Monday, August 12, 2019

Hike Notes: Mount Fuji, Part 1: Climb Report

This post: long-form report of observations.
Next post: D&D-relevant distillation.

About a week ago, my father and I summited Mount Fuji via the Fujinomiya Trail.  The distance as the crow flies from our starting point to the summit was about 2 miles and 4330 feet of elevation gain, but with switchbacks the length of the trail was around 3 miles.  The climb up took us about five hours, we spent half an hour or so at the summit, and then the descent took us three and a half hours.

We were only lightly encumbered, with a single pack between us, which we took turns carrying.  The pack was 3lb empty, and contained three liters of water (~6lb), rain gear and layers, snacks (I estimate around 2lb), about 20 100-yen coins for toilet fees (5 grams each, so 100 grams, or a quarter pound of currency), cell phones, and a few contingency items like flashlights.  I think in total it was probably around 20 lbs.  It definitely made itself felt; the pack carrier had to maintain a slower pace on both ascent and descent.  The one time I fell over, on the descent, was while carrying the pack (fortunately I fell backwards and it cushioned my fall).  Some climbers brought helmets - initially we thought for falling rocks (which were a risk, as regularly noted by signs), but now I think for falling over too.

Despite a few wipeouts and near-wipeouts, we were fortunate to avoid any serious injuries or destruction of equipment.  Some old injuries that we thought healed (damaged hip adductor attachment point, injured knee) started hurting on the way up and continued on the way down, but they didn't increase in severity.  Had a couple hot spots on my feet that were on the way to blistering, but nipped in the bud by tightening the laces of my boots.  My father did drop his glasses at one point and was concerned that they would be damaged but they were fine.  Towards the very end of the descent, I caught the heel of my boot and started tearing the sole off, but it was still usable and we made it down.

We were also lucky with the weather.  Forecast showed a 50% chance of a thunderstorm, but it only drizzled a little.  There wasn't that much direct sun either (a little on the way down); instead there was a lot of mist and low clouds, which wafted up the mountain.  Supposedly when it rains, it often rains upwards in a similar way, making ponchos insufficient rain gear.  If we had gotten soaked, there would've been a small risk of hypothermia, as temperatures at the summit were in the 40s, even at midafternoon in early August.  There was still some ice in ravines and runnels that don't get direct sunlight, but for the most part we were comfortably warm in technical fabrics, plus lightweight jackets near the top.

The view down - mists blowing up the slope, bit of "moon rock" on the right
We purchased a small (~300 mL) canister of oxygen at the Sixth Station, and carried it up with us.  It was really only enough for five or six deep breaths (which is the best way to use it - take a deep breath from it, hold it for a bit, and then exhale).  I'm not sure we really needed it; I didn't use it, and we had some extra to share with another family of Americans on the way down.  I did notice some dizziness, some clumsiness, a little tinnitus, and a headache which got worse as we went on.  It was a bit like being drunk, but I am a reasonably happy drunk so it was alright once I got used to it and determined that I wasn't going to start vomiting immediately.  I did feel pretty bad around the Old 7th Station but it turned out I was mostly hungry.  Colors also faded a bit, but it was a gradual enough process that it wasn't very noticeable to my father until he tried the oxygen.  Part of the reason that we did not do the overnight hike (climb most of the way up, sleep in huts on the mountain, summit before dawn, watch the sunrise, descend) was that altitude sickness seems to sneak up on many people during the night, so by doing it in a single day we narrowed our window at risk.

In terms of terrain, the lower elevations had small plant-life growing off the trail and a little inside the trail, and the surface tended more towards dirt and gravel with some hand-sized rocks mixed in (just enough to roll an ankle on, or to hit your head on if you fell).  This makes sense, since dirt is a fluid and will gradually flow down hill (particularly when driven by the boots of tens of thousands of climbers per year).  Above that, it turned into bigger rocks, head-sized to torso-sized, with intermittent "moon rock" - big solid pieces of porous igneous rock in irregular shapes, speculatively hardened frothy lava from a previous eruption.  It often jutted out in concave formations, like whatever surface had been beneath it had eroded out from under it.  Towards the top the fraction of "moon rock" increased, and there were also rocks with yellow and green colors, perhaps indicative of sulfur.  The "moon rock" was hard going, especially on the way down, where its steep drops and concavities made finding places to step tricky without looking out over its edges.  We had collapsible hiking poles with tungsten carbide tips and these were a great help.  Many climbers had octagonal wooden poles, which could be branded for a small fee at the various stations, and so were both practical implements and souvenirs, but the tungsten bit better than I imagine the unshod wood would've (and they folded down to fit in a checked bag better, too).

