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Two Men on the Mountain

July 23, 2016

(or At Least it Didn’t Rain)

This is the third time I have climbed Fujisan. Each time has been different, I’ve been different, I’ve gone with different people, and the weather has been different. I wrote an account of the last time I climbed to the top with my two daughters and our unexpected descent in the dark. Comparing the two trips now the only real differences were that this time I expected to climb in the dark, we got to see the sun rise above the clouds, and there were shops and people at the top. But each climb has its own story. Here is this one, it’s going to be a long post because I want to be able to read this ten years from now and remember everything.

Traveling from 44 to 2305 meters above sea level

It says something about me that one of the most stressful parts of this whole endeavor was figuring out how to buy bus tickets. There are a lot of English websites for this, but there was nothing that said, “Go here. Do this.” So I spent a good deal of time reading all of the websites, trying to answer all the questions I came up with, but the one I couldn’t find was, “What happens if you miss your return bus?” Also I had never been to the bus station in Shinjuku and while I was pretty certain that there would be signage in English I hate relying on that. I did find where I could make reservations online to buy tickets, but it wasn’t clear where I would pick up said tickets. Also I didn’t want to make reservations. Michael and I had some flexibility in when we went so I was trying very hard to avoid rain. I kept checking the weather on top of the mountain (there are many sites, but this is the one I ended up trusting and it was correct – Tenki to Kurasu). It showed good weather with a chance of rain from Tuesday (7/19) night into Wednesday (7/20) morning so we decided to go.

We spent the morning packing our bags and resting. I read over several lists of what to bring and packed most of it. There were lots of warnings about having warm clothes, but the prediction was for weather in the low 40’s, which sounded pretty nice after our walk in the 90 degree weather the day before. We took warm clothes. I even conceded to throwing in a pair of gloves and hats. We took 5 liters of water and we bought some “Emergency cookie bars that boasted 321 kcals each. We took rain jackets. We also took a lot of cash because I wasn’t going to skimp if we needed more food or water.

In the end the buses were simple. We showed up at Shinjuku found the bus station and there was an information desk with a nice sign saying, “English speakers available.” I asked about buying tickets for that day, they sent me to line number 5 and we bought tickets from a man who also spoke English. We bought our tickets to leave at 3:45 that day and to return from the mountain at 2 pm the next day. This gave us plenty of time for our climb and descent, but I wanted to err on the side of not missing the bus because the answer to my question was, “IF there are seats available we can just take the next one.” I wasn’t interested in figuring things our IF that wasn’t the case.

We had about a half hour before the bus left which gave me enough time to run out for some triple A batteries. I had the brilliant idea to buy our headlamps at the Tokyu Hands right next to Shinjuku station on our way out of town. We ended up getting two different kinds because they only had one left of the one we would have both picked. We pulled them out of the packaging and Michael’s came with batteries, but mine didn’t. You may find this hard to believe (I know I did), but there is not a convenience store near the Shinjuku South gate building. I ran back over to Tokyu Hands, but they did not have batteries in the area we bought the head lamps. I was running out of time so I ran back in time to catch the bus without batteries, but I did manage to throw away the packaging in the store. A bonus because we would have had to carry it up and down the mountain otherwise.

We rode the bus for three hours, the first hour taking us as far west as we had started out at our apartment. The bus was mostly full with a mix of foreign tourists and Japanese tourists. Two young men who looked about college age and sounded like they were from France were bringing umbrellas with them. Across the aisle from us was an American father and daughter (both a generation up from Michael and I). I was able to read a bit of the Stats and Stripes newspaper over his shoulder during the long drive. The bus was pretty quiet and many people were napping. Michael and I both tried to nap a little, played on our phones and stared out the window. We reached the Fuji Subaru Line 5th station at 6:10 exactly as the schedule indicated.

