Up and down Mt. Fuji in a day and nearly getting lost...
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Up and down Mt. Fuji in a day and nearly getting lost...

by Colin

Thank you for an excellent resource about climbing Mt Fuji. Didn't have the time to go through all the details before I did the climb, but on hindsight I now wished I did.

A long harbored objective between my wife and I was to climb Mount Fuji. We were attracted because climbing it does not require technical skills and even grandparents and the very young could do it. We are both in our mid-50s and reasonably fit so decided to do it before it became too late.

Well the traditional method of doing it over 2 days and sleeping in a mountain hut with a hundred over persons in community bunk beds with limited toilet facilities didn't exactly appeal to us so we took the decision to do it in a day starting out in the early morning. The climb was estimated to be between 6-8 hrs and descent about 3-4 hrs. What I underestimated is that the figures given were those who slept and rested during the night; not gung-ho wannabe types like us.

So we parked our car at the car park near the Fuji Yoshida Interchange and caught the 2nd bus at 5 am (1st bus was at 4:20 am which we thought was too early) to the Fuji Subaru 5th station. Arriving there around 6 am, we took a simple breakfast at the 24-hr diner and proceeded on our way around 630 am.

The hike to the 6th station was supposed to be the easy warm up and estimated time taken was supposed to be 1-1.5 hrs but we took around 2 hrs just to do the simple part. At the time I was already telling myself this was not going to be as easy as people made it out to be.

After the 6th station, loose gravel gave way to lava rock and the climb became more difficult. Getting to the 7th station took us another 1-2 hrs instead of the expected 1 hr by which time I already knew we were going to be behind schedule - the question was how long?

The climb got worse from stage 7 to stage 8.5 - it's very steep, exposed and rocky and our trekking poles were invaluable. It took us more than 2 hrs to get to stage 8 by which time we were 2 hrs behind schedule. At 3000m - the thin air made climbing difficult and we had to rest ever so often. Ominously the wife began experiencing a headache which was the 1st sign of altitude sickness.

In order not to aggravate the situation we slowed down to a crawl, purchased oxygen and made the decision to press on. I was reassured (mistakenly as it would turn out) because there were many people still climbing up behind us + we had some food + water + waterproof clothing that it was ok. The only thing we didn't have was a torch which we would need as we now expected to summit between 3-4 pm and since the descent would take 3-4 hrs then it will be dark. However I told myself it's basically 1 way down and we have our phone lights so it should be ok.

And so we summited many hours late at just after 5 pm; literally dragging our weary bones up the final stretch. The thought of giving up was always there in lieu of the wife's condition but having come so far with the summit so tantalizingly close we decided to just do it!

Mindful of the fact we still needed to get down in time to catch the bus back to the car park, we spent a scant half hour at the top and proceeded to descend. We were heartened by the fact that we still had some company of about 10-20 climbers so we wouldn't be lonely.

Going down was a delicate affair of navigating loose gravel slopes; like going down a sand slope only harder and more shocking to the knees. As we are not exactly spring chickens and had to preserve our knees, we decided against schlussing down the slopes like others. Still we made good time. Or so I thought until we reached nearby to the 8th station at about 7 pm and it was already getting dark and the sign said it was still more than 2 hours to the 6th station!

The others with us also peeled away and I realized then that they were willing to climb late cos they were staying at the mountain hut unlike us who were going down. Suddenly we were the only and last ones going down!

I could just feel the eyes of the others who were relaxing with coffee cups in their hands enjoying the mountain air looking at us in a mixture of surprise and wonderment at 2 stupid gaijin going down the mountain in the darkness without a torch.

Well ... no choice and so we went down a long series of switchbacks with no company except for each other. To make matters worse, lightning started to flash and we were on an exposed mountain slope with no trees and no shelter in sight!

