Goodness me but that was a slog...
22 1/2 hours, 55kms, 0-to-3,718m, very sore feet!
So Ryo and I met at Shinjuku and took various local trains to Numazu. On the train we met a 3 year old girl named Roxy and her mum, Roxy immediately started firing questions at us about where we were going and why, I think she thought we were crazy, but it turned out that her mum lived in the same town that Ryo lived in when he was a student in Southern California, talk about a small world.
We arrived in Numazu at about 6.00pm, we had arranged to meet up with fellow sea-to-summiter (and Embassy warden, hence how I know him) Tom Wragg and his group from RBS, but before that we went in search of supplies for the following day. Walking around the north side of Numazu station we were struck by the number of 'Soap-lands', sort of soft-core gentlemens' relaxation establishments, quite out of proportion to the size of the town, but there you go.
Supplies bought we headed to dinner, here we met Tom plus the others climbing with him (Jamie, Fillipo, Tony, Furukawa san (possibly his name, he didn't say much) and their support crew of Yoshimi, Claudie (Jamie's wife) and their 3 kids, the two older ones climbed from the 5th station). Dinner was very pleasant and chatty, a few beers were consumed to up the calorie count for the next day and we felt very bullish for the coming challenge. There was a bit of concern about the weather - we didn't want it clear and sunny as it would be far too hot, but then again we didn't want too much cloud cover and climbing all the way to the top without being able to see anything would be a bit of a let down, which looked a distinct possibility at that time.
Saturday morning and afternoon
Up at 5am and bags packed, my hiking bag felt surprisingly heavy with food, water, waterproofs, camera and various electronic doohickeys, but thought I'd go for it anyway. When we left the hotel the cloud was very low and definitely rain in the air - not an auspicious start. We also bought more food from a convenience store on the way to the station, which meant I had, for Saturday, up to dinner, homemade trail mix (nuts and dried fruit), M&Ms, energy jelly packs, onigiri rice balls and a big sandwich for lunch, some beef jerky, caloriemate energy bars, a couple of bananas and 2L of water. The 5.40 train from Numazu probably only has about 3 people on it on a normal Saturday morning (soap land workers going home most likely!) but this Saturday morning it was taken over by about 60 climbers, mostly foreign but a few Japanese in there as well, all squeezed on (it was only a 2 carriage job) in various states of excitement or not-yet-awake-ness.
At Higashi Tagonoura we all got off and met with the organisers (the peerless and boundlessly energetic and enthusiastic Joe Pournovin) for registration and the dumping of additional bags in the van which we would meet up with later to swap gear. Also met Ben Cordier, a friend who we would walk with quite a lot of the way, especially the final ascent. Then it was a short walk (the only one of the weekend!) to the beach. Here we had a speech by Joe and then filled a PET bottle with seawater to carry to the top, it's a tradition to symbolise something or other apparently, probably how crazy it is to walk up Mt Fuji from miles away. Still, as Joe said, 99.8% of people start climbing from one of the 5th stations about the mountain, that made us the 0.02%, which was kind of cool (figures subject to confirmation). As we set off the cloud looked a bit thinner and the rain in the air was gone, which lifted spirits.
The first part was flat, walking through the houses and businesses of downtown Higashi Tagonoura (not literally through, obviously). It was pleasant in an easy strolling sort of way, but I quickly noticed that my rucksack was making my shoulders ache more than it should, I mean, it shouldn't have been making them ache at all. After about 4km we saw the van and I took the decision to dump my camera, it was too big and heavy and I should have left it at home and taken a smaller one, but you live and learn. Immediately the rucksack felt better but still not as good as it should have, and it was only after another few kilometers that I undid all the straps and started again and realised I had had the shoulder straps too tight and the hip strap too loose, so not only did I have all the weight on my shoulders but they were also being pulled too far backwards. Doh! Once rearranged the pack felt much better and I probably could have kept the camera, although space-wise later it was probably a good shout not to carry it again.
During this time we passed under the Tokkaido Shinkansen line and also both the old and new Tomei expressways. It was a shame in one way that it was so cloudy as the shinkansen passes on an elevated track in front of Fuji, so it could have been one of those iconic photos of Japan (had I had a camera with me!), but on the other had it was going to get hard enough without 35 degree heat and 90% humidity, so we were quite happy (it was a pleasant 25 degrees or so with no humidity, perfect for walking).
Then it was onwards to the first real marker of the walk, a 7-11 convenience store at about the 10km mark. This was the last official convenience store of the walk so if you wanted to buy extra food this was the place to do it, but as we knew that we didn't plan to buy anything there in case it was all gone, which it did very quickly. As it was only 10km in the group of 70 or so hikers was all still relatively close together so the most popular thing in the convenience store was the toilet, queuing for this was great preparation for later in the hike.
