Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Mt. Fuji, Revisited

Angrily asking myself "WHAT WAS I THINKING??" was something I found myself doing frequently this past weekend, when Michelle, Tiffany, Kyle, Shak, Ryan, and I set out to climb Mt. Fuji, Japan's tallest mountain at 3,776 meters (12,388 feet). In theory it sounded great. What could be a more exciting way to finish up our year in Japan than climbing its tallest mountain to watch the sunrise? I should have realized how foolish this was. Back in the summer of 2006, my brother Tyler and I decided that climbing Mt. Fuji would be a fun thing to do. We were wrong. It was one of the hardest and most not-fun things we did on our Asia backpacking trip. Unfortunately over the five years since our climb most of the bad memories faded, as I wholeheartedly went along with the plan to climb the mountain for a second time. There is an old Japanese proverb for people like me - "You are wise to climb Fuji once and a fool to climb it twice."

When we met at the base of the mountain we were pumped. From the base we took a bus to Kawaguchico 5th station, at an altitude of 2,300 meters (7,546 feet), to start our climb (Mt. Fuji is divided into 10 climbing stations, with the 1st station being the base and 10th station being the summit. Most climbers start from the trail at the 5th station). The dry and cool weather at that high an elevation was fantastic. Everyone, even myself, was buying into the illusion that this climb was going to be a nice and fun little stroll up to the top. We set out on Yoshida trail in high spirits at 5:00pm on Saturday. I was immediately winded, but for the first couple hours the climb wasn't too strenuous and we were treated to a wonderful sunset.

Really for the first four hours things went smoothly. The climb was getting continually steeper but we had a good pace going. When the sun went down around 8:00pm it got surprisingly cold. A bizarre experience considering that just a few hours prior at the base of the mountain we were melting in the sweltering July heat and humidity. At 9:00pm though we all started to realize that there were an unusually large amount of people on the mountain. Progress slowed. Our original plan was to get to the 8th station by 10pm to eat dinner and rest for a few hours before continuing our climb to the top. This plan was quickly thrown out the window - every hut was booked solid. As we continued our climb, we started to run into annoying bottlenecks at each hut and rest area. The higher we went, the more people seemed to just appear from thin air. We started to move at a crawl. We finally reached the 8th station a little after midnight, a full three hours after we had planned. The sunrise was scheduled for 4:37am in the morning. At the 8th station with two more stations to go to get to the summit, it became clear to all of us that if we wanted to get there by sunrise, there would be no rest or sleep. We had to hike straight through the night. Any break would put us further behind the massive throng of people that were following us up the mountain.

A river of lights - hundreds of flashlights and headlamps illuminated the trail down the mountain as far as the eye could see

After the 8th station, the situation got bad. The trail was probably operating at five times normal capacity. I had never seen anything like it. At one particularly bad bottleneck it took us 30 minutes to go 50 feet. It was 2am, freezing cold, and we were trapped in a throng of people on a small mountain trail near the summit of Mt. Fuji unable to move. Forget about using the bathroom, the wait there was easily 30 to 45 minutes. The only thing you could do was to keep moving. If you stopped to think you would panic. As we continued up the mountain our six person group disintegrated. Ryan and Shak were somewhere up ahead, Michelle and I were in the middle, and Tiff and Kyle were somewhere behind us.

No matter how far we climbed, the summit seemed to be the same distance away. The two hours of hiking that took place between 2am and 4am were excruciating. We were getting close but progress was so slow we thought we would never get there. We kept pushing through, and finally, at about 4:20am, we saw that we were almost at the summit. With only 17 minutes until sunrise, Michelle and I made a mad dash to get up as high as possible, and finally found a good area to put our packs down to enjoy the view. There could be no argument - the sunrise was one of the most beautiful things we had ever seen.

The sunrise was simply awe-inspiring, and the warmer weather that it brought a welcome relief. We picked up our bags and filed through the last Tori that marked the top of the mountain, where we eventually reunited with our group. We were all defeated. Under normal conditions, it takes 5 hours to reach the summit from our starting point. Because of the crowds, it took us 12 hours of hiking straight through the night to reach the summit, from 5:00pm on Saturday to 5:00am on Sunday. We were hungry, dehydrated, and exhausted. Michelle, Kyle, Tiff, and I wanted to get off the mountain asap, so the four of us hardly spent any time at the top. After a few pictures we set off on our way back down the mountain at around 5:30am.

Tori gate marking the top of Mt. Fuji

View of the surrounding mountains 30 minutes after sunrise
Thinking the decent couldn't be any worse, we once again were sadly disappointed. The decent was horrible. The crowds were smaller but still there, but the volcanic rock and steep slopes made the decent a slow and painful (literally) affair. We had to stop constantly to remove rocks from our shoes (our fault for not wearing proper hiking shoes), and we slipped, fell, or twisted an ankle seemingly every few minutes. The view was great, but the decent itself was an ugly and repetitive affair. The trail carved its way down the mountain for what seemed like an eternity. Michelle's knees and ankles were taking a beating and she was close to crying multiple times, and I honestly wasn't too far behind her. We wanted off the mountain so bad but there was a never ending path of volcanic rock that folded out below us as far as we could see.  

The decent
Eventually, after another four to five hours of hiking, we made it back to Kawaguchico 5th station. We were totally spent. We had been hiking a total of 17 hours on no sleep. We were covered in filth and dust. Our last real meal had been lunch the previous day. There was no high-fiving or partying between any of us. The only thing we wanted to do was get away from that mountain and to never come back.

Writing this now a few days removed from the ordeal, I can honestly say that our Fuji climb was about the most adventurous thing we possibly could have done for our last outing in Japan. As bad as it was, the sunrise was incredible and the time we got to spend together on the climb was great. It will definitely be something we all will never forget, so in that regard it was a huge success. What I do know for sure is that I will never, EVER, climb that mountain again, under ANY circumstances.

Please check out my friend Kyle's post about our Fuji trip! His post can be found here. Kyle also posted an awesome photo gallery of the climb that can be found here.

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