Fuji Subaru Line 5th Station

First things first. We found some dinner. We ate at a place called Fujisan Miharashi, they had basic fare like ramen and katsu curry. We bought our food tickets from a machine and handed them in at the counter. We both opted for ramen. Michael drank hot cocoa and I drank coffee. Most of the restaurant was marked as reserved, but we found a place near the side window and enjoyed our meal. We had no need to rush and the longer we stayed the more we would acclimate to the altitude. However, ramen is a quick meal and we finished in about 20 minutes. We then went off in search of batteries for my head lamp. We found them at the third store we tried. We took several pictures as we wandered the fifth station.

Some of the shops were closing and we only had an hour of daylight left so we decided to start out climb. We each paid our ¥1000 “donation” and headed to the Yoshida trail. I took a picture so we would be sure to remember the route we took (as a teenager I came down the wrong trail) and made a mental note that our trail was the yellow one.

2305m to 2390m (6th station).

The climb from the 5th to 6th station was very pleasant. the sun was setting, but we had daylight the whole time and were excited to start the climb. Michael happened to mention that he was enjoying the newest Rick Riordan book, The Hidden Oracle. He knows from running with me that a great way to pass the time is to retell a book so he offered to do that. He started with saying, “You’ve read most of the other ones, right?” I have not. We read the first one out loud as a family, but then people started reading ahead so the kids all read them on their own. In order to fully appreciate the newest book Michael decided I needed a recap of the previous ten books. This worked very well for this leg of the trip because we could walk side by side. So as we walked Michael regaled me with stories of Percy Jackson, Annabeth Chase , Jason Grace, Piper McLean, Leo Valdez and a mechanical dragon named Festus. I would occasionally interject with guesses about the plot, to point out something on the trail, or to make Michael smile for a picture.

We reached the 6th station still on good spirits. We sat for a very short while, drank some water and ate a granola bar. I wanted to keep climbing while we still had a little daylight and Michael was game.

2390m to 2700m (7th Station)

It slowly got dark as we made our climb to the 7th station. At some point we turned on our headlamps, but we probably went about an hour after sunset just using the light of the full moon. It was very serene climbing by the moonlight and we debated just leaving the lamps off, but in the end we decided to give the headlamps a try. It decreased our circle of vision, but it did make climbing easier as the trail got steeper. That time climbing by moonlight is my best memory from the trip; Michael was still telling me about the Heroes of Olympus and the view of the rocks around us by moonlight was spectacular.

We stayed only long enough to drink some water and eat another granola bar. I also spent my first ¥200 to use a toilet. Upward and onward.

2700m to 3200m (8th station)

When we started hiking Michael was setting the pace and in retrospect I probably should have slowed him down. For the previous two legs of the climb we were easily on pace or even ahead of all the estimates on the signposts. During this section (the longest between stations) Michael started to tire; not much, but I was now the one who was probably going too fast. Before long we came to sections of the trail that required us to actually climb a little and walking side by side became difficult. We tried to keep up the story telling, but Micheal was in the lead and had to keep turning his head back to talk to me. I decided it was more important for him to watch his footing and the story of Jason Grace was put on hold for a while. Instead we made comparisons and evaluations of climbing with a Fuji stick (Michael) or without(me). There are merits to both I think especially on the very rocky sections of the trail. I could use my hands easily to climb up the step like rock fixtures, but Michael could use the leverage of the stick to hoist himself up the very large steps. The one thing we agreed on was that at least his stick didn’t have bells on it. We kept moving, stopping every now and again for a sip of water. We didn’t push, but we made good time. By our calculations we would make the top of the mountain by 1am, which amazed me because our pace slowed down considerably on this leg.

