2014
07.13

SYNOPSIS:  About climbing Mount Fuji.  About challenges and conditions.  Getting from the 5th station to station 8.5.  About meeting people who each met their challenges.   Most likely a lot more information than anyone cares about.  A  lot of thoughts and reflections.   This is a long blog…  I apologize, but it was a long hike.   More images are inserted in the text.

 

Five minutes of beauty — seeing the crater of Mount Fuji under a blue sky was the payoff for two days of challenges and the unfolding aftermath.  Was it worth it?

The internet abounds with stories about climbing Mount Fuji.  Many of them claim how easy it is, some of them talk about challenges and hardship.  Don’t believe any of them!  And that goes for the one I am about to write.  Mount Fuji is not one thing or another.  It unfolds to each and every one of us differently.  The sum of all the factors that make up the Fuji experience differs in so many ways that only one option remains to truly find out: you have to go yourself.

We each come with conditions, skills, ambitions, and goals — that is one set of variables.  And the weather at Mount Fuji changes from one minute to the next, unpredictably and brutally.  It can change for the better as fast as it can change for the worse or if you are lucky, it is good all the way up and down — that is the other set of variables.

What I am about to write is a detailed report of my conditions, how this trip unfolded on that one day, and what it meant to me.  If it is useful for those coming with similar conditions, then the better.   But I know also, that this could have been a very different experience for me, just one day sooner or one day later.

Mount Fuji, at 3776 meters, is the tallest mountain in Japan.  For its iconic shape — the flat top of a long extinct crater, and for its mystique — much of the time it is covered in clouds, it has been revered as part of Shinto mythology for millennia and it seems to have become the personification of the Japanese spirit and soul.

I would have never chosen to climb Mount Fuji.  Mountain climbing is simply not “my thing”.  I am a temple and museum type of a person.  And to be honest, I haven not climbed a single sizable mountain in my life.  Not in Germany, not anywhere.  But Fuji has been added to the UNESCO sites of Japan recently, not just as a natural site, but also as a cultural site.  And since I am on a mission to cover the cultural UNESCO sites of Japan, I was stuck.

When I packed for this 10-week trip I knew I could not pack hiking gear or sturdy shoes for just one excursion.  I am traveling with one pair of shoes, my Keen sandals. They would have to do.  I also could not pack any warm clothes — all of Japan except this mountain are at high, humid temperatures in June and July.  Whatever layers I could pile up would have to suffice.

What worried me most was that my right knee has been giving out once every so often.  It sort of “unhinges” occasionally.  That is very painful.  And for the entire last year I have been fighting a bad condition in my left foot — one of the toes is painful to walk on. My foot doctor — and for his own sake I will leave him unnamed here — put me into a splint for the last 6 months and ordered stiff shoes, the Mast clogs.  I have been limping around for most of that time and a mere two day trip to Chicago less than two months ago put me to a full standstill.  I could not walk at all any more and the pain was excruciating.

How I would walk around in Japan at all has been one of my great worries.

Literally two weeks before this trip I threw splint and Mast shoes into the corner and started to wear my flexible Keens and to exercise my toes.  It got better and better.  Except for the occasional toe attack, which might put me out of commission for a couple of hours or a night, I have been walking around for 45 days by now.

I was optimistic until a couple of days ago when I started to do what I never do and don’t recommend: I imagined all the possible “what if’s”.  Believe me, if you do this — no matter in what situation — it stymies you!  I would never travel if I would bog myself down with: what if my money gets stolen, what if I get kidnapped, what if I get sick, what if, what if, what if?  Forget about it!  I have to put one foot before the other and when things happen (not if) I will deal with it.  And most likely there will be a solution.  So far, there always has been.  What happened to my travel spirit?  I got so entangled in my what if mode that I wasted a full day “sightseeing” in Kawaguchiko.  For God’s sake!

But I snapped out of it and today I was on my way.  Bus #7 took a whole load of us up to the 5th station.

 

And here is a little orientation: until a couple of decades ago you had to start your hike up the mountain at the bottom, at what is now referred to as station #1.  At that time, there were no stations, meaning services.  Serious climbers and purists still do start from that point.  The big entrance to the mountain is at Fuji Sengen Jinja, a Shinto shrine.  I did not mention it in yesterday’s blog, but after all that wasted time in Yamanakaku and at the Musical Forest, I went to Kitaguchi Hongu Fuji Sengen Jinja (the full name of the shrine) to pay my respects to the mountain Kami.

