This is an old blog I wrote nearly 6 years ago – dear God, has it really been that long? – after climbing Mount Fuji. When I saw the daily post ‘mountain‘ I couldn’t help but dig it back up.
Mountain climbing really is an amazing experience and re-reading this brought that back in a huge rush. If you’ve never climbed a mountain, I would highly recommend it.
PS – I actually took that picture!
On July 17th 2010 I undertook the life-changing journey of climbing the largest mountain in Japan. It was an amazing experience and I highly recommend mountain climbing to any and all with the stamina for such feats. The end result is well worth the cost.
Mount Fuji is 3,776 meters (3.75 kilometers) high, or 12,388 feet (or 2.34 miles). It is one big mountain. Now, overall height wise it does qualify on the list of the largest mountains in the world. However, in Wikipedia’s list of mountains by topographical prominence, it ranks 35th overall. The reason it is good to use that particular measurement for hikers is that the highest mountains in the world tend to be sub-summits of the main mountains. For example, Everest has four or five sub-summits that count as some of the highest mountains in the world – but to most climbers it is just a stepping-stone to the top. So excluding all the way stations on the world’s largest mountains, apparently Fuji is number 35. The climb of this actual mountain is done in 10 stations and substations; station 1 being the bottom and station 10 being the peak of the mountain. Most people begin at station 5 (which is about 2,300 meters up).
There were 16 of us total that went on that crazy journey – and two more joined in at the fifth station where we started our climb. The other two, god bless their souls, started from station one. Now, many of you may be saying that starting almost ¾ of the way up the mountain is the chicken shit way of doing it, and to you I would say – go try it and then we’ll talk, punk.
Our bus pulled into the fifth station of Fuji and I was met with the breathtaking view of being higher than the clouds, yet still on solid ground. I cannot tell you how amazing it was to be looking down at them rather than up. It was like being in an airplane without the plane. The one thing you learn quickly though about being that high up is that breathing becomes something you think a lot more about. We all had to commence taking various forms of oxygen supplements (inhalers and different pills) to ensure that we were getting enough air almost from that first station. Combine the thin air with the exertion of actually climbing and you have a recipe for potential disaster. So, pills and inhalers in hand, backpacks full of food, water, and extra layers, we all trucked over to a restaurant at the fifth station and sat down to have some curry before we tackled Fuji…. or in some of our cases, before it tackled us.
Stomachs full and everyone prepared, most of us went downstairs and purchased a thick wooden hiking stick that most people purchase as the major souvenir from Fuji. The reason it is so desirable is not only for its usefulness as an aide in the hike, but also because as you pass stations they burn stamps into them to mark your journey. Looking at it now, I can remember the different trials and pains going from one to the next and I am gladder than ever that I bought it. It did not come cheap though, let me tell you. I will put this in dollars (as most of my friends are Americans); the stick was $12 dollars, and each stamp was $2. I got 19 stamps, so that means I spent $50 dollars on a piece of wood. Nevertheless, that stick is worth about $500,000,000 dollars to me now.
This is where the real journey began: 18 people with wooden sticks, curry filled stomachs, headlamps (yes, headlight fixtures that strap onto your head) and lots of pep entering the trail that promised 1,476 meters later to bring us to the top of Mount Fuji.
Station 5 to station 6:
This was obviously going to be the easiest part of the journey. The slopes in this section were pretty gradual, and the trail was very wide. The sun had gone all the way down by this point and off to our left we could see all the twinkling lights of Tokyo as we soldiered on towards our destination. There was no stamp to get at station 6 because, to be honest, it was a cakewalk getting there – you had to EARN a stamp (something my friend Betsy pointed out later). I have to say in all honesty that this first jaunt was really misleading. I mean, it goes without saying that the mountain should get harder the higher you go, but the amount by which this mountain got harder from this section to the next was fairly drastic. However, as you will find out later, it didn’t have shit on the change from 8 to 10.
Station 6 to 7:
This section was fairly long and not too painfully difficult. It was tiring and definitely not something you could just power out and not feel woozy about, but it was not a killer by any stretch. The air was getting much thinner by this point, so we had to take regular hits from our oxygen pill stash, but most of us got through it without any major breakdowns. This part incorporated wide rocky paths that wound back and forth that would occasionally have makeshift stairs built into the path (which was basically fencing that would stop up the rocks so that they could be formed into a stair), but these stairs were sometimes really high… and this is coming from someone who is 6’2” – I can’t imagine how Japanese people swing this. Still, at this point there weren’t any rock juts or particularly dangerous areas, so we all trudged on to the next stop.
