Last weekend, after a bit over half a year of living in Japan, the wife and I accomplished one of our long term goals, climbing Mt. Fuji. It was a unique once in a lifetime experience that left me with mixed feelings. Climbing Mt. Fuji managed to be a rewarding challenge and a bit of a letdown at the same time.
Mt. Fuji is the highest mountain in Japan at 3,776.24 m (12,389 ft). It’s an active volcano that last erupted in the 18th century. It’s a free-standing mountain, not part of any range. Considered a holy place it has been the destination of pilgrimages for hundreds of years.
Our trip started at 2pm on Saturday when we met up with our tour group, TokyoSnowClub, in Tokyo. Judy and I got there a bit early so we wandered around and decided to eat a disappointingly greasy burger at Tokyo Hooters. When the rest of the group arrived we hopped on the tour bus for the 3-hour drive to the base of Mt. Fuji.
The 5th station Yoshida Trail camp where we hung out for several hours to acclimate is basically a tourist trap. It’s several alpine resort type buildings filled with overpriced gift shops and mediocre restaurants. We bought ourselves a climbing stick, changed into warmer clothes, ate some ramen, and did a quick bit of yoga.
Around 7pm with the sun set and the rain at a constant drizzle, we began our long ascent. We climbed in a single line of what seemed like hundreds. Looking up or down the mountain all one could see in the dark was a zig-zagging line of headlamps. We climbed for hours and the rain and cold worsened the higher we got. Every two hours or so we took quick 1o minute breaks at one of the many way stations on the trail.
It quickly became obvious that while we prepared ourselves physically we did not prepare ourselves materially. The clothing we brought was woefully inadequate for the downpour and the freezing cold. Two-thirds of the way up both of us were completely soaked, out of spare clothes, and showing early signs of hypothermia. Every break we took was excruciatingly cold.
Making matters worse was the fact that something I ate earlier did not sit well and that unpleasant indigestion mixed with a dash of altitude sickness led to numerous bathroom visits at every way station. Growing up at sea level I do not do well with quick ascents so by the last leg of the climb I was having a nice case of nausea, diarrhea, headache, dizziness, and an overall case of misery.
Our climb to the summit took about 8 hours. 8 miserable hours of constant freezing rain, altitude sickness, nausea, headaches, soaked clothes, and chills. A constant march over steep switchbacks and sharp volcanic rocks. After 8 horrible hours, we reached the top. The highest point in Japan.
Waiting for the sunrise on top of Mt. Fuji was not a fun experience. By the time we reached the top we were soaked and out of spare clothes. Our jackets were under-matched for the 32f degrees. We huddled together shivering and sharing our last hand warmer. When the sun finally started to rise we silently cheered, enjoyed the view, and quickly began the long descent.
Seeing the sunrise from on top of Mt. Fuji was a beautiful experience. I will always remember and be thankful for the opportunity to see a sunrise from the top of “The Land of the Rising Sun.” I’m glad I got to share the experience with my wife. She kicked my ass in motivation and kept me going the whole time.
Our climb was a challenge, we underestimated the weather, the altitude, and the quality of our gear. While the climb itself was technically easy the rain and cold really sapped our strength. By the time we reached the top we were soaked, frozen, and tired from being up for 24 hours.
The disappointing aspect of Mt. Fuji is its popularity. Fuji is one giant volcanic tourist trap. My favorite aspect of hiking is the quite nature. I love long trails through empty canyons where the only sounds heard are your breath and wildlife. Mt. Fuji is not a spiritual experience in nature. It’s an overly commercialized amusement park. The climb is less of a hike and more of a long line at Disneyland with the peak being the destination. Every hour or so there are little way stations selling 7 dollar Top Ramen and 5 dollar water bottles. You are constantly at arm’s length with hundreds of other climbers who are talking, smoking, taking pictures, and eating. I have to admit that I was a bit let down. In my mind, Fuji was a serene holy mountain filled with monks and ancient temples. The reality was a bit jarring. It was a long trail filled with loud tourists.
All in all the experience was well worth the effort and sore muscles. We will always have some great memories from our climb. The sunrise was beautiful and being above the clouds was an ethereal experience. Both of us agreed that given the chance we would do it again. Now we have to make our way to Peru for Machu Picchu and Tanzania for Kilimanjaro.