By this stage we were starting to climb, not a lot but the gradient was beginning to increase. A bit more past houses and the first small tea fields and then we joined Route 24. This was part of a big sort of ring-road that goes around the base of Fuji to the south and so from about 11km to 20km, where we passed Fuji Kids' World) we had to walk on a narrow verge beside thundering trucks where the road wasn't quite wide enough for two lanes of traffic and pedestrians to pass at the same time (probably because the road planners didn't think anyone would be stupid enough to walk up that particular bit of road!). This was, I think, the only bit of the whole trip where I felt in danger of any sort as it wouldn't have taken a slightly preoccupied truck driver much to get a bit too close to the verge on a tight corner to accidentally clip someone, but luckily we all made it through. Pretty much all the way along this section was on a 10% incline, enough to make you sweat but we were still going strong.
Just after Kids' World, at the 21km mark, we had our second break. Here we fed and watered and took our boots off to dry out feet. So far so good at this point - my shoulder ache was long since gone and all other bits were in good working order. Now we turned left and headed into a very pleasant area of holiday homes and small pensions, much nicer than walking alongside trucks on the expressway but it was only after about 2km we then joined up with the Minami Fuji Green Line/Mt Fuji Skyline. This had the feel of one of those old sightseeing roads, perhaps it still is, but for the time we were on it hardly any cars passed us, though that could have been because you couldn't see the sight of Mt Fuji, so paying to use to toll road with no view would, I admit, have been pointless. We started in this road at about 11am, from here it was one way to the official rest stop and van meet at Mizugatsuka car park. Again this section was about 10km in length and took us 2 hours up a winding 1-in-10 incline; very few cars and no trucks, which was good, but lots of trees so not much of a view, which wasn't. On the way through we passed the Mt Fuji Yeti ski resort (closed, obviously) and the Grinpa amusement park.
We reached Mizugatsuka after 8 hours and about 32km, by which time we had climbed 1,400m. Here we stopped for lunch proper and a rest and also met the van for our equipment swap. For me that meant changing out of my current clothes, basically my running gear which I wore as I figured it would be hot and this was best dealing with sweat, and into more normal hiking gear (leggings and hiking-shorts), plus we also had to take everything else we would need for the night, so more layers of fleeces and things and all the food we wanted to take with us. You can buy food on Fuji in the huts and especially the 5th station, but it's expensive so I reckoned it would be better to carry what I needed, so more of the same plus a bag of butter rolls (literally a bread roll with a pat of butter in the middle) and a jar of pate for my dinner (carbs and protein, good combo I figured). I thought long and hard about the camera but after all the clothes and food were in my pack there wasn't really the space, a shame but there you go. Here I also took stock of my body, as it were - coming up the Fuji Skyline my left hip and ankle/shin had begun to hurt, as well as the sole of my right foot. The right foot pain turned out to be a long, thin blister running to the left of the ball of my foot, so I popped that bugger with much satisfaction and immediately felt better. The hip/ankle was more of a worry as it was joint pain rather than muscle pain, but I figured a) there wasn't much I could do about it and b) it was probably due to walking on hard concrete for 32km, though unfortunately we now had another 15km on hard concrete to go...
So, ready and prepared we headed off into the mist as we were now very much into the cloud line, it wasn't raining but it was all very damp. The next section was from the car park to Fujinomiya 5th Station - along the Mt Fuji Skyline (route 152 for those interested) for a bit before turning right and going up the 5th station access road which was closed to cars, only buses and the odd taxi allowed. The first 2km along the Skyline was OK as it was basically flat though it was very misty so cars didn't have much time to see you, but they were generally being sensible and driving slowly so not quite as nerve-wracking as route 24 earlier.
From turning right it was 13 kilometers and 1,000m up. As we started on this part the clouds became thicker and effectively became rain, though not really rain dropping on your head but rain all around you, so it didn't really make you feel wet but then you checked your rucksack and it was sopping.
This was a 'proper' mountain road, like the sort you see Chris Froome bombing up on the TdF (we saw a few cyclists coming down), so lots of hairpins and doubling back on yourself. We were basically alone as all the hikers were quite strung out (physically and probably mentally) now and I have to say this section was hard going. My hip was hurting quite a lot now, Ryo told me I wasn't walking properly but then nor was he as his groin was hurting, though my feet felt fine. The really 'up' bit was the last 10km and whilst that should have meant a reasonably gentle 10% incline like before, this bugger was a *lot* steeper in places, no, a lot steeper for most of the way.
It was hard, painful and demoralising.
