Freakin' Fuji

As the saying roughly goes, you are wise to climb Mt. Fuji once and a fool to climb it twice. Don’t worry, wise man, I will not be a fool. What started as a simple whim to climb the highest mountain in Japan turned into a challenging adventure my body will not soon forget.

I can’t really explain why I wanted to climb Mt. Fuji. I didn’t necessarily expect the climb to be “fun,” but I did think it would make for a good story. Plus, I felt oddly obligated to see Japan from its highest point. Perhaps Mallory’s definitive argument of “because it is there” is the best reason of all to climb any mountain.

Once I resolved to climb the highest mountain in the country, I found some other folks equally as interested in making the trek with me. We planned to spend a few days in Tokyo first before heading to Fuji for the climb. If the mountain was miserable, at least we’d have fun in Tokyo.

In addition to being the tallest mountain, Fuji is also the most revered mountain in Japan. Peaking at 12,388 feet, it is Japan’s most notable landmark and national symbol. The Japanese once believed the mountain was the center of the universe and features numerous religious shrines. As such, it is a popular pilgrimage site for Buddhist monks…and the rest of us insane people who do it for the bragging rights.

Torii gate and shrine near the summit

Approximately 300,000 people make it to the summit of Mt. Fuji every year. Of that group, about 30 percent are foreigners. In fact, I read that only one percent of the Japanese population ever makes it to the summit. This should have been a red flag for me. A further red flag should have been that when every time I told a Japanese person I was going to climb Fuji, they either laughed or looked concerned for me.

As I do with most vacation planning, I researched the heck out of Fuji. I wanted to be fully prepared for whatever was in store for me, especially since the locals were laughing at my endeavor. I scoured almost every website there is about Fuji and talked to several people who had made the trek themselves. Things I learned were: a) Fuji is cold, b) altitude sickness sucks, and c) food and water are expensive on the mountain.

I agonized for weeks over what I would wear and bring with me up the mountain. Would I bring too much? Would I not bring enough? Will I fall off the mountain and die?? My last experience with a mountain involved riding a gondola up it and using my snowboard to get down it. I had never had to use actual effort to get up a mountain before. I eventually had to make up my mind and packed everything I deemed necessary, including my recently purchased Shinto charm for good mental and physical health. Fred opted for his “three wolves hollowing at the moon” t-shirt in place of a Shinto charm to help him get up the mountain. Both seemed to work well. In fact, the entire climb probably could have been done with just these two items.

Fred arriving at Kawaguchiko with the power of the wolves.

The trip began dismally as we arrived at Kawaguchiko station at the base of Fuji where a group of German tourists had just made it off the mountain. They looked entirely miserable. Upon asking them how their climb was, we were told it was terribly cold and rained the whole time. Even though they made it to the summit, it was too rainy and cloudy to see a thing – even the beautiful sunrise for which they set out to see. With desperation in her eyes, she told us to make sure we had good, warm rain gear.

Fuji is up there somewhere in those rain clouds

With the German tourist’s warnings echoing in my ears, we took off for what I announced to be our “last supper” at a nearby Chinese restaurant. Over noodles and wontons, we debated whether or not we actually wanted to do this. Two of our travel companions, Jay and Courtney (aka, West Coast Courtney), were resolved to climb the mountain come hell or high water – or freezing rain, as the case may be. The rest of us considered what type of elaborate story we could come up with to make people believe we climbed the mountain while we were really back at our hostel sitting on tatami mats and drinking from the “mystery box” in the vending machine.

The elusive mystery box vending machine

Correction: "mistery" box.  You never know what canned alcoholic drink will come out!

After lying around at the hostel rubbing my Shinto good luck charm, I decided I HAD to at least attempt the climb. The weather forecast looked a little hopeful and it seemed possible it wouldn’t rain the entire time. Fred grabbed one last drink from the mystery box and we geared up for the trip. The goal of our trip was to climb the mountain overnight to reach the summit in time to witness the sunrise. We took the hour-long 7 p.m. bus from Kawaguchiko station to the 5th station on the mountain. Starting from the 5th station saves you several hours of hiking by starting you at 7,500 feet. From there, you can buy any last minute supplies you need as well as a mandatory Fuji stick. The stick is a simple wooden walking stick that you can pay to have stamps branded into at various mountain huts along the way. Not only is it super helpful to get you up the mountain, but collecting the stamps is perhaps the only way to distract yourself from the sheer agony and exhaustion of climbing in the dark. I also found singing songs from the Sound of Music helped, thanks to climbing-partner Jillian’s suggestion.

A much happier time at the hostel before we left for the mountain

When collecting stamps ceases to be fun and you can no longer muster the energy to belt out “Climb Every Mountain” again, you start to regret the day you thought climbing Mt. Fuji would be a good idea. The terrain got increasingly challenging to navigate and the temperature got increasingly colder. The altitude didn’t help much either. We lost one of our travel companions almost immediately. She had been trailing behind not feeling well from the beginning. She ended up calling it quits and sleeping at a hut before making her way down the next morning. The rest of us carried on, taking breaks at each hut along the way and looking for excuses to take additional breaks in between huts. At one point, I recall taking only a few steps before determining it was a good spot for a quick rest.