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My picture taking slowed down at this point as well. It was dark and cold enough that we had put our gloves on. At some point Michael added a layer by putting his long sleeved running shirt on under his jacket. The moon was still bright and we could see the starts which made me happy because it meant it was unlikely to rain. Also they are pretty to look at. At the eighth station we took a longer break, stopping to eat an emergency cookie, and drink a good amount of water before heading to the next station. While we sitting there I noticed I could see the bare feet of the man sitting across from me. It was now slightly below 40° and with the windchill it was definitely below freezing. He had a Mylar blanket wrapped around him and a backpack with a teddy bear tied on top in place of a sleeping bag. He looked miserably cold. I offered him the extra pair of socks I’d brought with me. He laughed a little at his own unpreparedness and gladly accepted them. I didn’t get a name, but I did find out he was from Germany and that he was still intending to make it to the top. We wished him luck and started moving again.

3200m – 3360m (The Real 8th Station)

The trek from the first sign we saw saying 8th station to the Real 8th Station (that is actually what it is labeled) includes a series of huts with bathrooms and benches at each one. We had some renewed energy after our midnight snack of protein bars so we started out well. The moon was still shining. The stars were still bright and we could see the lights of the resort town at the bottom of the mountain.

When we reached the first of the huts we bought some hot chocolate and a bottle of water. We weren’t out of our own water yet, but I wasn’t sure how many more chances we would get to buy stuff before the top.

That was the last shop that was open so it was a good move on my part. As we reached each hut after that there were signs to be quiet at night, but by this point Michael and I didn’t feel much like talking. We were both getting tired and the wind had picked up making it colder. Each time we came to a hut we would search for a refuge out of the wind and use the bathroom if needed. We were in no rush, better to go slow than wait at the top for the sun to rise.

The huts being closed meant that we couldn’t get stamps on Micheal’s Fuji stick. Which was not a big deal yet because from his previous attempt Michael had stamps all the way up to the 8th station on the Fujinomiya trail (3250m). I suppose we might have gotten stamps at some of the higher 8th station huts, but we went into the climb planning to get stamps at above the 8th station, real or otherwise.

3360m to 3450m (Station 8.5)

It was almost midnight and we were definitely tired, but still in relatively good spirits. It was cold enough that we had both put on our knit hats and Michael had added a hoodie under his rain jacket, but we were on an adventure. For a short while the trail widened up a bit again allowing Michael to resume his narration of Rick Riordan’s books. We made it easily to station 8.5 without stopping to rest.

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This was the last picture I took until the next morning.

3450m to 3580m (9th station)

We slowed down quite a bit and talking ended for the most part. The wind was picking up, but it was still bearable. At some point Michael found a rock and sat down for a break. After that we looked for good places to sit, out of the wind if possible. When we stopped we turned off our headlamps were amazed at how bright the moon was. At one point I even made shadow puppets onto a the ground using the moonlight. As we kept going the wind became miserable. We managed to get out of the wind and rest a few more times before reaching station 9. We had slowed down, but this part of the trail is usually very crowded so we were still close to the pace of the trail markers.

Because we didn’t stop and sleep at the 8th station we were ahead of most of the other climbers on the mountain that day, but now when we sat to rest we could see a line of headlamps coming up the mountain behind us. I know from reading about the climb that there can be lots of people on this part of the trail as it gets close to sunrise, but it never got too crowded that morning. We could always find a place to sit out of the way and when we wanted to go on there was never any trouble getting into the very loose line of climbers.

When we got to station 9 we found it closed. By the looks of it the place has been closed for years. Station 9 offered us a chance to hide out of the wind for bit, but little else. If there hadn’t been a sign I would have assumed it was an abandoned hut. A sign gave us the information that there was only 400m of trail left until we reached the top.

3580m to 3715m (Summit)

It took us almost two hours to go the last 400m. I was noticing some symptoms of altitude sickness (headache and nausea), but it was bearable and I had no shortness of breath so kept silent. After the first or second switchback past station 9 Michael told me that he felt like he was going to throw up. Then he did.

As a parent I had a hard choice to make. I know the only cure for altitude sickness is to turn around and go back down to where the air was thicker. But I also didn’t want to see Michael get so close without making it to the Summit. I asked him if he was having any trouble breathing and he said no. I made him prove it by taking some deep breaths. He said he was feeling better now after throwing up. I decided we would go on, but slowly. We took frequent rests; when we saw a good spot to get out of the wind we sat down, but that wasn’t easy to find.

