September 10-11, 2017
Distance: 9.6 mi from Fifth Station (15.3 km)
Elevation Gain: 5800 ft (1800 m)
Highest Point: 12,388 ft (3776 m)
As I promised in my last post, I’m combining the entire Fuji climb into a single post that spans a two-day time period. To begin, here’s a reference map for the climb. (If you drag and drop that to your desktop, you can see the reference points throughout the post.)
The journey started at Fifth Station in Fujikawaguchiko on September 10th and ended in the same place on September 11th. The total climbing time was around 11.5 hours, but the entire experience lasted 23 hours including the time I spent sleeping at the mountain station.
When I set out to climb Fuji-san, I knew it would primarily be a solo venture. My younger sister planned to stay in the mountain huts while I attempted the summit, so she was able to walk with me for a portion of the trail, but the summit climb was a thing I’d planned to do by myself.
Every mountain has taught me something new. I learned a lot through the Fuji climb, but if I had to hone in on one lesson it’s something like this – climbing a mountain is something you do alone, even if you do it with other people. You can go in groups, in pairs, or solo. You can meet up with people on the trail. But at the end of the day, you are the only person who can drag your tail end up a mountain and you can’t drag anyone else up with you. Every person who attempts a feat like this is personally responsible for their own wellbeing, their attitude, and their eventual success or failure.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t interact with other people. I think I prefer to hike and climb in silence, but it’s still nice to make friends. On the way up, Kaelin and I met a really cool guy from Thailand named Noah and another, quieter, guy from China named Zuo. We met up with Zuo pretty early on the trail. At the time, he wasn’t feeling well and made the difficult decision (much higher on the trail) to turn around and go back to 5th station. From here, Kaelin, Noah, and I continued on.
The trail started out flat, but the terrain changed quickly past the 6th station and safety guidance center. Between the 6th and 7th stations, the path is completely exposed. Even in nice weather, it’s draining to have the sun on your back. We started the climb at 4pm, so the sun wasn’t as strong as what it probably would have been at noon, but it was still tough to deal with.
In addition to the sun exposure, the switchbacks were frustrating. When you’re climbing and you see your destination just above you, but you have to walk in long zig-zags to get there, it’s a bit demotivating. At times, it feels like you’re not getting very far. The trail is much more fun when it feels like you’re actually moving up the mountain, rather than around it.
The path itself was pretty rocky after Hinode-kan. For the most part, I was able to use my hiking poles for stability, but from this point on, I had to use my hands to climb. The great thing about Fuji is that it’s an active volcano and it’s made up of volcanic rock. It just so happens that volcanic rock is great for climbing because it offers excellent handholds and fingerholds. I can’t imagine climbing something like this with granite faces.
We reached Toyo-kan, just south of the 8th station at 3000 m, (9800 ft) around 7:30 pm. The station here marked the halfway point for the climb and also marked the place I’d have to continue on without my sister. Noah had decided to walk a bit further on up the mountain, aiming for the original 8th station, just below the summit.
Even at just 9800 ft in elevation, some people experience altitude sickness – my sister was one of those people. She had the typical symptoms of nausea and chills that come with rapid changes in elevation and she knew she needed some rest in order to acclimate. Given that it was already pitch black outside and the trail up to that point had been too dangerous to climb down in the dark, even with headlamps, so we elected to sleep at Toyokan. And since we were already there, I asked for a stamp on my souvenir “hiking” pole, which was just a little piece of wood.
Kaelin was sick for part of the night, but we both got some sleep at the station. There, they gave us mats, sleeping bags, and pillows, and grouped us into split-level rooms to sleep. We woke up at about 4am to see the sunrise over Lake Kawaguchiko from the 7th station balcony.
At that point, Kaelin went back down toward 5th station and I continued on up the mountain. That was at about 5:30am. I kept passing these helpful, but frustrating, signs on the way up. It’s nice to know your progress, but not so nice when you realize how slowly you’re progressing.
I made it to the 8th station Taishi-kan at 6:15am, which meant it took me 45 minutes to climb 100 m.
