29 Jul 12 by James Elson

The Two Faces of Mt. Fuji

Mt. Fuji is the highest point in Japan and one of three holy mountains to the Japanese. At 12,400 feet, in the grand scale of mountain peaks it's barely a bump, but what it lacks in overall height, it makes up for in majesty. The broad flanks of the mountain drop away gradually in support of the mighty volcanic cone.

Fuji is climbed by around 400,000 people every year making it the most climbed mountain in the world. It is divided into 10 stations which can be approached from 4 sides. Each station represents a level higher up towards the 10th 'summit' station and allow climbers the chance to pick up food and water or even bed down on the tatami mats for a night's sleep. The majority (98%) of climbers start from the 5th stations which house giant car parks full of cars and buses unloading 1000s of climbers daily, but there is another way up - on foot from the very bottom of the volcano.... Of the 4 different trails up the mountain, the Yoshida is the most frequently climbed as it's the most easily accessible trail from the Tokyo side.

Having arrived in Japan we found ourselves in the area during the 2 month summer climbing season which extends through July and August, so Lisa and I decided we'd head to Lake Kawaguchiko at the foot of Fuji for a few days and try our hand at climbing the mountain. Our plan was to take the bus to the 5th station of the Yoshida trail in the morning and try to make it back down the hill before nightfall - giving us about 7 hours to get up and back down 5 miles and 5000 feet for a 10 mile round trip.

As soon as we got there it was immediately apparent that we were going to have to be patient on some sections of the path - waiting for long lines of Japanese climbers in guided groups to get through the tighter sections or step aside for us. Timing wise, there are signs at every major junction giving you a distance and estimated total time to the summit/ next station which were extremely useful. The 5th to the 6th station was a traverse more than a climb and took the total distance to travel down to 5km with 4800 feet of climb still to go. Looking up from the 6th station it's obvious where the trail is headed and it is a pretty steep grade for a route being hiked by many 1000s of ill prepared day trippers, but we had packed heavy prepared for all seasons.

The estimated time from 5th to 6th was 40 minutes. When we made it in 23, I began to harbour hopes of us making the summit in good time. I really wanted us to enjoy this experience together rather than Lisa feel like I had dragged her up in the shortest possible time so we took it really steady but tried to keep moving all the way up the mountain.

The 6th to the 7th station is pretty straight forward, mostly just steep hiking, but past the 7th, the sections of rock began and there are some fairly tricky stretches where climbing using your hands is most certainly required. In the dark & wet it would have been a different story.

Steeper grades

Over the edge into the abyss

When we hit the 8th station we got caught in a rain shower which quickly became falling ice and to be honest it was pretty unpleasant. Because I was carrying all of our gear and had already torn the zip off of my pack by stuffing it so full of clothing, i couldn't actually get my jacket done up over the top of it which is my usual plan to water proof everything so we took shelter behind a rock face while we got dressed in foul weather gear.

The temperature drop as you go higher up the mountain is significant. At the 5th station it was about 25 degrees and we were burning up as we started hiking. By the 9th station, just a few hundred metres from the summit, we had on between us every piece of clothing I'd bought - hat, waterproof gloves, jacket and trousers, two shirts, arm warmers and a good hiking pace. Part of that was because once we'd passed about 3500 metres, the altitude had definitely started to make a difference and we were moving a lot slower. It was one step at at time as I followed Lisa up through the final gate and in to the summit station.

The views from the top were spectacular when the clouds parted enough to make visibility good. Because Fuji stands alone, we could see right back down the mountain and out across the towns, lakes and woodlands for miles around.

Summit View

When you hit the summit station (where you can buy a bottle of water for £4) the path down begins almost immediately and we would have made the mistake of thinking we were actually at the top at that point had we not trekked down in to the crater a little to take a picture. Over the far side some distance away, is another peak housing the old Mt Fuji weather station that looks just slightly higher than where you are. In fact it is higher, and you have to circumnavigate most of the crater to get there and the summit itself was up a steep scree path to a radar house and a plinth signifying the very highest point in Japan. We'd seen probably 2000 people on the mountain and there were precisely zero other people around that side of the mountain. It made me wonder how many actually bother tagging the official summit, or at least think that they made the top when in fact they hadn't.... there was no way we were leaving that to chance.

