Climbing Mount Fuji...they say that a wise man climbs Fuji once, but only a fool does it twice. Having done it now, it's no surprise why.
Mount Fuji not only has the distinction of being Japan's tallest mountain, but also the world's most climbed mountain and an enduring icon of Japan itself.
Soaring above the surrounding landscape to a height of 3,776 meters (12,388 feet), the peak of Fuji is often obscured by clouds. Yet this is precisely part of the attraction for many to climb the mountain in the first place.
In a country where 'the best views' in the country are scrupulously catalogued and enthusiastically ranked, the breathtaking sight of the sun rising when viewed from the peak of Mount Fuji is considered one of the best. It is exactly for this reason that an overwhelming majority of novice hikers brave the ascent not during daylight hours, but at night.
Of course, climbing a giant mountain at night can be somewhat unnerving. I had read a fantastic National Geographic article about climbing Mount Fuji that featured pictures of an unending line of people snaking up the side of the mountain, so I had imagined somewhat of a circus atmosphere as we shuffled up the path in a queue of epic proportions. I even brought my camera tripod so that I could get some good pictures of people's lights bobbing through the darkness toward the top.
Who knew that that only applies if you make the ascent on the Tokyo side of the mountain? What we really weren't prepared to see when we started the climb was, well, nothing. Each station on the map above had a light on it, but from our angle at the fifth station on the Fuji-no-miya-guchi trail we actually couldn't even see all of the stations. What we saw instead of a reassuring trail of lights up the darkened side of the mountain, then, was...well...nothing.
We found ourselves climbing the mountain with a mix of fear and wonder...but mostly wonder. The stars - notably absent most of the time in a country full of super-cities - were dazzling us in all their glory, with
shooting stars streaking across a sky so bright with stars that even their colours were visible with the naked eye. The faint lights of the cities below faded into the landscape, and as we watched a sea of clouds washed over the world below obscuring them completely and giving the night an ethereal quality, driving home the fact that we were now in another world.
That world, however, could also be a little scary. I used to be afraid of the dark when I was a child, but back then I never had to deal with darkness that may be concealing precipitous drops which would likely involve death (or at least a serious maiming). Such is life as you climb Mount Fuji. You really can't see anything outside of the pathetic little circle that your flashlight casts, nor are you entirely sure that you want to.
The unnerving effect of this uncertainty is significantly compounded by another unexpected factor; wind. You never think too much about why clouds move, until you get above them. Wind moves them, and now that we standing in what appeared to be the Jetstream, it was trying to do the same thing to us. Just above the eighth station we met couple of fellow-foreigners coming back down the mountain (this was sometime in the middle of the night). They wished us well, but warned that the wind was becoming especially severe just
ahead, and they had decided to turn back when one of them was nearly thrown bodily from the mountain by a particularly hearty gust. I decided that this would be a poor time for me to mention any of my own misgivings to Laura, so as a result of the peer-pressure borne of our mutual silence we decided to keep going despite the warning.
The atmosphere gets pretty thin above the cloudline, with the result being a distinct shortness of breath no matter what your level of exertion. Being an asthmatic, I actually found myself at an advantage. Not having any oxygen is no longer a novelty for me, and I am accustomed to the feeling of not being able to take a lungful. This was Laura's first time not being able to breath, and the experience caught her a little off guard.
At the sixth station I bought an exorbitantly priced 'Hello Kitty' notepad so that I could scratch down some notes as we climbed. I wrote the following entry just after Laura had her run-in with altitude sickness...
"Taking a short break in a small nook where there [sic] a bit of shelter from the wind. The temperature has dropped a lot and we've just passed the eighth station. We're @ 3080m [10,104ft]. The eighth station seemed closed or abandoned...or both. It's 12:19. Laura had a rough time at our last resting place...full shakes and everything. We had to get out the emergency blanket. She's okay now that we've gotten moving again. The wind's absolutely crazy up here!"
