Climbing Mt. Fuji - the 3rd time was the charm!
by Joe Sanders
Yokota airmen en route to climbing Mt. Fuji in 1964
I arrived at Yokota Air Base Japan in June of 1962, not knowing anybody and lonely. I was an Airman 2nd class in the U.S. Air Force. The veterans at my last base in Lake Charles, LA had assured me that this was the best assignment I could have gotten in the whole wide world. I will admit after a few days there, I was not impressed.
After a few days there, I learned that another airman from my hometown back in Arlington, GA was also assigned there. He worked in finance, so I looked him up. He was actually reaching the end of his assignment in Japan. One of my goals when going to Japan was to climb Mt. Fuji. My friend there told me that he was planning a trip to climb Mt. Fuji in a few days. He invited me to go with him and two more of his friends.
I didn't know anything about traveling on the trains in Japan. His wife was Japanese, so he was fully qualified to travel by train there. Mt. Fuji is located about 60 miles from Yokota Air Base. During the winter, its snow covered cap can be easily seen on a clear day from Yokota.
So we departed one Saturday afternoon from Fussa station for Mt. Fuji. Our plan was to get off the train in the small town at the base of Mt. Fuji and climb it from there. When we arrived there, it was dark. So, we set out walking. From what we could see at night was just a big black mass. Sometime during the night, it was clear that we had not planned properly. We didn't understand just how far it was from the place where we got off the train to the summit of Mt. Fuji. We were not in shape physically. I did not smoke, but some of the others did. To sum it up, we reached the 5th station of Mt. Fuji about daybreak the next morning. We were exhausted and were not motivated to continue the climb. So we caught a bus back to town and caught a train back to our base. That was the end of my first attempt at climbing Mt. Fuji.
About a year later, some of my friends wanted to do the climb. We caught a train to the town at the base of Mt. Fuji. This time we did not try to climb it from the train station. Of the four of us, I was the only one with prior experience. We caught a bus to the 5th station, where we had ended on the first attempt. The road at that time was dirt and really rough. The bus could only do 10-20 mph at the most. From my best memory, I think it was about 8 pm when we reached the 5th station. It is supposed to be an 8-hour climb from the 5th station to the summit.
From the 5th station, the stations are numbered up to about fifteen I believe. They are roughly 30-45 minutes apart. When departing the 5th station, it is mostly just a slight incline and pretty good time can be made. The incline gradually increases until one is struggling to make the next step. If the climber is out of shape, as I was, it is very exhausting. I would have to catch my breath about every 20 feet. At that time much of the path was loose lava rock, which increased the difficulty. With altitude, the air gets thinner and it gets hard to breathe. I began to get very nauseated not too far from the top. I didn't think I could make it to the summit, so I got a bed at one of the stations and sacked out. The others went on to the summit. They picked me up on the way down and went back down in a little over an hour in what had taken eight hours to go up. That was the end of my second attempt.
The next year would be my last chance to climb Mt. Fuji which was 1964. I would not depart Japan until 1965, but it would be prior to the climbing season. July and August are the preferred climbing months.
Some other friends and I decided to make the attempt in July of 1964. One of them owned a Volkswagen Beetle. So the five of us departed Yokota in the Beetle for the 60-mile drive to Mt. Fuji. The road to the 5th station was now paved, so we made it to the 5th station by early afternoon on a Saturday. We set out walking/hiking. We reached the summit in time to see the beautiful sunrise the next morning. It was an awesome sight, one I will never forget. Looking down in the huge crater is an unforgettable sight.
So we were back to the base by early afternoon on Sunday. I am happy that I did make it to the summit before my departure from Japan. So, on my third and final attempt, I made it to the summit.
Looking at the videos of Mt. Fuji on YouTube, I observe a number of changes. One is, there are a lot more people now to deal with. Everything is now modernized, and things can be purchased that were not available before. Much of the lava rock has been polished down slick from the millions of hikers using it. It has been almost fifty years since I was there, so things have changed. In closing, I will say that my 3-year tour in Japan was my best assignment in my 20-year career in the Air Force.
Some do's and don'ts for climbing Mt. Fuji:
- Do not try to climb it from the train station at the base of the mountain.
- Get physically fit before the attempt. You will need every ounce of energy you can muster.
- Don’t pack a large backpack, you can purchase most anything you need on the trail. A little more expensive, but better than trying to carry it.
- Take a lot of breaks.