Sunday, August 23, 2015

Conquering Mt. Fuji

Fuji-san in the distance
Yes...I've heard it's hard. Yes...I've heard I will lose toenails. Yes...I heard it will be cold at the top. I've heard it described as "the worst experience of my life", "the hardest thing I've ever done", "the most painful thing I've ever experienced".  I've also heard that viewing the sunrise from the top is one of the most amazing things ever seen. I've also heard that getting to the top is such an accomplishment that I will cry tears of pride.

I listened to friends. I took advice from strangers. We prepared as best as we could. And, we started our journey to the top of the tallest mountain in Japan.

Tuesday afternoon we dropped the kids off with our friends and made our way to Outdoor Rec to borrow a few things: 2 backpacks, 2 headlamps, 2 rain pants, 1 raincoat, boots. All of that was about $48 for 48 hour rental. Then, by about 3:30 we hit the road to Camp Fuji (USMC training center at the base of Mt Fuji). 

About halfway there we decided to stop at a rest area and get a few snacks. What we found...a vending machine that spits out a hot meal...fries and chicken!! The fries tasted like microwaved fries. The chicken was so yummy!!

Once at The Mountain View Inn at Camp Fuji we found the food court and got our dinner. Then, Kris gave me a tour of the base. When Kris was stationed at Camp Hansen in Okinawa, they would come to Camp Fuji for training. I saw the barracks he stayed in. Also saw the plot of grass where he and a few buddies were sent outside to sleep because they made their squad leader mad. :) Then, we made our way back to our (non-air conditioned) room where we settled in and suffered through AFN programming and listened to the artillery being exploded near us, sometimes even shaking the building we were in. I fell asleep shortly after Taps was played and then awake by 0530 (early enough that I was able to read half of a book). After Reveille at 0600 and the U.S. And Japanese national anthems at 0800, Kris was up. We got our stuff together and made our way to Gotemba Station to catch the bus to 5th station. 

Our view of Fuji-san from Camp Fuji
So, a little note here to those of you trying to plan a hike (more info can be found here and here and here.)  There are four hiking paths up the mountain, each starting at their own 5th Stations ~ Fujinomiya (we visited this station and did a side hike here a few months ago (Fujinomiya Day Hike); Gotemba; Yoshida, the most traveled path, the most developed path; and finally, the path we took, Subashiri. During hiking season all of the parking lots at the 5th stations are closed to traffic (unless you're a tour bus). Gotemba is the exception.

Fujikyu bus station, ticket office

For the Subashiri trailhead, we drove to the 24 hour parking garage next to the station and walked to the Fujikyu Bus ticket office. We purchased round trip tickets for 2060 yen each person and made our way to bus stop #3 to wait an hour for the bus.
Saving our spot in line at
stop #3

The trip from Gotemba train station to Subashiri 5th station took about an hour of back and forth switchbacks - an interesting drive in a big ole bus. 
Subashiri 5th Station at 2000 meters

Once at Subashiri 5th Station (1135 arrival) we decided to wait at least an hour, closer to two, so we could get accustomed to the altitude.

Well, it was a little drizzly and kinda boring just sitting there waiting. So, after I bought my Fuji Walking stick (1000¥) and Kris ate a piece of leftover pizza, we made our way to the start of the trail.
5th Station stamp

This is where it all begins!

We gave our 1000¥ each at the donation box to help pay for trail upkeep, which, in return, we received two information books (now deformed by all the moisture we encountered) and two buttons.  The books are all in Japanese, but it looks like it explains the different trails as well as different sites around the base and up the mountain.  We got a stamp on the Subashiri Trailhead.

A few feet up the path we got a speech at the next little hut about making sure we follow the correct trail down. You see, the Subashiri trail and the Yoshida trail meet up at the 8th station, and if you take the wrong trail down you will end up at the wrong bus terminal and have a really hard time getting back where you need to go. So, Terra and Kris....follow the red trail!!!
The "Before" shot

We started our hike in t-shirts, shorts (Kris), hiking pants (Terra) and rain gear (coats and pants). We had off and on drizzle up to the 6th station. At the 6th station we took the rain pants off...shew it was hot! 