Laura recovered after that, and decided that she could push on to the top of the mountain. I think she was thinking of past mountains that she hadn't been able to conquer, and something in her this time seemed determined to make it to the top. We hadn't been able to make it to the top of Emei-shan in China, but Fuji was going down.
After the sixth station, all of the other stations had been closed, leaving us with no hope of shelter or lodging. While I had somehow pictured stations as somehow ruining the 'experience' and diminishing the challenge somehow, the sudden lack of the expected comforts was somewhat discouraging. So it was that after six hours of climbing and over a kilometer of vertical ascent, we were shocked and immensely pleased to find the ninth station open for business and selling hot food. Laura had wanted to huddle in the shelter of the wall of the simple hut to rest for a moment to avoid the relentless wind, but something told me this one was different. Following the darkened path around the hut proved to be the best idea I have ever had.
We rested at the ninth station for about an hour, drinking hot amazake and each downing a bowl of hot noodles...an unexpected luxury at this altitude. Though we had seen few people on the mountainside, they were pouring into the cramped hut at a fairly steady pace. Late night was slowly turning to early morning, and people were psyching themselves for the final push to the top.
Rested - but not really ready - Laura and I decided to set out for a rendezvous with the sun. As we struggled up the mountainside the moon came into view, rising steadily from around the opposite side of the mountain. The path, which had been devoid of fellow trekkers all night, had now become congested with people trying to complete the last leg in time for the beginning of the day. A palpable air of excitement spread through the climbers as the now-familiar darkness of the night gave way to the pale light of pre-dawn.
It was here that Laura and I parted ways. Now above the ninth station, Laura was determined to make it to the top, but as the sky went from inky blackness to an impossible array of pastels, we became convinced that she couldn't make it for the sunrise. Leaving the flashlight with Laura and camera in hand I sprinted the last leg of the climb (literally) and managed to get to the top for 4:35. As we were told the sun rose at 4:30, I was afraid that even that might be too late.
Not so. I ended up being one of the first to the top, and spotting an excellent vantage point for a picture on
a rocky outcropping I decided to set up and wait for the sun. You may remember that I mentioned wind. Well, at the top it was gusting at particularly frightening speeds and with alarming strength. I climbed out onto the outcropping on all fours, gripping tightly as I went for fear of being thrown off (did I mention I was scared of heights?) and wedged myself in among some rocks. This was the signal for others to follow, but as I had positioned myself at the very edge of a precipice, I didn't have to worry about any heads getting in my picture.
Around five o'clock - just before the sun rose - Laura made it to the top. Her timing was perfect, and only a few minutes later we were treated to a spectacular show as the sun edged its way into the sky. On top of the tallest mountain, watching the sunrise in the land of the rising sun...quite a moment.
The sun really couldn't have come any later, either. By the time it came up I was hovering somewhere near hypothermia, as I had been sitting and waiting with my camera, fully exposed to the biting winds for the better part of an hour. We crawled into the shelter beside the shrine which is on top of the mountain, and lay under our emergency blankets as the sun's rays began to fill the room. Despite the fact that it was half-past five in the morning, I greatfully accepted some whisky which someone had brought up, and felt immensely better.
So began the trek down the mountain. Though faster than going up, it's quite a tough slog shuffling through ash and rock for hours on a steep grade. That being said, the rays of the sun brought with them the view of the breathtaking scenery that had been lying under cover of darkness the night before. We found ourselves looking down on vast mountain ranges, the emerald waters of the Fuji Five Lakes to one side and the clouds keeping their distance, swirling in a mysterious circle around the mountain.
I was very pleased to see the lay of the land in daylight, and to realize that though the mountain was steep, it
was also conical, meaning that very few of the drops I had been worrying about the night before would have actually been fatal. It's amazing how deceptive darkness can be.
After hours of trekking, we finally reached the fifth station...victory. Looking back up at the slope, Laura and I agreed that it had been one of the best experiences of our lives. We also vowed never to do it again.