Wedged snuggly between two locals within a sea of blue sleeping bags, I laid deadly still, having re-hydrated and filled myself with painkillers in a desperate attempt to try to extinguish the migraine that was simmering in my pounding head. One hour later came the realisation that I had succumbed to severe altitude sickness at 3,250 metres, which was soon marked by regular and extreme bouts of vomiting. One hour away from starting the 1am ascent to summit, the accomplishment of standing atop of Mount Fuji was fading fast. I had to accept defeat.
Unable to walk very far, and passing out after any strenuous movement, I requested for my mountain house staff to get me down from the mountain fast – the pain was only getting worse and when you’re an avid trekker, you learn to listen to your body and take the correct measures to protect yourself. This was that moment.
“The doctor is busy,” said the mountain house staff member, without even picking up the phone to check.
“You will have to wait for sunrise and get down yourself.”
Mount Fuji is Japan’s highest and most photographed mountain. Visible even from the Tokyo city skyline on a clear day, Fuji lures trekkers with her attractive symmetrical, snow-capped frame and promises of a glorious fiery-sky sunrise. Free to climb and known to be not too difficult to hike, the chance to step foot on one of Japan’s biggest natural wonders is a very exciting and accessible option.
Except Fuji defeated me and I wasn’t at all expecting it. Nor was I expecting to be left without help when suffering from extreme altitude sickness.
Climbing Mount Fuji was always going to happen. It was on my Japan itinerary long before I even stepped foot in the country and I just so happened to be there in July – the start of the ‘no snow’ climbing season. To stand proud at 3776 metres, climbing Japan’s most prominent natural wonder didn’t faze me since I’ve climbed a lot higher reaching Everest Base Camp and the summit of Mount Kinabulu. It was just going to be another incredible mountain to add to my ever-growing list and I couldn’t wait.
Preparing for the Climb
I like to be fully prepared when I decide to climb a mountain and the opinions of other climbers, not just locals, is crucial in getting things right. It’s not the kind of situation where I am willing to take risks.
My hostel, K’s House, was right in the heart of the Fuji area, and catered for travellers eager for the adventure. Not only was there plenty of travellers willing to share their Fuji stories of trial and error, attempt and failure, or ‘I couldn’t be bothered and only came here to relax and look at the view,’ but the hostel was the information hub I needed – boards contained detailed information about the climb, the temperature and estimated times for sunrise was updated daily and the staff were always on hand to answer a multitude of questions to help you prepare.
And so I had my plan locked down within a couple of hours – I would climb the Yoshida Trail starting around midday from the 5th Station starting point in order to reach the mountain house on the 8th Station after 3pm for the overnight stay. I would then sleep until it was time to begin the ascent to summit (the 10th Station) in the early hours of the morning for sunrise after 4.30am.
It was either that option or to start your trek at 9pm or 10pm and climb through the night, reaching summit for sunrise and making your way back down… all in one go. Since I was solo, which was isolating enough, not feeling at my absolute strongest and after listening to other travellers bemoan the freezing temperatures and depressing downpours throughout the night, I choose the softer option. There’s a third option, which is to traverse a much harder route that’s barely trodden, although it isn’t advised unless you a more experienced hiker.
Taking on the Trek
A one-hour bus ride from Kawaguchiko train station will bring you to the most well-known of the mountain’s four ‘5th Station’ official starting points, standing at 2,300 metres.
Greeted by swarms of people, who speckle the open space in a sea of bold colour (the Japanese have the smartest and most coordinated attire), you soon get sucked into the atmosphere of nervous excitement as you begin your trek on flat ground.
Close up, Fuji isn’t as attractive as she is from afar. The initial tree-lined paths slowly fade to charcoal coloured gravel walkways and rocky walls of grey and horizon hiding fog. You soon come to realise that the trek isn’t that scenic. Only then did I really begin to appreciate the crowds, whose hues of yellow, green, pink and blue added saturation to an otherwise dull mountain canvas.
Although you are only climbing around 1,500 metres from the 5th Station the summit, it should be noted that in the approximate six hour climb to summit, you are climbing this height relatively quickly. The climb is steep and strenuous in parts, and it’s only when you look down that you understand how sharp an incline you are on.
But…a short climb does not mean you are not immune to the effects of altitude, which can kick in pretty rapidly.
I took short breaks when I reached every new mountain station; I factored in small stops for re-fuelling my energy with snacks; I walked at a steady pace and drank lots of water; I did everything you are supposed to do. Importantly, I didn’t succumb to buying a canister of oxygen and relying on it in an obsessive way like many of the Japanese were doing, which can dangerously mask the affects of altitude.
Which was lucky as altitude hit me, and it hit me hard.
Altitude Sickness – What Do You do?
In most mountain climbing situations, such as during the Everest Base Camp trek, a person with obvious symptoms of altitude sickness is immediately taken down or stretchered down (if more of an emergency) in order to get them to a lower level of altitude to recover. Usually you are advised not to continue with your trek.
I expected to be treated with the same immediacy. My mountain house, called Gansomuro, was in between the 8th and 9th Stations at 3250 metres.
The first aid medical centre was on the eight station – not far at all. Yet not one member of staff would contact a doctor to see if I either needed help or if there was any way that I could be taken down (I saw cars). I managed to find a Japanese lady who spoke English and she too tried to reason with them to no avail.
Instead I was told to wait until sunrise as by then I would be fine, that the doctor was busy (even though they didn’t check) and to buy an expensive canister of oxygen to make myself better. I wasn’t even given a hot drink – instead I was told I would have to pay the insane prices if I wanted anything, including water.
So while I spent the day leisurely climbing Mount Fuji, I was left for six hours in a dizzy haze, depleted of all energy and vomiting into a plastic bag. It counts as some of the worst hours of my adventurous travelling life.
And I’m still so angry about it. Angry with the ‘dirty business’ side of mountain climbing that exists everywhere, where everything is about trying to extort as much money as possible from tourists. Angry that some people who work in these establishments have no awareness about the effects of altitude and a general understanding about the welfare of other people, especially when they are on their own where no one can look out for them or watch over them.
Getting Down and Admitting Defeat
Luckily, I had someone looking out for me – the Japanese lady wasn’t just my translator in a time of struggle, she became my friend. She promised me that she would summit Fuji, and detour back to the mountain hut on the way down to pick me up and that she wouldn’t leave me there on my own.
I was awoken by the mountain house worker around 6am as he entered the room and aggressively pulled apart the curtains and said bluntly: “Get up, it’s sunrise, you feel better’. I did feel better, but not that much, yet this was my cue to get the hell out.
But the lady had kept her promise and was waiting for me. She cared not for time or her own agenda – I would, of course, be slowing her down. We talked and laughed all the way back down to the 5th Station where we both sighed in relief and delighted in the finish. I saw the sun rise over Mount Fuji through her photos as we ate ice cream – it was incredibly beautiful watching the sky change from dark blue, to fiery red and then to clear blue sky – and there we intense crowds of people.
Then she said to me: “I will never climb a mountain like this again. It was hard and I didn’t really enjoy it.”
“I’ll be back again one day” I replied. “I’m not finished with it yet…”
Many thanks to Hostelworld for organising my stay in the Fuji area of Japan and to K’s House for having me as their guest for two nights. Neither Hostelworld or K’s House had any involvement with my booking at the Gansomoro mountain hut. All opinions remain my own.