Ask any Japanese person—or even foreign residents—if you can climb Mt. Fuji outside of the two-month official summer hiking season, and they will tell you that the mountain is closed or climbing is forbidden.
In a sense it is, and there are many signs saying just this, but if you look at the fine print or do a little research, off-season climbing is forbidden with exception to those who have the appropriate equipment, training and fitness expertise to climb the mountain.
May and June on the south-facing Fujinomiya route is by far the best climbing Mt. Fuji has to offer. The weather is stable with temperatures generally above freezing and light to moderate wind on the summit during the day- time. By then, the snow would have softened up making conditions safe even for novice mountaineers just learning to use ice axes and crampons. Plus, the crowds are nowhere to be seen.
You might think no one would be crazy enough to be on Japan’s highest volcano during this “forbidden” season. However, you’ll be surprised to find a group of Japanese men who climb the mountain nearly everyday, weather permitting. And they’re not spring chickens either: they’re retirees in their early 60s to late 70s!
One of the climbers, Mr. Jitsukawa, has the world record for highest number of Mt. Fuji ascents. He’s climbed it 1,961 times and is slated to surpass 2,000 summits this July—earning the well-deserved nickname, Mr. Fujisan. Other guys like Mr. Saita has racked up more than 800 summits in the last eight years even though he approaches his 73rd birthday this year. Another guy in his mid-60s speed climbs the mountain three times a week, claiming that an hour and 50 minute-climb would be a slow day. Unfortunately, he always moves too fast for me to catch his name.
You may be thinking, with all these old men running up and down the mountain in the snow, surely scaling Fuji in the off season must be an easy task. That is far from the truth. A one-day climb definitely requires a high degree of fitness, appropriate equipment and a guide as the trail is covered in snow and unmarked. Ice axes, crampons and crampon experience, waterproof jacket and pants and synthetic insulating and base layers are the minimum gear you will need as well as goggles or sunglasses to protect your eyes from snow blindness.
For a reasonably fit person, expect the climb to take four to six hours to reach the summit and two to three hours to descend. The descent is sped up even more if you glissade (slide on your bottom using an ice axe for control) or ski down the mountain.
While this climb is highly recommended for adventure seekers, do not take it lightly. People get lost, fall and even die in the spring season, especially if the weather makes a sudden turn for the worse or if they come unprepared. All off-season climbs are required to be registered with the prefecture’s police department. Off-sea- son transportation to the Fujinomiya fifth station is nearly non-existent, which makes the Yoshidaguchi route very tempting with convenient transport from May. The Yoshidaguchi side is north facing and remains icy into June, causing numerous accidents. If in doubt, go with a guide or an organized climbing group because going home is always more important than reaching the summit.
David Niehoff is the owner and lead guide of Kanto Adventures, a private climbing guide service for foreign and Japanese customers.