Monday, March 15, 2010

So, I had some vacation time and decided now was as good a time as any to head on back to Japan. This time it was to accomplish something I've wanted to do for a very long time: Climb Mt Fuji in Winter.

As the mountain is officially closed during most of the year, with the exception of 2 months during the summer, and being a purist, the route that made sense at this time of year was the Yoshidaguchi trail. This old walking trail effectively starts all the way down in the town of Fujiyoshida. I mentioned I was a purist. Well, add sadist as well. Humping 20kg+ (44lbs), as I found out, along with boots that weren't fully broken in, I have to say was brutal! Did I say I was on vacation?!

A caveat before I continue. Although not exactly a technical climb, at 12388 ft, Mt Fuji is a REAL F@#KING SERIOUS Mountain! Like myself, many a visiting Gaijin, for whatever reason, have an urge to bag its peak. For good reason most Japanese heed the advice and stay off during the winter months. Unless you have actual back country experience, appropriate equipment, etc, etc, it really is- NO. It's strongly- advisable to do the climb during the official season or close to it. If you want to go for a day hike outside of Tokyo, with all the comforts, go to Mt Mitake.

As a recent example, not too long ago, a famous Japanese former F1 driver and a couple of his mates attempted to summit. All experienced. The two who were in the tent got blown off the side of the mountain and, sadly, later died! Surprisingly deaths do occur during the summer climbs: from exposure, to rock falls, to being blown right off, etc...

Trail map:

The Day before:

Arriving into the the neighboring town of Kawaguchiko, from Shinjuku, via Bus, I was greeted by a spectacular site. It reminded me very much of Mt Shasta. Hmm, another climb on my to-do list...

Day 1:

Close to the Fujiyoshida train station is the Kanadorii.

Past the gate you go along the footpath and make your way to the Kitaguchi Hongu Fuji Sengen-Jinja.

This is the "Otorii." The third gate. It serves as the entrance to the Climbing Trail and considered to be the starting point for the Mt. Fuji pilgrimage.

And now the monotonous hard slog on relative flat terrain begins. This part of the hike runs parallel to a road. More on that road later.

Under an overpass.

I was glad I didn't have to break trail. I've read of an account where a guy was forced back due to too much snow. This was a good start.

At this point it was getting late in the day. I needed to start considering a place to set up camp, change into dry clothes and dry the wet ones before nightfall and the temperature dropped.

A little further on I got to a place known as Umagaeshi.

That road I mentioned before...Well, it stops here. I didn't know this at the time but one could literally hire a taxi from Fujiyoshida to this point. After the hike, if they are in the possession of a cell, they ring up for the taxi to pick them up. Thus saving them a cple of hrs of monotonous walking to and fro through the woods.

Red marks the spot. Beyond the snow covered steps and next to that hut is where I would set up camp for my first night. I'm not going to lie. It was cold. Not uncomfortable but you could still feel it. Condensation accumulated on the inside of the tent and the outside of the sleeping bag was slightly damp. The night was relatively quiet and peaceful. I was waiting to hear some ungodly sound like wolves or whatnot but Nada. At around 9pm I heard a hiker come past and stop. I was too tired and almost warm to make an effort to greet him. I assume he was coming down from the mountain. More on who he might have been later.

Day 2:

The day that lay before me was going to be a tough day! It required an early start in the chill of the morning air. Slowly I got up and started breaking down camp.

There, beyond the trees, basking in the sun is Fujisan. An ominous sight. Yet still so far away!

2nd Station.

3rd Station.



ever so slowly climb
Mt. Fuji!

That's all it was for the next few hrs. A tree lined path through the forest with not a soul other than myself on it.

Oh, my pack! oh, my feet! So over it at this point. I want to get beyond the tree line.

Now we're getting somewhere. A mental hurdle nearly overcome.

A little further on I decided to have a rest; drink, eat a bit and sit in the sun. Shortly after a Japanese dude in snow shoes was bouncing his way beyond the 5th station somewhere.

Not much long after that encounter, a party of 3 were making their way up. Of all the places in Japan, I had to come across a cple of fellow Aussies and an American with the same idea. They were to set a phenomenal pace setting up camp higher than me as well as summiting just before sunrise the next morning.

