Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Climbing Mt. Fuji

 "The Japanese say that to climb Mt. Fuji once is wise, but to climb it twice is foolish."
The Yoshida climbing trail
Ain't that the truth! When I found out Nick got accepted by NSF to go to Japan this summer, I immediately started researching things we could do. When looking at a list of top things to see/do in Japan, one of the things that stuck out the most to me was climbing Mt. Fuji. Some of the best experiences we have had while traveling the world have been adventure/active type things like; hiking the snow caped mountains in Alaska, kayaking in Canada, hiking the sacred seven pools in Hawaii, spelunking the glow worm caves in New Zealand, and so on. Therefore, something like climbing Mt. Fuji sounded perfect and I immediately made it a top priority for our travels in Japan. Although I was a little worries about the distance, most of the websites we read listed climbing Mt. Fuji as a relatively moderate-beginner hike, where it would take an average of 6-7 hours to the top and 3-4 hours down, starting from the halfway point (5th station). Seeing as how we hiked the Grand Canyon last summer and we basically hiked down and back up in half the time that was estimated for certain trails, I figured this would be no problem. For the most part that was true.

Starting point at 5th Station/Yoshida Trail
We decided we wanted to do the infamous sunrise climb. Therefore we decided to start our hike between 9 and 10pm so as to reach the summit before sunrise at 4:30am. Overall this plan was great because we basically climbed all night and there was no need for an overnight stay in the city and/or in a mountain hut. Plus there was no sun beating down on us. Most of the websites we read recommended you climb earlier in the evening so as to reach 8th or 9th station and stay in a hut to catch some z's and to adjust to the altitude before waking up early to hike the remainder of the distance for sunrise. We opted not to stay in a hut because first off, it was darn near impossible to book online and because we figured we'd just leave later in the evening to make sleeping not necessary. In the end I am happy with our decision not to stay in a hut but I would've preferred starting our climb even later in the evening or even packing some kind of wind blanket or something because once we reached the summit, the winds were near 30-40 mph with it being 40 degrees F out, but I will get back to that in a bit. We reached 5th station by bus at 8pm,  but we began our ascent around 9:30pm after sitting around for awhile. We decided to start when we did so that we could beat a large tour group that was headed for the climb, the only problem with that was that there weren't many people in front of us to help guide us to the correct path. This proved to be a problem for us because after about 1.5 hours into our ascent and reaching 6th station, we realized we were ascending the descent trail. No wonder there was no one else around. For quite a bit we thought that we had just really beat the crowd and that we were doing really well, but no we had gone the wrong way. Therefore, the path we were climbing was more steep and less paved, in fact the ground at some points was so thick/rocky that when you would step forward your foot would slide backwards due to the instability of the pebbles and sand. When we realized we were going the wrong route, we decided to just suck it up and continue along this route because on the map it showed that there was a connecting point at 8th station where we could join all the others on the ascent trail. We did not want to backtrack. So we chugged on and about 4 hours into it, we reached 8th station. When we reached 8th station we were so relieved and we soon realized that the mountain was full of climbers on the ascent trail, which was quite different from us being in pitch black and by ourselves. It was so nice to see people and to have stable light. I had started to feel motion sickness from my flashlight constantly moving while we ascended the trail. We took a rest at 8th station, ate some protein bars, used the restroom for 200 yen each, and then continued our climb. There was quite a contrast of climbing in the darkness and climbing with other people with their headlamps making a pretty steady stream of light due to the closeness of the climbers. Nick and I still passed many people even though we took many breathing and adjusting-to-the-altitude breaks along the way. The ascent trail was still steep but it had more built in stairs and there was almost like a makeshift railing built out of steel, bamboo, and/or rock that helped the ascent go much easier. After all that, we reached the summit around 2:30am.
The steep slopes/Realizing we went the wrong way
Finally catching up to the ascent trail at 8th station
The view of the trail at night with all the flashlights lighting up the trail
Getting close to the summit, had to start climbing lava rocks
My rain pants are completely destroyed. Last shrine before reaching the summit.

Finally we reached the top, but two hours early! One thing that kept getting worse the higher you got was the wind and at some points it was necessary to stand still and/or to grab something to help not get blown away. By the time we reached the top, our rain/wind pants had both ripped and were providing us no shelter from the wind. Therefore, as I mentioned before, when we reached the summit there were very strong winds, between 30 and 40 mph and it was quite cold with a high of 40F. Both Nick and I did not really dress accordingly; Nick wore frisbee shorts, a t-shirt and his rain jacket. I had on knee length yoga pants, a tank top, a thin sweater, and my rain jacket. And so, we did our best to shelter ourselves from the wind and cold, which was impossible. We found a stairway that led to one of the huts and decided to try and huddle there, the wind continued to blow and both Nick and I could not stop shivering. A wonderful Japanese man saw us suffering and insisted (he would not take no for an answer) we use his tent/wind resistant blanket to cover us. That helped a bit and slowly but surely the remaining hour passed. At the first sight of light we decided to get up and return the blanket to the kind man. What is funny is that as soon as the sun started to peek it's way through, all the summit shops opened. They had hot cocoa for 400 yen, which we decided to buy since I was still shivering and needed some heat. They also had other items which we skipped on, like coffee for 600 yen, cup of noodles for 800 yen, Miso soup for 500 yen, etc. We warmed up a bit and then the sun really began to show it's colors and so we stepped out to the edge to watch the sun rise over the city below. We were lucky because there were only a few clouds and so as the sun rose, the colors and the view just got better and better. It was truly breathtaking. After about 30 minutes of staring at the sunrise and being blown around so much that we began shivering again, we decided to begin our descent. Thank God it never rained on us, we were really very lucky that we had no rain the entire climb. 
Mt. Fuji Sunrise, Kushushi-Jinja Shrine
Worth it!
Mt. Fuji Crater
Our original plan was to watch sunrise and then hike around the crater at the summit, which is said to take around 90 minutes, but because of the intensity of the winds we decided to take photos of the crater from where we were and head back down. Neither of us was prepared enough to last another 90 minutes with the extreme wind and cold. So we began our descent around 5am. The descent was not really any easier than the ascent except for the running out of Oxygen thing. Although the descent was easier on our lungs and heads, it was terrible for our knees. The same trails as mentioned before with the steep slopes and slippery pebbles/sand path caused us a vast amount of pain in our knees and toenails. The only thing that really got us through was going slowly and taking in the beautiful view as we got closer and closer to the ground. Eventually we reached 5th station, ending up with the end of our climb at 8am. 11 hours total. We were so happy to reach the bottom and we definitely understood why "the Japanese say that to climb Mt. Fuji once is wise, but to climb it twice is foolish." 
The descent
Almost down
Overall, the experience was a great one and although very tough at times, we made it through and we finished. We accomplished what we wanted and we enjoyed ourselves along the way. Luckily, both Nick and I are in shape enough that we weren't in too much pain the next day, I could see how people who do not exercise would be unable to move the next day because it was very rigorous and definitely hard on your body. But we did it! And we got some great pictures and bragging rights :) One of the surprising things about our climb was that it seemed like there were more Japanese people there then tourists, therefore it was neat to do something that I think most Japanese people try to do at least once in their lifetime. If I could go back in time I would still decide to climb Mt. Fuji but let me tell you, I will never do it again!
We did it! Return to 5th station.

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