Part 1: Mt. Fuji Climb...or, Ascending Japan's Biggest Hunk of Lava

Posted on Saturday, August 15, 2009 | 0 comments

***I was going to type this all in one entry, but seeing as it has become much longer than anticipated, it will be divided into 3 instead: the ascent, the top, and of course, the descent***

The before picture

Yuki and me at the trailhead

We climbed Mt. Fuji on Thursday, continuing into Friday morning, after much anticipation (and a little case of nerves). Since the routes up the mountain are only open about 2 months out of the year, it's usually pretty crowded. Adding to the chaos, these past couple of days were the Obon holiday, meaning that most people had off work and were thus able to do random holiday things like attempt to climb up the heart and soul of Japan. Finally, everyone wants to climb overnight and be at the top in time for sunrise. What this all means is that we were climbing during one of the most crowded days of the year. I wasn't exactly expecting a tranquil ascent, but the sheer number of hikers was still somewhat shocking. And the tour groups were just plain annoying. Picture very, very slow 'hikers' in groups of 30-50 taking up the entire trail. Moving roadblocks, and as soon as you'd get past one group, there'd be another one in front of you.
On the trail

I tend to move at a rather fast pace, so this was pretty frustrating, but at least it kept us from ascending too quickly and getting altitude sickness. Yuki partook of some oxygen around I think the 8th station (the mountain is divided into stations, each station number representing a percentage up the mountain. For example, the 8th station means 80% up). He never got anything more than a mild headache, though, which may or may not have been attributable to the thin air.

Yuki and his new friend, O2

Cloud scene

Past the 7th station was a pretty nice hike: by that point, the majority of the tour groups had stopped at their respective lodges to rest for a few hours, and everyone else had either given up or was at least moving faster than your average nursing home resident. We saw a gorgeous sunset; I'd recommend climbing Mt. Fuji for that reason alone.

Yuki and Me Above the Clouds


We finally made it to our lodge (halfway past the 8th station, so roughly at 85% up the mountain) around 7 p.m. After checking in, we relaxed and waited about 45 minutes for the other couple we were hiking with to arrive. When I say 'hiking with', I have to admit that I use the term rather loosely, since I early on gave up trying to slow down and match my strides with the already self-declared slow female half of the couple, Akane. She was really a trooper, though---I don't think that either she or her boyfriend Tsuyoshi are really the hiking type (Tsuyoshi didn't even want to go in the first place, I found out later, but she convinced him to), and poor Akane was feeling pretty ill by the time they got to the lodge. Still, she never complained and just kept pushing on. I have to give her credit: had I been feeling as ill as she seemed, I would've turned back and not even made it that far! And she made it all the way to the top, too!

At the Lodge

Anyway, after they made it to the lodge, we had a curry dinner (side note: if you want to make canned curry taste good, just serve it way up on a mountain to people who have been hiking all day) and then tried to get some sleep, since the plan was to leave around 2 a.m. to make the summit by sunrise, which was at 5 a.m. The top was only supposed to be maybe an hour to an hour and a half from our lodge, but with the number of tour groups that'd soon be blocking the path, we figured the sooner the better. It didn't really matter anyway, since nobody got more than an hour or two of sleep that night.
Let me explain the lodge layout. When you come in the doors, you take off your shoes and step up onto traditional style tatami mats in the main room, where everyone congregates and eats dinner, etc. Leading off this room is another very large, dark room, consisting solely of 2 aisles separating the bed area into 3 sections. For some reason it made me think of concentration camp style beds, even though I've never actually seen a concentration camp, let alone its sleeping arrangements. Maybe just because I remember reading in Schindler's List about how many people were crammed into such small spaces.
These 'beds' were set up as follows: you could sleep on the ground level, stepping down slightly and crawling onto your respective mats, or you could sleep on the upper level, climbing a short ladder up into the loft area, which was about 6 feet high. Each level was sub-divided into sections meant for 4 people, but the dividers were really only about the size of 2 by 4's, so the entire area was basically open.
We were given an area in the loft, so we could at least hang our bags from hooks in the rafters. The disadvantage to the loft was the number of opportunities it provided for smacking one's head, which I took advantage of at least 3 times. Ow. Also, the space for 4 was really meant for 4 children, or else 4 anoxerics, perhaps. VERY tight quarters. I'm glad that all of us were skinny, but it was still a bit close for comfort!
The cleanliness of the bedding was rather suspicious too, but after hiking all day, nobody was about to get too picky. I did see some of the workers spraying sanitizer on the pillows and mats they were putting out in the main room---the lodge was so crowded that people were lying anywhere they could---but the sanitizer incident was somehow more scary than reassuring! Still, nobody got any bedbug bites that I know of, thankfully!