Station 7 to 8:
Arriving at station 7 (which was 2, 700 meters up) we all took a little time to get our stamps and take in some water. The sky was completely black at this point and the stars were so bright it was almost unreal. The entire journey up brought more and more stars out of the dark recesses of space and into view so that just before the sunlight began to break the horizon it seemed as though the darkness of night was beginning to lose to the stars. The big dipper was never so abundantly clear to me, and the massiveness of it in comparison to the other constellations was amazing. If for these sights alone the journey would have been worth it, but to be honest, the entire effort of making such a climb really is to bring you closer to the beauty of the world. Fuji did this in marvelous fashion – mind you, it almost killed some of us, but it was breathtaking.
The mountain (as could be expected) got colder as we continued up, but at this point we were all so sweaty from the exertion of climbing and moving around that no one felt the need to layer up just yet, so we plowed on. Between station 7 and station 8 the climb became more difficult for several reasons.
First, one of the mainstays of Fuji this time of year is the climbing groups clogging the mountain. They are EVERYWHERE. These groups usually have no less that 30 people in them, they huddle up in lines and take up the majority of the space on the main path, and they have an obnoxious leader at the head of them barking back orders or making sure that no one is lost. So it was a never-ending stream of “Okay, two more turns and then a break – that means you too grandma, no sitting down till I TELL you that you can!” or the occasional search for a lost person “Fujiya sama, Fujiya sama! Are you back there! Did you die yet, or are you taking a secret pee off on the mountain because you don’t want to pay $2 for the world’s smelliest outhouses on top of Mount Fuji?”… Okay – so they didn’t say ALL that. Yes, we had to pay to pee. Yes it was $2 dollars. Yes that is ridiculous.
The big issue then with these groups was that if you wanted to maintain a normal walking pace up the mountain, you would have to jut off to the side of them onto the much more difficult parts of the path – then up your pace to pass them – and then return to the normal path and slow your pace a little. You can see how this would wear one out when you are already undertaking a difficult task.
The second part was that the hike became rockier and involved actually semi-scaling large sections of post lava flow boulders and such. It was not so extreme that you had to use your hands to pull yourself up them – you had to use them sometimes as a brace – but it did take a little bit more care to move around and as such it slowed the pace down quite a bit.
Between station 7 and 8 there were at least 4 or 5 other stops where we saw different types of stations – one including a huge Shinto Torii gate; this is their marker symbolizing a transition between the profane and the sacred, thus we were embarking onto holy territory from henceforth.
Station 8 to 9:
Station 8 proper (I say this because there are so many sub-stations in between that there is a possibility of confusion) is exactly 3,100 meters up. At this point we had covered over 800 meters and had just 667 meters to go. We were all still feeling rather fine, but it was at this point that things would start to change. We all layered up at station 8 because we could feel it starting to get cold, and despite the sweat we were all caked in, all it took was about 2 minutes of standing around to really cut into that and make you feel like you were freezing. So sweatshirts, sweatpants, jackets, scarves, beanies, and gloves all started being pulled out of bags and everyone also took some time to munch down some food. Most of us brought along rice balls (welcome to Japan!) but some people brought along bread, dried fruit, nuts, or straight candy to keep their energy up. In the end I think we all got a little of all of that stuff by chomping down on each other’s food at times.
We disembarked from station 8 in the final leg in which the bulk of the group would remain together. At this point things began to be very painful, and this is hard to describe after the fact. The air being so thin and the strain of the hike being so extreme breathing became a chore. It was odd to feel like you had the muscle to do something, but not enough oxygen behind it to make it work. Also, it only took a few steps now of overexertion to really send your heart into hyper drive. The few times I did try to overtake groups at this point my heart pounded so heavily that I though it was seriously going to crack my ribcage open. My head also began to spin a little around this time and my eyes started to feel like they were swelling.
Nevertheless, I soldiered on and for the most part everything seemed to be going okay. Once I reached station 8.5 I really started to doubt my ability to endure what lay ahead. I looked down the mountain at this point to see the trail of twinkling headlamps and it seemed like a never-ending glowworm was lying on the side of the mountain. I could fully feel in my heart just how far I had come and knew that I would never forgive myself for not going the distance, but I knew that I had pushed my body to the limit of its endurance and that from here on out it was going to be me going on a forced march – literally.
8.5 is 3,450 meters up, so we only had 326 meters to go, but that distance looked like an eternity when you gazed up the mountain. The other problem is that this distance – about 3 and a half NFL football fields – is from that exact point to the top in a straight line. The hike is always in a zigzag pattern, which means that it goes from being the walking distance of three football fields to about 6 or 7. Factor in that there was little oxygen, extremely cold, and that there were bundled up groups of people blocking the path the whole way, and you can see why some bail out at this point.
The distance between 8.5 and station 9 was only supposed to be about 126 meters. I will say now and forever more that those 126 meters contained the most difficult moments I have ever experienced in my life. It was long. It was very, very long. The hike was slow and steep with paths that would cut back without any kind of barrier so that if you slipped – which seemed so easily possible given the fatigue and mental condition of most of the people on the mountain – you would go tumbling down God knows how far. The group forever splintered at this point and from here on out my only companion was Betsy. We took turns between 8.5 and the top at saving each other and I can say now that had Betsy not been there I don’t know that I would have kept going.