I made more friends along the way, as tends to happen when you’re sharing an experience like that with other people. At this point, I was feeling the oxygen change. I had the few hours at the station to acclimate, but I was still pretty lightheaded and kinda loopy. I wish I remembered this guy’s name – sorry!
As I was climbing up that second half alone, there was a lot of open time to think. Time that would have been spent talking to other people and trying to keep up with social cues was spent, instead, planning what I’d do if I injured myself, if it started to storm, or if I had to take shelter for another night on the mountain. The problem was that I started the climb on the LAST DAY OF THE SEASON. That meant that all of the mountain stations were already boarding up by the time I reached them on the ascent.
So I started thinking – I’ve been in that situation before, kinda. Madelyn and I were hiking in Grand Teton National Park and we got stuck in a pretty bad storm. We were prepared for bad, and even horrible, weather, but why camp out in the rain if there are other options? In that situation, we took shelter at an empty (and off-limits) mountain crew lodge. The way I see it, if you’re in a situation where you really need shelter, just about anyone will understand if you utilize your surroundings to stay safe. Part of the rule of the land is keeping open cabins for emergencies – it’s all in the spirit of the trail, I think.
I looked back at one of the stations and thought, if they’re boarding these suckers up with drills, how the heck would I use one if I needed to? For example, if I were to get stuck on the mountain on the last day of the season on a day that I KNOW it’s supposed to storm overnight on a night when temperatures are supposed to be 5°F. And I thought, no big deal, I’ll pull up the tin roofing and try to enter there. And if that fails, the tin roof combined with my supplies will be enough shelter to keep me alive, I think.
Then I saw this.
There is SO much debris flowing down Fuji that it’s impossible to find a safe space to shelter outdoors. Even on the roof of this shelter, boulders have rolled down the mountain and landed with an impact so strong as to warp the tin roofing. So, with that plan out of the question, and assuming I could break into a shelter, I’d probably dig a hole under one of the maintenance trucks or down valley from a large boulder to stay warm and deflect debris. Then again, the ground might be colder…I really don’t know.
Anyway, I didn’t have to utilize an emergency plan, so there’s that. Instead, I climbed and climbed and climbed until I thought I couldn’t go any further and made it to 3250m, which is still quite a ways from the summit. At about this point, I was asking myself why the HELL I was doing this in the first place. This is also the point where I seriously considered if my brain was computing accurately enough to keep going. When each step could lead to disaster (sprained ankle, broken bones, paralysis, falling off the damn side) you really need your brain to be in high function mode.
But in extreme altitudes – and, come on, people climb Everest, so this isn’t that bad – you really don’t have the luxury of 100% brain power. Even on a great day with great weather and adequate training and nourishment, I was having trouble with coordination trying to take pictures and send text messages. (Yes, I was texting on Fuji. I had full LTE service!)
Luckily my coordination was good enough to get to the Tomoe-kan 8th station, where I sat down for a long snack and broke out the supplemental oxygen. I took a couple quick swigs of that and felt instantly better. As a side note, it pissed me off to see people buying water up there. If you’re trying to climb a friggin mountain and you can’t carry your own water, you have NO BUSINESS climbing the mountain. If you’re savvy enough to know where water sources are, then great! Take a liter and go forward. But if you know – and you SHOULD know – that there’s no water source on Fuji, then you should bring enough for the entire climb. And, sure, a station is kind of a water supply, I guess. But what happens if they run out? Or they’re closed? Or you lost your wallet? Bring water, people.
Even after a light snack, a liter of water, and a few deep breaths of oxygen, my body was protesting. I’d already climbed a bit the day before and I didn’t sleep really well at the station, so my body just wasn’t having it. Mostly I could tell that I wasn’t getting adequate blood flow to my extremities and I wasn’t getting enough oxygen to my blood, thus my muscles. Needless to say, I took it pretty slow for the final 900m of the ascent.
