Sunday, 16 August 2015

Mount Fuji ~ The First...and Last

It was never something that I had considered doing. It was never something I had even done before but when my friends expressed an interest in climbing Mount Fuji, I decided to jump on the bandwagon. One thing that I appreciate more then anything really are moments. I like having experiences. I want a life full of fond memories and reflection and obviously, what are moments if there aren't good folk to share them with.

There were six of us in total and we opted to climb during Obon - a national holiday in Japan that usually occurs between August 8th and August 16th. All of us had roughly the same time off work and even though we knew that the mountain would be busy, it was simply convenient. The date set, we started actively preparing two months in advance. I booked a hut as there was no way that six inexperienced hikers were going to climb 3776 metres in one day and another friend booked the bus to the mountain. We exchanged lots of information about what to buy, what to wear and precautions to take against the ever problematic altitude sickness. I also spoke to people who had climbed it already to gain their experiences but ultimately, the day finally arrived and we set off.

My travel utilities (thanks to some input from a good friend of mine) consisted of the following items:

1 pair of hiking boots
2 pairs of socks (1 woolen)
1 pair of thermal leggings
1 pair of water-wicking tracksuit bottoms
1 short-sleeved water-wicking top
2 long-sleeved water-wicking tops
1 fleece
1 rain suit (jacket and trousers)
1 balaclava
1 wool hat
1 waterproof hat
1 pair of hiking gloves
1 head light
2 bottles of 500ml water and 1 flask of water
1 bag of assorted snacks and sweets (calorie mate was my savour)
1 camera
1 pair of sunglasses
1 can of oxygen
1 half roll of toilet paper (just in case)
1 coin wallet (containing 5000 yens worth of 100 yen coins - for toilets/stamps)
3 small towels + 1 bathroom handkerchief 
2 packs of wet wipes
1 pack of paracetamol  
1 bag (to fit it all in)
1 waterproof bag cover
my actual purse with additional cash
my iPhone
my charger

Setting out, it was obviously humid so I wore the leggings and the short-sleeved top, my non-woolen socks and hiking boots. Our bus was scheduled to arrive at Shinjuku Bus Terminal for 7.40am so we decided to meet at 7.00am. Me and a friend arrived early so we went to the Starbucks nearby to fuel. The others started arriving shortly after but unfortunately one of our group, due to unforeseen circumstances, ended up missing the bus so we journeyed to Fuji Subaru Line 5th Station with just us five.

As expected the 5th Station was full of people. Lots of tour groups preparing for the climb and tourists who were not. We ate again and waited for our sixth member to arrive via other means. In that time, we bought hiking sticks to get stamped as we reached every station up the mountain and people watched as tour groups stretched and built morale for the hike. We probably started to ascend around 1pm which was probably a little late but such is life. One of our group had acquired a map and information regarding the hike. Unbeknownst to me until then, our hut was the last one before the summit so we had quite a way to go. 

Picture courtesy of a good friend.
Even kids were at this thing.
Getting to the 6th station was easy but overall we stopped frequently to rest, drink water, snack a little and recharge. As we ascended, the terrain began to change and became much more rocky as oppose to the smooth we had started out with. As an independent group, I think we angered a few of the tour groups a long the way but we often managed to pass them because their pace was obviously much slower - and smarter I might add. We snapped pictures when there was opportunity, admired the view when we could see it and the took in the clouds mixed with blue sky.

I pretty much stayed in the same attire until half way between the 7th and 8th station. I put on one of the long sleeved tops, gloves and wrapped one of the towels around my neck. It was here that we had also been instructed to slow down because altitude sickness was more likely. Our group also got divided. Myself and a friend headed up and the four remaining stuck together at a slower rate. At this point, our rest stopping became shorter, the skies got darker and the temperature dropped. Out came the balaclava, the fleece and the head light.

We reached the hut at around 7.40pm meaning that we had made the ascent in around 6 hours and 40 minutes. Despite snacking, I was starving for something hot but with only two of our group present, it made checking in difficult. It was at this point that I whipped my phone out for the first time in a while and noted a message stating that one of our group had succumbed to altitude sickness. I suggested that he stay at the closest hut and descend in the morning. The hut staff were also kind enough to reduce the cancellation fee from 100% to 50% so I was grateful. 

