富士山 Fuji-san—Mt Fuji

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Last week we set out to climb Mt Fuji. We didn’t make it to the top this time.

This image from Google Maps shows our track (001 being where we parked, 002 the point where we turned back):

Fuji (at 3776m) is the highest mountain in Japan, and one of the most recognisable mountains in the world, a near-perfect snow-capped volcanic cone. Because it stands alone (not part of a mountain range) you can really appreciate how huge it is. The first time I ever got a proper view of it, I was awestruck by its sheer size, and thought “that’s the biggest thing I’ve ever seen”. It’s so different from human scale that it’s hard to imagine people climbing it. But they do. 300,000 to 400,000 people set out to climb it each year (many with little experience in hillwalking or mountain climbing) and most of them succeed. It’s far more accessible than other mountains of its size; there are clearly-marked paths to the summit, there are mountain huts on each of the routes, and you can reach a height of 2,000 metres to 2,400 metres by road, so you are more than half-way to the top before you even start walking, and you can get up and down in a day.

Having said that, it’s not easy or pleasant, the air is very thin, and the weather can be dangerous and unpredictable at any time of year.

There is only a brief 2-month window—July and August—during which the mountain is “open” to the public to climb. During these two months the paths to the summit are relatively free of snow (usually). However, we had previously attempted to climb Mt Fuji in July 2007, and were unable to reach the top because of deep snow. On that occasion we reached a height of over 3,600 metres on the Fujinomiya route, a stone’s throw from the summit.

There are 4 main paths that converge on the summit: Yoshida route (the most popular), Subashiri route, Fujinomiya route and Gotenba route.

On this occasion we chose the Subashiri (red) trail. It starts at a height of 2,000 metres, and so the first 600 to 700 metres of ascent are on forest paths, until you reach the tree-line and emerge onto the magnificent desolation of the upper part of the mountain.

We got up at 4 o’clock and got ready to set off early (having prepared sandwiches the previous night and packed everything ready to go).

As we drove up the road to the 5th station, there was a clear view of Fuji ahead of us, and we could see that conditions were perfect for the climb; clear skies, with very little snow on the slopes.

Arriving at the car park at the 5th station, there were already hundreds of cars there. Many people choose to make the climb overnight so that they can see the sunrise from the summit. This is more dangerous however, because it means climbing in the dark, possibly fatigued, and it can be very cold at the summit at night (even in the height of summer).

Even in the car park, we were already well above the clouds and enjoying bright early-morning sunshine. This layer of cloud below us is not low cloud – it is at 4000 to 5000 feet.

We had our breakfast in the car, and then set off, passing through a shrine gate as we entered the trail. On the lower slopes we were walking through very pleasant birch woodland.

As we got higher, we came to the first patches of snow in sheltered spots along the trail.

It was dirty and half-melted but the dogs were delighted—they hadn’t seen snow for months.

Shortly after we emerged from the forest, we came to an outpost of civilisation: the original 6th station. A place where (for around EUR50) you can stay overnight (sharing the floor with 50 other fully-dressed climbers), where you can buy food or water, or just do what we did: stop and sit down on the outdoor chairs and have a break and a snack.

At this point, the clouds below us had partially cleared, and you could see views of the lakes almost 2000 metres below. Anyone down there looking up at the mountain would not see us; we would be like tiny ants on the huge bulk of the mountain.

Although we had left the trees behind, there was still vegetation at this level; we hadn’t reached the level where the mountain is just bleak and inhospitable. However, at 3,000 metres, air pressure is only about 70% of normal, and you have to go slowly.

As the path zig-zags back and forth across the steep mountainside, progress can seem frustratingly slow (non-existent at times, as the summit seems no nearer than it did half an hour ago). There is a psychological battle to be patient, to acknowledge that the climb takes many hours (even though the total distance is only a few kilometres) and just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

We came across this strange little “shrine”—a crude miniature torii, at which people had left dozens, hundreds, of shiny bells.

And then our plans came to a sudden stop. One of our party, the air being too thin for her liking, found herself unable to continue, and flopped over on the ground.

We gave her a few blasts of oxygen (strangely, the plastic face mask on the oxygen bottle fits a dog’s face very well, possibly better than a human’s) and some water. She perked up a bit but was still unable to walk. There was nothing for it but to carry her down the mountain.

It was a long way down, and progress was slow, with frequent breaks, but gradually we made it down, through the forest.

On the way down we met some people who were in worse trouble than us. There was an American couple and the woman had a knee injury. She was in great pain and only barely able to walk, one agonised step at a time. It was hard to imagine how she could keep going for another 3 hours, descending the 700 metres to the car park. There was an alternative; it would be possible to evacuate her from the mountain at a cost of around €200; but they were unwilling to pay so much money, so she was braving it out.

The Subashiri route is relatively little-used, and many of the people we met on the route had taken the wrong route from the summit. They had gone up on the Yoshida route and then descended (by mistake) on the Subashiri route. They couldn’t face going back up to take the correct route down, so they were going to end up at a car park many miles (by road) from where they had parked.

When we descended to a level of around 2100 metres Miffy remembered how to walk, and we returned to the car.

While it was disappointing not to reach the summit, after all our planning and effort, the feeling of anti-climax was brief. The mountain is still there for us, and we will make another attempt, possibly in August (no dogs this time). We can hope for a “third time lucky”.

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