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stories>>The Ascent of Death Mountain

"Hey...you want to go climb Mt. Fuji next week?"
"Yah, why not."
And with that, I along with my friend Drew embarked on a journey to the most heavily climbed mountain in the world (well, a few days after we did...).

Now, because it is the most 'popular' mountain in the world, I didn't think anything of climbing it. I had already climbed the number three tallest mountain in Japan (in the Northern Alps, Nagano), and was a frequent mountain climber. But for this trip, I left a large chunk of my brain behind as far as preparations go ('lack of'). Besides, we were only going for a 5 hour or so hike in the middle of August, I wouldn't need gloves, a hat, too much water or food...nope, none of that.

When we started planning the trip out a bit before leaving, we knew this would be a 'speed-climb'. Living about eight hours from Mt. Fuji (by train), we would have to wake up early on Saturday, spend the day getting there, climb during the night in order to see the sunrise at 4:30am, then run down the mountain, grab the first bus to the train station (two hours away), get on the train and be back in Otsu city by 6pm to attend a mandatory dinner meeting with the president of the college we were both attending at the time. No problem.

So we grab the food, drinks and bento (box-lunch) on Friday, wake up around 10am (that's early to me!) on Saturday, catch the 11:22am train and we're off. Of course we had been out late partying the night before, (as I usually seem to do before I go mountain-climbing) and of course we can't sleep on the train, seeing as we have 5 train changes along our route. And we don't know where those changes occur. Along with some phone calls to people who had navigated the route before us and some questioning of the train conductors, we were able to make it to Fuji city at around 6:00pm.

From there we take the two-hour 'jam-packed, knees smashed against the seat in front of you' bus ride to the fifth station of the mountain--the one most people start their climb from (we were debating on whether we might be able to start from the very bottom 1st station, trek through the supposedly 'haunted' woods and REALLY climb Mt. Fuji, as some friends before us had done--but we didn't have the time). Upon arriving there we bought the 'mandatory' (everyone had 'em) walking sticks (which you can get marked as you climb the mountain at the different way points, cool souvenir), had some dinner and rested ourselves until about 10:00pm.

We finally started walking up the mountain around 10:00pm. The surroundings were like you were on the moon; no trees, mostly volcanic rock, and for the most part not too steep. We were climbing beside families, SDF forces in training, kids, old people; everyone wants to climb Mt. Fuji it seems (although to my surprise upon returning I found that hardly any of my Japanese friends [male & female, all ages] had ever climbed it). Very quickly we found that there were quite a lot of people climbing with us, but we just figure that was normal for the summer climbing season.

At each 'Station' we would rest a bit then continue of our way, since we didn't have very much time to spare if we wanted to catch the sunrise and then return home. After about four hours of climbing, we started to get very cold and tired. We hadn't slept much in the past 36 hours, and I hadn't brought much more than a jacket, snacks and a flashlight. We tried to get some sleep at Station 9, but to no avail. It was just too freezing and uncomfortable trying to sleep on lava rocks. Past Station 9, there was one more checkpoint and then the peak. From Station 9.5 you could see the top...and the line of people waiting to summit it. Yes, little did we know that we picked the busiest day of the year to climb: Fuji Matsuri time. "From this point to the top: 30 minutes" read a sign at Station 9.5. It took ninety. From that point on, we had the absolutely wonderful experience of waiting in line for an hour to get to crest the top of the mountain. And while waiting on the side of the mountain, freezing and tired, we were treated to the site of the sun rising, which we could almost see part of. Being that the whole reason for climbing Mt. Fuji is to see the awesome sunrise (asahi) from the top, we were not amused. By 4:15 with the first rays of the sun visible in the clouds (below you), I was about ready to leave the marked trail and scramble the rest of the way to the top through the volcanic rock (not a good idea, very easy to loose your footing).

We finally reached the top at around 4:50am or so, well after the sun had risen. We were very happy to just be there, but also so cold that my face was literally turning purple. So navigating through the crowds of people on the top, we took some very nice pictures, dropped my $1000 digital camera on lava rocks, and headed back down in the span of about fifteen minutes. We could see that there was still a considerable line of people waiting to get to the top, and there is no up/down partition on the trail, so we had to do our best to make it down in three hours to catch the 8:10am bus. We did that by literally running down the face of the mountain most of the way, which was pretty fun. We caught the bus (were actually about 1/2 hour early), and made it home in time for a shower and dinner (5:40pm), after which we slept for a very, very long time.

***

My advice, bring plenty of water (it's expensive if you wish to buy it on the mountain, 500yen minimum), some food and snacks, get plenty of rest the night before, plan out your route on how to get to the mountain in advance and dress in layers, with a jacket, gloves and hat, no matter when you're going.

Official climbing season is early July-Late August; you can climb at other times, but checkpoints and stores will be closed and you do so at your own risk (there is snow on the mountain through most of the year).

Pictures of the Climb