or “How not to climb Mt Fuji in September”
**I’ve read many reviews by people that loved the climb. I’ve spoken to many who didn’t. I’m not a mountain climber by any stretch of the imagination so bear in mind that this is the experience of a complete amateur.**
The climbing season for Mt Fuji generally runs from early July to mid-September (it finished Sep 10th in 2016). I climbed Mt Fuji Sep 6th and followed the classic budget tourist itinerary; a straight through, non-stop “bullet climb”. The idea is to start your climb from the 5th station (this is the most common starting point, where buses from Tokyo and elsewhere will drop you off) in the afternoon/night and make it to the summit in time for sunrise, which is around 5am (varies depending on time of year).
That’s all well and good. The alternative would be to book in at one of the many lodges at any of the stations before the summit (stations 6, 7, 8 or 9) for 4-5 hours of sleep before getting up and going again in time for sunrise at the top. I’ve got no qualms with missing a night’s sleep in order to experience something unique so decided to save money on the stopovers. As for some other concerns, here is how I addressed them ahead of the climb:
Fitness and altitude:
I’m no expert mountaineer but am in reasonable shape (round is a shape!). I’d previously summited a 6,075 m (19,931 ft) mountain in Peru and really struggled with the last 100m or so due to the altitude but thought that the 3,776 m (12,388 ft) at Mt Fuji shouldn’t be a problem (heck, I’ve run around having water gun fights with Bolivian school children at 4,050 m (13,287 ft) in the town of Potosi – I figured I was basically a Sherpa!).
Food and water:
I was bringing my big backpack with me so had plenty of room to fit in a 2L water bottle and some gummy lollies. I didn’t figure I’d need much else and, if I did, I’d heard the various stations on the way up sold tea and instant noodles.
This was a key sticking point for Ornella when deciding whether to climb or not. Looking at the forecasts in the week leading up to the chosen date all we saw was rain at the top and temperatures very close to freezing – it didn’t sound pleasant at all. I wasn’t going to be deterred though so I packed 2 extra pairs of socks, a hoodie, a spare t-shirt and bought a $20 cheap, plastic, non-breathing, pant/jacket rain suit that was probably a size or two too small.
I had everything in my backpack wrapped up in plastic bags for protection from wet and also had my backpacker poncho which covered myself and my backpack nicely. My basic running shoes were the only upgrade I had from my thongs (flip-flops) so those would have to do.
Ornella wisely decided against joining me so my little solo-expedition set off from Tokyo at about 3pm on a Tuesday afternoon, taking a walking stick I’d found at the hostel with me.
Basically, each of the three main concerns reared their ugly heads at me along the trip, some more than once. I started my climb around 6:30pm with my headlight on. The climb begins fairly gradually as you make your way mostly across the mountain before a kick-off point sends you into a steeper ascent. It was still warm out at this point and it didn’t take long for me to work up a sweat, even though I was only wearing shorts and a singlet (tank top). After an hour I was thoroughly soaked through and the temperature began to drop. I had to duck into a bath room to change out of my now freezing clothing and put on the ill-fitting rain suit.
I was well ahead of schedule if the ascent was really to take 6 hours so at the next station I decided to take a little nap in the bathroom stall to take refuge from the howling wind that cut through my clothes and was freezing my fingertips and ears. This is very much against the rules but it turns out that the cabins will (mostly) not let you even enter if you are not paying full price ($50 – $70 w/wo meals) so there are very few places to get out of the elements for even a short time. I risked the $100 fine, sat on the loo (with the lid down) and caught about 30 minutes of sleep and thawed out.
It got colder and colder as I made my way slowly up the mountain, stopping at each station to catch my breath and shelter from the wind.
At the 8th station I bought a hot lemon tea to warm my insides since my water bottle wasn’t helping much. I lay down on a bench there, slightly sheltered from wind and rested for another half hour.
And then the rain started – that got me moving again!
It turns out that I’m not good with too great a change in altitude over a short period of time. That morning I had been at basically sea level and to now be exerting myself 3km above that was almost too much for my body to take. My climb was a lot slower than many of the other people that I met on Mt Fuji. I seemed to need breaks much more frequently and to need them to last a lot longer. Mt Fuji is definitely a CLIMB, not a hike. There are very many portions of the trail that require you to use your hands as you force your way up. The sheer physical effort required combined with a lack of altitude acclimatisation (hopefully I’ve learned my lesson) slowed me down immensely.
Ok, skipping through probably 3 more hours of misery (and 20 minutes of happiness inside a cabin with some ramen!), I’m now at the final 400m or so of the trek before the summit. I’d estimate that this took me at least another hour to get through, not only because I was a shell of a human at this point, but because nearly everyone on the mountain wants to arrive at the same time and the single file line to the top was now at least 400m long. Movement had been reduced to a shuffle of 3 steps and a break repeating over and over as the logjam of hundreds made its way ever onwards. This suited me fine, by the way; I couldn’t have moved more than three steps without pause even if the track was clear!
I couldn’t push myself to make the summit for sunrise, but it didn’t matter. I wasn’t far from it and climbing on the Eastern slope meant I could look towards the sunrise the same as those at the top. We were surrounded by cloud so there wasn’t anything to see anyway – I still haven’t seen Mt Fuji besides the rocks that went under my hands and feet as I climbed up!
I made it, in the end (I think it took me 10-12 hours instead of the prescribed 6 hours). The wind was at its worst at the top and there was a 20 minute line to get into the only warm place that was selling food and drink.
Once I got in I think it took a good half hour to defrost and I ordered more ramen and hot chocolate (I don’t even like chocolate) just so they wouldn’t kick me out. What a miserable experience.
Eventually, I gathered up the courage to head back out into the mess and start my descent. I was encouraged by the fact that I had a set time to catch my bus back to Tokyo from Station 5. It was certainly much easier going down, really just like walking down a steep, gravelly hill. Eventually I made it out of the cloud and the sun instantly turned my cheap rain suit into a smouldering sauna. I stripped to my underwear in the middle of the trail and put on shorts and a singlet (tank top) again. After several hours of descent, we encountered a flat portion for a while, followed by the final kilometer… uphill! Needless to say, this final climb, however slight in comparison to the rest of the hike, did not put me in a great mood. Uphill finishes are the worst.
Success! Miserable, freezing, soaking, aching success!! I caught the bus back to Tokyo – everyone onboard fell asleep during the ride (except the driver of course). I made it back to the hostel, gave Ornella a kiss, told her I hated it and was glad she didn’t come, and went to sleep.
Should you climb Mt Fuji late in the season?
Apparently there’s a Japanese proverb: “Everyone should climb Mount Fuji once; only a fool would climb it twice.” I wholeheartedly agree, with the second part. Five weeks after the whole ordeal I can honestly say I’m glad that I did it but will never attempt something like that again so unprepared. The effects of altitude are so miserable and when you combine that wicked winds, sideways rain and near-freezing temperatures, only the fully prepared climbers can fully enjoy the experience. Absolutely DO NOT go for the sunrise if there’s even a hint of cloud cover at the top in the forecasts – the earlier in the season the better for clear skies.
Things to do differently:
- Climb earlier in the season, in an extended clear weather window.
- Bring good quality, waterproof clothing that fits well.
- Book a stay in one of the huts. The “bullet climb” is a tough ask and can be dangerous.
- Spend AT LEAST 2 hours at Station 5 before climbing to get used to the altitude
- Go with a friend. Some encouraging words and company would help to make the experience more enjoyable all around!