Climbing Fuji

Fuji-san in summer, free of snow

Scrolling through my Facebook feed yesterday morning, I spotted a post by my cousin Ken Kelley, who, with several friends in the Anthem Ranch Hike Club, recently climbed Colorado’s highest peak, Mt. Elbert (14,433 ft./4,399 m). Ken reported that it took them not quite five hours to ascend 5,000 feet to the summit over a 4.75-mile trail.

Ken is about my age, and in far better shape than me (although I’ve managed to shed 20 pounds over the past month and a half). Still, it reminded me of a cool thing I did back in 1985 — climb Japan’s Mt. Fuji. As readers of this blog may recall, I was in Japan as a member of the staff of the U.S. Pavilion at Tsukuba Expo ’85 at the time. About 15 of the younger members of the Expo staff — almost all from other international pavilions — got together for the Fuji adventure. Although I was a mere stripling of 41 years at the time, I was the “old man” of the group, and I pretty consistently lagged a bit behind the others.

The climb began not from the base of the mountain, but from a climbers’ lodge* about 7,000 feet up — in other words, about 5,000 feet below the 12,389-ft. (3,776-m) summit. We arrived by bus in the late afternoon, had an early dinner and lay down to sleep at about 7 p.m. in a large room crammed full of double-stacked bunks covered with straw-stuffed mattresses. We were awakened at about 2 a.m. for a simple breakfast, after which we immediately began the ascent, made with the help of the sturdy oak walking sticks given to each of us.

The well-trodden path was covered in the mountain’s ample coating of cinders, in some places reddish, and in others grayer. The altitude gain was uneven, steeper in some stretches than elsewhere, and the going got tougher the higher we climbed, as the air grew thinner.

For a comparison of the effects of altitude, I’ve had more recent experiences on 13,803-ft. Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii. I was up there two or three times in the time we lived in Hawaii (1986–2013), going up the easy way — by car. When we got to the summit parking area, it was tiring to walk even a short distance, especially where the path headed up a gentle slope. So my hat is certainly off to Ken who climbed even higher — about 600 feet higher than the Mauna Kea summit and over 2,000 feet higher than Fuji — and not with the help of a car!

Aerial view of Fuji’s summit. Note the climbing path (lower right) zigzagging the last few hundred feet to the top. (Courtesy of U.S. Air Force/Osakabe Yasuo via Google)

My friends and I finally reached the summit at around 3 p.m. We gawked at the huge crater that yawned below us, then sat and rested a few minutes before starting back down. Knowing that climbing that mountain would feel like a major accomplishment, I’d included in my backpack a film canister filled with cognac. I took a tiny sip and passed it around so we could all toast our achievement.

I was a little concerned that what felt like a late start down the mountain wouldn’t get us back to our starting point before dark, but going downhill was a breeze. I remember taking long strides, my heels “snowplowing” through the loose cinders, and gazing out at the clouds below.

The descent

What a grand adventure!

***

* What I’ve called a climber’s lodge is one of four “fifth stations,” each roughly halfway up the mountain, but on different sides. They can all be reached by car or bus. The first stations are at the foot of the mountain, and the 10th station is at the summit.

To read about another adventure I had in Japan — an amusing one — check out this blog post.

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