I’ve just returned from spending the most physically-challenging 24 hours of my life (so far) climbing Mt. Fuji.
**Sorry this is a bit of a long blog post but long story short: it sucked. If you want to know why, keep going. If you just want to see pics, scroll all the way to the bottom! **
So first off, let me begin by admitting I am not the fittest person ever. Let it be known that I am well aware of this. No matter what, though, I feel that despite my fitness setbacks, I am pretty solid and can handle heavy physical activity.
At the encouragement of my colleagues, I signed up for the annual company trip to ascend to the Fuji summit. The itinerary seemed straight forward enough: Start at the 5th station (out of 10 stations total), climb to the 8th station, sleep there, head up before dawn to catch the sunrise from the top, then back down to get our chartered bus back home by lunch time.
Everyone I spoke to about it, including my trainer, had no doubts I could handle the climb. Some even offered that the descent was the hardest part.
As usual, the only people concerned were my parents. They, however, tend to worry about anything I do in Japan, including going to the convenience store alone after dark [eye roll], so I didn’t really pay much attention.
I was just excited to check something off my Japan list and to climb anything at all, as I’d never climbed a real mountain/volcano before. (Full disclosure: I climbed nearby Takao-san in prep for this a week ago, but the trail is paved and I took a lift more than halfway up. It doesn’t count, as I mostly did it to see how I’d do in high altitude. Also, Takao is only 599 meters compared to Fujisan’s 3,776.)
So, I prepared for the trip, with a few extra gym sessions and proper gear rental. I even rented hiking boots, as it is possible, but highly discouraged, to climb in trainers.
I was hyped and ready to climb Fuji. When we started our ascent I was at the front of the group with a pep in my step… and then the altitude hit.
Usually when one gets altitude sickness, it is recommended to descend immediately if symptoms are strong. Or, you can stop and wait to get acclimated to the change in altitude and then continue. My symptoms were not too bad. At first, I felt a strong headache, which did not go away until I was literally off the mountain. Assuming it was dehydration, I upped my water and electrolyte intake.
Then, it got to the point where I could not walk a couple of feet without having to stop to catch my breath. The air was too thin and my muscles were not functioning the best that they could. It was stop-and-go between the 7th and 8th stations, on the last stretch of the Day 1 hike. The hours seemed endless. I finished an entire can of oxygen on this stretch, offering slight relief. The altitude made my pack feel heavier on my back and it felt like something was pushing down on my chest adding to the weight of having to climb volcanic rock.
And, boy, was it cold by this point. You really do get to experience all the seasons as you climb.
The terrain was particularly unforgiving as well. Think rock climbing on Mars. We wore utility gloves to hang onto the rocks and climb in some parts. This is the novice trail and I was dyiiiiiiinnnnnggggggg.
Our lodging hut didn’t make matters better. It was a cramped, tiny, communal room. It looked like the inspiration was straight from a concentration camp; wooden shelves where everyone slept next to each other. It was cold in there, not very comfortable and I felt feverish. The stay at around $70 USD per person was pricey. And probably the worst part was that every time I tried to use the toilet (also COMMUNAL) I had to pay 200 yen ($1.50 USD)!
I had to go out into the freezing cold every time I wanted to pay to use the restroom. Okay for a normal person maybe, but each time I’d walk out the blast of cold air would hit my lungs like a ton of bricks. Sleep was restless and as I mentioned earlier, staying at a certain altitude and waiting for acclimation is supposed to help, but my body would not cooperate.
At 2 am on Day 2, I considered making the 8th station my point of descent. I succumbed to peer pressure in the end but took it really slow with the help of our guide who helped keep our pace steady the rest of the way up to the summit. Due to the thick clouds covering the peak there was no real sunrise and no ‘sea of clouds‘ to awe us once we reached the top. The view after all the sweat, tears and pain, was slightly disappointing, but I made it and no one can take that away! A warm bowl of ramen at the top was my consolation prize.
Since the cloud cover was pretty thick and we were already behind our group, we were only at the crater for about 40 minutes. Our guide prepped his knee with a brace to get ready for the descent he said would take a toll on us. The descent was rough, but easier. Its a different path that is specifically for descending on the same trail with a lot of steep declines, zig-zagging and loose rock.
My lungs and physical state improved almost immediately. This time, when we reached the 8th station, I was a completely different person. It felt like I was only relying on my physical fitness and not physical ailments to complete the trek. This I could handle; this I was good at.
A kind soul, one of my coworkers, greeted us after what seemed like an eternity of loose lava gravel, and offered to carry my backpack! I work with such amazing people, seriously. The entire group had made it to the 5th station by 830 a.m. and I didn’t get there until after 10 a.m., rounding out at about an 8-hour day of climbing.
It was not easy. Mentally and physically, this climb was challenging. As I sit here typing this, freshly-showered and fed, in my home, my body is throbbing. My muscles are tense and sore, my face is sunburned and lips are chapped from dehydration. Cold water has never tasted so good!
I knew at the 8th station, when the possibility of throwing in the towel was imminent, I would regret not making it to the summit forever. I also knew that making it this time would guarantee that I could never return!
I know that sounds dreary and awful, but I am done. I did it and not doing it again.
There are people who enjoy this particular form of torture and others who even try a yearly marathon to run straight to the top. Fuji has four trails and if I thought the Yoshida Trail we took was difficult I can only have nightmares about the others. Scratch that, I’d rather not think about it at all. (:
And while this may come off as a whiney rant about what a horrible time I had, I swear it’s not at all. All of these things were part of the experience for me. This was just a particular moment where the “Denisse, you’re in Japan!” thought running through my mind was not enough to all of a sudden convert me into a mountaineer.
I still think it’s a must-do and I cannot say how glad I am it’s over enough! Fuji is a magical place, but I’d much rather enjoy it from afar.
Next time on the blog, Hiroshima…