Dateline Japan, August 23
A party of one is not a good number for climbing any mountain so I joined a tour led by a bilingual Japanese lady called Emiko. We were subsequently joined by an official mountain guide who spoke no English but Emiko translated. There was, Charles, Chris, Steve, Theon and Annie, Jessica and another six whose names I don’t recall. Joining an organised party meant that I didn’t get to choose my route up the mountain (there are several) and went up the most popular one, the Yoshida Trail, starting at the Kawaguchico 5th Station.
The Kawaguchico Station has good road access and plenty of facilities such as shops, parking and restaurants but is already above the tree line at 2,305 metres. Some might say that starting a 3,776 meter summit over two-thirds of the way up is cheating but I had no option. Indeed the full Yoshida Trail does start 1,450 m lower down at the Sengen Shrine. My Swiss friends will be pleased to see that the architectural style at the 5th Station has been borrowed from them!
The climb to the rim of the crater is about 5.8 km but the first third of the distance is a gentle traverse across the face of the mountain to join the Trail at the 6th Station. In fact the route starts by descending and then climbs again to 2,390 m; on the way up I saw several ponies with exhausted climbers on them being led back down!
We started in the afternoon; it was bright but overcast, ideal conditions for climbing. What struck me immediately was the sheer number of people making their way up; individuals, groups, whole families, old and young.
The experienced climbers among you will already have worked out the climb proper starts from the 6th station, a rise of some 1,400 m in under four kilometres.
That’s steep (if I could remember my trigonometry I could tell you the angle of ascent.) Add to that, it is an uneven rocky path which required hand holds in places and you will understand why I described it as a harder climb then Kilimanjaro. It’s not as high or as long a climb but it is much steeper and unrelenting in it’s ascent. Parts of it reminded me of Mt Blanc. We climbed up to the 8th Station stopping for short rests on the way arriving at around 6 p.m. Here we had a light evening meal and relaxed.
There are toilets in the way up costing 100 or 200 Yen a time and there is no peeing in the mountain for us men, the Japanese consider it a sacred mountain and that would be a desecration, not to mention the environmental aspect. The refuge we stayed in was very similar to European ones with communal sleeping in wooden bunks. I dozed rather than slept till we were woken at about 11.45 for a cup of black tea and a briefing on our final ascent. At an altitude of 3,100 m altitude sickness was a possibility but I did not succumb. (Medical Note: I took 600 mg ibuprofen every four hours on the way up to eliminate any headache/reduce any joint pain and stopped taking my statins two days before.)
The idea was to reach the rim before dawn to see the sunrise so we set off in the dark wearing our miner’s lamps. It was much colder now but an incredibly clear night and we looked out over the lights of Tokyo and could make out the Tower. Looking up, the stars were fantastic with the Milky Way arcing across the sky. I found Orion (on his side) and oriented myself. Then we joined the queue. There were literally hundreds of people with the same plan as us and progress up was very slow.
Actually an advantage because rather than have a specific rest stop we had lots of little stops as we waited at various bottleneck points on the way up. We finally reached the rim and had a cup of coffee and some breakfast at one of the many refreshment stations. Dawn was at about 4.45 p.m. and I took half a dozen pictures of which this is the best.
I had about two hours at the top and looked down into the caldera.
Some people were breathing pure oxygen from small aerosol canisters which can be bought at the various stations on the way up. I didn’t buy one but was amused to see the price change. In Tokyo they can be bought for Yen 450, at the 5th station they were Yen 900 and by the 8th staion they were Yen 1,500 !
I collected a few pebbles (illegal) and took photos, then it was time to go down. It was a long, boring descent down a different ridge where the ash had been bulldozed into path.
There was a lot of dust because the slightest breeze lifted the ash with every footfall. The view was good and we watched the morning mist burn of lakes Kawaguchico and Yamanakako. I slowly took off more layers till I was wearing no more than I had on the way up the afternoon before. We regrouped when we got back to the 5th Station and drove to a Spa to wash off the dirt and dust of the climb and have a good lunch.