On a climb up Japan’s highest mountain, Zalina Mohd Som learns to keep to the pace set
“DESCENDING is more important than ascending. You want to be in good condition tomorrow morning for the descent. So don’t rush, go at a slow pace,” Yama-san keeps reminding us like a broken record.
We have been hearing this reminder ever since we left Fuji Subaru Line 5th Station. The petite monk, who moonlights as a mountain guide, never fails to remind us at every stop.
Yes, it has been a slow hike. Very slow. We left the fifth station just after noon and only reached the 6th Station an hour later. The distance between these two stations is just 1.8km and only a 90m difference in elevation.
I am a slow hiker but Yama-san’s pace is even slower.
And he wants us to walk as a group, in a single file, making it even worse.
There are times when I cannot keep to his pace and start to walk slightly out of the line just to avoid stepping on his shoes. But he’s quick to ask me to go back into line.
Knocking his backpack with my head or getting my backpack knocked by the hiker behind me is a normal occurrence.
But we oblige. After all, we’re gaijin (Japanese slang for non-Japanese) and strangers who have come together to make our first attempt at climbing Mount Fuji, Japan’s highest mountain standing at 3,776m. This is his turf.
His colleague, Ami from Willer Express, who acts as the tour coordinator for our two-day Mt Fuji Climbing Tour, obliges too.
SLOW, WET AND LONG HIKE
Fuji-san is beautiful from afar in its perfect asymmetrical shape, but not from the ground.
Unlike my previous climbs and hikes, there’s not much of a landscape or scenery to shout about.
It’s all brown with volcanic sand and dust the moment we enter the nature trail after the bustling little town of the 5th Station.
It’s a sandy trail and I am sure it can very dusty when summer reaches its peak. Luckily for us, it has been raining the past few days which helps to keep the dust away.
After the 6th Station, the sand is now taken over by chunky lava rocks. As we get higher, the trail starts to get steeper and more uneven with jagged rocks which remind me of the trek at Bukit Batu Tabur in Ulu Kelang, Selangor.
The cloud starts to get thicker and sky looks gloomy too. Thick fog turns into a drizzle which follows us until we reach the 7th Station.
Yama-san takes us to a mountain hut for a short tea break. It’s already a quarter past three. My head quickly calculates the estimated time of arrival at our mountain hut at the 8th Station.
“Ah, one more station to go. We can reach our hut before the weather gets worse,” I say to myself.
Yama-san signals us to get ready when the time is almost up. Obligingly, we put on our rain gear, take our backpack and start lining up outside the hut.
Just as everybody gathers up, the drizzle gets heavier. It is now raining. Oh, wait. No, it’s a downpour! I guess I’ve spoken too soon.
Again, Yama-san gives us the same advice: “Descending is more important than ascending. You want to be in good condition tomorrow morning for the descent. So don’t rush, go at a slow pace.”
“We will reach our mountain hut before it gets dark,” he continues as he leads us up to the trail. In the cold heavy rain, his pace seems much slower than before.
But before we go further into the trek, an American chap runs up from behind and stops Yama-san. He requests to break away from the group and go ahead at his own pace.
There are a few other climbers, all nodding at his request.
They are much younger and fitter climbers compared to the other half of the line which I am in.
Yama-san gives a firm “no”. His reason is that we came as a group and we should arrive as a group. But some group members insist on going ahead, saying that our pace is too slow for them and that it’s wearing them down.
Ami suggests that they each sign an indemnity form to release the company from any responsibilities due to unforeseen circumstances. They do just that and off they go. In no time, they disappear from sight. And we continue our hike. At the same pace.
Despite my raincoat and waterproof hiking boots, I am drenched. The tips of my fingers are wrinkled and I have no more inclination to do or think of anything anymore. Like a zombie, I just follow where Yama-san goes. He clambers, I clamber. I step where he steps.
We then finally reach the 8th Station. A spacious mountain hut greets us. But Yamasan continues walking past that inviting door to a warm and dry hut. He doesn’t stop!
And we walk past another hut and another until I stop counting. Hey, isn’t our hut at this station? Isn’t this the 8th Station? The zombie that I am, these questions can’t seem to come out of my mouth.
Only after we walk pass two clusters of huts does Yama-san stop. It’s still raining heavily. He turns around and says: “Our hut is the last one up there. Now we go at our own pace. Take your time. It’s not much further.” Everybody nods.
We are now separated into smaller groups. Yama-san and two young men make the first group, followed by me and few others not too far behind.
It is quite emotional to finish the last stretch alone. But I pull through and reach my mountain hut exactly at 7pm, not too long after Yama-san and his group arrive.
SHORT, COLD NIGHT
The mountain hut workers are quick to take us out of the rain. We’re blow-dried, vacuumed (yes, vacuumed) and towel-dried before we’re shoved into any available room to change into dry clothes.
We’re then ushered to our sleeping area on the upper floor of the hut. There are just giant bunk beds that sleep eight people each. There’s a special room to store backpacks and hiking boots.
Just we’re about to snuggle against a comfy comforter, we’re called down for dinner. Dinner is a simple rice dish. Mine is rice with Japanese vegetarian curry. An hour after dinner, the lights at the bunk beds are off. It’s only 9pm.
