Mt. Fuji: To Climb or Not to Climb? (The Real Guide)Greg | 18 10 2008
This is the second of two posts on climbing Mount Fuji with this one giving you the positive side. Super excited about climbing Fuji? You may want to check out the other version here.
This post was written by Greg Logan. In addition all photos were taken by Greg. Greg’s blog can be found here.
Before I go on to tell you that climbing Fuji will make you three inches taller, will give you a full head of hair and put ten years on your life, I feel obligated to point out that a certain photographer/blogger/climber/whiner never actually made it to the summit of the mountain and therefore, in my opinion, lacks the steely resolve and mental fortitude to make a sound judgment on the merits of completing the ascent. And frankly, I don’t know if he would have appreciated the sunrise at the top with all those tears in his eyes.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get down to brass tacks: Should you or shouldn’t you climb Mount Fuji?
Is it exhausting? Yep. Is it crowded? Oh lord yes. Is it freezing on top? You’d better believe it. Is it worth it? Hell yes!
The Long Road Up
My ascent of Fuji began around 8 o’clock when the bus from Shinjuku station dumped me and my 2 intrepid friends off at the Kawaguchiko 5th Stage, by far the most popular starting point for climbers. After slipping on another layer of clothing and a bit of carbo loading (as all the restaurants were already closed! grrrr), we made our way to the trail head. We started off at an easy, but deliberate pace, taking rests whenever needed. Unfortunately, aside from the company of your fellow travelers and a remarkably brilliant night sky that is no loner veiled by the bright lights of Tokyo, there isn’t a whole lot to say for the hike; it is what it is, five to seven hours or walking uphill in the dark.
Alas, at 1:30 in the morning I made the difficult decision to forgo one of these two luxuries; the two friends I was with just weren’t maintaining a pace that would get the three of us to the summit by sunrise. With visions of photographic resplendence I said goodbye to them and didn’t see them until I had descended to the base of the mountain at 9am the next morning.
Now free to go at my own pace, I began tearing up the mountain at a pace I wasn’t entirely aware I was capable of. This may have cut significant time off of my climb had I started this pace lower on the mountain, but at higher altitudes with the trail narrowing, and with several thousand people climbing the mountain in peak season, bottlenecking was inevitable. There were moments when I would stand for 5-10 minutes at a time without taking a single step towards my goal. Antsy from my new found burst of energy and with my date with the sunrise, I began to politely work my way through the crowds (read: shove). Whenever there was breathing room I would charge ahead, weaving my way through climbers with the agility of a running back (going up hill, slipping on volcanic rock), until I would hit the next bottleneck.
After all the climbing and slipping and waiting, I reached the top with about a half hour to spare. After pushing my way through the throngs of people at the top, I walked a few hundred yards along the edge of the mountain’s massive crater and hunkered down in front of a photogenic Torii gate to wait for sunrise. However, the warm glow of accomplishment was short-lived; with the mountain no longer shielding me from the wind and the sun not yet up, my body temperature began to plummet. I sat there, more impatient than uncomfortable, hoping my uncontrollable shivering would coax the sun up a few minutes earlier. Soon enough, the hue of where sky met earth began to change from black to indigo. From indigo to pale blue. From pale blue to hazel to yellow to orange. Finally, as the sun crept into view, a brilliant red stretched across the horizon. Even more awe-inspiring was panorama below, now exposed by the rising sun. Hills, fields and lesser mountains, all from over 2 miles up; like looking down from an airplane, but without view-constricting windows or stale peanuts. I spent the next half hour or so taking pictures, warming up and generally feeling pretty good about myself. (Go me!)
After the sun was up and the day was on, I made my way around the monumental crater of Fuji. Stopping to occasionally take in the sheer scope of the mountain, and once on the far side of the mountain to snap a few pics of Fuji’s impressive shadow, the lap took me about an hour to complete. If weather permits and you’ve got the time/inclination, this really isn’t something you should skip. Hell, you’ve come this far right!?
By the time I started down the mountain I had been awake for over 20 hours, 7 or which had been spent on my feet walking uphill. With no sleep, no motivation and no life left in my limbs, the descent wasn’t something I was exactly looking forward to. The volcanic rock was course and difficult to walk on, the angle was awkward for my knees and the walk down appeared to be as crowded as the climb up. On the bright side, with the sun now high in the sky, I was able to strip down to my shorts and a t-shirt (only 3 hours after the frigid pre-sunrise!). The descent was shaping up to be much slower and uncomfortable than I had expected it to be until I came to realization that was both brilliant and counter intuitive.
If you have the energy and the chutzpah, I actually recommend running down the mountain. That’s right, running! I can’t explain it, but my footing was surer, it was easier on my knees and the whole thing went a hell of a lot faster. That being said, rocks on the Kawaguchiko trail are uneven, so plan on slipping occasionally no matter what method you choose. If you do decide to run, be prepared to weave through the large crowds and to catch the occasional stink-eye from elderly locals, taking their time down the mountain. You might even try descending on the Subashiri or Gotemba routes. While not popular for going up, their fine ash paths are ideal for taking long, sliding strides (like a standing glissage) down the mountain. Running, I made it down the mountain in two hours. Expect it to take double that if you’re walking.
Who can/should do the climb…
Although many people do the climb just to check it off their life list, I suspect there’s a certain breed of people who truly enjoy climbing Fuji. The type who dig large holes in the backyard as kids for no other reason other than the need to exert energy or those with inferiority problems who wish to look down from their Olympus on the plebeians below and laugh contemptuously. I’d like to think I fall into the former camp.
