Climbing Mt. Fuji

Brian R. Smith climbs Japan's Mt. Fuji during the summer of 2002 with German colleague Thomas Barlen. This is a complete travelogue of his experience with a detailed narrative and exceptional photos. In English.

Well, I did it! I climbed the 3,776 meter (12,388 feet) Mt. Fuji with another IBMer by the name of Thomas Barlen. This was a spectacular accomplishment for me and one that I will remember my entire life.

At 8:00 AM and in sweltering heat Thomas and I walked to the Makuhari train station. Right on Tokyo bay Makuhari was already in the 90's (F) and was very humid. Ayami Ohhira, who had climbed Mt. Fuji before, had given us some advice and offered to meet us at the train station to guide us through Tokyo station. Tokyo station is huge - with many layers of trains and subways all coming into one hive's nest of activity. Thomas and I arrived and found Ayami - but she apologized as she could not show us the way. She had to go into work that day.

But, Ayami had the day before created an itinerary that called for us to take a train to Tokyo station, then Shin Juku station. Then, she had reserved a bus seat for us to the Yoshida go-go-me (or fifth level station) at 2300 meters (7475 feet). One other reservation that she made was at a hut at the top of the eight level named Fuji-san at 3250 meters (10,000 feet). A one kilometer (0.6 mile) vertical hike was to be our (lofty) goal for the day! If you are interested in climbing Mt. Fuji yourself - this page, which includes safety guidance, might be useful.

The Japanese have sliced Mt. Fuji into 10 levels of about 320 meters each. You can basically drive to the 5th level at four points on the mountain. Each of these points is a starting and ending place for either day trips of casual hikers or the 'go to the top and over-night it crowd' like us.

Undaunted, Thomas and I caught our JR (Japanese Railroad) train for Tokyo station. But, we had left enough time to easily catch our connecting train to Shin Juku on the west side of Tokyo.

There we pulled out the map and a compass and navigated to the bus terminal. Bought our tickets and waited about an hour for the bus to board and leave for Mt. Fuji. We were told that due to traffic that we would not get to the go-go-me at 2:00 PM, but at around 4:00 PM. We were already told by the Fuji-san hut that we had better climb swiftly to make it on time - so Thomas and I agreed to start climbing as soon as we arrived at the go-go-me instead of taking an hour or so to acclimate to the altitude.

But, as luck would have it (and our luck was with us the entire weekend) the bus did not get too caught up in the jams on the highway. In fact, we arrived at 2:00 PM at the go-go-me. It took 15 minutes to go the last 50 meters, as a long line of buses where dropping off hundreds and thousands of climbers.

One of the facts of this weekend is that it was a holiday in Japan and most everybody had the day off. That meant that at all times we had to climb with, past and through thousands of other climbers.

2:20 PM Start climbing Mt. Fuji

We left the go-go-me and unceremoniously join the stream of people either out for an afternoon trek on the side of Mt. Fuji or with the purpose to climb her. The starting altitude is 2300 meters (7475 feet). Or, about 2000 feet above Denver. One comment I made to Thomas was that the last tourist shop on the way out (or the first on the way back!) sold ice cream. This was to be an important motivator on the way down!

Start of the adventure at the Yosida go-go-me (fifth level).  Thomas on the left and Brian on the right.

At first the trail is quite easy. With up hills, down hills and level spots. The path was wide, easy, and in some cases protected by trees. Very nice. The view - awesome. We could already see miles around the surrounding area as the visibility was excellent. Just a few clouds at about our altitude played with the wind and the sun. The view up was awesome too. The mountain loomed above us, tall as ever. No visible hiking trail could be seen from the go-go-me and as it turned out the up and down trails where over a ridge that was about a 2 kilometer hike away. The air up at the go-go-me was already cooler. It was warm - but the breeze had that hint of chill in it. It felt very good and so did we so we climbed.

