2014
07.14

SYNOPSIS:  A continuation of yesterday’s blog.  About the final push up and the slippery slide down.  About the overall appearance of Fuji when you look at it up close.  For reassurance:  Not as long a blog as yesterday.   Some travel specs.

 

Where was I?  Yes, I had crawled into to the sleeping bag with all my wet stuff around 8 PM.  I generated so much heat and the arctic sleeping bags we had were trapping it well, that by morning I had dried out all of my clothes and the shoes on top of it.  This was a promising new start.

We were lucky.   What I heard about other hut experiences did not sound so good.  They had no sleeping bags, only blankets.  They had no foam mattresses, only the wooden floors…  That is the payoff for the big bucks we had paid at luxury Fujisan Hotel and I have to say that 11 hours of a warm night put me back in good shape.

I did not sleep for 11 hours as there was the 2:30 AM commotion: the wake-up call came with the broken English add on:  “Walk — no recommend!”  Didn’t these people hear?  No.  There was the whisper and the getting up and the packing of stuff by many people.  Are they nuts?  The rain is pouring, it is dark, there will be no sun rise — what are they thinking?  But they went.

Then there was the 4:00 AM wake-up call.  Just about everybody got up except three of us, including Matt.  I was surprised.  And finally, there was the 7 AM ultimatum.  Now I understood why Matt had not gotten up:  he had the chills and was feeling awful.  But he packed and off he went.  I went down to order something — anything, just to milk this hut for as much time as I could.  The rain had not yet stopped yet, but I was sure that every minute I could delay the final ascent was going to work in my favor.

By 8 AM I got kicked out.  And wouldn’t you believe it — it was still raining, but for a few moments the sun broke through and illuminated the mountain in brilliant colors.  Everything had been so gray up to that point.  This was a very good start indeed even if it did not last.

By the time I finally was ready to go up, the 2:30 AM people had made it back down.  They looked horrible!  Soaked, exhausted and disappointed.  For hours they had had nothing but darkness and rain.  Visibility up there was zero.  I felt sorry for them but I also thought about how foolish it was in the first place to walk up there fully knowing the weather condition and hearing experienced people say:  Walk — no recommend.   Oh well…

The sun had just been a brief teaser; soon the rain started, but only lightly.  Every step was work again.  Even the people who passed me looked like they were sliding by in slow motion.  The climb was steep and the air got thinner and thinner.  The photo of me at the 9th station is but a small indicator of the final challenges.  All that rest and stored-up energy of a full night was sucked out of me within about an hour.  But after 2 hours I had made it to the top.

The rain had stopped, but the clouds were hanging so low that I was surrounded by moisture anyhow.  The entire 10th station was boarded up.  No services, no food, not even a toilet was open.  That was a shock.

Oh, the toilets…!  On the entire mountain there is not a single facility that allows you as much as to wash your hands.  Wet-wipes to the rescue.  There is no brushing teeth — multiple signs warn you about even to think of it and the fines you pay if caught.  The use of these bio-toilets costs you $2.  I have no problem with that.  But when the Fujisan “Hotel” to whom I had paid a whopping $80 to sleep like a sardine on the floor, also charged me $2 for every use of the toilet, I was pissed!

You have to hand it to Japanese organization though.  At the 5th station way back, we each had been handed a portable toilet.  I had not fully understood its significance, but for someone who reached the 10th station with certain needs and found it all closed, this may have been the ultimate savior.  For me, it will be a souvenir I will bring back.

I stood at the edge of the crater — or what I believed to be the crater — and there was nothing but fog.  But then there was a strong wind…  Would it perhaps blow the clouds away?  I could not believe it, but there was the first hole in the clouds.  I could see that I stood at the edge of the crater, but I could not see far.  Just a little more wind, please, please!

The miracle happened: the wind came and opened up the cloud cover exposing the crater to full view.  Just enough for me to see down and across and to take one round of pictures.  I was all by myself at the top of Mount Fuji looking into the brightly-lit crater of a mighty volcano!

Another wave of euphoria came over me, this time for real.  Of all the ill-suited, and ill-equipped people, and all by myself, I had made it!  And for all the idiocy and fear of doing this in the first place and all the hardship — this will be one of the most memorable things I have ever done.

By the time I found another person to take my picture, the crater had already begun to shroud itself in clouds again.

My original plan was to circle the crater on a 90-minute path.  But much of the path was still blocked off and once the clouds had come in again, there was just no point in wasting more time up there in the cold.

There was still the descent…

 

Again, you can ask different people and you will get different advice.  One thing makes sense to me: don’t go down the way you came up.  That steep climb on the volcanic rock will take a serious toll on anyone’s knees.  My German friend Marcos, an experienced climber whom I had met in Geru, did it that way and reported back-pain days later.   When I was going up I saw a mother and a 7 year old boy turn around and climb down this way.  This may have been a nightmare in the making we will never hear about.  She had miscalculated time, food supplies, clothing and all, had a child in tow, and was going the wrong way…!

