Sunday, July 27, 2014

Fuji Dreams - 9 people, 2 days, 1 goal

After months of planning, we finally got to the day where nine of us would hike up the most climbed mountain in the world. And it almost didn't happen. 

What started as a crazy idea between two people branched out to include a friend from New York, her Japanese friend, her brother, his girlfriend, my fiance, my brother, and another friend from Melbourne who wanted to properly conquer Mt. Fuji after an aborted attempt 15 years ago. In total, we were 9 people, only 1 of which had ever hiked Mt. Fuji before. Making us cumulatively quite "wise" according to the proverb.

The official climbing season starts July 1st, and this year 2 of the 4 routes were open on time. But the route we chose, Gotemba, was not scheduled to be opened until July 10th due to heavy snow during the 2014 winter. With 4 days between the opening and our climb date, we were cutting it close. Then Typhoon Neoguri dominated the news and made us fear extra snow on the mountain. But it turned out that it helped our cause and sped up the melting process. It was not until the day before that we got confirmation we could get to the summit via the Gotemba trail. 

July 13th - Bus from Shinjuku, Tokyo to Gotemba, a town at the base of Mt. Fuji

We hopped on the bus at Shinjuku, Tokyo on July 13th. Sara was blown away with excitement!

The weather forecast predicted severe wind on July 13th (85 kph) and then rain with 45 kph on July 14/15 when we planned to hike; not promising.  It was misty and cool when we arrived in Gotemba. We couldn't see the mountain at all, but the hospitality of the locals kept us from feeling too uneasy.

We stayed at Hotozawean - a traditional Ryoken (hotel) with a mini Onsen (hot spa). The tatami mat rooms were cozy but suited our purposes and we took over the main lounge room to plan our hike the next day. We had more food than we needed and seemingly enough rain gear. It seemed like the plan was coming together. 

July 14th - Bus from Gotemba town to the New 5th station Gotemba Trail head Mt. Fuji

The next morning we checked out at 9AM and headed to the bus station. The hotel offered a van service to take us there (included in room fee), thankfully, because we had a lot of luggage between the 9 of us. The hotel we were staying at the second night offered to collect our baggage from the bus station, a convenience one could only expect in this land of consideration. If I had planned properly from the beginning, it would have been the same hotel, but I added the extra day late, so everything was already booked and we ended up with two different hotels. Having Japanese friends made this much smoother: thanks Christina and Eriko! 
Public bus to the New 5th Station. Gotemba Trail.

The bus ride was 40 minutes, as advertised and cost 1500 yen. We passed the Japanese and American bases on the mountain as we rode up. That resolved the mystery of the booms we had been hearing: artillary exercises.

Halfway up the mountain, we bid farewell to our bus and surveyed the conditions. The sun had burned off the mist at our elevation, but we could see nothing below as it was covered in clouds, making us feel like we were floating above everything. There were a few scattered shops selling souveniers and even high-end trekking gear for those who forgot the essentials, like shoes. There were toilets set in the mountain like bunkers to make sure they survive landslides and snow.

Peak of Mt. Fuji shrouded in clouds above the bunker toilets at the New 5th Station. Gotemba Trail.

Convenience shop at 1400m (halfway up). Adam and Christina with requisite vending machines.

Group eager to get started, walking sticks ready, acclimated to altitude - so far.

Lesson #1: Pack it in, Pack it out: including anything you buy ON the mountain, like water bottles, food packaging. Etc. So leave room in your pack if you plan to buy stuff. There are NO trash cans on the mountain, even at the stations. The toilets have VERY small ones.

There were walking sticks (made of untreated pine) available for purchase for 680 or 860 yen depending on the length. A unique souvenier that also served a good purpose. .

There were also UV sleeves to cover your lower arms, which I was tempted to buy, but avoided as I already had a lot of gear to keep track of and I didn't want more trash. My hands suffered a bit from that decision as they were exposed holding the walking sticks

At the bus stop there were friendly old Japanese at a folding table asking for 1000 yen "donation" for hiking the mountain. In exchange we got a stamp in our passport and a booklet detailing our climb and offering useful suggestions to make it a good one. I wish I had been able to get that PRIOR to arriving at this point, but it makes a good reference and I will share it here for those coming after me.

View of all Fuji trails, note the green Gotemba trail is the longest.
Everything went according to schedule up to this point and we began our ascent
at 11:54AM. Starting from 1450m after acclimating to the altitude for 30 minutes.

