Climbing Mount Fuji: not a task for wimps
Climb Mount Fuji,
But slowly, slowly!
(Haiku by Kobayashi Issa)
There’s a well-known Japanese proverb that says, “A wise man will climb Mt Fuji once; a fool will climb Mt Fuji twice.” I have just returned from climbing Mount Fuji for the second time. Why did I do it again? Mainly to get photos for this website. Here’s the story; first a little background (the next two paragraphs below are taken direct from my book ‘Fukushima and the coming Tokyo earthquake: and what it will mean for a fragile world economy’). Buy it and learn lots, grasshopper.
Japan’s iconic Mount Fuji remains a sacred site for practitioners of the indigenous Shintō faith. The highest mountain in Japan, it is its most instantly recognisable cultural symbol, a World Heritage site, inspiration for thousands of poems going back at least to the eighth century, and the attraction most visited by foreign tourists. Created long ago in a vast upheaval of magma, it sits near a triple junction of tectonic activity, between the Amurain/Eurasian plate, the Okhotsk plate (linked to the North American plate) and the Philippine Sea plate. Volcanologists have speculated for a number of years that Fuji-san is overdue an eruption.
Following the 2011 quake, pressure inside the magma chamber is now higher than it was in 1707, the last time the mountain erupted. It is nearly sixteen times the minimum amount necessary to trigger an eruption. Inactive for over three hundred years, Mount Fuji lies just 100 kms (70 miles) southwest of the capital. A major eruption would shower areas up to 1,000 kms away with volcanic ash, blanket Tokyo and suburbs, and disrupt transportation services.
The climbing season, when mountain huts, first aid stations and small shops are open, is fairly short – July 11th to September 14th. There are four routes up and they converge near the summit. The ideal way to do Fuji is to climb to a point nearish the summit, sleep in a mountain hut booked in advance (basic but warm and it includes two simple meals). Next, get up at 3.00am, climb the rest of the way using a flashlight/torch, and reach the summit just before dawn. That way, if you are lucky, you will see the sunrise. The last time I went it was just a pink smudge on the horizon. This time, in the immediate aftermath of two typhoons that had swept across Japan and cleared the sky of clouds, the sunrise was perfect, as you will see in the photos. This is fairly unusual.
Most people take a bus from Tokyo to the 5th (climbing) station, buy a walking stick, and then start climbing. At first you walk into cloud, but if you are lucky, it should be clear above that. The 5th to 6th station is an easy walk, after that it gets tougher: the 7th to 8th station section is very steep, and needs hands as well as feet to make it over the volcanic rock. On the way the wind gets stronger. By the time you get to the 8th station you are extremely tired and out of breathe due to the lack of oxygen. One guy I met there was so sick and had such a headache because of altitude sickness that it is unlikely he went any further.
Apart from the amazing views that occasionally open through the clouds, the shared experience of climbing Fuji means that everyone is in a great mood (well… initially anyhow) and you meet people from many countries. Some Japanese climb in one go from the 5th station at night, and as we prepared to climb the last section at 3.00 am you could look down and see their lights advancing zigzag up the mountain. You could also see the lights of two cities far below, as that night the view was quite clear.
The final section – 8th station to the summit in the dark – takes above 2.5 hours and is really tough. Needs lots of breaks as you struggle to regain your breathe. At this stage you are gasping for air. The route up gets very crowded near the top, as all four trails plus the nightime climbers converge there. As the sunrise occurred, everyone cheered the first rays of sun. Later, here and there, mountains in the far distance peaked through the clouds.
It was bitterly cold at the summit with a strong breeze, and my fingers were soon going numb despite wearing gloves – probably 4 or 5 degrees C but colder due to the wind chill factor. It’s not surprising at 3,776 metres in height. It’s possible to walk right around the crater, but as I’d seen it before I didn’t bother. Too damned cold. It takes up to 1.5 hours to circumnavigate.
Amazingly – or not, this being Japan – they have Wi-Fi on the summit: select Welcome_to_Fujisan_Summit, chose settings and start your browser. You’ve been given as user ID and password at the 5th station which is valid for three days!!
Although I had prepared well with snacks, fruit, and plenty of warm clothes, I had forgotten to bring suncream (didn’t need it the last time I climbed). This was a serious mistake, doubly so as I ran out of water on the way down and had to make a detour across trails to buy more, wasting time and failing energy. There is no shade whatsoever on the return route and the sun beams down. Add to that UV light and wind. This combination is really bad for skin.
Unlike the way up which has lots of shops, the way down has very few – it’s basically a zigzag down the mountain over sand and small rocks. That might sound easy but its not: your leg muscles are already in pain, and the ground slips away under your feet very easily. Correcting that tendency to slide for many hours is very tough on hips, toes and the muscles at backs of your legs. On both ascent and descent you need to stay constantly focused on where you place your feet. Having a walking stick helps break the slide a bit. It takes every ounce of your mental and physical energy to make it back to the 5th station.
As I write this I am still badly sunburned, my hands have swollen up, and many of my toenails are grey because of subcutaneous bleeding. So… was it worth it? Well, I’m pleased with most of the photos and I lost 2.5 kilos in weight, which I wanted. Would I do it again? No fucking way José. The Japanese proverb I quoted at the top is correct: only a fool climbs twice. Fuji may look beautiful from a distance but it deserves major respect up close. As the Japanese say “owate shimaimashita”(completely finished) as in “finished and I’ll never do that again”. EVER.
As I write this Mount Aso, the biggest volcano in Kyushu (southern Japan) has just erupted. Will Fuji? Someday yes for, though dormant, it is still an active volcano. As mentioned above, the pressure within the mountain is sixteen times the minimum amount that triggered the last Fuji eruption. Just as with earthquakes, it’s impossible to say exactly when this will happen.