Watching the countryside fly by behind the window of my Osaka bound train, I am recollecting all the events of the past two days and two nights on Mount Fuji, spent in a great company of Isobel and David, friends from the Hiking in Japan Facebook group. We had loads of fun and also a bit of an adventure on this ‘out of season’ climb.
I always knew that if I were to go up Fuji, I want to do it off-season and that is for at least two reasons. The first being to avoid all the summer crowds and the second that I just wanted to climb it when the mountain still has its white snowy hat on.
Seeing snowed up Mount Fuji from anywhere around is truly a sight to behold. Rising from the flat lands around, perfectly conical in its shape, this incredible mass of rock has been inspiring minds of men for centuries.
While this year’s unusually early snowmelt on many Japanese mountains almost made me lose one part of my dream, there still was a way how to make it all just a bit special.
My plan was to climb Fujisan all the way from the sea level at a beach in the Fuji city, to the 3776 meters high Kengamine, the highest point on the mountain and in Japan. But after visiting the area between Fuji city and the mountain itself several weeks earlier, I realized that big part of the whole adventure would take place on city streets and roads full of cars, around industrial zones and generally over not too exciting terrain. It seemed to take a lot of romanticism of my original ideal.
It was Isobel, who first suggested climbing the mountain two or perhaps even three times in three consecutive days to make up for my lost ideal of making the ascent a bit extraordinary. David, also interested in doing the mountain in this season, although not more than once, decided to join us, at least for the first part.
And so it was that the three of us met one late May Monday morning at the Fujinomiya train station and without further ado, drove to the 5th station on the Fujinomiyaguchi route, located at 2400 meters above sea level.
It is important to note that we had pretty dubious weather forecast, giving us one reasonable day, followed by two with high probability of rain. We could not see the mountain from Fujinomiya city, but while driving up the Fuji Skyline, we eventually popped out up above the clouds and there it was, standing right in front of us, the summit, seemingly at reach and luckily free of clouds.
I was not all too happy about this route at this point. We haven’t made one step on our own yet and already we were this high? This is not how mountain of this grandeur should be climbed!
Surely I didn’t let myself be bothered by this for too long and we all started up the route with excitement. It went fast and easily, one station after another, without snow, in pleasant temperature and just a light winds. While climbing and resting we spent the time chatting about all the other mountains, distant lands and lived through adventures. Isobel was talking about the years she spent traveling the world, while David impressed me by the amount of stories from all the various mountains of Japan. From the 9.5th station at 3550 meters we reached long and wide snowfield, leading all the way to the top. Here we put on our crampons and walked it up in a straight line. The snow was soft and easy to kick steps into and I am sure it would be possible to get up even without any winter gear. Before I knew it, I was passing under the summit torii, entering the crater area on the top of Japan’s highest mountain.
The Fujinomiyaguchi route is without question the easiest and fastest way up Mount Fuji and at about three and half thousand meters I could feel the negative side of it. I know myself and my need for at least a day of acclimatization in lower altitude if I am to go this high above 3000 meters. While climbing up, I could feel just a slight headache, which didn’t look all that terrible, but on the last snowfield, while looking through my sunglasses, the slightly unnatural field of view was making me unpleasantly nauseous.
As soon as we put down our packs by the Fuji post office next to the summit crater, I knew that my condition is really bad. The Kengamine, the true summit, was right next to us, some 300 meters far and 70 meters higher. With Isobel we started on the short way there while David, who has been there already, decided to wait for us with the bags. But after just about 100 meters I knew I have to go down immediately. We took a few pictures right where we were and from there I could see nothing else than the way down. I feel a bit sad that I could not enjoy the summit, but that was the price for going from sea level to over 3700 meters in just about five hours. The main impression of the crater was how compact it looked in comparison to my expectations. It is just some 150 meters deep and 600 meters wide, which may sound like a lot, but it really feels nicely small.
I left David and Isobel behind getting ready for their bottom glissade of the snowfield and plunge-stepped and glissaded on my heels straight down. Every fifty meters or so of this frenetic descent I stopped to retain balance and fight the urge to vomit. The snowfield went pretty much parallel to the line of ascent all the way down to the 8th station at 3220 meters. I was there in no time at all, completely out of sight of my two companions. Just as I thought I had reached a safe zone, body turned out stronger than will and I vomited all I had eaten since morning. After that I felt much better.
The evening on a kind of rest area on the Fuji Skyline was fun. We spent it all arguing about where to go the next day or two. Original plan was to go up Fuji by the Gotenba route, but Isobel was worried about my altitude sickness and suggested going somewhere else. Ideas like Mount Akaishi and Oze area, both very far away, were switched by adventurous looking Mount Zaru, but all in all we could not agree on anything and just had to laugh at how pathetic we were. In the end, I decided we stick to the plan and go up Gotenba the next day.
And so it was. The next morning we arrived at Gotenba route trailhead and were welcomed by an environment completely different from what we knew. The route starts at 1440 meters above sea level, but is already above tree line. Three hundred years ago Fuji erupted on this side, an event to which Mount Hoei and a huge half-crater stand witness till this day, and the whole route goes up over the unmeasurable amount of igneous sand and dust left behind. Fuji stood there clearly visible and beautiful, shreds of clouds licking just its base. We were a bit lucky with the weather until this time. All the clouds were in lower altitude, just about our level now, but the mountain itself was still standing naked above.
