Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Winter Mt Fuji (富士山) - some climbing strategies


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 Fuji-san (富士山駅) 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 Fuji-san 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 Fuji-san 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...








********* NEWS *********

Are you interested in climbing or reading about more of Japan's classic alpine and winter routes? For all the info you'll need about ten of the finest alpine routes in Japan, order your copy of Climb Japan's book, "10 Classic Alpine Climbs of Japan", available in both print or kindle e-book formats on Amazon. Thanks for your support!



31 comments:

  1. Great article and pics.
    Maybe also worth adding that if you're a lazy climber like me you can also drive up the subaru skyline toll road on the north side of the mtn to the 5th level of the kawaguchiko trail.
    Also worth pointing out that prior to setting off for the mtn in winter, if telling residents of Japan of your intentions you will always get told you can't as the mtn is closed.

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  2. Hi, Tony - thank you for the concise article with great visuals! One thing I would add is that it may be possible to stay at Satagoya hut indoors (in lieu of camping) to ensure even more energy for the climb. I have climbed Fuji "off-season"(albeit not in winter) and stayed at the hut. The hut master was very proud that they are the only hut on the mountain to be open for winter climbs. Of course, this strategy will require advanced planning and coordination with the hut (I believe you will need to call in advance to arrange for the dates) and money to stay there (but sleeping under a solid roof on a mountain is priceless :)

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    1. hi! how can i get in contact with the warden in teh Satagoya hut? i want to climb in the next few weeks.

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  3. Iainhw - Thanks a lot, glad you enjoyed it :)

    Anon - Thanks for stopping by. You're quite right, staying in the Satogoya hut is certainly another option, and I've added a hyperlink to the owner's website following your comment. People would definitely need to phone and arrange first though... I've only ever seen the hut open once in winter, all the other times it was boarded up. I must admit that for me personally, staying in the hut would alter the experience and significance of winter on Fuji, but given that I'm quite happy to stay in other huts (e.g. Akadake Kousen) during winter, I'm not sure I could articulate my reasons satisfactorily to anyone else. Each of us makes his own criteria about what the experience needs to be for him, so thanks for pointing the possibility out :)

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  4. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and recommondations with us! I find it very exiting and look forward to doing a climb myself. I am going to climb Fuji ski touring in early March 2013 and find it difficult to find a buddy. That is a bit uncomfortable as here in Switzerland I follow the "never alone in the mountain" principle.

    Is it common in Japan to do winter climbs solo or did you team up with others? Also, when camping at the 5th station did you feel safe to leave the tent and some gear behind?
    Thanks and regards, Thomas

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  5. Hi Thomas. Thanks for your questions. I'm glad you enjoyed the article!

    March is a good time to ski Fuji. The temperatures won't be quite so cold as in December/January, and there be even more snow, but be aware of the potential for avalanches.

    As for whether or not people climb solo in the mountains in Japan, some do, most don't, but I can't really comment on what anyone else chooses to do. Personally I prefer to share the experience whenever possible, but that's just what I enjoy. One thing is for sure though... The decision to go alone in remote areas in winter needs to be taken for the right reasons, so if I don't 100% trust the purity of my reasons before any trip, then I'd rather go with a partner.

    You don't need to worry about leaving your tent and gear behind in Japan. Although exceptions to the rule are possible, Japan is generally an incredibly safe country and theft of possessions is very uncommon.

    Enjoy the anticipation of your trip in March, and have a safe climb and ski descent. All the best. Tony

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    1. The trip to Fuji last weekend was great, we climbed on the Gotemba route all the way from the street since the car parked was closed. I went with a few other guys. We did it in 2 days, the summit day turned out to be a long day and skiing down was possible. Glad I found your blog before I went! Thomas

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  6. This is a most timely article - one that could save some folk their lives. The ice, the wind, and the cold - that's what potential winter suitors need to keep in mind. Iain raises a good point: that, in some respects, the southern (Fujinomiya) route is safer in winter. That's the route that most of the winter pioneers took, and it was the one used by the radar station relief crews who climbed the mountain year-round every few weeks until the radar was decommissioned in 1999 (?). You'll even find some handrails high on the southern route, installed after one of the radar crew guides fell to his death. I think that accident says it all about Fuji in winter. Not even the professionals can guarantee a safe ascent if conditions are against you...

    Many thanks for the "One Hundred Mountains" plug.

