Saturday, August 3, 2013

Conquering Fuji

This post is probably one of my hardest to write because I don't know where to start or how to tell you about this. About a month ago Jessica asked me if I'd be willing to attempt Mt. Fuji with her and I eagerly jumped at the chance to attempt it with a friend rather than on my own later on. A week before Fuji I had yet to do any preparation other than to find a million websites offering suggestions on climbing Mt. Fuji. I also knew that my cash was going to be very tightly limited and that the trip was going to be expensive. I'll make some tips along the way, but this is a good starting site to check out if you're looking for a more in depth look at packing, the trails, etc.

A week before Fuji I had a major setback in the first of a couple that nearly ended the trip before it began. Exactly 7 days before my trip I slipped and fell down a flight of stairs on my back in the dormitory. While it wasn't bad enough to send me to the hospital it was enough to where I couldn't move and was stuck in the stairwell unable to move, feeling nauseous with my hearing and sight highly affected. Thankfully I didn't hit my head and the symptoms went away within about 20 minutes and some girls from the second and third floor along with the building manager helped me get back up from the second floor to my room.


While this experience laid me out for most of the week on self imposed bed rest there was a good side. I tasted absolutely delicious. I know, you're either dying of laughter and or highly confused right now. I'd made some Indian fry bread and coated it with sugar and was on my way downstairs to share with Briana when I slipped. The result of the fall was that I ended up covered from head to toe in more sugar than I swear had been on those things. It was an amusing result in an unfortunate situation at least.

Four days later I got out of bed and headed to meet Kyouka as scheduled for karaoke. This was challenging, but I was feeling okay afterwards so I headed over to the Don Quihote and picked up a can of oxygen and two of the two liter bottles of water for 78円 each and some random medical supplies between there and the 100円 store. I almost overdid it with carrying all of this and by the time I had made it back home I could barely move again.


Fast forward to the night before our trip. My original plan was to head to the Sumidagawa Fireworks Festival, but a forecast of heavy rain cancelled my trip. As I was watching the beginning of the festival on TV before preparing for the trip none other than the second most terrifying thing in all of the world decides to show up. Yup. Thunder storm. If you don't remember, I'm TERRIFIED beyond belief of thunder. I revert to the fetal position and crying for my mom when this happens. Some looks at weather forecasts showed that the following two days were supposed to be filled with heavy thunderstorms. I called Jessica and almost cancelled the trip on my part then and there, but left the final call until 7 am the next morning and did my preparations anyways.

Watching the festival on TV with Minami, Yumi and Kasane.
My preparations included packing a bento, some boiled eggs, onigiri and a trail mix of mixed salted nuts and chocolate covered peanuts along with one two liter of water and two normal size bottles of water into the hiking backpack I bought a couple of weeks ago in Osaka. Along with these went my medical supplies which included Ibuprofen, medical tape and ace bandages.Next went clothes with two layers of thermal pants, a thermal shirt, an overshirt, a sweatshirt and a rain coat. I also packed extra socks, gloves, a hat and headband to keep my ears warm. Of course the oxygen got added to the pack as well. I also made sure to pack everything and I mean everything in ziplock bags that I purchased at the 100円 store. If I remember any other odd trinkets I packed I'll add them later.

Post about bento coming soon!!
7 am rolled around the next day and I made the call, laced up my tennis shoes and headed out in my usual travel gear. You've seen it quite frequently actually. My black knee length pants and my red tank top with my wicked hat on top. Yeah, you remember that outfit, don't you? We rode a bus through Keio for 2,600円 one way to Mt. Fuji paying for both it and our return fare at the same time. After a 2 hour and 15 minute bus ride we arrived at the 5th station on the Yamanshi-ken side of Mt. Fuji.

We left from an EXTRAORDINARY bus stop.

At this point we took some time to gear up. We each bought a walking stick for 1,000円 each which seemed gimmicky but ended up saving us multiple times on the mountain. Note.

That stick. Right there. BUY IT!

