Monday, September 1, 2014

"He who climbs Mount Fuji is a wise man, he who climbs twice is a fool"

     There is an old Japanese proverb that says just that and I of course couldn't leave Japan being considered unwise now could I? Now most of you that know me well know that I could be considered more of an indoor creature, getting it from my mother whose idea of camping was a hotel without room service. So why would I willingly put myself through a grueling 5 to 8 hour trek up a mountain? Because I am a person that does things for the story and how often can people say they have climbed one of the most iconic mountains in history?! Plus I have a mild obsession with Fuji-san and seeing her every day from a far just wasn't enough. I had to quench that thirst for adventure. Besides, from where I live she doesn't look THAT big.

Driving there it still didn't seem that big of a feat! The weather on the other hand was less than ideal.
     Well that's the understatement of the century. Fuji-san's climbing season is only about two and a half months a year, from July to mid September. Outside of that season, she is known to be temperamental and snow either hasn't completely melted or the snow has already started to fall. I had made plans to climb with a friend at the end of August, but when they canceled at the last minute I thought to myself I could either wallow in self pity or I can suck it up and do this on my own because there are only a few days left to do this this year. I knew that if I didn't climb I would regret it for the rest of my life. Since I had already started stuffing my climbing pack with food, water and extra layers and egged on by the fact that one of the interns had just finished climbing on her own a few weeks ago, I decided to tackle her all by my lonesome. 

It takes finally saying "screw it" and asking strangers to take your picture for you to get any memories out of experiences like this.
     I had been prepping for the past few weeks, going out of my way to walk everywhere, asking for advice from the Japanese people at work that had conquered Fuji before--layers, bring extra layers they said--and reading up on the different trails to try and decide which would be best for me. Mt. Fuji has four different trails, the Yoshida Trail, Subashiri Trail, Gotemba Trail and the Fujinomiya Trail. I finally concluded that the Yoshida Trail would be my best bet--the trail head being at one of the highest elevations so it would be a shorter trail, the most popular amongst climbers which would benefit this solo climber, and it was the only trail that was in Yamanashi Prefecture which is where I live so it seemed like a fitting choice. I knew I definitely wanted to be at the summit for sunrise, but also didn't want to push myself so I decided to take my time and start in the afternoon, sleep overnight in one of the mountain huts to get the "Japanese" experience and then continue climbing to be up top for the 5:15 am sunrise.

     Because Fuji recently was deemed a World Heritage site, it has become an even more popular destination for climbers. During the busy climbing season, to get to the trail heads at the 5th Station (you can start down at the bottom of the mountain at the 1st Station of the trails and get the traditional religious experience of the climb, but as the popular saying goes "Ain't nobody got time for that.") you must take a bus from the designated parking areas. This gave me ample amount of time to look at all the other Japanese climbers and get a serious case of insecurity. Here were these people in their heavy duty hiking backpacks, with hiking poles hanging from them that match their raincoat suits that match their boots that match their hats that coordinated with their pants---did I mention the Japanese are SERIOUS about their outdoor gear. Here I was with my dinky little backpack, windbreaker and some layers tucked down under my extra water and granola bars. I'd made it this far and paid to park and for the bus--couldn't back out now.

     So the bus lets you off at the 5th Station for the Yoshida Trail. It is a popular place for people to come to just spend the day. There are a lot of shops and restaurants and on a good day has, purportedly, gorgeous views all around. It all felt very Swiss Alps--that is until you heard the shrill voices of the Japanese tour guides ushering their groups along with their little flags waving in the air. 

Cute little village fit for the average day tripper.
     This was the point where you depart from the geriatric crowd up to get their ice cream fix and get omiyage to take home to the grandkids. One last stop at the bathroom and you're bombarded with everyone changing into their rain gear. This was about 12:00pm, so it was still fairly warm with the 5th Station being at about 7,800 feet, but it had started to drizzle a little. I took my obligatory beginning of the trail picture [see above] and headed out. 

Let's do this!
     So once you start along the trail, it gets eerily quiet. The best way to describe it is when Harry first goes into the maze in the Tri-Wizard tournament and it goes from all the hustle and bustle of cheering to just silent. You can hear the mutter of the other climbers, but at this point you are few and far between. Adding to the effect was the fog (maybe technically clouds?) that would roll across the path. 

