Mount Fuji is one of the most iconic images associated with Japan. Known for its aesthetic beauty and for its danger as an active volcano, Mount Fuji is also the tallest mountain in Japan, standing at 3776 meters (12,389 feet). It is considered relatively safe to climb, but only with proper planning.
This hasn’t stopped climbers though. Because it is considered a sacred mountain, it has been a site of pilgrimage for centuries.
The official pilgrimage starts at Kitaguchi Hongu Fuji Sengen-jinja Shrine, which is the trailhead of the Yoshida Trail climbing path. The shrine dates back nearly 1900 years and worships the kami, or god, inside Mount Fuji. Both it and Mount Fuji were registered as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2013. The total climbing time from the shrine to the peak of Mount Fuji is estimated at 9 – 12 hours.
The Typical Mount Fuji Experience
In modern times, the climb doesn’t start at the trailhead. Today most people start their climb from the 5th station, which is approximately halfway up the mountain. The ascent time from the Yoshida Trail’s 5th station takes about 5 – 7 hours, depending on pace. The descent is considerably shorter at 3 – 5 hours.
Some people decide not to climb the entire mountain, but will do some light hiking around the 5th station or go from Fuji Sengen-jinja Shrine to the 5th station instead. The 5th Station is easily accessible by car and bus, which is especially popular with tourists limited on time.
It should be noted that it is very common for the road to be completely closed during off-season – especially if there is a snowcap. Heavy snow combined with steep slopes can be a dangerous mix. The roads are often impassible and it is very easy for vehicles to trigger an avalanche. Visitors should plan their visit accordingly.
The short climbing season also means that trails are congested. Many mountain climbers dislike this, but ascending the mountain during climbing season is the only way to receive support, should the need arise. There is also a friendly, encouraging atmosphere that can really help solo climbers.
The peak is most crowded at sunrise. Coordinating ascent times for sunset or descending the mountain a bit early to catch the sunrise from one or two hundred meters below the peak are both solid alternatives that avoid the crowds.
Once you’re at the top, you may find yourself wondering, “Can Mount Fuji Still Erupt?”
Preparing For Your Climb
Despite its popularity, Mount Fuji can still be dangerous to climb if proper preparation hasn’t been made. The official climbing season is from July to August, when nearly all of the snow on the mountain has melted.
Would-be climbers shouldn’t be deceived by the lack of snow – temperatures near the top can still be below freezing, especially at night. Climbers should pack and dress accordingly. Layers are recommended. The weather at the 5th Station and higher can be unpredictable because Mount Fuji often generates its own weather system. Bringing waterproof or water-resistant gear is advised.
The mountain gets incredibly steep during the ascent. The descent can also be dangerous, due to exhaustion and loose gravel (speaking from personal experience – I slid three times). All this contributes to a high number of ankle injuries. Sturdy climbing boots are a must. Rockfalls are a danger in all seasons, so climbers should stay alert.
Mountain huts are located at regular intervals along the trail. These huts provide basic accommodation (about 1 tatami mat of space without a divider), hot meals, and supplies. Fair warning though – the higher the altitude, the higher the price. It should also be assumed that everything on the mountain is cash-only.
Reservations are encouraged for people who intend to stay in the mountain huts, especially on weekends. The toilets have paid entry and only take 100 yen coins. Packing hiking snacks and a liter (or two) of water is highly recommended. There are no garbage facilities on the mountain, so climbers must carry all their trash with them.
See more information on Mount Fuji Huts.
Do Not Underestimate Altitude Sickness
Altitude sickness is not uncommon and many climbers choose to bring oxygen cans with them to help remedy it. While oxygen can provide a temporary fix to the altitude, it cannot replace climbing slowly and attempting to get one’s body to naturally adjust to the thin air.
Having personally experienced severe altitude sickness during my own climb, I want to stress that the altitude should not be taken lightly. I experienced weakness, extreme fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite, insomnia during my overnight stay, nosebleeds, difficulty catching my breath, and an incredibly high heart rate (125 bpm at rest and 190 bpm while moving).
I also developed pulmonary edema, which is fluid accumulation in the lungs caused by high-altitudes and is a life-threatening complication of altitude sickness. All this said, plenty of people climb the mountain without experiencing altitude sickness. Being aware of symptoms and keeping an eye on climbing buddies can also help save others.
Who Can Climb Mount Fuji?
The ascent of Mount Fuji should only be done by healthy individuals. Anyone with breathing problems, heart problems, muscular problems, mobility disorders, and/or disabilities should not consider climbing. Individuals that are sick (common cold, influenza, etc) should not climb the mountain, even if they feel up to it.
Young children that cannot make the climb themselves should not be brought along, due to the thin air. Healthy children that can handle the physical stress of the climb, such as active kids and teens that regularly participate in sports, should be monitored for altitude sickness symptoms. If symptoms occur, the group should descend immediately.
Elderly individuals that regularly maintain their physical fitness and are reasonably experienced with hiking should be able to make the climb. However, they should monitor themselves carefully for signs of altitude sickness and descend immediately should symptoms arise.
For People Considering an Off-Season Ascent
Climbing during off-season is extremely dangerous. The death toll has been rising steadily as the volcano gains popularity with climbers. Unfortunately, a lot of bloggers, vloggers, and even newspapers have downplayed the dangers of climbing during off-season.
While accidents can happen during any season, the lethality of accidents is significantly higher outside of the official climbing season. On average, 8 people die every year attempting to climb during off-season. (Source)
Mount Fuji is not part of a mountain range. As such, strong wind conditions are often comparable to peaks twice as high. Gusts can be so strong that climbers have been pushed off the mountain, causing them to slide several hundred meters down the rocky mountainside. Not all survive this.
Temperatures in February are usually around -20C to -30C (-4F to -22F) with a wind chill of around -50C (-58F). The steep slopes of the mountain make avalanches a threat. Alpine climbing equipment and experience is absolutely required.
Additionally, all off-season climbers are legally required to register their climbing path with the Fujiyoshida City Police. It is required so that search and rescue will know where to search for missing climbers.
Despite the dangers, many people consider off-season climbing because they won’t encounter crowds. If this is absolutely essential, climbing within a few weeks of the climbing season (such as June or September) is recommended instead of winter climbing. Hikers will still be legally obligated to file a climbing path, but the dangers are less severe.
Read more about: How to climb Mount Fuji in the off-season.
It should also be noted that all restrooms on the mountain are closed during this time and off-season hikers are required to bring portable toilets so that they can properly dispose of their waste.
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