“He who does not climb Mt. Fuji once is a fool; he who climbs it more than once is also a fool.”
Washing down a Vicodin with a 300mL bottle of cold sake purchased from the conveniently-located 7-11 on the ground level of our hotel’s building, the latter part of this Japanese proverb was stridently clear to me. After barely surviving the climb once, nothing short of clinical insanity or a gun to my head could propel me to suffer through it again.
Shavasana was the only position my living corpse of a body could tolerate post-climb. Every muscle, tendon, and joint pulsed with pain. The day after climbing roughly 5,643 feet to reach Mt. Fuji’s summit of 12,204 feet (approximately 2.3 miles) my body refused any activity that did not involve lying in bed and smearing Penetrex on my sore muscles and mutilated feet.
Standing up to use the bathroom required a good two minutes of mental preparation and a pep talk to motivate my body to start moving. The act of rising was no longer one fluid movement but a series of jerky flailing of limbs accompanied by guttural moans and curses. I was the surly human version of C-3PO.
I didn’t notice the number of obstacles on the way to the bathroom until my body protested every use of its muscles. I first had to ask my puny abs to please sit up. Then I had to ask my legs to straddle Michael in order to climb over him to get out of the bed. Abs begrudgingly complied but Legs mutinied mid-straddle and I ended up plopped down on Michael, blinking at him in confusion when Legs did not continue their journey off the bed.
“What are you doing?” Fear crossed Michael’s face because the only logical conclusion to your fiancée, clad in a t-shirt and thong, straddling you, is Sexy Time. And after summiting a mountain, Sexy Time was furthest desire from both of our broken bodies.
“I’m trying to get to the bathroom. But my legs won’t move.”
“Ah, ok.” This desire Michael could understand and he gave me as much of a push as his recuperating body could manage.
Back screamed bloody murder as I tried to straighten my body to walk the four feet to the bathroom door. Straight was out of the question. All Back could manage was getting into the Less Than sign (<) position. So I hobbled this way into the bathroom and then howled like a hyena in heat as I squatted down to the sit on the toilet. I quickly went into what I can only imagine are the breathing exercises pregnant woman use as they go into labor. Panting on the pot, another proverb entered my mind.
“Ignorance is bliss.”
Had I known that summiting Mt. Fuji would involve a ten and a half hour ascent, on an unstable terrain made up of volcanic sand, shale, and loose rocks, grappling with rain, snow, and altitude sickness, only then to be followed by an additional five hour descent, with torn feet, Jell-O legs, throbbing head and a wind burned face, I may very well have waved sayonara to that endeavor.
But like the proverb states, ignorance is very surely bliss, and not knowing the hellish journey that awaited me, I was cautiously optimistic. Having never climbed a mountain, I had no idea the physical and mental challenges that awaited me and the kind of pain my body would be in during the climb and after.
We took off on June 26, 2017, a little after 10am, from the 5th station of the Subashiri Trail with our Fuji Mountain Guides climbing group of twenty climbers and six guides.
There are four climbing trails on Mt. Fuji. The Yoshida Trail is the most popular since it has the most huts along its route. The second most popular trail is the Fujinomiya Trail, as it is the shortest and lowest in elevation among the four trails. The most difficult trail, due to its elevation and terrain and less huts along the way, is the Gotemba Trail. So the trail we trekked on was the third most popular, or put another way, the second most difficult one. Yay.
The Subashiri Trail starts at its 5th station (6,561 feet) and climbs to the summit at Kusushi Shrine (12,204 feet). The route begins in the forest on the east side of Mt. Fuji and the official website for Mt. Fuji climbing estimates the route to take six and a half hours to reach the summit. I’m not sure what kind of climbers the site had in mind when it calculated the estimated climb duration for this trail, but let me tell you, they sure as hell weren’t virgin climbers. Even the fastest subset of our climbing group did not make it up in six and a half hours.
Climbing season on Mt. Fuji officially kicks off July 10 and goes through September 10. Our climb was technically during the “off-season” and most huts were still closed. While this meant that we had less toilets to take advantage of during our climb and not as many stamps to accumulate on our climbing sticks, it also meant that we were literally the only climbers on the Subashiri trail that day. This was really surprising since just a couple of weeks later, the “on-season” would bring with it a series of human traffic jams and a queue for the summit. Having the mountain all to ourselves for our two-day trek was incredible.
