Trekking Mt. Fuji One Step at a Time

It’s impossible to live in Japan and not hear the saying. “You’re a fool if you never climb Mt. Fuji, and you’re an even bigger fool if you climb it more than once.”

It’s a quote I never quite understood until I attempted the night climb up Mt. Fuji in a quest to greet the sunrise from the summit. Mt. Fuji, or Fuji-san as it is called, is Japan’s highest mountain at 3776 meters above sea level. A dormant volcano, Fuji-san last erupted in 1708. In fact, Mt. Fuji has erupted a total of five times, causing damage but no fatalities. Located just 150 km from Tokyo, Mt. Fuji attracts thousands of climbers each year, thirty percent of which are foreigners.

To hear people talk, it sounds as though everyone has mounted Fuji at one time or another, including young children and Japanese grandmas. As a result, I greatly underestimated the challenge Fuji would present.
Three friends and I arrived at Fuji’s fifth station at 6 p.m. on June 25. Fuji’s fifth station sits 2400 meters above sea level, and most people begin the climb at this point. Fuji has ten stations in total, where hikers can sleep in lodges called “huts”. Many hikers sleep in a hut at the eighth station, wake around 1 a.m., and then hike to the summit in time for sunrise. The mountain officially opens the first weekend of July. We were climbing one week off season, but there was still a small crowd of people (mostly foreign) undertaking the night climb.

The climbing season runs from July 1 to August 31, and climbing more than a week off season can prove extremely dangerous. Typhoons often plague Japan in September, and rainstorms rage in June. In addition to the unstable weather, the huts are closed, and snow covers the summit. Off season climbers are urged to register with the Fujiyoshida Police Station.

At the fifth station, we spent a few hours acclimating ourselves to the new altitude, and chugging coffee to stay awake. At 10 p.m. we donned our ever-so-attractive headlamps and mounted the stairs to the path. The first 90 minutes and the last 90 minutes of the climb proved the hardest. At first the mountain resembles a steep sand dune reaching as far as the eye can see. The friend climbing beside me offered sound advice: “Don’t look up”. Gazing upward in search of the cloud covered peak can intimidate the best of hikers. As I squinted up at the mountain looming overhead, a novel’s worth of self-doubt strangled my mind. “What was I thinking? I can’t handle six hours of this. There’s no way I’m gonna make it to the top of this thing.” Beside me, my friend repeated, “Worst case scenario we make it to the top after sunrise.” But that just wasn’t acceptable with me. I was here to see the sunrise; that was the whole point. With every step, I slid backwards in the sand. Thanks to the altitude and my ex-smoker lungs, I had to stop every 15 steps to catch my breath.

Two of my friends hike often and went charging up the terrain and soon vanished out of sight. Finally, I heeded my friend’s advice, and bent under the weight of my pack, I concentrated on my feet, saying “left foot, right foot”. It was like Buddhist walking meditation. The only thing that existed at that moment were my feet, stepping. My watch read 10:30p.m. I was already exhausted and certain I was walking too slowly to make the sunrise. The faint glow of headlamps behind us from people just beginning the trek, gave me hope that we were still on schedule. Soon, the sand became more level, and the terrain turned to volcanic rock which made it easier to secure my footing. Finally, rocks cut like stairs appeared on the terrain. When we finally arrived at the seventh station, I felt like we were making real progress. Every station gave me a larger feeling of hope that we would reach the summit by sunrise, and thus the climbing felt easier.
Luckily, the night was clear, and the bright moon provided so much light I was able to turn off my head lamp for a while. We arrived at the eighth station at 1:30 a.m. which meant we were right on schedule to see the sunrise from the summit at 4:00 a.m.

I felt such unity with the other struggling climbers walking my pace up the mountain. The higher we climbed, the colder the temperature became. To walk was to stay warm, and to stop meant an internal chill. I mistakenly thought the 10th station was the summit, but I quickly stifled my cheer when I noticed the rocky path extending upward and realized we had another 30 minutes to go. The last 90 minutes, it was just too cold to stop and rest. There was a rope to mark the edge of the path, and I used it to pull myself along. The final stretch contained boulders up to my thighs, and some snow and ice. Suddenly the sky streaked with white, a sign the sun was about to rise. We pushed hard to beat the sun to the summit. The entire climb took us 6 hrs. Two of my friends could have made it in 4 hours, but they stopped to sleep at the ninth station. When we stepped onto the summit, we realized we could walk to a slightly farther peak for a better view of the sunrise. We figured we came so far, we might as well go all the way. The sunrise was actually not that spectacular and took forever to appear. While excitement filled me upon reaching the top, thoughts of hiking down for 3 hrs, still on no sleep, loomed in my mind.

On the top of Mt. Fuji, I ate a squashed roll and a chocolate bar I brought from home, and it was the best food I have ever tasted in my life. That’s how hungry I was. On the summit, climbers can hike another two hours around Fuji’s giant crater, or send postcards from the post office just below the highest peak. As for me, I wanted a magic elevator to transport me back to the fifth station for a nap. The way down, while easier, puts a great deal of stress on the knees. With the sun filling the sky I felt grateful for my cap and sunglasses, and quickly shed the extra layers of clothing that had made the chill of the summit bearable. At one point I tried a shortcut, sliding on the snow, but I don’t recommend it, as stopping before the edge of the mountain became a challenge. If you climb Mt. Fuji, be sure to stop and rest frequently and take your time to prevent altitude sickness.

What to bring:
l Plenty of snacks and about 2 liters of water. I didn’t anticipate actually eating everything I brought, but I wound up really needing it for energy.
l A winter hat for the peak, and a cap to protect you from the sun on the way down.
l Gloves
l Sunglasses
l A raincoat and rain pants. Dress in layers. I would suggest a long sleeved shirt, a sweatshirt and a jacket. Wear tights under your pants, and bring warmer pants you can slip on at the summit.
l Hiking boots and gaiters. The gaiters seemed extreme to me, but I was really glad I had them on the way down. Two of my friends climbed in gym shoes, but I don’t recommend it.
l A walking stick. You can buy them in the gift shop on at the fifth station, but if you arrive in the evening the gift shop will be closed.
l A headlamp. This works better than a flashlight. You will be glad to have your hands free.

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