Mt Fuji: How not to climb Mt Fuji (Part 2)


Continuing on from Mt Fuji: The Long Climb. This tale commences from the 7th Station on the Yoshidaguchi Trail.

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The serene sunset before the madness.

Our snooze should have been a long and peaceful one having reached our homely mountain hut at 5pm. But it was stuffy inside and at 2,700m above sea level, my heart wasn’t buying into this ‘resting’ business. It just continued thundering along as though I was still climbing, egged on by the muffled roar of the wind outside and the sound of hikers boots crunching past the cabin. I gave up after two hours of ‘resting my eyes’ and went out to the dining area to write some postcards. What I saw there jammed every panic button I had.

Inside the hut was quiet and cosy, with the staff huddling around open coal-fired heaters, bathed in the warm glow of halogen light bulbs. But streaming past outside at a terrifyingly snail-like pace was an endless crush of hikers, three people deep, ‘shuffling’ by the cabin door slow enough that they were chatting with the hut owners.

Now I had been warned about the crowds on Mt Fuji but I’d convinced myself that they couldn’t be as bad as everyone said. They were worse. I shall paint you a picture.

I scrawled something more closely resembling cryptic symbols than words on my postcards and rushed to wake my hiking companions, for to sleep any longer would almost certainly tank our chances of summiting in time for the 4am sunrise. We simply wouldn’t make it through the crowds. But those crowds wouldn’t be our only challenge that night. The gentle breeze from the day was now an angry gale out of control, ripping across the mountain as though irritated by the peak’s presence. Simply walking was going to be a challenge, let alone scrambling across rocks in the dark and cold. Confidence was plummeting and we’d but stepped outside.

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Giving new meaning to ‘camera shake’ – The camera was on the ground when I took this shot, but the wind was still able to shake it enough to create ‘double stars’.

The stars were out overhead as we departed about 10pm, but the path ahead was stubbornly dark. My feeble headlamp wasn’t having much luck illuminating the path at my feet through the dust that the wind was hurling about. Getting our bearings was a futile endeavour.  They were instantly lost as soon as we left the glow of the hut behind. Lost and never regained, for to look anywhere except straight down left you with an eyeful of black volcanic grit.

Add to these delightful weather conditions what felt like half the population of Tokyo, and you’ll start to catch my drift about the ordeal that unfolded. At the 8th station we caught up with the hikers who had passed our hut while we’d been resting. And there we stayed, stuck in their midst, tramping upwards one step and plenty of waiting at a time. Translation?  Only two to three steps a minute. If we weren’t waiting for the people in front to move, we were diving for the ground to grab onto something to stop the wind blowing us over.

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Looking down the mountain with the lights of Kawakuchiko below.

On top of this otherworldly weather and black, jagged volcanic surrounds, a swarm of people waving fluoro-coloured traffic cones made it feel more like we were hiking through a light sabre studded scene out of Star Wars. Those wielding the ‘light sabres’ were tour guides who seemed to be spending more of their time keeping track of their chargers than hiking upwards. Alas that often saw them stopping mid-trail to triple-check that they still had everyone. Cue instant road block. On top of this you had other climbers plonking down on the trail everywhere trying to catch their breath as the altitude and the wind tightened the screws.

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Rest spot outside a mountain hut.

With all that stopping came something else – panic – and it spread faster than a viral video. The frustratingly slow pace brought with it the sinking realisation that while the clock was spinning round we were going upwards slower than an elderly gent out for a spin on his walking frame.

All of this would have been understandable and bearable if people hadn’t been so impatient. Climbers who were unwilling to let more than one person pass when two lines or more converged into one abounded. That was especially problematic for my group of five. Keeping track of each other in the crowds and the darkness became a nightmare. It was as though because we weren’t an ‘official group’ decked out in tour group tags, then we were personae non gratae.  A.K.A.: ‘fair game to be run off the trail’. Tired of shouting over the wind to each other, we started holding hands and barging through forcefully whenever those with insufficient patience wanted to push in. I was pretty surprised such stupidity was so widespread 3000m up a mountain in darkness and dangerous weather.

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The crush leaving one of the 8th Station huts.

Exasperated with our progress, I chanced an eyeful of dirt to glance up the mountain. I glimpsed tendrils of misty cloud eerily back-lit by climbers lamps in an otherworldly image, like the puffs of cold eddies that swirl off icy peaks in the depths of winter. But that was no innocent tendril of fluffy cloud. The angry splatter of wind driven raindrops overhead sent climbers on the trail scrambling to the edge to find a spot to unpack and get their rain gear on. The rain at least meant the eyes got a break from the dust, but it didn’t make it any easier to see. In the end I simply didn’t trust my eyes, and with legs failing after fighting to keep me upright against the insane wind, I ended up using my hands as much as my legs to clamber up the rocky path.

