Well, the Mount Fuji climbing season is approaching again and so I thought I might write a cheery post of the dangers that await you should you wish to ascend Japan’s highest peak and national pride and joy.
If you were to judge Mount Fuji purely on the numbers of people and the kind of people who climb it, you would likely conclude that it is not a particularly hard mountain to climb. How can it be? You can take a bus half way up, hundreds of thousands of people successfully reach the summit every year and many of those people are simply weekend visitors who have never climbed any kind of mountain previously. I know. I was one such climber. Add to that the fact that a hundred-year-old man has made the summit and that I know several twelve-year-olds who have made it without much trouble and you could be forgiven for thinking that it must hardly be a challenge at all. Indeed, just two years ago my wife’s parents reached the top. My father-in-law is in his seventies, his wife not far off. Neither is in any way athletic and yet they succeeded. Granted they only made it in time for a sundown when they were aiming for the sunrise, but at least they got there in the end! Easy, then? Well, no. Many do indeed reach the top, but likewise many don’t. Even amongst those that do there are plenty of tales of woe and never-agains, and there is good reason as to why the saying about the wise man is so oft-quoted.
Of course, those at greatest risk are the adventurous souls who ignore the warnings about climbing out of season and tackle Fuji when the snow lies thick upon her crown. The temperatures at the top have been known to plunge to −38.0 °C. The Fuji-Yoshida official website offers ‘Three Deadly Reasons to Stay off Mt. Fuji in the off-season.’ They are avalanche, winds and hypothermia. Mount Fuji is steep, has lots of snow and little on her slopes to block its path should that snow take a slide downwards. ‘When a slab of ice breaks free,’ warns the website, ‘hikers are pummeled against snow, ice, and trees and buried as if encased in wet concrete.’ Strong winds are common at the summit. One experienced climber, a member of the Toyohashi Alpine Club by the name of Darren DeRidder, wrote in his report of scaling Mount Fuji in winter, ‘After the ninth stage we couldn’t stand up anymore. The wind was just too strong. We had our crampons on and our ice axes, but we had to crouch down in the howling gale just to keep from getting blown off the mountain.’ He did survive, though. He was fortunate. The winds are strong enough that in the compilation of fatal statistics for Mount Fuji, two men in 2005 are noted as dying by being ‘blown away’ from the summit. One was a 25-year old Czech male climbing in November, the other a 30-year-old Frenchman climbing in July. So off-season or not, winds can simply blow you clear off the mountain! Indeed, the Fuji-Yoshida site warns that, ‘There have been several cases of tents flying off of the slopes with their occupants onboard.’ But there are no yellow brick roads awaiting those unlucky climbers.
Hypothermia is a risk all year round but of course is a far greater risk in the winter months. A few people who have perished are simply recorded as having frozen. A far likelier way to meet your demise, however, is to slip. Most victims are male and are simply listed as having ‘slipped’ or ‘slipped down’. These slips however are not a simple tumble and a bang of the head, although those falls do occur, too. No, these are slips that send the climber on a toboggan ride without a toboggan and force him to rely on something solid to break both his fall and, sadly, his body. On 1st January, 2007, one chap, after witnessing the first sunrise of the year, took a tumble for over a kilometre from the 8th station to the 4th. Four people died climbing Fuji in 2011. All were male. One was just seventeen years old. Three were climbing out of season.
If you are contemplating a winter hike, you would do well to read the story of Petty Officer 1st Class Corey Baughman who was stationed at the U.S. Sasebo Naval Base and decided that before returning to The United States, a winter ascent of mount Fuji might be fun. According to the report in the military newspaper and website Stars & Stripes, Baughman and two friends made it to within 100 metres of the summit before deciding enough was enough and that it was simply too dangerous to carry on. Still, they had made it quite far, and decided to shoot some video and take some photographs while they were up there. As the men are standing on the slopes their video camera is running, and they unexpectedly capture an extremely fast moving Japanese man who is sliding against his will down the mountain. A black, blurry ball zooming down the snowy flanks. Mudloff, one of Baughman’s companions, estimated the speed to be about 40 mph.
The man was 60 years old. The Americans set off to help him, reaching him after 30 minutes and phoning for help. As conditions worsened the man tried to keep the injured man warm, but they were all at risk of hypothermia. After sending his friends down the mountain, Baughman kept the man warm for a while and then began to lower him down in a sleeping bag.
Originally, Baughman had been told that a rescue helicopter couldn’t reach them above 3,000 meters and so when he was below that level, Baughman called again. He was told that conditions were still too bad for a helicopter rescue to be made. Baughman and the injured man took refuge in a storage hut on the mountain, lighting a fire in the hut but having to extinguish it once the floor caught fire. The rest of the night was spent in freezing conditions.
