Monday, September 15, 2008

Conquering Mt. Fuji

Me, on top of Mt. Fuji at sunrise

Well, we finally did it. We climbed Mt. Fuji.

In terms of physical challenges, it was the hardest thing I've ever done.

For weeks leading up to the trip on Sept. 6, I dreaded the formidable challenge ahead. Climbing the highest mountain in Japan, I knew, would be difficult. But climbing the mountain under the circumstances planned by our local JET association seemed like downright masochism.

The plan was to leave at the crack of dawn on a Saturday morning, ride a bus for 10 hours to Mt. Fuji, proceed to climb the mountain all night long with no sleep, watch the sunrise, then immediately climb back down the mountain, visit an onsen for a bath, and then ride the bus 10 hours home, arriving back Sunday night.

Yeah. It was hell.

But I wanted to do it so I could say I did it. And now I can.

Hear ye, hear ye! I climbed Mt. Fuji!

More than 200,000 people climb the mountain every year during the summer climbing season in July and August, the only time of year the top loses its snow cap.

The mountain has an elevation of 3,776 meters — that's 12,388 feet. Think of it as eight Sears Towers stacked on top of one another. But most people start climbing half-way up.

The craziness began at 5:30 a.m. last Saturday, when Joe and I woke up to get ready to catch a train downtown and get on the bus. I laced up some cheap hiking boots and hoisted my backpack onto my back and immediately started to worry.

It was heavy. Crammed inside were a rain suit, my puffy winter coat in a vacuum sealed bag (to save space), a thick hoody sweatshirt, a long-sleeve T-shirt, gloves, a hat, an extra pair of socks, camera, wallet, head lamp, MP3 player, and a bag full of SoyJoy bars and chocolate. Oh, and a 2-liter bottle of water. A damn heavy load to be hauling up a mountain, yet all of it seemed necessary.

We'd been warned that weather conditions on the mountain could be dicey. It would be hot at the bottom (it is, after all, still summer time), but quite cold, windy and possibly snowy at the top. So we needed to dress in layers so we could put on more clothes as we ascended to avoid getting all sweaty and damp in freezing conditions. Likewise, a good rain suit was a necessity because violent rain storms could crop up suddenly.

The climb to the top is punctuated by 10 "stations" and other smaller huts where people can rest, use the bathroom, buy an obscenely overpriced bottle of water, etc. Paved roads go as far as the fifth station, which is where most people start.

Our bus dropped us off at the fifth station for the Subaru Line at an altitude of 2,305 meters, which meant we had 1,471 meters (4,826 feet) to climb. This particular path is the shortest climb — but not the easiest.

This was the view of Fuji-san from our starting point. Doesn't look that bad, does it?

Well, it's an optical illusion. It's a lot higher than it looks.

Did I mention Mt. Fuji is actually a volcano? But it hasn't exploded for 300 years, so I figured we were pretty safe. Although, the map we were given did mark one spot with the warning "Please not be taken out alpine plant lava and so on." Whatever that means.

We paused at a picnic table here to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner before we began our climb. Even here, some clouds floated nearby.

After purchasing some walking sticks, we were ready to go. Here we are at the start. Aah! So happy!

I know we look like two dorks about to embark on a spelunking expedition or something with those head lamps, but actually the head lamps were a highly recommended piece of gear for hikers. There were no lights along the trail. It was very, very dark. The headlamps allowed us to see while leaving our hands free.

I don't know why this picture's so foggy. It wasn't foggy. It might be smoke from the nearby stand selling fried squid and whatnot.

So at 6:37 p.m., Joe and I set off with a couple other friends. The trail was pretty tame to begin with — a clear path, a gentle slope. We were sweating, but with the cool air we felt very comfortable as long as we kept moving. Before long,though, the hike started increasing in intensity.

Soon I was dragging behind. I had a hard time keeping up lugging around that darn backpack. First I dumped off my 2-liter bottle of water to Joe. By the time we made it to station 6, I was ready to leave behind my winter coat to lighten my load. It seemed impossible to climb the whole way carrying all that stuff.