    Safe climbing! Especially on Mt Fuji.....

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  7. Tony, thank you so much for your reply. I found a guide for the weekend March 2-3 and I am really looking forward. Hope to be able to do some backcountry skiing the following week. Best, Thomas

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  8. Tony, are you familiar with the conditions on Mt. Fuji in early June?
    I am planning to go there in the first week of June, and have encountered share of discouraging information due to rain and unstable snow, and rough terrain. I wouldn't dare to climb in winter due to lack of experience, but the weather at this time seems rough, but not unbearable.

    I am not an experienced climber at all. The highest I have been to is Camp Muir on Mt. Rainier, and I have backpacked here and there. My plan is to set up a tent outside one of the stations so that I can wait out or rest if I need to. I will come in proper clothing and bring my own supply of food and water. My biggest concern is the conditions of weather and terrain, and whether the trail will be well-demarcated.

    Please share if you are familiar with any of it at this time of the year.

    Thanks!

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  9. Hello ...
    I am from Indonesia, I want to ask you a little information about fujiyama mountain climbing ...
    I have a plan fujiyama mountain climbing during "off-season", in the first week of april. Where can I get further information climb (Route and transport) and get permission to be able to climb at the "off-season" ...
    I hope my questions can be answered with complete ...
    For attention and the answer I would like to say thank you ...

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  10. Hi Tony,

    Great blog!
    If possible wanted to ask your advice on a few maters regarding "Mt Fuji", I'm planning a solo climb in late January.

    Kindest regards

    Luke

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    1. Hi Luke. Thanks for stopping by. Sure, I'll be happy to help if I'm able. If you can find some way of giving me your email address, or just post your questions here, I'll answer any that I can. All the best. Tony

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  11. Hi everyone. I am planning on climbing Mt Fuji this year on the 23rd of April (or around abouts). I have done a significant amount of ice climbing here in NZ and am relatively experienced and so is my partner. However as I am travelling from NZ its hard to bring over all the gear (i.e. boots and ice axes, etc). For the life of me i cant find a provider of rentable climbing gear in Japan. Does anyone have any ideas?
    Thanks, Isaac

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  12. Hi Tony, I would like permission to use your great winter photos. Please direct me to a place where I can view your personal email address so we can correspond on this topic. Thanks!

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    Replies
    1. Hi Brent. You can contact me at the following address:

      climbjapan1 at gmail dot com

      Cheers
      Tony

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  13. Hi Tony,

    Excellent information, have few questions. Can you help answering those :

    1. Can you guide what equipment are must for the climb, and any places where it is available on rent? (near Tokyo or near Fuji).
    2. Does one need to submit any forms for the winter climb?
    3. Any advice for the commute options - how to reach directly to 5th station from Tokyo?

    4. Which trail is advisable in this season?

    5. How much time does it take for a non time ascent / descent ?

    Thanks.

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  14. Hello Tony,

    Your page on the winter climb of Mt Fuji is a very helpful resource. It looks like a nice climband I'm planning to climb Mt Fuji the weekend of Jan 31. I have a few practical questions I was hoping to get some help with. It seems the Fujinomiya climbing route should be good for the winter, since it's on the south side and should get some more daylight, although I heard there are some other factors to consider. I have some questions about the winter climb of Mt Fuji. In case you would be ok with some email correspondence it would be greatly appreciated. Thanks a lot,
    Jonny Hoglund
    Email:
    mtfujiAThoeglund.net

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  15. Hi Tony,

    Very useful info on winter climbing Mount Fuji! I am going to Japan for work and have a choice for a week holiday for some trekking/climbing: mid-May or first week of June. Which would you recommend, in general is the weather in early June very wet?
    I'd like to climb Mount Fuji, if conditions are ok, and am bringing an axe and crampons. I assume the huts will still be shut that time?

    Any other (multi-) day treks you can recommend in the Japanese Alps, or scrambles? I am an experienced mountaineer, but will be travelling on my own (unless I find a partner).

    Many thanks!

    Mel

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  16. Hi Tony, Are you aware of any professional guides that can be hired to assist some enthusiastic climbers take on Fuji in February?

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    1. Hi Tim. Apologies for the late reply. If you're still looking for an answer to this question, shoot me an email (climbjapan1 at gmail dot com), and we can talk about it. Thanks.