The helicopter arrived the next morning. The Japanese man had fractured legs and frostbite. Baughman, too, had frostbitten feet. But they are hardy men those military chaps, and after a night in a hotel, Baughman decided to hike back to his camping area on the mountain to get his bag with his car keys. He decided as he had gone that far, he may as well keep going and finally did manage to make the summit, proving that winter climbs are possible, but you might well get far more than you bargained for.
Now, despite the warnings and the very evident dangers of heading up the mountain in the colder months, it is not actually illegal to do so and every year there are people who take on the challenge. The police cannot stop them, but they do request to be kept informed and they do try to ensure that people know the risks. They warn that the mountain huts are closed, that food and water will not be available, and that the road to the fifth station is also closed for much of the year. Becoming stranded on the mountain is quite possible and the Yamanashi police department asks those intending to climb out of season to complete a ‘Police Climbing Form’ in order to register personal and group details of the climbing party. It also issues a warning sheet reminding potential climbers of the risks they face. The sheet begins with the information that Mount Fuji in winter ‘has been rated Danger Level 5, equaling it to parts of The Himalayas,’ and goes on to state that solitary climbing is strictly forbidden. Still, of those four deaths in 2011, all were listed as climbing alone. The department has thoughtfully translated the warning sheet into English for the benefit of international travellers. A little less thoughtfully, they don’t seem to have asked anyone if it makes sense. The last paragraph reads thus: ‘SINCE THE LIFE BORN TO THIS WORLD CANNOT MAKE THOSE WHOSE NUMBER IS ONE LAMENTED, DO NOT MAKE ABSOLUTE DANGEROUS MOUNTAIN CLIMBING IMPOSSIBLE BECAUSE OF A FAMILY OR THOSE WHO LOVE.’ Well, quite. Well said. Some say that to avoid the crowds, you should climb in June or September, but it is worth remembering that June is rainy season and September is when typhoons often blow in. The police are wise in their advice to avoid the off-season, even if they can’t express it very well in English!
So do July and August offer an easy climb, then? Well, easier, yes, but complacency is still your enemy. Danger still exists. People can stumble and fall with the potential to start a human domino chain, rocks can tumble down and knock you out cold, and weather is still not to be trusted. Lightning strikes, hypothermia, and being blown away have all occurred even during the climbing season. Japan’s Crown Prince had to abandon an attempt on the summit in 1988 due to bad weather, although he did make it to the top twenty years later. Even when the weather is good, there is still one thing that may very well force you back down the mountain earlier than you had hoped: altitude sickness.
Mount Fuji may only be 3,776 metres high, but that is high enough to suffer the effects of thinning air and a lack of oxygen. On the Kawaguchi trail the elevation gain is 1,471 meters, almost a vertical mile. As Gary Wolff, an experienced climber, explains on his site www.garyjwolff.com, that is comparable to climbing the Empire State Building in New York City almost 4 times. Altitude sickness affects some people and not others. A fit and healthy person may succumb to it while a chubby chap waddles his way to the top with no altitude induced problems whatsoever. Some simple precautions to avoid becoming a victim are to climb slowly and take plenty of breaks, allowing your body to adjust to the altitude as you go higher. This is one reason why an overnight stay in one of the small mountain rest huts may not be a bad idea. Yes, you have to suffer farts and snores, but at least your body has a chance to get used to the reduction of oxygen in your system. The reduction caused by the altitude, that is, not the reduction due to increased amounts of methane. For extra help you can buy bottles of oxygen at the fifth stations and many of the rest huts, which may well help you out if you experience shortness of breath on the way up.
Some symptoms of altitude sickness are nausea, headaches, dizziness and vomiting. The canned oxygen might help but the best remedy is simply to give up and head back down. Other more serious symptoms can include a build up of fluid in the lungs and on the brain, and so to continue upwards after noticing early symptoms wouldn’t seem to be the wisest thing in the world to do. Something called a High Altitude Pulmonary Edema comes from fluid building in the lungs and, apart from the fact that you will unattractively begin coughing up frothy white stuff and become confused, you might also die if you do not seek immediate medical attention. It’s brain equivalent, the High Altitude Cerebral Edema, comes with the possibilities of hallucinations and coma, and again the specter of death. So, I think the message is not to push on if you start to feel unwell. Accept defeat this time and make your way back down. Oh, and rather disappointingly its also best not to get a bit pissed on your way up as alcohol is not a friend of the acclimatizing body.