This is Komitake Shrine, where you pray for a successful climb

Now, at about 1220, we're onto the path up the mountain.  This section was a somewhat gentle climb with lots of trees.  

It was somewhere on this section of the climb that I thought it would be a good idea to find something to keep me busy on the way up.  So, I decided to start looking for the alphabet in nature.  I found two letters before my brain said, "It's hard enough for me to work with less oxygen and navigate the rocky paths, you are crazy if you think I'm going to keep looking for stupid letters!"

 Once we were out of the trees we followed the path through bushes and out into the clouds.

 This is the entrance to the 6th Station.  
Arrival: 1330  
Altitude: 2400 meters  
800 meters to the next station
4.8 km to the summit
There is a hut here to sleep in, Osada-sanso.  

At each station (well, almost each station...I'll explain that later) I had my walking stick stamped.  The man below heated his iron and then branded my stick for me, with the station name and the altitude. (Stamp on the right: Cost: 200 Yen)

This is the station....they sell drinks and some food (expensive! but it gets more expensive the higher you go) and you can rent a place to sleep for, I think it was about 2500 Yen per person.  There were also picnic tables to sit and relax for a bit.  Which is what we did.  At each station I sat anywhere from 20-45 minutes to get acclimated to the altitude, get a little bit of food in me (trail mix is what I, M&Ms never tasted so good!), and to drink some water to keep the headaches at bay.

Next up, the original 6th station...yeah, we didn't read up too much on the actual stations.  So, on this trail there can be anywhere from 1 to 3 different stations to each number.  Not such a big deal when you're just starting out, feeling excited and energetic.  But, once you're exhausted and just ready to be at the top, that third 8th station seems like someone's cruel, cruel joke.

The original 6th station
Arrival:  1440
Altitude:  2700 meters
1.2 km to the next station
4.0 km to the summit.  
There is a sleeping hut here, Seto-kan.  

Note:  I wrote down what time we arrived at each station, but not what time we left each station, so I have no idea how long it took us to get from station to station.  If I remember correctly, we stayed at most stations for 30 minutes.  A few of the stations we didn't stay too long because it was getting cold.

The stamp for this station.  I'm pretty sure it says 2700 meters on the left side of the stick.  In the middle it says "Original 6th Station"

We got above the puffy clouds here.  

The bushes are starting to disappear now.  The climb is steeper and there are more rocks to have to climb over or around.  

Kristofer winding his way up the switchbacks.  You can follow the rope back down our path.

Here is the New 7th Station.  
Arrival:  1600 
Altitude:  3090 m 
800 m to the next station
2.8 km to the summit
The hut at this station is Taiyo-kan and is 5,000 Yen per person if you stay without a meal, but if you want to sleep and eat it's 6450.

There was no stamp at this station, only a sticker (I think it was 200Yen).  I bought it with the idea to put it onto my stick later.  Well, if that stick goes out into the rain that little sticker will come right off.  So, not sure what I'll do with it.

We added hats and gloves at this station.

Leaving the station...the summit should be up there somewhere...silly clouds!

Original 7th Station.
Arrival:  1715
Altitude:  3200 m
420 m to next station
 2.0 km to summit.
Miharashi-kan is the sleeping hut here.  

Two stamps at this station.  I think I paid 300 Yen here.  The top sticker says "Original 7th Station" on the left and Subashiri Trail on the right.  The bottom one has the altitude on it.

We had amazing views from this height!  We got our first view of the ground from here as well.  And, occasionally we saw the peak.

I found a Mt. Fuji cloud!

Here is where the Subashiri trail meets the Yoshida trail, this is just below the New 8th Station.

This is the New 8th Station...this is the beginning of the tortuous "how many 8th stations can there possibly be?"  I may have cussed the station-namer at a few points on the next several hundred meters.

New 8th Station
Arrival:  1800 
Altitude:  3350 m 

Stamp: 200 Yen

 I didn't take a picture of the details at this station (how far to summit or next station or sleeping huts).  I was too busy taking pictures out there...

