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Conquering Fuji-san

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ON A clear day during the climbing season, Mt. Fuji flaunts a reddish-brown color. PHOTO BY CRECENCIO I. CRUZ

By Lourdes O. Pilar, Researcher

I HAD to hit the half century mark before I dared scale Mt. Fuji and fully realize what this Japanese old adage meant: “He who climbs Mount Fuji is a wise man, but he who climbs it twice is a fool.”

At 3,776 meters above sea level, Mt. Fuji – or Fuji-san, as most Japanese refer to the towering volcano – is considered as one of the symbolic features of Japan and was registered as a World Heritage site on June 22, 2013. The mountain attracts around 300,000 visitors during the two-month official climbing season that starts in early July and runs to mid-September.

It has erupted 16 times since 781 A.D., with its last eruption happening sometime between 1707-1708 – making it safe for climbing. It is often compared to our own Mayon volcano for its perfect cone and to Mount Apo, which is the highest mountain in the Philippines.

There are four routes to the summit of Mt. Fuji: the Yoshida Route from the Yamanashi Prefecture side which is the most popular route, the Subashiri Route, Gotemba Route, and Fujinomiya Route from the Shizuoka Prefecture side.

During the climbing season, the Yamanashi Prefecture Mt. Fuji 5th station General Administration Center acts as the starting point in conquering Fuji-san. It has mountain lodges, stores that cater for all climbing needs, and provides information and updates on weather forecast. It also runs the Mt. Fuji Preservation Association Fund that helps preserve the mountain (they ask for a ¥1,000 donation from visitors). It also provides safety measure to protect climbers and the mountain’s environment.

My friends and I arranged to scale the mountain in August despite a storm which was approaching Japan. Climbing Mt. Fuji is not as complicated as going up Mt. Kinabalu in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia – the latter required an advance reservation and procurement of a package for accommodation and food for the entire stay. Mt. Fuji can be climbed at any time within the climbing season, with no prior reservations except for the accommodation in the huts located in each station.

We planned to join the crowd doing the so-called “bullet climbing” which refers to ascending and descending continuously without taking a full rest in between. Although discouraged to do so, a majority of the visitors prefer to take on the challenge. The safest way to climb Mt. Fuji is to spend the night in one of the mountain huts found in each station, and proceed to the summit before sunrise.

Night came when we neared the fifth station – the highest altitude (2,305 meters) accessible by vehicle and where most visitors choose to begin their climb to save at least five hours’ worth of hiking from the base.

Upon settling and preparing for the climb, the rain poured and the cold started to seep in. But we did not waver. Armed with equipment for a night trek, we left the fifth station at exactly 10 p.m. with the goal of reaching the summit by sunrise.

When we reached the sixth station – drenched and cold – the ascent was aborted because of the fear the weather will even worsen overnight. So we all returned to the 5th station with heavier luggage which we would call “disappointment.” Since we planned to join the bullet climb, we didn’t have any room reservations, so we stayed at the visitors’ lounge and waited for the first bus heading back to Shinjuku.

Our first attempt at conquering Mt. Fuji was a failure.

Since our purpose for visiting Japan a third time was to reach its highest peak, we resolved that we weren’t going to give up that easily. We stayed the night at our accommodations in Shinjuku – two and half hours of travel from Mt Fuji – and prayed before sleeping that the weather would give us a chance.

We decided to face Fuji-san for a second encounter in the morning if the sky cleared up, even if it meant having our allotted budget slashed by half.

Thankfully, God heard our prayers and the skies were calm that morning.

After a quick stop at Tsukiji market which houses the largest wholesale market for fish, fruits, and vegetables in central Tokyo, we returned to the 5th station of Mt. Fuji.

On a fine, clear day during this season, Mt. Fuji flaunts a reddish-brown intensity – far different from its snow-capped cone which is the popular image we see on the internet or on postcards. That is how it looks for about half of the year.

Since the weather on Mt. Fuji is unpredictable – sometimes dropping to below zero even during the summer – we were more than prepared. We had raincoats, thermal suits under our outer layers, trail food and water, head lamps, walking sticks, and loads of determination. The mountain’s summit is said to be 20 degrees colder than the base, with an average temperature of 4.5°C in August.

As we arrived at the 5th station earlier this time, we started the trek up at 8 p.m.

