Monday, September 22, 2008
Friday, September 19, 2008
Thursday, September 18, 2008
After lunch We toured the Toshugu Shrine complex but got rained out of seeing all the buildings. Then it was off to check into our hotel. We got settled and then Seiji made some phone calls and found a special onsen (hot springs) that we could go to. We packed up and headed to the most lovely and tranquil setting - private cottages with sliding doors leading to a cedar lined tub and a circular stone tub both fed by hot springs. It was incredibly relaxing and Max even got into the hot water. Thoroughly rested we retreated to the hotel for dinner and were in bed by 9:30!
The next day after breakfast at the hotel, we began the climb (400 meters via a series of 48 switchbacks) up to Lake Chuzenji which was formed by a volcanic eruption thousands of years ago. The lake was stunning and we all got into a swan boat and pedaled around for a bit.
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
Sunday, September 7, 2008
The group dispersed to buy whatever beverages, food or other sundry items we might need to round out the large backpacks we already had. Everyone but me bought a pine hiking stick to get stamped at each of the stations on the way up. I used my Leki collapsible trekking poles, instead, to propel me up the mountain. The weather forecast was for rain, but while the sky was crystal clear over and near us, we could see bolts of lightning in the distance.
At 19:35, off we went. Our ascent actually began on a wide, gentle downward sloping path. As organizer, I apparently was tagged the hiking expert (maybe it was the Leki poles) and after about a half mile of a gentle pace heading downward, Raghu suggested I slow down to pace ourselves for the long night ahead of us. We were going so slow I think gravity was what was actually moving us forward. Despite his suggestion, we proceeded. We encountered people coming the other way, trudging along very slowly, and not exactly keeping a straight line; some looked like they had just emerged from a battle. We commented on this, laughed a bit, and came to a large sign in Japanese that pointed the way up a narrow trail. Finally, up Fuji-san and not down!
It was now dark and a few people turned on their headlamps, but you could otherwise see with the half moon’s light. Hiking towards the Sixth Station was not too difficult. The trail was hard packed dirt and we were wondering where were all the people that are famous for clogging the trail on summer nights. We generally stuck together, but a few of us were already at a slower pace and a few minutes behind us. The sixth station was pretty much a concrete building where you could buy drinks or ramen, and pay 500 JPY to get your stick stamped with a hot iron showing some symbol of the milestone. About five minutes after the core group got there, Ivan, Mike and Raghu arrived. We waited a bit more and then all headed up to station seven. More people and organized groups were around us now, and we had our first bottleneck as we continued.
We encountered our first steep part of the trail and after another 70 minutes or so we met at the Seventh Station. Six of us, that is. Ivan and Raghu got separated from us and were moving more slowly. We heard they were just behind us, but we did not see them at the station. We would not hear from them again until Tuesday morning back at the office.
We continued to see lightning in the distance, the lights of a town at the foot of the mountain and occasional shooting stars. More stamps on the hiking poles, the purchase of increasingly expensive water and Pocari Sweat (kind of like Gatorade but with a less enticing name) and increasing crowds. There were lots of organized groups of 20 – 30 people, many consisting of what looked like retirees. I think many started early in the day and took a very slow pace up. Or they had already spent a night on the mountain. The tour guides had baton light sticks that would flash red or green. If one stared at them too long you risked a seizure. We timed our rests at the stations so that we would leave just before the big groups set off. We were warned of their impending departure by the organized movements of the groups and the guide screaming instructions in a microphone. Not exactly a tranquil mountain environment, but all part of the Fuji-san experience. It was probably around 22:00.
Onward and upward! Looking for breaks in the groups in front of us to squeeze through and gain some additional time. Mike was moving well ahead of us at this point but the six of us made it past the many, many huts at station eight (where station eight exactly was I don’t know, but for more 500JPY stamps the team could prove they had passed through it). Erik and Dean were now pulling up to the rear and soon we stopped at the Fuji-san Hotel, a.k.a, Station Nine. Last stop before the summit! It was 00:30 (and now my birthday!) and we had plenty of time to rest before heading to the top. The trail map said it was only about 80 minutes and so far we had advanced faster than the guidance on the map. We paid 1000 JPY each to rest in a bunk room where we ate ramen, played cards and Erik got the phone numbers of a group of young American English teachers.
