Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Climbing Mt. Fuji to see the Sunrise

One of the things I had been thinking about doing during my time here in Japan was to climb Mt. Fuji. There’s a two month climbing season during the months of July and August, it’s the only time when the weather is generally safe enough for non-professional climbers to climb the mountain. So, starting in July I got fairly serious about planning out the climb but I hadn’t picked a date or made any arrangements. Then my language tutor mentioned that she would be on vacation and thus would have to cancel our Saturday lessons for the weekend of August 5th.

I jumped at the chance to climb Mt. Fuji on August 5th because it’s also happened to be the three year anniversary of the day I left my childhood home in Berkeley, CA forever and moved to New York City (my parents sold the house I grew up in about a month after I moved to New York).

Along with the anniversary of leaving Berkeley there was another big reason for the timing of the climb, I’ve been really enjoying Tokyo so in late July I agreed to stay in Tokyo for quite some time. I was originally going to be here for three months, I may potentially now be here for as long as a year. Since this is a consulting engagement, I don’t know the actual length of the stay, there is never that type of certainty in consulting but I will be here for a while.

So, that left me with two more big reasons to climb the mountain, the first was to celebrate the close of an amazing three years in New York and the other was to really kick start my life in Tokyo. I had an amazing three years in the New York area between late 2003 and mid 2006, maybe I’ll end up back in the NYC area sometime in the future, but for now my time there has come to a close, so I wanted to use the climb to celebrate and think over these past three years. And until I committed to a longer stay in Tokyo I hadn’t been really that invested in building a life here, I was really looking at my time here as a long business trip. Once I had committed to being here in Tokyo much longer I decided it’s time to really start building a life here and going on adventures, so I climbed Mt. Fuji to symbolically kick off my life in Tokyo.

What follows is the story and photos of the climb, I highly recommend clicking on the images to see them in larger size:

There is a long tradition of climbing Mt. Fuji here in Japan, along with the historical and cultural reasons for the climbing tradition there is also a religious pilgrimage if you read the wikipedia entry it explains some of this ( ). For those who do the full pilgrimage you start at the very first station way down at sea level, the climb is broken into ten stations, the tenth being the summit. I did what most climbers do which is take a bus to station five at 2300 meters (7500 ft).

As you can see from the photo below I arrived at my starting point (station five) at 7500 ft on the mountain just about at sunset, a little before 8PM. As background I had gotten a really really bad sun burn the weekend before so I intentially timed my arrival on the mountain with sunset to avoid high altitude sun:

The sunset was great, in the opposite direction was the view of the mountain, it was ominously tall and as I looked at it thinking that I had until the sun came back around the earth to hit the top it was a bit sobering. I took photos of myself throughout the climb to show the extreme change in temperatures that happened as the altitude increased. In the photo below I’m just off the bus enjoying the cool mountain air (it was 90+ degrees in Tokyo that day).

Here’s Mt. Fuji as seen from station five just at sunset, at 12,388 ft I’m about 5,000 below the summit at the moment.
The next photo I took about 30 minutes later shows the moon setting behind the summit

I spent about 30 to 40 minutes hanging out at station five and eating some food for dinner that I had thrown into my pack in Tokyo. As you can see from the photo it was cool enough that I had to throw my jacket on, and it was dark enough that I put on my headlamp:

Just after 8PM I decided it was time to hit the trail, so I walked through the assembled mass of climbers (click on the photo and you can see a ton of climbers sprawled out on the ground) at station five and started hiking:

About twenty minutes into the hike I came to the first trail crossing which had this sign with a map of the climbing route, I started at 8PM at the “Fuji Subaru Line”. The reason I took this photo is that there are multiple ways up and down the mountain, I didn’t have a map, so to avoid returning to the wrong place the next morning I took this photo to refer back to:

A few minutes later I was hiking along with my fellow climbers (there was already a good number of people on the trail) in the darkness and a very odd thing happened. Off in the distance further up the mountain we started hearing a woman’s voice in both Japanese and English. The woman was saying things like “Mt. Fuji is the tallest mountain in Japan…….. Do not climb the mountain without winter clothing……..Do not leave trash on the mountain……….First aid is available at station 7…….In the event of a storm retreat to the nearest hut”. It was very surreal, but once I came over a crest and saw that the announcement was coming from a safety point operated by the prefecture police department it made sense. As you can see in the photo the police stopped each climber and gave them a safety sheet with a map on it (so I thankfully ended up with a map of the mountain):

I took this photo about 8:30 and as you can see I have taken off the jacket and I’ve worked up a sweat it was fairly warm at this altitude and I was moving at a good clip.