It took 3 hours 45 minutes to do that 15km, so by the time we arrived at the 5th station we had walked 48km in just under 12 hours, climbing 2,400m along the way. As we came around the final hairpin below the station the clouds, which had been thinning for the last 30 minutes or so, finally disappeared above us to give clear blue skies and a nearly full moon. We had made it.
Saturday night and Sunday morning
We arrived at 6.45pm and headed straight to the restaurant, Ryo wanted curry rice and I, even though I had food in my pack, fancied something hot. As we passed the door one of the staff put a closed sign up, not a good sign as it were, as the restaurant stopped serving at 7pm. In the restaurant there was a quite a long queue that wasn't really moving at all; the rumour was that once it hit 7pm on the dot the staff stopping serving and anyone in the queue was out of luck. At 7.05 no word but at 7.15 on the kitchen ladies came out and said 'That's it, no more'. In the near riot that ensued, mostly Japanese and the odd foreigner, I think the kitchen staff realised that in this instance discretion would probably be the better part of valour and agreed to serve anyone in queue, so Ryo happily got his curry though in the end I didn't bother and just ate my bread and pate. However to get their own back the kitchen ladies, as soon as they had handed over the last bowl of ramen, started shouting that the restaurant was closed and everyone had to leave, so the last unlucky bloke had to wolf down a boiling bowl of noodles, probably burning his throat, before it was whisked away from under his nose.
The plan was to depart the 5th station at 9.30pm, this would give us about 7 hours to climb to the peak, 1,300m above us. Fujinomiya 5th Station is the highest of the 4 stations and we felt that 7 hours was too much time (some left even earlier), also Ryo, who has climbed Fuji before, said 7 hours was plenty from other 5th stations which are lower down the mountain than Fujinomiya. So we rested for about an hour, trying to sleep but actually just dozing as it was brightly lit, busy and chilly on the balcony. At 9pm I started to get ready; the blister on my right foot wasn't hurting as such, but I put a big plaster on it to give it some protection and wound surgical tape around my foot a couple of times to keep it in place, then did the same for my left foot, just in case. My hip was already feeling much better, I'm glad to say, I think it was impact of walking on hard concrete/asphalt for so long that made it painful; a few hours rest and then walking on the crumbly Fuji surface was a lot better for it. Just in case I also took a bufferin (aspirin) tablet and made Ryo take on as well for his groin. And then we started out on the last leg.
In the past people have described climbing Mt Fuji as a long, boring slog up a scree slope and to a large extent I think they're right. We left at about 9.45pm and basically it was exactly the same until 5am next morning, though I will concede that it's probably because we were climbing at night so there wasn't much to see - though coming down the following morning there wasn't much to see either! The climb has now kind of blurred into one due to the lack of distinguishing features/events, in fact I think the authorities built the stations along the way to break up the monotony.
About the stations. On the Fujinomiya trail there are the following stations:
6th at 2,500m - drinks machine and toilets
New 7th at 2,780m - drinks machine and toilets
Old 7th at 3,010m - only a dormitory as far as I can tell, for people to walk up in the afternoon and then set off again at midnight to catch the sunrise (cheating, if you ask me)
8th at 3,250m - drinks machine, toilets and a doctor
9th at 3,460m - drinks machine, toilet, dorm and restaurant
9.5th at 3,590m - drinks machine and toilets
Trail summit at 3,718m
Supplying these stations with food, drinks and water must be a hell of a job and is the reason everything is so expensive, 500yen for a bottle of water. Also goodness knows how the staff at the 9th station restaurant get to work in the morning! I guess they must stay up there for several days at a time, which seems like a weird way to live your life, but each to their own. Anyway they do a fantastic job and even if their stuff is expensive you don't begrudge it as if you need it you'll pay for it.
Sometimes we climbed with other sea-to-summiters on our ascent, at other times by ourselves, though when I say "by ourselves" I mean along with thousands of other people climbing the mountain. We had hoped that the cloudy wet weather below would have deterred others from climbing but no such luck, it was packed. In a way this was good as it meant you had to go slowly, or at the same pace as everyone else, as it was a narrow trail so you couldn't push past other climbers (although some did and occasionally got told off by other climbers) - so the actual ascent wasn't really that hard work; I wasn't ever as out of breath as I've been when climbing much lower mountains in, say, the Lake District, for example, as you couldn't take more than about 10 paces before stopping and waiting for a few seconds, effectively having a break every minute. That said we were tired from Saturday's exertions and tired as it was midnight so it wasn't easy; a couple of times Ryo fell asleep on his feet and bumped into the person in front of him!