Starting the climb at an already significant elevation, with rain coming down, meant that the journey was slow-going from the very beginning and became slower as we progressed into the clouds. The thinning air, coupled with a tricky terrain that did not have one inch of solid ground, made for a treacherous climb. The mountain is made up of soft volcanic sand riddled with small stones so finding sturdy footing was challenging and we kept slipping and tripping up the mountain. The higher we climbed the more pronounced my altitude sickness became. I became a zombie, not aware of anything besides the next step ahead of me, sucking in air in rapid breaths, eyes glazed over. I was amazed at how crippling the altitude sickness was. I’m a pretty decent hiker in Southern California and thought I would do OK on Mt. Fuji’s incline. The incline wasn’t the problem. I literally could not climb for more than a few minutes before needing to break to suck in as much air into my screaming lungs as the atmosphere allowed.
Our group of twenty hikers broke up into three sub-groups. The first group of five climbers, comprised of Olympic athletes and mountain goats, raced up the side of Fuji with not a care in the world. The second group of seven were either seasoned climbers or fit AF. The third group was the end of the climbing conga line and to no surprise, featured moi. My band of eight merry misfits brought up the rear and what we lacked in speed, we made up for in companionship. We stumbled up the scope in a droopy single file line, stopping to catch our breath and slow our racing hearts, take photos, and share chocolate to boost our energy.
And in my case, bitch and moan and curse the mountain under my breath. My uplifting disposition extended towards one of our guides. I wanted to throttle this guide, who I christened Legolas, after the Lord of the Rings – The Fellowship of the Ring scene where the Fellowship climbs the snowy slopes of Caradhas and while the rest of the party is struggling through waist-deep snow, Legolas dances on its surface. Our guide was much the same, skipping up the slope, smiling, making jokes, with nary a pant or a drop of sweat as I stared daggers into his back in between wheezes.
We made it to the 8th station, where we would spend the night before summiting early the next morning, by a little after 6pm, right in time for dinner. We watched the sun set into the clouds, ate a curry dinner, and burrowed into our side-by-side sleeping bags by 7:30pm. Each person is allocated about three feet by seven feet of sleeping space so the expectation is to be packed like sardines. Since we were the only group on the mountain, we had a little more room that usual and between each couple there was an empty sleeping bag, which felt luxurious. The elevation and physical exhaustion made the unreasonably early bedtime and close sleeping quarters manageable, and I easily drifted into sleep, only to be awoken by Michael’s hut-shaking snoring every couple of minutes until I shoved ear plugs into my ears and burrowed myself deeper into my sleeping bag. We had a 4am wakeup call and when we were woken up by our guides, Michael marveled at how he was able to sleep soundly since no one in our tent snored. I had to burst his bubble.
“Michael. You. You were the one who snored.”
Due to a snow advisory warning, we did not stick to our original plan of waking up at 2am to climb about two hours in the dark and summit to watch the sunrise. The snowy conditions on the mountain made the last leg of the climb hazardous and the lead guide made the decision to alter the plan to maintain safety. We would watch the sunrise at the 8th station since it faced east and had the same view as the summit. Afterwards, we would climb to the summit in daylight, decreasing the chance of injury due to ice, snow, and darkness. Bulldozers had been up the day before to clear the climb path and as we made our way past five foot snow walls, I understood the precautions taken. The path up was the steepest yet and was more bear-crawl than hike up. I couldn’t imagine scaling it in the dark.
Our merry band of eight reached the summit about two and a half hours after we left the 8th station. Covered in a shroud of mist, the peak was visually anti-climactic but physically rewarding. Elated that we made it to the top, we congratulated each other and took photos.
Nature called, and before starting the descent, we needed to answer it. Since it was the “off season” all of the huts on the summit were closed. Our only choice was to find some privacy behind one of the huts. And that’s how Michael and I spent the last minutes on the peak of Mt. Fuji, baptizing the summit with our tandem streams of urine. As Michael weaved intricate designs into the snow, I focused on balancing on my noodle legs so I didn’t fall off the edge of the mountain. Boys have it so much easier in times like these.
The way down was hell. Half the time of the ascent but double the pressure on the knees, we hobbled painfully, at times spending more time on our butts than on our feet.
“For descending, you will enjoy sand run, where you go down the sand slope straight from the seventh station.”
This was another gem from the official Fuji climbing website. What masochistic soul actually enjoys two hours of sliding and falling on your ass as you make your way down a steep incline of volcanic sand is beyond me. A sled would have been useful here. Except the path was riddled with rocks the size of Titanic hidden in the sand, waiting to assault your feet and stub your toes. It would be a Christmas miracle if I have any toenails left after that descent.
A third proverb entered my head as we arrived back at the 5th station, exhausted but proud of our accomplishment.
“It isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you out; it’s the grain of sand in your shoes.”
More accurately put, it isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you out, but the mountain behind you, coupled with the grain of sand in each shoe, bruised toenails, numb feet, and paralyzed quads.
Arigato, Mt. Fuji.