Bears Upon The Mountain: The Hiking of Mount Fuji

This is a story about our adventure climbing Mount Fuji in Japan. If you want some wicked tips for climbing Fuji-san, you can check out our guide! 

 

 

I was nauseous by the time we got to the camp. The winding bus ride from Fujiyoshida to the Fifth Station of Mount Fuji was enough to make me and Christine wince1. It was the last bus of the day, and the beginning of our adventure to the summit of that picturesque volcano. I was in the midst of my third visit to the islands of Japan and I was determined to kiss the sky from the peak of that holy apex. We had done zero preparation of course, and only found out the day prior that the traditional way to climb the mountain was overnight. That is, you leave during the evening and hike in the darkness, arriving at the summit to witness the dawn from above. And so with this new itinerary in mind we spent the evening waiting at the Fifth Station for the right time to begin our trek. I had both read and been told that the climbing of Fuji can take anywhere between 6 and 12 hours, depending on your speed and the amount of others climbing. We figured 7 would be ample, factoring in a few rests along the way. Slow and steady may win the race, but I have always taken joy from pushing my physical limits and this would be no different. Or so I thought.

Guide to Mount Fuji

As we waited at the camp we noticed two things. First, the staggering 40C heat below us was not so kind as to venture it's way up to where we were. Even just the thousand or so meters in elevation made a world of difference. Unprepared as we were, we hadn't packed clothing for a colder climate. The Fifth Station, being the tourist trap that is, had us covered with a few small shops where we could grab a few last-minute items. I spent a handful of yen buying some gloves – a purchase I was thankful for within minutes of starting our hike – and snacks. Because, well, I love to snack.

The second thing we discovered were that we were not alone. As white people, that is. As we waiting for the right moment to depart we bumped into the other non-Japanese travellers who were heading up the heights this evening. All three of them.

Joining us in the wait were three guys also set on the midnight climb and together we counted down the hours. One was a solo traveller from Australia and the other two were bff's from the UK. Since all the Japanese climbers had already departed it was just us foreigners lingering around the buildings of the Fifth Station, taking shelter in the heated restaurant as we watched the hours tick by. Finally, around 10pm (a time when I would usually be ready for bed) we decked ourselves out and hit the road. It ws both reassuring and concerning that they were all unprepared, as well: only one of that had thought to bring a flashlight. Being the only one with a headlamp, I led the way into the pitchy shadow of Mount Fuji. I guess I was more prepared than I thought.

We kept a solid pace for the first leg, with Christine struggling to keep up due to her lack of tallness. The incline was subtle as we made our way from the station upward, our eyes still adjusting to the new darkness. As we climbed higher, through an emaciated forrest and over a bulldozed path, we began to see the environment take shape below us; the lights of all the cities and towns in the distance left a glossy blush across the night sky.

the blurry lights of Japan

the blurry lights of Japan

It didn't take long for the beautiful dark to grow cold. Our energy was high, and we were all in good spirits, but it was clear that we had miscalculated. Taking breaks was a necessary part of the climb, not just to rest the legs and lungs but to help acclimatize to the elevation. Japan, being Japan, has allowed the creation of small (and not-so-small) huts along the way so that hikers can stop and grab some refreshment during their climb. Beer, warm noodles, chocolate bars – the bare necessities were all there. Our Commonwealth comrades were keen to break at the first couple stops, shivering in the sooty twilight as they gulped down some steaming ramen. As we paused, our breath huffing and puffing mini clouds of exhaustion, Christine would press on. She was freezing, needing the movement to stay warm against the encroaching winds.

They don't show that on the postcards. You never see postcards or photos of hikers huddling together, sweaty and cold, ducking out of the wind where they could as they clutched their soup like it was a newborn baby. Like every international monument or tourist hub, what you see in person isn't always what you see on the post card and Mount Fuji was no different.

As we pressed on we began to catch up wth those who had departed before us. Every few hundred meters we would pause as the Japanese climbers (many of them double my age) slowly and surely made their way toward the heavens. Decked out in only the best travel gear, these cheerful and dedicated climbers took their hike seriously. In comparison, we looked like a gaggle of gaijin completely out of place. Nevertheless, every single one hiker made sure to say hello to us. With a smile, and a bow if we could manage, our well-enunciated konichiwa's simply became haphazard waaa's as we lumbered up the steepening slope, my neck growing sore from returning the continual half-bows to the ever-polite adventurers on their jingling tramp.

I say jingling because a lot of these hardcore hikers had bells attached to their bags. Like the little jingly bells you may let a cat play with, or hear during a bout of Christmas carolling, perhaps one in twenty Japanese hikers had them dangling from their bags. My initial thought was that perhaps they were something Shinto related. Considering that this was one of the Three Holy Mountains of Japan, I figured that was a reasonable assumption though I didn't feel it appropriate to interrupt any of the climbers mid-hike and pose the question. My assumption, I later found out, was wrong. The bells were for bears.

Yes, bears.

