This past weekend I did one of the most challenging and foolish things I have done since I got to Japan; I climbed Mt. Fuji! I say foolish because who in their right mind would subject themselves to climbing a snow covered volcano in the pitch-black of night, in the rain for 15 hours straight?! I am not a hiking or mountain climbing enthusiast, but it seems like for foreigners who live in Japan climbing Mt. Fuji is just one of those things that you have to do.
I am not quite sure who decided this practice, but the most common way to climb Mt. Fuji is to start at 6pm and climb all night long so that you can arrive at the top in time for sunrise at 4:30am. While it is great to see the sunrise from the top of Mt. Fuji I don’t see how climbing the mountain in the middle of the night is seen as a good idea.
Before making the trek I had minimal knowledge of the climb and just figured that since so many people make the climb each year, and since this is practical Japan, that it would pretty much just be a paved staircase with lights for most of the hike. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The trail is far more treacherous than I expected which is further complicated by the changing elements.
I went because a friend of mine wanted to go and as I said before I had always thought that I should do it once while I am here in Japan. We went with a tour group that left by bus from Kyoto. I have to say that a 7 hour bus ride is not the best thing for body and mind before a long trek. So we arrived about half way up the mountain where the paved roads end at 2,305 meters (7,562 feet). At this elevation the clouds and mist are so thick that you can barely see 10 ft in front of you. The hike starts from this point up to the peak of Mt. Fuji at 3,776 m (12,388 ft).
One of the great things about going with the tour group was that they had lined up a hearty dinner for us before the start of the hike. After dinner and final preparations we set off with our guide who must have been at least 60 years old. He took us on a slow pace and thankfully stopped to let us rest frequently. The first 2 hours of the climb weren’t so bad as it was slowing inclining gravel and dirt paths. It was still light out at this point, but the fog, clouds and or mist made visibility pretty minimal and the condensation was high. So even though it wasn’t raining it was wet and slippery everywhere.
(Don't I look like a certain Hobbit on his way to Mordor?!)
I thought the path on Mt. Fuji would be like paved steps but it turned out to be a variety of treacherously steep and narrow paths, and climbing slippery rocks all in the dark with occasional rain and strong winds. Taking into account the 5-10 minute breaks we took along the way the first stage of the hike took us 5 hours up to about 3,200 m. We arrived at the lodge at 11 pm where we would get a bowl of rice and two hours of sleep in a large bunk-bed filled cabin. I slept like a rock in that cabin and awoke at 1 am for the remaining 3 hours of climbing to the top.
Towards the top it starting getting really windy and cold even though it’s the middle of the summer. The terrain wasn’t so scary but with all the large volcanic rocks and dirt it was still rough climbing. At this point we were far above the cloud line and once the sun starting rising the view was amazing. During the hike I thought it was madness to take a bunch of amateurs on a night climb over such difficult paths, but seeing the sun rise over the clouds from the top of a volcano made it all seem worth it.
Sitting on the top of Mt. Fuji after an 11 hour hike (minus 2 hours of sleep) I was surprised that my legs didn’t feel that tired and that the climb wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. After a victorious rest at the top we set off for the return hike down. After about 30 minutes of climbing down the steep and gravely paths my legs and knees started to burn. This is when I realized that the total hike would indeed turn out to be hard. For some reason climbing or hiking uphill isn’t so hard on my body, but hiking down is tough on my knees. The trip back was made torturously hard by the guide would told us it shouldn’t take more than about 2 hours when in reality it ended up taking 4 hours. It seems to be a rule on the mountain to lie and tell people half the actual time whenever asked how long it would take to reach a certain point. I admit that on the way up this was encouraging, but on the way down it really sucked. I just kept thinking, “He said 1 more hour but its already been 2 and we don’t even seem close yet.”
We finally made it back to the original starting point 15 hours after we set off. We had climbed 2,471 m (8,106 ft.) overnight with only 2 hours of sleep as rest. By the time we got back my legs and back were so tired, and while I really enjoyed the hike up and the challenge the return hike back down was harsh and I vowed that climbing Mt. Fuji once is quite enough. There is an old saying that roughly says, “To not climb Mt. Fuji is foolish, and to climb twice is foolish.”
All in all I did have a fun time climbing and the challenge of the terrain and the elements made for an exciting trek. The view from the top and the feeling of overcoming the difficult task was great. The climb up was not nearly as tiring as I thought it would be, but after the hike down I was just as tired as I imagined beforehand. If you have the desire to climb Mt. Fuji I would say it’s a great experience and that you should definitely do it! But if you asked me to go a second time I would say NO!