You are wise to climb Fuji once and a fool to climb it twice (Japanese proverb)
Climbing Mount Fuji means walking up a steep heap of lava with the occasional rock here and there. Sometimes it also means scrambling over fields of solid rock. The path is sufficiently marked, much effort has been spent into protecting it against mountain slides, and steel cables are provided as handrails wherever necessary.
The official Fuji climbing season starts on July 1. Before that day, bus services from Tokyo are rather sparse, with one bus driving out at 8.45am (to reach '5th station' by 11) and two buses returning from 5th station at 2pm and 4pm. 5th station is the base camp at 2305m and features a couple of houses and the usual tourist traps. There are some 6 more stations further up the mountain, with a somewhat confusing numbering scheme that has 6th, 7th, 9th stations plus two 'old 8th stations' and a 'new 8th station'. All of these are only reachable by foot or helicopter. During the Fuji climbing season, they provide accomodation for those who decide to walk up in the afternoon, stay overnight on a bamboo mat and climb up the rest in the very early morning hours to watch the sunrise from the mountain's summit. Climbing from 5th station to the top takes about 5hrs up and 3hrs down, ie, it takes too long to return on the same day.
Now, on Saturday we (two colleagues and yours truly) set out to mount Mount Fuji. This was well before the beginning of the official Fuji climbing season. Therefore we decided that we'd climb up, walk down, miss the bus and call a taxi to take us to Kawaguchiko railway station which is located at the foot of the mountain. Apart from the usual climbing outfit (solid footwear, weatherproof garment, food, water, torch lights, you name it), we also had a Japanese mobile phone and a portable GPS navigation device. This was deemed enough to get us home safely and in stable mental condition. We determined that everybody should walk at their own pace, that we meet at the summit, and in any case, meet at the bus stop at 5th station.
Things started quite well, the weather was fine and after some 3 hours we had reached the first of several 8th stations. By this time, however, we had already separated. So there was me, alone, some 20 minutes after my two colleagues who carried the phone and the GPS thingie. The cottages at 6th/7th/8th station were firmly shut, but preparations for the season were ongoing on three huts further up the mountain. When I reached 9th station (at 3250m, with 500m remaining), the two were out of sight and my muscles said that this was enough. So, after having lunch break I turned around, climbed back down and reached 5th station at 6pm.
- Surprise #1: 5th station was dead and closed. Nobody in sight, all shops closed, all shutters down (later I learned that 5th station would be abandoned right after the last bus had left, ie: shortly after 4pm).
- Surprise #2: No public telephone. Not even an emergency (SOS) phone. Thus, there was no way to phone up my colleagues, nor was there a chance to call a taxi.
Nothing continued to happen.
7pm, darkness set in.
Occasionally, some other climbers came down the mountain. I asked them all about the whereabouts of my colleages. Some had seen them, one had met them on the summit, one group had seen them leave the summit on a different route, one said they ought to be here just about any time.
8pm, with more nothings happening in between.
Every once in a while, I saw some blinking lights in the dark distance. But every time, these turned out to be yet another Japanese or foreign tourist getting back to 5th station where they had left their cars.
9pm, and pondering.
Should anything have happened to my colleagues then it must have killed them both. Otherwise, at least one of them ought to show up, or I should be hearing the sounds of a helicopter, or seeing the torch lights of rescue teams working their way through the mountain slopes. None of these was the case.
10pm, still pondering.
As they hadn't arrived yet, they either didn't want or couldn't return to 5th station. In both cases, there was nothing I could do. Did they take cover in one of the huts above 7th station? Should I break a glass of one of the shops, to set off an alarm that would call in the police? Most likely, they would only speak Japanese, and which reason could I provide that would warrant starting a Search & Rescue endeavour? I determined that it was unlikely that they would show up before dawn, there was no way for me to leave the place, and the best thing to do would be to go to sleep.
This was easier said than done.
All buildings being firmly shut, all I could find was a couple of wooden benches, a plastic doormat and a 1m recess under the roof of a building. Arranging one bench as my bivouac and four others as a windshield, I put myself to rest. After all, I was certain that I was the only human being around the place, and I felt confident that the body odours emanating from my clothes would qualify me as 'non-food' for everything else.
