Random Observation/Comment #84: Don’t wear shorts when you’re climbing any mountain. It’s freakin’, ridiculously cold up there at night. The guide books do not lie, and you are not superman.
I’ll keep the first entry of Mt. Fuji as a general overview of my impressions of the climb, an insight on what to expect, and a few suggestions for future climbers from my personal experience. I’ll use the subsequent entries to go into the little details that I fondly enjoy expressing. I’ll skimp a little on the historical facts that you’d probably find on Wikipedia or travelwiki page.
I did not follow a tour guide, nor did I start the travel with the friend. All I knew before the trip was a very general idea of what I wanted to do and the location of the bus stop that would take me to the fifth station. I followed a route suggested by Yuka to start from the 5th station at 7PM and climb to the peak to see the sunrise at 4AM, and then climb back down for breakfast at 9AM. I had been walking 10 miles every weekend and working out for the two months in Japan, so I thought that I could do the whole thing in one 12-hour stretch. Now that I think back, I see that I was a dumbass. It’s completely doable, but you’ll be complaining about the cold temperature, windiness, difficulty breathing, hunger, and exhaustion after about 30 minutes (two hours max).
For those that do not want to do the full 12-hour stretch, there are cabins at all of the stations that provide lodging along the mountain. You can climb the first 5 hours to station 8.5 and then sleep until 2:30AM and climb the rest. I warn you that the top of the mountain is ridiculously cold and you will probably not last longer than 30 minutes waiting. It might seem okay while you’re going up, but remember there’s nowhere to climb at the top and there’s no side of the mountain to block the wind. Not to mention that the cabins at the top don’t open until 4AM, so if you get there early, you won’t see anything in the dark and you won’t feel anything from the cold.
For those that don’t want to walk in the freezing night, there is a nice afternoon walk to the top to see the sunset. You should be back down the mountain by 11PM and ready for a good night’s rest.
For those hardcore walkers, you could do a full day hike from the base of the mountain with bears and other wildlife craziness. I thought about it, and chose to play it safe (let’s not become another freak accident bear mauling statistic). It would be a bit of a buzz kill if I died from this hike. If you’re crazy enough, you’ll bring a bow and arrow to protect yourself. Who knows? Maybe you’ll rub honey all over your naked body and aggravate bears with distasteful “your mom” jokes. Well, whatever floats your boat.
I climbed Mt. Fuji in mid-August, where it was normal to have sudden urges to strip and wish for someone to throw cold Gatorade on your hot, sweaty body. It was only a 10 minute walk to the train station and my entire chest was already drenched. I couldn’t imagine wearing anything but shorts and bring a few layers of shirts to fight some of the winds up the mountain. Boy, did I grossly underestimate the weather. I was on the verge of frostbite on my calves, toes, and fingers. It was almost as bad as that time I went skiing double blacks without gloves on (yeah… ouch). This leads me to my first tip…
Tip #1: Dress appropriately. You must have a windbreaker and long pants. It’s a good idea to dress as if you’re going skiing. I would even suggest the goggles and face mask because the wind blows up sand and gravel that gets in your teeth and eyes. It’s definitely not a pleasant feeling to have that gritty chew. Wear a lot of layers because it will start off in the fifth station with a gentle and relaxing breeze. This will quickly advance to an unforgiving wrath. It’s better to put on the layers while you’re still warm, instead of waiting until you’re shivering. Don’t forget the gloves because there will be times where you have to support yourself climbing over large rocks. I bought two pairs for 100 yen and they worked out really well. The flashlight is also essential because it will be pitch black along the paths. I would recommend one of the head lamps because it’s much more convenient, less tiring for your arms, and generally one less thing to worry about. Bring comfortable shoes with traction that you don’t mind getting dirty. If it rains, you’re basically going to be trekking all the way up in mud. Which brings me to my next tip…
Tip #2: Pray it doesn’t rain. Check the forecast and plan well. I’ve never actually climbed in the rain, but I could imagine partly Hell with a chance of Damnation. I think if it rains, it would just freeze on your face along with the sand/pebbles pelting all of your exposed flesh. I would suggest an umbrella, but I think you would fly away like Mary Poppins.
Tip #3: Bring food and a lot of water. You may not feel thirsty, but it’s probably a good idea to stop every 15 minutes to catch your breath and replenish some fluids. I brought two 2L bottles of water and I finished it when I got to the top. The cups of noodles are double the price from what you buy at the convenience stores, but it’s better to spend $2 than to be starving and cold. Be aware that the beverages and food gets increasingly more expensive as you go up the stations. If you bring bananas, make sure the water doesn’t squash them. They will probably be frozen and gross when you get to the top, but you’ll really want to eat them anyway.
Tip #4: Don’t travel alone. I was lucky enough to meet three very fun people on the bus ride up. Not only were these people great for random conversation, but they were also really warm when we huddled together like a flock (?) of penguins to keep warm. I could imagine a faster walk up the mountain, but I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much without good company.
Tip #5: Plan accordingly – this is at least a two day event. Let’s say you do the actual climb Monday night to Tuesday morning. You will need a well-rested, alcohol-free night on Sunday and a two hour nap for Monday afternoon. Take a 5PM bus up to the fifth station by 7PM. Get up to the 8th station by 2AM and then slowly make your way up to the peak by 4AM sunrise. See the sunrise and rejuvenate yourself by 5:30AM and start climbing down to get back to the 5th station by around 10AM. After the exhausting 13-hour climb up and down, you will be completely gone Tuesday and probably messed up in sleeping pattern for Wednesday.
Tip #6: Buy a stick at the 5th station. It’s a bit of an annoying souvenir to bring home, but it’s definitely great to have when climbing. You don’t need the Japanese flag and you’ll probably want to take off that silly bell because it gets annoying after 10 minutes. The stick itself is about 1000 yen ($10), but there are these 200 yen ($2) stamps that every station sears onto the stick. It becomes quite an expensive souvenir – I should know because I tried to get every stamp at every station and spent close to $50. If I were to do it again, I would only get 3-5 of the normal stamps along the way and then get the main one at the top of the mountain saying that you’ve completed the climb.
I think the idea of climbing a mountain is scary, and generally brings to mind images of athletic guys and gals wearing under-armor and really cool sun glasses scaling a large boulder on the side of a dessert. Although this is an accurate representation of some hardcore climbers, climbing Mt. Fuji is a different monster. It’s not as extreme as hiking in a huge snow storm through patches of ice and gravel that do not show a definitive end. Instead, you will see a lot of other tourists climbing beside you. In a large group, you may even have to queue behind the slowest climbers to reach the top. Try to beat the rush hour traffic climbing up, but don’t get there so early that you freeze to death waiting.
Climbing Mt. Fuji should be approached with the mindset of conquering any obstacle. You’ll start off ecstatic and energized for the walk ahead of you, but this feeling will soon be replaced by exhaustion. You will need to exert some effort to be successful, but your reward will be a once in a lifetime beautiful sunrise. It’s a surprisingly tough hike, but you should be fine if you don’t take it as a competition. Take your time with a steady pace and you’ll make it there with time to spare.
~See Lemons Climb Fuji-san