From 8.5 to 9 I wanted to die. I had to pee so bad it was almost painful, the slight headache I had from the lack of oxygen had now turned into a splintering migraine, every muscle in my legs hurt, my mouth was dry and I was freezing. Every time we had seen a station before there were always little bunks you could rent to sleep in for an hour or so to refresh yourself, and all I could think of was what body part I would give up to do so. At station 7 I laughed at them. In my state of hysterical exhaustion around station 9 I would have given up a kidney for even one minute on one of those glorious havens. I looked up at the night sky and saw the big dipper glaring back down at me and I wanted to just fly up into it. A billion crazy thoughts came into my head, but Betsy just kept telling me to keep moving, and so I did. God help me, I did.
Station 9 to 10
Arriving at station 9 was quite possibly the most traumatic experience of the entire climb. Every one of us was waiting for 9 to appear so that we could take a break, sit down, have a snack, have some water, take a leak… but station 9 was half of a shack. It was unmanned and there was nothing there other than a sign telling you that you had in fact arrived at station 9. What this meant was that there was another 200 meters to go and no bathrooms, no convenient place to sit and take a break, nothing. Between the top and us there was nothing but people who were on the same forced march. Betsy and I sat on top of said shack and both of us almost died of exhaustion right then. We forced down some food and water, chomped down on some oxygen pills and sucked on the inhaler as well – we figure no one had died of breathing too much… so why not overdose.
As I sat there looking up at what I had left to do I wanted to cry. I knew I couldn’t give up, but God did I want to. At this point my heart started beating so hard that I could feel it in my throat. My eyes were bulging out of my head and my legs felt like jelly. I had to continue on because I had come too far to go back (not to mention that ‘back’ did not mean someone would airlift me home, but simply that I had to continue walking twice as far in the opposite direction) so I went on.
About ten minutes after the shack I found a break from the trail where I escaped to go have a secret pee on the mountain. I have to be honest and say that I felt a little vindicated at that moment. Fuji was killing me – but I totally peed on him. So I win in the end you stupid mountain.
Anyways, continuing on I felt a world better. The food and everything started to work its magic and the relief of peeing also took off a load of strain. However, it was at this point that my partner in crime started to breakdown. Betsy got altitude sickness and threw up about 50 meters from the top. According to everyone else the only solution at that point is to go back down, but there was no way – PHYSICALLY no way – to do so. So she dug down deep and soldiered on to the top. I have to say that nothing is more impressive than that. That took more courage than I probably would have had at that point. I probably would have lain there and cried until someone airlifted me home.
It took nearly 2 hours and a world of pain to get from station 9 to the top, and it had only taken us about 4 hours to get from station 5 to station 8. When I reached the top of the mountain and passed through the final stone Torii gate I felt a world of relief like nothing I have ever felt before. It was still so cold and I was so tired that I wanted to lay down and die, but I was there. 1,476 meters later, I was there.
Betsy and I took a seat on a rock off to the far side of the peak and waited in freezing cold bewilderment for the sun to rise. As we sat down we both realized that we would not easily be able to get back up, and as such we bundled together and prayed the sun would pick up the pace a little.
When it did crest the horizon I can tell you that I have never been more stunned in my life. If ever one wonders how people could have looked at mountains and the sun and saw God, go stand on a real mountain and watch the sun come up and you will understand. I promise. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. The valley below slowly started to be illuminated and the clouds were being burned into all manner of different colors and it truly was like watching the world come to life. Every single pain I had endured up to that moment was rendered worth it just to see this moment of absolutely unparalleled natural beauty. My heart was still working overtime, but for a moment I couldn’t even feel it.
I have a newfound respect for how beautiful our sun is, how amazing mountains really are, and how insane the people are that climb mountains like Everest. For any of the people out there that have never climbed a mountain before, a REAL mountain, I have to say that it really was a life changing experience. Nothing I have ever done has ever been so painstaking, so brutal, or so exhausting. I have uttered the line, “this is so ‘insert negative word here’ that I want to die’ before, but during this climb was the first time I believed it would really happen. It was by far the most difficult thing I have ever done, but the reward is and was by and far worth the effort. This is something I think everyone should do at least once in their life, to find a real mountain, climb to the top, and sit and watch as the sun lights up the world. I promise you will never see nature the same again. I believe that you, like I do now, will look up at the sun and see one of the largest reasons why there is any beauty to behold in this world. I am glad that I made it to the top, I am glad that I endeavored to do so, and while I may never do it again – it will remain with me till the day that I die.
Thank you to everyone that journeyed with me, especially to Betsy for saving my ass a few times. We prevailed, and that is what matters. Life list: Climb Mount Fuji – Check.