Sunday, September 7, 2008
A Mini Guide to Climbing Fuji
Climbing Mt. Fuji is something I've always wanted to do. I pretty much see the mountain on a daily basis and it's the main tourist attraction in my lovely prefecture (Yamanashi, not Shizuoka). Last year I was all set to climb Japan's most iconic bit of nature but a typhoon rolled in and thus no Mt. Fuji climb for me. I was tempted to try again at the beginning of this summer's climbing season but decided to wait until the next Yeti trip rolled around. Well, the Yeti trip was this past weekend and low and behold, I found myself at the top of Fuji on September 7th, 2008.

There is a saying in Japan that goes something like "If you never climb Mt. Fuji you are a fool, if you climb it more than once, you are twice the fool." Another one is "Mt. Fuji is a mountain for looking at, not a mountain for climbing." Yet, many people do make the climb and I can now consider myself one of the few who have done it. It was a once in a life time experience.....with emphasis on the once in a lifetime bit. I have no intention of ever attempting it again.

First I should note that I started my climb, along with about 20 or so other Yeti members, on September 6th. This is past what is considered the official 'climbing season'. I was told that after climbing season ends there are no crowds, but that is BS. There were plenty of people still climbing at this time and all the services on the mountain appeared to be available excluding everything on the 10th station as everything there seemed to be shut up. There was a line at certain points and the climbing near the top was go a few steps, stop and wait, go a few steps, stop and wait. Fuji itself is 12,285ft which is smaller that quite few of the mountains in Colorado, but daunting to climb nevertheless.

The first step to climbing Fuji is to figure out what to pack. For those wanting to see the sunrise on top of the mountain, it's an overnight hike and thus certain equipment is necessary. I packed the following:
2 1 liter bottles of water
2 chicken and mayonnaise onigiri (rice balls)
2 melon pan
Cell phone
Wallet with around 30000yen and several 100 yen coins (the coins are useful for buying stamps for walking sticks, at about 200yen a stamp, and using restrooms which run from 100 to 200yen)
Hand sanitizer
Tissue pack
Medication: advil and tums
Folding fan
Underarmor top and bottoms
Inside/fleece part of my ski jacket
Waterproof jacket and pants
Gloves that were both warm and flexible
Winter hat
Head lamp (these are better than hand held flashlights as you'll want to be able to use your hands when climbing the steep parts, especially if you have a walking stick)
Wide brim hat
Nikon D40 DSLR Camera

(The following I was wearing the whole trip)
Thermal socks
Normal socks (yes I was wearing 2 pairs)
Sports shirt and bra
Loose fitting non-cotton pants
Hiking boots

And that's everything. I also picked up a hiking stick at the 5th station, which had a purple ribbon and bells attached. Some people get one and think of it as a hassle to carry up and down the mountain, but I felt as though it was a lifesaver and highly recommend getting one or bringing your own. Plus you can get it stamped at various spots going up the mountain as proof that you made it. Sadly, because the 10th station was closed, I did not get one at the very top. Out of all that stuff, I ended up not using the hand sanitizer, cellphone, bandaids, folding fan, and the tissue packs and wish I would have brought another water bottle, one or two quick snack foods, and a lightweight thermal blanket. I feel I packed well. My bag never felt too heavy. I now realize I should have either turned off my cellphone or left it in the car as the battery died by the time I got to the top even though it was fully charged when I started due to it trying to find a connection while roaming. My biggest regret is not bringing more items to help keep me warm at the top of the mountain. I knew it would be cold and tried to prepare, but it still wasn't enough. I also ran into problems with my socks. They kept rubbing against my foot during the climb. If anti rubbing socks exist, try to bring some of those! I also had a bag of items that I left in the car for after the climb which included a change of clothes, flip flops, deodorant, and toothbrush/paste.

I should note here that it is unwise to drink any alcohol the day before climbing the mountain. You do not want to climb Fuji with a hang over and the alcohol will dehydrate you. I did not follow my own advice and actually did go drinking and karaokeing the night before. Not too much, but I made sure the next day to continually drink water to ward off any ill after effects. It was a good plan as I had no hydration problems and didn't cramp at all during my climb.

