Night Hiking Mount Fuji: A Tale of Cold Fear and New Friends

Six guys on Mount Fuji

By this time next week, I’ll be well on my way to Taiwan. Before I go, I want to share a past adventure with all of you — last summer’s assault on Mount Fuji.

The photo above (courtesy of Jamie Miles) shows me with five awesome guys, basking in the sunrise on Mount Fuji. If I let the photo speak for itself, it would tell a cool story — the story of how I ascended Mount Fuji with five guys, and we had a blast at the top.

That would be a good story, but the real one is even better. Let’s go back to 7pm, the night before.

Cold Fear

It was early August. I was on a bus from Shinjuku Station, Tokyo. The last vestiges of sunlight gradually disappeared beyond the horizon, as the bus driver weaved us through the rugged terrain. I had Art-School cranked to 11 on my MP3 player, and I was trying not to freak out.

Why was I so nervous? Because I was alone, and on my way to climb the tallest mountain in Japan — twice as tall as any peak I’d scaled before — in the middle of the night. Though I’d done plenty of crazy things in my life, this one took the cake.

About an hour and a half outside of Tokyo, the bus stopped meandering through the mountains, and began chugging up a straight, narrow road — the final ascent before reaching Kawaguchiko 5th station, the most common starting point for aspiring hikers. The sunlight had vanished completely. I noted the road signs, signifying the 1st through 4th mountain stations, as they gleamed in the bus’s headlights.

Eventually, the trees along the roadside gave way to the 5th station, and the bus pulled into a parking lot. I made sure I had all of my things, then stepped off the bus to meet the mountain. The first thing I noticed was the chilly air. I’d bought a few basic items in advance of the hike — notably, Uniqlo hoodie for warmth and a headlamp for light — but the cold made me worry that my preparations wouldn’t be enough.

I watched as other people boarded the bus, which then departed, disappearing back down the mountain, and leaving me stranded 2,300 meters above sea level. I hadn’t even started hiking yet, and already I was standing above the highest point in South Korea, my home of nearly three years at the time.

I went inside the 5th station shop to buy a few more supplies — snacks, a buff band, gloves, and a rain poncho — and to throw my unneeded possessions into a locker. Then I went to stand outside, postponing my climb just a little longer — I didn’t feel ready yet.

The crowd at Kawaguchiko 5th station

There was actually a rather large group in front of the store; I started talking with a few people, hoping to find a partner or two to make the ascent with, but I had no such luck — all the people I talked to had all just come down from the mountain. Their descriptions of the experience helped make me feel better about the hike ahead, yet the thought of ascending in the dark still scared me.

I saw a pair of hikers walk off into the distance, watching as their bodies gradually faded into the night, until finally I could only see their headlamps bobbing in the distance. If they can do it, I can do, I thought. Ready or not, it was time to begin the long ascent.

The Darkest Climb

Initially, the trail was quite flat, with lush greenery visible through the darkness on either side.  It didn’t take me very long to get the 6th station. A ranger posted there handed me a card, written in English, with a few warnings — the usual stuff:

  • Wear proper clothing
  • Bring enough water
  • Carry out everything you bring in
  • Be wary of altitude sickness
  • blah blah blah blah

After reading it over, I stuffed it in my pocket.

At the 6th station, I took note of the scenery. Looking down, I could see lights from the surrounding towns, shining up at me through the patchwork cloud cover below. I tried to take a photo, but my pocket camera’s small lens couldn’t gather enough light to capture the intricacies of the scene.

Looking up, I saw scores of hikers in front of me, making their way up the mountain trail as it wound back and forth. A sign told me that I had only 1,300 meters to go. I stopped to think … one of my favorite climbs in Korea, a little mountain called Bomunsan, was about 450m tall. That meant that to get to the top of Mount Fuji, I only needed to “climb Bomunsan” three times in succession! With a fresh burst of confidence, I continued upward.

Between the 6th and 7th stations, I passed numerous hiking groups, led by guides using flags to shepherd their followers. It all felt very similar to the mountains I’d climbed in Korea (Koreans are also big fans of group hiking). Also as in Korea, my shoes of choice — a pair of ultra lightweight FiveFingers — allowed me to practically bound from boulder to boulder as I scrambled up the trail. I was in my element.

