We gave it our best shot, but in the end the mountain was having none of it. We were within 400 vertical meters of the summit with plenty of time to spare before sunrise when the clouds moved in. Rain and cold and high winds, and most of us without foul-weather pants. So we waited in the Fujisan Hotel (until they kicked us out; then we waited in the lee of the Fujisan Hotel) until it became clear that it wasn't going to become clear, at which point we decided it was time to bail.
Curse you, Mount Fuji!
Thursday night we learned we would have both Saturday and Sunday off. "Hey!" we thought, "We can climb Mount Fuji this weekend!" Said weekend being August 30-31 (2003), the last two days of the climbing season. Perfect! The approved method seems to be to climb at night and watch the sun rise from the top, which meant we had to leave Saturday afternoon. With only Friday evening and Saturday morning to prepare, and most of our existing gear half a world away, we had lots to buy. Between asking our Japanese colleagues and reading several websites, we had a pretty good idea of what we needed.
Gary had brought only Tevas besides his dress shoes. You can't hike on loose volcanic ash wearing sandals without severe foot damage, and dress shoes aren't really what you want either. So he needed shoes. I had only one sweatshirt, but I found a Columbia rain shell for only $80 (half off!), and Gary found shoes that actually fit. Mountain 0, humans 2. Gary and Juli got rain pants; mistake number 1 was the rest of us did not.
The rest of us found the other clothing we needed (or so we thought...) We selected a variety of LED flashlights at Yodobashi Camera. Nothing like more than 24 hours of bright, even, very white light from just three AA batteries. Juli found a more appropriate backpack than what she had, I had my Tom Bihn computer bag and Gary had the backpack that came with his laptop.
There are 4 or 5 trails up the mountain, but Kawaguchi looked like the easiest to get to from the Tokyo area. It's also the most popular (probably for that very reason), which can be good or bad depending on how you look at it. Be warned that on the Mount Fuji page provided by Shizuoka Prefecture, they don't mention the Kawaguchi trail. Presumably because it starts in Yamanashi Prefecture. Apparently the mountain inspires a bit of parochialism along with the grandeur and spirituality. Anyway, we went with the Kawaguchi trail. Most people start at the 5th station, which is at 2400 meters. Seemed like the way to go.
Also, lots of people climb Mt. Fuji. Something like 200,000 per year. So don't go expecting a wilderness experience. It's definitely a real hike, but you'll be doing it with a lot of other people.
We finished shopping on Saturday about 2 PM, at which point it was time to hop on the train. At Hachiouji we accidentally got on a limited express, but since they had unreserved seats we were allowed to stay. And you can pay the extra ¥500 on board. Soft seats and no stops! Mountain 0, humans 3.
Here we are at Kawaguchiko town, waiting for the bus to the 5th station. We're loaded up with trail mix and dried fruit, beef jerky and water, and several layers of optional clothing. They say it's typically 20 degrees Celsius colder at the peak than it is where you start hiking. Zip-off pants are good.
At the 5th station there is a gift shop and restaurants and a nasty bathroom that costs ¥100. We arrived around 6:20 and started hiking about 6:40, just as the sun was going down. It's supposed to take 4-7 hours to climb the mountain, so we figured we had plenty of time, since sunrise is a little before 5 AM at the peak.
Here are Jeff, Juli, and Gary as we prepare to get under way. At this altitude it's definitely shorts weather. Some of us put on long-sleeved shirts before starting, and regretted it almost immediately. What did I tell you about layers?
The weather was beautiful. We were above most of the clouds already, and it was mostly clear above, with Mars lighting our way. Well okay, Mars and our LED flashlights. But hey, Mars! Closer to Tokyo than at any time in the past 60,000 years, and we were 3000 meters closer to it than was Tokyo! We could also see the Milky Way, several satellites and meteors, and maybe just a cloud or maybe the Andromeda Galaxy. Mountain 0, humans 4.
Here's Gary and Jeff enjoying the view of the sky while Juli demonstrates the effect altitude has on her. Or perhaps that had nothing to do with altitude. I was pleased to find that the thin air didn't bother me, since the last time I climbed a 12,000 foot mountain I was 19 and had been living at 7000 feet all my life. Course none of us could keep up with Juli "the Colorado girl", whose legs start at the neckline.