There are several ways to climb Fuji. One is a day hike. Start in the morning and get back to the bottom around nightfall. The others are night hikes, which really surprised me when I first heard about it. I'd never think of climbing a mountain at night back home. One of the night hike plans is to start in the afternoon, rent a hut near the 8th/9th stations for a few hours and get some sleep, then wake up around 3am and hike to the top to see the sunrise. The other is what I ended up doing which is starting in the evening, hiking all the way to the top, see the sunrise, then climb back down. You can catch an hour or two of sleep either before or after the sunrise. Also, there are 5 main routes up Fuji. I took the Kawaguchi trail as it is the one trail that starts in Yamanashi. It is also the most popular trail to take and is the one with amenities going all the way to the top.

The goal was to start climbing from the 5th station at 8pm to make it to the top of the mountain right before sunrise. I drove to the mountain with Sarah, Tyler, and Annie and we stopped and ate some rice bowls in Fujiyoshida before heading up to the Kawaguchi 5th station. We ended up getting to the 5th station at about 7pm in order to get used to the altitude before the climb. Most of the others did as well so we all hung out and waited for the stragglers. I was a bit worried that all the stores on the 5th would be closed and I wouldn't be able to pick up the infamous Fuji hiking stick, but the one store at the station that was still open was selling them, so no problems there. The cheapest you can get one for is 900yen if you ask for it without the bells. I wanted the bells and thus forked over my 1000yen. I also grabbed a post card to send from the top of the mountain and an orange juice, because I was thirsty and didn't want to drink the water I packed as I wanted to save it for the climb.

After taking a few pictures, and waiting for some late arriving folks, we stated hiking around 8:30pm. We didn't have maps or anything, but it was really easy to figure out where to go. We got a bit nervous as the first part of the hike is sort of downhill, but it quickly turns into a steady upwards slope. I ended up passing the 6th station without even realizing it as the 6th station was closed. As we walked, the group ended up splitting, which isn't a surprise given the size of our group and varying fitness levels. I actually ended up towards the front of the group, which surprised me. The first bit wasn't too difficult, just boring. Basically from the 6th to the 7th station you don't really hike, but climb a bunch of awkwardly shaped stares. This was one of my least favorite parts of the mountain. I really didn't like those stairs.

Once you hit the 7th station though, things get a bit rougher and more interesting. The 7th station had a bunch of vendors selling overpriced goods, a sleeping hut, and a hut where you could get your walking stick stamped for 200yen so I got mine done. I was pretty tired by that point so I stopped and rested for a bit, but not for too long. Maybe 20 minutes tops. By this point, me and Annie, who is my new next door neighbor now that Tiffany is back in the states, decided that we would hike together. Another new JET, Diana, ended up joining us as well. And thus our Fuji hiking party was formed.

From the 7th to the 8th station, the hike is a bit more interesting. More like really, really, easy rock climbing than hiking. Whereas my hiking buddies hated the rock climbing sections, I enjoyed them and found them much easier than the flatter sections with stairs. It was also around the 7th station that we started to notice just how many other hikers were making their way up the mountain as well. A few times, near more difficult climbing areas, we got stuck waiting in line. I didn't mind the lines so much as they gave me a chance to rest a bit.

The 8th station seemed to never come. Every time we ended up in a hut area, we were disappointed to discover it was not yet the 8th station. Eventually we made it and I got another stamp for my walking stick. The same overpriced goods available on the 7th station were also available on the 8th. After pausing to drink some water and down the onigiri and melon pan I brought, we moved on yet again.

I'm not sure we ever really found the 9th station. We did reach one that said 8.5, but 9 was rather illusive. I got a cute mouse stamp at what I thought might have been the 9th, but I wasn't 100% sure. Once at the 9th station, I definitely felt a sense of accomplishment and was looking forward to getting to the top. Little did I know that the trek from the 9th to the 10th is one of the longest and most difficult. By that time it was already around midnight/1amish and I was getting really tired. I swear there were a few times I fell asleep while standing up. Thank goodness I didn't walk off the mountain during those times. As we continued, taking breaks also became rather dangerous as we would start to nod off. By this time, there were a ton of people walking, so we had to do a lot of stopping and going. But the break time during the stopping was a welcome relief for my legs. You could also feel it getting a lot colder on the way up.

At some point we hit what we thought was the top (now I think it might have been the 9th, but I'm not sure). It was an area packed full of people and had a bunch of stores and shops. We walked through it to see what was around only to realize that on the other side of all the shops, there was still quite a bit of mountain left to climb.