During the summer months, a drive halfway up the mountain, beyond the road, is Gogome: 5th station. This is where most hikers, on this side, start their climb. Not to be confused with the other 5th station slightly lower. Go figure!

Another break and a brief chat with the party of 3.

"Atsui desu ne!" The sun sure was beating down! Little to no wind at this point. Beach weather, literally!

Crampons off for a while.

Somewhere above me is the party of 3. I need to start thinking about a camp site for the night.

Sun quickly disappearing beyond Fuji's peak. Temp's starting to get cooler!

Somewhere between Station's 7 and 8. Much like the party of 3, my goal was about station 8. Though, I knew I wasn't going to make it in time before nightfall.

Preparing for dinner and a well deserved rest.

Funny when I look back at it. NOT so funny when it happened!

See that railing. Well, when I was setting up for the night and pulling stuff out of my pack my sleeping pad fell to the ground, bounced and over the edge it went rolling down the f@#king side of the mountain!

My heart skipped a beat as I watched in horror. Luckily it eventually got caught up in some low lying shrubs protruding from the snow and I was able to retrieve it without too much trouble.

Day 3: Push for the Summit!

Another uneventful relatively peaceful but frigid night. I was in and out of consciousness listening to the distance sounds of the city below.

There was light wind throughout the night but nothing to be concerned about. I wasn't overly exposed as I had set up next to a hut that would bore the brunt of much of the wind.

Again, I had to contend with condensation build-up inside the tent and atop the sleeping bag. Nothing like getting a face full of wet sleeping bag in the middle of the night!

My main concern was the warmth of my feet. Although I had changed to dry socks and wrapped a foil blanket around, they were never as warm as I would have liked them to have been. The discomfort was manageable, nonetheless.

At around midnight I heard the distinctive sound of crampons on snow and the thwack of an ice axe coming towards the tent. "I've heard this sound before", I think to myself. Of course. All the way down at camp 1 in Umagaeshi, the previous night. Could this be the same climber? Wow! 2nd attempt in as many days!

The climber was Korean and packed very light. He mentioned, he too, had started at Umagaeshi and, if I understood correctly, it was his 2nd attempt in as many days! We chatted a bit. Well, we tried. He spoke very little English. But we managed. He gave me a Korean energy bar and was on his way.

The distance lights of Fujiyoshida down below.

I didn't exactly know when sunrise was going to be. So since I was already awake I thought I'd slowly get ready, melt snow for drinking, have something to eat.

My boots were cold and stiff from the cool night temperature. Although I had kept them inside and covered, the little snow that had been left from the previous days trek had frozen solid. A little massaging of the leather and eventually it became a little easier to get into.

Unfortunately my toes were quickly becoming cold and numb inside the cold boots. Nothing extreme but I had to walk on the spot for some time to get the circulation going again. All this become a non-issue when I continued the climb.

High camp. Ready for an early morning assault via headlamp.

A rest stop. Though, I had left the majority of my gear behind back at high camp for the final push to the summit, I still had to frequently stop.

Close to the high camp of the party of 3, I met up with the Korean climber. He tagged along but eventually I was to leave him behind. As the pitch increased in steepness, and became bulletproof in sections, requiring some front-pointing and aid of the ice ax, he had trouble with his crampons and I guess at some point lagging behind he decided to go no further. The party of 3 by now had already overtaken myself at a blistering pace. The majority of the climb was just side-stepping, one foot after the other on relatively packed snow... With wind chill the temp was definitely pushing into the minus.

Coming to the realization that I'm not going to make it to the top in time!

2nd last gate from the top. I decided to plant it here and enjoy what was about to happen.


Oh so sweet from atop a mountain.

Still climbing!

Somewhere between the 2nd last gate and the last gate, the party of 3 were making their way down. Lost in our own thoughts, heads down, there were no exchanges or goodbyes. Later on during my descent I had a chance to have a brief chat with them.

10 more minutes!

The last gate signifying the entrance to the top.

Deserted, desolate and COLD.

