The sounds of the climb were repetitive, and almost soothing: The gentle crunch of shoes against volcanic rock and debris; the steady jingle of bells attached to the climbers’ hiking poles; and the occasionally raspy breath of a person inhaling from an oxygen bottle.
The Yoshida Trail is the most popular of the 4 main routes to Fuji’s summit, and we could see a long line of climbers extending up the path in front of us. The climbers’ multi-coloured hiking gear looked like a rainbow, which contrasted against the otherwise grey-brown, rocky slopes of Fuji.
Some people are deterred by the number of climbers on Mount Fuji, particularly during Japan’s Obon holiday week when we did our climb; but I felt a kinship towards the other hikers. Summiting Fuji carries many different meanings for different people, but there was a sense that we were all on a kind of pilgrimage together. We were all pushing ourselves a little (or, in some cases, a lot!) beyond our usual physical capacities. We were all tired, but determined.
The challenge of climbing Mount Fuji is known for being underestimated by many tourists. It’s true that you can hike straight up the trail without any major climbing gear, but Fuji is still the highest mountain in a rather mountainous country. It’s a very long, very steep, and very rocky hike.
The Yoshida Trail was narrow, which meant we were rarely able to pass other hikers in front of us. The result was that everyone had to walk slowly. Altitude sickness is incredibly common, so I was grateful that we were forced to pace ourselves, allowing our bodies more time to adjust to the increasing altitude.
The changing altitude was a very weird experience. Sometimes I stopped noticing it for a while, but then we would stop for a break, and I would realize how forcefully my heart was pounding. We gradually added clothing layers as we ascended: First fleeces on top of our T-shirts and shorts, then thick winter jackets, then long pants and gloves.
After about 5 hours of hiking, we reached the 8th station, where we would spend the night before setting out for the summit early in the morning. When we entered our hut, we were each inexplicably presented with yellow, magnetic Mount Fuji chip clips as welcome gifts. The inside of the hut smelled like pine and curry. The entrance led into a common room with low tables where we could eat dinner, and then branched out into 2 smaller sleeping rooms.
The sleeping rooms were crammed with sleeping bags, which were lined up one against another. After dinner, we slept surrounded by, next to, and practically on top of 200 other hikers. At first the hut was icy cold, but it warmed as more and more bodies piled in.
At around midnight, people began to stir. They gathered their belongings and shook awake anyone who was still sleeping, “Come on, you’ll miss it.” Outside, the Yoshida trail was now illuminated by hundreds of flashlights and head torches.
There was more energy in the air now, and I felt a new competitive edge: I was aware that the first people to reach the peak would have the best views of sunrise. Fortunately, our hut was a little higher up the trail than most of the others, so we had a slight head start on the biggest crowds.
After another 3 hours of stumbling over rocks, following the narrow vision of my head torch, we reached the summit. The dark made our arrival somewhat anticlimactic because we weren’t sure if we had really arrived. At first, it just looked like another station hut, beyond which the trail might continue further. But then, we saw a few people cheering and snapping photos next to the summit sign, and we knew that we had made it.
We bought cans of milk tea that were being warmed in a pot of boiling water, and staked out a spot facing the dawn. It was 330am, and the horizon was still completely dark.
As the sky became lighter, the crowd swelled gradually larger. We stood quietly for over an hour, shivering under our many layers and watching the orange and pink waves slowly sweep across the horizon. Soon the sky was bright enough to light up the faces of the 100s of other hikers that had made the climb with us that night. We were all waiting for that first glimpse of the sun’s orb.
When the deep red orb finally burst onto the horizon, the crowd gasped. The dawn seemed to arrive quickly after that first moment. Only the round tip of the sun peeked out above the clouds, but then, in the blink of an eye, the entire orb was visible, slowly turning from red to orange. People cheered, hugged and snapped triumphant photos.
Amide all of the celebration, one man jumped up on a ledge and hollered “Ohayou Gozaimasu!”. Good Morning.