The Climb to the Top (Mount Fuji)

Knowing that over 230,000 people (2015 statistic) climb Mount Fuji every year, I had no doubt that I would complete it, especially with no aches or pains and my college basketball background. I expected challenges though as I’ve never taken on a mountain anywhere near this magnitude.

I had the ultimate respect for the task ahead.

On the first Saturday in September, we drove from Tokyo at 4am and didn’t start the ascent until 7am, as it was crowded and took more time than we planned to park and arrive at the base. Even though I was going on 4 hours of sleep, my excitement and adrenaline were high.

One member of our group of 6 was an experienced climber (our guide) and had done Fuji 8 times. That was comforting as he knew all the twists, turns and obstacles to come. He kept singing the praises of the weather throughout, as it was spectacular and crisp, with the sun often beaming brilliantly.

I was thrilled for our pleasant climate as I cannot imagine doing this day in the rain. A friend living in Tokyo had completed the climb at night (a week earlier) and it poured for hours; one we considered doing with him until we saw the dreary forecast. I was impressed to hear how he endured in those damp and dark conditions. His story is below.

Since I’ve never been strong on hills (running or biking), I expected significant irritation at some point on the steep and maze-like angles to the top…..and they did not disappoint. It seemed as if those zig zag paths filled with gravel would never end, often leaving me with that feeling of a snail’s pace. I was thankful for the rest breaks at each station, which never failed to be welcoming.

Midway through the climb, my thighs began to tremble in the form of cramps; something I’ve only had once (mildly) and that was at the end of the 2006 Stockholm Marathon, which gave me no real basis for how painful it could be. Fortunately, after chatting with some climbers, several were having the same type of discomfort, which instantly put me at ease, as I knew this was a mountain issue and not a George issue.

The key for me was rarely stopping while on the climbing trail. It served me well during the aforementioned marathon, as I never stopped running, with the exception of the water breaks where I kept walking at a strong pace - great advice I received as a first time marathoner. On the mountain, I stopped a few times because of the cramping but was able to keep moving forward whenever tiredness tried to overtake me.

Meanwhile, my amazing wife Matilda was like Spiderman up the mountain. Despite having knees and ankles that weren’t 100%, she stayed almost stride for stride with our guide. She initially thought about not doing Fuji with us, but I’m glad she did. I was inspired watching her crush it! There wasn’t one point where I considered keeping up with or trying to catching her. 

Happiness at the Top
Only one person in our group had a mighty struggle and I thought she might not make it, as the altitude was clearly affecting her performance. She was in shape, but the 3776 m/ 12,388 feet made it a grueling ride for her during the heart of the ascent.  I looked up to the peak several times while climbing and became light-headed, so I made sure to keep those glances to a minimum.

The most enjoyable parts for me were the various rock formations we had to scale. I found that peaceful compared to the gravel walking paths. On a stretch of rocks not far from the top, there was a 75 year old man in front of me and a woman with a toddler on her back behind me. The man had walking sticks and maintained a slow, yet powerful pace. Everyone seemed to be amazed at what the woman was doing. I was in awe of both.

Another memorable moment came on the back end of the climb, as a wave of gratefulness filled up my soul. The fine weather and stunning cloud formations, combined with the beauty surrounding me, along with the calm of being an extension of this iconic mountain was soothing. When I knew the end was near, the relief and elation were profound.

One mistake I made was not drinking enough water as the sweat and physical work was elevated because of the sun. It didn’t feel particularly warm, although my friends noticed that I could use more fluids so I kept drinking and drinking, yet could never catch up to where I needed to be. I lost 2 kilo’s.

A good tip I received beforehand was keeping everything in plastic bags or having a waterproof bag - since weather can change quickly. I was prepared, but barely used anything in the bag. There was a light sprinkle at one point, but only a brief one. In addition, I bought new hiking books and those were invaluable as I saw many who seemed uncomfortable with sneakers or old footwear.

Going down wasn't fun in any way for me and I wouldn’t want to do it again, with the abundance of slipping/sliding and gravel; something first timers should know about as being careful is crucial. We witnessed people falling and several ankle twists on the descent. The entire way down I wondered why they didn’t’ have any easier routes (i.e. Cable Car) as I consider the descent more of an experience of not getting hurt and less of a worthwhile challenge.

Overall, it was a tremendous experience, along with a great sense of fulfillment. To have shared it with a few of our closest friends enhanced our day and satisfaction. For those expats fortunate enough to be living in Japan, I would encourage everyone to put this on their ‘to do’ list.
Matilda reached the summit in 5 hours and 15 minutes...5:45 for me. Everyone was back to the base in less than 3 hours. After our early bird start, we arrived home at 10pm exhausted – a 16 hour day.

I’ve never slept so well.

Matilda Going Down Mount Fuji


Unknown said...

I didn't know Matilda was made of that kind of material. Impressive. That makes my climb up Diamondhead, at less than a thousand feet, seem downright trivial. It was fun but yours sounds absolutely exhilarating. Congrats on the finish.

Anonymous said...

Very enjoyable read. I would enjoy seeing the pictures of that day. I remember reading about it on FB I took my family on a hike in the 'Pa Grand Canyon" last summer. It too was a great day. Not nearly as long or as big as your incredible climb. But it was a still a challenge. Especially to Donny who was only 8 at the time. There were cliffs that if you lost your footing would be a death fall so you did have to be careful. It made Kim nervous but we all made it back. I've always loved hiking with Boy Scouts as a child and now with our children Pa has some great trails too. DRW II