Finally, here it is, the mount Fuji hike! Let me tell you right now that this post is long and contains lots of pictures, so you'll have to be patient if you have a slow Internet connection...
Before I start, here are a few figures:
- 3776 meter-high mount Fuji is the highest mountain in Japan
- about 200000 people (30% of them being foreigners) climb it every year
- more than 99% of Japanese people never climb it
- it's a dormant volcano, which means it is still active but with a very little eruption risk, the last known one dating back to 1707-1708
Mountain or volcano, it doesn't matter, mount Fuji is a symbol of Japan and as such, I had to climb it. Of course it's much better with friends and we had put up a team of 8 people several months ahead. But things never happen the way they're supposed to and after a couple "well after all, I'm a bit short of money..." and "you know, I don't feel that confident in my ability to climb...", we ended up being two!
We had decided to climb on august 31st, mostly for two reasons:
- most mountains huts are still open
- there are much less people than in the middle of summer: rumor has it that during the season's peak, you sometimes need to stop and wait because the trail is too crowded!...
From september 1st, huts start closing which implies much harder hiking conditions. You can easily imagine that it gets very cold above 3000m and if it's not possible to stop by a warm place to rest, one has to climb faster and/or longer to compensate. The worst is in winter, when snow and ice cover the tracks, freezing wind blows stronger and avalanche risk is much higher.
The hike itself is divided into 10 stages, with as many stations. Even though it is possible to climb from the first station located at the base of the mountain, there's no point in doing so since one can reach the fifth station by car or bus, and that's precisely what everybody does. Besides, there are four fifth stations, not just one, depending on the road one follows from the base, and each of these stations is the starting point for a hiking trail to reach the summit.
We chose the trail called Subashiri: it's one of the less frequented routes and, since it has a relatively mild slope, we thought (incorrectly for me) we would avoid the AMS by climbing slower. The AMS is the acronym that designates acute mountain sickness, commonly called altitude sickness, which is the consequence of climbing too fast in an environment that gets poorer in oxygen. It usually occurs from 3000-3500 meters and can have the following symptoms: headache, nausea, insomnia, fatigue, dizziness etc...nice program isn't it?
Altitude sickness can basically affect anybody independently from age, gender or physical condition. The best way to prevent it is to climb slowly enough to allow the body to naturally adapt. But in mount Fuji's case, it'd require climbing in two days to totally eliminate the risk. Another solution, which we picked: bring oxygen bottles. Not the ones used by Everest summiters of course, just basic and cheap (shitty?) ones which I'm still wondering whether they're actually effective.
Here I am with Naoyuki, one of my best friends in Japan, ready to go from the fifth station:
The weather wasn't very motivating but it was out of the question to give up for that:
According to the weather forecast, there was a 50% chance of a clear sky at the top...Our planning was to reach the mountain hut at the eigth station by 6pm, have dinner there, sleep until 2am and leave at 2:30am to reach the top and wait for the sunrise. As for the equipment, nothing exceptional: oxygen bottles, hiking stick, warm clothes, raincoat, flashlight, compass, food and water...that's pretty much it.
Here we go!
We reached the 6th station amazingly fast:
Until we realized there is a "6th station" and a "real 6th station", the former being only an intermediate stage.
Here are some pictures without comments, otherwise I will end up writing a book:
Finally! The eight station, at 3400 meters. This is where we stopped for the night until 2:30:
To get some distraction, we played Uno with a group we met there. Who would have thought that I'd be taken seriously when I said "the loser takes his shirt off and goes outside"?
Believe me, he was much quieter when he came back...
Then the feast: an expensive and bad curry rice, but at that altitude you can't be picky. As I was still hungry, I ordered a cup ramen (four times the normal price!). On this pic I'm smiling:
But I wasn't anymore an hour later...Indeed I had a terrible night. First, I had a strong headache because of the AMS, but then I experienced another symptom: nausea. I lied down to sleep but about 20 minutes later, I had to go to the toilets...I won't give you the details but I stayed nearly 3 hours there and when we were about to leave at 2:30, I was still feeling bad despite the fact that I had thrown up everything I'd eaten. Of course it was really unpleasant at the moment, but it was totally unsignificant compared to the great feeling of being on mount Fuji. The best thing to do was to focus on the sunrise that was awaiting us...
At 2h30 as planned, we left for the final rush! When we got out of the hut, we realized that we were not the first ones:
But the atmosphere was awesome...not noisy, in fact it was even the opposite...all those people walking in line with their headlights, above the clouds on mount Fuji's slopes...that was just fantastic! Usually I hate when there are too many tourists, but in this case I guess it's also where the hike's charm comes from...Here are some pictures, sorry they're a bit blurry but it's not easy at night without tripod:
Waiting at the summit:
Despite the cold and the minutes that seem to last forever, the atmosphere is great, especially when the sun's about to appear...all eyes (and cameras!) looking in the same direction (by the way can you spot what's wrong in the following picture?):
Lower on the slopes, people are still hurrying up to arrive on time:
And then finally, the sunrise over a sea of clouds...
After that beautiful moment, we didn't leave immediately but hiked around the crater for another 1h30 or so. Also, we still hadn't reached the highest point...
Here's the highest post office in Japan:
It's only open during the season's peak though, it was already too late for us.
A little further, the last effort:
And there we are! The highest point in Japan, at 3776m:
Well ok, practically it should be the little rock right behind me, but let's not be mean.
From the other side, something that cannot be seen very often, mount Fuji's shadow perfectly reflected on the clouds:
And then the descent, which was really fast until the sixth station. What's funny is that some people actually run all the way down! What's less funny though is that there are also people who take the wrong trail (some trails merge at the 8th station so it can happen if you don't pay attention) and end up 30km away from their starting point when they reach the fifth station!
No mistake for us but things got worse from the sixth station onwards. Rain and fog had eventually settled down over our heads and we were walking on a neverending trail covered with dirt and ash. But we finally arrived and went directly to a nearby onsen to relax!
Now that was a unbelievably awesome experience!!! Still, I'm not sure I'll ever climb mount Fuji again. As you've seen, with all those rocks and dirt, it's not exactly what I would call a beautiful hike...plus I like to do new things instead of repeating the same old stuff. But who knows, it might also be fun to do it with a larger group and via another trail...
You might wonder whether the hike was hard stamina-wise...well not really I think. Only 5h30 to reach the summit, no technical difficulty, it gets steeper at the end but nothing really bad. Just a good hike! In fact you can understand that by just seeing the hikers: there are all kinds of people, from small kids to old guys. Only the AMS can make things a little hard sometimes but, as I said above, it's nothing compared to the greatness of the experience.
Anyway, my headache completely vanished within two hours after we got down but on the other hand I still felt a little nauseous for a few days. I assume that the fact of not really sleeping for two consecutive nights (in Shuzenji, then at the eight station) didn't help...Anyway that made me change my plans for the next days. I had planned to go directly to Hokkaido but finally decided to go back to Nagoya and get some rest. I was even considering giving up the whole trip, which thankfully didn't happen...but that's another story...