But soon, it took a turn for the 'up hill' and started a long and never ending series of switch backs. These switchbacks were, for the most part, carved out of the mountain and then supported from erosion by massive retaining walls of rocks and support structures. The crowd was thick enough that it was hard for us to pass anybody. But, when we could, we sped up and passed on the 'shoulder' of the path. In this way we made good time but still slowed down to 'catch our breath'. In many places the switchbacks gave away to a vertical climb. I guess the vertical climb is the best way to make vertical-distance - but it sure tires you out fast.

Brian's back and view of rocky climb

At various points along these switch backs nestled into the very side of the mountain where a series of huts. On our map they were called hotels. Must have been a crude joke or simply a bad translation. Even if a road could have been carved up the side of the mountain to one of these huts they should not even have been called a motel. For the traveling individual they offer a place to take a break. For 100 yen (90 cents) you can relieve yourself in an extremely foul smelling outhouse. For maybe double or triple the going Tokyo rate you can buy supplies ranging from water, soda, snacks and other hiking gear like canisters of oxygen. In fact, we saw quite a few hikers carrying their own oxygen bottles and using them regularly. Also, at each of these huts there will be an old man with an iron in a pail of hot coals. It was exactly as I had pictured. For a mere 200 yen ($1.80) he would brand your pine hiking stick with proof that you had attained a certain go-me (or level).

In the previous year I had driven with a group to another go-go-me to see Mt. Fuji up close and personal. This was an 'off season' visit in May. For reasons I will never understand - the mountain became angry with us and it started to rain, snow, hail in a heavy fog (we where actually within a cloud). We we felt our way back to the car and the go-go-me tourist shop. I bought two of these lightweight pine hiking sticks as gifts for Alex and Lauren. Of course, they had only the brands for the first five levels - so I brought them with me from Rochester with the plan to have them branded up the side of the mountain and at the top. I carried them in my backpack as they were too short to be useful.

All the time the air was getting thinner and thinner. Not that you could all of a sudden notice it, but we had to start taking short breaks to catch our breath. It was like your heart was going to explode and you could not get enough oxygen in. This slowed us down a bit, but we kept on climbing.

5:45 PM Arrival at Fuji-san hut

We made it! And, yes, we are very tired! You can see in the picture a hint of sweat on my cheek. At the time this picture was taken it is starting to get quite cold and windy. Note to self: pack warmer clothes.

Thomas and Brian make it to the Fuji-san hut at the eight level (3250 meters or 10,000 feet)

In terms of accomplishments we had climbed over 1000 meters (a kilometer or .6 miles) vertically in about 3.5 hours. From the time we really started to ascend each and every step was an up step. I cannot even begin to estimate how many 'horizontal' kilometers we hiked. But, I will try. How about 10. Not too far - but it was vertical climb that was the killer. Here is a picture of the 'hut' complex from above that Thomas took on the way down:

View of Fujisan "hotel" from above

While we were still catching our breath at the landing of the hut the old man who did the hiking stick branding mentioned a name. No, we shook our heads. And, even before we could give him our names he said, 'Thomas - American?' We said, 'hai' and we knew we had made it to the right place. Yes!

Now, I had been keeping a log of our accomplishments on a safety guide (that was quite useful for knowing where you were on the side of that big mountain). It was a useful tool to keep track of our pace and, if needed, could have helped in an emergency to help locate us on the side of this very big mountain. And, I had been asking all along where we were and we knew that this hut should have been Fuji-san. So, not a big surprise - but a big relief!

Let me describe the hut. First of all, it was rather big. But, big in terms of a hut. It had many levels all built into the side of the mountain. Most, if not all, of the structures were sleeping bunks. One would be the foul smelling toilet (Thomas would always tell me that we were coming up on a hut as he would smell it first!). The old man selling the brands would sit right outside the 'main entrance'. Near that would be a window from which they would sell you water, snacks, or oxygen. Behind that was the kitchen were hot and cold foods were made. Most were wood construction with a corrugated steel roof held down with volcanic stones. Lots of stone walls and stone steps to make it easier to climb around. But, I would say that 90% of this tiered structure was the bunk beds.