Sengen is the kami for volcanoes and there are various Sengen shrines circling the mountain, including several on top of the crater.  The recorded worship of this kami goes back to the year 110 AD and the present location of this shrine is confirmed since 788 AD, even though many of the buildings one sees today are from the 17th century.  Many other Shinto deities are also worshipped here, such as Ebiso (god of fishermen), Daikoku (patron of farmers, and god of wealth and happiness), and Amaterasu (the sun goddess).   The hike up Mount Fuji started as a pilgrimage.

There are several hiking trails up the mountain from the north and the south side.  All I am writing about is the most popular route also referred to as the Yoshida Trail.

When the road from Kawaguchiko was built half-way up the mountain to what now is commonly referred to as the 5th station, things changed.  In addition to pilgrims, just about anyone could climb the mountain now, especially under good weather conditions.

The mountain is only open for climbing from July 1 through August 30.  That is when services such as bus rides, first-aid stations, huts for overnight stays, food vendors, and toilets are in operation.  Tens of thousands of Japanese climb Fuji every year.  On weekends and in good weather long, long lines form to climb the mountain.  I had envisioned a bit of that and had been looking forward to this cultural experience, but it wasn’t a weekend and the weather forecast was not good; there were no lines at all…

The mountain is divided into 10 official stations.  Each climb between stations has its own character.  Each station has facilities.  Some people skip most of the services except the toilets.  They are the “bullet climbers”.  They climb up all the way through the night and time their climb to reach the summit at sunrise.  Then they go down.  An experienced climber such as Daniel (whom I met and wrote about yesterday) did the climb starting at 9 PM reaching the top with several hours to spare (!) for sunrise.  But it was cloudy, so there was no sunrise worth mentioning, and he was down before 7 AM.

 

Some people start out right away with the intention to only hike or climb one station, perhaps just to have been there.  One of the most touching sights I saw was a whole family who walked from 5th to 6th station with a bent-over grandmother in tow.  She could barely walk, so two of the strong young boys in the family had taken a walking stick between them onto which grandma could lean.  They were guiding her along so that at least she could see the mountain slope.

5th station is a commercial hub and a huge parking lot.  You can buy all the gear you forgot at inflated prices.  You can rent a horse to take you up some of the way, you can have lunch or ice cream or do another quick prayer at the Suzuhara Shrine which is dedicated to Dainichi Nyorai (which is no less than the Buddha of the Center, but then in Japan… everything Buddhist and Shinto is entangled as we know); he will probably protect you just as well as the kami from the Sengen Shrine.  I said hello to Dainichi, too.

From 5th to 6th station it is a hike of only about 30 minutes.  You are still in the tree zone of the mountain and can actually enjoy some shrubbery, some greens and if you are lucky some beautiful bird songs.  A sandy slope will take you to the 6th station in no time.  This first stretch is only a tease of what awaits you, but it affords you a partial view up the mountain (as far as the fog will allow you to see) and a view of the zigzag path.

A word about these time estimates.  In all of my travels I usually give myself double time.  If the guide book says that Nikko can be done in 1/2 a day, I know it will take me all day and more.  I like to look, take photos, wait for people to get out of my way, read information, contemplate.

At Fuji I knew there was not so much of that, but given my inexperience with climbing and my sensitivity to altitudes and the need for breaks, I had figured that I needed time and 1/2.  The climb up and down everywhere is estimated as 10 hours; the allowance I gave myself in my planning was 15.  And I was not about to do this in one day, but two.

Between 6th and 7th station the path begins to zigzag.  This is one of the iconic climbing patterns of Fuji.  And here I realized the first drawbacks of my Keens: as I had to walk upwards, I had no shoe support.  My Keens were flexible no matter how tight I fastened the strings.  At each step I slid back a bit and had to compensate by muscle.  By the time I was up the mountain, the backward slope had loosened my shoes by a good 1.5 inches.  OK, this was a challenge, but I managed.  As long as the soles would hold…  In more than one blog online I had read that people who came with the wrong shoes lost one, even both soles!  Now that is something I can’t quite fathom.  The back strap of my Keens was key.  It held!

