For the past couple of years Gary and I have tried to do at least one physical challenge per year. Over the past years that led us to ride a mountain bike through the Himalaya and to the top of Kilimanjaro. Because we are both too busy these days to train a lot the physical challenge for this year was a relatively easy one: climb Japan’s highest mountain, Mount Fuji.
To make things a bit more difficult we decided to climb outside the main season (that starts next week), when it’s still a bit more difficult and dangerous to climb the mountain. Furthermore we decided to do the climb at once, without staying overnight in one of the huts on the mountain before the final climb to the summit. Originally we had planned to climb last year November already, but when I mentioned that on Twitter I quickly learned that that climbing Fuji can be extremely dangerous outside the main season. Even though it’s just a small mountain (the summit is at 3776 meters), the weather at the top can be similar to that at 8000 meter mountains in the Himalaya, with hurricane-like winds and temperatures of -30 degrees. Also avalanches are a regular thing on the mountain. Even in the summer months some people still die (last year July for example it happened to some climbers), so we decided to postpone the trip to June this year.
About 2 weeks ago we finalized our plans to go up the mountain, even though we were told by Japanese friends that the mountain was still closed and it was considered dangerous to climb. A quick search online learned me that there was still a lot of snow but that it was doable to reach the top if you were well prepared. Well, we weren’t that well prepared, when I met Gary last Monday he realized that his mountain gear was still in his apartment in Beijing! But we were quite confident that we could do it based on our will power and the fact that each year thousands of others also reach the top.
So on Friday morning at 4 AM we set off from Tokyo to the mountain together with Suzuki-san of JAFCO, the Japanese VC firm that invested in Tudou. The night before we had had a big dinner at a top crab restaurant in Shinjuku with a couple of beers and some wine. That combined with just 3 hours of sleep meant that we were not really in top shape… During the drive over we listened to the live radio commentary of the football world cup match between Japan and Denmark (in Japanese, I didn’t understand a thing but still knew when Japan had or missed a chance or made goal) and we watched the final minutes of the game at a highway restaurant.
At 6:30 we had parked our car at the so-called 5th station and started the ascent. All shops and restaurants for the tourists and climbers were still closed, it felt a bit strange to be climbing this mountain almost alone. The first part was easy and we reached the 6th station within 30 minutes or so. The stations are normally just huts on the mountain where you can stay overnight or a first aid station. After passing the 6th station we came above the treeline and the ascent became more steep. Following what we learned from our Kilimanjaro guide we used the ‘polle polle’ strategy: walk very slowly but without stopping.
It worked well and we arrived at the 7th station without too many problems. I drank some energy drink and took some pictures before going up to the 8th station. Around us there were patches of snow, but the path was still clear of snow. Just below the 8th station we had to climb the first few hundred meters through the snow. Suzuki-san had a bit of a problem there because he was wearing basketball shoes instead of mountain shoes, which is not the best choice for the top of a snow covered mountain.
But we all made it to the 8th station at 3100 meters, and took a short break here. I ate two cold pancakes, drank some Japanese energy drink (called Pocari Sweat, the sports drink that helped me a lot during the Hong Kong Traiwalker as well) and read a couple of pages in The Facebook Effect on my iPad (yes, I carry my iPad everywhere!). There was still a phone connection, so I called my wife and kids in Shanghai to tell them things were going well. The temperature was still quite nice but the air was becoming a bit thinner. I noticed that while climbing I had to breathe harder and my heart was beating a lot faster now.
Above the 8th station the path was getting more and more difficult, but still easier than I had expected. I met 2 other climbers, one guy from Switzerland and another from the US, who I chatted with a bit. They climbed faster than we did (they were a bit younger and seemed in much better shape), so I decided to be wise and keep the Tanzanian polle polle strategy. There were hardly any other climbers on the mountain on our climbing day, I think we saw in total about 20-30 different people during the whole day. We had been very lucky with the date that we had chosen, because not only was it extremely quiet, the weather was also very nice. For most of the day it was sunny and we had great views over Japan while climbing. I had brought my rain gear (well, only my coat, I found out halfway the mountain that I left my rain trousers in China), but luckily we didn’t need it. Most important, there was not too much wind for most of the climb. Wind is supposedly one of the most dangerous factors on Mt. Fuji (others are avalanches, falling rocks and thunderstorms). I just climbed in my jeans, a long sleeve sports shirt and on some stretches my coat until the 9th station.