For some reason there is a torii gate about 3000 meters above sea level. The climbing gets fun somewhere around that altitude, as the trail goes up over some lava, and you get to scramble. That was where Boulder-girl was happiest. Course that doesn't show up so well in flash photos, so you have to imagine it.
Here's a sign showing when you reach 3000 meters. The summit is 3776 meters, and you start at 2400, so this is not quite halfway there.
There are lots of little huts on the way up. You leave from the 5th station, and nominally there are 6th through 9th stations on the way up, but the "7th station" is really an assortment of huts every 75-100 meters up the trail. The string of lights up the side of the mountain is rather pretty. At each hut you can buy various items like hot tea, a cup of noodles, gloves, or bottles of oxygen, at ever-increasing prices the higher you go. You can also get a stamp burned into your walking stick to show how high you got. They sell sticks that are straight octagonal wood thingies with no character at all (other than the ones thay you get burned into them), so we didn't get any of them. We did buy gloves for ¥400 at one of the huts, but considering the cheapest gloves I found in the city were ¥3500, I didn't mind so much. Here we are at one of them (huts I mean, not gloves). By this point the air was a tad colder than when we started. Did I mention layers?
As we were climbing, thinking about celebrating on the top, Gary remarked that we hadn't brought any alcohol. But hah! Juli the cruise director had cleverly thought ahead to just such a situation. We had with us some sort of alcohol in a plastic container that we had bought at the grocery store. I think it's shouchu, which is essentially vodka, usually made from sweet potatoes. But I can't read the label, so we were really going by where we found it in the store.
Of course, if you know the ending to this story you know we never made it to the summit. But fear not, the shouchu was saved. After packing it back down the mountain, we mixed it with Gokuri for the train ride to Narita Airport the following weekend.
You can tell when you're getting to the next hut by the sound of the generator and the smell of the toilet. You could always smell the toilet. We also began to see wisps of cloud fluttering by on the ridgeline above us.
By 11 PM the clouds had enveloped us. It was getting windy, and the fog was turning into tiny raindrops and moistening us. About that time we got to the "Fujisan Hotel" at 3400 meters. It's not exactly a 4-star hotel, more a sort of hut where you can pay ¥5000 to spend the night in a small room with 150 of your closest friends, or ¥1000 yen to rest for an hour.
It also has a sort-of restaurant, and a horrible bathroom (which we were told was one of the better bathrooms on the mountain). They said we could stay for 15 minutes if we ordered food, so we came in and got cups of cocoa for 400 yen. Then some green tea, then some noodles, then more green tea... Get the idea? Here we are partaking of the tea. Behind the door on the left is a room about 20 by 30 feet, which contains all the people whose shoes you can see on the shelves. Yes, there are about 150 pairs of shoes there. They were going to get a 2:30 wakeup call, to reach the summit before dawn.
It took a while to warm up, particularly for Gary, who had lost all circulation in his arms due to his backpack (this is the one that he got free with his laptop.) By the time an hour had passed, the rain and wind had become more earnest. Mountain 1, humans 4. The problem is when it's raining sideways you really need waterproof pants or you'll be very cold very quickly. The summit was said to be about an hour and a half away, so we didn't want to get there too early and just spend hours shivering in the dark. We decided to stay until they kicked us out, and then go for the summit.
There was one other non-sleeping North American in the building. This is Rick, a journalist climbing the mountain for the 4th time, before he moved back to Vancouver. He was with a colleague and her 6-year-old son Jimmy. They had paid the ¥5000 each to spend the night in the steerage cabin, but he had given up on the idea of actual sleep, so we spent our time talking to him. They kicked out some people who came in after we had (their hour was up), and started refusing entrance entirely to later arrivals, but we were left alone. Perhaps because we were talking to someone who had paid the full price, or maybe we looked unprepared for the weather, or maybe just because we got there first. Anyway, the warmth and dryness was a major reprieve. Mountain 1, humans 5.
Also, note the green "exit" signs over each door. Sliding glass doors on a rectangular room less than 20 feet on a side, and they have to mark the exits. Duh. Meanwhile, in the next room there are 150 people crammed into 500 square feet with just one door. Well, it's good to know that the U.S. has no monopoly on dumb-ass safety regulations.