I woke up at 11pm from a certain chattering of teeth and other bones, and a numb feeling from the parts that were in direct contact with the hard wood of that bench. Walked around for a couple of minutes and peeked into the dark distance where I hoped to see a couple of torch lights approaching (they didn't). Same at 12pm, same at 1am, and so forth until after 4am.
At 5am, a bus arrived and one of the shops opened. I walked in, managed to get the attention of the keeper and was shown the telephone and the phone card vending machine. (Aside: the Japanese really know how to build vending machines ! They accept real money, they refuse false money, they give exact change, they give you what you've just bought and they simply do what they are supposed to, ie: vending. This is in contrast to the machines operated by Munich public transport). While the phone ticked away some 20 cash units (1000 Yen, ~8 EUR, bought me 50 units), I phoned up the hotel reception desk, learned that nobody had left me a message and left a voice mail for my colleagues, to the effect that I was alive, still on the mountain and unaware of their status. Then the shopkeeper showed me the door, indicating that he had opened just for the people riding on that , which was not a public one.
Now, if they hadn't left me a message, they ought to be still on the mountain, dead or alive. I walked 15 minutes into the trail, to a point where I could see a good part of the ascending way. 45 minutes went by, without anybody moving downwards from somewhere. So, wherever my colleagues spent the night, it surely wasn't one of the huts at 6th/7th/etc. station. An early Japanese climber passed, wearing only shoes, short trousers and a T-shirt, and jogged uphill .
I fumbled around in my pockets and finally found the telephone number of that Japanese mobile phone. Walked back to 5th station and waited until 7.30am until one of the shops opened. I dialled the number and...
... was connected with colleague E. <sigh>
'Where are you?', I asked.
'In the hotel, and you?'
'Still on the mountain.'
Using up most of the remaining cash units, we cleared up what had happened in that night:
They climbed up to the summit, spent some time in the cold up there and then descended. They took the fast road down, which is official and is also marked as such. However, the GPS device told them that they were also constantly moving away towards the West from the way they had taken upwards. They had missed the connecting path, but realised it only after they had gotten too far downhill. Furthermore, it was getting dark, the path wasn't discernible from the lava gravel. The GPS track file showed several attempts to find an Eastbound path.
At one point, they saw smoke rising from a hut and went there. They met a Japanese ranger, were invited into the hut and offered a . The ranger didn't speak English but anyway, they managed to communicate. The ranger showed them how to get back to 5th station and they gave it another try. Alas, there was no way of getting through the wood, so they went back to the hut. The ranger drove them down the mountain on his tracked vehicle. They spent the equivalent of 140 EUR for a taxi that took them to a railway station, and reached the hotel by 3am. They had thought about driving to 5th station but were told that the toll station at the foot of the mountain would be closed at 7pm.
So there was me, still at 5th station, with 6 hours left to wait for the next bus. I remembered that the bus had taken quite some time upwards from Kawaguchiko. Pondering this way and that way, I walked around and then saw a spanning the road downwards and decided that this was a sign for me to leave the mountain on shank's mare.
Just ten minutes later, I managed to flag down a passing ... Volkswagen . Inside was a young Japanese family of three, plus a brand-new GPS navigation system. I muttered 'Kawaguchiko station?' and the driver nodded. I kept my jacket firmly closed, knowing that I sure could use a bath. Some 30 minutes later (the young father had opened the window and turned up the ventilator) I was at Kawaguchiko station and had a bus ticket. Finally, at 11.20am, I sank into the hot tub in the hotel room.
Epilogue (lessons learned)
- All of the three of us had asked the hotel clerk whether there was a message, but nobody thought of the voice recorder.
- Why on Earth didn't I take a towel along?
- A set of walkie-talkies, or a second mobile phone, would have saved us a whole lot of nerves.
- Finally, this was my second time on Mount Fuji, and I *could* have known better
PS: Many, many thanks and apologies to that friendly Japanese family!