Another really random thing happened when the clock struck 9PM, two or three cities way off in the distance started fix works shows. There are a lot of summer fireworks shows in Japan, especially here in Tokyo. Between 9PM and 10PM I had a great view of at least 3 shows albeit from a long way off. Mt. Fuji is much taller than anything else near it so you can see a long way. From time to time on the trail I would stop at look at the fireworks but I mostly had to focus on the trail to avoid tripping and falling in the darkness, although when the finale of the biggest show happened at 10, I stopped to watch, it was HUGE.

The next photo is taken at a mountain hut at 2700 meters which is about 8850 feet. It was about 9:15PM when I reached this point, so I was making good progress up the mountain.

As you can see, it’s still warm and I am still not wearing a jacket. It was getting cool enough that when I stopped to drink from my water bottle I’d get a chill. Speaking of water, to combat altitude sickness I went on a crazy hydration regimine. I bought four 2 liter bottles of water and drank one in Tokyo that day, one on the bus on the way to the mountain and then took more than 4 liters up the mountain. Hauling all the weight from the water up the mountain is part of why I’m so sweaty, it was nice to drink that weight off my back:

There were a lot of Torii ( along the trail, they are part of the religious pilgrimage, there’s also temples on the mountain related to the pilgrimage:

I had been warned that the mountain would be crowded and this was where I started to really hit the crowds, we would often bottle neck at points where only one person could pass (in most parts of the mountain two or three people can walk next to each other):

The climb is supposed to take 5 to 5 and ½ hours, so my reason for starting at 8PM was that I planned to hike to a high altitude and then rent a sleeping spot at one of the mountain huts. Along the way there are a number of huts, they offer food, warmth and a place to sleep. The place to sleep only costs $5 to $10 dollars, paid by the number of hours you stay, as you can see in the photo below the place to sleep is just one person worth of floor space (click on the image and you’ll see there are several hundred climbers sleeping next to each other). Due to the crowds I decided not to stop to sleep, which turned out to be a very good idea:

Here’s one of the crowd bottle necks, it took 10 to 15 minutes to clear this one, I would hit many:

Despite the crowds I was still making great progress up the mountain and it was still pretty warm when I took this photo a little after 10PM:

About 10:10 and I am at 3100 meters (10,100 ft), near the 7th station:

A little while later I passed through the eight station, at this point I was thinking I would possibly have time to stop and sleep:

The higher I got the crowds got thicker and my progress up the mountain got slower, it was very odd running into crowds you would expect at Grand Central Station in New York at close to 11,000 ft on a volcano in the middle of the night:

Many climbers buy a walking/climbing stick like the one you can see in the hands of the climber in front of me. They all have bells attached to them so all night there was the constant ringing of many many bells. Also, each of the mountain huts had a special emblem that they had designed into a metal poker. The huts heat the pokers in fires and climbers pay 100 to 200 yen to have the emblem of the huts burned into their climbing sticks:

You can see the bells on the climbing sticks in this photo, they are tied on with blue and red twine:

I reached 3250 meters (10,660 ft) a little after 11PM, only 525 meters from the summit, it seamed like I would be there in no time:

Above 10,000 feet it became very cold, it would eventually drop to freezing and maybe a little below freezing. The week before I bought a winter hat and gloves in Tokyo, I put them and my parka on (shortly after I took this photo my headlamp batteries died, thankfully I had a flash light in my pocket and a spare set of batteries in my pack):

About midnight all progress ground to a halt because of the crowds, at times I would wait for 10 to 15 minutes just to take a step forward, the whole while the person behind me would be pressed into my pack, and I would be pressed into the person in front of me by the crowds. There were a couple of things that caused the slow down. First thing there was A TON of people on the mountain, many thousands (you’ll see the daylight photos of this further down). The crowds were especially bad this weekend because it had rained during most of July, making the mountain un-climbable during the first half of the season, so two months worth of climbers were forced to climb in one month (August). The second issue, is that above 10,000 altitude sickness started to really get to people, if someone got sick or passed out on the trail at a point where only one person at a time can walk the whole line of climbers would stop.