DARK, COLD MORNING
The alarm sets off at 1.30am. I open my eyes and notice that something is not right. My head pounds at every move I make. Maybe if I sit up it will be different, I think.
The pounding gets even harder at every step others make. Nausea starts to set in. Oh, no! Please no, just one more hour to reach the summit!
Still, not wanting to give up, I slowly crawl out of my bunk bed and head to my backpack. I start to pack. The headache and nausea are still there. But they feel worse.
I walk down to the common area of the hut. Climbers are busy getting ready. It’s a bit chaotic. I spot Ami and pull her to a corner. As expected, Ami advises me to stay. It’ll get worse up there, she says.
Half of me agrees with Ami but the other half thinks otherwise. I still can make it. Maybe it’ll get better there.
Just before that voice can get the best of me, Yamasan’s haunting voice plays in my head: “Descending is more important than ascending. You want to be in good condition tomorrow morning for the descent.”
So, there I am watching my fellow Willer Express climbers finishing what we started yesterday. I am so not looking forward to the descent!
WILLER Express is a one-stop-centre that offers complete travelling essentials from transportation - bus, train and flight, hotels and tours. The company started as a major highway bus company in 1994 with routes covering almost the entire country.
Its two-day Mount Fuji Climbing Tour 2017 is priced at ¥25,800 yen (RM1,006) which includes a roundtrip express bus from Shinjuku in Tokyo to Fuji Subaru Line 5th Station, three meals, a night stay in a mountain hut, a collateral travel insurance, an English-speaking tour conductor and a mountain guide.
This year’s last departure date is on Sept 10. Willer climbers will also get 500ml water given at the 8th station mountain hut, a medical face mask, a carabiner water bottle holder, an energy bar, a climber’s badge and koinobori flag (carp-sharped wind sock) for easy identification, a pack of wet tissue and a pair of cotton work gloves.
Additional options are mountain gear rental plan (rain gear, hiking boots, backpack, hiking poles and headlamp) priced at ¥9,000 and a post-climb onsen (Japanese hot spring bath) at ¥800. For details, visit http://willerexpress.com/en/fuji/ or email to en-info@ willer.co.jp.
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HOW TO GET THERE
Mount Fuji is divided into 10 stations with the first stationed at the foot of the mountain and the 10th at the peak. Vehicles can go as far as the fifth station which is about halfway up the mountain and there are four of them located on different sides of the mountain. This means the stations are all easily accessible by public transportation like train, bus and taxi or guided tour bus operators.
The 5th stations are each the start of four trails that lead to the summit.
Trail head: Fuji Subaru Line 5th Station (2,300m above sea level)
Ascent: five to seven hours
Descent: three to five hours
This is the most popular base for the Fuji-san climb – most probably because this side of the mountain faces the sunrise.
It is the most accessible from central Tokyo too. There are a lot of mountain huts at the 7th and 8th stations, and separate trails for ascent and descent.
Trail head: Subashiri 5th Station (2,000m above sea level)
Ascent: five to eight hours
Descent: three to five hours
The Subashiri Trail meets the Yoshida Trail around the 8th station.
There are separate trails for ascent and descent between the 5th and 8th stations from which the trail meets Yoshida Trail that leads up the summit.
Trail head: Gotemba 5th Station (1,400m above sea level)
Ascent: seven to ten hours
Descent: three to six hours As the lowest 5th Station, the trail takes longer to reach the summit even though the trail is said to have gentle slope of volcanic gravel up to the 8th station.
Trail head: Fujinomiya 5th Station (2,400m above sea level)
Ascent: four to seven hours
Descent: two to four hours
The closest 5th Station is the base for the southern approach to the summit. But it is very rocky and steep. There are mountain huts at every station.
WHEN TO CLIMB
The official climbing season is from early July to September. However, the exact dates of opening and closing will be declared a few months before the season starts. During this season, the mountain is usually free of snow with relatively mild weather. Facilities like public transportation and mountain huts operate in full swing.
WHERE TO STAY
There are mountain huts located at specific spots along the trails. The Yoshida Trail has the most huts – more than a dozen mountain huts between the 7th and 8th stations. Typically the huts charge 5,000 yen (RM195) per person (without meals) and an additional 2,000 yen for two meals. Some huts do not allow guests checking in at night, and some allow non-staying climbers to take a rest at a rate of 1,000-2,000 yen per hour. But do expect huts to be crowded especially during the peak season (public and school holidays. August is traditionally the busiest month). Most huts offer toilet facilities chargeable at 100-200 yen, food and drinks and other climbing necessities like socks, beanie, gloves and canned oxygen.
WHAT TO BRING
Since you’ll be carrying your own bag – there’s no porter like in Mount Kinabalu - so it’s wise to plan what to put into your backpack. Your backpack should at least have these:
1. Bring only the essential personal items and pack in travel size bottles.
2. A pair of sturdy and waterproof hiking boots
3. At least a hiking pole if not a pair
4. A pair of durable raincoats
5. A headlight
6. A pair of gloves
7. A cap or hat
8. A pair of sunglasses
9. A fleece or down jacket
10. A clean set of hiking attire – top, pants, socks for the night and the next morning’s summit push
11. An extra pair of socks and undies
12. 500ml of water (additional supply of water can be bought at the mountain hut)