At the 9th station at about 3400 meter the wind started to blow a bit harder and it really started to get colder. Because we had to climb through snow and over rocks most of the time (the official path was hidden below meters of snow) I put on my gloves as well. The last few hundred vertical meters were the hardest. I started to get a bit of a headache because of the altitude, I always have this when going up to a high altitude quickly. But I know it’s nothing serious yet, so I don’t pay much attention to it. Especially the last stretch to the top seemed almost vertical and we had to really climb. People were cutting out a path through the snow for when the season would start, but we were a few days too early for that and had to find our own way.
But we made it of course and at 12:30 we reached the summit of Mount Fuji. It was pretty cold here and the wind was blowing hard. We stayed on the top for about 10 minutes enjoying the views into the crater. The crater was still completely snow-covered, a beautiful sight. We took some pictures and a short video and then decided to head back.
The descent was even more difficult than the ascent, especially because we were tired and a bit cold as well. After a couple of minutes we decided to take a different strategy and slide down the mountain! We sat down on the snow and just let ourselves glide down. It worked fantastic and we managed to slide all the way over the snow to the 8th station. At first it was a bit scary (the mountain is quite steep), but we quickly learned how to brake and had a great time sliding down Fuji. I am sure it’s not allowed what we did and it’s probably also not without danger, but I would advise everybody to give it a try (of course most of the snow will likely be gone in the next 2 weeks or so because of higher temperatures).
From the 8th station we had to take the path again, at some points there were rocks coming out of the snow and you don’t want to hit those at 3100 meters altitude far away from any hospital. We walked down pretty fast over a soft sandy (or volcanic ashes?) road, it felt a bit like walking on a beach. The ascent and descent routes are different and I would have actually preferred to take the original route – it’s a lot shorter and once you have reached the top you just want to go down as soon as possible.
Also my headache had gotten a lot worse, to the point that I did not really want to walk anymore. But I had no choice of course, so I just continued. It took us about 3 hours to get back to the car. My headache was still very bad, so it likely was not because of the altitude (that normally goes away quickly if you descend a few hundred meters). I took a Red Bull, an aspirin and a salty soup and laid down for a few minutes and suddenly I felt great again. Very weird, maybe it was just dehydration?
Anyway, the three of use drove back to Tokyo and then went to a traditional hot spring bath house to let let our tired legs and feet relax in the warm water. The hot springs were followed by an excellent sashimi dinner with lots of beer. My wife had flown into Tokyo that night as well, so she and Suziki’s wife also joined us. Gary still had a 9:30 PM meeting and left early, but we also did not make it too late. The day on the mountain combined with the good food and drinks suddenly make me very sleepy. We took an expensive taxi back to the hotel (it was quite a long taxi ride) and when I was in the hotel I was asleep within 10 seconds after hitting my bed. I don’t think I have often been this tired!
But it was totally worth it. Mount Fuji is a fun mountain to climb and it’s not too hard, especially if you do it in the official season. Just make sure you bring enough food and drinks (or buy them in the huts, they are probably all open in the season) and take it easy going up. Most people should be able to do this climb without too much trouble, it’s not technically difficult, you just need to be able to keep on walking uphill or climbing for about 6 hours. And if you stay overnight in one of the huts it’s just a walk in the park. Don’t believe the stories on the Internet that you have to be in good shape or that it’s dangerous (well, you should not slip of course, but that’s normal on a mountain). I think it’s often more psychological than physical, giving up is always easy right? All in all I enjoyed the climb and it was fun to do it with Gary and Suzuki-san. And I am now already thinking about what next year’s challenge should be!
Some more pictures of the climb are here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/chijs/sets/72157624366957724/
And some pictures of the weekend in Tokyo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/chijs/sets/72157624367079994/