November 5-7, 2016.
From November through to March, it can be tricky finding weather good enough to get up to the roof of Japan. I’d been eyeing the mountain forecast for weeks, and finally finding what I’d been looking for: a three-day easing of the notorious summit winds. Just enough time for a couple of days and nights of high-altitude serenity.
The trip kicked off at 5am, with a taxi from Kawaguchiko, up to the Subaru 5th station. The hike itself began at 6am, in the dark. It was cold but not bitterly so, and I didn’t have to use gloves until much farther up the mountain.
The sun rose about half an hour after I’d headed off, coming through clouds as I reached the starting point of the Yoshida trail. It was a beautiful day, with a light breeze.
At the snow line (around the 7th station) it became colder and windy, so I put on light gloves. From there it was a steady plod upwards. There were a few people heading up in ones and twos, all in good spirits, and I chatted and swapped chocolates and energy snacks with some of them. Above the 9th station it became steep and a little bit icy. The snow boots dug into the snow and gripped well though, so I didn’t bother with the crampons.
It took me about 9 hours to reach the summit from the car park. Most people get up in a lot less, but with 21kg on my back, the climb was a real slog. Especially so toward the top, where it became steeper and slippery. I’d planned for two nights on the summit though, so with no urgency, I was able to plod slowly without having to worry about the time.
I reached the summit just before sunset. As always, the views were gob-smacking. On the evening of the first night, I set up the tent in the shelter of a rock wall on the Yoshida trail side of the crater, looking out toward the lakes and Kawaguchiko. That position offers spectacular views of Fuji’s shadow in the late afternoon.
The night was a little windy but not unbearably cold: about -5C. The lights of the towns far, far below are a magnificent sight. Likewise, the twin yellow-green bands of lights stretching across and above the horizon over Tokyo.
It was another glorious day. Colder, but clear. I packed up camp and walked for about an hour over to the opposite side of the summit. Along this stretch you get great views into the crater, as well as out toward the ocean. I made my way up to the weather station and set up the tent on the snow, in a nook between two of the buildings. This is my favourite part of the summit. You can scramble on ledges around to the back of the weather station, for mind-blowing views of the rugged Shimoda coastline and Pacific Ocean. It’s like looking out and down onto a giant blue map.
At twilight, the lights of the towns far below slowly blink into life. They’re so far away, you feel as though you’re in another world entirely.
One of the great things with Fuji, is that being a stratovolcano, it stands alone, towering over the plains in every direction. When you walk out to the ledge behind the weather station, you really get a sense of the empty space above, below and all around you. You’re up there in the atmosphere, tiny, exposed, high above the sea of clouds, literally standing in the sky.
It’s a dream-like experience. I’ve never had such a strong sense of being suspended out in the void like that, on any other mountain.
The night was chilly and windy: -6C, and -14C out in the wind. I didn’t get much sleep because of the wind tearing at the tent, but I didn’t really mind. It was just a joy to be back up there. A night or two without sleep is a small price to pay for those views.
The morning was absolutely magnificent – clear skies and little wind, with a huge sea of clouds all around the mountain. While making my way around the crater and back to the top of the Yoshida Trail, thundering booms began ringing out on the plain, far below. It was utterly at odds with the otherwise perfectly still and tranquil sea of clouds. And a bit foreboding. I met up with another hiker a little farther around the crater, and he told me that it was the army artillery, training down on the plain.
The descent itself only took four hours, and I used the crampons down to the 8th station. Just off the summit, I passed what looked like a small tour group headed up. There was a Japanese guide and a six or seven foreigners. They all looked shocked to see me, stopping to stare in dead silence as I passed them. Climbers are usually pretty friendly, which made me wonder if they were tourists who’d decided to do a climb on a whim. I thought it unusual that an organised tour would even be up there at that time of year.
I found their silent staring odd and slightly disconcerting. They looked like tourists who’d been kidnapped and told not to try and communicate with anyone. In my haste to put some distance between us, my crampons got caught on one another and I did a spectacular tumble, which sent my walking poles flying. Perfect timing to have my only fall on the entire climb. I scrambled down to them, picked them up and got going, sensing the icy stares for another minute or so.
The rest of the descent was uneventful. Then it was onto the bus back to Kawaguchiko station and from there, onto another bus to Shibuya, Tokyo.
This was probably the toughest of my three climbs on Fuji, because of the cold windy nights and lack of sleep. But it was no less rewarding than my first time up there.
Here’s a video I made, showing a few of the highlights of the trip.
Mt Fuji might look serene from a distance, but the reality is, the weather on the upper slopes can be wild and unpredictable. Ever year, people die up there; from exposure, falling, or getting blown right off the mountain. Even experienced climbers get into trouble. Only ever think about heading up outside the official climbing season (July to early September) if the weather is perfect, you have lots of climbing experience, the right gear, and you’re prepared to head straight back down if the weather turns sour.
Bus to the 5th station:
A map and some info on the Yoshida trail:
Highway bus from Tokyo to Kawaguchiko: