Practice Makes Perfect
You only look smart to the people who weren’t there to see your mistakes.
Climbing Mt. Fuji is like many things in my life; I’ve been lucky enough to meet good people who were giving of their time and experience, and I’ve been able to learn from that and avoid many mistakes. But like many more things in my life, I’ve had the opportunity to make plenty of my own mistakes to learn from. Hopefully, reading this will help some of you, and you’ll go on to make different mistakes of your own. On this trip, I had the pleasure to meet Jason from the UK about 85% of the way up the mountain. He had brought a city-use backpack, and was wearing jean shorts and a t-shirt. The weather was, for the most part, fantastic, so Jason lucked out. But don’t be Jason. Check out my gear list, and make sure you’re prepared for a mountaineering experience. Mt Fuji may be mountaineering with training wheels, but it’s still a long way from the trail to a hospital.
There are a bunch of trails up the mountain, and I’ve climbed the two most used trails. The most popular trail is the Yoshida trail, from the Subaru Line 5th Station. The Subaru line 5th station is the most… civilized, with nice bathrooms, restaurants, coin lockers, and places ti stretch out and nap before you begin your hike. It’s also easily accessibly by a bus from Shinjuku Station. The downside to the Yoshida trail is the down path is a zig-zag shaped scree field. It’s a dusty, slippy, slide down the mountain that is hard on the knees. This time was my second time on the Fujinomiya trail, which I prefer. It’s less scree, but the path up is the same as the path down, so occasionally you have to stop and wait for traffic to pass a narrow spot in the trail. The Fujinomiya trailhead is at the Fujinomiya 5th station. It’s still nice. By nice, I mean it has flush toilets, some food and drinks, and there’s a bag check, so you can leave some clean clothes at the bottom if you so choose. But it’s definitely an outpost compared to the Subaru line 5th station. So, having made the decision to climb the Fujinomiya trail again, It was time to start planning the when.
Prior Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance
I started training three months before climbing Mt Fuji. I started carrying a heavy backpack around with me during the day, probably walking 5-10km with the heavy bag four or five days a week. I started at about 15kg, and worked my way up to 25kgs. I would go up and down the 10 flights of stairs to the
toy mountain supply store with the bag. I found out that a few of the tallest skyscrapers in Shinjuku have open stairwells you can just walk up and down. I wouldn’t say that I was as dedicated as I thought I should have been to my training, but at the end of the day, I wasn’t very sore after climbing Mt Fuji. Which was a first. The other two times I had been completely wrecked afterwards. I felt a twinge of DOMS the next day, but nothing I wouldn’t feel weak for complaining about.
My training bag was the old Millet bag that I used two years ago on my previous Fuji ascent, and I filled it with bags of rice and kettlebells. At one point I had 30kg in it, but that was too much for my knees, and I backed back down to 25kg. I’d spent a lot of time running before my previous Fuji Ascents, but the carrying the heavy bag really made a huge difference this time.
Mt Fuji has an Excellent Weather Forecast
And the first thing you should do, third thing you should do, and last thing you should do before you start to climb is to check the weather forecast. It’s really easy to read, even if you don’t speak Japanese.
A = Good for photos
B = Bad for photos; fine for climbing
C = Bad for photos; bad for climbing; great for stories years later when you’ve recovered and learned not to hate the mountain.
Mt Fuji is famously moody, and you can see that just watching the weather forecasts, and how often they change. You can’t assume that the weather won’t change at the last minute, so keep your eye on it, and be flexible. One of the biggest mistakes people make is locking themselves into one date months ahead of time, and then they have to deal with the weather that day, no matter how bad. If you can, build flexibility into your plan.
A 10-day Window
This time, we gave ourselves a ten day window. My friend was coming from the US for this trip, so we planned the rest of her Japan events around the idea that we would be spending two days climbing Mt Fuji, when the weather forecast told us it was time to go. And the weather forecast told us it was time to go. Two days before, I was looking at only one single A-weather day amidst a pile of C’s. So that was our day. In hindsight, there were some other fantastic weather days inside our window, but we didn’t know that until we’d gotten back down, and the weather forcast changed. I think that’s Mt Fuji’s idea of a joke. But we planned for that, and we had the flexibility, so we went. On Yamabiraki.