If you are climbing Mt. Fuji buy the walking stick!

Or at least have some kind of walking/hiking stick. There are multiple places where it will help you not only pull yourself up knee high stairs, but will also assist in clambering over other obstacles you will face. After buying our stick we had to search for the 空の下 (Sora no Shita) pick up location because Jessica had reserved some hiking boots. After being told that there was no such shop at the fifth station we were able to, with some help, find the table they had set up behind the hiking gear store and before the temple. However, through some error on the company's part Jessica's reservation had been cancelled. Luckily they were able to accommodate not only her, but myself and our other companion, Joseph, in the rental of hiking boots.

See the hiking boots on our feet. Wear them.
Read here, note number two. Hiking boots are a must for climbing Mt. Fuji. 

The rental through 空の下 can be done online according to Jessica and you pay when you pick up your shoes. The cost to rent the shoes is 3,500円 regardless of whether you are out for one day or two. So long as the shoes are not damaged or lost (and you return before the time you specified) you will not incur extra fees. Well worth it considering the cheapest hiking boots I have found in Japan were running around 6,000-8,000円 in a size 24 cm. Size 28 cm was running around 12,000円 at all the places I checked. Our next stop was meal time. Jessica and Joseph hadn't brought lunch so we headed to a restaurant where they grabbed lunch for about 1,000円 each while I pulled out my salami and scrambled egg sandwich. Hey, no judging. Afterwards we proceeded towards the mountain trail.

My only regret is that I couldn't ride the horsy.

But can I pwetty pweeaaasseee ride the horsy!?!

Station 5-6 was the easiest of the stations by far. There is a long downward sloping portion which will leave you feel like you're heading the wrong way. Don't be alarmed. A few minutes down the road you'll reach a fork and the uphill path is yours. I remember thinking this was the steepest looking path ever at the time. Yeah right. Needless to say we were still full of energy and enthusiasm and other bright and optimistic feelings that had yet to be crushed by the mountain so we proceeded onwards.

To the summit!!
About 30 minutes after stepping onto the trail we reached station 6. Hey, if we can do this in 30 minutes this is going to be a cakewalk. Or so we though. At station 6 we sat down on the beautiful concrete slab next to the station's building and ate a bunch of snacks.

On our BEAUTIFUL concrete! Also, now might be a good time to mention I kind of hit myself in the face with my walking stick and received a battle injury.
Before I proceed with my story I want to say that the first day I had a lot of trouble with the thin air. It was to the point where I couldn't walk more than maybe 10 feet on level ground without having to stop to breath and let my heart rate slow down. Jessica and Joseph were very supportive and understanding through this and stopped frequently with me (yes, every 10 feet) while we pushed on. I was determined to make it to 7 without using my oxygen so I could save it for day 2 in case it was necessary. That aside, altitude sickness is not a joke and is the most serious consideration you should take into account when climbing Mt. Fuji. Anyways, back to station 6.

Need. Air.
So yeah. We picnicked at station 6, happily munched away and finally continued our ascent. From 6 to 7 took a bit longer because of my slow rate. I think, think it took us about 2 an a half - 3 hours to make it. Maybe more, maybe less. But you have to remember, I was having to stop every ten feet for a good 2-3 minutes. I think it's true when they say 2/3 of the time you spend climbing Fuji is time resting.

But we finally make it to 7 which looks so pretty and reminded us of a scene out of Howl's Moving Castle. We wonder if it's where Hayao Miyazaki got his inspiration for the movie while we're still below it.

Station 7 as seen from below it.
Once we reach it however, I was not a happy camper. I'll have to insert my video reaction to this portion at some point when this website lets me. But basically, the trail goes from annoying as all heck switchbacks with taller than life stairs to this.