After a quick break we started the final ascent. At this point I was dead tired. Both physically and mentally. The rest of my party was as well, but we stuck together and helped encourage one another all the way to the top. We reached the top around 3am or so, which gave us about 2 hours to rest before sunrise. The only problem was that resting is hard when you’re practically freezing. We ended up finding some spots so we could sit and have a nice view of the sunrise and tried to get some shut eye. I'm not sure if I got much, if any rest, as I was too busy shivering to do much relaxing. Eventually the 3 of us ended up huddling together in a ball in order to get warm. While it probably looked goofy, it really did work.

Anyway, at some point, the sun decided to show up. We had a pretty good spot to view the sunrise from, the only thing that ticked me off was that people were still climbing up to the top and several of them kept trying to stand right in front of us as the sun was rising. Luckily there was a rather loud Japanese man sitting next to us who would yell at the people to get out of the way. I loved that guy. Saved me from having to yell at them myself using my retarded Japanese.

After taking more pictures than I could count, we started moving around the top of the mountain. Well, actually, Fuji is more of a volcano, so we went to check out the crater as none of the shops were open on the top. Our plan on the way up was to just go up, see the sun rise, and then hike back down, but as we were taking pictures by the crater, some other JETs asked if we wanted to hike around the crater at well. That would be about an extra hour or two of climbing. Even though we decided we wouldn't do the crater climb, we ended up going anyway. It was probably mostly my fault as I didn't want to miss out on anything while I was already on the top. So we hiked about half way around the crater and then stopped to eat breakfast, so another origami and melon pan for me. One cool thing about the crater walk was that on the other side of Fuji; you could make out its shadow, which was kind of neat. We also walked to where the highest point of the mountain is but passed on getting in the hour some long line to get a picture there. There was supposedly a post office on the top of the mountain somewhere as well, but I never did manage to find it.

After making it all the way around the crater, we headed back down. Not the brightest idea. We really should have rested after the crater hike, but I think we were all just tired and had only getting down and back home on ours minds. While the hike up was rather tough, the hike down was pure hell. We were already tired from lack of sleep, plus felt fatigue from both the hike up and the crater hike and thus were not in prime climbing condition. Going down Fuji isn't like going up it at all. Going up is a lot of easy rock climbing, but going down is just a set of switchbacks made of sand, dirt, and rocks mixed in. You essentially don't climb down Fuji, but shuffle and slide down it while trying not to fall on your ass. This is where my hiking boots came in handy as they had a strong grip and went past my ankles so I didn't get a bunch of dirt in my shoes.

Heading back down the mountain our group of 3 ended up splitting. On the way down I ran into several other JET groups also making their way back. Once I made it to the 6th station, there were a bunch of horses and even a horse pulled carriage offering to cart people to the 5th station for 1000yen. I was seriously tempted to take them up on their offer as I could barely feel my legs at that point, but I decided I really wanted to be able to say I did the whole thing on my own, so I passed up the ride. Once I made it back to the 5th station I was so happy to be done that I almost didn't feel tired anymore. I started looking around for the people I had come with and managed to find that they all had safely made it back. I picked up some omiyage, mostly for myself as a congrats, mailed the post card I wanted to send from the top of the mountain, and then passed out in the back of Sarah's car. I wish I would have done an 'after' pic, but I was so tired by that time that I didn't even think to pull out my camera. And that's saying something. On the drive back we stopped by MacDonald’s for a quick meal and then headed back home. After a while we had to pull over and change drivers as our driver was so tired that he started falling asleep. We spent the rest of the trip back trying to keep each other awake.

Sarah and Tyler dropped me and Annie off at the closest station and we had to wait a bit for the next train. The wait felt like it took forever and we both started falling asleep at the station, but eventually the train came and we made it back home. Once I got back I showered, unpacked, and then took a nice long nap. And that was my maybe not so once in a lifetime Fuji climbing experience. In the week or so it took me to write all this out, I think I’ve managed to convince myself to climb again during next year’s climbing season so that I can get the sunrise stamp on the top of the mountain. Wish me luck!

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posted by am at 9:51 PM | Permalink |


At September 28, 2008 at 10:39 AM, Blogger ZippoLag

Nice, interesting, and long post.
I hope I get some time to get over there and climb it myself someday.