The trail was steep and sandy, making it hard to get traction or keep a good pace. Within 30 minutes we reached a "tea house", where we stopped to get brands on walking sticks and a quick rest. Trekking with a large group gets tricky, because each brand takes 5 minutes to apply, so with 4 sticks getting stamped, we spent over 20 minutes there. When the guide book quotes 205 minutes from the New 5th station to the 7th station, they aren't calculating that much time for breaks. So we were already a bit behind schedule, but the day was sunny and mild and we were in high spirits.

Lesson #2: The labels of the stations/huts are not consistent or clear. The oft referred to "7th station" on some maps is not actually open. It marks one of the branches to take down Sunabashiri, but there is an open station not far from it that we THINK is the 7.4th station. There are abandoned stations: 6th (near where we encountered the "closed" sign) and the New 6th station further below. There is NO shelter at the abandoned stations, although the ruins do provide a bit of privacy for a potty break while trekking with a group. In the end, there were only 3 operating stations on the Gotemba route: 7.4, 7.5 and 7.9. The last one is also often referred to as the "8th" station, but the true 8th station is a bit above 7.9 and is abandoned. There is no 9th station in operation, but there are facilities near the summit between the Gotemba and Fujinomiya trails. In the end, it is phenomenal to me that there are facilities at all, and we could not have made it without them, no matter what they are called.

Gotemba (green) has only 3 operating huts at the higher elevations, 7.4, 7.5 and 7.9. Compare to the Fujinomiya (blue) trail which has many more.

The trail from then on was steady and steep, big switchbacks that made us feel we were making fast progress. We stopped for plenty of group photos and moments to take it all in. We could see Mt. Hoei, the result of the last eruption in 1707, off to our left, and we watched many groups ascend and descend (with whoops) the mini-Mt. Fuji while we slowly trudged up the big one.

We came to a cross roads labelled Jirobo. There was just a small sign marking the intersection with the Sandrun (Sunabashiri) and we stopped to watch some hikers running down easily what we were puffing to get up. The soft sandy trail made ascent like a sisiphean task, but descent was like skiing down on powder.

Shortly thereafter we reached the marker for 2,000 meters. We stopped again for photos and celebration of our achievement. 
We made it to 2000 meters, piece of cake!
Trudging up the sandy Gotemba trail.
When we reached the ruins of the 6th station, it was getting darker. We were losing light and we had been hiking for 6 hours. The switchbacks snaked as far as the eye could see below and above. We should have been to the 7.4th station by then, and we had our booking to sleep at the "8th" station, another hour above that. We had stopped for too long at too many points - we were getting tired and it was hard to move a group of our size quickly.

Almost to 3000!

One of too many stops from New 5th to 7.5th stations.
We were surprised to discover that insects were still pests at these elevations. There were only the occasional sturdy plant at this point, but still we'd have to swat away various flies and bugs of an unknown variety. Some were quite colorful - like a bright green beetle I found. Perhaps it had been blown off course from its usual leafy surroundings.

Bright green bug in a barren rocky land

The mists were blowing around us, making an eerie scene, and the coolness soothed our sun and wind burned skin. The landscape was barren and stark - but stunning nonetheless. Some of us were sweating too much, some had not applied enough sun screen or lacked a sun hat - but we soldiered on. We had enough water and food and we thoughtlessly assumed the stations couldn't be that far off. We could see them in the distance after all.

An hour later, we reached a branch, and the signs pointed down and to the left. There was a big red X across the trail leading up. Closed. The sun had gone down, we were walking in twilight; all the signs were telling us "go back down". 

So we pulled out an old fashioned Japan Rentafone flip phone and were pleased to find it picked up a signal. The numbers for the huts we had was wrong, so we called the hotel that made the booking for us and got through to the huts eventually. Thankfully, our Japanese friend was able to navigate the conversation necessary to figure out whether the route was actually closed and whether we could sleep at the 7th station instead of the 8th since we clearly could not reach our original destination in time. 

Sun setting behind the Mt. Fuji peak, somewhere up there is shelter.

Lesson #3: Bring a phone that can pick up a signal and phone numbers for the huts on the mountain AND most importantly, someone who can speak fluent Japanese.

Message from the men on the mountain: "put on all your clothing, it is getting dark and it will get very cold. Go back down the mountain." Turns out, the day before was incredibly nasty on the mountain, with 85 kph winds and rain, not good to be out in. We on the other hand, were blessed with a clear night with little wind. We had our snow gear and none of us were cold. 
Our response: "if we make it to the 7th station, can we sleep there?" When we got the "Hai" (yes) we were looking for, we pulled out our headlamps, kept calm, and carried on.

The switchbacks were tight at this point, we could see the lights of a station above, calling us like moths to a flame. We passed the 3,000 meter marker sign and trudged on, no stopping, no celebration. 

