Japan Update #14B - The BIG Hill

Tuesday, September 17, 1996

The story of the attempted climb up a 5 kilometer (3 mile) hill with a 30% grade. The 30% grade comes from the 1400 meters (4600 feet) we tried to go up in this relatively short distance. Did I mention that this trail was not paved!

Actually it consisted of loose gravel varying in size from peas to two inch marbles. At times it felt like we were in a shallow stream with the water made up of these 1-2 inch rough spheroid stone objects.

Did I mention that to get to this section you first have to get up a 27 kilometer (16 mile) long hill that was only a 6-8% grade! Of course this section was paved.

By now, those of you who know something of this area (Japan) realize that I am talking about Mt. Fuji, or Fuji-san as we call it here. And no, we did not try to ride the tandem up Fuji. Though down the access road (Fuji Skyline) was tempting!

We drove up to the "shin 5 gome" (new fifth station) where we parked the car to start the hike. We did see 3 bikers trying to ride up the road to the fifth station, including one who obviously had no granny gears. This rider was standing as he road up the hill verrrrry slowly. I think the cadence was about 25-30!

From this point we started the climb at an elevation of 2400 meters (about 7900 feet). The top is at 3776 meters (12500 feet) The first 100 meters of climb was on a relatively wide path, covered with loose gravel about pea sized. At the old fifth station (2500 meters) we saw two mountain bikes, so we assume that at least two people rode up that far. Totemo genki! (very strong).

At this point the trail got very tough. The average 30% grade seemed to vary from about 20% to 40%. The surface was loose volcanic rocks, pebbles, and boulders. The footing was a bit treacherous and many times we would take two steps forward only to slide back one step! When we would stop to rest (it got to be quite frequent) it felt like we were cross country skiing up a hill and taking a break. We would have to put our feet at 90 degrees to each other and dig in the inside edges of our shoes to keep from sliding back down. Just like setting the edges of skis on a hill!

There were a few times where I almost fell backwards when I stopped since I stood up and did not lean into the hill enough. The angle of the hillside definitely plays games with the senses.

When we drove to Fuji san it was clear, with only a thin band of clouds covering a section of the mountain. We started the climb in this cloudy section, and it moved up the mountain with us. When we would stop we could see the fog / mist rising up the slope as fast as we were going. There were times that we would see clearly up the trail and want to take a picture, but by the time we got the camera out of a pocket the view was obscured by clouds (Pink Floyd anyone?).

For a change, Lindy was climbing better than me. I would stop for more breaks and she would wait for me to catch up. Of course, as soon as I caught up she would start off again! Just like single biking and skiing, only usually I am the rabbit!

After 500 meters of climbing, knowing that there was 900 to go, I thought, "OK, I'll make it to the next rest station (all of which were closed since the official climbing season in July and August) and see if the clouds clear". You know, set modest goals so you can achieve them one step at a time. Then I looked down at the last switchback and realized that I had stopped to rest three times in its' 30 meter length.

I called up to Lindy, who was about 10 meters ahead (and 3 meters higher) of me and said that I was going to give up. She took a few (very few) seconds to decide to also give up the valiant fight.

The descent was much faster, but also more treacherous. The gravel would constantly give way under foot, so walking down was always a combination of stepping and sliding. Put your heel down and let it slide in as you lowered the front of the foot. The tops of the thighs started hurting and quivering from the fight to maintain control.

By the time we got to the bottom Lindy could barely walk. Today, two days later, we both have very stiff, sore legs. We had thought that since we ride 4-5000 miles a year we would be in good shape to make this climb. Not! It wasn't the altitude affecting our oxygen intake, we were not huffing and puffing excessively, it was purely muscles not up to the task. Very disheartening! Many older people and average housewives (no offense to any domestic engineers on the list) make this climb routinely, but not us.

There is a Japanese saying that a wise man climbs Fuji-san once, a fool twice. I guess this attempt leaves us as not wise, but not fools!


Climb statistics:

Elevation gain: 500 meters

Time to go up: 95 minutes

Time to go down: 50 minutes

Time to recover: two days and counting!

Back to "Japan Stories" menu.