While resting we saw lots of people passing by the clouded windows. We had made a half baked plan with the team that we would wait at Station Nine for everyone in case we got separated, and then go to the top together. After 90 minutes of waiting Raghu and Ivan were nowhere to be seen. Around 0215 we repacked our gear and headed out the door and turned the corner around the hut.
Then we stopped. Peering up the mountain we saw a jammed line extending from where we stood all the way to the summit. Climbers’ headlamps illuminated the zigzagging path. They were not moving. It looked like a Christmas tree. Oh no!!!! How long could it take to ascend the last 400 vertical meters? We had two hours until sunrise and the map said we needed 80 minutes from where we stood. The map had not failed us yet.
The sky began to lighten and you could see the Buddhist gate through which you finally walked to reach the top. But progress was still realllllly slow. The climbing trail was hardened lava and the trail was cut through it. Now, there was really no way to cut past the people ahead of me except when I came to the switchbacks. So I dutifully cut the corners where I could, thinking I was saving myself precious minutes to reach the top in time. And everyone looked the same in hiking gear so I don’t think (hope?) I was pegged as a rude gaijin cutting corners.
I realized I would not make it to the top by sunrise at this pace. So I rationalized that the surface on the side of the trail was not much different that the trail itself, except it was hard glassy rock with sharp edges, and I could see no fragile alpine plants to damage. So I climbed over the edge of the trail and scrambled up the side on all fours the rest of the way up, easily 100 meters up. At least I was not the only person doing it – there were a few Japanese too. After much panting and much more sweating since I was finally moving. It felt like I was hiking. Despite a painful headache due to the exertion through the thin air I made it to the top around 0425. Over two hours since we left the Fuji-san Hotel. The sun was not up yet but the sky was still getting clearer.
The top was packed with people sitting along the slopes with cameras on tripods at the ready. The wind was steady and I found a slope that would protect me from the gusts. I cleared away glassy rocks that hurt to sit on and set up with my camera. By chance Mike found me and around 0440 the sun peeked out over the horizon and everyone began taking lots of pictures. We then found James and checked out the crater and headed to the hut for more ramen and hung out for about an hour. Eventually the other three guys joined us and we began our descent around 0700, along a different trail. We looked forward to a casual trip back down after 10 1/2 hours up.
Rich, James, Erik, Thomas,
Dean and Mike at the summit
The descent was brutal. We could see down the slope of the mountain to the base and in front of us was a switchbacked trail that must have had 30 bends to it. The trail surface here was different, deep sand and ash and many spots of deep gravel. The combination of using a different set of muscles to prevent ourselves from falling and massive blisters forming on both feet made it miserable. I inhaled lots of dust. Rocks got into my shoes. I slipped and started to feel how tired I was which made it more difficult. I had been awake for nearly 24 hours. At the end of the switchbacks we all gathered again and came to consensus that this part sucked. We cursed the mountain. And in a cruel twist when we got to the bottom of the switchbacks there was still another 4K of trail heading straight back to Station Five. We reached the point where the descending trail merged with the gentle sloping trail where we began our trek. Now I understood the looks on the other people the night before at the beginning of our climb. I subsequently learned the best way to descend is to essentially run down the mountain as quickly as you can without killing yourself or do some sort of ski / slide combination.
Despite the 7 hours up and 2 hours down Fuji-san was a great experience. For those of you who visit us I will provide directions to the bus station, gear for your trip, access to the hot tub at our apartment and cold beer afterward. But I will not likely go with you as I must comply with the Japanese adage: “One who never climbs Mount Fuji is a fool, and one who climbs twice is twice the fool”.