As we ascended, so did the moon. The most stunning moon rise I've ever seen. Big and red on the horizon, nothing blocking our view. Probably the most memorable vista of the climb for me.

As I called to Adam to look at the view, he swiveled his head quickly and the naseau that had plagued him was unleashed as he vomitted onto the trail. Eriko had brought cans of oxygen, but it did not seem to make a big difference. He was clearly suffering from altitude sickness; the way down was long and treacherous, the only safety was up, yet the worst thing to do when you are suffering from altitude sickness is to go up. His retching continued, but he carried on, refusing to consider alternatives. Realistically, there were none.

Lesson #4: When you set an irrational goal (i.e. "Let's climb the hardest route of a mountain over 3000 meters high"), people get oddly irrational about achieving it. So they tend to be difficult to dissuade, even when the conditions are not ideal (i.e. they are suffering from altitude sickness, in pain/exhausted from the climb, etc).

It was an hour of trekking in the dark from the fork before we reached the 7.4th hut at 3,100 meters. The first operational hut since the tea house at 1,500 meters. The lights were on and there were staff there. We discussed whether to stay there, or carry on another 10 minutes to the 7.5th station where there was more space and food. Some of the group were so tired, it was a bit of a debate, but ultimately we decided to go the extra 10 m up.

The decision was a good one, there was far more space and the people at the 7.5th station were very accomodating. We shared the space with military men there for training; we were the only foriegners. We were there late, we arrived around 8:30 at night, lights out at 9PM, but they set out the tables and made us dinner - Ramen!! It was hot and salty and just perfect after a long day out in the elements. Then they cleared the space and laid out futons and blankets. Who cares how often they are washed! Using our clothes as pillows, we curled up and attempted to sleep.

Some of us slept under the bunks, some out in the main area with the moon light shining in.

I was running on adrenaline by then and quite warm from the exertion. I didn't even wear a coat to go out to the toilets, just my polartec. The wind was picking up and the moon was bright as I found my way around. I had been warned to bring coins for the pay toilets, but that is advice for the other trails. Here, the toilets come with the cost of staying at the hut (7,000 yen for dinner and the rest) but there are donation boxes for those who just pass asking for 300 yen. 

To answer the question I'm sure is on everyone's mind: Yes, the toilet seats are heated on Mt. Fuji. They are sustainable pit toilets, so no water, but there is power, and rain water is available to wash your hands outside. After some analysis we realized the heated seat was less a luxury and more of an economical way to provide comfort: far cheaper to heat a seat than the air in the toilets. 

We considered our options. The sun was supposed to rise at 4:37AM. We were at least 3 hours from the summit, more like 7 at the pace we had been going. Our plan had been to watch from the peak, but the locals at the station told us that our current location was actually the best spot to view the sunrise. There were many benches lined up out front, to underscore his point that this was the place to enjoy the view.  We tried to figure out how we could make it to the summit by sunrise anyway (see earlier point about irrationality), but the howling winds at 1AM put to rest any thought of venturing further at night. 

Adam slept near the door in case he needed to throw up again, but thankfully he was able to rest through the night with no incident. The guidance was for him to remain at the station while we ascended to the summit and then join us for the descent. 

The dawn came clear and calm, at 4AM the light through the windows woke us. We stumbled out to the benches and stood in awe as the first piercing rays of light broke through the clouds. 

The moment we had anticipated for months, the sunrise from above the clouds.

Devin and Joanne began their climb early and watched from the 7.9th station. The rest of us watched at 7.5, then had breakfast before packing up for the final ascent.

Adam returned to bed and 6 of us took to the trail under the glaring heat of the new sun. We baked as we climbed, but the distance to the 7.9th station took us only 20 minutes. The power of well rested legs. From there the trail got stepp and tricky, the rocks were big and unstable. At one point the trail was only about half a meter wide, with the slope to one side and snow to the other. Clearly this was the section that had kept Gotemba closed until the 10th. 

We had stayed together between the 5th and 7th stations, but from the 8th onward we spread out at our own paces. The switchbacks stacked on top of each other and we could see each other above and below. The air was thin and my head ached. I didn't find myself gasping, it was more like my energy was drained and every step took effort. I settled into a steady pace and just put one foot in front of the other, resting for a breath at each turn with a pause to survey the scene - bright and clear, but down below a blanket of cottony clouds lay on the land. 

We met a number of climbers coming down as we went up, including a monk of some type in orangish robes. But we were the only ones going up.

Devin and Joanne kept up a good pace and made it first. Eriko and Sara were the first in the second group. Followed by Issac and I, then Jeff shortly after. Christina struggled; she hadn't slept much for the last two nights and the exhaustion combined with the altitude caught up to her, but within 20 minutes of our summit she arrived.

