I (Brian, here!) was lucky enough to be stationed in Okinawa, Japan for almost three years. I loved my time there – the people, the food, the culture – and coming back to the States was a bit hard. Laurel and I only had four months together there, but we made the most of them with adventures and island hopping trips. One of those was our weekend whirlwind to hike Fuji.
Since we were gearing up for yet another deployment, I didn’t have much time to spare. I’d wanted to climb Fuji but hadn’t yet had the chance. Our friends Sandhia and Vineet told us we should go, but with a fair warning – it was going to suck.
Wait, what? It’s a long hike, he said. The line moves at a glacial pace, and the way back down feels like hours of falling. Vineet and I had spent a month training in the northern Sierras together, so I had a pretty good read on what constituted “sucking” in his opinion. That said, I’d also heard of the unbelievable number of older Japanese who make the hike every day, and I don’t mean older as in 50-60 year olds – I mean 60-80 year olds. So I figured it wouldn’t be so bad. Fly in Friday night, hike it overnight on Saturday, make it to the top for sunrise, fly out Sunday. That can’t be so bad, right? Oh Brian, what lessons you’ll learn in this life…
We arrived at our hotel in one of the “livelier” districts of Tokyo around midnight and tried to catch some sleep after a quick dinner out. The next morning we awoke to a calmer world (someone had turned the techno down and the multicolored strobes off), then we headed off to learn the Japanese train system to get to Shinjuku Station. A kind passerby helped our befuddled selves decipher enough Japanese to purchase tickets and head to the right train. Arriving in Shinjuku, we had a few hours to kill before our bus departed, so we headed to the Shinjuku Gyoen National Gardens.
The Gardens were beautiful and peaceful – a nice respite from the bustle of Tokyo. We enjoyed a short nap in some shade then made our way back to the station to catch our four-hour bus ride to the Fuji hiking station where we’d begin our climb.
Since there was no way we were going to climb all of Fuji in a day, we took the bus up to the 5th station at 7,590 feet. We arrived at 8:30PM and started our hike with plenty of rice cakes, cheese sticks, water, and jerky. We cruised on through the first four miles or so of it – nothing tough so far! We were well on pace to make the summit by 12:30AM and get a nice little nap in before sunrise around 6:00AM. However, at around 10,000 feet, Laurel met with a surprise – altitude sickness.
Being more of an “ocean person” than a “mountain person”, Laurel hadn’t spent much time at altitude before this hike. As we rounded a switchback, it was clear that the mountain was winning. After a few minutes of contemplating what exactly the right move was here, we decided to push on to the 11th Station a quarter mile or so up the mountain.
We stayed at 11th Station for the next few hours as Laurel got sicker, and I contemplated what a foolish new husband I was. I also took the time to watch the electric snake of hiker headlamps winding its way up the mountain, and the lightning striking down in the valley.
The electric snake of headlamps climbing the mountain, towns below.
11th station, where Laurel spent a few hours “hanging out”, aka “trying to find the mythical oxygen”
Purple lightning in the clouds over the valley.
Not one to let a little thing like oxygen-deprivation get in the way of her goals, Laurel emerged from the bathroom, looked me dead in the eyes, and said “Alright, let’s go.” I picked up my pack and camera and started to head back down the mountain since the only immediate cure for altitude sickness is to head down.
“Where are you going?”, she asked. “We’re finishing this.” Which we did – the altitude sickness eventually subsided, and the next 4 hours of hiking were akin to driving in LA traffic. With the number of hikers crammed on the trail, we could take one small step every 60 seconds or so, and any potential difficulty of the trail’s steepness was tempered by how loooooong it took to take each step. Nine hours after setting off from 5th Station, we crested the summit a half hour before sunrise… only to be greeted by heavy cloud cover.
Oh look, a sunrise! awww….that’s… not pretty….
Laurel at the summit, already laughing off that silly little bout of “altitude sickness”.
Maybe the sunrise will get better, we hoped! Maybe the clouds will clear, and we’ll be treated to a brilliant sunrise that will make this weekend of travels worthwhile!
They didn’t, and instead we were treated to a gradual lightening of the sky that diminished our need for headlamps. We walked around the crater for a little while, struck by the enormity of it, before starting on our controlled fall that was the six hour descent. We arrived back at the bus exhausted, and began the 14 hour trip back to Okinawa where a full workday awaited me.
Now starting six hours of controlled falling…your legs – they’re gonna burn.
Despite the travel time, lack of oxygen, sleep deprivation, Tokyo-techno, clouded-over sunrise, and 24 hours of eating only rice cakes, we’re pretty happy we did this hike – even if it’s only for the bragging rights of having done it.