Unlike a normal Japanese house (or American wannabies) you could enter the main room with your boots on. We asked, of course. Now, I have not mentioned this yet - but by this time Thomas and I are covered from head to toe with a thick layer of volcanic dust. A thick redish-black dust. And, so was everybody else. So, taking off your boots would not have really helped much because if you simply sneezed you would be obscured by a cloud of dust like Pigpen of the old Peanuts cartoon.

They did ask that when we went up to the sleeping area that we take our boots off and place them in a plastic bag. Maybe it helped a bit - but the sleeping quarters were equally dusty.

Our sleeping quarters had a single north/south lane down the middle of the hut with a row of bunks to the west and east. Thomas and I were shown our spots numbered 24 and 25. We each had a hook on the wall for the ubiquitous backpack. And, that, ended the tour. Not much to show. Even when we arrived we saw many people already trying to nap. It is said that you do not sleep in one of these mount Fuji huts - you nap.

6:00 PM Supper at Fuji-san hut

The supper was very good. Nothing better than a big hot bowl of rice with curry sauce after climbing a mountain all afternoon. That, and hot tea (from tea leaves that had been used since the 1980's) made for a good meal. We met two older Japanese couples. I can honestly say that our Japanese was much better than their English. Even so, we made pleasant 'conversation' involving pig-language talk. Bits of both languages thrown together with sign language for an accent. It was fun. And, we also saw them again up on top of the mountain while we were eating our breakfast. They saw us and greeted Thomas and I. We could not recognize them at first as they had covered their heads to keep out the dust and the cold. Besides, who would we know on the top of a mountain in Japan!

At Fujisan hotel: Brian's Curry rice dinner At Fujisan hotel: Thomas's Curry rice dinner

The supper was light for a hungry German and American, however. So after dinner Thomas and I broke out our food and drink supply to augment the curry rice. Thomas had lugged up for us a bottle of red wine. We did not know if it was OK to open it inside the hut (it was rather chilly outside in the wind) so I asked. 'Hai', was the answer - but if too many customers came in then we would have to leave. So, Thomas popped the cork and we toasted to each other for making it this far. We also broke out some of our snacks like beef jerky, cheese, and shredded dried fish strips. The fish strips really did not go with wine. We shared our bounty with the staff of the hut and other travellers.

Then, we were told that more customers where coming in. So, Thomas put the cork in the wine bottle and hid it. He thought that the problem would be if too many people saw us drinking the wine. The actual problem was that the space we were using was part of their greeting process. We left the main room.

Let me take this time to tell you that we really did not see all that many foreigners. Yes, there were many - but in terms of a percentage of the overall population - I would say something less than 1%. Definitely the exception. We did met French, Chinese (1), Swiss Germans, a Canadian, Indian, south-east Asian's (Hong Kong, Singapore, etc), Australians, and quite a few Americans. Seems some naval ship was in port and many teams of two were spending their shore leave doing the same thing we had in mind. Fools.

It was soon after supper when we saw something awesome. We were on the east side of Mt. Fuji to give us the best view of the sunrise. But, unexpectedly, the sunset in the west cast a shadow of Mt. Fuji on the valley, a few low clouds, and smaller mountains to our feet. It was a very special view of Fuji-san that you can only see from its heights - not from the valley below. Awesome.

The shadow of Mt. Fuji from 10,000 feet (Brian and Thomas)

8:00 PM Lights out at Fuji-san hut

When we climbed into our designated spot in the long bunk bed in the Fuji-san 'hotel' we found that our neighbors (two Japanese women from different groups) had already 'migrated' towards each other. That left about one 'space' for the two of us. No matter, Thomas climbed in and gave a little shove to the left and I climbed in and gave a little shove to the right. Thomas's head was facing west as so was my 'partner' to the north so I opted to move my pillow to where Thomas's feet were (east). Luckily, the Japanese woman was fairly short so her feet only made it to my chest. With Thomas, I was, ahh, not so lucky (smile).