Yamabiraki is the Official Opening of the Mountain Trail
Every year there are official opening and closing dates for the climbing trails on Mt. Fuji. That doesn’t mean that you can only climb during the official season, or that it’s only safe to climb then. People climb Mt Fuji year-round, but the people that do it in the winter have significant mountaineering experience and cold-weather gear. Don’t do that. I mean, unless you’re one of those people. Because then totally do that. But you know if you’re one of those people. And you probably have the credit card bills for gear to prove it. Between the official opening of the trails sometime around the beginning of July, and the closing of the trails, sometime around the end of August, you can rely on the trails to be mostly safe, and there to be people operating the yamagoya, or mountain huts. There are mountain patrol people, and other emergency services on the mountain. Hopefully no one ever needs them. But they’re there, and that’s part of why I call Mt Fuji “mountaineering on training wheels,” It’s still a mountain. But you’re not going to have to leave your bleeding, dying climbing partner to hike 9 hours to get cell phone reception to call an ambulance that’s hours away. Well, the ambulance is hours away. But you can make the call right away, and the trail is clearly marked, so you can tell rescue services right where you are. It’s a safe hike.
I knew that the Fujinomiya trail opens later than the Yoshida trail, and that the Yoshida trail opened on July 1st, 2018, but I didn’t know until I got to the trailhead that July 10th, 2018 was yamabiraki. To me, the weather, and the calling ahead to reserve the yamagoya, was far more important than if every trail service on the way was going to be open. And that puts a fine point on the next big question.
To Yamagoya or Not?
People have three major strategies for climbing Mt Fuji.
The USMC, that I’ve seen, have their own strategy,
Which seems to be to ignore the weather forecast, and run up and down as fast as you can during the day in your PT gear. It works, but might I suggest a different method. Marines are… special.
There are signs everywhere at the trailheads that are warning climbers not to “bullet climb.”
Bullet climbing is super common, and as long as you’re healthy and smart, and don’t mind a bit of sleep deprivation, is a valid strategy. I’d recommend planning to get to the top at 2am, which means starting your climb before 6pm, if you’re a sea-level type like me who’s body is not adjusted to the altitude. In fact, I’d recommend getting to the 5th station around 3pm, and taking a nap. Rest up, brush your teeth, and let your body acclimate to the altitude at the 5th Station. Then start your hike, and take it slow. Sure, you can go fast. Your muscles can take it, but unless you know your body in the mountains, you don’t know how the altitude is going to affect you, and it really makes sense to take it slow and avoid the altitude sickness. You get to the 10th station around 2-3am, and you want to hike around the rim trail until you find your photo spot, which you should grab somewhere around 3 or 3:30am, and then you sit and wait for sunrise. Assuming that all goes as planned, you can hike around the rim trail, go to the post office, hit the summit, and then maybe start back down around 7 or 8am, and make it back down to the 5th station around noon. The you get yourself on public transportation, and you fall asleep. Hard.
The Day Hike
The “safe” option is to start your hike in the morning. Your start time depends on where you’re staying, but all the volunteers working at the 5th station will tell you to spend an hour at the trailhead before starting, and I agree with them. Nothing ruins your summit experience like the headache and sick-to-your-stomach feeling of altitude sickness. If you can get to the top feeling great, do that. You can hike up in the day, and arrive at your yamagoya for the night. Yamagoya are solid buildings on the side of the mountain that have food, water, and hot coffee, for a mountain markup that feels extreme, but makes sense when you think about it, and a place to sleep, for about 6,000 yen. The first time I climbed Mt Fuji, I bulleted. In “C” weather. It was miserable. The second time, I stayed in a yamagoya, while listening to the howling “C” rainstorm outside. The first thing I saw leaving the yamagoya in the morning was an unprepared girl who had spent the night out in the freezing rainstorm, shivering uncontrollably, and completely unconcerned that she was going to miss sunrise, huddled in a hut with warm coffee. I can identify. That had been me three years prior. And it’s also why I prefer the yamagoya approach. Both times, I’ve stayed at the 10th station Yamagoya on the Fujinomiya trail. It’s not bad, but altitude sickness is more likely to set in the longer you stay at high altitude. I suspect it would be better to stay at the 8th station or somewhere lower on the mountain, and let your body adjust to that altitude, before climbing to the top in the early morning hours.
You can google the yamagoya. They have a cell phone number usually, and you can make a reservation. Sometimes. They tend to be full, so it can be difficult, particularly on weekends. This time I used Google, and called up the 10th Station yamagoya the day before, and the man on the phone seemed like it was no big deal, took my name and number of people, and that was it. The way they pack people in, they don’t seem too concerned if someone doesn’t show up. There are probably plenty of people without reservations asking if they can sneak in.