Rock climbing. Yeah. Pretty much. So from the start of station 7 to the third hut where we stayed was rock climbing. We hated life, but it wasn't too bad and we made it without too much hassle. When we arrived at the hut it was about 6 pm so we grabbed our dinner which was a plastic container with rice, curry and a hamburger patty on top before heading into our bunk to sleep. The price of our stay including two meals for one night was 7,500円 and included toilet fees until we left. It looked like this inside with 6 people to a platform. We had the top platform right next to the door. Just about 11 pm - 1 am was the worst because next to the door was stairs down which people were stomping and everyone was going in and out of the door constantly. For some reason they all felt they needed to be as loud as possible, but finally I made it back to sleep.

Our bunk could technically accommodate 7, but I think they decided foreigners need extra room.
Since I mentioned it above, now is a good time to mention. Bring 100 yen coins for toilet fees. Yes the restrooms are on an honor system, but they charge about 200 yen for using the restroom. Hey, you try getting sewage off that mountain. There is an interesting variety of toilets with one running some kind of brown disgusting water that supposedly degrades waste or something. The other will have no water in the toilet, but you use it and then use this little water gun to "flush" the waste. Oh, and most restrooms ask that you put your toilet paper in the bin in front of the toilet instead of in the toilet. I know, I know. Weird. But when in Rome...

Back to the midnight-ish hours. The reason may people were leaving the hut between 11pm - 1am is because many if not most people climb Fuji with the intention of making it to the summit to see sunrise. The result is that night time on the mountain is the most crowded with everyone trying to reach the summit for sunrise. We decided a) not having packed flashlights (head lamps are recommended) b) wanting to sleep and c) realizing it was probably going to be too cloudy to see anything anyways that we were waiting for sunrise to leave. The result being that we woke up at 4 am, ate our sushi breakfast which was prepared the day before, completed our preparations for the day, watched sunrise from the hut and then left for our trek toward the summit.

Sunrise from station 7 of Mt. Fuji
For day two I used an ace bandage on my bad foot which saved it from injury even after the mountain climb. I also used sports tape and wrapped both of my hands around the palm and the wrist to help protect them and added a brace to my left hand for extra support as the second brace ended up being too small to use both. I also added a layer of thermal pants and my thermal shirt even though the weather was still warm enough to me. I'm an Oregonian and the weather had been in the low 60's up until that point so it was tank top weather for me, but I decided not to chance it with day 2 since we were moving up the mountain. The previous day had been no indication of what the mountain had in store for us. Next note you might want to keep in mind if you're starting at station 5 is this.

The real trail starts at station 7.

Meaning that everything up until station 7 is a lie. Seriously. I felt cheated. If we thought the couple of patches of rock were bad the day before they grew even longer and more treacherous before we reached the official top of station 7 marked by a red torii. To make matters worse there was a strong wind blowing so that we ended up crawling up the rocks more than climbing up them. Despite the wind and rocks we made it to station 8 where the rocks continued a bit farther.

Station 7 in the background and definitely not nearly as pretty from this angle.
I need to point out now that Joseph was a gazelle. He was literally, literally running and bounding up this mountainside like no one's business. Jess and I had a 20 minute head start on him while he waited to get his stick stamped at station 8 and he caught up to us in no time. Something is not right with that boy. No one should be able to go up Fuji like that. Anyways, during our head start the wind had blown my hat off my head, despite having my hair in a bun, and over the railing. I was sad.

Joseph - a.k.a The Gazelle
My Wicked hat is my FAVORITE hat EVER. I was about to press on and call it lost since it had gone off the path, but a man at the station we were at promptly jumped over a railing and went off path despite my calls of "It's okay! It's not that important!" in my worry. To my amazement, not only did he climb down a bit and retrieve my hat and return, but he did it in his slippers. His slippers. Note: Please do not attempt this! It is very dangerous! So while I was glad to have my hat (newly stowed in my bag prior to the above photo), I was more glad that he hadn't gotten hurt trying to retrieve it.