I would say that our sleeping quarters were two meters long (about 6' 6") and about half a meter wide (1.5 feet). If you look at the backpacks hung on the wall - each person is given a back-pack's width... that is all! Mine is blue and Thomas's is red (right behind me). It was tight.

Fujisan hut: Tight living space

And, I found the futon like tick was very heavy. I still had my cloths on and it was too hot under all the layers.

10:30 PM Night views

I could not get to sleep right away with all the activities of the day and the cramped quarters in the hut. So, at around 10:30 PM I took a little walk. I did grab my tooth brush and take care of some business (for a 100 yen). Still, even at 10:30 PM a constant stream of people (although, slow at times) was making their way up the mountain. From my eagles view of the entire trail I could see a continuous stream of lights heading up the mountain. Many colors of lights could be seen with yellows, reds, bright blue (halogen?). Some had fluorescent glow sticks so people would not get separated and others had bright flashing LED wands to keep a tour group advancing. They slowly snaked their way up the mountain like a slow dragon's crawl. It was another, of many, awesome sights.

At about midnight, or so, I finally fell asleep.

1:00 AM Wake up call

Yes, 1:00 AM.

For those of you who know me know that I can go without sleep for a long time without (much) troubles. My record is about 60 hours without sleep. For those of you who know me also know that I really like to be sleeping at 1:00 AM.

Everybody in the hut had elected to be woken up at 1:00 AM to continue the hike up the mountain in the darkness. The goal - to reach the top to greet the sun rise. They did this by turning on the lights and then calling out each groups name. He had a hard time doing this with Thomas's name - for some reason. But no matter, with tired legs and arms we climbed down from our communal bunk and mustered in the main room of the hut.

For Thomas and I all we did was secure our boots (Thomas had tennis shoes which did OK, but I would recommend hiking boots) to our feet and headlamps to our hats. The weather was cold in the 50s and windy, but with the constant effort of climbing we never got cold during this last 400 vertical meters of our ascent. No clouds were visible and you could see 'forever'.

It took us some 5 minutes to merge with the ever constant stream of individuals heading up the mountain. Two abreast we would take a few steps and then pause for some number of seconds. No chance of passing as the trail was only two people wide. No hand railings, of course, made the shoulder of the path one big fall. You would not actually fall far down the mountain - but would have bounced a few times on the sharp volcanic rock before hitting the first switch back and the people below you. Definitely not good form. Passing was not an option. And, besides, there was no place to pass to as the line had no gaps.

I spent the time gazing around with my head lamp illuminating things. Like rocks. Many interesting rock features up there that I could only guess at. I also studied the stars. I saw Orion rise up in the east which is a good sign this time of year that the sun will be soon behind. I could not find the big dipper and hence the north pole. I think the big dipper could have been below the horizon as the north pole will be very near to the horizon itself. Also, we could see down the entire side of the mountain and see an solid and endless flow of humans with head lamps slowly making progress up. Near to what we guessed was the top was a collection of illuminated flags that, step-by-step seemed to actually get closer and closer.

Other than that, Thomas and I chatted a few times. All up and down the line of humans was a number of individuals that were calling out all sorts of things in Japanese. Now, Thomas and I could not understand one word, but they kept on yelling. Our guesses included that they were mustering groups that had been torn apart by the crowd or were calling out advice or encouragement. One of my better 'jokes' was when the line stopped again I said, 'Thomas, did you hear what he said? He said the top of the mountain is full and we all have to turn around and go back.' OK, not too funny, but I was fairly tired by that point.

Normally it would be 80 minutes from our Fuji-san hut to the summit. It took us 2.5 hours one step at a time. This actually worked out fine. The pace was slow enough that we never really ran out of breath and fast enough to keep us warm. And, we had plenty of time to make the top. I felt sorry for the thousands below us that would never make it in time.

3:30 AM: At the top of Mt. Fuji!

We made it!

Another awesome picture shows the growing crowd and the growing light in the east. It is not sunrise yet... but will be in a few moments.