Joe would hear none of it and insisted on cramming my coat into his backpack. I felt pretty bad, but it did help a lot. It made a big difference to ditch some of that weight.

It became apparent after the sixth station that this was not going to be your everyday hike. There would be no level, clearly defined, sloping path. No, it was a steep and rocky path where we were using our arms as much as our legs to pull and push ourselves over the rocks. In the pitch dark. I was very, very glad I wore hiking boots that gave some ankle support.

The climbers' happy, jolly demeanor dissolved quickly into huffing and puffing. It was a lot harder than I'd expected. Keep in mind I'd been working out three times a week since January, so I felt pretty confident that I'd be able to do this. In the weeks leading up to the trip, the Japanese happily filled my head with stories about 80-year-old grandmothers and children who climb Fuji every year. I personally know people who were not in the best of shape who managed to make it to the top. So, while I expected a challenge, I didn't expect it to be ridiculously hard.

I was wrong. It was ridiculously hard. The terrain often required large steps on uneven footing. I could not imagine some shrunken 80-year-old lady managing this.

From time to time we'd pause to regain our breath and look down the slope. Far below, we could see city lights, like we were peering out the window of an airplane. In the distance, lightning leapt between clouds. It was odd looking out and seeing lighting at the same altitude as me. I prayed it wouldn't rain.

Despite the clouds and lighting in the distance, the sky above us was marvelously clear. I had never seen so many stars in my entire life. The view was absolutely breathtaking. So many specks of light... It was like someone threw a handful of glitter across the sky.

There were numerous rest points where people could sit on some benches and perhaps purchase a bottle of water or a cup of ramen noodles for $6 or so. We'd stop to rest and encourage fellow JETs who came by.

No one was in a hurry to make it to the top quickly. We'd been advised to pace ourselves to avoid altitude sickness. We also wanted to time our climb so we didn't arrive at the top too soon, which would mean a long wait for sunrise in freezing conditions.

So we'd pause and admire the stars. Eat a SoyJoy. Drink some water. Make out postcards to mail from the top. Get stamps on our walking sticks.

At many of the rest stops, for 200 yen ($2) you could get your walking stick branded with a special stamp to prove you'd made it that far. By the time you hit the top, you'd have a whole line of stamps on your stick, a rather interesting souvenir. I thought this was neat, so I bought several along the way, though not all of them.

Eventually Joe and I both started feeling a bit upset to our stomachs. Many people, in fact, were feeling a bit ill the higher we went.

One girl ralphed in the restroom at one of the station huts. The smell of the bathroom didn't help matters for those already feeling ill. The toilets were really just a hole in the ground. No flusher. People had to throw their dirty toilet paper into a trash bin in the stall. The trash bins were overflowing.

Joe and I ate a few pieces of chocolate, a tactic some co-workers had recommended to help stave off altitude sickness. I guess sugar is supposed to make you feel better.

The air got thinner the higher we climbed. It got noticeably harder to breathe. Eventually I recognized the tell-tale wheezing and coughing asthma symptoms that I used to grapple with playing soccer in high school.

The station huts were selling cans of oxygen for 1,500 yen ($15), so I split the cost of one with another girl and gave it a whirl, but we didn't really feel any different.

By the time we were 500 meters from the top, we felt totally wiped out. Every couple minutes we stopped to catch our breath. Many, many other climbers dotted the sides of the trail, too tired to go on. The trail had fallen oddly silent as everyone simply focused on putting one foot in front of the other. At one point I set my bag down and just sprawled out on the ground. Who knew laying on ash filled with volcanic rock would ever be so comfortable? 

With 300 meters left, I honestly wondered if I could make it the rest of the way. I might as well have had 50 pound weights attached to each ankle. My legs just didn't want to go anymore. All I could think about was how much I wished I was at home in bed. It got so cold that I put on every article of clothing in my bag, including my rain suit. When we stopped moving, I started shivering. I was definitely glad that Joe refused to let me dump my winter coat. 

