Friday, September 17, 2010

My Day Trip on Fuji-san: Climbing Mt. Fuji

There is an old Japanese saying that goes something like this: “You are wise to climb Mt. Fuji once, but only fools climb it twice.” I thought I would be a fool to even attempt to climb a mountain as I didn’t think I had that gene in my body. But last year my sister Linda, who lives in Japan, threw out the crazy notion that we climb Mt. Fuji in August of 2010. I’m proud to say that my sister and I did successfully climb Mt. Fuji all in one day without major injuries. This can turn into a long and drawn-out tale as my family well knows. I’ll share with you the essence of the experience as you will have to climb Mt. Fuji yourself to see why a fool climbs twice. 
There are four trails up Mt. Fuji. We chose the Subashiri route up as it was supposedly the most scenic, least travelled, closest to our hotel, and has the quickest descent. We discovered the day after our climb that the Subashiri trail is the second most difficult trail up the mountain. (Probably good we didn’t know that during the climb!)
To acclimate to the altitude, we spent a sleepless night at a hotel near the trailhead. We rose early on August 3rd and my sister’s very gracious Japanese friend dropped us off at the 5th Station trailhead further up the mountain as a rainbow broke through the morning clouds. She wished us well and told us we were crazy to attempt this. She was sensibly going back to bed then spending the day shopping at an outlet mall at the foot of Mt. Fuji.
We spent 30 minutes getting used to the higher altitude (2000 m) before hitting the trail at 6 am. The air was already hot and heavy with humidity. Our packs were loaded down with 9 liters of water, food, rain gear, and warm clothes. We noticed right off that this was not like hiking in Colorado where the trails have switchbacks. This trail was straight up with virtually no switchbacks, and we were climbing on a pebbly/sandy and almost slippery surface. An hour into the climb we were very hot. So hot that we stopped to shed our pants and continued the climb in our shorts and a tank tops. All the other Japanese climbers were covered head to toe in long pants, fleeces, sun hats and gloves. Not us!
As we broke out of the tree line two hours into our climb, we reached the 6th Station and took a 30 minute rest to eat breakfast and hydrate. Each trail going up Mt. Fuji has rest “Stations” along the way for climbers. They all sell food and water at highly inflated prices. They have toilets (you also have to pay for these), but as we found out they aren’t always working at each station. You can buy a walking stick and at each station along the trail get a brand burned onto your stick which we did. Some of the stations have sleeping huts and hotels as many climbers like to spend the night, rise well before dawn, and make the summit of Fuji in time for the sunrise. We opted not to do this and am glad that we stayed at a hotel instead of on the mountain. The sleeping huts offered you a small mat, a tiny space wedged next to a stranger, and a ratty old blanket that probably hadn’t been washed in weeks and was used nightly by other hikers. No thanks!
Our map estimated that we could reach the summit in 4-6 hours. We cruised up the mountain to the next station in only 30 minutes, arriving by 9 am. By now we could see the remaining stations stacked up as well as the summit and were optimistic that we could reach the top by noon. 
The trail got even steeper as we started our climb to the 7th station. Along the trail we passed a few little trailside alters which serve as a grim reminder that people do die along this trail. The weather can deteriorate very quick but so far we are blessed with a sunny day with a few clouds flitting over us as we ascend. Just before we reach the 7th station, altitude sickness hit me. Dizziness, vertigo, a massive headache. We stop to rest along the trail and slow down our breakneck pace. We are now at 3090 meters. 
My sister and I leave the 7th Station at 10:50 am for the most difficult climb up to the top. The air is very thin, the trail is over a 30° angle straight up with no vegetation, only lava rock, and we are literally taking baby steps up the trail. But it’s not just us creeping up the mountain, everyone is. Mt. Fuji is the great equalizer for all of the climbers—the little old Japanese ladies, the Marines from Camp Fuji, the American Navy couple in their 20s, a 10-year old boy and his parents, and two young-at-heart Wisconsinites. The only person we found unfazed by the altitude was a college student from Austria who was bounding up Fuji like a mountain goat.
We drank at least half of our water supply before we reached the top which was good except that the toilets at all of the stations past the 7th were broken. By the time we reached yet another broken toilet at the 8.5 Station (at 3500m) I was about dying. With my sister standing guard, I found an already damp spot along a rocky ledge and left my mark upon Mt. Fuji. Thank goodness I didn’t wait for the 9th Station as it was crushed when we arrived around 2 pm. Completely buried under piles of volcanic boulders. We stopped for a very brief rest and forced ourselves to eat and drink water. 
This was the most difficult part of the climb for me as it was very hot in the direct sun, difficult to breathe, and my legs felt SO very heavy and shaky. Our slow pace limited us to climbing up at a rate of only 100 meters in 30 minutes. What kept me going was seeing the Tori gate marking the top of the mountain and my sister urging me onward.
Finally, we reached the top of Mt. Fuji at 2:48 pm!!! We grasped each other hands and shouted some Japanese phrase of “WE DID  IT!” as our feet touched the top stone step. We were exhausted but elated at reaching the summit in 8.5 hours of climbing. And what did we find at the top of Mt. Fuji? A noodle shop, a shrine, lots of trinket shops (I bought a little flag for my walking stick and Lin bought some bells for hers), a post office, a super smelly and expensive toilet, and the most amazing views I’ve ever seen. 
At this point, Linda had to call her friend who was picking us up at the bottom of the trail to tell her we were running a few hours late. Amazingly her phone worked! We stopped to eat and rest, use the disgusting toilet, and take a glance into the crater on top of Fuji. Only a little rope separated us from a very long fall into the center of the volcano. Either safety standards are a bit lax in Japan or the Japanese assume that people aren’t stupid enough to venture dangerously close to the edge.
We took a few moments to savor the deafening silence and beauty of being at the top of Japan. It was so beautiful in a desolate and barren way. Very few people were on top of the mountain. Initially we planned to walk a trail that goes around the crater (about an hour hike) but at this point it was 3:45 pm, and we had no idea how long it would take us to get back down. The map said 2-3 hours, but this was the same map that said 4-6 hours to climb up, not over 8 hours. All we knew was that the sun would set around 6:30 pm, and we didn’t have any flashlights with us. Time to get off the mountain!
We cut ahead of a large group of older Japanese hikers, wondering how these people in their 60s and 70s even made it up Fuji. A sign showed our Subashiri trail taking 1 hour and 45 minutes to descend as opposed to 4 hours and 10 minutes on the Yoshida trail. Hmmm, why was our trail so much faster? 