Getting to the Trailhead
We grabbed a 6:30am shinkansen from Tokyo Station, arriving at Shin-Fuji station a little after 7:30am. In hindsight, I would have preferred to get there a little earlier and have more time to adjust, but there’s always a compromise there with how early you want to wake up in the morning. On the way to the train we grabbed breakfast, and ate it on the shinkansen. Before exiting out the ticket gates, we used the bathrooms, and brushed out teeth, because the bathrooms inside the shinkansen are much nicer than the ones outside the gates. I grabbed a coffee, too, and we got a taxi from the lottery, and went straight to the trailhead. There’s a bus, but it takes an hour longer than the taxi, and costs 1/2 as much for two people. For four people, the taxi and the bus work out to the same price, so the taxi is a no-brainer. The taxi got us to the 5th station just after 9am. We took some photos, watched the Eurocopter Dophin excitedly circling… that was my first clue that we were there on Yamabiraki. Apparently taking the taxi meant that we missed some ceremony that we later learned delayed the bus. So more points for the taxi option. The eagerness to climb overwhelmed the wisdom of sitting and adjusting somewhere around 9:45, and we started up. Slow.
Slow and Steady Wins the Race
Or, at least, it avoids the altitude sickness. This time was the slowest I’d ever hiked the trail, at about 8 hours, and it was also the first time I wasn’t miserable at the top. I didn’t really start feeling altitude sick until we were summiting after sunrise the next morning. The Mt Fuji trail isn’t the most exciting trail to hike. It’s not hard, it’s that it just doesn’t end. Keep your eye out behind you because the view is gorgeous… but the mountain itself looks like a scene straight from a Mars rover’s photographs. Stop and enjoy the view. Take lots of photos. Rest as you get to the stations on your way up. Rest more than your body needs, because that extra rest time is all going to help your body adjust to the altitude. Keep yourself hydrated on the climb. The new magic trick to this I learned on this ascent was the Cliff Bloks, which my friend brought from the US. They’re basically all of the salty electrolyte goodness from a sports drink condensed to a delicious chewy cube. A+, definitely recommend. Bring a floppy sun hat. Use lots of sunscreen. Call your mother. Well. Send her a postcard from the top at any rate. I’m not sure what the international call rates from a cell phone on the side of Mt Fuji are. FaceTime would probably be ok if you’ve got a good data plan. Ah. And make sure you have 100 yen coins. The bathrooms are 200 yen per use. And you can’t go pee behind a tree. There are no trees. There are just strangers watching you.
Somewhere around the 8th Station, we met Jason. He was sitting down, catching his breath, climbing solo. He was headed to the same yamagoya as we were, so we were happy to expand our party. Of course, as the clouds and rain came in somewhere around the 9.5th station, Jason had a chuckle at his own expense as we put on our rain gear, and he put on his thin plastic poncho. But Jason got lucky. The weather was great, and really, our fancy rain gear was not necessary. But don’t plan on that. Plan on that C-weather I was telling you about.
The Yamagoya are an Interesting Experience
We hit the 10th Station just before 6pm, which was the last possible minute for our reservations. There’s some food at the yamagoya if you’re not vegetarian, and then it’s pretty much straight to sleep, with lights out at 7pm. When the lights go, the cell signal also goes, so expect that. And don’t use your phone. Everyone else trying to sleep will hate you. When you’ve got 180 people in extremely close quarters in a mountain hut, the people around you are going to be interesting. I remember the amazing symphony of snores from the first time, so I had good earplugs this time. There was still one guy who was impressive. I also had my air mattress, which really made a difference. I did get four solid hours of sleep in the middle of the night, which was nice. Last time, we had been put in a different part of the floor, so we could hear the altitude sick people puking into the nasty chemical toilets all night. This time we couldn’t hear it, but every time some inconsiderate person left the door open, we could smell it. I’m not entirely certain which is the worse option. But it’s all part of the Mt Fuji Experience™. The one real negative of the 10th station yamagoya is that they do button up for the night, so no stars, even if that had been possible, and they didn’t let us out until 4am, which was well into the beginning of sunrise. I really wished I had had my spot staked out by 3am. Ah, well. C’est la vie.
