Published: July 19th 2009July 16th 2009
For two months during the year, Mt. Fuji is open to climb. Last Friday was "Opening Day". I say climb, but really I anticipated more of a hike. And to be honest, I don't know how to climb anyway, so it was either going to be a steep hike or it wasn't going to happen. My training consisted of some treadmill work and lunges; there were no ropes or crampons or caribiners.
There's a saying in Japan that a smart man will climb Fuji-san once, but only an idiot would climb it twice. I'm not sure about the first half of that saying, but I can attest to the second part. I really had no idea what to expect, because I couldn't find anyone that had attempted the climb.
My brother-in-law, Jimmy happened to be visiting us last week. I had half-jokingly floated the idea to climb Fuji to Jimmy a few months ago when i heard he was coming. I fully expected him to shoot me down, and that would have been that. Sadly, Jimmy jumped at the idea, and thus last Friday, he and I set out for our leisurely hike up 12,400 feet of Japanese soil.
itself is a two hour bus ride outside of Tokyo. You can start at the bottom, I suppose, but no one seems to do this. There was a group of 50 or so Army privates that were being punished or trained, so they started from the bottom. Anyway, Jimmy and I, and just about everyone else started from the 5th Stage at about 6000 feet. We were told that it's a 7 hour jaunt up the hill to reach the top, so armed with this knowledge i calculated a 3 mph pace at 7 hours and came up with a slope of around 5%. And 5% seemed about right as we headed out from that 5th Stage of 10. There was some up, some down, and it was easy. Jimmy and I shot eachother a knowing glance about 20 minutes into what seemed to be a nice stroll that happened to circumvent a mountain. 20 minutes later, the glance turned into a leer as we realized just what we were getting ourselves into.
Now, we had timed our ascent to coincide with the sunrise. We were hoping to summit around 4:00 a.m as the sun awoke from it's slumber on
the horizon. So, keep in mind that we are in the dark for the next 8 hours. As we started up, the temperature started down. But the wind decided to rise with us. Two hours in, we arrived at the 7th stage. It was here where I realized my slope miscalculation. I hadn't adjusted for the rest/acclimation time. It was going to be something closer to a 15% grade given rests, and also given that we had started out at 2-3%.
By the 8th stage, we were 3.5 hours in, and we were cold. The wind was now gusting up to 40 miles per hour. Maureen had packed my bag with enough food to feed a small village, and 3.5 hours in, I had finished all of it. I had also adorned every last piece of clothing in the bag...at least my pack was as light as a feather now.
One of the great things about doing this is the shared experience with your climbing group. And Jimmy and I had amassed about 10 climbing compadres at this point. From the Hong Kong kids, who laughed at us for buying the walking sticks (they had quit laughing by this point)
to the 3 young guys who had talked us into buying beers on the way up the mountain, to the family of three who had started 3 hours later than us, had caught us, hung out, and then passed us, we were all in this together.
Our ascent kind of slowed around the 11,000 foot mark. The legs started burning, and the heart rate never dropped below 125 for the next 3 hours. We had done the 5000 feet in 4 hours, but apparently the next 1400 feet was going to take 3 hours.
From the 9th stage on, you realize why; it's straight up. Well, it isn't vertical, but we are on all fours at this point. And the wind is now gusting to 50 mph. There is volcanic lava ash whipping us in our eyes, nose and mouth. A lot of smarter climbers were wearing goggles, and much like the Hong Kong boys had done with our walking sticks, we had made fun of the goggle wearers earlier. We weren't laughing now.
At this point, we would walk for 30 seconds and then rest for 30 seconds. The air was just too thin for us to manage much
more than that. They sold cans of oxygen, but this seemed reserved for those that would take a hit of nicotene followed by a hit of oxygen, which even in our hurting condition still gave us a chuckle.
At 2:45 a.m., 7 hours in, we peaked. Though we barely knew it. Where were the trumpets, the cheers, the confetti, and the blankets. There was none of that. There are a few park benches, and that's it. And the wind was blistering. It was 30 degrees without the wind. And who knows with it. You are completely exposed to the elements at the top of Mt. Fuji. There is a shack that was not open, a broken down hut with no roof, some park benches, and one of the biggest craters that you can possibly imagine. Our "team" of 16 huddled in a space meant for 6. And for 1.5 hours, simply froze. The only saving grace is that you aren't still trekking. Those folks are still below you, still trying to reach the summit. It has all of the look of "Field of Dreams" where if you build it, they will come...as head lamp after head lamp bounces up
the hill towards glory.
The payoff starts at 4:15. We are above one set of clouds and below another. And for 45 minutes, before those two sets of clouds merged, we are blessed with some of the most incredible colors you can possibly imagine. Blues that make the ocean jealous. Orange normally reserved for Florida fruit. And red sent down from heaven just to piss the Devil off.
A shot of sake, a glance at the crater, and some goodbyes to our companions later, and Jimmy and I headed for warmth. It comes slowly at first, and then like a bullet. It's a three to four hour journey down the mountain. Tired and sore, this isn't easy either. But it's made easier by the view we were just privaledged enough to witness and the knowledge that you would have to be an idiot to climb Mt. Fuji twice.
There are more photos below