5th to 6th was easy so we pushed straight on the 7th, passing s-t-s'ers having a break. We took a break at the new 7th as it felt like a long haul, trail mix and M&Ms eaten. No real reason to stop at the old 7th but as we had a short break we watched as a climbing group got up from their sleeping bags and get ready to leave - this group was led by a female guide with a piercing voice, the group name was Takoyaki (as in fried octopus dumplings) and whenever she shouted "Takoyaki Ganbarimashou!" (Go for it Takoyaki group) the refrain she got in return was a couple of lacklustre groans and a deflated "Ganbarimasu". Poor show Takoyaki, we decided.
Old 7th to 8th was hard going so we stopped for a break there, got 5 minutes to shut our eyes. Then 8th to 9th felt like it went on forever so at the 9th we stopped for a bit longer and went to the restaurant, I had a hot chocolate and Ryo some soup as we both needed something hot - met a lot of s-t-s'ers there all doing the same, looking knackered and out of it, as we did, but still going, as we were.
Leaving the 9th station was slow going as it seemed there were two lines of climbers trying to get into single file, like a road filter system, and then the Takoyakis added a third line with the guide trying to make sure they were all there and then to get them all climbing at the same time (but of course the other two lines of climbers weren't about to stop and let 15 others in front of them). So anyway it was a bit of a log jam at that point and from there onwards it was very slow. We had been told to leave the 9th by 2.30am at the latest, but the time we had taken thus far wasn't too bad so we left about 2.45 - the signboards said it should take 1 hour from there to the summit, so even though it was busy we figured even if it took 90-100 minutes we'd be ok to be at the summit for sunrise...
Oh how wrong we were. The final ascent took about 2 and-a-half-hours and the last part, from just above the 9.5th station, we were stationary for about 30 minutes, watching the sky get gradually lighter. I don't really understand how a queue can stop moving unless the whole of the top of the mountain was covered in people and there was literally nowhere else to stand, but there you go, it was so.
So we didn't make it to the top to see the sunrise, but we did make it to the top some 22 and-a-half-hours after we had got our feet wet collecting water on the beach at Higashi Tagonoura. At the top Ryo lay down for a sleep whilst I sat there vacantly for 10 minutes, not really feeling anything except 'that was a bloody long way, and we've got to go all the way down soon...' Then we roused ourselves to find the Sea-to-Summit gang and ceremonially pour our seawater into the crater (though some of mine was blown over Ryo in the wind). Hopefully a photo to follow of that bit. Also glad to say I didn't feel even one tinge of altitude sickness, probably on account having to go up so slowly.
We didn't make it the absolute peak of 3,776m and the ramen shop, we took a look at that bit of the peak, and the queues going up it, and thought 'bugger that' and decided to head down. We didn't really spend a lot of time at the top in the end - it was cold and windy and we really wanted some food, so we figured we'd head down to the 9th station restaurant and get something there. Something turned out to be not very nice curry-udon (a type of thick noodle), but it was warm and filling.
Then it was back down to the 5th station - this took about 3 hours all told, a couple of breaks on the way. I thought this was going to be the hardest part, especially on the knees and thighs, but actually it wasn't that bad. Again at times it was slow going as we got held up by slower descenders, but this time it was acceptable to go past them, also the ground was quite gravelly which was easier on your legs. It was hot going down but we still saw loads of people going up, including families with kids younger than Marcus, that must be hard work for under-10s!
So we got down for just after 10am, caught the 10.30 bus to Shin Fuji to meet the van and pick up our bags and finally the shinkansen back to Tokyo. As a nice piece of symmetry we passed over the bridge we had walked under on Saturday morning.
That's it then...
It was a slog, as I said, but I'm glad that I did it. I must say that it wasn't a particularly enjoyable experience, in that there wasn't a lot to enjoy. There wasn't much scenery to look at, lots of trees, clouds, roads and then night time. It's a shame, in a way, where Fuji is, as it's surrounded by towns and roads and civilisation, so getting there wasn't a glorious ramble through countryside but a walk through a town and along a highway. But then again if it was in middle of Hokkaido, surrounded by empty green spaces, it would be a darn sight more difficult to get to.
I'm glad I endured the challenge, but in truth I didn't feel like giving up at any time. Ryo had his moments as we approached the 5th station but he kept on anyway. Beforehand he was worried about the bit to the 5th station but not worried about the final ascent, having done it before; whereas I wasn't worried about the first bit but was worried about the ascent. In the end neither of us needed to worry as we got through it all.
Will I do it again? Probably not, though I will climb Mt Fuji again as I still want to see the sunrise and Marcus wants to climb as well.
Am I glad I did it? Definitely, it was a great experience and very satisfying. I met some very good people along the way and can say that I have climbed the highest mountain from the very bottom to the top, not many can say that.
And the stats: Mapmyride