I kept going up. The further I climbed, the more desolate the mountain became. Every so often, I’d pass a hut, packed with sleeping climbers — people who’d hiked partway in the daylight, with the intention of waking up early in the morning to finish the ascent and catch the sunrise. Occasionally, I’d see hikers taking a hits of oxygen from small metal cans — not unlike the canned oxygen Mel Brooks hoarded in the movie Spaceballs —  to compensate for the thinning atmosphere.

After passing 8th station, the huts that had littered the lower parts of the trail stopped reappearing — I was in the home stretch. As I approached 9th station, the final station before the summit,  the cold finally started to seep through to my bones. I hoped I’d find another hut where I could purchase a steamy, overpriced bowl of ramen noodles, but 9th station wasn’t that kind of place — in fact, I’d hardly call it a “station” at all. The only landmark was a single Japanese “torii” gate, sitting on the rocky mountainside, much like the U.S. flag that sits on the face of the moon; a relic in the middle of a barren wasteland.

Statues on Mount Fuji

My toes were freezing — my minimalist shoes had been great for getting up the mountain, but they offered absolutely no insulation from the cold. Luckily, I’d brought a pair of sneakers and two pairs of socks in my backpack. I took shelter behind a rock outcropping, and changed my shoes — we were back in business. When I stepped out from the protection of my little nook, the wind once again began tugging at my thin, throwaway rain parka. I was definitely underdressed, wearing only a sweatshirt and the parka, but as long as I kept moving, I had no trouble keeping warm.

About 20 minutes later, I rounded the final bend of the trail. It took me a moment to realize that I’d finished my trek — I was at the summit!

The Wait Forever

You’re probably thinking that after I reached the summit, the rest was easy. In reality, the hours between my final ascent and the sunrise were the most difficult part of the whole ordeal.

You see, I reached the summit at around 2am. However, the sun wasn’t scheduled to rise until 5am. This meant I had 3 hours to spend at 3,700m, wearing only a sweat-drenched hoodie, and a cheap rain parka. During the climb, my body had generated enough heat to offset my lack of proper gear. As soon as I stopped moving, my body’s inner furnace stopped burning, and the cold began to seep through my body. I think the thin air finally started to affect me as well.

There were a few other early arrivals on the peak. I had a Japanese guy take my picture, I bought a warm can of coffee from a vending machine (yes, there are vending machines on the summit of Mount Fuji), and then I tried to find a place out of the wind to keep warm.

At the summit of Mount Fuji

In that regard, I didn’t have much luck. All of the buildings on the summit were closed until morning, and I couldn’t find any structures that offered adequate protection. I could feel my body giving out on me — I’d had it happen once before on a New Year’s Hike in South Korea. I was lightheaded and queasy, with no idea how I could solve the problem. For a time, I just curled up tighter and closed my eyes, hoping I’d start to feel better. That was definitely the worst part of the night — I was alone, sick, and helpless.

Eventually, the coffee worked its way through my body, and I heard nature calling. I picked myself up off the ground, and went searching for a bathroom.

Why Yes, I Love Meeting Men in Bathrooms

The bathroom on the summit of Mount Fuji is a small shack. When I walked through the door, I found myself in a small entryway, cluttered with various tools, which in turn led to two smaller rooms — the men’s and women’s toilets.

There were two guys standing in the entryway — both English speaking, non-Japanese men. For a moment, I assumed they were waiting for the bathroom, but quickly realized that they were just hanging out, so I went ahead and took care of business. After I finished, I decided that I too would stand in the bathroom entryway — it wasn’t heated, but at least it was out of the wind!

I’m the not most talkative guy, and I still wasn’t feeling very well, so for a while I stood in silence, listening to their conversation. Apparently, they were exchange students from Oxford, in Japan working as interns for a non-Japanese geisha. After a time, my queasiness began to subside, and I decided to join in their conversation.

