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Fuji: Scaling famous peak can be done with some planning

The writer's daughter, Summer Robson, nears the summit of Fuji. Anyone in reasonably good shape shouldn’t have too much trouble with the climb.

It’s been said that a wise man climbs Mount Fuji at least once in his life but that only a fool does it twice.

Those who dare attempt a double ascent of Japan’s highest peak in summer might consider doing night and day climbs to get the full experience of Japan’s highest peak — listed as a World Heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in June.

Climbing during the day, mid-week, is the simplest option.

From Yokota Air Base, it’s possible to get up around 7 a.m., drive to the 5th Station car park — the trail head for one of several routes to the summit — reach the top mid-afternoon and be down well before sunset.

The 5th Station features plenty of shops and restaurants, free toilets and lockers to stow anything you don’t want to carry.

Midweek there are only moderate — by Fuji standards — crowds on the mountain, which makes for a stress-free hike up to 12,388 feet.

Anyone in reasonably good shape shouldn’t have too much trouble with the climb, if that’s what you want to call walking up a zigzag track that’s literally wide enough for tractors to drive up. If you get hungry or thirsty, there are plenty of huts along the way selling snacks and drinks.

Want to carry a heavy pack? Bring plenty of water. But if you don’t mind shelling out $5 for a bottle, just buy it along the way. The same goes for food. A bowl of ramen at the summit runs about $12.

There’s not much risk of falling to your death on the mountain’s moderately inclined, dust-covered slopes, but you could end up with a nasty sunburn if you don’t wear a wide-brimmed hat and slather on plenty of sunscreen.

The other big challenge for Fuji mountaineers is going to the bathroom. Hikers aren’t supposed to urinate on the side of the trail, and the lack of vegetation means there are no private places to do it. Several toilets are located along the way, but they are pay toilets so make sure you bring plenty of 100 yen coins.

Weather conditions on the mountain are normally quite pleasant in summer. Both day and night climbs can be done in shorts with, perhaps, a moisture wicking T-shirt and a warm layer such as polar fleece for higher elevations. It’s worth carrying a raincoat, too, just in case.

The view from the summit can be spectacular. If you get tired of looking down at Tokyo, Lake Kawaguchiko and Japan’s eastern coastline, you can stare into Mount Fuji’s crater. It’s not much to look at, but it’s big enough that you can imagine a Kaiju or two crawling out to wreak havoc on the capital.

Many people find going down as tiring as going up, but it’s easier than it looks because the path is cut into a slope of volcanic dust that has a bit of give in it. If you aim your boots for the places where it’s piled up, you can slide your way down the hill reasonably comfortably and quickly. People who get tired legs usually start to add extra zigzags or walk backwards.

Well-known author and mountaineer Jon Krakauer has observed that, for mountaineers, getting to the top of any given mountain is considered much less important than how one gets there, and that prestige is earned by tackling the most unforgiving routes with minimal equipment, in the boldest style imaginable.

For one group of unlucky Mount Fuji climbers, something like the reverse is true.

It only takes a moment’s inattention on the way down to find yourself on a magical mystery tour of trails that lead to the opposite side of the mountain from where you started. If that happens, you will need your wits about you to navigate back to your car via a series of buses, unless you want to shell out $200 for a taxi. That’s not the sort of thing you want to do after an exhausting climb, but plenty of people do it.

To avoid this trap, traverse back over to the trail that you climbed up on within about 500 meters of the summit and head back to the 5th Station car park.

The difficulties of reaching the top of Fuji are compounded at night and during the weekend.

Night climbers from Tokyo typically arrive at the 5th Station at dusk.

To make it to the top of the mountain before sunrise, which comes at around 4.30 a.m. in summer, you need to start climbing before 9 p.m.

One advantage of night climbing is protection from heat and sun on the way up the mountain. Another is the glow of other climbers’ headlamps that stretch like a string of glowworms toward the summit and help light the way.

Among the disadvantages are sleep deprivation and crowds.

The area near the summit of Mount Everest in Nepal is known as the “death zone” — a place where the lack of oxygen saps climbers’ wills and frozen bodies litter the slopes.

The bodies littering the slopes near the summit of Mount Fuji usually aren’t frozen in summer, but there are plenty of warm ones, waiting patiently in line along the trail that makes getting to the summit a bit like waiting in line at a high-altitude government department.

The summit, first thing in the morning, looks a bit like a high-altitude, Asian version of Woodstock. Thousands of weary hikers pack the peak waiting for the rising sun.

However, when the sun rises — sending spectacular rays in all directions and lighting up Japan’s east coast — it makes all the pain and suffering of the ascent seem worthwhile.

robson.seth@stripes.com

Directions

From Yokota, get on the Chuo Expressway and drive toward Kofu (away from Shinjuku & Tokyo). About 45km after the Hachioji entrance start watching for the Otsuki Junction-interchange where the Chuo splits. Bear left towards Kawaguchi-Ko. Continue on the expressway to Exit 2, about 11 km. You will see a large amusement park (Fujikyu Highlands) to your left. The one-way toll will be about Y2,000. After the tollgate, you’ll come to a “T.” Go left on Rt. 138 to reach Lake Yamanaka. A right turn will take you towards the town of Kawaguchi-Ko, the other four lakes and the road to Mt. Fuji

Times

Mount Fuji is open for climbing only in July and August.

Costs

Parking and walking are free but using toilets on the mountain cost 200 yen.

Food

There are plenty of restaurants at the 5th station and snacks, drinks and food such as ramen can be purchased at huts along the trail to the summit

Website

www.yamanashi-kankou.jp/english

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