Mountain: Mt Fuji (富士山, 3776m)
Map sheet: 31 [Yama-to-kougen-chizu (山と高原地図) series]
There are many things that make Mt Fuji a very special mountain. Its perfect conical form and graceful curve, it's position as highest mountain in Japan, the fact that it stands alone surrounded by relatively flat land with a sea-level-to-summit relief of 3776m... these are just a few of its many distinctions.
As beautiful as Fuji may be in summer, once that sugar icing of snow arrives the allure increases hugely... Let's face it, anybody who climbs in winter in Japan wants to climb Mt Fuji, and many people visit from overseas with that single aim as well.
But there's a major paradox about winter Fuji that every aspirant should be aware of... It's bloody dangerous, and from the moment you leave Fujiyoshida (富士吉田) train station to the moment you get back there that thought should never be far from your mind. For sure there will be people for whom conditions line up perfectly, and they summit on their first attempt, but take it from me that they will be the minority in December/January... All those who have been beaten back by the wind above the 8th station and had to try more than once will have a much richer and deeper understanding of this mountain in winter than those lucky ones...
Let's look at a few basic facts about Mt Fuji in winter:
1. It's non-technical. If things are going right, you should be basically walking up for the most part, taking care on the final few hundred metres where things steepen a little. You should only need a single alpine axe. If you find yourself wishing you had technical ice tools on you, perhaps it would be wise to consider the conditions and your confidence level, and head down. Fuji should not require ice tools, it's not steep enough...
That said though...
2. It's icy. What might look like deep snow from the bottom turns out to be hard icy snow for the majority of the daylight hours except a few hours mid-morning while the sun is directly on it. In winter the mountain is wind-scoured, and the Fujiyoshida climbing route only gets the sun until about midday, after which the sun dips behind the mountain to the south and the snow surface rapidly freezes and hardens to ice. If you slip on Fuji in winter, the chances are you will have one chance only to self-arrest on that ice, and after that you are going all the way to the 5th station. It happens every year. People die that way most years on winter Fuji. Respect the snow conditions. Don't let your mind wander too far out of the zone... One slip is all it takes.
3. It's windy. In winter it is rare to get a day without extreme wind on Mt Fuji, and from 3000m upwards this reality enters a zone of its own. Think about it... The next highest mountains in the area are the South Alps, most of which stop at about 3000m or less. I can't confirm this for certain (Project Hyakumeizan would be the man to know), but it seems likely to me that in winter Mt Fuji is protruding up into a jet stream zone above 3000m with nothing stopping those winds from barrelling into it from the level of the 8th station upwards. And as that wind circles up that perfect cone it speeds up. Gusts above the 8th station can feel like being hit by a cannonball. It is seriously scary at times. For many winter Fuji aspirants, the 8th station is as far as they go, choosing to turn back because of the wind. What's especially tricky is that from the final torii gate to the summit, that last 100m traverses out into the re-entrant to the left of the rock rib, where a slip would be especially dangerous... With wind speeds regularly over 100kph in winter, this last 100m can prove to be a bridge too far.
4. It's cold. From when you leave Fujiyoshida station to when you get back there, there is nothing on that mountain that is going to give you any warmth, and wind chill temperatures of -40C are common above the 8th station. You may feel warm while ascending and strip down to relatively little clothing whilst generating heat, but when you stop moving you'd better have sufficient insulation along for the ride.
5. It's tough. Huge vertical height gain and loss, going straight up to 3776m with no acclimatisation, battling the cold and the wind, lack of sleep... it all adds up, and you'll probably feel fatigue at some point. Stay focused and don't let your concentration lapse...
6. There's no running water in winter. This is self-explanatory. There's actually no water on Fuji in summer either, so you should already know that you need to either carry what you need to get you back to the station safely, or carry a stove to melt snow.