One of the images that I will remember for a long time is of Michael and I huddled together trying to stay warm as the wind howled around us. We became experts at finding nooks in the rocks where we could squeeze ourselves in and put our backpacks in front of us to block as much wind as possible. When we found a good spot it was hard to move on, but I would limit us to 5 or 10 minutes and then make us keep going.

Less than 200m from the top Michael got sick again. And again it made him feel better. If we had been going at our normal pace we would be at the top in 10 minutes. As it was it seemed like we might not ever get there.

I resorted to a trick I learned a long time ago to tackle a task that seems insurmountable. I broke it up into smaller chunks. I told Michael we would just go 100 steps further up the trail and then rest again. We started going 100 steps at a time counting off each one so he would know how close we were to another break. We would walk for a minute taking those hundred steps and then rest for five or more minutes and drink a little water. After the end of each break I would ask Michael if he could do another hundred. He would usually grunt, which I took as a yes.

At some point Michael threw up again; not much because he only had water in his stomach at this point. We only had two or three more hundred step jaunts to make it to the top. I asked him again if he had trouble breathing and when he grunted again I told him I needed actual words. He said his breathing was fine.

We took another hundred steps.

And another.

Around 2:30am we passed under a torii gate and found a great spot out of the wind to sit for a very long break. Eventually we stood up and walked the last few steps to the top.

We’d made it. The top of Mt. Fuji. I hugged Michael and we went off in search of a place to wait for the sun to come up.

At the Summit

Michael threw up again as we wandered around a little to find a spot to hunker down for the last hour or so. I debated just heading back down, but we both had a morale boost just from making it to the top. Besides sitting for an hour or two didn’t sound bad to either of us. We found the only bathroom open at this time of night and I paid ¥300 to go in and leave some more water on the mountain. When I opened the door there were four college students sitting in the middle section staying out of the wind. There are pretty large signs saying you are not allowed to do that, but they didn’t seem to care. I couldn’t really blame them. If there had been more room I would have pulled Michael in and hung out with them. As it was I did not rush to get back out into the wind. When I came back out Michael had found us a spot up against a rock wall that would block the wind from one direction. He decided to use the bathroom before we tried to take a nap under the stars. I told him to take his time and enjoy the warmth. Our spot out of the wind was nice at first, but the wind on mountaintops blows all around and we were not as protected as we first thought. Neither of us remembers sleeping, but an hour passed quickly. Just before 4am I got up to see if there was a warmer spot. I was just able to see daylight creeping over the horizon and I found a bench that wasn’t any better positioned, but it wasn’t any worse and it was off the ground. I went back and got Michael and we headed over to the bench, but when we came back the shops and huts were starting to open up. A man outside the hut invited us in. I knew we had to buy something to sit inside, but wasn’t sure what. Then the nice man said two excellent words in English, “Hot Cocoa?” We went in and just getting out of the wind felt amazing. Michael and I split a small cup of cocoa for ¥500. At first our hands were still shivering so much that I was afraid we were going to spill the cocoa. We lingered over that one cup for as long as possible. When it was gone we didn’t want to leave the warm hut so we had another cup. I also got a cup of instant ramen because it looked good and warm. I let Michael have the cocoa, but halfway through he started feeling sick again. I wasn’t feeling great either at this point, but didn’t think I would throw up. I was a little concerned by the tiny shrimp floating in the ramen cup. I didn’t eat any of them, but I did drink the broth. I might be allergic to shrimp – the jury is still out. As we sat inside the hut we could see it getting lighter and lighter outside. I snuck outside to take a few pictures and eventually convinced Michael to come out too. We went back over to the bathroom and they had closed off the small one we’d used in the nighttime and opened up the big daytime bathroom. Michael was pretty sure the Hot Chocolate wasn’t going to stay down so we spent about 20 minutes hanging out in the bathroom. I didn’t feel too bad because everyone else was outside watching the sun come up. Luckily there was a small window in the bathroom and I could see that we hadn’t reached full sunrise yet. After waiting a long while we decided the cocoa was probably going to stay down and we went back out side. It was nice to feel the warm sun on our faces.

