Fuji – Ascending the Summit

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Sunrise Mt. Fuji

Fuji

Or Fuji-san as it’s called in Japan is the tallest mountain in the country and is easy accessible from Tokyo. Is ascending the mountain and reaching the summit something anyone can do? If you’re in good health and not completely out of shape then in my experience yes!
Will it be easy? Probably not, Fuji is after all a 3776 meter tall mountain. But if you decide to do this during a popular period of the year you will see both pensioners and children on route to the top. But there are some pitfalls to be avoided which I will get to later.

When to go

The mountain is climbable all year round, but on the main route there are several huts, bathrooms, rescue personal on standby, etc. which are only open during July and August. Therefore the official climbing season is during this period. If you do decide to climb Fuji-san during the off-season there will be signs warning you to pretty much tell everyone to climb at their on risk.
This post will mainly contain information pertinent to the climbing season since the times I’ve ascended the mountain were during this period.
The time of day to start your ascent is completely up to you. Most people ascend during the night to watch the sunrise from the top. But I can attest that watching the sunrise from your ascent and avoiding stumbling around on the pitch-black trail on the way up is also an option, see the picture above. I’ve done it both ways and to me there is no wrong time to do it.

How to get there

The easiest way and the most common way to reach Mt. Fuji is to take a bus to what they call Kawaguchi-go (the fifth station). Most people start their climb from there because it is where you can actually start calling it a climb. You can easily book tickets in Shinjuku Tokyo or book them online. I booked mine through http://highway-buses.jp/fuji/.

The Weather and Altitude

The weather on Mt. Fuji during the climbing season can vary greatly which I will get into more under the pitfalls. The temperature can dip into freezing despite it being steamy in next door Tokyo. The mountainside can also be pretty windy which makes it feel pretty darn cold if the temperature already is on the low side. Another factor which can make for a difficult climb is the rain which can be quite literally be pouring down. Making it both slippery and uncomfortable.
With Mt. Fuji being a fairly tall mountain you have to account for the thin oxygen deprived air which might lead to altitude sickness. The only way to really deal with this is to take your time during the climb, rest at the stations along the way and if you start feeling any discomfort take a break and slow down. A option is to bring oxygen canisters to help with the altitude, but that is most often only a temporary fix. Slow and steady wins the race.

The Gear

What you need depends pretty much on the weather, but since weather reports aren’t always so reliable it’s better to be prepared for the worst.

  • Waterproof jacket and pants
    Absolutely essential and if possibly lightweight and packable. Gore-tex pac-lite is always a good option.
  • Shoes
    Preferably with decent grip, warm and waterproof.
  • Flashlight and/or head torch
    This is especially necessary if you plan on ascending/descending during the night.
  • Backpack
    Make sure that it is waterproof or has a waterproof cover and is comfortable enough for a long hike.
  • Camera
    The view can be spectacular and you won’t forgive yourself if you don’t have it with you.
  • Cash
    They do sell both drinks and food at some points during the climb and if you’re freezing a hot cup of cocoa might not be a bad thing.

Other than this be sure to dress after the weather, rather to warm than to cold,  and if it you know it will be raining bring a change of clothes. Otherwise you will find yourself buying some quite expensive souvenir clothes in the gift shop (talking from experience). And be sure to bring a lot of water and eatables both to keep the costs down and to keep your energy up.

The Climb

The climb is fairly easy in good conditions and is said to take on average about 5-6 hours. But the length it will take depends on weather conditions, fitness, ability to cope with the altitude etc. so if you want to be at the summit for sunrise be sure to give yourselves some leeway. The descend takes about 3-4 hours but could be somewhat more treacherous since walking down such steep slopes, often on loose rocks and pebbles, takes quite a toll on your already tired legs.