Hat saviors do exist!
This next picture I'm only including for the sheer fact that it is the last photo I was able to take on Mt. Fuji prior to reaching the summit. I'm always amused by piles of people's shoes, but as soon as I took this photo it started raining so I had to stow my camera and put on my rain coat before continuing our climb. Before we reached the next hut it had started raining pretty bad on top of the wind and we were finding ourselves in clouds very quickly. Every hut of station 8 from the time it began raining was closed. They weren't letting anyone in, they were refusing to open their doors and they wouldn't sell anything to anyone. It was very, very, VERY frustrating because in case of bad weather such as we were experiencing you are supposed to take shelter at the huts. Yet they were turning everyone away. So we had two choices, turn back at the station 8 turn around or press on.

Shoooeeessss.
I'm not going to lie, I was thinking we should head back, but Jessica and Joseph wanted to continue so I went along with them. I know, I know mom. If they jumped off a bridge would I do it too? No. I wouldn't. I don't jump off of high places. Follow them up Fuji in bad weather with nowhere to safely rest? Well, that was a different matter.

By the time we reached 8.5 I was soo cold. My gloves were started to get really wet and I was cold. The people of 8.5 were angels and saints and the highest of praises I can give to anyone go to them. They had laid out tarps over their tatami flooring and were allowing people to come in and rest and buy food, etc. Even if you didn't buy anything they were letting you rest there which is nearly unheard of or so I've read on other blogs. Jessica got some ramen and shared some with me. People who share their food with me are pretty much heroes in my book. Especially when I'm cold with nothing warm to eat.

We finally pressed on and it was at this point that my slowness really became troublesome. You see, up until 8.5 what happened was that the Gazelle (Joseph) and Jessica would head up the trail and I would follow as fast as my body allowed. I was much more acclimated than the first day mind you, but I was occasionally using the can of air which would pretty much instantly clear up any dizziness or shortness of breath I was experiencing. I was still moving slowly due to my lack of being in shape. So at every hut Jessica and the Gazelle would stop and wait for me. Usually withing 15-20 minutes of their arriving I would show up, plop down where ever I found a seat in the rain and take a 5 minute breather together before pressing on. After 8.5 however, Jessica and the Gazelle headed on up and I didn't see them again until the summit.

8.5 to 9 was a lot of tall stairs on switch backs so this wasn't much of a problem. However, about the time I reached station 9 I was feeling the need to use my can of air. Up until this point Joseph had been holding on it for me because it was easier access in his bag and he noticed a bit quicker when I would need to use it than I would. Well. After 8.5 he still had it and neither of us had thought to put it in my bag. Due to this fact after reaching station 9, which for the record is nothing but a brown torii since 8.5 was the last hut on the ascent, I was having a hard time breathing again. The ascent seemed to be happening a lot quicker and definitely from 9 onwards the path was definitely a lot steeper.

From station 9 to the top is only 400 meters or about a half a mile. I'd made it this far, surely I could make it to the top. I pushed on and found myself resting just about as frequently as I had the previous day, but being a lot higher up I could only assume it was natural. I played leap frog with a little grandfather and his grandson for the first 200 meters after the 9th station.

This is no joke. The last 200 meters of this trail are the worst 200 meters of the entire trail. Not only do you suddenly go back to rock climbing up the mountain, but the easiest way up the rocks is less defined and the going is more treacherous, not to mention a lot steeper than previously. I found myself going up two or maybe three large rocks/steps and having to stop to breathe.

I can't tell you how many times I thought that that was it. I should just give up. There was no way I was going to summit. Seeing people coming back down that way gave me even less hope. I was barely going to make it up. If I had to come back down that way there was no way. I couldn't make it up, let alone down. I'd already had a break down upon reaching 8.5, but I felt as if I was on the verge of another one. The people passing me going up gave me encouraging "Just a bit farther" kind of comments while the people coming down did the same, but more frequently stopped to check and see that I was okay. I think in the end it was the kindness of the other climbers that got me through that last 200 meters. If I didn't have little oji-sans and total strangers encouraging me to push through that segment I don't know if I would have made it to the top.