 

 

 

 

I had envisioned sitting at the top of the mountain peacefully watching the sunrise, but Michael and I were both tired and nauseous so we needed to head back down. We took a quick peek at the caldera and then wandered back over to the stores to try to get Michael’s Fuji stick stamped. As we were walking Michael’s hot chocolate decided to stay at the top of the mountain. I kicked some dust over the liquid on the ground and we gave up on the stamp. Right at that moment the sun came completely up and all of the people starting shouting “Banzai!” Michael and I looked over and shouted half-heartedly with them. Then we headed down.

3715m to 3450m (Station 8.5)

 

We started to feel better almost instantly as we started down the trail. Going down was more precarious than climbing up, but it was much less strenuous. We took several breaks, but didn’t have to worry about getting out of the wind any more. The wind was still there, but it was so much warmer with the sun we didn’t care. Mostly we just sat on the ground, making sure to stay out of the way of the many people still climbing up. We recognized a lot of people from our bus still coming up. They had probably stayed overnight in one of the huts. I took some small pleasure in the fact they looked about as tired as me. Just before  we reached Station 8.5 an elderly Japanese woman told us we should be going down a different trail and she pointed over to our right at a trail with a constant slope that was made of loose lavarocks. Luckily at Station 8.5 there is an easy place to cross over to the correct descending trail. Both trails end up at the same place, but we moved over to the supposedly easier and correct trail.Before we did that though we got Michael’s stick stamped with an 8.5 station stamp.

Just as we were starting down the gravel trail we saw a familiar face. It was the Flip-Flop Man, lying in on the side of the trail using his teddy bear as a pillow. He was still wearing flip-flops and the socks I’d given him eight hours earlier. We waved and I asked him if he made it to the top. He said yes and we congratulated each other and kept moving.

3450m to 3360m (8th Station)

The wind was strong enough to knock us over if we didn’t plant our feet, but we didn’t mind too much because with every step we got warmer and felt better. We still took breaks, but not as often. When we reached the 8th station we drank the rest of our water and Michael ate a granola bar. I decided not to buy any more water at this time figuring we could get some at the next station down. No sense carrying water if I didn’t have to.

We sat for a while at the 8th station enjoying bring warm. We did the math and realized we could probably rest twice as long as we needed to walk and still get down to the bottom long before our bus time.

3360m to 2540m (7th Station)

We kept going down and it kept getting warmer. We started shedding layers, taking off gloves, hats, and sweat shirts. The trek from station 8 to station 7 on the descent is boring and dusty. We’d been walking in loose gravel for hours by this point and it was getting old. About every few yards you could expect your foot to slip out from under you a little. We passed the time by finally finishing the Rick Riordan books and Michael leaving me with the cliff hanger on the latest book because he hadn’t finished reading it yet. We saw the Flip-Flop man several times on this section. He passed us while we rested and then we passed him while he rested. We took several breaks along this portion, but never for very long. Michael later told me that he purposely left his backpack on so he wouldn’t get to comfortable to help keep the breaks short.

There is a very important sign along this part of the trail letting hikers know that the Yoshida trail and the Subashiri trail split. The Yoshida trail makes a left turn that would be very easy to miss. If a person were to somehow miss this turn they would end up at the wrong 5th station and probably have to figure out a way to call their parents who are waiting at the correct 5th station holding up the tour bus. I can only imagine how awful that would be. Luckily for Michael and I there is a handy sign letting us know the right way to go. Note: This sign was not there 30 years ago. Just Sayin’.

When we finally reached station 7 on the descent route we were very disappointed to discover it was just a bathroom. The dust was making us very thirsty and I had been hoping for at least a vending machine. Oh well. Keep on keeping on.

