Climbing Mt. Fuji: The Worst Day of Your Life

Ever since hearing I was moving to Fuji City back in March, I was excited to climb Mt. Fuji.  How can you live in a city named after the mountain and not want to climb it?  Despite never having climbed a mountain before, and that it's tallest mountain in Japan, coming in at 3776 meters high (12,388.5 feet), I was confident I could do it.  I'd read stories online about people into their 70s doing it, along with children and even people doing it wearing just a t-shirt and gym shorts.  The only thing to decide was when.

The "official climbing season" for the mountain is July 1st to August 31st every year.  Climbing outside this window is discouraged due to bad weather conditions in addition to freezing cold temperatures at the top.  My girlfriend Stacy, visiting from America, and I had the perfect window in our travel schedule to climb it on the very last day of the season.  There are innumerable amounts of ways to climb Mt. Fuji, there are trails in various cities on all sides of the mountain that lead to the summit.  A guy I met from New Zealand even did a trek from the ocean to the summit, the whole thing taking him over 22 hours in total.  However, most people, ourselves included, take a bus part way up the mountain and start from there.

I've heard from a lot of different people that the only way to climb the mountain is through the night in order to see the sunrise, which would be at 5:12 A.M. the morning we would climb.  So that's what we decided to do.  We took a train to Fujinomiya, the next city north of Fuji City, and where one of the trails is located.  All of the trails have rest stops along the way to the top, called stations, which are closed outside of the climbing season.  Buses will take you as far up as the fifth station and the rest is up to you.

The hike from the Fujinomiya 5th station is about 2,300 meters up, and is said to take about 6 to 7 hours to complete. It would end up taking us much more than that.

The views from even the fifth station are spectacular.  You are just at the cloud line and all the cities that dot the coast just beneath Mt. Fuji are all lit up for the night, gleaming through the clouds, lighting them up like frosted glass.  This did nothing but motivate us for the climb.  So a half hour after doing a little altitude acclimating, and buying Mt. Fuji branded (literally) hiking sticks, we started the ascent.  The time was roughly 9 P.M.

I had no idea how stupid I was to climb such a stupid mountain

The first couple of hours things are going good.  We're excited, we've got lots of energy, the climb isn't so tough and we're making good time.  But ever so slowly, the higher up we get, and the later it gets, the more we start to hit a wall.  About three hours into the climb we're really starting to feel the effects of altitude sickness and our bodies were pissed they weren't getting to go to sleep.  Also, it got increasingly freezing as we got higher and higher.  It was the perfect storm for the worst day ever.

Stacy Hates Mt Fuji

It's possible that we were a lot less prepared for this climb that we should have been.  But coming from Florida, one of the flattest places in America, I have zero mountain climbing knowledge.  We brought with us a single backpack to store the warmest clothes we own (my being from Miami and Stacy being from Arizona didn't provide us with much to work with there), 6 rice balls, a box of granola bars, four liters of water and a single handheld flashlight.

There weren't that many people climbing the mountain because it being the last day of the season (there's are literally lines all the way up the mountain at peak climbing times), but those that we saw we far more prepared than us.  Extremely warm ski clothes, hiking boots, specialized hiking sticks, headlamps, portable oxygen, portable stoves for making food on the go (that was a bit excessive) and much more.  The one thing I wish that we had to improve our climb would be the oxygen.  Living at sea level my entire life altitude sickness definitely set me back.

I would hike for fifteen minutes and absolutely need to take a break.  After about 5 minutes of resting I'd feel great to go, but as soon as I'd start again I'd already be feeling short of breath.  And the mountain just never seemed to stop.  It was purgatory, every time you thought you were making some progress, you'd see a sign saying that you'd made barely any at all.  The climb itself wasn't bad at all, towards the middle it gets rocky, nothing too terrible, but it gets easier towards the top.  Something that would probably really easy had it been at sea level.

About 400 meters from the top we were approaching that 5:12 A.M. sunrise, making it obvious we weren't going to make it.  We figured that we'd make it eventually.

I no longer care about seeing the sunrise from the summit.  In fact, I no longer care about anything.

The gradual sunrise over the cloud line was gorgeous, it made the terrible time we were going through slightly more pleasant.  About an hour after the proper sunrise we made it to the top.  I was far more excited about the terrible climb was over than having just climbed the tallest and most famous mountain in Japan.

The summit of Mt. Fuji

The view from the top of the biggest asshole in Japan

From there we got to climb down! We figured it'd be easier and much shorter.  It's a much shorter hike down, taking us about three hours, but the descent actually felt much worse than the way up.  Thankfully the sun is out, so it's a lot warmer, however we were already exhausted and wanted nothing more to do with this silly mountain.  Also, 3 hours of constant down hill hiking, on loose volcanic rock/gravel/sand made for the perfect combination to put my legs into immense pain.  My legs are actually just now stopping to be sore from the descent, 8 days later.

Why can't there be a gondola to the bottom?  I'd love that! Defacing Japan's most recognizable landmark is no big deal, right?

I really should stop complaining about my Mt. Fuji experience.  The more time that passes, the more I'm happy that I did it.  I've never climbed a mountain before in my life, and now I've climbed the largest in a nation.  On top of that I live in a city named after the beautiful thing and if it's clear enough outside, it's the first thing I see on my way to work everyday.

There's an extremely common saying in Japan about this feeling.  Something along the lines of "you are a fool not to climb Mt. Fuji, but you are a fool to climb it twice" and it's almost perfect.  I would append "and a clever man builds a gondola to the top" and it's perfect.

Here's my recommended list for anyone wanting to try and climb Mt. Fuji in the future

  • 2 liters of water per person
  • A headlamp, I made it just fine with a handheld one, but my hand got a little achey from the constant positioning.  If you lucky enough to have a half-moon or more, you can get away with no flashlight and just use the moonlight, we did this for more than half our climb with zero problems.
  • Food, we brought 3 rice balls each plus a bunch of granola bars, I'd recommend more than that.
  • Portable oxygen, if you have any reservations about how inclined to altitude sickness you are or you have no experience climbing mountains like me, buy some, I would have killed for some halfway through my climb.  They sell it at the 5th station if you don't know where to get any prior.
  • Some damn warm clothes
  • Hiking boots if you got them, or anything with ankle support
  • Knowledge that the climb is going to suck

One last thing, these two hikers and their hats made me much more happy than reaching the summit