Sunday, September 13, 2009

Unfinished business

Standing at 3,776 m (12,388 ft), Mount Fuji or Fuji-san is the highest mountain in Japan and possibly the country's most famous icon (yes, even more than "Hello Kitty", can you believe?). Its perfect cone shape and flattened volcanic top makes it distinct from all the rugged mountain peaks surrounding it and about 180,000 people make this climb during the summer months each year.

The saying goes that you are wise to climb Fuji-san once, but a fool to climb it twice. I confess to thinking that such a saying did not bode well for the enjoyment of the experience. However, it clearly had to be done!

The traditional way to hike this route is to take a bus up to the 5th station at the half-way mark (2,300 m) and then climb up to the 8th station at around 3,200 m. At that point you wait until it is the middle of the night and then ascend the remaining 500 m to see daybreak at the summit. My friend and I decided to embrace conformity and the masses and signed on for a tour trip to do exactly this.

Even at the beginning of September, the very tail end of the season, the climb is a popular one and there were forty people on our tour bus and we were far from alone. 5th station is strongly reminiscent of a skiing village, with a handful of chalet-type buildings providing food, postcards and amenities clustered around a central square. From here, gate posts mark the entrance to the official climbing routes.

We set off from 5th station at around 11 am, having stayed for an hour adjusting to the altitude. As all good tourists, we purchased wooden sticks that served the duel nature of being a walking aid and a souvenir for which major check points en-route offered a branding service to mark off your altitude achievements.

The first part of the climb was easy going on wide trail routes but somewhat uninspiring. Clouds masked the view and the ground underfoot was gray volcanic rock. Maintenance work added caterpillar trucks and in many places, concrete structures had been placed to protect against falling rock and help preserve the path from the thousands of tourists traipsing along its length.

Upon reaching the 7th station (2,700 m), all this changed. Glancing behind me, I was greeted with a view that soared over the clouds, dwarfing even the other neighbouring mountain tops. It was suddenly easy to see why Fuji-san is considered a Holy Mountain; you genuinely feel you might be approaching the gods themselves. The climb also increased in difficulty. Between the 7th and 8th stations, the route became a rocky scramble where making like a wolf and using all four limbs became the way forward. Fortunately, the weather was beautiful so the rock under foot (and hand) was dry and sturdy.

While I normally would have balked at the prospect of walking in a large group, there were several advantages: The first was knowing you had the correct route. Balancing my stick between thumb and forefinger while I groped for a handhold might have had me in doubts that this really was the way to go if I'd been alone. The second was the easy pace our guide set, with multiple stopping points that allowed rest and water. Left to my own devices, I would probably have zoomed off faster and then paid for it later. Unfortunately, these breaks were not enough to prevent my friend getting altitude sickness and even the cans of oxygen we had scooped up at 5th station did not relieve the problem. I actually felt very well, which proves such things are just dumb luck.

The 8th stations at 3,200 m consists of a long bunk house with a small attached shop. Into this our group piled, as did many others as the evening went on. It was now between 3:30 - 4 pm and we were to stay put until 3 am before heading for the summit to watch the dawn at 5:30 am. Rest was recommended and beds in the form of huge long bunks were provided. Roughly ten people slept top and bottom in each bed which was .... cozy! Blankets were all shared, so there was no obvious space to mark out as your own, you just had to snuggle up with your best buddies that you almost certainly met for the first time 1000 m below.

Food, in the form of curry and rice, was provided and we were given strict warnings that the next stretch was going to be tough. At night the temperatures drop to below freezing, so waiting for people is not an option; we should therefore think carefully about whether we feel able to continue up to the summit. Sadly, I had to admit at this point that it did not look good for us. My friend had gone a nasty sour milk colour and I didn't like our chances of being reunited if I left her to head down alone come daybreak. We had until 3 am to decide, but I was bracing myself for knowing the summit was out of our reach this time.

By 2 am the whole question became academic; it had started to rain at 8th base which became snow further up, making the route impassable. We all had to head down at 5:30 am.

The gray mist prevented us seeing any kind of decent sunrise, but after 12 hours in a cramped bunk house I was just glad to be moving! Once on the path, the sun brightened and the rain lifted to a light drizzle allowing us to enjoy the view.

Hurray for sunshine!

An exclamation cut somewhat short by a ferocious gust of wind that knocked me clean off my feet. But there, it would have been boring if there were no challenges going down.

On the way back to Tokyo, our bus stopped at an onsen where we could strip off (all) our walking gear and soak in the hot springs. Closing my eyes in the hot water, I admitted it was a great shame not to have reached the summit of Fuji-san. Clearly, this was a sign I had to return to Japan and try again.

1 comment:

  1. Let me know when you want to go back, sounds like an amazing trip!