View of the actual summit across the crater from the 10th station

Back down was a totally different story. There is a designated return path which they've bulldozed all the way down from the summit, so rather than down climbing difficult rock sections, you get a free fall descent on smooth crushed lava pathways. It took us just under 2 hours to lose all the height we'd gained, about 5000 feet, back to the 5th station.

So that was Fuji done and it was great to be able to enjoy achieving something together for once. Altogether a round trip to the summit and back from the 5th took us 6:20 and we were eating snacks back at the start before the sun started to set. Awesome.

The entire climb from the 5th station is above treeline on lava fields, but almost everything below that looked like thick greed forest so I was pretty sure that the first 4500 feet of the 9000 foot climb was going to be pretty awesome trail. I decided to go back the following day to find out.

The other side of the mountain

Not in fact the other side in the geographical respect, but in the environment of the lower flanks of the mountain.

The next morning I took a local bus out to the shrine at Sengen Jinja Mae, the very base of the mountain and the start of the Yoshida Trail that we'd climbed the day before. This route is apparently climbed by very few, because the anticipated round trip to the summit and back is around 16 - 20 hours, making it a far more serious proposition. That being said, the winners of the Mt Fuji ascent race get from the city hall near the start of the trail to the very top in around 2hrs45 so clearly it wasn't going to be quite the epic that the guide books would have you believe.

The lower stretches of the Yoshida trail were stunning. The temperature at the trailhead was 32 degrees and 100% humidity so it wasn't particularly easy going, but with the shade of the canopy for most of the route, it was bearable.

Passing through the first gate at the shrine, the actual Yoshida Trail follows the road for the first few kilometres before bolting right in to the trees at the 'first station'. After using my fluent Japanese of pointing and nodding, I managed to find a trail through the woods that roughly parralleled the road and went with it instead. After some second guessing I did make it to the first station and followed the official trail from there.

The first station wasn't just closed, it had collapsed in on itself and with just a trail up from there it felt like a completely different mountain to the one I'd seen yesterday. There was no aid, no people, no exposed lava, just lush green vegetation, a pounding heat and scores of abandoned huts, old shrines and derelict tea houses. I started out with a litre of water and hoped it' be enough to get me up, but I'd drained that in about 45 minutes and was dripping with sweat so I had to ration my effort somewhat on the climb up as soon as I realised there was going to be nothing until the 5th or 6th station 4500 feet and 9 miles up.

The trail is pretty technical in places because it's steep and clearly gets washed out during the winter months where the mountain is unclimbable. There are lots of significant log stair cases involved and some scree which is hard to ascend. With that aside there are runnable sections despite the grade and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. In particular just passed the 2nd station (there's nothing there) you pass through two gates in to a wonderful ancient stone shrine.

Emerging back at the 6th station you are suddenly greeted by the rest of civilisation attempting to climb the blackened lava fields above and you couldn't imagine a more stark contrast in such a short space of time and climb. From there it's the remaining 4500ft to the summit. Back down was a joy ride but returning to 30 degree heat was not.

Emerging up and out of the trees to meet the lines of 5th station climbers

6th station Day 2

Sweating buckets down the last stretch of trail

All in all the mountain represents one fluid pathway from the shrine at the bottom to the final gate at the top. It feels very much like an ascent up in to the heavens, accentuated by the total lack of other surrounding peaks. I can't recommend climbing it enough and it represents a simple but fulfilling challenge in and of itself, especially if you take it on from the very bottom.

The UTMF or Ultra Trail Mount Fuji passes directly through this area (though doesn't climb the mountain itself) and where we ate dinner we found a 'Salomon Race Team' signed plaque on the wall with a personal note from this years winner Julien Chorier. That one is definitely calling. We also happened to be in town for this years Mt Fuji Ascent race and I saw a number of returning runners as I headed up later in the morning. They allowed an incredible 2300 runners to enter and I can only imagine what a scramble that final mile to the summit must be up the rocks.