July 19, 2018
This photo supplement tracks the events in CLIMB: Leaving Safe and Finding Strength on 100 Summits in Japan. The captions offer “extra features” that didn’t make it into the book.
After years of waiting (and more than two dozen attempted viewings spoiled by clouds) this was my first full view of Mt. Fuji, from the window of my hotel in Fujinomiya, the morning we began the climb.
Mt. Fuji has a staggering capacity for self-concealment and camouflage. The morning wasn’t even that cloudy, but unless you knew, you’d never suspect the highest mountain in Japan was hiding behind those clouds.
We took the 10:30 a.m. bus to the Fujinomiya Fifth Station trailhead. In case the resemblance isn’t clear, that’s my mom on the right. This would be her first overnight mountain climbing experience.
The picture above does not do justice to the enormity of Mt. Fuji. As the bus rounded a corner en route to the trailhead (which sits at an elevation of 2,400m), Fuji’s cone appeared. I was thrilled and terrified in equal measure.
Left to right: Laurie Bolland, Kaitlyn Bolland, me, my mom (Paula Ross Jones). Before hitting the trail, we stopped at the trailhead store for last minute supplies. The shop even sells bottled oxygen, which can be a literal lifesaver in the mountains, if someone begins experiencing severe adverse effects from the altitude. Since we were spending the night on the mountain, I carried a bottle in my pack, in case of emergency. (Spoiler alert: we did not end up needing it.)
It isn’t possible to see the summit of Mt. Fuji from the trailhead. The “top” you see in the picture above is actually just ninth station, two hours’ hike below the summit.
My mother turned 75 years old shortly before the Mt. Fuji climb, and had no significant experience climbing mountains. The fact that she had the courage, desire, and drive to join me on an overnight ascent of Mt. Fuji continues to amaze, impress, and inspire me. Your mom may be cool . . . but MY mom is 75-year-old-heading-up-Mt.-Fuji cool. And I love it.
Kaitlyn was the youngest member of Team Fuji, but actually had the most hiking experience, due to years of weekend camping trips with her father and brother. I never had any doubt that she would make the summit, or that she would still be smiling when she got there.
Many Japanese mountains have ten numbered “station” markers, set at approximately equidistant points between the trailhead and the summit, to help hikers gauge their progress on the trail. Fuji also has a station 9.5–for reasons I have never been able to learn or figure out. On most mountains, “stations” consist of a wooden marker bearing the station number, and sometimes the elevation. Each of Fuji’s stations has at least a shop, and many also have a hut that provides overnight accommodations for hikers (by reservation).
For a small fee (about $5 US) hikers can have a brand applied to their wooden hiking sticks, or to half-sized sticks that fit conveniently in or on a backpack, as a souvenir of the climb. (The sticks themselves are sold at the trailhead shops and at most convenience stores in Fujinomiya.) Each brand shows the year, the station number, and the elevation.
The “sea of clouds” is a phenomenon that occurs when a hiker climbs high enough to look down on the vast “sea” of clouds spread out below. My first experience with this took place on Mt. Iwaki, but it never gets old.
From Station Six to the summit, the trail consists mostly of gravel, rocks, and scree. The Fuji climb is not technically difficult, but it does require both physical and mental endurance.
The trail switchbacks beneath New Seventh Station, which perches on the shoulder of the mountain directly beside the hiking trail. Were I to make the hike again (and it’s possible I will) I would probably spend the night a little higher on the mountain, to cut down on the nighttime hiking hours. That said, it was a good choice for our inexperienced team, because it allowed us to acclimatize a little lower on the mountain overnight.
Like most of the lodges on Mt. Fuji, Goraiko Sansou has both a small shop selling water and snacks to anyone hiking by and a “mountain hut” with cubby-style sleeping areas for people who make reservations to stay the night. Accommodations also include dinner (often curry rice) and breakfast (usually a boxed meal hikers can take when they leave, in the case of midnight departures like ours). Bio-toilets are also available at all stations, for a fee of 100 yen ($1 US); hikers need to carry coins, because most huts don’t make change and you’re not allowed to “go” elsewhere on the mountain.
I’m including the photo above because it illustrates a hazard I encountered often during the 100 Summits year: flying photobombers. I have dozens of lovely photos “spoiled” (or, perhaps, improved) by insects flying through the frames. Curiously, in most cases, I did not notice unusual numbers of insects in the mountains–they just seemed to have an incredible knack for buzzing through the frame precisely as I took the shot.
I love this photo for many reasons, including the fact that it gives a good sense of Fuji’s scale. The mountain is enormous, but also stands so far from any other mountains that it feels even larger.
Goraiko Sansou serves dinner early–I think we ate around 5 p.m.–because most hikers (our team included) get up around midnight to depart for the summit, in the hope of seeing sunrise from the highest point in Japan. By the time the sun truly set, I was already in my cubby, trying to sleep.
By midnight, the temperature on Fuji had dropped to just above freezing. Outside the hut, the darkness was startling–as was the clear view of the Milky Way sparkling overhead. We started off, with only our headlamps to light the way.
The journey up Mt. Fuji continues in Chapter 22: Summit Dawn.
* This page is part of the photo companion to CLIMB: Leaving Safe & Finding Strength on 100 Summits in Japan. You can find the story behind these pictures (in hardback and ebook formats, and either in person or online) at your favorite local bookstore or at Amazon or Barnes & Noble (both in the U.S. and internationally).