How not to climb Mt. Fuji

After the girls left I had only a few days of well needed relaxation time before I had another strenuous excursion planned. I was to climb Mt. Fuji, the tallest mountain in Japan, reaching a not so modest 3776m. However, it is a popular challenge for both the Japanese and tourists. Many people climb it every year, so my confidence was pretty high. I felt like it was going to be a challenge, although something that I shouldn’t be too worried about. I had arranged to climb with my friend Cam and we had agreed on the 3rd of July to start a night climb, walking through the night to catch the sunrise at the mountain peak. The few days before the climb Cam was quite busy so we didn’t get much of a chance to organise anything, which was probably needed for a mountain hike. Nonetheless, we met up on the 3rd and sorted out our provisions. Lots of food, drink, warm clothes and a Lego man headlamp. Once packed we went to get some food before we got the bus, and a cheap izakaya sufficed. At only ¥180, we couldn’t resist and had a couple of beers, which in hindsight was probably our our first problem. (#1 non-tip: Drink beer before going on the treacherous 12 hour hike)

We caught the bus from outside Shinjuku station, booking a return that got us to Fuji 5th station around 10pm and left about 10am the next morning, at certainly a reasonable price. This is probably one decent piece of advice I could give to potential climbers. Use the “Keio highway” bus, a return is only about ¥4500. While waiting for the bus, Cam’s bag decided to break and the zip fell open, spaying the contents of the bag all over the floor. So we went on an emergency safety pin hunt, but luckily Japanese “konbini” are extremely resourceful. (#2 non-tip: Bring a bag that will break and isn’t waterproof). The bus took just under a couple of hours so we managed to get some kip along the way. We arrived at Kawaguchiko 5th station just before 10pm. It was pitch black and pissing it down. There was a souvenir shop open, so we ducked inside and used the toilets, geared up, and then set off into the darkness, to follow the Yoshida trail. We had a quick glance at the map but felt confident there was only one way there…up. At first the walking was easy, we actually started on a slight downhill, then gently ascended through some forest and up a friendly slope. It took us about an hour to reach the 6th station, maybe even less time. So we were elated with confidence and strode right past it, wanting to carry on. However, we should have looked more carefully at the map, as this was probably the most important split in the trail. (#3 non-tip: don’t take a map or bother to look at them, they are not useful).

At the 6th station we took a left and powered on. The first stretch was a long and steady uphill and the ground became increasingly forbearing, as the terrain started to turn into loose gravelly stones. We came to a map on a signpost and saw that our route was to follow a long series of zigzags slowly ascending up the mountain. The biggest indicator that we may have taken a wrong route was that the route was marked with “trail down mountain”. At first we didn’t think this would be much of a problem, “up is up, right?”, but this confidence soon died after a couple of zigs and then a couple of zags. Each one was incredibly steep and completely layered with those loose stones, so it literally felt like walking up sand, which is not easy. By now the rain and wind was relentless. The wind was so strong at points it almost blew us over and the rain soaked us and made the ground even harder to walk on. It was so dark and our headlamps weren’t that powerful so we could probably only see about 2 metres in front of us, which became problematic as we frequently lost track of the path, leading us to the danger of on one side nearly walking off the mountain and the other side into a massive mound of rock face (#4 non-tip: buy your hiking gear on the basis on novelty not practicality). The down route had no 7th station so we had to trek it straight to the 8th, taking a few zigzags at a time then huddling in the rain catching our breath. This part took us around 3 to 4 hours and was literally like hell on earth. I thought I was going to die. (#5 non-tip: take the “trail down” route going up is just as easy and twice as fun).

When we arrived at the 8th station we immediately looked for a warm place to rest. There was a hut with people going inside and we asked if we could come in and rest. The cabin master, bluntly refused while laying out comfy futons and warm blankets for the lucky patrons. I asked if we could buy a coffee with the hope he would let us stay while we drank. “Yes, you can have coffee. Go wait outside”. So he made me wait by a window outside, which he swung open and hastily thrust me two coffees, rain pouring into them. In response to that hospitality we went and hid the toilets. After our smelly coffee break, it was out of comfort back into the relentless rain. We powered on up and made it to the 8.5th station within another hour or so but fatigue was really setting in. We went into another hunt for an overpriced coffee, luckily this place was kind enough to let us stay for 15 minutes. Only 15 minutes, they were quite strict. Here we spoke to some climbers who had woken up from their cozy beds to inspect the weather. They all seemed far to sensible and thought we were mad for being so blasé about climbing to the top. When time was up we psyched up for the next 400m to the top. I don’t remember much of this apart from it being the best part of the climb. For some reason it flew by and felt so exhilarating. The ground turned more into large boulders that we started to navigate with both hands and feet, really getting into mountain climbing mode, and the rain died down a bit or I stopped caring. I think that everything started to feel more real, like we were actually going to get to the top and make it there in the time we estimated, in one piece. Then before we knew it there we were there, standing at the top, way above the clouds looking down on everything below.

We stayed and watched the sun rise, slowed peering through the clouds, changing them from blue to a golden yellow. It was certainly beautiful and awe inspiring. I tried to take as many pictures as possible but the respect for my body started to creep back into my mind. We were both soaked from the rain and up there it was below 0. Our wet clothes became like sheets of ice around us, as none of it was particularly waterproof. (#6 non-tip: waterproof clothing is for pussies). Cam made a lovely sight standing trying to get shelter from the icy wind with her hands down her pants in search of warmth. The crotch is a resourceful place. Enough was enough and we needed to start our walk back down. We rushed back down as morning arrived. We crashed in another hut near the 8.5th station and gained comfort from some miso soup. By now I was going crazy. I felt dead and couldn’t stop groaning with tired and fed up noises. Cam found this hilarious but I could barely feel my feet, or my sanity. Slowly we encouraged ourselves to get up and carry on and we started to trudge down the “trail down” like it was meant to be done. It was so much easier than on the way up. The looseness of the stones allowed you to almost skid and slide down the mountain. I think by now we were both too fatigued to care anymore and everything seemed hilarious, allowing us to get back to the 5th station a step at a time. It was nice walking down into the heat, as the sun got brighter and it steadily got hotter. Finally so did we, which felt unreal, something we had lacked for the previous 7 hours. It took us roughly 5 hours to get back to the bus stop, where we just crashed on the floor. There we waited impatiently for our coach to arrive looking like zombies sprawled on the ground. The 5th station is quite a tourist spot, therefore buses and buses of children and old people were unloaded. Some tried to take pictures around us, trying to capture their moment on Fuji mountain, however they probably should have taken a picture with us to get a taste of what the mountain is really about and what evils it brings. When our bus finally arrived we both got on and rested our heads not saying a word, glad it was finally over, after no sleep and a 12 hour straight hike covering thousands of vertical metres. (#7 non-tip: don’t climb Mt. Fuji).

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