The Japanese had a very unique thing they did for altitude sickness, many of them carried tiny oxygen bottles, only about the size of an aerosol can of household cleaner (you could buy them on the mountain). They clearly didn’t carry enough oxygen for more than a quick fix, and I doubt it did them much good, but many climbers had them. Those who were worst off with altitude sickness would end up next to the trail wrapped in an emergency blanket sucking oxygen from a can. On a side note, I saw one climber 20 minutes into my climb (at 8:20) who was already in that state more than 5,000 below the top of the mountain, there were a lot of people who aren’t in the right condition to hike above 12.000 ft were on the mountain.

The other really big factor in the complete slow down on the mountain was that a good percentage of the Japanese climbers on the mountain climb as part of a tour group. Each tour group had 50 plus people in them and the tour groups would start and stop whenever a person in the group didn’t feel well. Each time a tour group started or stopped you would get this mass of people herded onto or off the trail, and everything would grind to a halt. The funny thing with the tour group was that the tour guides use the lighted wands that you normally see airline employees use at the airport to direct airplanes as they taxi around the airport, except on the mountain they are used to direct tour group members. It’s really comical to see a tour guide standing on a boulder next to the trail yelling in Japanese “WALK THIS WAY, WALK THIS WAY!!!!!” While frantically waving their lighted wands, especially because there is only one trial up there, jam packed with people so it’s quite obvious where to walk. At one point I was standing in line next to one of the tour guides for 25 minutes while he yelled and waved, I have to admit at 2:30 in the morning I was ready the strangle the guy to shut him up.

I spent between 1AM and 4AM barely moving with the crowds, the top of the mountain was so close and yet so far, and it was below freezing. During that time frame, probably about 3:15AM there was an amazing group of shooting stars streaking across the sky, along with the shooting stars the view of the stars in general at that altitude was very beautiful, the swath milky way was very visible. Things were so slow that I almost fell asleep while standing a few times, I also sometimes sat down next to the trail because we weren’t moving, that was dangerous though because I would start to fall asleep as soon as I sat down.

I was worried at this point because I was stuck in a crowd a few hundred feet below the summit of the mountain and I wasn’t sure I would beat the sunrise to the top of the mountain. As you can see in the photo below a little before 4AM the horizon started to brighten, I was convinced at this point that I would not make it for the sunrise due to the crowds:

It was still dark on the mountain, and I was still moving with the crowd:

As you can see there were a lot of places where it was single file:

I took this photo looking back down the mountain, if you click on it to enlarge it you can see the endless train of headlamps the runs all the way back down the mountain:

Rather unexpectedly the crowds thinned and suddenly we were moving. Some of the people around me, worried like I was that we would miss the sunrise literally started running up the mountain. I came to the dragons below and stopped to take their photo, I was so out of it from lack of sleep and the altitude light headedness that I didn’t notice for two or three minutes that they mark the entrance to station ten which is the top of the mountain. I was literally thinking, well this looks like a nice place to stop and watch the sunrise, since I don’t seem to be able to make the top of the mountain. Then I looked up and realized, I was on the top of the mountain!!!! It was about 4:15 AM at this point so it had taken me a little less than 8.5 hours to climb the mountain:

This is the other dragon, there was one on each side of the trail:

The gate shown in this photo marks the entrance to station 10 and the end of the climb:

Looking back through the gate at the horizon, which continued to lighten with the coming sunrise:

I was elated to have made it to the top in time, but I found myself in a rather unexpected situation, there are a series of mountain huts that make up station 10, the trial dumps you right into them and there was a HUGE crowd around the huts. I was at the top of the mountain, stuck in a crowd, 10 people back from the view:

This is one of the huts, serving food and drinks to climbers, behind him was a rest area where people could sit and be warm (if they bought something from the hut):

And this is the crowd I was stuck in, I was determined to fight my way through the crowd to get away from the huts:

More crowd:

I managed to get through the crowds and then hiked up the rim of the volcano to find a place to watch the sunset, there were a lot of people on the rim as can be seen in the photo below:

