My last week in Japan, at least for this year, and I’m still keen to climb Mt Fuji.
The reasons why people choose to scale the highest mountain in Japan are many and varied. For some it’s simply the challenge of enduring a certain degree of physical hardship. For others it’s that sense of accomplishment from successfully completing a monumental task most would never think of doing let alone achieve.
Both of these aspects are true, to some extent, for me as well. But there is definitely more to it than that.
I’m also training for a 29km run in a couple of weeks time and so my mountain climbing in Japan over the past several weeks is a “means to an end”.
I’m sure for some it’s a spiritual journey. Given the number of shrines littered along the old pathway and the fact that the original climb traditionally started at Kitaguchi Hongu Fujisengen Jinja-mae (Sengen Shrine) is testament to this. Although I doubt it’s a predominant driving force for very many people these days.
I also think the idea that “it’s there so why not?” is quite prevalent, especially amongst the many foreigners climbing Mt Fuji. One website suggested as many as 1/3 of the hikers come from overseas.
Yet all my research (and I did a lot of it) suggested that the task of climbing Mt Fuji was not to be treated lightly.
Standing at 3776m above sea level, it is not a “walk in the park” by any means.
True, it’s not nearly as high as Mt Kilimanjaro (5895m) in Tanzania, for example, but it still commands respect.
I was constantly advised that preparation is paramount. And so, with this in mind, I want to share what I did and then (as a postscript below) what I should have done.
how to dress?
Warmly. I can’t emphasise this enough.
Despite my weather app saying the temperature at the base of Mt Fuji is 32+ degrees C and that it feels like 38 degrees C, another website forecasts the temperature will be close to 4 degrees C at the summit during the night. Subtract from that a few degrees due to the wind-chill factor and you get the picture that it is not “shorts & t-shirt” weather.
So the idea is to think in terms of wearing layers. Peeling them off if you warm up from the exercise, and putting them back on if you pause for a rest or when you eventually, God willing, reach the top. You don’t want to be sweating so much that when you do stop you quickly get a chill from this surface layer of moisture.
My attire included:
cap: sun protection during the day but helpful for minimising heat loss during the night as I’ve heard 30% is lost through your head
running vest: similar material to cycling shorts
short-sleeved running shirt: breathable material designed to dry quickly
fleece jacket: light-weight yet effective
gloves: my original intention was to use fingerless cycling gloves but at the last minute I purchased some that we’re made of a similar material to my vest
running undershorts: similar material to cycling shorts but without the seat padding
shorts: I tend to overheat when exercising and didn’t want to wear jeans which would also restrict my movement
padded running socks: soft and comfortable
running shoes: an old pair that are still in good enough condition for walking but I am happy to retire them after the climb
Many websites suggest hiking boots instead of sneakers as they provide greater support for your ankles. If I had some with me then perhaps I would have worn them but all my previous hikes in Japan were done wearing the above (minus the fleece jacket and gloves) so I didn’t feel the need.
what to take?
Rather than carry a full backpack I opted again for my camelbak. It’s far less bulky and is specifically designed for carrying water comfortably. It also has several pockets making it an all-round godsend during my other hikes.
water: 2.5 litres in the camelbak plus a 1-litre bottle of water
sandwiches: easy carbohydrates to carry
hard-boiled eggs x2: complete meal in a small package
Gu Energy gel: in case I needed a quick carbohydrate-hit
iPhone: apparently there’s coverage on top of Mt Fuji but it also acts as a back-up camera and allows me to jot my thoughts as I’m walking
Fujifilm X100 camera: for the much anticipated sunrise
spare battery & memory card: minor details yet very important
money: needed for drinks, food, and possibly accommodation on the mountain
drugs: namely, paracetamol, Kwells (for travel sickness), and Gastro-Stop (just in case)
triangular bandage: I like to be prepared for anything
plastic bags: just a couple as all of my rubbish must be carried down from the mountain
I didn’t carry sunscreen but will apply it before I leave. Most of my climbing will be late in the afternoon surrounded by forest, then at night time, and lastly early in the morning. But I did read that the effect of UV rays is far more pronounced at higher altitudes.
A flashlight or headlamp is also highly recommended but again I didn’t want to buy one and felt that there would be enough climbers with them that I could “share” their light.
Apparently oxygen is available for purchase on the mountain but I was in two minds as to whether this was really necessary. I figured I would “play it by ear”.
I timed my climb to avoid the week of Obon which is a holiday period in August and thus a popular time for people hiking Mt Fuji. I also knew a mid-week climb would be significantly less crowded than on the weekend.
And I had resolved to start the climb from Sengen Shrine for a few reasons:
Firstly, it would help my body become accustomed to the higher altitude.
Secondly, it would be more picturesque as Mt Fuji has a reputation for being a desolate landscape which I wouldn’t see on the ascent as I was climbing this second section at night.
Finally, it felt more legitimate to begin from the original starting point rather than commencing from halfway at Kawaguchiko 5th Station. But this meant I would have to be careful to avoid dehydration as I would also be walking during the heat of a hot day.
Aware that I would get little if any sleep on the mountain I went to bed late (2am) and slept-in helping shift my body-clock by a few hours.
My greatest concern was not the physical aspect of the climb. Having spent the last few months running 3 – 4x each week plus 4 previous, albeit smaller, climbs in the past several weeks meant I felt infinitely fitter than most.
I was more worried about altitude sickness. So I read as much as I could about it, determining that the best strategy to avoid suffering its ill effects was a slow & steady acclimatisation combined with drinking plenty of fluids. The height of Mt Fuji means it is classified in the lowest of three different levels for altitude sickness so it was not going to be extreme. Nevertheless, prevention was going to be better than any cure which, unfortunately, involves descending.
So there you have it. Physically and mentally I’m ready. Now “bring it on!”.
p.s. I should have done the following:
how to dress? | in hindsight
More warmly. I told you it’s important and I’m not joking. An additional extra-warm fleece jacket thicker than my first one, a pair of those long running tights, an extra pair of socks, and running shoes or hiking boots that do not have holes near the toe would have all been very welcome, especially during the sat stages of the climb.
Possibly a beanie too. Hyperthermia is a very real risk and so I recommend you don’t travel too lightly. And a lightweight rain-jacket might be handy if the weather is forecast to be wet. You’ll thank me afterwards!
what to take? | in hindsight
If you don’t want to pay ¥300 per chocolate bar at the mountain station stops, purchase several in-advance. Even if you don’t eat them yourself, your new “best friends” will be thankful you when you share the love around.
other suggestions | in hindsight
Start your climb early to avoid the majority of the crowd. An annoying bottleneck is created by the large number of trekkers on a fairly narrow track. It’s easier and less dangerous to ascend ahead of the mob rather than overtake them.
I met one guy who hiked up from Kawaguchiko 5th Station in 4 1/2 hours although 5 – 6 hours is more common as most people probably commence around 9 – 10pm.
But I personally think a gradual climb of 7 – 8 hours with plenty of short breaks is more enjoyable and you’re much less susceptible to altitude sickness so perhaps do what I did and begin hiking before 8pm.
Arriving at the summit around 3 – 4am will also permit you to grab a hot breakfast shortly before sunrise.
Speaking of which, despite a 5am sunrise in late August, the most vibrant colours (and therefore the best photographic opportunities) are actually during the preceding 1/2 hour or so.