Monday, July 12, 2010

Rising to the Top

No food again this time, but still an event I feel is definitely worth mentioning. This past weekend, a bunch of Michigan kids from the Tokyo area met up with Jake, another friend from Michigan who has been teaching English in central Japan, and a bunch of his buddies to take on one of Japan's greatest challenges: climbing Mt. Fuji.

The timing for the trip, being right at the heart of the Japanese rainy season, left a lot up to fate but we lucked out and were greeted with beautiful skies when we arrived. The Tokyo crew got to the meeting point a bit early, so we spent some time goofing around.

The girls were cute as usual, while us guys attempted to demonstrate the sexiest way to take oxygen.

My two usual partners in crime along with their key equipment for the climb: Yuki with the oxygen bottle and Mike with his camera!

Absolutely lucked out on the weather. Views from our starting point at the 5th Station, around 2,300 meters above sea-level

We set out around 6pm, our spirits high. The path we were taking went up the south-east side of the mountain, meaning we only caught bits of the sun setting around the side of the mountain. We still got some great shots, but it must have been amazing on the west side!

It's a 9-10hr climb to the top including breaks and we planned to do it without stopping to sleep. Most of the climb isn't terribly difficult terrain, though there are stretches where you do need to use your hands to help climb up the rocks. In fact, it wasn't until around the 8th station, at an altitude of 3,100 meters, that things got tough. And by tough I don't mean "difficult to climb"; the path was not that much different. What was really challenging was the cold. And the crowds. The temperature had dropped down to near freezing-levels and the wind was pretty ferocious. We hadn't counted on it getting that cold and most of us were somewhat under-dressed. To make things worse, the tour groups started coming out. Unlike us, the more common way to climb Mt. Fuji is to go 2/3 of the way up, sleep for a couple of hours in one of the lodges, and the finish off the climb in time for sunrise. As such, the path was almost empty as we made our way up, but in the earliest, coldest hours of the morning began getting bogged down by countless groups of climbers to the point where sometimes all you could do was stand and wait for the line to start moving. On top of that, Yuki was struggling with the altitude and we would occasionally pull over for breaks to try to help her acclimate, but there wasn't much shelter from the wind, so all we could do was bundle up and hunker down as best possible. All in all, it made for a very long and very cold night.

I'm not sure I've ever felt such a base instinctive drive to just survive, which was a bit scary. In many ways, I think it was more demanding emotionally than physically. Nonetheless, our whole group made it to the top and were greeted by a pretty spectacular sunrise.

Personally, the hardest part of the whole thing was getting back down. Make no mistake, it is not an easy climb to the top, but going down takes everything you've done to that point and compounds it. There is a separate path to the bottom which is pretty much a continuous zigzag of loose dirt and stones. I suppose if you were on your own and took more time to rest at the top, you could slalom down it pretty quickly, but after an exhausting all-nighter, it was slow going and absolutely devastating on the knees. To make things worse, every time you get to a ledge with a good vantage down the slope, the zigzag just appears to go on forever. When you get to the point where you had previously thought it was going to end and look down, it just keeps going. Despite the cold and the wind, I never once felt like giving up during the climb, but on the way back down I couldn't stop wishing there was some sort of white flag I could wave and bring it all to an end. It was awful.

We finally reached the bottom around 10am. We were battered and exhaust, but we had conquered Mt. Fuji. I was especially proud of Yuki, who really had a hard time dealing with the high altitude, but fought all the way to the end.

There is a saying that "One who never climbs Mt. Fuji is a fool. One who climbs it twice is twice the fool". I couldn't agree more. By the time we were done it was like going to hell and back, but we also witnessed some amazing views that you simply cannot find anywhere else in Japan. Anyone spending a significant amount of time in Japan owes it to themselves to do it, but once is plenty enough.


  1. Nice post, and great pics! I'm still wading my way through mine, but it's good to see that you already got them up and into a post =D

    I totally agree with you about everything you wrote regarding the climb, and although it was an awesome time, I'm pretty much done for life. I'd totally be game to do some lighter climbing in the fall though, if not only for the sake of great pictures at a lesser emotional cost haha.

  2. Nice write up. The cold definitely did set up as we approached the top and my hands were even shaking a bit as I tried to take pictures of the sunrise. Still a very worthwhile trip and good company. We did it!

  3. Good stuff Peter! I look so serious :D Glad to have met you, props to all for a weekend trip well done!