I soon found out that their names were Lauri and Oktoviano (Okto for short). They told me about their Japanese experience, and how they’d climbed up Mount Fuji with three other friends. Meanwhile, I told them about how I’d been teaching ESL in South Korea, and I was just visiting Japan for a few days. Good conversation.

All told, we spent at least an hour holed up in the bathroom shack. As the minutes passed, more and more people started shuffling past us to use the toilets. That felt slightly awkward; however, we weren’t actually in anyone’s way, so I didn’t worry about it too much. A couple of hiking guides told us we shouldn’t loiter in the entryway, but I was still not feeling particularly well — there was no way in I was going to step back out into the bone chilling wind.

Eating Ramen on Mount Fuji

Eventually, one of Lauri and Okto’s friends appeared. He told us that a little while ago, the summit  huts — big buildings, complete with heat and food — had opened up! He didn’t need to tell us twice — my new friends and I immediately left the bathroom entryway and sat down at a floor table in one of the huts. There I was introduced to the other three members of Lauri and Okto’s hiking group: Callum, Jamie, and Nicholas.

My appetite was weak at first. Yet when my sweaty clothes finally dried off and I began warm up, hunger set in. The bowl you see in my hands may well be the most delicious bowl of ramen I’ve ever tasted, if only because I’d worked so hard to get it. The taste of a mountain conquered!

The Sun Also Rises

After that, it was just a matter of waiting for the sun to come up. I went outside with my new friends to watch in anticipation. I was no longer drenched in sweat and the ramen had boosted my energy level, so I managed to tolerate the cold air.

Sunrise on Mount FujiThe sun was stubborn that day, hiding below a thick layer of clouds for over half an hour before finally revealing itself.  Once it finally rose above the clouds, we snapped a few pictures — including the one I used to lead off this post. 

After getting our shots, we huddled up and discussed what our next move should be. Initially, we considered hiking around Mount Fuji’s volcanic rim, to get the full 360 degree experience. In the end, we decided that we’d seen enough, and began heading down the mountain.

What Goes Up…

The path down is actually much different than the path going up. Whereas the ascending trail was rocky, the descending path was composed of a very fine dirt. The trail was laden with tread marks, left by small vehicles that deliver supplies up and down the mountain. Though going downhill is always a little hard on the knees, overall the trail down was a pleasant change of pace after the ascent and the frigid wait at the top.

About a third of the way down the mountain, my new friends and I came to a fork in the road. They were headed to Hakone, to enjoy time in the city’s famous onsen (Japanese hot springs). I considered joining them, until remembered that I’d left my things in a locker at the Kawaguchiko 5th station.Heading Down Mount Fuji

So we split ways, agreeing to contact each other to try to arrange a meetup in Tokyo. (I did get another chance to meet Jamie, Lauri, and Okto on the last day of my Japan trip, for a night out in Shibuya. We actually had a bit of trouble finding each other at the meeting point we chose — thanks to showers, shaves, and clean clothes, we could hardly recognize each other!)

I proceeded the rest of the way alone. By mid-morning it became quite hot, and there was no respite from the sun, leaving me with a lovely sunburn by the time I finished the descent.

Near the 6th station — the one I’d passed withn the first 30 minutes of my ascent — the downward path finally reconnected with the trail I’d gone up. A short while later, I was back at 5th station — right where I’d started. Where 12 hours before, I had been scared to death of the travails that awaited me on Mount Fuji.

The previous night, it had been cold and dark. Now, in the light of day, 5th station was sunny, warm, and bustling with tourists. In fact, many people visit 5th station via car or bus and go straight back down, content to enjoy the view from the halfway point.

I reclaimed by belongings from that locker, and went to go buy a bus ticket. The next available bus didn’t come for two hours; that didn’t bother me. I paid for my ticket, and went to take a long, peaceful nap in the grass.

I’d earned it.

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If you’re looking for more information on how to hike Mount Fuji, I recommend starting with the Mount Fuji Wikitravel page. I’m also more than happy to answer any questions you may have — you can contact me here.

Lastly, Jamie Miles allowed me to use a photo from his collection as the header for this post; I can’t thank him enough for that kindness. All other photos were uploaded from my camera.

Henry Olsen

Writer, adventurer, and humble servant of the universe since 1986.