As miserable as I was, quitting was not an option. I did not haul my ass that far to give up. So we kept going... and going... and going.

Finally, finally, we reached the top. It was 3:30 a.m. We'd climbed for nine hours. I was elated that the climbing was finally over.

We'd arrived at the top a little early, but that was OK. It gave us a chance to stake out a spot on the east side of the mountain right at the edge of the slope, so we could watch the sunrise without anyone standing in front of us to obstruct our view.

Joe and I laid down and spooned in the volcanic ash. I think I fell asleep for a while.

When I woke up I had to pee. There were no bathroom facilities. Everything at the top was closed because it was one week outside the normal climbing season. Even the place to get the final stamp on our walking sticks was closed, as was the post office, so I wasn't able to mail the postcards.

With no other option, I walked away from our friends, found a rock to squat behind, and went, safe under the cloak of darkness. Luckily I'd packed a roll of toilet paper in Joe's bag, so I was prepared.

Then it was just a waiting game for the sunrise. It seemed to take forever. The horizon started to glow yellow and orange, but still no sun.

We could see an endless line of head lamps lining the trail we'd climbed. Hundreds or thousands of people wouldn't make it to the top before the sunrise.

As the sky brightened, the valley below filled with clouds until we really were looking out over a sea of clouds.

Patience. Finally, we got to see the sun rise in the Land of the Rising Sun. Being at the highest point in Japan, we were indeed the first to see the sun rise on Sept. 7.

Joe took this photo down the side of the mountain. People are lined up all along that ridge on the left. This is what the terrain looked like the whole way down on the descending path — very barren, all ash and volcanic rock.

We had someone take our picture in the spot where we watched the sunrise. We were sitting right in front of a torii gate.

Once the sun was up we walked over to the crater and had a look. I would have liked to get right up to the edge and peer down, but it was roped off. Something about safety, apparently. *huff!*

After another secret bathroom break in a corner somewhere, we set off down the mountain.

It's a toss-up which was worse, the climb up or the climb down.

The path down was different from the one we took up. It was an interminably long, steep, zig-zagging path made of loose ash and volcanic rock. It was like walking through loose sand filled with rocks of all sizes. It was impossible not to slip and fall from time to time. My feet were slipping in my shoes, causing large blisters to quickly form on my toes. My knees cried bloody murder.

We'd been told to make it back to the bus by 9 a.m. or risk the wrath of other passengers who managed to make it back on time. So we were hurrying down with no time to rest — not that there was anywhere to stop. There were no huts at all on the way down. Nowhere to really rest, nowhere to pee, nowhere to buy water. We started back down the mountain with perhaps five ounces of water left in a bottle. We had to make that last for the remaining four hours down the mountain. It warmed up quite a bit once the sun was up, but we couldn't take off our long sleeves because the sun was pretty brutal and we'd forgotten sun screen.

I wanted to die. All I could keep thinking was, "I'm in hell."

We made it back to the bus around 9:30 a.m., ahead of several other fellow climbers. Miraculously, we made it through the whole experience without spraining an ankle or breaking anything. The bus probably left around 10:30 or so and headed to an onsen (Japanese public bath) where we had a Japanese lunch, shower and a soak in a public bath.

Then we had to look forward to the 10-hour ride home.

I don't know if I have ever been so happy to get home. Thank God we'd taken the following day off work. We showered and fell into bed and I didn't go anywhere the next day. I slept and read. That's it.

Tuesday I still felt like I'd been hit by a bus. Wednesday was a bit better, and by Thursday I'd recovered.

The Japanese have a proverb that goes, "One who never climbs Mt. Fuji is a fool, and one who climbs it twice is twice the fool."

Now that is God's honest truth.


Al said...

Congratulations and beautiful entry!

I'll keep it in mind when I'm tempted to do the same next year.

Diane said...

Congrats! Sounds like an amazing experience. You're a braver woman than I.

Mom & Dad said...

Way to go kids!
So will you do it again next year, in season? Will there be a way you can bring your walking sticks back to U.S.?