We're still alive and climbing...even smiling!!!

Original 8th Station.
Arrival:  1840
Altitude:  3400 m
My picture taking abilities were becoming very limited at this point.  I can't read what's on most of the signs from here on up due to the shaking of my hands.


The lights are starting to come on down below.

Exhausted at Original 8th!  See the torii behind the next station I get a shot of it lit up.
The stamp for this station:  400 Yen for two stamps.

I am positive I said bad things about the station-namer here at the 8.5 Station.  What?!?!  Climbing was getting pretty hard at this point.  I was actually having to stop on the trail to catch my breath from here on up.  

8.5 Station.
Arrival:  1925
Altitude:  3450 m
200 m to the next station.
600 m to the summit
We talked with a girl from Uruguay at this station.  I briefly chatted with her from about the original 7th station on up as we took turns passing each other.

This is the last station where you can sleep in a hut.  Goraiko-kan is the name of the hut.  Wow!  It was party central!  There were people all over the place - laughing and running around.  

See the top of the torii gate?

Between the 8.5 station and the summit it was a serious rock climbing expedition!  And, it was dark now, so I could only see where my headlamp would shine.  Between the 8.5 and 9th stations I thought I had a broken lamp.  Turns out, my hat was halfway covering the beam!  Ugh!  

Oxygen.  Need more oxygen.

9th station.  
Arrival:  2007 
Altitude:  3600 m 
400 m to the summit!  
Almost there!!!

I did not take pictures at the 9th station.  It was too cold to slow down, so I just walked right on through this stop.  The shop was closed and the lights were off, no stamp here.  At this point I could have really cared less about that stamp!  Really, I had to do some serious talking to myself (yes, it was out loud...the oxygen is thin up there!) to stay the extra few minutes at the 8.5 station to wait for my stick to be stamped.  

This is the entrance to the summit!!  Ha!  Beautiful pictures, I know!  It was dark.  It was cold.  I was exhausted.  I didn't even think about turning on the flash.  Oh well.  On the left is one of two lions that are just before the torii gate, on the right.  

Summit arrival 2040 Terra, 2115 Kris.
Altitude:  3776 m / 12,395 ft

 These are the last two pictures I took on the whole trip.  And, here's why... IT'S SO COLD UP THERE!!!!

So, here's where things get a little hairy.  First, once I got to the top I immediately sat down and opened up the chili-mac MRE Kris packed for me.  Turns out, the batch of MRE's we ordered came without the heating pouches inside.  Yeah, that's right.  We had to eat our food (chili mac for me and meatballs in marinara for Kris) the top of the cold mountain...while we were freezing.  But, you want to know what...that was the best damn meal I have ever eaten in my entire life!!!  I inhaled that packet of cold food within minutes!  After a congratulatory mountaintop kiss, we quickly searched for a place to hunker down for the night.

We weren't quite expecting to be at the top of the mountain this early.  We were hoping to be up there by around midnight, with a 0430-ish sunrise.  Leaving us four hours to nap or walk around.  I don't quite think we anticipated the weather to be as bad as it was.  19 degrees with a 30-40 kph wind.  Our first spot was next to a couple of vending machines.  This is where Kris ate his dinner after we added more clothing layers and changed our socks. We tried huddling here sitting up, then laying down, then sitting up again.  We had our packs on top of us.  It was just so cold!  I was shaking uncontrollably.  And, then out of nowhere I was crying!  I was begging him to just take me home.  It was too cold and I didn't care about seeing a sunrise.  He said, just a minute, I'll be back.  A few minutes later he came back and said he found a better place.  So, we walked back toward where we reached the summit and then over toward the edge of the mountain.  Right near the edge was a little hut.  And, on the back side of this hut there were four steps dug into the ground with a rock retaining wall kind of curving around it.  So, in we went.  It was better, but still so cold!  After more tears and me begging to leave (which would have been stupid at this point because I had very little coordination and my mind was not at all there, combine that with the crazy wind and I would have surely fallen to my death).

