The Three Stages of Climbing Mount Fuji

Thousands of climbers summit Fuji every summer, which has led to numerous accounts of the adventure, both online and in print. While the experience was quite new to me, I’m sure that nothing I write about the climb will be novel.

Hence, I will endeavor to be brief, at least here in summary: the experience of climbing Mount Fuji was absolutely incredible — we were incredibly lucky — I’ll (probably) never do it again.

The Beginning — From the 5th Station to the 8th Station

Alternate Title: “This isn’t so bad!”

To elaborate a little more:

We started our hike decked out in fancy rental equipment, hiking up through intense fog. About halfway to the 7th station, the fog was burned off by the sun, and from that point forwards, we were hiking above the clouds. Our group moved quite slowly up the mountain, sandwiched between guides who mercifully allowed short breaks every half hour or so. S, J, and I used our breaks to breathe deeply, snack on the trail mix we had bought, and shell out a few hundred yen to get our hiking sticks stamped at many of the mountain huts we passed. At our humble pace, it took nearly seven hours to reach our 3,400+ meter 8th-station mountain hut for the night, where we chowed down on hot curry-rice and tea. Honestly, up until darkness fell about an hour before we reached the 8th station, I kept thinking, “This really isn’t so bad!” But by the time we sat down for dinner at our night’s mountain hut, I was suffering a little from altitude sickness alongside my two friends — we all had headaches, a little nausea, and a general feeling of malaise. We unpacked our bottled oxygen, chugged water and Pocari Sweat, and settled down in our sleeping bags for what turned out to be a rather cold, uneasy two hours of sleep.

What I learned from this part of the hike:

  1. “Regular breathing won’t get you to the top of the mountain.” To combat altitude sickness, our guides stressed the importance of breathing deeply every step of the way. I found out that I don’t breathe very deeply to begin with, and I had to remind myself every few minutes to really fill my lungs with oxygen.
  2. Being on Fuji feels like walking on another planet. With the clouds obscuring the Earthlings and their earthly cities below, we were walking on Mars up above. The surface of this Fuji planet was sharp red-brown volcanic rock and shrubbery… the moon seemed closer than ever before… the stars, once night fell, seemed to shout that we were in their universe now… the air thinned until a simple 8th station staircase left you winded and wondering how ill-suited you were for this new, beautiful, dangerous planet.
  3. Altitude sickness sucks. Canned oxygen is absolutely worth it.

Summiting Fuji — From the 8th Station to the Top for Sunrise

Alternate Title: 100% Worth It

IMG_6820

To elaborate a little more:

We woke up a little less miserable and a little more adjusted to the altitude, ready to make it to the top. It was bitterly cold, and I didn’t envy the poor hikers who, without beds booked for the night, had curled up against the howling wind on the wood benches outside the mountain huts — I had seen a few such wretched souls when I woke up around midnight and took a trip to the outside toilet. Our group assembled outside the hut at 2:00 a.m., and I was amazed by the steady stream of dancing headlamps that climbed past us, into the glow of the mountain hut for a few seconds, then disappeared around the corner and back into the darkness. Hundreds of people passed by as we did a headcount — a never-ending line of hikers who materialized and vanished.

The last stretch of our hike (which lasted from 2:00 to 3:45 a.m.) was a blur of darkness, headlamps, and the reminder to keep breathing deeply. Reaching the summit was a bit anti-climatic. Our guide suddenly stopped us and said, “We are at the top!” and all of us looked at him with bleary, confused eyes. We really were at the summit, though, and we hurried to buy hot chocolates and worm our way into a front-row seat for the sunrise. It was a brilliant moment, as the sun rose molten, golden, above the clouds. All assembled were excited and awed, and the summit was at once hushed and boisterous in celebration. Cameras clicked incessantly. S, J, and I had just enough time to satisfy ourselves with photography and add a final two stamps to our hiking sticks before meeting with our group for the descent.

What I learned from this part of the hike:

  1. Not everyone makes it to the top in time. One of my favorite parts of being at the summit was looking down below, minutes before the sunrise, and seeing the glowing stream of thousands of headlamps as late hikers tried to arrive  at the summit for the sunrise. Many did not succeed, but all were above the clouds, and the moment the sun rose, the stream of lights stood still to take in the majesty.
  2. The post office at the summit of Mount Fuji is not close by. But as long as you buy stamps in advance, you can leave your postcards with the people who run the mountain huts, and they’ll mail all your postcards for you.
  3. It’s freaking freezing at the top of Fuji. Bring all the kairo (hand warmers).

The Descent 

Alternate Title:   I’ll Never Climb Fuji Again

To elaborate a little:

Going down Fuji was both beautiful and awful. You are basically zig-zagging down the entire mountain, on a path consisting of loose volcanic gravel-rock. I felt like I was constantly about to fall (many people did wipe out pretty spectacularly) and my body was tense the whole time, which really wore me out. I’ll admit that even in my darkest moment in the mountain hut the night before, queasy with altitude sickness, I had not entirely crossed out the idea of summiting Fuji again at a later date. The descent pretty much killed that idea for me. My friends and I fantasized about a summit-to-5th-station teleportation platform, or — better yet — a giant slide to the bottom of the mountain. When we eventually did make it to the bottom, we rewarded ourselves with ice creams and a trip to an onsen.

What I learned from this part of the hike:

  1. “…even dragons have their endings.” To quote Tolkien a little bit, the bad things will end. I complained viciously (mostly internally, I hope) about the descent because it hurt my feet so badly that I half-expected my toes to be bruised and bleeding when I finally wrenched my hiking boots off (spoiler: they weren’t) but I also was comforted by the knowledge that we would reach the end eventually. And I would make it out alive. Fuji is no dragon.
  2. Walking across Tokyo with a Mt. Fuji hiking stick branded with mountain hut stamps is a very unique experience. People were staring at us apologetically, and I, at least, was so tired that I didn’t even care.
  3. Taking the Tokyo subway with a Mt. Fuji hiking stick is even better. Several people approached us curiously and asked us friendly questions about our hike. Since it’s quite rare for strangers in Japan to strike up conversation, it was a bit of a groundbreaking moment for us — made sweeter by the fact that they used easy Japanese that we could understand and reply to!

So, in the end, was the famed tourist adventure of climbing Fuji worth it? For me, 100% yes. I recommend it without hesitation. That said, would I do it a second time? …Nope. There are many more mountains in the world waiting to be discovered.

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