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  17. Hey! A Really great and helpful article! But i still got some questions...
    1. What Do you think about the actual conditions (early April)? In Relation to Wind weather and snow Level...
    2. Im Not very experienced so would you recommend to Do afast Climb bottom to top? (at night)

    Thanks for your answer

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    1. Hi there

      Thanks for the nice comment about the article. In reply to your questions:

      1. There is still a LOT of snow on the mountain in early April, and depending on the forecast, you still get extremely strong winds. For example, in the week that I'm replying to you now Fuji is going to receive about 2 feet of fresh snow and will have winds ranging from 60kph up to 140kph. You can get the forecast from this page: http://www.mountain-forecast.com/peaks/Fuji-san/forecasts/3776

      2. If you are not very experienced, then no, I certainly would not recommend you to try climbing Fuji in this season at night, and particularly not alone. I would recommend that you find an experienced partner or go with a guide. If those are not options for you, then consider a mountain like Mitsutoge instead, which has fantastic views across to Mt Fuji. Your primary consideration should be your safety over any mountain summit, even one as famous as Fuji, and sometimes that needs an honest and realistic look at your options and a willingness to wait until you have more experience.

      Sorry that isn't better news, but although we're into calendar spring now, conditions on Fuji are still very much closer to winter than summer, and that needs experience to be done with a margin of safety. Whatever you decide to do though, I hope you have a fantastic trip! :)

      Tony

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  18. Great information and this gets me excited about skiing on Fuji. To be honest, I think the hardest part for me is trying to figure out how to get to the best starting location for a single day approach. I realize physically this is not the hardest part, but the hiking is definately less complicated. I assume you cannot get directly to snow in mid-May, is that true? Once you hit snow can you skin (with ski crampons) up or it this purely a boot pack type of ascent? Any help you can give on how or where to get an early morning start (wihtout a rental car) would be greatly appreciated. thanks

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    1. Hi Dmar. By mid-May the roads to the 5th station level should be open on all sides of the mountain, so you should be able to take a taxi or a bus right up there. As for whether you'd be skinning or hiking, I guess that depends on where the snow line is and what the snow is like in any given year, so it's probably best to just go there and see. I would think it's highly unlikely you'd be able to skin up from the 5th station though by that time of year, so expect some hiking.

      Have a safe trip! Tony

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  19. Hallo Tony
    We have been in Japan already 7 times. We know the country and even the language basically. We were lots of climbing in Austria. Climbing by itself, we stopped 10 years ago. Now easy mountain tours in Japan are our goal. We want to climb the Fuji-san on the Yoshida trail in end of May. After the golden week, we come to Japan for hiking in the mountains. At the end of our three weeks stay, we want to climb up Fuji-san. Fujiyoshida should be our base. Our high base should be Sato-goya to sleep and get fresh water and breakfast. Since the hut is operating all over the year. I expect at this season up in the region over 3000m some old snow. I would take pickax and crampons with me.
    Tell me, do I have to expect lots of ice up there? I do not intend to take even our rope with us!
    Does the idea sound reasonable to you?
    Sincerely
    Bernhard

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    1. Hi Bernhard
      First of all, huge apologies from me to you... I hadn't noticed your comment on my dashboard until today, and I realise this is FAR too late for a useful reply!
      Regarding your plan, it sounds absolutely solid. As you said, there will certainly be plenty of snow still around, but by the end of May it should be pretty comfortable in the afternoons and not too icy. As long as you bring your crampons and ice axe, maybe a trekking pole, there should be no need for a rope.
      Have a fantastic trip, and once again, apologies for this late reply!
      All the best
      Tony

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  20. Thanks for sharing! I was considering doing this as a day trip—I've hiked larger, steeper, colder mountains in the past, but I don't have my ice axe, nor crampons for that matter. I think it will have to wait until my next trip to Japan!

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Jacoby. That sounds like a very sensible decision. Going up in January without crampons and ice axe would be nothing short of suicidal. I'm sure you'll get it next time. I hope you had a great trip to Japan! Tony

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  21. Hi Tony,

    Thank you for the blog its very helpful.
    I climb but have not done ice climbing, and i'm very keen to summit Mt Fuji. I'm trying to find a guide to hire crampons and axes from and to hike up with.
    Do you know if there are any English speaking guides that will go up Fuji at the start of June?

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    1. Hi Paul. Thanks for the nice words about the blog, much appreciated. Send me an email (climbjapan1 at gmail dot com) and we can chat about your requirements. I'll be glad to help. Tony

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