We opted for the Yoshida climbing trail, the most popular among the four routes, and it was filled with huts at each of the 10 stations on Mt. Fuji’s slopes. The huts are actually cottages that offer lodgings, but visitors should make reservations in advance. They have emergency services and even sell goods and souvenirs. There are also toilets beside the huts which can be used for a fee. Although these offered a big help to weary climbers, in a way these exploit the mountain for commercial purposes. Climbers can ask for calligraphy stamp to be placed on their walking stick at each station – also for a fee.

As one goes higher, the air becomes thinner, the temperature drops, and breathing becomes laborious. Climbers may feel the onset of hypothermia or altitude sickness. When strong winds slapped us, we had to stop to let them pass as it was already hard enough to trek given the circumstances – What more when you are fighting against the wind? One of the many things we remained grateful though, was that it didn’t rain that night.

It got colder and colder throughout the night, and our food supply was limited. It was definitely one of the toughest experiences I had to endure in my years of mountaineering. It felt as though we were dragging ourselves up the slopes. But we just let out a long sigh and told ourselves, “ginusto natin ’to e (this is what you wanted to do).” Or it was just old age catching up with me?

At 3,000 meters above the ground, with clear skies above us, it seemed like the stars were only a stretched hand away.

The trail narrowed as we neared the last stations, so we had to wait for other people to catch up. Thanks to the narrow trail, climbers frequently clog up the path just below the summit before sunrise, so it happens quite often that people are not able to reach the top on schedule.

The climb was physically demanding and I had to take quick rests frequently. I even felt like I fell asleep while trekking. By 5 a.m., we reached a spot between the 8th and 9th stations where we stopped and waited for something magical to happen.

A ray of sunlight started to penetrate the curtain of clouds. It was as though a ray of hope shone upon us after the gruelling nine-hour trek up. The day welcomed us with such a spectacle when the sun broke over the horizon that it relieved our exhaustion. Without a doubt, one of the most beautiful sunrises I have ever witnessed was in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Climbing Mt. Fuji is probably on every mountaineer’s bucket list. But the beauty of the mountain that lured me from afar was not what I expected when I faced it head-on.

Unlike the view we get to enjoy while hiking and climbing our mountains in the Philippines – the obstacles along the trail, virgin forests that block strong winds and shield from the sun, springs and waterfalls that are Instagram-worthy – Mt. Fuji presented us with nothing but slopes covered with lava flows and red pyroclastic materials from previous eruptions. However, I must say that this attribute made Fuji-san a unique mountain, definitely etching itself in the heart of this mountaineer.

At that magical moment when the sun pushed its way through thick clouds and its rays hit the red mountain, I heard fellow climbers express their awe and even clap for the beauty we were all privileged to see. It came to me that this experience of climbing with hundreds of like-minded hikers from across the world is rewarding.

After a few minutes of rest and appreciation of the daybreak, we resumed the climb. We could see the summit from this distance, but physical exhaustion and lack of sleep made us spend more hours than expected to reach our target.

Reaching the summit is like slotting in the last piece of a hard puzzle. It made me feel complete – I won’t even ask for other mountains to climb (but of course reaching base camp of Mt. Everest or seeing its foot in Nepal will always be a longtime goal). We obtained our last calligraphic stamp from the shrine at the summit. Climbers can also send a postcard or letter from Japan’s highest post office or call someone from Japan’s highest public phone.

There is also the 500-meter diameter crater which we didn’t dare to explore as it would take another one-and-a-half hours to circle it.

We could have rested at one of the huts at the 10th station, but aside from the fact that we didn’t have the extra ¥5,000 to rent one, we had to catch the last train to Shinjuku. So we started our descent.

Descending Mt. Fuji was just as strenuous as ascending it. The trail is different; it is covered in crushed lava, loose soil, and is extremely slippery. I lost count of how many times I slipped and even fell.

It was a five-hour endless zigzag downward until we finally reached the 7th station, and we knew that, thankfully, the 5th station was not far away.

We reached the 5th station just in time to catch the bus going back to Shinjuku.

While finally resting on the bus, I looked back at the majestic mountain and pondered: Is Fuji-san meant to be admired and gazed upon from the distance, an image that has been immortalized in countless works of art, or should one climb it and taste a mountaineers art of suffering?

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