The Pitfalls

I’m going to tell you about the the two times I’ve climbed Fuji so you can avoid my mistakes. The first time there were three of us, me William and Anna,  and none of us took really serious. We had seen images from the climb which lead us to believe it was pretty much only a stroll up a hill and since the weather during our trip through Japan had been on the hot side  we underestimated the climate conditions as well… The climb started out easy and we were dressed in more or less board shorts and tank tops (we had more with us in a bag, but not much more). We passed a lot of geared out hikers with walking sticks, head torches, proper boots, big backpacks etc. and thought that they were just being overcautious. About an hour into the climb we were interviewed by a Japanese tv-crew which called us crazy vikings and believed us to be out of our minds. When the sun set it started to rain and get cold so we put on our jeans, Anna and I had jackets so we put those on and William put on his thick sweater and took out his umbrella. Which all worked out fine, for a while… Then the rain set in for real. It poured down, in the beginning we decided to stay out of the rain and climb when it let of, but it never did. After a few hours of soaking downpour we were cold to the bone due to our meagre rain gear and meaningless efforts to avoid the rain. Anna had started shivering almost uncontrollable and the entire Mt. Fuji experience had become less than enjoyable. So we looked into stopping for a few hours in a hut to dry of, but apparently that cost rather more than we had with us in cash (no cards accepted at the time). If we pooled our cash one of us could stay so we decided that Anna would stay the night and that we would meet up in the morning. William and I decided that we had to get out of the rain and the only free shelter we knew of was down at the Kawaguchi-go, the fifth station. So we made our way down the mountainside again in the dark and the pouring rain. To make a long story short we ended up waiting out the morning in a public bathroom warming ourselves with cans of hot tea from a vending machine. The next morning, still soaked but no longer cold, William and I once again ascended the mountain and to meet up with Anna.

  • Lessons learned here are do more research, observe others (monkey see, monkey do is not always a bad thing) and always bring cash.

A few years later I decided that I had to climb Mt. Fuji again, I never got to see the sunrise from the top after all. I planned my trip well in advance and had one day that fitted perfectly for the climb. I made sure I was geared up a bit better this time. Although I almost forgot rain pants, had to buy them in Shinjuku before the bus left. One never learns…. On the bus I saw the weather getting worse but this time I was prepared and ready. Or so I thought…
Kawaguchi-goAt Kawaguchi-go’s welcome centre I found out that there was a typhoon coming in and that the mountain was closed for the night. A few of us that were on the same bus got talking and we decided to give it a go for as long as we thought it possible since we had no were else to be and the buses to pick us up wouldn’t arrive until tomorrow morning. The first two hours were wet but not much more and the climb was great since it was only us on the entire mountainside. About halfway the typhoon hit and the conditions worsened quickly. The wind and the rain made it impossible to even take out the camera and people started dropping of a few at a time. Mt. Fuji HutWe had started as a happy bunch of about fifteen people at the last station before the summit there were only five of us left and we were all more bedraggled than happy. We decide to stay in the hut and rest up for a while but the conditions only got worse. A few who had gone before us returned to the hut and said it was impossible because there was no visibility. But we all decided to give it a go so the five of us made an attempt at the last stretch. But only a few meters up the path you could understand what they had meant, the hut was gone. We couldn’t see it anymore. Which was very uncomfortably since you knew it was there, just another step an you could touch it. I got a new understanding for how heavily one relies on sight. We broke our attempt and returned to the hut. Well inside we got talking and most of us decided to break and return to the base, but Albari said that he wanted to give it one last go if any of us was willing to since it would be a bad idea to go alone. Not wanting to give up quite yet I accepted. We went out side and parted ways saying that we would met each other at the welcome centre. Albari and I started to slowly make our way up again and to give you a idea of the visibility let’s just say that you couldn’t see where we planted your feet. We tried not to be more than an arms length apart for the sake of safety. The first leg of the stretch we could still walk but the wind became so bad that you had to lean your entire weight against it just avoid blowing backwards. Rain flowed in via my face into my tightly pulled hood making me soaking wet on half the upper body and my pants, waterproof but not gore-tex, gave up completely. The wind increased still and made us get down our knees and actually crawl a long stretch which was preferable because that way you could at least feel where you were going.
Sight was at that moment an almost useless sense. But the weather let up near a Tori-gate just below a short set of stairs leading up to the summit. Talk about euphoria, the feeling when we reached the summit was indescribable. But we soon realised that we needed to get a move on down or miss the bus back to Tokyo. Luckily for us the typhoon almost complete let up with the sunrise and the way down felt like a breeze compared to what we just been through. We met up with the others at the welcome centre where I purchased some quite expensive souvenirs, shirt and towel, and dried of a bit. All my gear except the GoPro was soaked since the rain cover on my backpack had not covered the part against my actual back. Including my sd-cards, extra wide angle Sigma lens and my Nikon dslr. But luckily they all survived.

  • Lessons learned here are, when people tell you it’s a bad idea to do something it probably is and if possible be flexible with your dates…

 

Would I recommend climbing Mt. Fuji? Yes absolutely, but be prepared and check out the weather reports for any unwanted typhoons.

Shepparding clouds

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