2540m to 2305m (5th Station)

 

If you made it this far in the reading you might notice that there isn’t a station 6 on the way down. The Yoshida descent trail merges with the Yoshida ascent trail just a little below station 6, but we were not going to hike up just to get there. Not matter how thirsty we were. There was something called the Station Six guidance center that had bathrooms and, well, guides, but no vending machines or shops. Also we realized at this point neither of us could remember station six on the way up and since we didn’t buy any drinks we think we might have called this guidance center station six and then just thought the real station six was like the “real” station 8.

We were both exhausted by this point but didn’t stop for too many breaks because we just wanted to finish. Both of us commented that it didn’t seem like we had been up on the mountain just the night before. It felt like a distant memory. I think Michael made the comment during this section of the trail with all of the black rocks around us with a few wide green fields it looked a little like a Settlers of Catan board come to life.

Fuji Subaru Line 5th Station (Again)

 

After over 14 hours on the mountain we made it back down to the 5th station. Our first stop was a vending machine to get drinks. I didn’t feel dehydrated, but my through was incredibly dry from all the dust. Michael and I each drank a Aquarius Sports drink in about 10 seconds. Next we found some lunch. Michael’s appetite had returned halfway down the mountain and we went back to the same place we’d had dinner before. this time he got the katsu curry and I got the katsu bowl. Michael’s curry came with a mound of rice in the shape of Mt. Fuji. We had some really delicious water to wash it down. We finished lunch around 11:15 and we had 2pm bus tickets. I knew there was a 12 noon bus and I decided we would wander over to the bus stop at 11:45 and see if we could get on that bus instead. We had 30 minutes to kill and neither of us had slept. We went over to a bench by the restrooms where I had seen a man sleeping the evening before as we were starting our climb. It seemed a good a place as any for a nap. I closed my eyes, but only drifted a little. Michael was out cold for 20 minutes. After our naps we went over to the bus stop and there was a sign indicating that the 12 o’clock bus was full. I showed my tickets to a very helpful woman who worked at the bus counter and she said, “12:30?”. I said yes and Michael and I went over and had some ice cream to celebrate.

The 12:30 bus rolled up after another twenty minutes or so and we boarded and fell asleep.

2305m to 44m (Home)

I slept soundly for the first hour of the bus ride along with everyone else on the bus. After that I was still tired, but I found it hard to get comfortable. The bus stopped at Mitaka before making its way to Shinjuku and I gave some serious thought to getting off and taking the train from there because it might get us home sooner. I think it would have involved some extra walking and that was enough to talk myself out of it. We rode all the way into Shinjuku and managed to get seats on the train back to our local station. I didn’t sleep on the train for fear I would sleep too deeply and miss our stop. We then trudged home from the station and both managed to shower before we collapsed on the sofa. We ate leftover sloppy joes and bratwurst for dinner and it was delicious. We both went to bed early and slept for about 12 hours.

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After thoughts

This was a really long post and I might go back and edit it in a few weeks, but I need to be done with it for now so I’m posting it as is. Sorry for all of the typos and weird missing/added words, but I hope the story still shows through. I am still not sure if I made the right call pushing Michael to keep climbing after he got sick. I did some research when we got back and I believe he had Acute Mountain Sickness, which is sometimes called Altitude Sickness, but is not as deadly as actual Altitude Sickness. But I didn’t know that when I made my decision. It all ended well and two days later he feels fine and I am hobbling like an old man whenever I use a staircase. He told me later that he wouldn’t have made it without me and I told him I wouldn’t have even gone without him. I don’t know if it shows in the writing above, but I was impressed by a strength in Michael that I don’t always see. On the ascent he never complained or even once said he wanted to quit. We both commented several times that it was “frakkin’ cold”, but that wasn’t a complaint so much as a statement of fact.

I make the climb out to be pretty unpleasant, and while parts of definitely were, overall it was a good adventure for us this summer. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things, adventures. Make you late for dinner.

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