There is a famous Japanese proverb which says, “If you never climb Mount Fuji you are a fool, and if you climb it more than once, you are a fool.” My experiences of the
3776m monolith left me wondering whether the real fool was the one who heeded the wisdom of this proverb…
I was part of a group of seven novice climbers who set off from Yamagata to join a group of fellow JETs from Fukushima to tackle Japan’s highest peak. After a long coach journey, most of which seemed to be taken up with an epic game of ‘Guess The Famous Person’ and a discussion about Mother Teresa’s ethnicity, we arrived at 5th base on Fuji, which stands at 2305m. Considering the highest point in the UK is a mere 1344m, this was no mean height in itself, and we were recommended to spend some time adjusting to the altitude before we set off on our overnight trek, with the aim of reaching the summit before the 4.15am sunrise.
We had been advised that a journey from 5th base to the peak would take around 5-8 hours. The weather was a bit chilly, but reasonably calm and the forecast had promised dry weather and a nice clear view in the morning from which to enjoy the legendary summit sunrise. With our backpacks laden with warm clothes, food and water, and our bellies full of last minute curry and rice, we set off on the first stage of the walk. With just short of a mile to climb vertically and around 6 kilometres on the flat to cover, the task ahead of us seemed quite reasonable at first glance. The first kilometre sailed by as we sauntered on a flattish section, taking in the impressive views out towards the harbour as the sun descended.
The next base saw the real ascent start, as we started our proper climb. A combination of steep re-enforced steps and dirt trails greeted us as the narrowing paths became more congested. We all took turns at setting the pace, and even though we were a mixed ability group, we managed to stay together, regrouping at the various bases on the way up the mountain and staying in good spirits by chatting as we climbed.
As we reached a particularly challenging section of the climb, the temperature began to plummet and a stream of drizzle arrived. With large boulders in our way, we climbed on our hands and knees as the strengthening wind blew volcanic ash into our eyes. As the rain fell with increasing force, this gentle walk had suddenly turned into a real test of mettle as we clambered up slowly. We finally reached the next station, sandwiched in the middle of a line of flashlit lemmings following the same route. The huge distance between us and the peak suddenly became demoralising rather than inspiring, with conversation starting to run dry as concentrated on conserving energy. As the path became single-file, the ensuing bottlenecks slowed us down to a crawl, chilling our increasingly cold bodies in what were increasingly becoming gale force winds. The gaps between bases seemed to grow infinitely as we struggled up the mountain, desperately clinging onto the jangling metal support chains as the gusts of wind threatened to throw us off the mountain.
As we continued onto the early hours, our group seemed to split without warning. I suddenly realised that just myself and Caroline were still together at the front of the pack, and I could no longer see the others. Conscious of the lack of passing places, we struggled on, barely saying a word to each other. We shuffled up the mountain, queuing frozen amongst a sea of miserable pac-a-macced Japanese. This was no longer fun. Just as the end seemed in sight, another higher peak came into view. We started seeing the remnants of snow and sleet started to barricade into us.
Our ambitions of seeing a sunrise from the peak began to fade as we slowly edged past those climbers who had conceded to the tough conditions and were slumped, freezing and helpless, on the edges of the mountain path. As 4am approached, we finally saw the big red torii (shrine gate) come into our view, symbolising the top of the mountain. We walked through hand in hand. Any feelings of euphoria were mitigated by an overwhelming feeling of misadventure. We still had to get down in the same conditions and we weren’t sure if the others were safe. My ‘waterproofs’ were sodden and ripped. The cold and wind had gone from uncomfortable to downright unbearable and the promised payoff of a beautiful sunset was stolen away by the thick clouds that had enveloped us.
My pre-climb vision of the top of the mountain was of a plateau full of delighted people, taking in the stunning views and enjoying the camaraderie of strangers, high on their achievement of making it to the peak. Instead, Caroline and I sipped a can of coffee in rest stop at the top of the mountain, desperately trying to warm up. After such a bleak couple of hours, being in a rest stop where you can buy souvenirs and ramen seemed incongruous and inappropriate rather than comforting. Spirits were lifted when our friend Cailleah came into view about 10 minutes later.
As we were discussing our concern for the others, we were suddenly embroiled in a bizarre conversation with a random European man in shorts(!) who was taking delight in blowing smoke in our faces. The brief ensuing argument and offensive comments that he made to the girls killed off any chance of a buzz stirring up as we defrosted. Megan, with whom I’d completed both the 50km charity walk around Tokyo and the Tokyo Marathon with earlier in the year made it to the top soon after. We agreed that those were a cakewalk compared to this purgatory. As the sun came up somewhere behind the clouds, Amanda also made the summit along with another Fukushima JET. The other two, Peter and Areej, were further down the mountain, and it later transpired, had to turn back due to the awful conditions.
By this time, the top of the mountain had become treacherous, with standing up straight outside was impossible. We all moved back inside the rest stop and it became clear that one of the group was in distress. Trying our best to use whatever dry, warm clothes to avoid the situation becoming an emergency, we were horrified to discover that there was no first aid at the top of the mountain. Whilst it is entirely right to assume that if you decide to climb a mountain you have to look out for yourself under most circumstances, I would have thought that where you have thousands of people climbing a peak in a developed country at the same time in dreadful conditions, having some blankets/medicine/a first aider at the top should be more of a priority than someone selling souvenir knick-knacks… We were advised that we had to move out of the shelter and get our friend down the mountain as soon as possible. We looked outside to the endless queues of people starting to descend the mountain, desperately clinging on to the sides to avoid the gales from blowing them down and decided that we had no choice but to make a break for it.
As we descended, the arrival of daytime and the gradual decline of our altitude level meant that our friend soon warmed up and was over the worst of her troubles. Nevertheless, having all been up for over 24 hours, clad in soaked clothes and still battered by the wind, the 6 hours of meandering down Fuji through its slippery dust trails was not particularly enjoyable. Even when the impressive view came into focus as the clouds receded, it still felt as if there had been a lot more pain than gain on this escapade.
We reached the bottom around 45 minutes after our bus had been scheduled to leave. After some miscommunications, we caused a further delay which unfortunately meant that rather than the hand-slapping, joyous reunion with our fellow travellers that was anticipated, patience was running rather thin on the ground and we were greeted with a rather frosty reception. This was compounded by having to go to a different onsen (hot spring bath) than the one that was planned, understandably something which upset a few of the others, who had been focused on it all morning as their reward for their exertions. Unlike the previous tough physical challenges earlier in the year which had ended in a sense of satisfaction, there was no warm afterglow felt here. The promises of exhilaration, sunrises and photo opportunities that so many others had spoken of had been completely extinguished.
It was only after the 8-hour journey back to Yamagata by bus and train, when my head hit the pillow after 44 hours without sleep, that I started to draw some positives from the experience. We were all safe. All of my group were still talking to each other. I found the souvenir bandanna that I bought at one of the stations and thought had blown away. And most importantly, I knew I wasn’t going to endure the horrors of Mount Fuji again. I’m still not convinced that you’re a fool not to climb Fuji, but I can definitely vouch that I would be most definitely be foolish to do it twice…