Doesn't really look like a mountain yet does it? 
     So you go along like this--on flat ground with trees--for a fair amount of time thinking this is a piece of cake, until you start to think you've done something wrong because it shouldn't be THIS easy. As soon as you think that, that's when you start going up. It isn't too far of a trek to the 6th Station, which is where the real climb starts. 

Like I said--the Japanese are serious about their outdoor gear. It was one of my favorite part of the climb, following the rainbow of climbers.
     The trail for awhile is this zig zag path, which you can kind of see in the picture. You go up at a diagonal, turn, go up the other way diagonally on and on for hours. It was a nice way to break up the climb though. I gave myself little goals--alright two more zig zags and you can stop for a break. You built a kind of camaraderie with other solo climbers this way. You would see them stop, you would continue on, they'd pass you while you were taking a break, etc. etc. I'm sure a lot of people do soul searching on this leg of the climb, but really all I thought about was putting one foot in front of the other and when was an appropriate time to stop and eat, which was a struggle because I wanted to eat all my food in one sitting...typical. 

     You zig and zag for awhile until you reach the 7th Station when the actual "climbing" begins. You pretty much follow these tour groups the whole way up at this point. I knew I stuck around the same group because I kept recognizing a family with a Japanese wife and a German husband and their son. The rest of the first day is best described in pictures.

Following the rainbow to the 7th Station.
The torii gate representing the beginning of the 7th Station--there're mountain huts that sell food, space to rest and for 100-200 yen you can use the bathroom!
Looking back down the mountain after passing through the torii gate.

Those are the mountain huts up there--literally built into the mountain.
I finally broke through the cloud line and was starting to get a good view! The mountain huts below with rocks to keep the roofs on.
     Being solo and knowing I had a bed waiting, I was in no rush to get anywhere. I took everything at a leisurely pace, stopping for water breaks frequently and just generally enjoying the time with myself. Each mountain hut sells portable oxygen for those that need it, but I was determined to let myself acclimate to the altitude as I went and not need to shell out the extra cash for it. I was still traumatized from the altitude sickness I had when I was 8 during a family vacation in Snow Mass and I was not about to relive that. The trail up to the 8th Station, where I was going to stay the night, boasted some of the best views yet. It really was just awe inspiring with the clouds looking like the white caps of a churning sea. Along this part of the trail is where I saw the most mind boggling thing--while all of us tourist climbers were stopping for bathroom breaks and food and water breaks, these mountain guides were stopping for smoke breaks. I didn't think anything of it at first until I noticed myself huffing and puffing and thought wait a second--how in the world can these men be doing that?!?! 

Looking down the mountain--doesn't seem like I've done much climbing at all.
Looking back towards Kiyosato!
Made it to the beginning of the 8th Station--only two more hours to my mountain hut!
Probably one of my favorite pictures of the hike--was trying to just get a picture of the trail up from one of the 8th Station huts and I caught this male model here. Didn't notice his gaze off into the distance until later and just cracked up.
As the sun started to set on the day, we were treated to some really beautiful colors in the sky. 
     I made it to the last mountain hut before you start the final ascent to the summit, which is where I would be staying, at about 7:30 pm. They say a Fuji climb to the top should only take about 6 hours--but let's be real here--that's if you're really booking it. I was having a great time just enjoying the scenery. So at the hut I booked a space for the night. The staff was fantastic! They seem to really know their stuff ask you how you're feeling and recommend you don't go to sleep right away and eat some dinner first--at least with my limited Japanese and their mediocre English I think that's what I was told.  I still had an ample amount of rice balls from 7/11 so I hunkered down to eat in the tatami common room before climbing into my spot in the sleeping area. Now when Americans think of paying money to sleep somewhere, they think they're going to be getting if not a room to themselves at the very least a bed. Nope. Not on Fuji-san. When I put my bags down I had a whole row of futons--Japanese version of a mattress--to myself and even still did when I went to sleep. This was not the case when I woke up to a stranger spooning me. Quite a different experience seeing as that is probably the closest a Japanese person has ever gotten to me (I will frequently have open seats next to me on the trains in Tokyo even during packed rush hour). I just rolled over and went back to sleep and she was gone by the time I woke up at 1:30am to start my climb to the summit. I actually started at the same time as the one tour group I had been following the whole way up because I saw the same family again--we did the typical silent acknowledging look that communicates "never going to see you again, but this has been fun".
View of the city of Gotemba from the "backyard" of my mountain hut.
All strangers--I was one of the last to arrive for the night so most people were already asleep.
My cozy little mat there on the end on the bottom.
Early wake up call--head lamp ready to activate. 
One last view of the mountain hut before I started my climb.

