I climbed Mount Fuji for the 4th time Thursday night. I took a couple of exchange students from Taiwan who showed up completely unprepared. They were wearing fashionable shoes and carrying light jackets. I had some extra gear in the car, but they came late. I had to quickly decide whether to cancel or catch the train. I’m sure they could hear the frustration in my voice as I threatened to call it off, but their desire to go won me over. I called my wife who ran to the station turnstyles with some gloves, hats, and scarves, and we departed.
Climbers outside one of the mountain huts on the way up Mount Fuji
I realized later it was completely my fault. Mostly. I had assumed they would have a clue about hiking and mountains, so I had given them quick instructions over the phone: bring jackets (cold on top), wear sturdy shoes, bring food and water (very expensive to buy on the mountain), and put it all in a backpack. Nothing connected, and the listener didn’t understand the word “backpack” (in English or Japanese). I should have given them a packing list in advance, and had them meet at my apartment 45 minutes early to make sure everything was in order.
Inside a mountain hut on Mount Fuji
At least they had rain coats, purchased at the 100 yen shop, and food and water. One of them had a leather backpack, and the other carried a small handbag plus a plastic grocery bag. I didn’t feel bad for them, though, because I had at least 20 pounds on my back, including my camera, coat, pants, and lots of extra food and water. I decided early on that I wouldn’t wear the coat. If it was cold enough to need it, then I would loan it to someone else. If we got desperate, we could always seek shelter inside one of the mountain huts for a price. I’ve never been inside one, so I don’t know what that price is. (I think it’s at least 5000 yen (about $50) if you want to sleep, and less to sit in the warmth and have some instant coffee (about $5 a cup).
Outside a mountain hut
We were lucky in a way. It turned out to be a relatively warm night. I never took my coat out of the pack. I wore shorts and a short sleeve shirt most of the way, even though most climbers looked like they were dressed for a blizzard. As long as we kept walking, we didn’t get cold. I eventually put on nylon sweat pants and a polypropolene shirt over my t-shirt.
4:15am on the top of Mount Fuji
We made it to the top in time for sunrise. The only trouble is that the summit was covered in clouds. All we saw was gray mist becoming brighter. We can probably thank the clouds, and the related lack of wind, for keeping us warmer than usual. I can say from experience that the top gets quite cold even in August.
Check out how the people in the photo are dressed.
At least half the people climbing Mount Fuji use Fuji Sticks. You can buy them at the beginning of the climb (most people start at one of the “5th Station” sites encircling the base). They are also for sale at mountain huts along the way and on the summit. You pay a base price for the stick, which I didn’t check this time. At each station, you can have the stick “branded” with the station name and elevation. Of course, most people have their sticks marked when the reach the top, where I took the photo above. Each marking costs 200 or 300 yen ($2 or $3 dollars).
I had my first Fuji Stick branded at the summit. The next year my father-in-law turned that stick into a door stop (to “lock” the sliding front door of their home). I discovered my stick in this condition later. My second Fuji Stick I left in the car, because I was bringing a tripod and didn’t want to deal with it.
Climbers arriving at the top of Mount Fuji
(Can you spot the foreigner?)
During August the last section of trail is extremely crowded just prior to sunrise. We climbed during a holiday, so it was even more packed than I’ve seen it before. It was stop and go before we reached the second of the huts that comprise the 8th Station, and I was convinced we’d never make it on time for the sunrise.
The trails up Mount Fuji are one-way. There is an “up” trail and a “down” trail. On my 2nd ascent, I swore I saw lights going UP the “down” trail. This time I had my eyes open. The trails briefly converge at a couple of points along the 8th Station. This time I clearly saw lights on the “down” trail, so I took an opportunity and switched over. It turned out that several large groups, led by guides, were using that trail. We passed them one by one, and eventually made it to the top in good time — lesson learned!
Beer, or a bottle of beer for your pet?
The hardest part of climbing Mount Fuji is coming down. Well, that’s how it is for me. I’ve seem some totally wiped out people on top, and I don’t know what became of them. There is no easy way down. I saw a man half carrying his friend, who appeared to be unconscious. A kid puked right next to me, and his father casually remarked “altitude sickness.” I wonder how much of this “sickness” is psychological, or due to being physically unfit and staying up all night, but regardless you have to get yourself down somehow.
My experience was painful and slow. I realized my shoes are too small. My toes hurt, and it seemed to take forever. Actually, the Taiwanese students with their fashionable shoes were descending in baby steps. It took us at least 5 hours. We finished in a drizzling rain under a gray sky. I just wanted it to end. I started to ask one of the students: “Do you believe in hell?” But I thought my sarcasm would be lost, so I kept the thought to myself. I started composing poems about how horrible it was. I resolved never to climb Mount Fuji again, but I know I’ll have to break that vow some day to take my wife and kids.
For a more positive, uplifting, and detailed guide, read this: Climbing Mount Fuji in August, My Story and Tips