As it is I remember pushing through blindly. I didn't look around, I wouldn't have been able to see anything and the rocks under my feet were too demanding for me to do much else than plan where to place my next step. I reached the torii that signified the top and I stared at them. I vaguely considered pulling out my camera, but with the clouds and rain I would have not only ruined my camera, but I wouldn't have been able to get a shot. So I pushed through and up what I think was a set of stairs. I got up to the final one or two only to have Jessica and Joseph come rushing over and literally grab me by the arms and pull me into the nearest hut before the wind which was even stronger at the top could blow me over.

The one picture we managed to take at the summit. My lens was fogging so badly we barely got it.
Since I've been this honest all the way through this I'm not going to lie. The first thing I did once entering besides getting as far from the door as possible was to walk over to the counter, put my elbows on it, drop my face into my hands and cry. I think I cried for a good 5 minutes before the guy who did the stick stamps for the top of the mountain suggested we go rest in the neighboring hut which sold food, had seating, etc. Before heading over to do just that though I got my final stamps on the top of my stick which signified that I made it. I did it. I climbed Fuji.

At that moment, however, I could care less. I was cold. So cold. I hadn't been able to feel my fingers or my toes since station 8.5. I felt drenched to the bone (even though I later found out I wasn't as soaked as I thought), I couldn't stop shaking and shivering. I couldn't stomach anything. I was the most wet, cold, miserable and disheveled I think I've ever been. I think we sat in that hut for about 20 minutes and I ended up pulling off my sopping gloves before we continued. Surprisingly to me at the time, since I was a few french fries short of a happy meal at that moment, taking off the soaking gloves in the freezing cold helped me warm up. So, that's another good note. If you have on gloves that are soaked through, they are useless and actually are probably making you colder. It's better to ditch the gloves and get whatever you can heat wise out of your body. 

In 3 and half hours we made our descent while it took us about 14 hours in total to climb the mountain. There is actually a descent trail from the summit that does not require scrambling back down the rocks or up the way you came. It is very, very hard on the knees due to the incline though so I suggest some kind of brace or aid for your knees. Also the rocks and gravel at this point will get into your shoes and chafe at your feet.I felt it at the time, but since it wasn't painful I ignored it and now, a week later, have large scabs still in the healing/tender process on my ankles. if you are able, I recommend those rain covers for your legs. Not so much for the rain, but to keep that gravel out.

It wasn't until we'd reached roughly the 8th station on the way down that mountain that it hit me. Well, two things really. One, I'd forgotten to send post cards from the summit. Two, I'd climbed to the top of Mt. Fuji. I'd done it. Me. Illaura. The girl who has trouble with a flight of stairs. I'd climbed to the summit of the highest mountain in Japan and stood on top of Japan. I started laughing like a mad man.

By the time we returned to the 5th station I think we'd all collectively decided that we never wanted to set eyes on Fuji ever again. More than one of us admitted that we never thought we were going to be able to get of that mountain, like we felt like we'd be stuck there forever. It was such a relief to be back in the commercialized 5th station. Our first order of business was to head to get our dry shoes and we found random corners to pull of everything we were wearing and put on anything dry we had left. I got lucky since I had a shirt and a pair of thermal pants still dry, but I still ended up needing to buy another shirt just to get warm.

Moral of the story, bring a WARM, DRY change of clothes, store it at the bottom or in ziplocs and change into them as soon as you can and you'll feel human again. So there you have it. There is my Fuji story. More or less. Right now, I hate this mountain. I resent it. Even it's name is a curse word.

On a whim, here's another site which I think is very honest about the experience. Enjoy. 

Would I go back and choose to do it again though? It was one of the most physically and mentally challenging thing I've ever done and while you could never, ever, ever pay me enough to do it again, yes. I would go back and choose to do it again if I had the chance to go back. The farther from the experience I'm getting, the more I appreciate what I went through and the experience as a whole, but I'll listen to the old Japanese proverb.

While the exact wording seems to be up for debate and or forgotten, it goes something like "He who climbs Mt. Fuji is a wise man, he who climbs twice is a fool."

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