Arriving at the base of Japan’s highest mountain, we were excited yet admittedly a little naïve of the task ahead, tells James Pierce. We expected to see the peak of the mammoth snow-capped mountain we had seen in so many pictures before, but instead it was shrouded in cloud. In what can only be described as torrential downpour, we arrived as part of a 40-strong group of intrepid men and women, all with varying levels of climbing experience.
As soon as we saw a break in the rain, we started the climb full of high spirits, building confidence from passing groups of Japanese school children and elderly climbers. How hard could it be?
Walking sticks in hand, we reached the first few checkpoints with ease, spurred on by the awe-inspiring views above the clouds.
Up, up and away
Gradually the climb became steeper and, after a few hours, we really started to feel every step. The group had already split due to the varying levels of fitness and our early enthusiasm was dwindling; we were in desperate need of a pick-me-up.
As if by magic, it came in the form of a Japanese couple climbing with their small child. Seeing that we were struggling they offered us their last few pieces of chocolate. It was amazing the affect that tiny sugar boost had on us. We picked up our sticks and motored upwards in search of the halfway checkpoint, where we were had planned to spend the night.
Nightfall approached fast, so we turned on our head torches, dimly lighting the path ahead. We continued to stumble alone, using our sticks to feel the uneven steep ground ahead. A few hours later, we made it.
A chance to relax, meet some new local friends and enjoy a traditional Japanese feast: a prawn pot noodle. Okay, so fine dining it was not, but never have noodles tasted so good.
Outside the temperature had dropped dramatically and it was time to rest for the night – or for a few hours at least. I hadn’t been expecting the Hilton, but I certainly wasn’t prepared for the hardest sleep of my life either.
We lay on the hard floor and soon enough a chorus of snores filled the cabin, destroying any hopes of some much-needed shuteye.
Sleep is overrated
Soon it became apparent that sleep was going to allude us for the night, so, determined to get the job done, we abandoned our beds and set off again. It was around 2am, pitch black and bitterly cold, but nothing could stop us from reaching the top of that mountain.
The climb had become a lot steeper and the pace somewhat slower, but we were spurred on by the knowledge that most of the group was still fast asleep and, with a little effort, that we could be the first ones to the summit.
The weather took a turn for the worse and we were quickly reminded of the consequences of poor preparation: it turned out our rucksacks weren’t waterproof and our extra layers had been soaked as a consequence. It was going to be an uncomfortable few hours before we reached our destination.
At around 5am the moment we had finally been waiting for came; we were at the top of Japan. The view was… well, it was pitch-black, there was no view, but the signs told us we were at the top and that was all that mattered! In celebration we treated ourselves to jam sandwiches and boiling hot coffee in a can (only in Japan will you get hot coffee in a can).
The joy of reaching the summit quickly turned to realisation: we still had to go all the way back down the mountain. Once again our competitive nature came to the forefront and, wanting to be the first ones down, we were soon on our way again.
Reaping the rewards
It was at this point that it all felt worthwhile. As we continued, the sun began to rise against the looming backdrop of Mount Fuji and we felt buoyant, not just from the incredible views but also from the much-needed warmth the early morning rays offered.
We descended rapidly down the mountain and, before we knew it, we were back to where it all had started the day before. We had finally finished our Mount Fuji climb. It seemed like a blur.
We took time out to enjoy the level ground and pulled our boots off for the first time in what felt like forever. When the group rejoined us hours later, we were treated to a trip to a Japanese hot spring – a welcome delight despite the nudity! Not wanting to shy away, I bared all and made the most of what the onsen and its warm waters had to offer. After all, it was a well-deserved reward after one of the most amazing and gruelling experiences of my life.
Next stop? Tokyo.