Climbing Mount Fuju

Originally printed in the Clear Lake Courier — 3 September 1997

Mount Fuji, at 12,388 feet above sea level, is the highest and most famous mountain in Japan. Climbing it is a popular sport for residents and visitors alike. Many Japanese climb annually as a religious pilgrimage, spending the night on the mountain to watch the sun rise. The climbing season consists of July and August–and even in early July, it’s possible to run into sleet near the top.

The climb begins at the Fifth station, a typical tourist collection of shops and restaurants, located 7700 feet above sea level and shortly below the tree line. When the temperature is 80 degrees at the base of the mountain, it can be expected to be 60 degrees at the Fifth station and 40 degrees at the summit.

Expecting sunshine this last Monday in July, I wore shorts and a T-shirt. But prepared for worse weather, I carried a windbreaker and plastic rain cape in my backpack, along with cookies and bagels and two liters of water.

Cold, wet wind whipped around us when we stepped off the bus at the Fifth station and hurried into the closest shop. There we joined the crowd to buy our “Fuji sticks.” These unfinished wood climbing sticks, 57 inches long and just over an inch in diameter, cost 1000 yen (about $8.70) and came adorned with bells or Japanese or American flags. They would be souvenirs once we collected stamps from various stations on the way to the top of the mountain.

The cold wind convinced me to follow the advice of others and spend 1100 yen on a pair of long plastic pants to protect my legs. I also put on my windbreaker and plastic rain cape.

We set out at 8:30 AM. After a twenty-minute walk along a road filled with people going in both directions, we reached the Sixth station. There we each paid 200 yen to get our Fuji sticks stamped with a branding iron.

Protected from the wind along this stretch, I had already removed the plastic pants, rain cape and windbreaker. I preferred the light drizzle to sweating from being overdressed.

Now we started the actual climb. The crushed lava rock trail zigzagged up the mountainside, with switchbacks to lessen the incline. As we climbed above the tree line, the wind increased again and I put the rain cape over my wet T-shirt and backpack.

Each time we came to a hut, we took out 200 yen for another stamp. Because our sticks were so wet, the workers dried them over the fire before branding them. It became progressively harder to step out of the warm huts into the cold drizzle. It also became increasingly difficult for our cold hands to dig yen coins out of backpacks.

As we climbed higher, the trail turned to solid rock, with chains on metal rods drilled in the rock face to show us the path. By the time it improved again to an actual zigzag trail, the air was getting thinner and every step was exhausting. We’d walk a few steps, then rest, then climb a bit more.

At this point I was climbing with two men from my group. We came out of one warm hut, with the seventh stamp on our Fuji sticks, and looked up to see a fork in the trail. A Japanese couple coming down one fork assured us we were only an hour from the top. But we were unsure of the trail and couldn’t see where we were going, because of the fog and rain.

If one of us said, “Let’s go to the top,” the other two would have followed. No one wanted to be a quitter. No one said, “I’m turning back.” It was more like, “If you want to turn back, that’s fine with me.” So we did.

We turned around at noon, at an altitude of 11,000 feet. I had bought a disposable panoramic camera to take photos, but without a view, a major reason for going to the top had been defeated. I didn’t take any photos at all. The idea of removing my backpack one more time, and trying to get my numb fingers to manipulate a camera, was too difficult to contemplate.

After going up for three and a half hours, we spent two and a half on the descending trail. Although frequently sheltered from the wind, we sometimes walked down switchbacks that were like wind tunnels. I then had to use my stick to keep from falling forward or sliding on the lava rock surface, which reminded me of several inches of loose wet gravel.

I tried to ignore the stones in my shoes, knowing more would take their place if I found the energy to bend down and remove them. The rain stopped when we were halfway down the mountain and the wind also let up.

Back in the bus, we waited several hours for the last climbers to return. Ten of thirty went all the way to the summit. Misery never seems as bad after it’s over. At the time, however, getting to the top just wasn’t worth the effort.

Six hours of mountain trails, followed by two days of sore muscles, told me I’d experienced Mount Fuji. Perhaps I’ll go again when the weather is good, to see the view and take photographs.

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