On Climbing Mount Fuji (With a Fear of Heights)

About 300,000 people a year climb Mt. Fuji. A handful of them die. Very few of them get panic attacks from standing on porches.

I’m acrophobic: Seven feet high and I’m nervous. Higher up I get dizzy; at 30 feet my heart races and beyond that I get sparks in my eyes. My body spikes with adrenalin and I can’t stand or speak coherently. If I go higher, I might black out.

It’s like being drunk, if you replace easy laughter with vertigo. Reasonably speaking, I had no business climbing the side of a 12,400-foot mountain.

The Milkman Jinx
Our plan was ambitious enough: I’d sleep until 1 p.m., catch a plane to Tokyo and travel nonstop to Mt. Fuji to hike overnight, starting at 9 p.m. and finishing at the peak by sunrise.

That plan began unraveling when the milk salesman rang my doorbell at 9 a.m. and shouted “Ohayo Gozaimasu!” five times. I don’t even drink milk.

My friends and I flew from Fukuoka to Tokyo and arrived 22 minutes late. Call it the Milkman’s curse. We literally ran through the airport to a taxi whose driver chuckled when we told him what time our bus left. We ended up missing the tour bus from Shinjuku to Mt. Fuji by exactly 3 minutes.

We hatched a plan. We left Shinjuku for Matsuda Station by subway (2 hrs)  and then took a train to Gotemba (1 hr). By this stage it was midnight and the station closed behind us, leaving us stranded with a kid breakdancing in the corner.

That’s when we found our bad-ass taxi driver. He said he’d take us for the hour-long trek by highway to the base of Mt. Fuji for 27,000 Yen ($330 USD). He also took us to a conbini, where I ate an egg salad sandwich, my first meal since curry rice eleven hours earlier. The cab driver speeds and points out deer on the highway. He says he was a cop.

Fifth Station
The fifth station marks the start of the Yoshida trail, which goes to the summit. There are only a handful of coin lockers and they’re full, so I’m stuck carrying a three-day supply of books, cameras and clothes up the side of Mt. Fuji.

I also packed a headlamp, a 2-liter bottle of water, a smaller bottle of sports drink, gloves and extra layers of clothing. I wore sneakers, which everyone told me was insane, but nobody ever thinks anybody’s shoes are good enough for Mt. Fuji.

We took a half hour to stretch and acclimate to the thinning oxygen. Then, at 1:45 a.m., we chugged a red bull and started climbing.

The Climb
Fuji starts out as a downhill slope from the station. You wander along giant walled paths with forests of twisted tree roots. For the first part of the climb you might get cocky. If the climb is going to be like this, what’s the big deal? Who was the moron who said I needed hiking boots?

I had energy and I was pretty sure that energy was going to last forever. I hadn’t seen much of the mountain but what I had seen was simple. I assumed, based on limited observations, that the entire climb was going to be easy, just long, and I had no idea why anyone else has ever warned me that it was hard.

In other words, I turned into a teenager.

That all changed after I bought a 200-yen banana from a mountain hut.

The Fear
Along the trails are a number of service huts run by crazy mountain people or college interns. We came to the first one at 3:11 a.m. and I bought a banana. After that, the trail turned from a roughly 20-degree incline to something much steeper, and terror sweat began to flush out of my pores.

Here is how the fear works: In high-up spaces, I become convinced that falling is normal. My rational mind can’t remember the last time I fell down, but my acrophobic mind says it happens all the time. Furthermore, the space between my body and the ledge shrinks. Ten feet away may as well be 10 inches. Rationally, I know that if I fell, I’d have to roll 5-6 times to go over the edge. Acrophobically, that seems reasonable, because once you fall how can anyone stop themselves from rolling forever?

Furthermore, in my fear-addled brain, falling off of the side of a mountain means falling all the way to the base. Your momentum will cause you to roll off or break through anything that stops you from falling. Nevermind that in reality, you’d typically just fall 7-20 feet to the trail below and stop. Maybe you’d break a leg, or arm, or, if you’re very unlucky, your neck.

Fear of heights is not about leg-breaking, it’s about death. Climbing Fuji was my way of coping with that fear. It wasn’t supposed to be easy. The inclines were supposed to be steep.

By starting in the darkness, I had some time to get acclimated. I was still terrified as the sun began to rise, but I knew better than to move my head up or down. To get any perspective would send me into a downward spiral of weak-kneed paralysis.

