Can’t believe it’s been over a week since I was clambering up the rocky face of Japan’s highest mountain. Already it feels like a distant memory. My body has fully recovered; all hiking gear has been washed and put away. If it wasn’t for my “Mt Fuji stick” standing in the corner of my apartment, and the 250 odd photos on my camera, I could almost believe it never actually happened! It was a tough hike, I won’t lie. But it was worth it, just to see this:
Our group of 18 (friends, and friends of friends) took the 2:40pm bus from Shinjuku Station, arriving at the 5th station of Mt Fuji 2.5 hours later. There are actually 4 different 5th stations, each connecting to different trails on Mt Fuji. We decided on Fuji-Subaru 5th Station which is the entrance to the Yoshida Trail, the most popular route.
A few things surprised me when we got to the 5th station. Firstly, it wasn’t that busy. There were actually two big events on in Tokyo the same night, which may have drawn a lot of people away: the Edogawa Fireworks and the Itabashi Fireworks, which combined is attended by about 1.5 million people! Whatever the reason, it was all good news for us. Mt Fuji is notorious for its super crowded, narrow trails where you have no choice but to follow long lines of slow tour groups.
Secondly, the 5th station is basically a commercialized base camp. There’s a bunch of souvenir shops and everything’s expensive. It’s here that you can pick up the well-known ‘Mt Fuji walking stick’. I ended up getting a medium-sized one for 1,200 yen. The idea is that at every mountain hut on the trail, you get the stick branded (and pay 300-400 yen each time, mind you!). It’s like an achievement memorabilia. It’s also pretty useful too, though there were times when I really needed both hands to climb up the steep rocks.
And thirdly, I guess this one is also due to luck, the weather was amazing! It was about 20°C and not humid. I know we were 2300m above sea level, but it was such a change from Tokyo! We could see the top of the mountain very clearly, although clouds were sweeping by pretty quickly. Down below, all we could see were white puffs. We were literally up in the clouds. Then as the sun set, the sky quickly changed to dark blue with streaks of pink and orange. It was very pretty. How lucky that we would be able to see both the sunset and sunrise from Mt Fuji!
So, the idea was to hang around the 5th station for 2 hours, get used to the altitude, relax, and eat dinner. With our headlamps on, backpacks fastened, we started climbing just after 7pm. The first leg, to the 6th station (2390m), took about 25 minutes. It started off with a gradual slope, and then there were a bunch of big stairs before it turned into a steep climb. I was stuffed before we even reached the first hut! Little did I know it would just be a warm up for what was to come. The group didn’t even make it 100 metres before all separating! I’m actually pretty sure we were never together again as a group. That’s the thing with big groups; everyone has their own pace. Catching our breaths at the 6th station, we had a 5-minute break before continuing on. On the way, we were super lucky to see about 3 different fireworks shows going on in the towns below!! The tiny explosions of colour were so cool. We stopped a couple of times just to watch them (it was also a good excuse to have a few sneaky breaks to catch our breath).
About one hour later, we reached the 7th station (2700m)…. or so I thought. I excitedly got the first stamp on my stick, and then we were on our way again. But after just 10 minutes, we were already at the next hut! I realized there was more than one ‘7th station’. The first one was ‘Hana-goya’, and the one we were at was ‘Hinode-kan’. There were another 5 until the 8th station! I’m still not even sure which is the proper 7th station, if there is one!
Between the 6th station and the top (10th station), there are 14 mountain huts. Some are really small, others big. Some cater for people who want to sleep, some are just quick toilet stops. It gets a little confusing figuring out if you’re at the new 7th station or the original 7th station or the 7.5th station or just one of the in-between huts!
The next 1 hour 15 minutes were actually not too bad. The initial shock of how tiring it was had settled, and we were able to get into a steady rhythm. We chatted with each other along the way. It was so nice to hear people call out 頑張って！(You can do it, keep going!). Although everyone was in their own group, all the groups were ‘together’. There was an atmosphere of camaraderie, for sure.
We got to ‘Taishi-kan’, the first of the 8th stations (3100m) at 10:15pm. It was starting to get really cold, especially whenever we stopped for a break. It was time to put on warmer gear: windbreaker, beanie, scarf, and gloves. We stayed for about 10 minutes, enjoying awesome, much-needed cups of coffee and cocoa. I would have liked to sit down for longer, but we just had to keep pushing onwards and upwards!
The next few hours were just a slow, slow, shuffle. Lots of hikers had decided to bunk down on the side of the mountain, using special sheets to cover themselves and protect them from the bitter cold wind. It looked a bit depressing actually, like a mass of dead bodies. It didn’t make me feel any better, passing them, nor did it make me want to join them. We just kept going, only thinking about putting one foot in front of the other. It was pitch black, and we relied heavily on our headlamps to make sure we didn’t trip over any rocks or bump into any guide poles – although I did slam my head into a metal pole at one point which hurt really bad.