The steps guiding you to the path right next to my mountain hut. The lights up there are head lamps of climbers that go an even earlier start than I did.
     This leg of the trek was by far my favorite. It is done in complete darkness, obviously because it's two in the morning. The only light is coming from your head lamp and if you get far enough away from the groups, you can sit on a rock, turn the light off and feel like you could touch the stars. I had read that Fuji makes it feel like you're about to reach the Earth's ceiling, but there is nothing like actually experiencing it. This was also probably the most challenging part of the climb, where you're actually using your hands to pull yourself up rocks, but you've come so far already you are running on pure adrenaline and ecstasy knowing what you've accomplished already. This is the part where climbing Mount Fuji became the top most #1 thing I have ever done in my life. You're exhausted, you're excited, your legs want to give out, but you keep going. 

SUCCESS!!!! Torii gate at the summit of Mt. Fuji!
     Once you reach the summit you realize you are on the top of a mountain 12,000 ft high---and it is freezing cold. I brought layers and all but it is COLD. There is nothing blocking the wind anymore and it just ripped through my dinky little windbreaker on top of my Northface on top of a zip up on top of a long sleeve shirt on top of a turtleneck while I stand there and watch these seasoned Japanese climbers break out those space blankets you see runners use after marathons and then start up their little camping stove to make tea. I will say I did feel more prepared than a group of military guys in their fleece jackets and cargo shorts with tennis shoes. I made it to the top at about 3am so that meant I had about 2 hours to kill. I got myself some souvenirs to mark this momentous occasion and then went and staked my front row claim for the sunrise. It was the longest two hours of my life. I couldn't even stand to have my gloves off to take pictures with my phone for very long. With all that said it was totally worth it.
Heated mountain hut for those not brave enough to endure the cold for a good seat.
Beginnings of the sun starting to rise. In typical Japanese fashion, it reminded me of a Pokeball.
Sun almost completely up with the weather phenomenon I like to call "donut cloud".
Almost there--and almost frozen through!
My front row neighbors freezing in solidarity.

Before the sun completely rose, I had to get up and move to get feeling back in my extremities.
Had to take a "What Would Sue Say?" bracelet up top. What would she have said? Probably get me off this mountain--it's cold and I want a Diet Coke.
And we have an official sunrise at 5:13 am! 
     My original plan had been to do the ninety minute trek around the summit of Fuji, but it was so cold it hurt, so as soon as that sun rose I started hustling down the mountain. I figured I needed to block the wind and the temperature would start rising as I went down. This was by far the worst part of the adventure. My knees hurt to the point of tears and the trail is all volcanic rock and sand and you're prone to slipping and falling. The fun part is over and now you just want to get off this hunk of rock. I slipped and fell twice and the second time I just laid there in the middle of the trail leaning on my backpack like a turtle that had been overturned. I was officially over it. If anything were to stop me from climbing again it would be the thought of having to climb down again.

Icicles at the start of the trail down.
People that beat me to the descent.
Pure volcanic sand--pure murder. Pretty view though.
Looking back up at the climbers that were all going to pass me.
View of Mt. Yatsugatake--the mountain I live on.
Finally made it back down to the beginning of the trail. Since there was a lot of cloud cover the day before, I didn't see this view. This day it was clear and made it look like I just spent the last 21 hours doing nothing.
     When I finally made it back to the 5th Station to get on the bus, the exhaustion was like nothing I had experienced. You felt oddly connected to the fellow crazy person next to you that just made it down with you. Passing other people about ready to start their own climb all bright eyed and bushy tailed made you wonder what the hell are these people thinking, but I'm already planning my climbs for next summer. It's pretty aggressive seeing as it's taking awhile to recover from this climb, but I want to climb all three of the other trails before I leave. Guess I'll be a fool three times over.
Guy behind me waiting for the bus that perfectly summed up how everyone felt.
Can't climb Fuji without bringing back Fuji themed omiyage for everyone in the office---It's snow covered Fuji chocolate!

Until next time--


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