Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Climbing Mt. Fuji

Every now and then nostalgia bumps into wobbly memory cells, leaving you a bit tongue-tied. This happened to me last week when a friend, an ultra-marathoner,  suddenly asked me -  "I want to climb Mt. Fuji - do you know anybody who can arrange it in the off-season this year?"

While trying hard to remember details of my trip in 2009, I just said, "It all depends on when you are planning to climb..."

For a moment, I could not recall the dates when I climbed that iconic mountain. Nor could I remember the route I took, or the total expense for that trip. Instead, the memories that floated up immediately were -  the taste of the most delicious hot curry rice I'd ever had, at a quaint wooden inn high above the clouds; of the long lines of climbers trudging uphill in pitch darkness at 3:00AM; the cold wind and rains, and of a spectacular sunrise we saw, perched precariously on steep, dark slopes dotted with large chunks of pale, white ice.

Memories of the trek had receded to the bye lanes of my mind. It did pop up occasionally whenever I came across a painting, a photograph, or even an emoji that featured Mt. Fuji. A fleeting thought would then cross my mind - "I have actually been to the top of that mountain!"  A sense of awe and wonder that was, perhaps, bigger than the actual experience.

I had to go back to the notes written six years ago, to be reminded that I owed the trip to a gentleman named Sakata Yoshinori, and to an organisation named JISEDAI. In July 2009, I had responded to a notice that came up at Tsukuba University. I was the only one who registered, so  Sakata-san had traveled all the way from Tokyo, just to brief a single guy.

When we met at the Tsukuba TX station, he was standing next to the ticket counter, soaked in sweat. At a Starbucks table nearby, he had carefully handed me his visiting card, and then spread out his laptop, plugged in a thumb-drive, to explain how I should prepare for the trek.

"It would be a nine-member team this year", he had said "All the others were university students from Tokyo". He explained the itinerary, detailed the expenses (~JPY 20,000 which included bus-rides, boarding, meals), and pointed out the precautions to be taken and then offered to help me find the right equipment for the trip. I definitely needed a 35L backpack, a pair of waterproof trousers and, if possible, ankle-length hiking shoes.

Mr. Sakata even insisted to helping me get the right equipment and took me to a few shops at Tsukuba Centre. Apart from being amazed at his helpfulness, I remember thinking that his well-meaning advise bordered on being fussy and over-cautious. Having done some trekking in the Western Himalaya's, climbing a gentle-looking 3776m peak did not seem like a big deal. And then there was the cost of buying all the new gear...It is only later that I realized that Mt. Fuji was different, and that each item was necessary.

Eight of the nine-member team turned up. We all met outside the Shinjiku station and discovered that an interesting mix of people -- Yeo, a dude from Singapore; Melissa, a budding dentist from Indonesia, along with her two batchmates Pat and Thuy; A South American named German (pronounced Herman), and two other experienced Japanese trekkers - Chiaki and Hiroki.

We all took a bus from Tokyo to the Gotenba (2 hours), and then a local bus to a large facility called Fujinosato, an 'education facility' right next to the JSDF Takigahara camp. It was a sprawling campus with scores of tatami-matted dormitories, forest trails, an archery complex, camping sitesi in the woods, and even a spacious Onsen (hot-spring bath). School children, baseball teams, and various other groups in assorted uniforms milled about the place, waiting for their turn to climb uphill.

Our turn was early next day morning. After breakfast we walked to the base of the 7.8 km Subashiri Trail, downed a few cups of green-tea, and started trekking on  pathway that cuth through the thick forests.

At this point the ground was gently undulating - pathways that cut through the deep, dark volcanic soil and lush vegetation. As we climbed to 6th Station (2400m), and the 7th Station (3000m), forests gave way to sparse scrub vegetation dotting the slopes, and then none at all beyond the Old 7th Station (3200m). We rested for a while at this point at the Miharashikan Hut.  By this time it was cold and windy outside, and, at a time like this, what could be more welcome than a plate of hot curry rice? :)

Shadow of Mt. Fuji on the Clouds (Old 7th Station)

Early next morning, we padded ourselves with warm clothing, fitted head-lamps and walked out into the pitch darkness, to join a steady stream of climbers going uphill. It was between the 8.5th Station - 3450m (Goraikokan Hut), and 9th Station that we noticed that we were far above the clouds. This was also the meeting point of the Yoshida Trail (Yamanishi Prefecture) and, suddenly, it felt like we were all commuters at the Shinjiku Station!

Torches and lights were switched off as everybody settled down on the steep slopes, sitting down wherever they could find some space. As the clouds gradually gathered light, we all seemed to be sitting in a massive amphitheater, waiting for the drama of the rising sun to unfold...and what a sight it was!

Within seconds of the sunrise, a blanket of clouds rolled out reducing visibility to a few meters, and drenching us all in icy rain. We continued moving up at a snail's pace now, a part of a long line of colorful raincoats slowly bobbing to the summit. The last few hundred meters were rather steep and the ropes helped. Finally, when we reached the top, got past the crowds and eateries and looked down the caldera, it seemed so... ordinary.

After offering prayers are the Kusushi Shrine we started our descent. It was a lot faster than I expected because we were just wading down ash-laden slopes. Often our legs would just dig in, right up to our knees with each step.
Wading down the ash-slopes
This is where you realise that Mt. Fuji was quite different from other non-volcanic mountains. The weather was fickle, and the terrain even more so. Each and every item listed by Sakata-san turned out to be essential - the layered clothing, raincoats, and ankle-length boots. Our friend from Singapore made the mistake of coming in shorts and sneakers, and paid the price for it. He had been shivering from the 7th Station, and now, with the ash filling up his sneakers, he was feeling quite miserable all the way down.

In a couple of hours we were down at the Subashiri base station, and then on to the comforts of Fujinosato. After a soak in the steaming Onsen, a hot meal and a nap in the bus back to Tokyo, none of us doubted that Mt. Fuji looked a lot prettier from a distance!

For friends who are trying to climb Mt. Fuji during the off season, my suggestion is simple -- please don't. During the off season, all huts, toilets and first aid stations are closed and most of signs on the trails are removed. Unless, of course, you are part of JSDF, a scientific team or a team with special permission, your are quite unlikely to get beyond the 5th Station.

The climb is not difficult, but given the way the weather changes suddenly, the chances of getting lost in the forests, rain or in the cloud-covered slopes, is quite high, unless, of course, you are travelling with experienced climbers, and following a long line of colorful raincoats all the way to the top!


Official Website for Mt. Fuji Climbers - http://www.fujisan-climb.jp/en/season/
  • Climbing season: Early July to Mid-September
Subashiri Trail - http://www.fujiyama-navi.jp/fujitozan/route/page/subashiri/lang/en/

For info on other trails - http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gail-nakada/how-to-climb-mt-fuji_b_3693642.html

1 comment:

Roberto A said...

Dear blogger
I remember your trip !!!! nice days !!!