Every year someone in Japan will find themselves an unwitting victim of the cuddly critters, an unfortunate event that the media will then spin out of whack. Because of this, Japanese hikers rarely leave home without a bear bell. Oddly enough, this precaution is embraced on Mount Fuji, a volcanic wasteland akin to Mordor that is continually hiked and maintained – with bulldozers, no less!– by human beings. Yeah. Bears.

Climbing Mount Fuji. Bears on Mount Fuji.

Bothersome bells aside, our energy was flagging drastically as the climb continued. It never dawned on us, idiots that we are, that climbing a mountain would be incredibly taxing. Braced against the cold, we clung to our stubborn dedication and single-minded focus. They were the foundation of our efforts, more so than any physical stamina or outward preparation. I had convinced myself, pre-Fuji, that if old people can do it, I can do it. Perhaps the ageist axiom generally serves, but not here in Japan. The older generation is decidedly hardier than one expects. Tougher than I, anyway.

Our conversations dwindled, our pace drooped to a shuffle. And then a storm rolled in.

A gentle rain misted the slope with sporadic and icy pellets. Rolling clouds inched their way ever closer over the vast expanse, blanketing the glassy landscape that slept at our feet. Crisp bolts of lightning, like sharpened white steel, cut the sky, flashing in the distance to the low groan of approaching thunder. Never drawing too near, the flawless spectacle raged for the better part of an hour. It's booming cracks, candid and unrestrained, were the whips that saw us forward. We had no choice but to oblige the midnight tempest, the divine wind. We carried on.

Our pace grew desperate, a slow and steady death march. We had overtaken almost everyone in our desire to find shelter, and warmth. Altitude sickness was already upon us, our heads throbbing with each footfall. Nausea was soon to follow, joining our pounding headaches as we reached the final section. With my eyes half-closed, half blinded by my scarf, I didn't notice that our group had fractured. Christine and I were left marching onward with one of the UK gents, though we didn't particularly care at the moment. Our goal was near, though just how near we couldn't yet tell.

Climbing Mount Fuji. Bears on Mount Fuji.

It wasn't until I crossed the final threshold that I realized we had made it to the top. The details of the summit were lost to the night, and we could only gage our arrival by the scanty fragments my headlamp could illuminate. The surprise arrival may have stolen our thunder, but it did little to quash our joy. We had made it!

Unfortunately, we had made it too quickly.

It was just past 3am, which meant we did the entire hike in a mere five hours. Nothing was open yet – because there are, in fact, buildings on the summit. Vending machines, accommodation, food, a post office, and even wifi are all now perched upon the holy mountain. Such are the consequences of modernization.

A thermometer placed at the peak indicated that it was -8C. Not only had we just climbed to 3776m but we had undergone a 48 degree change in temperature. The snow, infinitesimal flecks of powder white, drifted in swirling patches along the crest. We searched for some sort of refuge as the wind whipped across the martian terrain, howling a lycan cry as it pummelled us with fell swoops.

With two hours remaining until the summit buildings opened, we had no coice but to improvise some shelter. Wandering the volcanoe's peak we came to some construction equipment. The doors we locked, but we were able to crawl between the treads of one of the bulldozers. Using the plow as a windshield, we crammed our backpacks against the remaining gaps, blocking as much of the frigid wind as we could. Huddling together, our teeth locked in a continual chatter, we shivered away a handful of minutes. Our reprieve was nonexistent as our little hidey-hole did little to shelter us from the elements. Brains battered by the altitude, limbs numb from the cold, we decided – having acheive victory already – that it was time to head down.

Climbing Mount Fuji. Bears on Mount Fuji.

We had heard the descent would take three or four hours, and so we grit our chattering teeth and obliged gravity. With no lights at the summit (and being as underprepared as we were) we failed to realize that there was a separate path for descending Fujisan. As we foolishly impeded the ascent of all those hikers we had once passed, several try to explain to us that we were going the wrong way. They did so in Japanese, of course, which was of no use to us. Once again we were caught in the trap of being polite, exchanging hundreds of ..waaaa's bows over the course of our volcanic decline. Hordes of trekkers, with their quizzical looks, passed us as we stumbled down the mountain in our hurried escape of the cold. We never ran into the other half of our group, crediting their absence to the bears of Mount Fuji.

By dawn we we already approaching the final station, the sunrise lost to the chalky grey of an overcast sky. Returning to the origin of our foolhardy climb we immediately took shelter in the restaurant, graciously open 24-hours to protect idiot travellers like ourselves from their own uninformed mistakes. We ate, relaxed, and slept like vagabonds along the hard benches as we awaited the appearance of our wayward companions. They eventually arrived, alive and unmauled. They too were weary and nauseous, but victorious.

As our bus weaved it's way down the switchback roads, a haze of grey shed dull light across the foreign land, The sky drooped heavy and low, burdened by the remnants of the previous night's storm. We were left with only the lingering drab of a tired night...and that was perfect.