We were exhilerated, but a bit dissapointed by the view. Thankfully, we had not pushed to the summit the night before, it really was far better to be at the 7.5th station for a good view of the sunset. The crator was a massive hole, which we had planned to walk around, but the conditions (icy) and being behind schedule meant left that for another time. 

We took our photos and then realized we were not yet at the peak. Another 70 meters up to the weather station was required to properly achieve the 3,776 m mark. The hill was not friendly to hikers, it was a working road meant for catapillar-type tracks, but we were determined and made it up anyway.

Weather station at Kengamine Peak behind me, just a little bit further.
The crator view from that angle was even more stunning and we could see the 9th station at the top of the Yoshida (most popular) trail on the other side. 

Issac, Jen and Sara made it to the ultimate Kengamine Peak: 3,776m
Our original plan was to walk around the crater, but it was still dangerous with snow and we were way behind schedule. Something for next time.
There were young men taking off their shirts and posing for their gopro. There were workers focused on the tasks that had to be competed during the brief summer months. We were grateful to have avoided the hoardes we read about - although it is too bad we couldn't buy a can of Mt. Fuji air. 

My final activity at the summit was a jump shot in front of the gate marking Gotemba, including the "closed" signed keeping the normal Mt. Fuji hikers away. I did about 3 jumps to get the right shot and that's when it hit me. Jumping takes a lot of energy when you are at sea level, but it clearly required more oxygen than I had available and I suddenly needed to get down. Issac and I began the descent to the 7th station and I couldn't move fast enough. My head throbbed - I wasn't nauseas, but it was the worst headache I've ever had. 

As we picked our way down the trail, the military men who shared our hut the night before were running UP the trail in running shorts and tank tops. What took us 3 hours to ascend took them less than 30 minutes. Good training for a marathon I suppose. The sun made us hot, the winter gear we had was good to protect against the wind which had picked up, but it was a challenge to keep comfortable. 

I remember the taste of the air as I got lower, it was like drinking from a clear stream. Cool and fresh and full of oxygen. It was heavenly.

After a quick stop at the 7.9th station for a toilet break I carried on ahead of the pack, still driven by a pounding headache. I arrived at the 7.5th station and stripped off my snowboarding pants and jacket and collapsed beside Christina on one of the futons. She had descended earlier, desperate for more sleep. I rested my eyes for a bit, but knew we didn't have time, so I opted for some food (chicken and egg over rice) and some ibuprofin for the headache (didn't work). 

Some people refilled water, Issac from the rainwater (they do not recommend drinking) and others from the bottles for sale. I had no more room for bottles, so I drank what I could over lunch and planned to get to the bottom before drinking more. 

Lesson #5: Bring more water and less food. I had 2 L of pure water and 1 L of electrolyte infused water. I drank it all on the first portion of the ascent because we took so long. I purchased 5 more bottles (650 mL) along the way and drank it all. I did not eat all the food I brought, mostly because of the food provided at the huts. They have fresh eggs and rice and miso soup and curry. More options than you'd expect - simple but so good under the conditions. 

Lesson #6: CASH ONLY!!!!

Seven of us gathered just below the abanoned 7th station at the fork to the Sunabashiri. Devin and Joanne had gone on ahead, and we assumed they were waiting for us at the New 5th station. 

We began the best part of the trail at noon. The Sandrun (Sunabashiri) is the straight path down that avoids all the switchbacks that lead up and takes just 1.5 hours to get down what took us 8 to get up. 

Sandrun (Osunabashiri) in the mist. Almost to the finish line - getting dirtier with every step.

The mist came in again, thicker than the day before, so we had to be careful to stay within sight of each other (or at least sound). Christina was feeling naseaus, so she couldn't run. Others were taking advantage of the soft ground and racing down. Only two of us did face plants. We had amusing exchanges through the mist with people we couldn't see on the trail going up and we watched dropped items roll on ahead of us faster than we could catch them. 

My shoes filled with rocks, but it was worth it to be able to take long soft strides down, racing to the finish line and a proper night's rest at Gotemba Mars GardenWood.

The day after we descended, the news outlets were spreading a story about "Mt Fuji due for eruption" - so far not a rumble from the wise Fuji-san that we saw, but we are glad we tackled it when we did. We seem to have appeased all the local gods with our paid respects at various shrines; many thanks to Fuji-san for a successful journey and for the chance to acquire the kind of wisdom that comes from being so foolish.

Still alive and smiling the next day - ready for the next stage of the journey.

No comments:

Post a Comment