It started to get especially tough after midnight. The going was painfully slow, the air was thin, and my body was telling me to stop every five steps. Sometime around 1:00am, I felt like I just couldn’t keep going. Two friends and I slumped down on the side of the path. As we sat there, all we could hear were the heavy footsteps and the deep breathing from the hikers going past. Occasionally, we’d hear the click of a portable oxygen can in use. It made me feel a little better knowing that almost everyone else was struggling, too.
After eating some food and resting our legs, it was time for the final push to the top. We ran into some of our group members who had also been taking a break just up ahead. Our little reunion gave me a boost of energy and before I knew it we were at the next landmark: the 9th station (3600m), a torii gate with two stone lions either side. It was 2:00am. We had more or less reached the top! We were ecstatic!
We reached the summit a short while later. The adrenaline wore off quickly. It very, very freezing cold! The temperature was around 4°C but the wind chill made it feel below 0. Plenty of people warned me about the temperature at the top, but I just never imagined it being that bad. My toes were numb and my neck was cold despite having so many layers wrapped around it. Thankfully, this is Japan, and you can find heated-drink vending machines even at 3776m (or there abouts). I grabbed a can of hot cocoa, which warmed my hands for about two minutes before turning into an ice cold drink!
There were a couple dozen people already at the summit, and more arriving by the minute. We found a place away from the crowd below a small barricade of rocks, and huddled together, using blankets, raincoats, sheets, whatever we could to wrap ourselves up and protect us from the biting winds. We had two hours to try get some rest, but I was shivering so much I couldn’t sleep at all. I told myself, I will never complain of the summer heat ever again!
Daybreak came at 4:00am. Dark clouds covered above us, and beautifully framed a clear horizon. A perfect gradation of blue, orange and red appeared, and we knew the sun was not far away. We moved further around the mountain and found a great place with hardly any people.
The view down below and off into the distance was sublime! The mountains below were submerged in wisps of clouds. Everything was so still and peaceful. We could see the ocean out to the far right, and three or four lakes below. The clouds above were tinged with pink from the sun just beyond the horizon. I was absolutely filled with awe. A friend gave me the idea to share this wonderful experience with our friends and family via Skype. Technology is pretty awesome! My hands were shaking from being so cold, but I managed to send a few video messages to the family.
And then, it was sunrise at 4:45am. The moment we’d been waiting for. The reason people climb through the night. The sneaky thing seemed to pop up out of nowhere! But within minutes, the entire sky was lit on fire. It was one of the most spectacular things I’ve seen! The reflection on the mountain face was almost as impressive as the sky. It was such an intense red. A friend commented that it looked like we were on Mars!
After basking in the glorious sun, we decided to leave for two reasons. One, it was so cold. And two, we really needed to go to the toilet. Like, really, really badly. There were two toilets at the summit, but the line looked about two hours long. I’m not exaggerating at all. So after a quick look at the big, scary, icy crater, we started back down at 5:15am. We finally were able to release our poor bladders at the 8.5th station!
The journey back to the 6th station consisted of a steep, zigzag, gravel trail. You could take breaks at the corners of the zigzags, but there were no flat areas at all. It started off great! We were flying down, passing all the slow groups. I would even say it was pretty fun. But unfortunately for me, the fun didn’t last long. My toes we being pushed into the front of my shoes, and it felt like my toenails were being pushed back into my feet. With every step it was getting more and more painful. I was forced to put on the brakes and go extremely slow. I ended up walking almost sideways to relieve the pressure on my big toes. This went on for about two hours. Horrible.
By the time I reached the 6th station (at 7:45am), I was in too much pain and had to change my hiking boots to my sandals. Luckily the worst of the hike was over, and the remaining track was fairly flat and easy. My feet definitely appreciated the open air!
At long last, we returned to our starting point at just after 9:00am, 14 hours after having set off. We collapsed on the ground, in a zombie-like state. Everyone was wrecked. As different members of our group arrived back, we were all saying the same thing: ‘never again, never again’.
If I had to give advice to someone looking to climb Mt Fuji, I’d say prepare for mid-winter weather at the top (heat packs are a life saver); go at your own pace (it’s important not to race up, otherwise you could get altitude sickness); go to the toilet whenever you can, even if you don’t think you need to go; and remember to eat energy food and drink water, as it’s easy to forget when you’re concentrating on climbing. I only drank about 1 litre of water the whole time, although the recommended amount is 1.5-2 litres.
We actually had a lot of really awesome things go our way which I’m grateful for: the weather was perfect – no rain, a clear sky for sunrise, and no harsh sun on the way down; it wasn’t very crowded; and most importantly, everyone returned safely. But even thinking back to it now, I still don’t think I’ll climb Mt Fuji again! I’m happy with my one-and-only experience.