Okay, now we know what we're in for... If you're still reading then you feel able to handle all that, so let's shift our perspective now. Winter Fuji is a wonderful thing, and can be both cathartic and deeply satisfying, as well as providing a serious arena for self-improvement and for testing your winter skills without feeling out on a limb on difficult technical ground.
As already mentioned, most people will start at Fujiyoshida station in winter. You can either start walking from there, or you can take a taxi as far up the road as possible towards Umagaeshi car park (馬返) just below the 1st station at about 1400m. Umagaeshi is as far as cars can go, if they can get that far, so from there on you'll be walking.
There are several ways you could approach the actual climb, and each has its advantages and disadvantages. Here are three options:
Strategy 1: Camp at the 5th station
This is probably the most popular strategy amongst most climbers. It allows you to take a leisurely walk up the 3 hours of trail from Umagaeshi to the Satogoya hut (佐藤小屋) at the level of the 5th station. Once there you'll find plenty of flat places to camp. You'll have a decent shot at a good night's sleep so you can go for the summit from early morning before sun rise feeling relatively fresh. The downside to this is that you've got to carry all that camping gear up to the 5th, and you may end up not getting a great night's sleep because it's so darned cold. On the other hand, you've got guaranteed shelter on the mountain at about 2300m, in case things go wrong.
Strategy 2: Camp at one of the higher stations
This involves the same approach as above, but starting out earlier and continuing up the mountain to camp as high up as you can. This will minimise the amount of ascent needed the next day, and will give you more flexibility in terms of waiting out the weather until a window of low wind presents itself. The obvious downsides to this though are the fact that you have to carry your camping gear all the way, and the chances of getting a good night's sleep around the 8th station are low. It will be seriously cold overnight, and the wind will probably be extreme. The worst case scenario has seen people getting blown off the mountain in their tent, so experience and judgement should be exercised if you're going to go with this strategy. You will also have to descend a lot of the mountain with heavy packs, so you should be in good physical condition. The obvious benefit to this approach though is the extra security offered by having shelter and a stove with you high up on the mountain.
Strategy 3: A lightweight single push through the night from bottom to top
On the surface of things, this is the riskiest strategy as you have no tent if things go wrong. But it goes without saying that you will still have a stove in your pack, and you should also have a bivvy bag and plenty of down clothing. This strategy works on the premise that you will keep moving, from the bottom to the summit, albeit perhaps with a stop to boil water before the final push. With a light pack you can move faster. I have observed over the course of 3 visits to Fuji in winter that there is often a period just after dawn where the wind drops, before rising again by mid-morning (no guarantees though, so check the forecasted wind speeds and decide if you think it's on or not before leaving home). If you are adept at gauging your pace and typical alititude gain you may be able to judge things so that you hit the top just after sunrise during this window. This is the strategy I chose myself on a successful ascent this year, but I spend the whole year running up and down mountains in Japan as a trail runner, and generally have my hill fitness and pace pretty dialled... I would not recommend this strategy to anyone who is not confident of their fitness. The other risk here is that by losing a complete night's sleep you are guaranteeing that you will feel extremely sleepy on the descent.
(Photo by Paul Mundt)
There are good reasons why most people choose the first strategy, and camp at the 5th station. That is the tried and tested way amongst the Japanese climbers. It is the middle ground between carrying heavy gear high up the mountain, and going light and fast with less margin for error. You'll have to choose for yourself which strategy you want to go with, depending on your own fitness, experience, pace and stamina.
Never forget the point we started with here... Fuji in winter is not a difficult climb from a technical point of view, but it has many other challenges. Go there with an open mind and give it your best shot, but be prepared to turn back and leave it for another day if things don't feel right. It really isn't worth dying for. As one friend of mine always says, your goal is not to get to the top, but to get back to the train station safely.
But if you can make it up there, and are lucky enough to have clear weather, you will be guaranteed some of the finest views Japan has to offer, and you'll have climbed a mountain that many many people in Japan aspire to at the most challenging time of year.
Enjoy your climb. Come back safely. And let me know if this information was of any use to you...