The views were mostly down into mists, with occasional glimpses of the secondary peak of Mount Hoei, or the forests at the foot of the mountain.  Often we could not see either the station above us or the station below us, between the mist and the irregularities of the slope, even though we were probably only a couple of hundred meters from them in Euclidean distance.  The views across the side of the mountain were sometimes quite good, with ridges and overhangs and a rock formation that looked almost like a whale.  It was hard to see much of anything looking up, between mists and neck-angle and switchbacks.  Several time we thought we saw the summit and turned out to be mistaken.  It was steep; with 4300 feet of climb over a three mile trail, it's about 1:4, 25% average grade, or a 15 degree average slope, and that was up the switchbacks, rather than directly up the mountain.  Some of the views were rather precipitous; one of the stations had a metal grating out over the slope, and when we arrived on the way up, I wanted nothing to do with it.  Coming back down I waltzed right up to the edge.  Morale is a funny thing.

This is also a view down - the white thing on the left is the roof of (I think) New 7th Station below us, and the building on the right in the distance I think was the 6th Station, lower still.
There's a shrine at the top, dedicated to the kami of the mountain, and the whole area above the 8th Station is sacred ground, as delimited by a torii gate with many coins embedded in it.  We even encountered one old woman in traditional pilgrim's garb who was on her way up as we were going down.  I speculate that hypoxia may have an entheogenic effect, much like alcohol, which contributes to the phenomenon of mountaintops as holy places.  There were many Japanese families with children (often just dad and son, though most of the sons were much younger than I), a decent number of groups of male Japanese teenagers who kept similar paces to ours and with whom we interacted repeatedly, a few American families, and a few European solo climbers.  Most impressive were the runners - we saw several Japanese men, mostly in their late thirties or older, in the sort of kit you'd expect of marathoners, just running up and then back down the mountain.  In many places the trail was only one person wide, so when we met someone headed the opposite direction from us, one party had to yield.  Often this was a welcome break, but we got a bit antsy on the way down, as large groups of climbers were ascending for the overnight.

Looking down into the crater from the summit, there was more ice and sulfurous rock than we had seen on the way up.  We made an attempt for the Kengamine Peak, which used to be a radar weather station, but abandoned it; the slope from the shrine at the summit to the top of the peak was all steep gravel which slid beneath us, and it was a trudge.  In retrospect this was the correct decision; we needed what energy we had for the descent, and we only made it to the bottom fifteen minutes before the last bus off the mountain, so if we had spent twenty minutes up to Kengamine and then fifteen back down to the shrine, we'd've missed our bus.  On the way down, the terrain which had been easiest on the way up (moon-rock) was hardest, and the terrain which had been hardest on the way up (gravel) was the easiest.

We observed very little animal life; some sweat-bees even towards the top, one small brown bird around the 8th or 9th station, some flies around the stations where human waste accumulates.  There were a number of bright butterflies down in the green parts of the slope.  Supposedly there are bears on some of the lower trails, but being Japanese I imagine that they are very polite bears.  There were a few statues of tanuki at one of the stations but we did not observe any on the mountain.

The next day we were decently sore; I felt it in my calves and hip, and I think my father did in much of his lower body but especially his quads.  My quads were a little sore the day after that.  I was pretty happy with the results of my training program of weighted barbell squats plus stationary bike cardio (obviously training at altitude would've been better, but shikata ga nai).  We came off the mountain hungry but still more thirsty; we had drank a total of four liters of water between the two of us (some of it enhanced with Pocari Sweat powder), and eaten less than half of our snacks.  Towards the bottom my headache stopped pounding, but persisted; I think this was the hypoxia component resolving itself and being replaced by a dehydration headache.  I think we might've been better off with less snacks and layers and more water, but it all worked out (and water is damn heavy).

Next post: on climbing mountains in D&D.


  1. I find these "real life and then D&D equivalent" posts really interesting. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks! I will continue as reality permits d: