For anyone who has ever been to Japan, seen pictures of Japan, read books about Japan, or seen movies set in Japan- you've heard of Mt. Fuji. After returning from my year abroad in Japan, I was often asked by my elders if I had the chance to climb Fuji. Sadly, I had to tell them no. I had been to the 5th station, as far as cars can go- but I had never taken the time to actually climb the dormant volcano. It was always something I regretted.
So, when one of the JETs decided to put a group together, and lead them up Mt. Fuji... I was one of the first to sign up.
For those of you who know me well, you might wonder if I am in any state to attempt such a dangerous feat. I have a history of knee/back problems, and I have had asthma for as long as I can remember. Fuji is a grueling hike, that can take anywhere from 6 hours to 12 for the average person, and there are only 2/3rds the level of oxygen on Mt. Fuji as there is at sea level. But, I knew if I didn't take advantage of this opportunity, I might never check FUJI off on my list of things to do.
To me, climbing Fuji wasn't just about climbing the mountain itself, but about pushing myself to do something that I might not normally do. I wanted to test myself, and to prove to myself that I could really do anything. This doesn't mean that I actually thought I'd be able to do it. . . I was secretly nervous as ever. I went with a group of 14 people and I feared that I'd be the one holding them back, or that I'd have to hold back and camp out at one of the stations, while the rest of them made their way to the top.
Surprisingly, I was one of the first two people to reach the top of the mountain in our group! Yippy!
We set out from Kobe at 11:30am, and rode the Shinkansen to Mishima.
From there we took a local city bus for 2 hours, to Mt. Fuji's 5th station, already 2,400 meters above sea level. We arrived around 6 because of the bus schedules, but couldn't start hiking until 9pm. If we started any earlier we would have gotten to the top way to early, and would have been cold, miserable, and bored while waiting for the sun to rise. At 9 we donned our headlamps, our rain jackets, garbage bags over our backpacks, and set off up the mountain. The first leg of the journey was a shock. Everyone in our group was in such a rush and really pushed themselves up the mountain quite quickly. With everyone passing me, and my legs already wanting to give out- I began to question whether or not I was really cut out for this journey.
Once we reached station 6, our fearless leader (Dustin, an ALT who had climbed Mt. Fuji the summer before) warned us that we should slow down and go at our own paces. "It's not a race," he said. After that things went a little better. Once we got to station 7, we were split up into 3 groups (slow, intermediate, and fast) depending on what pace we wanted to climb at. I chose to go in the intermediate group, thinking that I wouldn't have to push myself extremely fast, nor would I have to worry about being left behind if my group got too far ahead of me, because there would always be the next group coming up behind me. From there on out, we stopped at each station for a head count, to make sure that the members of our smaller groups were still with us.
The evil thing about Mt. Fuji is that they advertise it as having 10 stations, when really, it has quite a few more. 5 and 6 were single stations, but 7, 8, and 9 all had 1/2 stations in between them. This was quite deceiving when we were hiking, and we thought we were almost to 10, when really we were only at 8.5. The stations are basically just small huts that have a vending machine, a place to sleep if you arrive early enough (before dark), and a bathroom that you can pay money to use.
Our group used the stations as meeting spots to regroup, refuel, and re-energize. At first we were only taking 15 minute breaks at each station, but as we came closer to the top, we started taking 45-1 hour breaks just to pass the time so that we didn't hit the top too early.
For as much of a tourist attraction as Mt. Fuji is, I was pretty surprised at how rustic it was. The trail was rough, with large rocks, cliff edges, and twists and turns all over.
Ignorant me, I assumed there would be a path, perhaps a dirt trail, or a cement walkway. There was nothing of the sort. Occasionally there were thin ropes that had been looped through mental fence poles, to try to keep people from falling off the cliffs, and every now and then there were arrows spray painted on rocks, showing us the way to go. But other than that, the trail was pretty tough. There were times when I was using my hands to pull myself up on the steep section of rocks.
It was steep, and there were tons of people. If you had the energy to turn around and look down the mountain you could see a constant trail of lights, from the hikers below. I found the lines of people somewhat problematic, because often times we would get stuck at a standstill on the easiest route, and be force to take a steeper cliff in order to pass people and keep our momentum. In addition to the lines of people, the temperature was also tough to keep up with. The weather was cold if we stopped, but hot if we were hiking- which created a problem with what to wear and what to keep packed.
The feeling between stations was unbelievable. Climbing up a mountain in the pitch dark, surrounded by people huffing and puffing, while you're gasping for breath yourself, can make a person feel a bit claustrophobic.
The incline was steep and my thighs were pulsing with each step. I could feel my heart beating through all of my layers, so hard that I was afraid the people around me might hear it.
I wanted to talk to take my mind off the hike, but I couldn't make out the words. As we climbed higher and higher, the air became thinner. A simple misstep could put a person flat on their face. My hands were bruised from taking too many digs, and my palms were blistered from gripping my walking stick and the random rope harder than I realized. I longed to push myself harder and harder, just to get to the next station where I could sit down and rest. But as I pushed, I began to grow dizzy. The stars were moving, and my feet weren't stepping where I wanted them to. Down... That's when the Oxygen came in handy.
We all had canisters of Oxygen that worked like inhalers, to help us breathe in the high altitude. Some people claimed the Oxygen didn't do anything for them, but it made a world of difference for me. Without it, I felt like I was lying down, and someone had placed a pile of bricks on my chest. I'd feel waves of nausea and not be able to see clearly, a few puffs of Oxygen later and all of those hallucinations just vanished!
But, in the end we made it to the top. While everyone else set up camp, and cuddled to keep warm at 9 1/2, a friend and I set off for the top. We just wanted to be there, without having to worry about getting up and going again. We climbed to the top and found it was pitch dark, with about 4 different peaks. We had no idea which direction was which, so we just tried to find a nice warm spot that was blocked from the wind. After sitting there for 20 minutes, we decided we weren't comfortable, and ironically moved to a spot viewing the complete opposite direction. 25 minutes later (at 4:45) we watched the sun rise right in front of us. It was beautiful. Amazing! The sun came out of no where. The sky had gradually been getting brighter and brighter, so we just assumed the sun had risen behind one of the peaks. But then there it was, right in front of us- like a little cherry coming up out of the whip cream on an ice cream sundae.
The clouds, the sun, the colors, the mountain, the faces of the other hikers, it was all amazing. Something I will never, ever forget! Later we met up with the other members of our group and drank mimosas to congratulate our accomplishment. Of the 14 people in our group, all 14 made it to the top of Mt. Fuji- a very rare occurrence!
Going down wasn't exactly as much fun, and I ended up injuring my knees pretty bad and basically needing to be carried down the mountain. While going down wasn't as physically exertious as going up, it was definitely more painful for me. Tears sprang to my eyes numerous times, as I twisted and torn the insides of my knees. For two days afterwards I wasn't able to walk. But, every time I come to a set of stairs and grimace my way up or down them- my thoughts go back to that gorgeous sunrise on top of my Fuji.
Was it worth it? Definitely!