At the top of Mt. Fuji: A flash illuminates the entrance gate

4:30 AM: Sunrise in the land of the rising sun

Wow. The sunrise was awesome. Here is the first sliver of red light. It actually started lower than we all expected. Notice the thin layer of clouds that seemed like the horizon before the sun peeked through. I had my eyes nailed to the horizon and was the first to see it! I then excitedly raised my arm and pointed for Thomas to take this picture. When I told this story to one of my Japanese friends his comment was, 'Everybody thinks they saw the sunrise first.' Hmm, nicely put.

At the top of Mt. Fuji: First light!

Not only that, but the chill that had been in the air is now gone. The warmth from the sun was incredible. We went from shaking chills to complete warmth in the matter of minutes.

At the top of Mt. Fuji: Thomas and Brian

Here is my favorite shot of the sunrise. It is now my background image on my PC!

At the top of Mt. Fuji: Beautiful sunrise

We pushed (I have never seen a mountain so crowded! - smile) our way through some tourist shops at the top of the mountain. Everybody had a backpack on, of course, and it made it quite difficult to keep moving. Amongst them was a shrine and within the monks who make their money by selling prayers to the tourists. Hey, monks have to eat too. They, for 350 yen each (total of 6 dollars or so), gave the kids their final bright red brand on the hiking sticks. Proof that they (I chose not to be branded!) had made the journey all the way up the side of Mt. Fuji. You will notice the hiking sticks sticking out of the backpack that was attached to my back the entire way up.

One of the things I collect are pictures of me juggling in strange places. Here is a shot from the top of Mt. Fuji. Behind me is the crater (which is very deep and steep). Far behind is a weather station that is actually perched on the highest point of Mt. Fuji. BTW - the other thing I collect is sand. I now have some Mt. Fuji volcanic dust and small rocks.

At the top of Mt. Fuji: Brian juggling at the rim of the crater

It is a 1.4 kilometer (a bit less than one mile) hike around the outside perimeter of the mountain. Some of the best views are had from this height. Here are a couple of tourists perched on a high spot on the west side of the mountain.

At the top of Mt. Fuji: Brian and Thomas (camera is facing west)

08:00 AM The climb down

Down was a long way. Here is a picture of the down path. This is really a series of 30 or so switchbacks that have been carved into the side of the mountain by heavy machinery. The path is wide but very loose with volcanic dust, pebbles and stones. Each step you take allows you to slide an extra foot or so. Going down does not take too long as we seem to never run out of breath. Only, the constant down pressure aggravates an old "war injury" of mine in my right knee. Nothing critical... but I have to ask Thomas to take a break with me every few switchbacks to give my knee a rest. The 'bottom' of the mountain is that little white building near the right hand side of the picture at about the same vertical height as the Yosida go-go-me (or fifth level station) that we started at. By the way... Thomas took this picture when we were already about 1/2 way down!

This picture is of the many switch backs for the down path

Even when we had made it 'down' to about the fifth level we still had to hike a few kilometers (maybe a mile or mile and a half) to get back to the go-go-me that we started from. These last steps were very hard. The sun hot and the wind warm. About the only thing keeping us going was the thought of having that ice cream when we got back to the tourist shop. We did and we did. I can not tell you how much the ice cream cost - money was not important at that moment.

The entire climb down took just 3.5 hours even with the numerous breaks for my knee.

Then, the business of getting back to Makuhari. Bus, then bus; train then train. Here is a final shot of Mt. Fuji from Kawaguchiko, a small city at the foothills of Mt. Fuji, where we had lunch before boarding a bus to Tokyo. We climbed to the top of that thing? Hai!

Final photo of Mt. Fuji from a small town of Kawaguchiko

Would I do it again? Most likely not! As the Japanese say, 'A wise man climbs Mt. Fuji, but only a fool climbs it twice.'

Cool links

Of interest

Change history
  • Created 2003Apr23
  • Modified 2007Jul27 (added a safety guide)
  • Comments to christmaswhistler@gmail.com