowl of miso ramen and got a warm drink.
We’d made it. Wow.
Merlyn and I decided that we wanted to head around to the absolute highest point of the mountain which was on the other side of the crater. We started hiking around but as that voyage is about 90 minutes and since we were already late getting to the top, we decided just to cancel it and start heading back down. We still had a bus to catch and the next one (should we miss it) was a long time off so we had to get moving. Merlyn and Daisuke had appointments later that evening that, at that point, they were still set on fulfilling.
The climb down was actually longer in terms of horizontal distance than the climb up and about half of it was down a sand slope called Suna-bashiri. This area is designed so that you can just kinda gallop down it as it’s soft. With this technique, one can make it down in 2-3 hours through pure speed. As you can probably imagine, this technique is also sheer hell on the knees. At this point, Daisuke’s knees and leg were starting to give him some real problems. He was having a tough time bending his knee. Merlyn and I were really hurting too so we were ok with the idea of taking it a little bit easier to avoid aggravating anything. We got to the 5th base station at 12:35pm, just in time to catch the 1:00 bus after a quick bowl of soup.
We all slept on the one-hour bus ride back to the station. From there, we took an express bus back to the Tokyo/Yokohama area…a much better idea than the trains for sure.
I cruised into my front door at around 5:30. I had to stay awake so as not to screw up my sleep schedule. By the time I went to bed that evening, I had been awake for 37 hours. Nothing was gonna wake me up.
..and thus was the end of our adventure.
If you look around the internet you can find variations of the quote: “A wise man will climb Mt. Fuji once in their life but only a fool would climb it twice.”
As much as I agree with the statement, I think that it really just depends on when you climb. Climbing Mt. Fuji during good weather is definitely a possibility for a large number of people. Climbing the mountain when the weather is bad is a different story. I don’t want to climb Mt. Fuji ever again…in those conditions. However, I would do it if the weather were a bit different.
The fact that the three of us took on the mountain in the conditions we did, definitely makes for a good story and I think allows us to feel more accomplished than those 4 groups who didn’t have the heart to stick with it at Hell’s Station. I’m willing to say that our attempt at Mt. Fuji was under special circumstances and because of that, the fact that we made it is that much bittersweet in my mind. Because of this, I wouldn’t change a thing.
If there were a mood setting function on my blog, I would set it to 満足.
Mt. Fuji defeated: August 9th, 2010