Luckily, I have a very smart and resourceful husband (aka: my hero!).  He said, don't worry I'm going to take care of you.  Then, he marched off.  Within minutes he was back with stuff.  He told me to get up and he threw a 4x3 mat underneath me.  Then he said, cover your eyes this is dirty, and threw a canvas tarp on top of me.  Immediately the wind was gone.  He bought me a hot can of coffee to hold, well he got it for me to drink, but i just couldn't bring myself to drink anything.  So, I just held it to my frozen toes and then my frozen legs and then my frozen arms.  (Yes, I bought, and we brought, those self-stick heating things.  You know, the HotHands body warmers?  They were NOT working.  I had them in my shoes, in my shirt, stuck to my stomach.  Not one of them would heat up.  Well, now that we are down in real oxygen and light enough to read the package.  They are oxygen activated.  Duh...not a whole lot of oxygen up there.  And, even less when they are tucked away under clothes and a tarp.)  And, there I waited for the sun to rise.  Kris kept himself as warm as possible by walking around all night.  At around midnight we were lucky enough to start enjoying rain!  Not just a drizzle.  But, rain.

Two stamps:  300 Yen total.  Top of Mount Fuji and Sunrise top Mount Fuji

Finally.  Finally.  Finally, at 0400 the people that live on that mountain, opened up their doors.  After help getting out of my little hole, I went and found a seat inside the warm hut and drank Royal Milk Tea that the guys told me was "Dangerously Hot".  I'd say so when I put the can to my lips and it gave me a blister!  I stayed in there for about 40 minutes before I got my stick stamped.  Then, I found my hero and we stood there on the edge of the mountain watching the hundreds and hundreds of headlamps inch their way up the mountain.  By around 0450 it was obvious we were not going to see the sun rise.  We were getting a gradual lighting of grey.  So, we put our packs on and headed back down the mountain.  

When Kris talks about the first time he climbed Fuji-san, he always mentions the sand run, also known as Osunabashiri.  This is a section of the descending trail where there is very fine, loose gravel.  Kris' first descent was on the Gotemba trail sand run.  He was basically able to run down the very soft parts of the trail in a fraction of the time.  We read somewhere that the Subashiri trail has the longest sand run of all the trails.  So, that's where we were headed.  Supposedly, this sand run is more gentle on the knees.  I must have been doing it wrong!  There was one section of the sand run that I attempted the "fun" running Kris has always talked about.  And, it was fun for a few minutes.  Until my right foot stepped on a dang boulder and I fell to my left side and did a home plate slide for about 8 feet.  Luckily, my pants weren't ripped.  Unfortunately, both of my gloves were torn to shreds.  That ended my idea of running down any more trails.  

According to several friends of mine, they lost toenails from their toes banging into the end of their shoes on the descent.  Kris had me tie my boots nice and tight and my toes never touched the end of my boot.  However, they did work really hard to grip the bottom of the shoe with each step.  So, by hour two down the mountain my toes were killing me and my knees felt like they were going to explode!  At one point I stopped dead in the middle of the trail, preparing to turn around to my husband, who I thought was right behind me.  Turns out, it was some other Japanese man and here I was crying again.  As he went by he smiled.  Then, realized I was crying and came back up the mountain five feet to check on me.  I just smiled and waved him on...I couldn't understand what he was saying anyway.  

I didn't think the end of that trail was ever going to get to us!  At one point Kris said, we have about 40 minutes until the next bus leaves.  So, even though I had already fallen over a dozen times, I decided to pick up the pace.  Thankfully, we made it to the bus ten minutes before it left!!!  It took us exactly 4 hours to get down that mountain!  At 0850 we got on the train back to Gotemba train station.  I don't remember much of this ride.  After 27 hours of no sleep and I'm sure I was suffering through the beginning stages of hypothermia, I was beyond exhausted!  I would sleep a few minutes, get shifted by bus momentum, wake up, sleep a few minutes....for the whole hour to Gotemba.  Once in Gotemba, we immediately went to our car and changed out of our wet clothes before hitting the road home.  Just a few minutes down the road we stopped at 7-11 to get something to eat.  We feasted on chicken on a stick (Kris), gyoza (Kris and I split this), salmon onigiri (me), and some kind of vanilla cake (me), coke for Kris, and milk tea for me.  Almost as amazing as that cold chili mac at the top of the mountain!