Resting at 3,250 meters

The five of us took a long break about half way up the mountain outside one of the huts. We sat on the ground, in the cold wind, nibbling on our snacks, drinking some water and pondering how much farther the summit was. Turns out, it was a lot farther. We eventually split up somewhere closer to the summit. Fred, with the power of his three wolves howling at the moon shirt, took the lead and made it to the summit first. Jay and West Coast followed shortly behind him, suffering from altitude nausea and borderline hypothermia. Jillian and I stuck together, simultaneously wanting to throw in the towel and then talking each other out of it. If Jillian hadn’t have been with me, I might have crawled up in a ball and died of exhaustion.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I began to see sunlight peeking out from beyond the clouds. I looked up and the summit was right above me! Completely exhausted and chilled to the bone, Jillian and I took our last few steps and arrived at the summit just in time for sunrise.

Finally, at the summit

I think I would have appreciated the sunrise much more had there been a nice, heated observation room from which to enjoy it from. Instead, we huddled together, praying that the rising sun would instantly warm us. The wind was my worst enemy at the summit. I neglected to bring eye drops with me and the icy cold air instantly dried out my eyes to the point of extreme pain. I felt as if I had shards of glass cutting through my retinas. We knew we had one last task at hand, however. We had to get the venerated summit sunrise stamp on our Fuji sticks to prove we were there. Jillian and I fought through the pain and cold to roam around the summit seeking the elusive summit stamp while hypothermic Jay and West Coast headed back down. Everywhere we turned, we couldn’t find the stamp and were told by other climbers that the person wasn’t stamping yet. What?!?! I came all this way and can’t get a sunrise stamp?? In retrospect, I wish I would have waited longer for the stamp, but at the time, my body wouldn’t let me consider that as an option. Jillian summarized it best when she said her body thought it was dying.

Trying to stay warm

Fellow summiters

Our reward for making the trek

While Fred stayed at the top, Jillian and I headed down to the first hut on the trail and checked in for some warm noodles and much needed shelter from the wind. Fred, on the other hand, circumnavigated the summit, crawled down into the crater, climbed back up the crater, and took some pictures before heading back down. His super-human strength can clearly be attributed to the power of his three wolves howling at the moon shirt. If you don’t believe me, click here and read the customer reviews.

Mt. Fuji's shadow, compliments of Fred treking to the other side of the mountain

Fred caught up to Jillian and me as we wearily trudged down the mountain, sustained only by ramen noodles. While the ascent took us a solid 8 hours, the decent is only supposed to take 3 hours because it leads you down a short-cut trail that is poor for hiking up, but easy to hike down. Unfortunately for us, this short-cut trail was closed due to snow and ice. We were forced to take the same hellish trail down that we had just struggled up. It took us 5 grueling hours to reach the bottom.

It was difficult to maintain sanity after being awake for so long with your muscles being so entirely drained. We had some minor entertainment chatting with folks who were on their way up. Many of the Japanese climbers cheerfully said ohiyo gozaimasu (good morning) to us and asked us what we assumed was if we had made it to the summit. They seemed pleased when we said yes. I hope they weren’t asking “Was it really easy??” The answer would have been “NO! Turn back now!!” Near the end of the trail, we approached a large group of Chinese tourists who did not look like they should be hiking up the mountain. They were more appropriately dressed for a day at the park than climbing the biggest mountain in the country! Since my Chinese is limited to “ni hao,” I wasn’t able to say “Whoa, hold it right there, Chinese family! You cannot wear shorts and sandals up this mountain! Retreat! Retreat!” I grew increasingly nervous as more and more inappropriately-dressed Chinese people headed past us up the mountain. Finally, a teenage girl in the group stopped and spoke English to us, asking how much further the summit was. She seemed shocked to learn it took us 8 hours to reach the summit and it was VERY cold up there. This is a perfect example of why China shouldn’t censor access to the internet.

If I could have jumped for joy, I would have when we finally reached the 5th station. Our lost comrade had waited for us at the bottom. All we had to do was find Jay and West Coast Courtney before boarding the bus back to our hostel. While noshing on a much needed ice cream cone as we waited, Fred came over to tell us he had a message from Jay and West Coast. They somehow took the wrong trail back down and were on the complete opposite side of the mountain. This is bad news considering a taxi ride back from the wrong side of the mountain is over $200. We made plans to pick up their luggage from the hostel and meet them in Tokyo later that day.

While we were nearing the end of our Fuji hike, we struck up a conversation with an Australian couple and pondered the question of if someone offered you a million dollars to turn back around and hike Fuji again right now, would you do it? The resounding answer was an absolute no. I think the only reason anyone climbs Mt. Fuji more than once is because enough time has passed since their last hike that they forget exactly how miserable they were at some point. Yes, the summit was amazing and yes, I am very glad I stuck it out and reached the summit, but I don’t think I’ll be attempting it again. There is the possibility, of course, that I’ll grow more forgetful with age. Even now, only one week off the mountain, I’ll catch a glimpse of my Fuji stick and think to myself how cool it would be to bring that same stick back up the mountain again. Then I quickly come back to my senses.


  1. Courtney I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog about your mt fuji trip! You have an amazing talent in expression. I'm so glad you wrote so much about the adventure and so glad you didn't turn back before reaching the summit! I'm also so glad that you and fred are enjoying your japan adventure. Keep up the great narrations!

  2. Very interesting account - thoroughly enjoyed reading - got a break from my Japanese assignment - googling for which i chanced upon your site.