By: Henk Brand, The Secret Adventurer
11 July 2014. Fujinomiya trail, Mount Fuji, Japan.
"You are wise to climb Mt. Fuji, but a fool to do it twice"
Adventurers: Henk Brand
Duration = 4 hours, Distance = 11km, Rating = Extreme.
Mount Fuji (or Fujisan, as the locals call it) is the highest mountain peak in Japan at 3,776m and forms part of the "Three Holy Mountains" along with Mount Tate and Mount Haku. It has a circumference of 125km and a diameter of 48km. Its crater is 250m deep and has a surface diameter of 487m. There are 4 trails to you can choose to summit, namely Yoshidaguchi Trail, Subashiri Trail, Gotemba Trail and Fujinomiya Trail.
My mission was to summit Mount Fuji on my own in one day. After much online research and ignoring the 2-day overnight tourist group offers, I decided to go with the Fujinomiya trail. This is the shortest and steepest route with a 5km ascend to the top and starting at 2400m elevation above sea level at the Fifth Station. The summit elevation is at 3715m above sea level. Average duration as per the online resources advised the ascent can take up to 4-7 hours, while the descent takes 2-6 hours. 1 day challenge accepted!
On the morning of 11 July 2014 at around 11h00 AM, I arrived in the little town of Fujinomiya via the Shinkansen (Japan's speed bullet train). I bought a transfer bus ticket at the station and found myself as the only traveller in the 40 seater bus on the way to the Fifth Station where the Fujinomiya trail starts. And of course, the bus driver just stared at me with a smile and could not speak a word of English. High fives, peace signs and odd noises made us best friends for the remainder of the bus trip.
At the beginning of the trail I stopped for a second and checked my gear, lots of questions went through my head... Do I have enough water and snacks? What happens if I get altitude sickness? What happens if the weather suddenly turns around? And which bus should I aim to take back, the early 16h00 or the late 18h00 bus? And then I decided not to worry: Mount Fuji will take care of me and make it a journey to remember. I checked my watch, 12h00 PM on the clock, and I took my first step up the 5000m challenge. To put this into perspective, that's about 5 Table Mountain summits.
The trail on Mount Fuji is covered with ancient loose volcano debris and zig zags all the way up. I soon realised that trail running was not the best option to summit and I turned down the pace to a swift walking speed. I passed the odd local pilgrims, who didn't understand what on earth I was doing. Here was this bearded and rugged Westerner in short tights, a vest and running shoes sprinting past them while they were all fully kitted out in hiking gear (incl. snow boots and walking poles!). Again I used my peace sign and free high five technique for some friendly mountain banter and waved them goodbye and good luck.
After the first kilometer I completely zoned out, not remembering much. I kicked into endurance mode, cutting out all thoughts, muscle pain and felt like I was the first ever monk conquering this mountain. Mount Fuji climbed into my soul and it offered me it's sacred secrets. Words cannot describe the experience I had on this mystical mountain.
I arrived at the top after 2hours 26min. The blue skies opened up before me and I stood there mesmerized. The sky surrounded the crater with beautiful snow valleys and a view so unique I could barely describe it. I explored the top and I knew that it could take up to a hour to walk around the whole crater! However, after a quick time check I realised it was now around 14h45 and I could still catch the 16h00 bus if I can run down under 1hour 15minutes.... Decisions decisions decisions. I decided to gun for it!
Running down any steep section is fun.... but not for a long time. The knees soon started to complain! However, 5km of pure downhill awesomeness, endless loose rocks and off course the fact that I was running down one of the biggest volcano's in the world, just cancels out those concerns very quickly! Again Mount Fuji made me zone out and I was running down just having pure fun. On the last 1km it started to drizzle and within minutes the clouds covered the sky. I needed to catch that bus but the time was running faster than me! Time check: 15h47... 13 minutes left!!! I picked up the pace and even fell twice on the loose rocks, but alas, I had to carry on, bleeding knees and all.
I saw the Fifth Station in the distance and as I reached it, there was no bus! I thought to myself, impossible! The time was 16h02, surely they would wait at least 5 minutes before leaving??? I was wrong. This is Japan and time, like everything else in this country, works like clockwork! I literally missed it by a minute. In Japan, late is late...albeit with 1 darn minute! To add insult to injury, the heavens opened up and the temperature dropped quickly. The only positive was that I was no longer on the mountain!
I walked to the restaurant next to the bus stop. I desperately needed a hot cup of coffee. Another surprise: sorry sir, we are closing and you can use the vending machine outside. At this stage I knew I had to kill 2 hours before the next bus arrives, and all I had was a closed restaurant, sans food, sans coffee. I decided to go the bathroom quickly and put on all of my warm clothes which I luckily packed into my backpack. Here I was, all alone on this god-forsaken mountain, hoping that there was another bus coming to my rescue. What would happen if it does not arrive? Is there a taxi I could call? What use is my cellphone without wi-fi? I figured at this stage with 20% battery left on my phone, I should perhaps text my wife! She promised she would send a search party if I'm not home by 11pm that night!
I sat in front of the closed restaurant door and luckily had a veranda over my head to shelter me from the pouring rain. I checked out the vending machine and bought coffee in a can....to my surprise, the can was boiling hot!!! Say what, hot coffee from a vending machine, what a life saver! Man alone I returned to my cold seat on the ground, preparing for the now 1h 30min wait, praying that the bus will arrive.
I thought I was doing well when all of a sudden I started to feel ill and light headed. What was going on now! And then I realised it must be altitude sickness setting in. I couldn't even drink water or eat an energy bar. After 20min of laying down, another surprise: another human being pops around the corner, a local Japanese fellow. Yeah! At least now I am no longer alone, even though my new best friend could not speak a word of English! He pointed to his watch and gave the thumbs up - he indicated that the bus is on its way and everything will be okay. Call off the search party!
As predicted, the bus arrived exactly on time at 18h00 and we left at 18h01. On time and respectful, the Japanese way. I was so happy to be in that bus, I could've kissed the driver! We got to the train station and I upgraded my ticket back to Tokyo for the first and fastest route back home.
What a day and what an adventure. Fujisan, you have taught me a lot of lessons and as the wise monk quoted, a humbled fool will not return to Mount Fuji.