Climbing Mount Fuji

by Christine on June 2nd, 2010

filed under Exercise, General Information

Mount Fuji in SpringToday I was reading through one of my favorite blogs, “Did I Just Eat That Out Loud” (click here for link), where the author asked, “Have you ever had a chance to make one of your wildest dreams come true?”

I did, actually.  How many people can really say “yes” to that question?

In 2001 I went to Japan for the second time. I went with a group of international exchange students from my college, and we stayed with a friend who was from Japan.  We represented the USA (me), Japan (Ayako), France, The Netherlands, South Korea, and the Ivory Coast.  Our wonderful hostess asked us all to pick out one thing we wanted to do while we were in Japan. France picked karaoke, The Netherlands picked visiting a famous temple. I chose something totally nuts: I wanted to climb Mount Fuji.

Mount Fuji Seen from Green Tea Field in AprilNow, keep in mind I was 220 pounds (at 5’2) and hardly in any athletic condition to be tackling a real mountain. Furthermore, I grew up in Illinois had had never even seen a real mountain first-hand, much less attempted to walk up one. Yet, I said, “I want to climb Mount Fuji,” so off we went on a bus trip to the mountain.

Lava Rock so sharp!Mount Fuji is not just a mountain. It’s a volcano.  There’s not much difference, except perhaps for the landscape and footing. While a real mountain has dirt, evergreen needles, rocks and tree roots (vegetation) to give you a pretty landscape and the all-important foothold, Mount Fuji does not. It’s comprised of palm-sized lava rock, which is sharp as hell if you fall on them. (see photo to the left) It’s very loose, like gravel. You take one big step and slide 2/3 of the way backwards. You take another step and slide backwards yet again. Climbing Mount Fuji is literally like climbing uphill while constantly sliding downhill.  (See photos below)

Lava Rock on Mount FujiWe started out climb at 4:30 p.m., and we climbed until we reached the top at sunRISE, which was about 6 a.m. That’s 14+ hours of nonstop climbing upwards for those of you who are math-deficient.   The goal is to reach the top of the mountain at sunrise in order to epitomize the spiritual journey needed to reach the top.  Well, I hadn’t really signed up for that, but we were stuck on a tour of Japanese-only speakers, and I didn’t speak a single bit of Japanese, so I didn’t really know.  In fact, the entire trip was a calamity of errors. For instance:

  • We started the climb in July, and it was 110 degrees F where we began. Thinking that the trip would be warm, I embarked wearing only shorts, a t-shirt, a pair of gym shoes, and a pair of socks. But I planned ahead (I thought)!! I packed an extra pair of socks. JUST IN CASE.  I’m such a dumbshit. At 12,000 feet, it was less than 30 degrees at the top of the mountain, complete with snow and sleeting rainstorm.  Did I mention that I wore gym shoes? Not hiking boots (with crampons) appropriate for climbing in loose gravel?
  • I brought one bottle of water. ONE. BOTTLE.  Because I thought it would be a short jaunt to the top.
  • I brought one package of salty crackers. One package.  Because I thought it would be a quick trip to the top. That same package of crackers literally EXPLODED in my backpack on the way up, from the altitude.  Did I mention that it took 14 hours just to reach the top?

Climbing up lava rock on Mount FujiWe started about one-third of the way up the mountain, and I knew instantly that I was in trouble.  For starters, I was getting passed by 60 year old Japanese men fully decked out in hiking gear. They scoffed at my t-shirt and shorts. I scoffed at their jackets and trekking poles. Let’s guess who was doing the laughing three hours later

I felt the hiking burn about 2 hours into the trip. I thought I would need to quit right then and there. But I looked up and the top didn’t look so far away, so I thought, “Gee, how bad can it be?” Then it turned black as night out there. They do not have lights illuminating the walkway.  (The professional hikers had the foresight to bring headlights. I did not.)  There were no bathrooms — well, none that were free, anyway.  I peed crouched down along the path when I had thirty seconds between groups passing me.

The second sign that I was in way over my head: They sold oxygen along the way.  Real oxygen.  Soon I found out why: my international group of friends began puking like crazy. The altitude got to them. Slowly they started dropping off, deciding to go back rather than go forwards. I kept plugging along.  It wasn’t a conscious decision; I was in a total exhausted haze. I was alone, in a foreign country, without water or food, 100 pounds too heavy for the trip, but I wasn’t going to stop now, not nine hours into the hike!

My legs found a rhythm and I completely blanked everything out. Every inch of my body hurt. I ached. I was mentally done. I was ill-prepared. I was freezing. I used the extra pair of socks as mittens on my hands. Some 70 year old hiker took pity on me and gave me an extra sweatshirt. I don’t even remember the transaction now, or if I paid him for the sweater. I cried at least a third of the way up to the top. I told myself a million times, “I can’t do this. I’m too fat. I’m too out of shape. What the hell was I thinking? Stop now! ” but I kept talking to myself while walking in that mind-numbing motion forwards. Upwards. I didn’t stop.

At the top, the climb turned more treacherous.  Instead of loose gravel, it became large boulders that you needed to climb hand-over-hand.  It was sleeting and my extra sock-gloves were soaked. I had icicles on my eyelashes, and my eyes kept literally freezing shut. I was wet and freezing. I couldn’t stop shivering. But I didn’t stop moving.  I followed professional climbers that used rock-climbing gear, carribeaners, crampons, and climbing picks to reach the top, but I didn’t have any of that stuff: only my hands and feet. I cried the whole way.