Strangely though, I have the weather to thank for ‘improving’ my Mt Fuji experience for beyond the 9th Station, for many hikers started falling victim to its unrelenting assault. The crowds thinned out very suddenly and even my group started to be driven to the point of breaking. We became more strung out but since we weren’t drowning in a sea of people, there was no more panic and as we passed the 9th Station the darkness began to wane fast, revealing the unforgiving outline of our opponent against the sky in the oncoming dawn but still not the path underfoot.

With our goal getting nearer, we all became desperate for at least one of us to make it to the top for the sunrise. Our directive: Keep going. Don’t stop for anything/anyone. And that’s exactly what happened a few hundred meters below the summit – our members started dropping like flies, abandoned along the trail. Promptly realising when those behind you had stopped was problematic.  The wind drowned out any shouts they let fly and by the time you managed to sneak a peak behind, they’d vanished in the darkness and the rain. So close to the top, there was no question of everyone not being able to summit – hence our earlier directive to summit at all costs. We had to.  Our ride home was on the other side of the mountain.

Somehow I ended up leading by default after trailing behind for the entire day slowed down by taking photos. By this stage I was desperate for the ordeal to end. ‘Stopping’ had been deleted from my vocabulary. I blundered on and was finally greeted with the key sign that salvation was near at hand.  Pausing in the driving rain and wind to hopelessly try taking a photo of the final stone torii gate marking the gateway to the summit, the sound of drums began to beat through the rain and mist. I frantically stuffed my iPhone in my pocket and dashed through the gate, the drumbeats galvanizing my exhausted legs for a final 50 odd meter run to the summit. With a pat to the paw of the lion guarding the temple at the top as dawn broke behind me, I stepped into the shrine to seek my reward – respite from the cold, the wind and the rain, and a front row view of dawn prayers which those drumbeats had been calling to order. It was a remarkably ethereal experience that I was able to have practically to myself for there were only about three other people inside, and not even very many outside watching the sunrise. The weather had exacted a heavy attrition rate on those attempting to summit for the dawn. Not one of the umpteen tour groups we had battled our way through during the night saw the sunrise from the summit.

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The ‘cloud sandwich’ dawn from the summit.

I shared this precious moment with an older Japanese lady, who seemed to have climbed alone though the night. I’m almost certain that she was the veteran of many Fujisan sunrises for her countenance and remarks were those of one not new to life above the clouds at 3776m. She seemed totally oblivious to the horrendous weather that we had both endured to be able to share that moment atop Japan.

DSC_4417Though I had climbed with four other people, I was glad that I had summitted alone before being able to celebrate with them soon after. Climbing Mt Fuji for me turned out to be a deeply personal achievement; something that I had totally not expected. So personal and moving that this photographer didn’t feel the slightest inclination to reach for her camera. I just stood quietly, soaked from the rain, shaking from cold and exhaustion, content in having ‘made it’. (Just as well, because I could barely move my frozen hands enough to peel off my cold wet gloves let alone handle a DSLR camera.)

So I will say to those future climbers among you that you too should arrive at the top ‘alone’ though you’ll likely be in a group. Don’t turn and gibber ecstatically to your climbing pals. Take a moment to just stand there and drink in the sights around you, and revel in the magnitude of what you have just achieved.

As my senses began to come back to me, I continued to watch the quiet spectacle unfolding in the tiny hut above the clouds. A single priest conducted the morning prayers in front of the tiny alter, accompanied by a drummer as young trainee priests waited stoically to attend to climbers, their condensed breath showing up as clear as puffs of white smoke against their sombre black outer cloaks, an unusual contrast to their normally pure white attire. It was a scene that doubtfully has seen much change over many centuries. Soon enough the hectic bustle of tourists who’d we passed earlier began to the flood the summit and everybody seemed to be cramming into the shrine, seeking both refuge from the wind and proof of their achievement in the form of an omamori (good luck charm) from the ‘highest’ shrine in Japan. With their arrival, my moment passed. But though I have not a single photo from that time, it is something that will remain etched into my consciousness for many sunrises to come.

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Footnote:

Mt Fuji might be an easy mountain to climb in terms of the terrain and the climbing path but the weather is king. Bad conditions most definitely turn Mt Fuji into one serious climb. Make sure you’re prepared and have a plan B if necessary. My advice would be to stay a few days in the surrounding area so you can choose the best day to climb. If at all possible, don’t even think about hiking Mt Fuji on a weekend.

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