Speaking of stories: Matt, who had left earlier than I had in the morning was nowhere to be seen.  When I came down from the peak I finally ran into him.  He was so sick that he could no longer carry his pack.  He had to rest at one of the huts and left it behind.  As we were talking he sank down onto a rock and looked like a heap of misery.  But he was determined to continue.  I wonder if  he made it or if he got even sicker and had to give up.  He will have his own story to tell.

I don’t know what happened to Carolyn and Fred.  But I heard from Andrea.  The next morning she and Curtis continued and she tried once more.  But at 8.3 she could not go on and both of them turned back.  I thought of them when I turned down at 8.3.  I had hoped that at least one of them would have made it to the top.  Perhaps, next time.

I followed the suggested route which splits off at the top and at 8.3.  The top path was still under construction.  The 8.3 route was freshly done; ready for the onslaught of the multitudes.  But I was among the first few hundred, even a few thousand to go down, and the road was still made up of 3-5 inches of freshly churned gravel.  The path is steep and zigzags again.  In the distance you could hear the heavy machinery which was plowing the road.

The unthinkable happened: I found myself running down this damn mountain.  Gravity pulls you and if you try to walk, you will constantly fight with it.  I was not running fast, but taking lots of fast small jogging steps to outpace the slippery material.  At the end of each zig and zag the road was plowed with a slight upswing so that you could slow down and come to a standstill.  It was like one of those sandpits for trucks that might roll out of control.  This was ridiculous.

Of course, once in a while you would still have a big slip and would have to counter it by jerking your back.  That was no fun.  And if you didn’t jerk fast enough you would fall.  I was not the only one falling.  I saw two guys going down.  One of whom had so much speed running that when he fell he kept tumbling down.

After my second (and thankfully last) fall I started to curse this mountain.  And after hours of running ziggetyzag down that mountain I was so done with it, I did not even have the energy to express my anger any more.  My third major drawback of doing this trip in Keens also became obvious (the first the slide back, the second getting wet feet and socks):  the gravel got caught in my shoes.  I either had to dump it out at every zig and zag or I had to keep running with gravel in my shoes.  To save some time I did both.  Once again I was passed by dozens of younger and faster climbers, many of whom had been at the crater after me.  I asked everyone who spoke English what they had seen.  None of them, none (!) had seen the crater.  I could not believe my luck of timing.

I had started the descent at 10:30.  By 3 PM I was at the 5th station boarding the bus.  I could hardly get up the steps my knees were so wobbly…  Once again, I had needed time and 1/2 — mainly do to my Keen shoes.  But without a broken bone I made it back.

So much about me — so little about the mountain.  Here is the surprising thing: despite all the mystique and cult admiration Fuji is showered with, it is one of the ugliest places I have ever seen — that is, above 5th station. If it were rugged volcanic rock, that would be one thing.  But it is gravel that has been scarred and mutilated by the zig-zag paths, by the ugly makeshift looking huts with metal roofs that are pinned down with heavy rocks and worst of all by some bunker-like looking structures.  I can only guess that these are to control the avalanches in the winter or perhaps tumbling rocks.   Mount Fuji can only be admired in its beauty from the distance.  When you get close to it, the appeal is gone.  It is no longer about the mountain.  Climbing Fuji is about you and ultimately, your interaction with the mountain.

One final act had to be done before boarding the bus — I was looking for a deserving person to pass on my stick.  There was no way in hell I was going to ship this thing back.  All I need for myself are my photos and my memories.

If I ever need any, I will google all the great photos luckier climbers have taken of Mount Fuji.  From here on out I will keep my distance from this mountain and I swear to never return.  Do I regret going on this hike?  Definitely not.

I can google all the photos in the world.  But I can’t google this experience.

 

P.S.  For what it’s worth, here are the climbing specs.  Perhaps, they will help somebody else in the planning:

Physical conditions and gear:  Inexperienced, middle-aged, out of shape.  Lack of hiking shoes.

Weather conditions:  Frequent rain during ascent, downpour over night, cloudy with occasional brief spurts of sun during day two.

Day One – Time for ascent:  Start at Kawaguchiko at 10 AM.  Departure from 5th Station at 11:30 AM.  Arrival at 8.4th Station (Fujisan Hotel) at 6:30 PM.  Total travel and climbing time, including all breaks and rests:  8.5 hours.

Day Two – Time for final ascent and descent:   Departure at Fujisan Hotel 8 AM.  At the crater at 10 AM.  1/2 hour at the crater. Decent via suggested return route.  Reached 5th Station at 3 PM.  Reached Kawaguchico at 4 PM.  Total climbing and travel time, including all breaks and rests:  8 hours.

Brochures typically advertise the climb (up and down) as doable in 10 hours.  Not counting the two bus hours, it took me 14.  I was almost right on with the time and a half I had given myself.

Go Fuji!