Still we soldiered on and then it started to drizzle and I was hoping the rain would keep away cos we had nothing to shelter us. The light from our phone torches barely illuminated the way and we were conscious of not straying too far and going over the slope in the darkness. More than once we went past a few switchbacks and reached the edge of the path into oblivion before we stopped ourselves, retraced our steps and found the switchback. Again to make matters worse a mist rolled in and whatever dim light we had was reflecting back to us.

Progress was thus painfully slow and the constant downhill trek was also playing havoc with our knees and toes (because the toes kept getting pushed into the toe cap and blisters were forming).

Despite more than 2 hours of this and not meeting anyone, I relied on a (vague) map we had and knew we were on the correct route. However there was some new construction which then made us question if we were indeed correct.

So wary of making a mistake, we phoned the Mt Fuji Safety Center asking them to come rescue us. I could imagine the headlines the next day : Singaporean couple foolishly lost on the slopes of Mount Fuji and had to be rescued. Well guess what - the voice at the other end of the line said they only speak Japanese and didn't understand English and couldn't help. We were on our own!

The good thing is that there was shelter nearby and we had biscuits and water so we could have survived the night if needed. It had started raining by then and the temp was reading single digits.

So I asked the wife to retrace our steps to see if we made a mistake and less than 2 mins into the climb we saw a light coming our way! Lo and behold we saw a pair of young Japanese males also making their way down, one even wearing flip flops and a hat. After calling them and making new friends we walked with them. They were also a little lost but at least were more confident than we were.

The moment was not lost on me : I recognized that by some miracle, someone up there had smiled on us and sent us some help. Consider : 1. What were they doing there? They were certainly not climbers dressed they way they did. Flip flops???? 2. We were the last ones down the mountain and did not see anybody behind us for more than 2 hours 3. If they were staff from the mountain huts they would return by a different route. The descent is quite far away from the ascent trail 4. Who would be walking around in this desolate place at 930 pm in the night?

I cannot explain it but the realization that there was some divine help was as clear as day to me. All of a sudden my worries went away.

To cut a long story short, we rushed to get back to the 5th station by 11 pm as Rangers told us the last bus was due to go off then.

Well we managed to do this in the rain and drenched from head to foot but found out that this was wrong and the last bus had already left at 9 pm. Then another stroke of good luck (again!) came when the staff at the info booth told us they would give us a lift back to the car park (a one hr trip) if we could just wait awhile. We thankfully accepted and reached our car at about 1 am and drove to our hotel reaching there about 2 am. By the time we bathed, laid out our clothes to dry and got into bed it was close to 3 am.

Considering we had gotten up at 4 am the previous day, we were awake and continuously moving for almost 24 hrs and were climbing or descending with no lunch and dinner for almost 18 hrs. Truly an experience I will never forget!!!

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Sep 13, 2014
Further thoughts ...
by: Colin

Thanks Gary!

The one thing that surprised us was that the Safety Center folks could not converse in English. Knowing that Fuji-san attracts an international crowd, I would have thought that this was the minimum.

Also we severely underestimated the time taken for the ascent/descent. Based on previous reports on the Net of a 2.5-3 hr ascent, I assumed it would not take longer than 8-10 hrs for a round trip even for novices like us and I omitted to bring a torch even though I had one in my luggage. Big mistake as the times turned out to be optimistic and didn't factor in breathers and altitude sickness! Tip to others to be prepared for anything and bring stuff that will be useful in any unforeseen scenario ... and add 25% to the estimated climbing times you see on signboards along the way.

Another observation is that while one normally walks or steps up the trail, there are places where you may need to be on all fours just to balance yourself, so don't be afraid to look silly doing this. There are also places where you really need your leg muscles to propel yourself up 'cause the gap is too wide, so training to take big climbing steps is a good idea!

Sep 12, 2014
An amazing 23-hour Mt. Fuji climb!
by: Gary Wolff

Thanks, Colin, for sharing your very gripping story of climbing Mt. Fuji, and I'm relieved to hear your guardian angels helped you & your wife get down safely off of the peak.

I hope your story will serve as a valuable resource to future climbers on the hidden dangers of scaling Japan's highest mountain!

Thanks for sharing it!

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