The horizon continued to grow brighter:

I settled into a nice spot on the rim with a good view. It was light enough that I was able to take off my head lamp, it was still very cold:

The colors on the horizon continued to be beautiful and the stars began to fade out:

I sat amongst the crowd, eating Oreos and Powerbars for breakfast waiting for the sun to rise (it’s about 4:30AM at this point):

Everyone on the mountain was talking in excited hushed tones waiting for the sunrise:

Getting closer:

I asked a group of German tourist near me to take a photo of me while we were waiting for the sun, as you can see it was mighty cold up there:

I should point out that many of my photo’s of the sunrise use my zoom lens, this is a zoomed photo:

This is also a zoomed photo:

This is what it looked like without the zoom:

As the sky brightened the crater came into view, I was sitting less than 10 feet from the edge:

The size of the crowd also became obvious in the light:

A hush fell over the crowd as it became obvious the sun was about to come up (somewhere between 4:45 and 4:50AM), when the first sliver came into view there were all sorts of excited yells and everyone just stared (click on the photo to see a bigger version, NOTE: These are zoomed):

Here comes the sun:

Without the zoom and with the crowd:

I’ll let the sunrise speak for itself (click on the images for a much better :

The moment the sun was fully risen, someone yelled something in Japanese and the whole crowd responded by cheering Bonzai!!! Bonzai!!!! Bonzai!!! At the top of their lungs. Hearing more than 5,000 people (maybe even 10,000 counting the people below us on the mountain) cheer all at once like that was amazing. I had no idea it would happen, but I did get a photo of the third Bonzai!!!!!:

And then the sun was up, the sunrise was amazingly beautiful and made the hike so worth it:

I asked someone on the mountain next to me to take a photo of me shortly after sunrise, it was still cold up there:

The sun cast a shadow across the crater. As you can see there is a station on the far side of the crater, there are multiple ways to climb up the mountain, that station is the top of another one of the trails. You can also climb around the rim of the crater to that station. One of the big reasons to come up that side of the mountain is that Mt. Fuji casts a shadow across the countryside behind it, I’ve seen photos of the shadow and it looks very cool. I will have to climb that side of the mountain some time to see the shadow:

This is a close up of the station on the far side of the rim:

And here’s the crowd on my side of the mountain:

You can see the collection of buildings at the top of the mountain that make up station ten and how unbelievably crowded the top of the mountain was, there were literally THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE!!!!!! What really jumped out at me was how colorful everyone was, if you click on the picture you can see everyone is wearing bright outdoors clothing, the bright colors really jumped out in the early morning light. After spending a night hiking in total darkness by the light of a headlamp it was really shocking to see all those bright colors after many hours in the dark.

More of the crowd:

The Japanese flag you can see on the far side of the crowd was hoisted up at sunrise:

The sun brought warmth to the mountain which was really nice after spending many hours with temperatures in the 30’s:

If you click on this image to enlarge it, you can see what one of the tour groups looks like, this one is hiking along a trail on the far side of the rim:

There were a lot of random reactions to the sunrise, one was that this group pulled out a bunch of flags:

It's getting warmer but still not that warm:

Looking across the crater:

This group was standing on one of the edges of the crater:

I walked quite a ways around the crater, I took this photo a few hundred yards around the crater:

Eventually I came back to the area I had watched the sunrise from, the crowd was hanging out enjoying the sun.

People were continuing their various celebrations of the sunrise, the older generation who make up most of the religious pilgrims were praying and sometimes crying. Among the younger generation people sang, cheered, waved flags, a few of them also cried, and everyone enjoyed the view.