Lodge Bedding

I had already assumed that it would be hard to sleep, since I'd read numerous accounts online of how noisy it can get, due to people moving past outside on the trail, that and people coming in and out of the lodge. I usually have a rough time falling asleep in less-than-ideal conditions, so I'd brought ear plugs and an eye mask with me. Even so, I could still hear some guy snoring from across the aisle, plus another guy kept very, very, VERY loudly passing gas every 2 minutes. You could set your watch by it, honestly. It was pretty funny at first (especially since we couldn't smell anything), but after a while it was just plain annoying. And, once I started to tune all that out, Tsuyoshi fell asleep and started snoring loudly himself. Since I was to his right and figured his girlfriend was too nice to do it, I took it upon myself to poke him every time he started up. With Yuki, whenever he starts to snore, I've discovered that all I have to do is nudge at him until he shifts positions and stops the nasal symphony. Unfortunately, this wasn't the case for Tsuyoshi, and all my poking did was eventually wake him up. Oops. He'd only slept 2 hours the night before, so I felt particulary guilty about waking him. Poor guy. But it did let me fall asleep for maybe 45 minutes, until another snorer woke me up.
By some point, we'd all either woken up or just given up on falling asleep in the first place, and pretty much the whole lodge got up after a group of extremely rude females started preparing to head out, talking loudly from a corner of the loft. Yuki pointed his flashlight at them several times and hissed that they were being rude, to no avail. Let that put an end to the stereotype that all Japanese are polite! (Most of the people I've met are incredibly nice, but there are always exceptions to the rule).
So, instead of leaving at 2 a.m., we left at 1:30. This was still too early in terms of getting to the peak and then having to wait in the freezing cold, but nobody really wanted to hang around the lodge any more, either.
Akane was continuing to have a rough go of it, so we went ahead of her and Tsuyoshi again. The rest of the way up was really beautiful, actually. It was a clear night, and in the thin air the line of lights from people going up the mountain looked almost like a formation of fireflies. It was a little surreal, something out of Close Encounters maybe.
I was reminded of the time some friends and I had driven out to the salt lake in Utah one evening. We'd arrived around sunset, in time to walk out onto the Spiral Jetty. (Another amazing experience; I would highly recommend going if you ever have the chance). On the way back, we drove past the Thiokol rocket factory. It was the only sign of civilization to be seen, a twinkling mecca of lights in the desert. The scene on Mt. Fuji had the same feel to it: desolate, yet somehow comforting and beautiful at the same time. I wish I could describe it better, but perhaps it's one of those moments you have to experience for yourself to fully appreciate.
The temperature had also dropped a lot by this point, but we were doing ok with our winter coats (thanks Taku, for loaning me your North Face coat!), plus everyone was working up a sweat due to the steep slope. We saw quite a few people sleeping by the side of the trail, wrapped up in those metallic thermal blankets. How they could sleep with the herd noisily moving fast was beyond me, but maybe hypothermia helped.
Finally, finally, finally, just before 3 a.m., we passed under an unpainted wooden torii (the gates to a Japanese shrine) and arrived at the top!

Yuki and Me