Remember the disgusting feeling you get sometimes while camping when you wake up soggy and groggy? Luckily, once you squirm out of your sleeping bag and into some fresh clothes, the feeling goes away. Now, extend that feeling over 24 hours and you will have an approximate understanding as to how we felt while hiking Fuji-san in the middle of a thunder and lightening storm.
Our trip to Yamanashi-ken (one of two prefectures Fuji-san is situated within) began at 5:00 a.m. on a very dismal day. As far as we could tell, we were heading to a mysterious sky island. Shrouded in clouds, Fuji-san was nowhere to be seen. We arrived at the fifth station (approximately midway) at around 2 p.m. After warming up with a bowl of vegetable udon and buying our coveted Fuji-san walking sticks, we set off on our pilgrimage.
Initially, it was just misting out and we remained optimistic that the weather would work out in our favour. We really should have picked up on the sardonically sarcastic tone of all of the descending well-wishers we encountered as we began our hike. They were often times soaked, ill prepared, and exhausted. Although we were far from soaked at this point, in hindsight, we were ill prepared. This would prove to be our downfall.
Unfortunately, the wind picked up and it was soon raining torrentially. Sometimes, it felt like we were exploring a washing machine. Other times, it felt like we were swimming in a raging river. Regardless, our spirits were still high. It wasn’t until around the seventh station when the water broke through our raingear and flooded our packs that our spirits began to dampen.
Three hours into our journey, the epic Fuji-san hike that we had painstakingly planned out months in advance began to wash away. Our ideal hike was one that would be arduous, full of obstacles, and thoroughly rewarding as we summited in time to view a gloriously breathe-taking sunrise from the highest point in all of Japan. This picturesque image slowly dissolved like a bad stain being washed out. We didn’t actually know how miserable we were until after our trip when we looked at our pictures. At that point, we still hoped circumstances would improve.
It quickly became clear that our plans had a fatal flaw. We hadn’t reserved a space in a hut to spend a few hours of the night prior to summiting. We never anticipated hiking Fuji-san in a storm. Spending time at the summit huddled together while soaking wet and exposed to the elements was no longer an option. We needed some space in a hut, but every time we inquired, we were told to try the next one along the trail. Sometimes, the huts were close together, other times they were up to 30 minutes apart. We debated whether we should simply hike back down, but as it was already dark and there would neither be transportation nor shelter at the fifth station, we decided our only option was to press onwards.
As we frantically attempted to located space in a hut ahead of everyone else as stupid as we were, a hiking guide called us to one side to request a favour. He had noticed that we spoke English and needed us to help out another native English speaker who had been abandoned by her friend. There was no way we could turn this request down. Hiking Fuji-san alone is the last thing you should ever do, especially in a storm. People die hiking Fuji-san every year, albeit usually in the off-season. Thus our party grew to five people.
The temperature outside was hovering around 8°C. We eventually managed to find shelter at the eighth station in the third to last hut. There we attempted to warm up and dry off, but we were required to place all of our wet gear in bags in order to keep the hut dry. This meant none of our raingear dried off. At about 1:30 a.m., our appointed departure time, the hut staff woke us up and told us that the storm hadn’t cleared. We were free to continue onwards if we felt well enough prepared but most of the guided hikes had been cancelled and were turning around.
After a long and sleepless night replete with shivering and sniffling, we decided that summiting was no longer our priority. The sun remained hidden while our condition steadily worsened. As the weather was still terrible, we decided to descend at sunrise. We began picking our way down the mountain with heavy hearts and unbranded walking sticks.