The shrine entrance is a bit of a tease – you’re kinda there, but you’re not at the summit. This point marks the spot where the climb is most difficult. At this point, you’re exhausted, you’re out of breath from the sets of boulder stairs that the 8th and 9th stations put you through, and you can see the summit just above you, but it’s through a maze of switchbacks. If the physical challenge isn’t enough, the psychological challenge is nothing to ignore.
You really have to refrain from looking at the summit during that final 900 m, because if you do look up all you see are the switchbacks and the tease of the shrine at the top. It looks close from here, but it’s so, so far when you’re coaxing yourself step by step. It took me an hour to get through this mess.
In the hour it took me to climb the switchbacks, the weather had gone from excellent to terrible. The wind picked up, so I had to wear two sets of gloves. Each gust brought with it a storm of debris that stung my face. The fog grew thick, so I couldn’t judge the distance to the summit, the trail ahead of me, and, at times, my feet below me. I used my hiking poles to navigate a bit, looked for smoothed rock that people had used as handholds, and hoped on my life that the dangerous parts were roped off so that I didn’t step off the mountain. Jeez.
I finally, finally, finally made it to the summit entrance at 11am. Woo hoo! (I’m too exhausted to look excited here, but I really, really am.)
Most people stood under the shrine roof for protection from the wind and sand.
Meanwhile, I didn’t want to leave without a summit picture, so I snapped this one as quickly as I could and walked around the corner to the “true summit” area.
The “true summit” was a struggle in itself. The wind was strong and freezing cold. I got a quick video at the top and then turned back.
All in all, I spent maybe 10 minutes at the summit before I decided to book it down the mountain. Here’s another quick video, a little below the summit where the wind was much friendlier.
I was on a time crunch because the descent can take anywhere from 3-6 hours on average, depending on a lot of things. The problem was that the rain was supposed to start at 5pm, so if I was on the slower side of that average, I’d get rained on. On top of that, the last bus into Tokyo was at 7pm, so I knew I had to get down before that. Lucky for me, I typically descend really fast. (One time Madelyn and I ran down a rocky mountain and covered a mile in 13 minutes with 30-40 pound bags to catch a shuttle boat. We got lots and lots of cheers on the way down. Yay us!) The Fuji descent is something to be respected for its own challenge. It’s a treacherous path, it’s super steep, it’s ankle-deep in gravel, and it’s irritatingly unstable. I got through the first mile glissade-style and then ran a bit from there.
And if you think you can avoid the trail to find an “easier” way down, you’re mistaken. Here’s an example of why that’s a bad, bad idea. If the fog were any thinner, you’d see the incredible drop off. And if the fog were any thicker, you wouldn’t see it at all, making that a particularly dangerous spot. I chose the tunnel, in case anyone was wondering.
Even as exhausted as I was, I stopped to admire this awesome displacement of trees. Geomorphology in action, yo. Soil creep, debris flow, and bark scarring from avalanches/rocks/mud. The vertical sign really puts this bit into perspective.
And then I came upon a creepy forest. There’s practically no wildlife in the forest or on the mountain. And, save for a few birds, the mountain is silent. No deer, no rabbits, no squirrels, nothing. And, although this website reports 37 species of mammal living on or around Fuji, the report includes animals at the 5th station level, which is at the base. After doing a serious amount of hiking in Australia and the continental US, I can definitely say that the lack of wildlife is noticeable.
Aaaaand here’s the after picture when I reached the base of the mountain at 5th station at 2:45 pm. I’m covered in ice and my hair is in knots, but I’m very proud of myself at this point, and very, very thankful that I got off the mountain before the rain started.
As a final note, I’ll add that I hate it when people say they “conquered” a mountain on a climb or a hike. That’s a weird way to look at it, if you ask me. The experience depended less on my physical and mental ability and more on the conditions of the mountain itself. Take any person who is adequately experienced and prepared to climb a mountain and throw in some hail, wind, and a landslide and you have an impossible situation on your hands. To say that you conquer a mountain is arrogant in that it implies you have full control over the ascent and descent. Sure, you should be prepared and able to take on a challenge like this one. But, really, I think the mountain either lets you get to the summit or it doesn’t.