I would have to say that this expedition was, hands down, the hardest thing I've done in my life.  Both, physically and mentally.  The ascent was tough.  But, I was so excited to be climbing Fuji that I powered through.  I stopped when I needed to get some air or food.  Mostly, though, I found my walking/climbing groove and stuck to it.  The whole new station, old station, half station thing toward the top, after the sun went down, and as it was getting pretty windy and chilly...that messed so much with my brain!  It was hard for my mind to reconcile that I was only 400 meters from the top but it was still going to take me a couple hours to get there!  Then, add to that the fact that after the 8.5 station we actually had to climb parts of the mountain...not just walk up a path.  We had to climb boulders, in the dark, when we were exhausted.  Telling my body to just climb this little section and then regroup was incredibly hard.  

Not being prepared for the conditions at the top is what did me in, though.  I thought I did everything right when it came to the clothes.... synthetic shirt, long sleeve sweatshirt, fleece, and then a raincoat on top of all that; along with running pants, long johns, hiking pants, and rain pants.  It wasn't enough to shield me from the tortuous weather at the top.  At some point in the night my mind just shut down.  I couldn't figure out how much time was passing.  I couldn't say more than yes and no to Kris' questions.  I couldn't even stand up on my own.  I was totally dependent on Kris.  And, he rose to the challenge, even while he battled the elements himself.  

After that rough night, the hike down was pure and total torture!  The clouds obscured any view we would have had of the bottom.  Every inch of us was wet.  I was getting filthy from falling over and over again.  My gloves were shredded, so my hands were freezing and dirty.  Then, the angle of the descent killed my feet and my knees.  Finally finding level ground was enough to make me cry.  Ok...that wasn't such a stretch on this trip, because I'm sure I cried more in those 30 hours than I have in the last five months.  

As of this writing, I'm still not sure how I feel about this climb.  It's sort of like this adventure has a before and an after.  There is that one pivotal point where I can say, "That's where everything changed."  There seems to be three parts to this journey for me.  

I have the first part of the hike where I was hot and sweaty, then chilly but excited, then exhausted but triumphant.  I was excited to take pictures.  It was encouraging to see the torii marking the next station.  It was thrilling to finally get above the clouds to see the ground below.  I enjoyed sitting with the Hubs at each station and scarfing down handfuls of trail mix and talking about how crazy this climb was while we looked down at what we had accomplished so far, and looked up to what was to come.  On the way up we pointed out different features of the mountain to each other.  I chatted with different people on the way up.  We smiled and laughed.  It was a difficult but wondrous journey!

Then, the summit happened.  

The summit nearly broke me.  If it wasn't for that man I fell in love with, that man I would follow to the end of the earth, that man who saw I was in trouble and did all he could, who stood in the rain while I huddled and cried under a tarp, the man who said to me at the bottom of the mountain, "I'm proud of you," I don't know if I would have come back down that mountain.  

From there, it was quite literally, all downhill.  My muscles were exhausted.  My brain was exhausted.  My emotions were exhausted.  Those four hours down were more painful than the 8 it took me to get up.  There were several times I had to say to myself:  "No, you can not just lay down here.  There is no way to get down if you stop here."  The strength it took to force myself through the pain to get to the bottom came from a place inside me I never knew existed.  

The Japanese have a saying, "A wise man will climb Mt Fuji once; a fool will climb Mt Fuji twice."  I can totally understand why anyone would say, "never again" after the cold and pain I encountered.  However, I can also see how some would want to climb again.  I didn't get the beautiful sunrise I was hoping to see.  I would love to get that view, to experience that beauty.  But, I'm pretty sure I would never, ever do that again!

Never say never....right?  

A little cute-ness to end this post...while we were conquering this beast, our kids were having a blast with the Hogans!  Thanks for the shots during our hike, Mary Kay!  

Good times at the park

Taking time to run through the sunflowers near Camp Zama (Army)!