So I stared at the rocks and braced myself for the coming daylight.

The Sun Rise
At 3:45 a.m. the sun came up, as it does.

The sky turned red; the climb got steeper, the drops got brighter, my heart beat faster. I was desperate to get distance between myself and whatever stone I stood on, because every stone contained the threat of falling.

I would say I ran up the first few inclines after the sun came up, but it was more like a hurried crawl, like an idiotic Spiderman. I was full of adrenalin and testosterone. I was desperate to hurry up and reach the summit so I could stop being afraid of where I was.

I kept my eyes on the stones. That’s when I figured it out: Stop observing what frightens you, and start observing your fear.

Your fear will tell you to think about what you are doing, give you great incentives to stop, spell out worst-case scenarios. Tune it out. You’ll never stop hearing it, but you can stop listening. You can let it prattle on in the background while you focus on which rock you will step on next.

You Start Getting Older
It was around 6:00 a.m. and I’d lost all sense of time.

The inclines ease for a bit and your fears go with them, but you feel the limitations of your body instead. You can’t take two steps in a single burst without fighting your tired knees, thighs and ankles. Blisters, accumulated over hours of climbing without regard for your toes, finally start to burst and slow you down.

This is also where bees start appearing. It’s bewildering, because there are no flowers up here. Or life of any kind. There is no pollen, only Nalgene bottles. But there are bees, coming to investigate whether you are a flower, and when they see you are not a flower, they go look somewhere else where flowers will never be.

The Summit
We passed the white torii gate at about 9:00 a.m. and into a wild shanty town. The restaurant serves ramen and curry rice and you eat it on the floor. It was my first meal in 13 hours and had to make up for about 7200 calories. After eating, I used a toilet – 200 yen up the mountain, 300 yen at the summit – and fell asleep for half an hour staring at a box of used toilet paper.

Here, I stood for a moment at the edge of a volcanic crater and watched steam rise. Then I turned around and started walking. Your sense of accomplishment is overwhelmed by exhaustion and the sad awareness that the top is not the end. It’s the half-way point.

It’s fine that you climbed Mt. Fuji and everything, but you still gotta get down.

The Descent
The walk down the mountain is just enough to keep you from standing up straight. It’s covered in what my sleep-deprived mind hallucinated as all the colors of the monster-cereal rainbow: Frankenberry, Booberry and Count Chocula.

The landscape turns red, and dust starts kicking up as people slide and kick up volcanic ash. I walked with a towel over my mouth; my pant legs turned purple; even the items inside of my bag became a weird rust-brown.

I cursed my shoes. The lack of grip made for 6 hours of taking one step and sliding three feet, possibly falling backward, forward, or off of a cliff. As the shoes slid down the mountain with a canyon three feet to my side, I realized that I was still conscious, and couldn’t figure out why. This was literally the stuff of my nightmares: Slippery earth near steep drops that would certainly kill me. And yet, here I was, not dizzy, not blacking out, just really, really angry about my shoes.

You can descend Fuji without falling, but you have to run. The ground slides and carries you about a foot each time you take a step, but you have to work on your next step while you are sliding. The front of your shoes are digging into crushed volcanic ash in the process, and if you are wearing sneakers, the dust and rocks will get in your shoes and socks. Your feet will bleed; you will blister, your skin will burn for a day or two.

The Clouds
All of this pain might not matter, because if it is a clear morning and the weather is right, you will start running directly into clouds. These are not some weird clouds that hang out next to mountains. These are “the clouds,” the ones you see from the ground and wish you could touch, because they would be so soft and cottony.

You can reach your hand out on Fuji and touch a cloud. It is a dark, dense concentration of condensation, filled with the electric mist of pre-rain air. Cotton balls of petrichor. And if you believe in God then maybe you will think you’re going to run into Jesus; and if you do not believe in God, then maybe it’s enough just to touch a cloud. Maybe you wanted to do that as a kid, but you shrugged it off because touching clouds is impossible, like touching the moon or capturing a unicorn or riding a dinosaur.

It doesn’t really matter if you think it’s heaven or you think it’s just a cloud. It doesn’t matter if you are wearing boat shoes or hiking boots. Either way, you’re totally walking in the sky.

And Then, The Earth
I reached the “bottom” of Mt. Fuji with blistered feet, sore shoulders and hallucinations, after 24 hours without sleep. My relief quickly turned to stoic resolve when a map informed me I still had to complete a 3-hour circumnavigation of Mt. Fuji’s base before I got home.