 

Between 6th and 7th I met Carolyn and Fred.  Carolyn was in good shape, but Fred and I experienced serious symptoms of altitude adjustment.  We had to stop often, and breathe in deeply.  Most people passed us, but the three of us joined.  We had about the same hiking tempo.  I was happy not to be the slowest on the mountain and the only one who got dizzy.  It was nice to have some companionship.

Just before the 7th station the mountain changes character.  From here to the 8th station, it is a steep hike all over uneven volcanic rock.  The official time estimate is 100 minutes.  As we were resting, Curtis and Andrea from Australia caught up with us.  I had met them at the bus.  Andrea was quite concerned about this whole endeavor.  Curtis had talked her into it and she went along for being a good sport.  I had spotted them from our resting bench and I could tell that things were not going well when the path changed to the volcanic rock.  Andrea panicked.  By the time she and Curtis reached the station she was white in her face and determined not to go a step further.

But when you are at the 7th station and you have a hut reservation at the 8th you are somewhat in a bind.   We tried our best to calm her down and after some snacks, some rest and some assurance that there would always be one of us ahead of her and one of us in back to lend her a hand, she agreed to continue.

Surprisingly enough, the next 2.5 hours of volcano climbing were my favorite stretch of the day.  Finally, the boring upward slope had stopped.  My Keens were doing well on the rock.  It was most of all a puzzle where to put your feet, where to hold on to the rock to pull yourself up, where to put the walking stick to lend you a “hand”.

Like most every tourist climber, I had purchased a walking stick.  It works two ways: as aid in the climb and as proof that you have done the hike.  At every station there is a vendor who, for a price, will stamp your stick.  We saw some serious stamp collectors who in addition to the station stamps were collecting stamps from different huts.  The more serious hikers had two sticks (indeed even better than one) and they were not made out of wood, like the touristy ones, but looked more like the poles you use for skiing.  In any case, I had a wooden pole and was grateful for it.  A case in point how different things are for different people — on one blog I had read a strong voice against the stick.  The woman writing felt that it was nothing but an encumbrance.  I appreciated having it.  You just have to find out for yourself.

As we were pushing forward towards the 8th station, Andrea’s situation went from bad to worse.  She had panic attacks more frequently and was worried about her back.  This was a serious strain on anyone’s physical condition and she was not taking it well.  At 8th station she refused to go one step further.  But our hut — we coincidentally had booked the same overnight hut — was at station 8.5.  Carolyn and Fred, who were booked at 8th station along the way had bemoaned the fact that they had not booked at 8.5 as well since that would bring them that much closer to the summit in the morning.  I had the brilliant idea to switch out the two reservations; both parties would be served.  Andrea and Curtis could stay, Carolyn and Fred could move on.  But by that time Carolyn, who had done so well early on, caught up with us, and she had reached her physical limits, too.  She was going no farther either.

Breaking a reservation is a serious faux pas in Japanese culture.  We had been told this everywhere.  But Andrea was done.  The problem now was that they had spent most of their cash on buying wind jackets at station 5 counting on the hut accepting their visa card.  But our hut at 8.5 was the only one at the entire mountain to take credit cards.  Now there was not enough cash at hand for them to stay…  I parted with $50 of my precious cash as I could not fathom how Andrea would continue.  The plan was for her to wait out Curtis’ climb to the top in the morning and to descend without making it to the top.  She had met her match.

 

I was as exhausted as everyone else, but I had 80 more official minutes ahead and had lost my walking companions.  Not only that, if I would do this in 1.5 time, it would be dark.  There was no way I would walk in the dark even though I had a flashlight.  Everyone except me seemed to have reached their destination.  The path was empty and I was by myself going on.  I was quite depressed.

Out of nowhere there came a second wind.  I knew I had to walk faster than before.  And I did.  I no longer felt exhausted.  Before long, my depressive mood swung into excitement.  I was walking up Mount Fuji, all by myself!  I was already above 8th station.  I would make it.  I was euphoric!

Euphoria.  Oh no!  A conversation popped into my mind which I had with Mike at Okinawa.  We talked about altitude and how pilots in the Air Force undergo frequent tests to become familiar with their altitude symptoms in case of oxygen loss.  The only symptoms I have ever known were nosebleed and dizziness.  I had experienced them in Peru and the dizzy spells had been a serious problem further down today.  His symptom was euphoria, just before passing out.  I had never heard of that before but here I was experiencing it: oxygen-deprived euphoria.  High noon to sit down and breathe!