Can you imagine the masses of people milling about during the summer months. Believe it or not, there is a post office up here! And it wouldn't be Japan without vending machines.

Facing towards the crater. In the distance is the actual true summit. Atop that are the remnants of a weather station that was manned year round!

The actual radar dome is now displayed in the Mt. Fuji Radar Dome Museum in Fujiyoshida. Quite a fascinating story behind it!

Closer to the crater.

It takes about an hour to circle the crater. By now I have been exposed for a good several hours. As tempting as it was to see the other side I thought it best just to stay on the north-east side and keep my time to a minimum. The wind was noticeably strong and the snow under foot was a hard wind blown surface!

The obligatory salutation atop Japan's highest, most recognized and sacred peak! For a short time I was the highest dude in the land. Could only take 1 shot, so I had to make it count, due to the strong wind literally blowing the camera across the plaque I had placed it on.

"You got to the top of Fuji and that's the only photo of yourself you take?!", my brother remarked, a cple of days later...

So, after the monumental task of getting up the thing. It dawns on me, well, I knew, but didn't want to think about it, that I was only half way through this adventure! I still need to make my way down. I wasn't exactly looking forward to this. Particularly the boring hump through the forest.

Although the sun by now was beating down. It still was cold at elevation.

Another rest stop.

I don't exactly remember at which point I tried Glissading down, most likely between the top gate and 2nd last gate. For those that are not familiar, a Glissade is where one sits on their rear and slides down the slope using the ax as anchor. Saves quite a bit of time!

Sounds like fun! Well, after a bit of fun sliding on my arse I decided it was a tad too dangerous to continue. The snow was still a bit too fast and steep.

Going up was a mental mind-f@#k. It was worse going down. There was no end in sight! At this point I'm not even at my high camp. All I wanted to do was get to camp, take my boots off, lie down on my pad and catch some rays.

NOT liking it one bit! Another stop. Taking shelter from the wind.

Eventually I make it to camp. Unfortunately, this is where the picture taking ends. I had no interest in taking any more photos on my way down.

Breaking down camp in the hot sun I spot a lone climber making HER way towards camp. "Wonder how far she's planning to go?", I think.

We chatted a bit. I express my concern about trying to summit at this time of day with the sun beating down as it was. She was running low on water so I melted snow and boiled it for her.

Soon thereafter, we said our goodbyes and I wished her good luck.

Here's her video. Added with her permission.

The hike down through the lower portion of the mountain was boring and uneventful. By the time I got to Umagaeshi, my water was dangerously low. I had to collect snow melt from the roof top of the hut to quench my thirst.

From Umagaeshi, I ditched the walking trail and settled for the long walk on the snow covered road. From Nakanochaya the road became clear of snow. A few cars came by but for the most part it was deserted. Although, unlike in the book, 'Hokkaido Highway Blues', where the Author, Will Ferguson, manages to bum rides around Japan, I got bupkiss. To be fair, I wasn't exactly trying to thumb a ride. I was happy to have solid ground underfoot and counted the moments to that bloody lone vending machine I was fantasizing about. By about 3-3:30ish that afternoon I was back in civilization, Fujiyoshida.

The day After:

Fujisan obscured by clouds.

Back in Kawaguchiko, with light rain falling, thinking back at what transpired over the last 3 days, waiting for the Bus to the overcrowded Metropolis, Shinjuku.

Final thoughts:

Rewind a few days prior, shortly after my arrival in Japan. I was camping at Okutama, outside of Tokyo, and befriended a like-minded Japanese guy. Over a camp fire and some sake he asked me in a very Japanese way, "What is your dream?" Tough question! I had many but I told him of one I was contemplating on doing in a number of days. Well, my friend, I did it!

This climb was purely a selfish pursuit. Uncomfortable at times but rewarding on so many levels. "Next time," oh yes, there will be a next time- different route, of course- I'd like it to be a shared experience and enjoy the awe and expression that comes with watching someone else's face while they witness something so simple as a sunrise atop a mountain. "Taka-chan!" You're coming with me!


Thanks for reading.


Useful links:

Mt Fuji Weather Forecast

Mt Fuji Live Camera

Hourly Weather Observations

Mt Fuji Weather Archive