Climbing Mt. Fuji
If you live in Japan and Mt. Fuji is still on your bucket list, the pandemic could be a panacea for procrastination this summer. The trails to the summit of Japan’s most iconic mountain may never again be so free of crowds. So in the words of Phil Knight and the four veteran Mt. Fuji Climbing guides we talked to about the upcoming climbing season—just do it!
Life is full of ups and downs, but lately it feels like we’ve been trapped in that old Richard Fariña novel, “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me.” Your favorite restaurants and taprooms have been closed; you can’t remember the last time you saw live music or went on a proper vacation. You’ve got cabin fever and itchy feet. Well, as any mountain lover will tell you, “Sometimes you just need a change in altitude.”
The 2021 climbing season may be best time to climb Mt. Fuji in decades. Crowds will be thinned on the trails and in the huts due to inbound travel restrictions and others staying home as Japan slogs forward with vaccination goals. We talked to four Mt. Fuji climbing guides about what this season will mean to those making the pilgrimage and how to get the most out of the experience.
Brent Potter is head guide at Fuji Mountain Guides, which started in 2007 as Mt. Fuji’s first English-speaking guide service. Each of his guides do 32 to 40 climbs a season and they have guided more than 5,000 guests safely to the summit. August is the most popular time to climb when weather is most stable and the summit the least cold—but it’s also the most crowded, which, he admits can take away from the experience.
“To avoid crowds and maximize good weather, I always recommend climbing in mid-to-late September, but weather gets more unstable as the summer goes on so keeping a careful eye on the forecast is key,” he says.
“On a typical season, we guide from June 25 to Oct. 15. While certain trails officially close after Sept. 5, we are able to keep hiking later in the season on the Subashiri Trail,” he adds.
After Sept. 5, huts close and trail markers are taken down. There is no medical support in the event of an injury or evacuation so climbers need to be self-sufficient, or better yet, go with an experienced guide.
“Foreign visitors account for roughly 30% of the climbers on Mt. Fuji so 2021 could be the least crowded time to climb in 50 years. This could be the last chance in our lifetimes that Fuji is so peaceful, so don’t miss your chance!” Potter exclaims.
Manabu Futsuki has been guiding on Mt. Fuji for 10 years with his company, Whole Earth Nature School. He also guides guests to the Aokigahara Forest and nearby caves and villages at the foot of Mt. Fuji. Over the past few years he could see Fuji was getting overcrowded during climbing season and since the mountain was officially closed last year he believes it was a good natural recovery period with reduced erosion from trekking, less pollution and better air quality.
“This summer, not only is Japan still closed to inbound visitors, but I also think there will be fewer Japanese people climbing Mt. Fuji, so it will be pretty quiet with fewer hikers and better for the environment,” says Futsuki.
He recommends climbing in small groups of people who ideally live together. During his tours he asks his guests to give other groups plenty of room and wear masks if they are passing others on the trail. He also encourages people to enjoy nature on the hike, not just focusing on getting to the top.
“Look at the vegetation, landscape, clouds, weather and within yourself. If you have a guide with you, it’ll be easier to appreciate these and other parts of the hike, he adds.
David Niehoff started Kanto Adventures in 2012 with a focus on human-powered outdoor adventures, specifically hiking, mountaineering and rock climbing. He does about 30 to 35 climbs a year with private and group trips starting from the last week of April and continuing through the first week of November.
“Personally I prefer October when the snow has fallen on the upper part of the mountain; the air is very clear and the views are amazing during the fall,“ says Niehoff. “Our off-season trips often involve snow and ice, requiring ice axes and crampons to make it up. In summer we take people on one-day and overnight trips via the least crowded routes,” he adds.
His advice for first time climbers? “Have good quality gear. Specifically good boots and rain gear make a huge difference in the experience. Fitness is probably the biggest point affecting how much someone will enjoy it—and the best training for mountain climbing is climbing mountains, so getting out on some hikes with at least 1,000 meters of elevation gained in a day. It will provide huge dividends when climbing something as big as Fuji,” he points out.
Niehoff notes mountain huts are reducing capacity so it is highly likely there will be fewer people on the mountain, potentially reducing the traffic jams that Mt. Fuji is famous for on the most popular routes.