Ashidake Peak is Famous for it’s Sunrise View
There are numerous peaks along the trail that rings the central caldera of Mt Fuji, but the best places to watch the sunrise are all on the trail between the Yoshida Trail 10th station, and the Fujinomiya trail 10th station. The peak closest to the Fujinomiya 10th station is known as Ashidake, and both times I’ve experienced the sunrise, it’s been from Ashidake Peak. My first attempt I watched while I was drinking coffee from inside a yamagoya. Because C-weather. We watched the outside go from black to white in a smooth transition. We only had about 3m of visibility, so yeah. Great stories. Years later. When you’ve forgiven the mountain. It really is a great experience, watching a beautiful sunrise from the top of Mt Fuji. And it’s only slightly diminished when you have to listen to the TV weather girl breathlessly narrating her excitement. Multiple times. Because she didn’t get the intonation right the first couple times. Or maybe she got the script slightly wrong. I dunno. But fake emotion gets really obvious when you hear it narrated 5 or 6 times. I think as long as you don’t go on Yamabiraki, you can avoid that particular experience. Jason left us as I was finishing shooting the sunrise, and we eventually packed up and went to summit Mt. Fuji.
The Summit is a Short Hike from the Fujinomiya 10th Station
It wouldn’t be difficult at all. If it was at lower altitude and you weren’t probably already suffering from the effects of altitude sickness. The first attempt, all kinds of altitude sick, in miserable weather, there was no way it was happening. I regret not making the summit attempt on the second attempt, but we all slept miserably, it was cloudy and cold, and we were ready to go home. This time, we were feeling good, the weather was fantastic, and it was possible my friend from the US would never get the chance to summit again, so of course we were going for it. It’s not exactly a huge accomplishment. But you do it to say you did. There’s a big stone marker at the summit, and you will probably have to wait in line to have your photo taken with it. After summiting, we walked down around to see the shadow of Mt Fuji, took a few photos, and doubled back to the 10th station, where we wrote some postcards and mailed them from Japan’s highest post office, and then stopped in the shrine there to make sure the mountain gods were on our side. And hopefully the weather gods.
The Descent isn’t Long, it’s Just not as Short as You Want it to Be.
We left the 10th station about 7am, and our first rush was to get down a few stations, where hopefully the altitude sickness would start to fade, and we could rest and feel better. We spent 800 yen on two cups of coffee at the 9th station. In hindsight, it was an excellent choice. I look at it as spending 200 yen on two cups of instant dehydrated coffee, 200 yen for the space to take off the layers of long underwear and sweaters that we had for the pre-sunrise summit cold, and 400 yen to sit for about a half an hour and completely miss the rain that we would have descended into had we not waited. We didn’t know about the rain. Jason told us about that later. We definitely knew about the clouds. We descended into misty fog, and the majority of our climb down was with little visibility. There is a strange thing that happens on the way down. You see the people at various stages in their own ascents. You want to cheer on the exhausted people fighting their own struggles to the top. You want everyone to be successful, to make it to the summit and down, but mostly, you want to be off the mountain, in a shower, and then in a bed. Eventually, the 5th Station trailhead comes into view, and you feel relieved and sad all at once. It’s done. All that’s left is the trip home.
There’s Never not Been a Taxi There For Me.
That doesn’t mean there are always taxis there. I’ve just always been lucky. When we got to the trailhead at around noon, there were plenty of taxis waiting for hikers coming off the mountain. My first inkling that we had missed something came when the taxi drivers were surprised that we were not soaking wet. The taxi driver quickly ripped the protective tarp off of the back seats and before I had the time to clearly think about what had just happened, we were on our way back to Shin-Fuji station, and I was passed out asleep in the back of the cab. I didn’t put two and two together until an hour later. The taxi driver dropped us off, and we got right in line to book our shinkansen tickets, and of all coincidence, Jason gets in line behind us. He had headed down earlier, taken the 11am bus from the 5th Station, and arrived at Shin-Fuji just after us, in time to tell us all about the rain that we totally missed, sipping our instant coffee at the 9th Station. Good save. We got ourselves some food, jumped on a train, and were home asleep in Tokyo by 4:30pm. Which was good. Because I needed every bit of that 14 hours of sleep I got before I had to wake up for work at 6:30am the next day.
Good Luck on Your Own Climb!
At the risk of repeating myself, there’s a Japanese saying that goes, “A fool never climbs Mt Fuji, and you’re a fool if you climb it twice.” I can understand the wisdom in that, but I have to add an exception in there for photographers. It really is worth doing, and if this guide inspires you or makes it easier for you to make your own climb, then it’s been worth it for me to take the time to type this out. You can climb Mt Fuji. Don’t be intimidated. Go, and enjoy your experience, no matter the weather. It’s all an adventure.