“No spot in this world can be more horrible, more atrociously dismal, than the cindered tip of the Lotus as you stand upon it.” — Lafcadio Hearn (1898)
This weekend I followed through on a mistake that many people make in Japan… I decided to climb Mt. Fuji. When I say “mistake” I mean, I underestimated how difficult it would be based on the sheer number of people who make it to the top every year during hiking season (only in July and August). I couldn’t make it to the top, and I’m 99% certain I’ll never attempt it again. This weekend I learned a new thing about myself: my body pretty much shuts down at about 11,000 feet. Also, some things I already knew were reinforced: I married an awesomely patient, supportive dude, and I have some incredibly patient, kind friends.
On Sunday, Rob and I woke up in Tokyo at 5:30, joined our friends Rey and Jen, and hopped on a bus in Shinjuku around 7:00 a.m. The bus took us to Mt. Fuji’s 5th station (about halfway up the mountain). Following some guide books’ advice, we hung out there for about an hour to acclimate. Then, around 12:00, we set off. At the start of the hike, we could see so many different kinds of people heading out and coming back. Most were 20-30-somethings in fashionable, colorful outdoor gear, but there were also plenty of seniors and even small children. This just encouraged my initial misconception that even if Fuji was challenging, it was certainly doable.
As we climbed, it got ominously foggy and misty. We were soon above the tree line, in a landscape of red volcanic ash and small green bursts of vegetation.
The trail sloped lazily up into the clouds. It started to rain as we reached the 6th station. We put on our ponchos and carried on. Then it started raining harder, and got very cold and miserable very, very fast. I was feeling the altitude and slowed down considerably. Rey and Jen went ahead, while Rob kept pace with me. At the 7th station, the trail turned from a rocky, sloping path to straight-up rock climbing. I was totally unprepared for it. Combined with the altitude, the rain, and the cold, I struggled and had to stop and rest frequently to keep myself from throwing up. I thought about turning back many times. Luckily I had an excuse to climb slowly: a 7-year old girl in front of me was setting the pace. She was obviously very tired and her mom was behind her to make sure she didn’t fall, while her dad climbed in front. Some of the rocks were too big for her to climb and he had to grab her arm and hoist her up to a spot where she could get a hand- or foot-hold.
We reached the 8th station around 4:00. We were scheduled to sleep at one of the many mountain “huts” above the 8th station. I stopped at the 8th station to use the restroom and rest. As we got ready to leave, a bulldozer pulled up (all of the mountain vehicles are bulldozers with a truck bed). An older Japanese woman climbed out, stone-faced, and some Fuji first-aid workers stayed in the truck bed and began moving a blanket around. I stupidly said “Is someone in there?” And Rob said “Yeah. I think we should leave.” At that point, the first-aid workers started CPR on whoever was lying in the truck. We turned away to start hiking again but I had to stop, lean my head against the rocks in front of me and cry. I looked back down at the station after we had climbed for another 15-20 minutes and could see the first aid workers still in the truck, still attempting CPR on the person lying there, while the woman stood motionless to the side with a small group of very quietly respectful onlookers.
At some point we broke through the clouds and the rain stopped. The trail turned from rock climbing to this strange, dismal landscape like something from Mars. Nothing but dark dirt and rocks. Sometimes I found bits of broken glass or ceramic in the dirt, worn smooth like beach glass. Enormous pallets, as big as two-story buildings, were stacked on the mountain to prevent landslides and create switchbacks. The crowd had thinned out considerably since the faster people had already made it to their huts. We moved sluggishly, stopped often, sucked on canisters of oxygen, ate snacks and drank lots of water. We finally reached our mountain hut two hours after Rey and Jen. We ate dinner around 6:00 and then climbed in to our bunks. The hut had several rooms with three stories of lofts. On those lofts were rows of sleeping bags, where hikers crammed in and lay like sardines. My first thought was that it reminded me of those illustrations of slave ships. Smashed together, stinky and still damp from the rain, we all put in headphones and tried to get some sleep.
I probably got a total of two hours of sleep before I woke up around 11:00 with a throbbing headache, fast pulse and strong nausea. I climbed down from our bunk and staggered outside. It was pitch black outside, windy and cold. Our hut was on a small cliff, and I sat on a bench at the edge to focus on breathing. It was completely silent and eerie except for all the Tibetan prayer flags flapping in the wind around me. A Japanese hiker in full gear dozed or slept sitting up on another bench. I could see a few headlamps on the trail below, slowly moving upwards. If I looked up, above our hut, I could see the summit. I sat there for an hour or more, drank an entire bottle of water and tried to will the nausea away. It didn’t work. Jen came out and sat with me for a while, then Rob. Considering how dizzy and sick I felt, and that the rest of the climb would be mostly scaling rocks in pitch black with just a headlamp, I decided not to attempt the summit the next day.
The hikers all woke up around 1:00 in the morning. I gave Rob my goshuin book to get stamped at the summit, some post cards to send (there’s a post office at the top) and my camera. I went outside where hundreds of people were already climbing up to the summit. Above the hut, in the darkness, a trail of headlamps zig-zagged up the mountain like bobbing stars.
I ate a bowl of noodles and then climbed back in my bunk. I slept for another couple of hours, then woke up again with more nausea. I paced around for a while, got dressed, packed up my gear, then went outside to see the sun rising with a few other people who decided not to go on. It was beautiful and almost made the whole experience seem worth it. An exhausted mother and daughter were in the hut’s tatami community room, sleeping while sitting up, repeatedly waking up when the daughter (probably about 10 years old) had to throw up into a bag from altitude sickness. They couldn’t even get up to see the sunrise outside.
I took some medicine, washed my face, brushed my teeth, and felt 80% normal by the time Rob, Rey and Jen came back down from the summit. Then we started the descent. The descending trail was different, thankfully, so no rock climbing going down. It was a whole new type of torture, with loose volcanic rocks and dirt, so most of the trip down was a combination of sliding down the slope, trying not to fall, and walking at an awkward angle take some pressure off our knees. It took about 4 hours to get back down to the 5th station. I’ve never been so happy to be on paved roads in my life.
So, do I regret trying to climb? Yeah. I kind of do. It was an expensive trip (on top of the transportation costs, you have to pay almost $2 every time you want to use the restroom, bottles of water cost $7 and cans of oxygen cost $15) and it was so much more difficult than I was expecting. For people who regularly climb mountains and do difficult hiking routes, I’d say: go for it. But for someone like me, who’s not very athletic, I think it’s too risky and exhausting to the point of being dangerous (not to mention barely any fun).
In closing, here are some more of Rob’s shots from the top of Mt. Fuji.