The guy next to me on the bus kept hitting his head on the window from falling asleep. I would have too if I were sitting during the bus ride. But I wasn’t and I had only an hour and a half of sleep. The sun was going down and everyone on the bus was quiet as we all contemplated the journey we were about to take. We were to spend 9 hours at the least doing something we had never done before. Was anyone else having second thoughts?
I had just climbed Mt. Iwate the week before which was said to be tougher than what I was about to do. I figured if I could do Mt. Iwate, then I am invincible. The bus dropped off it’s passengers at the 5th station, halfway up the mountain, and the temperatures already were colder than the humidity from below.
I was about to embark on a journey up Mount Fuji– alone.
Beginning the climb
This isn’t so bad. It’s pretty flat, it’s dark and I can’t see shit except the small headlamp of the person ahead of me. Oh hey, look, there’s another solo climber. Damn, look at him go. Ok, Mr. Professional, hope you don’t mind if I steadily creep behind you so I don’t get lost. Ignore my headlamp shining on your back and we’ll just pretend like we don’t see each other.
At first, the incline was non-existent, but then there was a crossroads and I watched as Mr. Professional quickly took the steeper pathway. I paused thinking he might be headed on the more experienced trail, but then I saw the sign for the Yoshida trail pointing up and I quickly moved to follow him. I had lost him though and I was for sure alone. But suddenly I couldn’t breathe. Jesus, is this incline really that steep? Am I really that out of shape? I mean I did eat a lot. I tend to do that… Hard as I tried, I wasn’t able to catch my breath. Air wasn’t going into my lungs fast enough. I took a deep breath but it still wasn’t deep enough to breathe. Moving off to the side of the trail, I stopped and attempted several more deep breaths. I knew it was the altitude. Don’t panic. Just breathe. Every time I thought I had taken enough deep breaths, I hadn’t, so I paused every few steps. When I finally made it to the 6th station, not too far away, I decided I should spend more time getting used to the altitude before climbing higher. I hung around there for about 20 minutes, the longest break I took the entire trip up.
Continuing the Climb
After I had finally become accustomed to the altitude, it was a breeze from there. I stopped at every station to continue to adjust to the different altitudes. There were not many people so my climb began pretty lonely. I didn’t mind the lonesomeness though because at least I didn’t feel obligated to talk to someone when really I’m suffering from oxygen deprivation. Climbing a mountain for about 6-7 hours gives you a lot of time to think though, for example I was trying to come up with ideas of what to title this article, How I Died On Mt. Fuji? The Things You Think of When Climbing Mt. Fuji? Above the Clouds in Japan? Are We There Yet?
Eye Level with the Giant Dipper
Taking small breaks in between the stations is not a sign of weakness. Instead it becomes an important part of the journey, because then you are no longer staring at the small portion of ground lit from your headlamp, but rather, the sky. So I did not mind these breaks. The tint of the city lights on the horizon are absent, well, because I was not on the horizon, but rising above it. Closer to the stars, shining with such vibrancy, I could see millions more dotting the night sky. I looked for my normal constellations, the ones that I always saw from my bedroom window as a kid, and probably the only constellations that everyone knows, Orion and the Big Dipper. I looked up, searching for the familiar shapes among billions of stars. If I had continued to stare up, though, I surely would have fallen backward off Mt. Fuji, so I lowered my head, unable to find the constellations. I could see the clouds below me, dark massive forms floating just off the edges of the mountain ready to devour whatever object crossed its path. As I gazed at the clouds, I finally saw the Big Dipper, straight ahead. I was eye level with the Big Dipper for the first time in my life and it shone bright, each star an unmistakable piece of the puzzle. It took my breath away… but it probably was the altitude.
Wait, there are other people on this mountain?
After the 7th station I began to see more and more people. Where did all these people come from? I was catching up to others who were taking longer breaks or were pausing for a rest in the huts (about $60– eff that.) At the 8th station, two trails emerged and it seemed I had caught up to a tour group. The mountain was packed. I turned my headlamp off for a good portion of this trip because there were so many other headlamps lighting the trail so I didn’t want to use up my own battery. But my fast paced walking was no longer of good use. Now I was at the mercy of the rest of the travelers: the elderly, a kid, people who weren’t prepared, and people who were overly prepared. Did that guy just pull a gas stove out of his backpack?
Judging by the time I assumed I had at least an hour left, but the guy running the hut at the 8th station stated that we had two hours left of climbing. No one believed him, even I was skeptical. There was a sign that said 50 Min, this guy is crazy. I just wanted a fluffy pillow at that point. Then when I started to climb again, and the people on the mountain weren’t moving I realized that he was right. Due to the stop and go of the cue walking up the mountain, it took another two hours to finally reach the top.
Death by Cold Sweat
I had been prepared for the cold with 5 layers on me. What I wasn’t prepared for was when my sweat would dry underneath as I stood in line to go up the mountain. I couldn’t move fast enough to start sweating again so I began to get cold standing still, waiting for people to continue moving. I had run out of layers to put on and even my heat pack wasn’t warming me up fast enough. I continued to climb using as much muscle and movement as possible, no matter how exhausted my body was, to ensure I didn’t freeze. People had paused on the side of the trail, curled up on the flattest rock they could find, bundled up, trying to bring heat to their bodies. I don’t know if they made it the rest of the way, but I couldn’t stop.
Hitting the Summit
I almost didn’t believe it when I finally hit the top. Do my eyes deceive me? Is this another damn hut placed here to give me false hope? But it was the top and I let out a small “Woohoo!” but no one else seemed to join in on my victory: “Yeah, yeah, we all made it to the top now shut up and sit down so we can watch the sunrise.” The summit was packed with people. Many were pulling out sleeping bags and foil blankets and cups of noodles and gas stoves– anything to get warm. I had nothing else. I was shaking, but the sun was beginning to rise so I found a spot amongst everyone and watched as hints of orange began to fill the sky. The sun slowly rose above the clouds and the mountains in the distance cast shadows on the land below, creating diagonal lines in the already gorgeous scenery.
I wish I could have watched the sunrise over and over again. But I was cold and my hot coffee was getting low so it was time to climb back down the mountain. It was finally bright out and I could see what it was I had just climbed. It was a big black mountain of nothingness (it is a volcano after all) but that’s ok because I didn’t need to see trees and plants when I was walking at night. As I was sliding down the mountain on the loose rocks, I kept my eye on the view from the side of the mountain as I descended further and further. There was never a point when the view was not good.
I couldn’t believe how high up I was, and suddenly I was motivated. Little, inexperienced ol’ me just climbed a mountain and I felt good. What else can I do? What other mountains are there that I can climb? Maybe I’ll join the Spartan races! (haha yeah right.)
It was an amazing accomplishment! If you are planning a trip anytime soon, read my tips on climbing Mt. Fuji, here.