As we sat, hoping the weather would break, it just got worse. The huts are pretty strongly constructed (I don't think they'd last otherwise), and the wind, which must have been gusting to 50 mph, sounded loud but didn't penetrate the building. We began to wonder whether it was worth even trying for the summit. Given our lack of proper gear, we decided to wait until it was light and see if the weather would burn off.
We never did get kicked out (until everyone did), even when we gave up ordering food and put our heads down and tried to get some sleep. Sitting on foot-high benches with foot-and-a-half high tables to lean on. Some of us actually slept, while others (such as yours truly) just kept our heads down and tried very hard to avoid eye contact with the people running the hut. But we knew it wouldn't last.
At 2:30 they woke the sleepers, and it was like watching a car full of clowns, as everyone staggered out of the sleeping room. We got to meet Rick's colleague and her son. It's hard to imagine a 6-year-old climbing Mt. Fuji, but he wanted to brave the weather and press on. He was also a really cute kid, and smarter than about any 6-year-old I've met. He was glad to learn we were satellite engineers rather than rocket scientists! Most people don't even know the difference.
It's 4 AM and guess what folks, the hut's closing. For the season. Everybody out. By then most of the sleepers had started on their way, but there was a large group waiting for the weather to break, just like us. It never did. Mountain 2, humans 5. So we clambered back into the gear we did have, bought some ill-fitting plastic rain gear they had available, to keep our legs dry, and shuffled out into the cold.
Here's Gary, properly prepared for this sort of weather. Nothing like an XRS baseball cap to keep the hood from getting in your eyes.
And Juli, in her stylish clear rainsuit. You could only buy the whole suit, so she's attempting to use the jacket as a backpack rainfly. That's Jimmy, the young climber, in the background.
The weather was still miserable. In fact, we later learned that they were turning away people at the bottom, due to the high winds at the top. It was a little disconcerting that at the same time, people on the mountain were being ejected from the huts. In case of bad weather, seek shelter in one of the huts. Sure, unless that's inconvenient for the people working there.
Dark, wet, cold, and very windy. We found a lee corner outside the hut (or some other part of the hotel complex) and waited for light before deciding whether to go up or down. The sky started to lighten a bit before 5 AM. By 5 it was light enough to see, and there was no sign of the weather letting up. We'd missed the sunrise, and there was unlikely to be any view at all up top. So down it was.
It was insanely windy the whole way down, even back at the 5th station. But we made it safely, with lots of uneaten food and undrunk water. And plenty of volcanic ash in our shoes.
The descending trail takes a different path than the ascending trail (it helps to know the kanji for "up" and "down" when reading the signs), which has no scrambling. It's just a quick walk down a cinder cone. Okay, yes, the cinder part of an honest to goodness textbook shield volcano. But we were glad not to have to scramble down wet rocks. You do have to be careful to stay on the Kawaguchi trail, or you'll end up a long way from where you have the return bus ticket. Also there is only one 7th station on the way down, and it's just a restroom. By the time we got that low the air had cleared enough to take some photos, so here's the trail at that point. As in Hawai`i, the change in weather was not a result of time, but of location. The top of the mountain remained wreathed in cloud even as we rode away on the train many hours later.
This bathroom is not unisex. Here's the universal pictogram for the gents. Though I didn't use the facilities, I bet that's not what they actually looked like.
I suppose I should submit this to engrish.com. I didn't like the thought of removing my heart, but I would have paid the ¥100 if I had used the bathroom. Attending a lavatory conference, however, is beyond the call of, er, duty.
One other casualty of the trip was my BBEdit "mother" T-shirt. It was in my backpack as a spare layer, but it was next to a flat, multicolored bag of postcards, and the backpack wasn't 100% watertight. So the shirt now has multicolored stains. Final score: Mountain 3, Humans 5. Hey, whaddya know! We win!
It certainly was an adventure. But nobody got hurt, and it was a good way to spend a couple of free days. Some of the people in the hut with us (but not Rick and Jimmy and his mom) made it to the top, and when we saw them at the bottom they said it was awful and they were just glad to be alive. So we were probably right not to go to the top. I still recommend the hike to anyone in decent shape (but take full rain gear just in case! And maybe don't go on the last day of the season). There's an overused proverb that appears on every other website about climbing Fujisan, but I don't believe it. We're psyched to try again next year. This time for sure!
Actually, the most helpful link in getting us going was Andy Gray's account. There are further links from there, but it's a very comprehensive tale, which was most helpful in knowing what to expect.