The rest of our group arrived over an hour later, we rejoiced and sat down to eat together but sadly altitude sickness took hold of another person in our group. Both a combination of concern and discomfort - the huts beds are all very close together and have probably been used over a thousand times - meant that I virtually got no sleep that night. I decided to stop trying around 1pm which was also the time that people started to surface and prepare to move out for the sunrise.

Our group held a mini meeting in regards to the sick and it was decided to those who were able, would hike the summit and then we would come back down and collect the sick as we went. It was at this point that I was starting to question my own condition as every time I stood up, I felt light-headed and I was also feeling breathless (both symptoms of altitude sickness). I decided to hang back a while and sit outside the sleeping quarters for a moment while my three other friends went ahead. I figured that over 100 people sleeping together breathing in the limited oxygen at 3450 metres in a closed space was probably more detrimental to me then good. So I ordered some hot cocoa, drank it, felt a bit better and decided to chance the hike to the summit.

Because I was still concerned about myself, I fell into step behind a man and his wife. I call him my anchor. His pace was perfect for me because he would move a little and then stop a little and so on. As a result, I took no long breaks and managed to catch up to my friends. It was freezing and the wind was blowing at this point but I had adorned my raincoat, my tracksuit bottoms, woolen socks and hat to combat it. There were thousands of little head lights lighting up the mountain which was pretty cool, and tour spokesmen and others motivating people for the ascent. Our group of four became two again as I maintained my step behind the anchor. Evidently, the twin lions that signal the summit fell into view and we reached the top of the mountain at around 4.20am. One can of corn soup later, we found a seat and watched the sunrise come up. People cheered and snapped pictures. I remember trying to take a selfie and my face being so cold that I couldn't even smile properly. 

The Sunrise
We reunited with the other two who made it as well, stamped our sticks, fought some Chinese tourists to take a picture next to the summit stone and began the descent. Silly me however thought that in order to reach our hut again we'd have to climb back the way we'd came because the descending route veered off somewhere else. This was not the case apparently. Nevertheless, we returned to our hut and retrieved our first friend who was feeling much better thankfully. We crossed over to the descending trail which was extremely slippery and retrieved our second sick friend along the way. So six friends finally reunited, we made our descent.

As with the ascent however, our group split again, clothes started coming off to compensate the change in temperature and less pictures were taken as fatique started to set in. There was a fear that we wouldn't make the bus in time (it was scheduled to leave at 12pm) but all six of us arrived at the bottom of the mountain. We ate again and hopped on the bus back to Shinjuku (which warranted a rather lovely 2 hour nap).

My overall opinion of climbing Mount Fuji is neutral. I hadn't trained fully for it and probably could have done a bit more research. I reckon we probably should have booked a hut that was lower down as that might have impacted better on those who contracted altitude sickness. I also think that popping the headache medicine was very helpful even though I didn't actually use my own. Although there are toilets on Mount Fuji, they are for the most part very disgusting as they don't function like normal toilets, they smell something rotten and some don't actually have tissue in them (the foam action toilets at the 5th station however were very interesting). It was lovely to hear all the different languages on the mountain as people from all over the world had come to conquer it. Peering down at the world when the clouds weren't obscuring it was also pretty cool. Being at the summit for the sunrise rise was freezing despite the four layers I was wearing. My gloves also did nothing to stop my fingers from getting frost bites, so I would advise anyone to buy gloves that are both functional and thermal.

I probably bought more stuff then I needed. I came back with lots of snacks and even half a bottle of water. I didn't wear all the clothing and it didn't rain but having the rain gear is still very useful. I borrowed sun screen from friends just in case but I've never really had sunburn before. I never used the camera - I ended up using my iPhone instead. Of all of us, my phone was one of the only ones that stayed on during the entire journey; I thank my lucky stars that I bought that charger. I barely used the oxygen can but I did give it to others use. I also came back with over 2000 yens worth of coins. I suspect however that even though I came back with all that stuff; it's much better to over-prepared then under.

I'm sure others have more positive experiences of Mount Fuji and I'm not saying mine wasn't positive, but there were difficulties and such that I had to acknowledge. So to anyone thinking about Mount Fuji - I would definitely say do it if you have the desire or the will-power. You don't have to be fit but you do have to know yourself and take things at your own pace. Over-research if you can. Know that Mount Fuji is expensive - both the mountain itself and the preparation that goes with it. You must also take your rubbish with you as there is nowhere to throw away anything on the mountain.

I'll say it again. I had no initial intentions nor any interest in climbing Mount Fuji when I came to Japan but I'm glad I did.

I'll have this memory - warts and all - forever.

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