It was a spectacular slide down to the 8th Station where the trail split and our Subashiri trail cut straight down a very steep grade. At 4:45 pm we started our ski/scoot down a  Fuji lava flow that dropped us 3000 feet in just over an hour. We were cruising down Mt. Fuji, using our boots as skis and the sandy, rocky volcanic surface as snow. We had to watch out for embedded boulders, and at one point Linda was doing moguls and even caught air! At some points, it was so steep and I got going so fast I couldn’t stop even if I wanted to. I’m surprised our descent off of Mt. Fuji was legal as it was so dangerous. Maybe our accelerated rate of speed made it even more dangerous! 
One crazy Japanese kid was literally running down the mountain while others were slowly picking their way down and holding onto a thin rope for balance. Not the American girls from Wisconsin, we passed everyone and even caught up with groups far below us. I think our speed was mainly due to being overly anxious to get off of Mt. Fuji before sunset. And it didn’t help when Linda mentioned that this would be the worst possible place to be if even a minor earthquake hit!
All of this was very fun for say the first 45 minutes. Then we realized that we had to keep doing this for even longer once we could see the parking lot way off in the distance. Our toes were starting to hurt. Knees were popping and hips were sore from this strange and rapid descent. Our trail did not intersect with any of the rest stations on the way up and there were no markers showing how far we had come or how far it was to the 5th Station trailhead. 
Our hopes were dashed around 5:45 pm when we finally reached the bottom of the lava slide and the 5th Station, not the 5th Station TRAILHEAD where we had started. It was now starting to get dark and our bodies were feeling the efforts of climbing up and down Fuji. The last 40 minutes of the trail was a boulder descent through the woods with lots of massive tree roots to navigate. 
Finally we saw the Shinto shrine at the base of the trail, and we knew that we were very close to the end. We hugged each other as we passed thru the gates to the 5th Station trailhead. It was now 6:20 pm. Our legs felt like rubber bands, and a lady at the end of the trail handed us cups of very smelly and salty tea (we think it was to prevent seizures). We headed back to the car, down the mountain, and into a Japanese Denny’s Restaurant for our post-Fuji feast! What an unforgettable day and an incredible experience that I was lucky enough to share with my sister. Would I climb it again?  Probably not but my sister and I will be talking about our Mt. Fuji climb when we are well into our 90s!
My workout watch gave us a few stats about our climb:
^    8 hours, 46 minutes and 16 seconds to reach the top. We started at 2000 meters and climbed up to 3776 meters.
^    6311 calories burned on the ascent. A total of 9113 calories burned the entire day.
^    230 beats/minute. My highest heart rate on the ascent.
^    Descended Mt. Fuji in 2 hours and 29 minutes. We slid/skied down about 3000 ft. in 1 hour at a rate of 1.5 feet/second!
^    Total time on the mountain, including rests and time at the summit, 12 hours, 20 minutes, and 25 seconds.

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