Climbing Mount Fuji, out of shape and out of season
The trail glows bone white under our boots. Konohana, the Shinto spirit of sacred Fujisan, smiles on us mountaineer-wannabes in the form of a harvest moon and cloudless sky. On short notice, I’m attempting an early, out-of-season ascent of Mount Fujisan – an overnight dangan tozan, bullet climb – with two friends from Tokyo, David and Naomi. The weather forecast looks good; the crowds on the most popular — read easiest — trail should be thinner. So far, we’ve been right. With a moon like this to light our way, we have no need for headlamps. Eight thousand feet below, Mount Fuji’s triangular moonshadow turns the Aokigahara, the so-called “Forest of Suicides,” a deeper, darker shade of green. At the top waits the promise of the fabled goraiko, the so-called “honourable arrival of light:” sunrise from the summit of the highest point in Japan.
We’ve also been lucky. Even in the official climbing season of July and August, conditions on the mountain — actually an extinct volcano — can and often do take a turn for the worse. Many of the 300,000 climbers who start never make it to the top of this newly anointed World Heritage Site (inducted in 2013). Wind, cold and altitude can turn this seven-mile, 4,900-foot-gain “day trip” from Tokyo into an arduous trek. Some who get caught out never make it down.
Once the snow arrives, only experienced and well-equipped mountaineers tackle Fujisan’s exposed slopes. Tonight, though, we’re in the shoulder season. Cold, yes, and it’ll get colder as we go higher and through the night: the average low bottoms out at about 13 degrees Fahrenheit, well below sweltering, tropical Tokyo. Still, only a mercifully light wind blows, and snow and ice have yet to cover the rocks. Lights shine from some of the huts, and a few tour groups follow guides up-trail.
Early September. A few weeks after my 44th birthday. And I’m here for the wrong reason: to test myself. Middle age caught me out during overtime in a…