Thanks, Mike!  What would I have done if I had not met you?  I would not have recognized the danger of the moment.  Who knows what would have been next.

After I took a lot of deep breaths and had calmed down I pushed on.  My second wind stayed with me and I don’t know how, but I made the official 80 minutes in 60.  Before dark I reached Fujisan Hotel close to 8.5 station.  It was a miracle.  Bent over my stick, I was ready to collapse.  But here was food and warmth and the promise of a place to dry out my soaking wet clothes and rest.

My clothes…  Between 6th and 7th station it had started to rain.  I had put on my windbreaker and about 1/2 hour later I realized that I was soaking wet.  My jacket did not breathe and the heat from inside the jacket was trapped, moisture collected and was pushed back into my clothes, which did not absorb the moisture as my top layer was a silk shirt.  Temperatures had dropped into the single digits.  Being wet and cold is not a good formula for success.  The only dry item I had left was a long black shawl which was supposed to be for my head.  I wrapped it around my body to keep body heat in and to act as a sponge for all the moisture.  It sort of worked.  At the 7th station I had found a hut which had a propane heater going.  I got a stamp there just to be allowed entrance and asked if I could dry out my jacket.  A few minutes of that helped.  But the rain had not let up and by the time I reached 8.5 I was soaked through and through.

 

You have to adjust the definition of “hotel” by a longshot to get a picture of this, the most fancy hut on the mountain.  Three rows of benches served as dinner tables.  Only a few people were hanging out and I found out why.  The minute I had finished my last bite, a guy ushered me to my bed.  But I wanted to stay and hang out.  No.  It was only 7 PM.  No way I could sleep yet.  But I had to go.

Above the dining room there were two levels of sleeping-boxes.  Literally, hundreds of sleeping bags were lined up side by side on two levels left and right of a small central path. When these huts are filled to capacity — and they are — each person has to get into the bag, put their hands by their sides and sleep.  There is no way to even turn!  Since the hut was only filled to about 1/4 capacity, they gave us one free space between people.  This meant that I could angle my arms under my head and pull up my knee occasionally without bumping into my neighbor.  That was a treat I fully appreciated after seeing the alternative.

If ever a fire breaks out in one of those huts there would be a lot of deaths. There is no way people could evacuate orderly in a place like this.  Given my anxiety of closed spaces and my dislike of close physical proximity to strangers, this was not a good site.  I was led to “bed” #9.  A young American guy in #7 was unpacking.

“Looks like we are going to be bed fellows tonight”, I said.  “Want to hang out for a beer?”  You don’t get away with a line like this very often…   I have no idea what Matt really thought about me.  He was a rather introverted, almost shy guy.  But he agreed and we had a beer together.  He was another pilot with the military who was burning off some of his vacation time.  He had started the hike hours after me yet had reached the hut before me.  What else is new?  He was contemplating a night hike or the early morning hike up the mountain.  He was one of those “made for this kind of a hike” type of guys, young and in great physical shape.

The hut was not heated.  I was able to switch out my wet pants for one pair of dry pants I had left.  But my upper body was still shivering and all my clothes were damp.  It dawned on me that hot sake would be a lot more appropriate than a cold beer.  And so we kept chatting about climbing options and topped the beer with sake.

The weather forecast was predicting heavy rain until about 9 AM.  There was no way I was going out into the rain again if I did not have to.  I was determined to wait for it to stop.  When I inquired about how long I could sleep, the hut attendant seemed puzzled.  There was the 2:30 AM wake-up call and there was the 4:00 AM wake-up call.  One was for the climbers who wanted to see the sunrise at the top, the others for those who were content to watch it from the station.  “What if I want to sleep until 9 AM?”  Absolutely not!  He categorically shook his head.  Is 7 AM OK?  7 AM was his final offer.

We had been given a plastic bag for our wet clothes and shoes — the kiss of death for my rain jacket.  There was no heat, no hanger, no nothing to dry out clothes.  How could I continue in single digit weather with wet clothes?  I nearly despaired.  Matt recommended to line up all my clothes into my sleeping bag to dry them out.  Brilliant.  I packed my clothes all around me.  I stuffed my soaking wet Keens with both ends of my shawl and wrapped them in a cloth bag.  It was merely 8 PM when with my cold Keens between the bag and my butt, I fell asleep.

Good night.