The lunatic fringe aside, anyone who’s in moderately good shape should be able to make the climb. If you think you’re cool with walking up a gradual incline for 6 hours, then I wouldn’t worry too much. Even better- If you can run a few miles or play sports for an hour or so, Fuji will be a cake walk. Those with knee problems should take heed of the descent; if you have problems running down hills or going down stairs this might be particularly uncomfortable.
What you’ll need…
- Layers and rain gear – Be prepared for a wide temperature range. I suspect the temperature at the top was between 30 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit while only 3 hours later, during the descent, it felt like 70 to 80 degrees to me. Bring plenty of layers (synthetic will keep you drier than cotton if it rains) that can be easily slipped on and off. And don’t forget your rain gear! You may not need it, but if ever there was an argument for ‘better safe than sorry’ this would be it.
- Food – Pack plenty of both food and water for the trip as both are overly expensive on the mountain. I recommend foods that are calorically dense (high calorie, low weight), have some protein and complex carbs to keep you fueled for extended periods of time and, of course, aren’t perishable. GORP or trail mix (dried fruit, nuts, your favorite cereal, maybe some M&Ms) and energy bars (mmm….SoyJoy) are always good bets. I also packed things like anpan, youkan, pretzels and those squeeze, energy jellies you can find at convenience stores.
- Water – I recommend at least a half gallon. I drink more water than most people and I went through a gallon and a half in the 24 hours. Water is heavy, but if you’re okay with lugging it around, the more you pack, the less you’ll have to buy. Don’t skimp on water either; dehydration can exacerbate the effects of altitude sickness.
- Headlamp – You will be climbing in the dark and they don’t light the way, so bring a headlamp. You could probably get by with a flashlight, but I recommend having your hands free, especially when the footing gets a little unsure.
- Money – If you’ve packed adequate food and water and you’re not a sucker for souvenirs, you won’t need a whole lot of money for Fuji. However, they will try to nickel and dime you as much as they can. Food is overpriced, but then again, after climbing for 6 hours in the dark cold, that 800 円 Cup Noodle sounds like a steal. Water gets progressively more expensive as you go up, starting at about 250 and reaching 500 at the summit. Finally, unless you’ve packed a portable catheter, you’re going to have to pay to use the bathroom. Again, prices go up as you do, so expect to pay 200-300 yen at the top. While most of the bathrooms work on the honor system, the ones at the top have attendants who take your money before you do your business. The scariest moment I had during the trek happened right before leaving the summit when I stopped to go to the bathroom and realized all I had was a 10,000 yen bill ($100). I was sure the restroom attendant would turn me away, not having adequate change, making an already uncomfortable descent more so. But the man smiled and said it wasn’t a problem and gave me my change without a second thought (God bless this country!).
What you won’t need…
- Skip the O2 – Unless you’re especially young, especially old, or have breathing problems, I highly discourage you from using bottled oxygen. It’s overpriced, unnecessary (for 99% of the hikers), and has the potential to do more harm than good. If you were to use oxygen during the entire ascent only to run out at the top, you won’t have given your body enough time to acclimatize to a low oxygen environment and stand a greater risk of altitude sickness. Do yourself a favor and take plenty of breaks and drink lots of water.
- Fancy hiking or climbing equipment – A good pair of sturdy shoes or boots that you don’t mind getting dirty and maybe a set of trekking poles, though given the crowds I think they’d be more of a burden. As for the wooden ones they sell at the base to be branded a the various stations along the trail, I would forgo these as well. If you’re like me, the idea of spending a few hundred yen at each station (with a dozen or more stations) and lugging the thing back on the airplane, doesn’t sound particularly appealing or practical.
When to go…
Unless your schedule prevents you from doing otherwise, I highly recommend climbing during the summer (late July through August). I know people who have gone early in the season (June) and late (September) and both had to deal with rain, frigid cold and a few didn’t get the chance to see the sunrise. Of course climbing in August does mean you will be climbing during peak season, dealing with the crowds, the lines and the waiting. But when considering the likelihood for better weather and the alternative’s potential for misery, I have few qualms about waiting in line in exchange for general pleasantness.
To stay on the mountain or not…
When climbing Fuji, you have two basic options: to do the whole hike in one push or to sleep in one of the huts on the mountain, get up before dawn and finish the climb. I know people who swear by sleeping on the mountain, but the way I see it, because they pack you into those cold, loud bedrooms like sardines, you’re going to be exhausted and sleep deprived no matter what you do, so you might as well save yourself 6000-7000 円 and just do it all in one go.
It’s worth mentioning that I climbed Mount Fuji during a particularly meaningful and pivotal point in my life. I had just spent the past two years living and teaching in Northern Japan and the weeks leading up to Fuji were filled with intense packing, teary goodbyes, a handful of stunningly beautiful festivals. Those last few weeks represented what I love most about Japan- the people, the culture, the landscape and my time on Mount Fuji, quite literally, topped off these experiences. There hasn’t been a day since I’ve been home that I haven’t missed Japan, scheming of ways to get back, and with that in mind, I suspect climbing Fuji may not carry the same metaphorical weight for you as it did for me.
There’s a saying (bordering on cliche) in Japan that a wise man will make sure to climb Mt. Fuji once in their lifetime, but only a fool would climb it twice. That being said, armed with the wisdom of experience and feeling the existential fulfillment as you watch the sun rise from Japan’s highest point you understand why the foolhardy might be inclined to do the whole thing again.
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