There were two reactions that were hilarious, first there were two guys my age who tore their shirts off and took photos of themselves flexing their muscles with the sun between them (I unfortunately didn’t get a photo). And then there were four guys who put on dress shirts, ties and sport coats. They got dressed up, pulled out musical instruments and started singing and dancing for the sun. If you click on the image below you can see two of the four (one is in his dress clothes):

Everywhere I went I continued to be trapped in the crowd:

While wandering around the top of the mountain I came to a place where I could look back down at the trail I had hiked up. When I saw the crowds I was dumb struck, this is what I had been stuck in for all those hours in the middle of the night. Click on the next couple of images, you have to keep in mind that the people are in many zig zags above each other (I have a later photo that shows the zig zags from below):

Click on this image:

The buildings mixed in with the crowds are the mountain huts and stations on the climbing route (click to get a better view):

I was standing here, looking down at the crowds:

This is the gate at the top of the trail that all those people are trying to get to (also the gate I passed through when I got up):

After looking at the crowds coming up the mountain for a while I continued on around the rim for a while to see what it looked like:

I thought this looked really cool, it looks like the hikers are walking off into the clouds (we were a few thousand feet above the top of a thin cloud layer):

This photo is looking back around the rim at the spot where I watch the sunrise, I was just below and to the right of the gate:

About this time I decided it was time to start down the mountain, it’s supposed to take 4+ hours to get down and given my lack of sleep I figured I had better get moving. This photo shows the top of the descent trail (there are two parallel trails one for going up and one for going down):

Because of my nasty sunburn the week before I had to put on a lot of sunscreen and I also put on a lot of sun protective clothing, like my hat and bandana:

This gives you an idea how step the mountain is, and also shows the cloud layer at a lower altitude:

Here’s the beginning of the downward trail as I started walking down:

These next few photos I took on my way down looking across the mountain at the people who were still climbing up. These are the same people shown in the earlier photos that I took from the top looking down This gives you an idea of the crowds I had to hike through to get to the top of the mountain, it was just as bad when I came up in the dark.

The descent trail also had some pretty good crowds, although it wasn’t packed as tightly as the trail coming up. As anyone who hikes regularly can tell you, hiking down hill is often harder on your body than hiking up. On Mt. Fuji this was especially true because you are hiking on loose sand and volcanic rock while going on a fairly steep down hill grade, so it was dusty and very easy to stumble and fall which I did often as did the people around me.

It was pretty warm on the way down as you can tell in the photo below, no more jacket, it was hot, sweaty and dusty:

The crowd going down:

Looking across at the crowd going up:

A mountain hut lower on the mountain:

The descent trial below me:

The next couple of photos are looking across the mountain at the line of people climbing up towards the top:

The photos that I took from the top of the mountain that looked like the crowd was bunched together were showing these zig zags from below you can see what it actually looks like (click on the image to see more detail):

This photo shows the descent trail below me, if you click on it you can see there are many many switch backs, probably 50+, about this point I was hating life, I’d been hiking for many many hours, my legs were dead from the hike up (at times my legs were shaking), I’d fallen down a number of times due to the loose sand and I was hurting. Every time I looked down I would see all the switch backs and I’d realized how many more I had to go through, I decided not to count and not to look very often:

Looking back up the mountain:

This photo is about half way down the trail, if you click on the image you can see all the people in the switch backs I've hiked down:

And the switch backs ahead of me can be seen below, the building shown in the photo is a bathroom. The Japanese don’t appear to believe in taking a piss on the mountain the way you would see American hikers do, so you have to pay to use a bathroom at one of the huts like the one shown. I have to say this was one of my least favorite parts of the climb you have to pay a 100 to 200 yen “cleaning fee”. And yet despite the cleaning fee the bathrooms were heinously disgusting:

About 10AM I made it back to the 5th station, 14 hours after setting out. I had been hiking for more than 12 or those 14 hours without sleep, needless to say I was tired. And as you can see I was pretty dirty. I had two hours until my bus so I sat down in the shade and slept for a while:

Shortly before I boarded my bus I walked over to the shrine at station five, it’s part of the religious pilgrimage to the top of the mountain. It had been closed the night before when I started, so I took a quick look around:

I boarded a bus back to Shinjuku at noon at station five, and was back in Tokyo by 2:30, when I got back to my apartment about 3PM I took the photo below to show how dirty I was, the look on my face tells you how tired I was:

I had left my apartment the day before about 2:30PM and come back about 3PM, the hike was an amazing adventure packed into only 24 hours. The hike was totally worth it, the sunrise was beautiful, as were the shooting stars, fireworks, and views from the top. Climbing the mountain was a terrific adventure and given the lack of sleep during the whole adventure I jumped into bed about 4PM and slept 15 hours straight, it was one of the best nights of sleep I’ve had in a long time after one of the best adventures I’ve had in a long time.