“People come to the mountains to experience nature and solitude, and shuffling along with thousands of people before sunrise is not ideal, so this might be a great time to do it,” he says.
FYG Mountain Guides and head guide Shoji Matsumoto have been doing private climbing tours on Mt. Fuji for clients from all over the world since 2008. They run tours from early July to early September and don’t mix groups so guests can enjoy climbing Mt. Fuji at their own pace without any worries.
Matsumoto has taken guests to the top of Fuji more than 200 times. His climbing schedule varies year to year as he also guides other mountains in Japan. His favorite time on Mt. Fuji is just before and after sunrise.
“On our tours, we don’t see the sunrise at the top of the mountain because it’s very crowded. I like to be in a quiet place and feel the changing sky, cloud color, and temperature as the sunrise comes with my whole body,” he says.
His advice for novice climbers is to do it at a time you are usually awake as climbing a mountain with little or no sleep is very hard on the body, increases the likelihood of altitude sickness and reduces alertness, which increases the risk of injury. He also suggests bringing basic mountaineering equipment with you.
“Fuji takes about 12 hours if you do it over two days and is not a mountain for beginners. It is a good idea to climb other mountains beforehand to experience the same length and time on the mountain while getting used to equipment,” he adds.
Risks when Climbing Mt. Fuji
Shoji Matsumoto: “The risk of altitude sickness is high throughout the year. Research shows about 30% of climbers experience symptoms of altitude sickness.”
David Niehoff: “The weather does change suddenly and one of the most common problems is hypothermia, even in summer. People who find themselves wet and cold and stop moving get themselves into trouble very quickly.”
Brent Potter: “During the In-season, the main risk is a lack of preparedness, which can lead to hypothermia (getting wet and then cold from wind) or exhaustion that can lead to injuries like tripping and falling. Rocks falling is an ever present danger as the loose boulders on Fuji constantly shift with every snow melt.
Climbing during the off-season increases the chances and severity of the regular risks, then adds other variables such as slipping on snow without being able to stop. Slipping on snow is how the majority of injuries and fatalities happen on Fuji every year. A winter climb of Mt. Fuji is extremely hazardous and should not be attempted without high-level mountaineering experience.”
Only a Fool Climbs Twice
Shoji Matsumoto: “If you are going to follow the line at a crowded time, once may be enough. But if you start from Fuji-Yoshida at the foot of the mountain, climb up to the top and go around the summit while looking at plants, shrines and old buildings, you can feel the nature and history of Mount Fuji. If you want to make this “pilgrimage” that has been continued for 1,200 years ago, I think you will enjoy climbing the mountain more than once.”
David Niehoff: “The problem with Fuji is for the majority of climbers this may be their only experience climbing a tall peak. Many don’t have the fitness level or gear to be comfortable and really enjoy the experience, so perhaps those are the people this saying may be targeting. People who appreciate mountains and have the right gear and good fitness are certainly able to find ways to enjoy multiple climbs of the mountain by heading up during different seasons and routes.”
Brent Potter: “I think this saying makes sense if you climb Fuji in the way most people do. For many, the experience can be one of sleep deprivation, freezing from lack of proper equipment, sickening from altitude sickness, physically exhausting and all around pretty miserable. From experience, I’d say that 70% of people who climb Fuji do it like this—and for them, they would be wise never to do it again. However we ensure guests have the proper equipment (we provide quality rental gear), climb 90% of the way to the summit during the day, check into a hut, see the sunset, have dinner as a group, then wake up early to climb to the summit for the sunrise. The slow and easy approach maximizes enjoyment of the experience rather than just “conquering” the mountain. It’s still exhausting, but usually not to the point where you say ‘I’ll never do that again.’”
All guides suggest checking the official Mt. Fuji website for up-to-date COVID-19 guidelines, weather and route information in advance.
Fuji Mountain Guides
Head Guide: Brent Potter
FYG Mountain Guides
Head Guide: Shoji Matsumoto
Head Guide: David Niehoff
Whole Earth Nature School
Head Guide: Manabu Futsuki
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Climbing Mt. Fuji