It took Isobel a great deal of effort, cajoling, blackmailing, threatening, pleading, begging, crying… all to convince David to come with us up again, even when the chances for second summit were low due to imminent break in the weather. I wanted to go even just to try bivying in high altitude and bad weather and Isobel was up for anything hard to train for her upcoming Mustagh Ata climb.
I have never before seen landscape like this, bare desert of volcanic sand, and thus liked this trail a lot. Much more than the Fujinomiya route the previous day. It is quite a slog, going up this featureless and seemingly endless slope for thousands of vertical meters, but it also somehow has its magic.
If there was something that really surprised us on this trail, it had to be the runners. Yes, there were people running up the lower part of the mountain, wearing shorts! One could not believe their fitness. God knows what they were training for, but when I saw their calfs and thighs, oh some day I would love to have muscles like that! We thought how hardcore we were, going up Fuji off-season by its longest route, but in comparison to these guys we were total amateurs.
The climb went on slowly and without hurry. One can hardly comprehend the vastness of the mountain unless seeing it from the middle of the Gotenba route. Endless slope of uniform, black rock, falling thousand meters down and into the sea of clouds. What a view that was!
At around three o’clock we arrived at the 7th station, 3000 meters above sea level. This little wreck of a house, or to be precise the small flat platform in front of it, was supposed to be our bivouac place. Cold wind was pursuing us everywhere we tried to hide. There was only one place, barricaded entrance to the hut, where we could all sit down next to each other and be reasonably shaded from the elements. All three of us put on every layer of clothing we brought, but despite wearing a base layer, fleece, light insulated jacket and an alpine jacket, I still felt cold.
With lots of time to spare, we observed our surroundings. Both Isobel and myself, we already knew that if we will be given one more day of reasonable weather, we go up for the summit. Unfortunately though we left our crampons in the car after reading a fresh weather news in the morning, forecasting rain by the afternoon. We expected to come back down, perhaps even the same day if it turned really bad. But no, the weather held. Sure, there was a white cloudy ceiling above us, but it was very high, higher than the summit of Fuji.
Right next to the hut a 150 meters wide snowfield was guarding the way forward. On the other side and about 50 meters higher, there was another hut.
Maybe we should cross the snowfield today and spend the night there, we thought. If it froze overnight, not only the way up, but also our planned way down would be cut from us. The decision was made and I started kicking steps on the traverse at once. The work turned out to be easier than it looked. There were almost no icy spots in the snow and even the angle of the slope did not seem so frightening. I made my way across quickly and safe, but when I turned around, I could see Isobel is having some trouble with David, who, without any previous experience of this kind, was making very slow progress. But Isobel was there, attending and helping him, so I decided to explore the hut in front and see if it fits our needs for the night.
My expectations were exceeded once again for not only was this hut much bigger and the platforms around more spacious, it also offered several places well sheltered from the cold wind, even with good sitting possibility on a pile of wooden planks, and commanded a fantastic view down the cliffs of the half-crater and over Mount Hoei below.
I was excited by this discovery, but although I had spent considerable time running around already, there still was no sight of my two friends. I was getting worried a bit. Could anyone had slipped? I could not stand the waiting any longer and started descending from the hut back down to a point from where the snowfield could be seen. Just as I reached that place, the two came up towards me, all safe and sound. What a relief!
The evening was a lot of fun, at least for me and Isobel. David was not too excited about spending night without proper shelter on such place and several times pointed out that we could still make it down before nightfall if we wanted. But we didn’t want, not even when it started snowing. When we finally stuffed ourselves into our bivy bags, we all felt warm and quite comfortable. The temperature stayed above zero all night long and even the promised rain did not come.
At 4 o’clock I got up to check the situation and see if we can start on our second summit bid, but the peak was already enveloped in thick clouds and our chances seemed low. We did not have crampons and didn’t even know if the trail is free of snow higher up or there is another snowfield waiting for us in hiding. Decision was made to sleep one more hour and see how the weather develops.
One hour later the clouds had already descended to our level and there was no other discussion about it. We were to go straight down. Just as we managed to get ourselves ready, the mists enveloped us and suddenly all was wet and seemingly just one step from breaking into rain. Thanks to David’s yesterday’s reconnaissance we knew our way down even blinded by the clouds around and followed the snowfield straight down until we arrived at the beginning of the famous Oosunabashiri descent route. More than a road, this is simply a slope of volcanic sand, stretching over more than a half kilometer of elevation change. The awesome thing about this slope is that the sand is loose enough to go down totally effortlessly, plunge-stepping in quick pace, making the whole descent a question of mere minutes.
What a great time we had on the mountain and how kind it had been to us. We were not rained upon after all, the cloudy views were magical and Fuji proved to me that it is not the most boring and uninteresting climb in Japan, as I was so often told. The old Japanese saying goes:
“A wise man climbs Mount Fuji once in a lifetime, but only fool would drag himself up twice.”
That makes me a fool then, because I already know, that some day, maybe sooner, maybe later, I will drag myself up that heap of dirt once more.
Click the following link to watch a short movie from this adventure on vimeo:
Days on Fuji