It’s the path I walked through when I started. I was walking through the stomping grounds of my old Red Bull-fueled arrogance in a hallucinogenic daze.

Finally, back at the trail head: It’s unrecognizable. The shops are open, people are everywhere, there is ice cream and souvenirs. But there are no chairs.

Our bus back to Tokyo gets stuck in traffic. My dreams felt like 9-hour days in themselves. I’d wake up, see 10 minutes had passed and doze off again, building a week of dreams out of islands of sleep.

In Tokyo
Back in Shinjuku, before I took a shower, I looked at my body: I’m covered in dirt. There’s red sand in my beard. My teeth are brown with two days of curry and dust, my hair is the texture of a guinea pig – it stands straight up like a bouffant. My nose is ringed with black dirt and pimples. My beard is patchy. My arms and neck are sunburned in weird swirls because I was terrified of stopping to properly apply lotion. I have four blisters on my toes, which are black from creeping volcanic dust; I have black bags under my eyes from exhaustion, and four bruises over my body.

Climbing Mt. Fuji is like falling from an airplane on foot.

It is immortal and it is inexhaustible. It is without a doubt the most difficult thing I have ever done, and while it was rewarding, there is a saying about Mt. Fuji that is famous for everyone who walks it:

“Only a fool doesn’t hike Mt. Fuji. Only a fool does it twice.”

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10 Responses to On Climbing Mount Fuji (With a Fear of Heights)

  1. Kaori says:

    I’ve never hear of anyone starting their climb after midnight. You must have been exhausted! Can’t wait to try climbing it next month! Hopefully I’ll make it to the top, too.

    PS: Any advice? :-)

    • owwls says:

      Good luck, I think you’ll love it! My only advice is to sleep properly, eat properly, and pack light. Also, try to get there on time. :)

  2. Richard says:

    I was pretty badly prepared too when I climbed Fuji some years back. I think I went off the path a couple of times on the way up (did I even have a torch?). And if you didn’t like the 200-yen banana or toilet, then you probably wouldn’t appreciate a 5000-yen ‘hotel’ which was more like a game of sardines (walking in the dark was starting to feel a bit dangerous though). Still, in the first light of dawn, I completed my journey, and enjoyed dawn proper from the summit.

  3. Kaley says:

    I also have a huge fear of heights. It isn’t as crippling as yours, it seems, but I do go into lovely panic attacks. One of my goals while in Japan is to climb Fuji-san. I think it would be the most amazing feeling of accomplishment for someone with a fear of heights.

  4. Pingback: On Roller Skating in Japan: Notes on One Year of Culture Shock | This Japanese Life. | 生命を外面九天です

  5. Sarah says:

    Mt. Fuji is exhausting, but your hike sounded hilariously epic. No lockers…..I would have cried. But you captured the descent perfectly – the rock crumbles totally resemble Count Chocula. And at least you didn’t hike during Obon, which has to be when 99 percent of people hike Fuji. Nothing like a trail traffic jam getting to the summit at five a.m.

  6. Pingback: JAPAN LIFE: school trip to Takayama. | DAILY NIBBLES

  7. Alan Duke says:

    I appreciated your account of the climb. It is difficult to explain to the uninitiated the surreal atmosphere of not only ascending such a foreign formation but while being so immersed in the Japanese culture. I made the climb during the late 1980’s when I was stationed on the USS Midway in Yokosuka with a few of me shipmates. We left the base in our rented van at dawn and arrived at Mt Fuji to began our climb at noon. We all bought climbing sticks with flags and bells attached so we could get the station brands along the way and removed the bells immediately before the jingling drove us mad. We arrived at one of the stations late that night where we ate and slept for a few hours. They woke us at 3:00 AM so we could make the final ascent. We completed the climb in a daze then sat at one of the temples lining the crater rim and drank Grand Marnier while watching the sun rise through the layers of clouds illuminating the lakes and surrounding countryside. The way down was much as you described but I had the perfect pair of hiking boots and soon learned that if I lifted my toes a bit I could swiftly ski down on the top of the volcanic gravel with little effort. Thanks for the memories of one of my special times in Japan.

  8. Abhishek Thakur says:

    Very well written. Exactly what I felt all along the trek.

  9. Pingback: Climbing Fuji-San | backpackerlee

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