Top of Mount FujiThen I reached the top. My friend told me that I would reach the top and see the crater of the volcano. The sunrise would occur in front of me, and it would be magical, like a movie. That image kept me moving during the climb, but it didn’t really work out that way in reality.  I only knew I reached the top because there was  a warming hut (free!) at the top. The sleeting storm got worse. It was hazy and dark. There was no sunrise. There was no crater. There was nothing but freezing rain and a poorly lit fire.

I cried for a solid hour. I couldn’t believe I did it. I couldn’t believe I reached the top. Never in my wildest dreams could I have dreamt that I would achieve something so huge. I climbed 12,388 feet to the top of Mount Fuji.

With an amazing amount of non-ceremony, I stood up from my seat and started sliding my way down the gravel, down the hill. Trumpets did not blare. I didn’t get a handshake from the Prime Minister congratulating me on my challenge. I didn’t even have a single friend with whom I could celebrate. I reached the top, I was exhausted, I started going back down. Going down was remarkably fast due to the gravel. I fell a thousand times, backwards, onto my hands and butt. My hands were raw and bloody from landing on the sharp lava rock.  I cried on the way down too.  When I met my friends at the bottom of the mountain, I had little to say, and little emotion left in me. I was drained in every way possible. I found my way to the charter bus and watched the scenery pass me by as we drove back to Kyoto.  I may have dozed a little, but mostly I was just numb. It took me weeks to process what had just happened to me.

Thank you to Mrs.FatAss for reminding me of that journey. It changed my life. Without a doubt.

Have you ever had a chance to make your wildest dream come true? Tell me all about it. Or, tell me what dream you would LIKE to make come true?

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  • Big Clyde

    I lived in Japan, but never climbed Fuji-yama. It’s beautiful. Good story.

  • Big Clyde

    I lived in Japan, but never climbed Fuji-yama. It’s beautiful. Good story.

  • Bonnie

    What an inspiring story. Unfortunately I’m so focused on trying to do normal things right now – you know, go up stairs without breathing heavy, give myself a pedicure, fit into normal size clothes – it’s hard to think of my wildest dream. I’ll get back to you though.

  • Bonnie

    What an inspiring story. Unfortunately I’m so focused on trying to do normal things right now – you know, go up stairs without breathing heavy, give myself a pedicure, fit into normal size clothes – it’s hard to think of my wildest dream. I’ll get back to you though.

  • Mad Woman

    WOW! That’s amazing. I’m so happy you shared that story. It makes my normal, run of the mill, weekday problems seem so….small. Thank you!

  • Mad Woman

    WOW! That’s amazing. I’m so happy you shared that story. It makes my normal, run of the mill, weekday problems seem so….small. Thank you!

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  • Ohamme

    Oh. My. God. Thank you for giving me the slap in the face I needed. Climbing Mount Fuji is on my friends bucket list and with a trip to Japan involved we all jumped at the chance. At first we all thought it can’t be that bad, lots of articles say small children and the elderly go up all the time, but its slowly starting to hit me how epic its really going to be…

    • Brian0067

      If you go up trail 5, it isn’t so bad.  The trail is clearly defined after the first half mile of really loose stuff.  After that, it’s alot of stair climbing.  You’ll sweat no matter how cold it is out.  Take a spare change of clothes, some food, water and defintely hiking boots.  Oh yea, and a rain poncho (light weight).  You can do it, I did it in 3 hours.  The story of 14 hours is really on the long side of the time it should take.  Pacing yourself, you can do it in 8 or 9 hours easy.  Plan to spend time at the top.  That’s my only regret is leaving too early.  I didn’t soak it in enough.  You can even stay all night at the top.  There’s a hut up there.  Bring a light sleeping bag.  They sell 30 degree bags that are 1 pound.  Good luck.  The top is totally worth it.  I was amazed.

  • Diamondarmy

    Thank you for sharing your story.  I felt bad reading how upsetting it was, and understandably so.  At the end you mention it changed your life.  In what way did it change your life and how lasting is that change?  I was in Tokyo last month and was thinking of climbing Mt Fuji, probably not to far off being as under prepared as you were.  Thankfully I didn’t and if I ever get the chance again I’ll remember your story to help me prepare.  Thanks again. 

  • Leesa

    I was in Japan for 7 years and went to climb Mt. Fuji twice.  I didnt make it to the top but only to level 8.  I still have my walking sticks.  My daughters were small and we tract together.  We were prepared we had the water, trail mix, light food, oxygen, rain poncho, right shoes.  I would love to do it again. 

  • Brian0067

    I climbed Mt. Fuji in 1990.  I was 24 yrs old at the time and acclimatized.  I was deployed to Camp Fuji for 6 months and ran everyday on the mountain before attempting my only summit.  I was the truck driver for 22 of us Marines that early pre-dawn morning.  I was the third one up in only 3 hours from station 5.  We literally ran up the mountain.  Man, I wish I was in that kind of shape now.  I was really tired at the top and changed clothes.  I carried a light 20 lb pack up.  My MRE was bloated to twice it’s normal size and exploded when I opened it.  I walked around the rim once, took some pictures and hiked to the observatory just to say that I made it to the top of Japan.  It was really beautiful.  I only stayed on top an hour and a half.  I felt slightly sick, but not too bad.  I was very shaky from the quit ascent though.  I would do it again, but take my time.  It got really steep within 100 or 200 yards from the top and it seemed like an hour from there.  I can remember it vividly.  The drive down with overheating brakes and low air pressure in the truck was equally vivid in my mind.  I used to drive a bus to Tokyo everyday to Disneyland and New Sanno hotel for fellow Marines and the sight of Mt. Fuji from 20 miles away made my heart flutter every time.  So beautiful and huge.  I hope to make it back there someday.

  • mike jones

    I climbed Mt Fuji in 1988. Made it to the top to view the sunrise. Beautiful. I still have my walking stick with the sunrise stamp.