I had a great sleep and awoke the next day feeling slightly edgy about how the day was going to unfold. The morning weather forecast was still good. After a quick breakfast we headed for the Fuji skyline road. Driving up to it the mountain was covered in thick white cloud, then it partly cleared giving us glimpses of the white, snowy upper slopes. It all looked very dreamlike and big. At the toll gate we got stung but were happy that the road was at least open. We then slowly climbed up through lower slopes forest counting off all the levels. Fuji is split into ten levels with the various roads ending at the fifth level and the top being the tenth level. The higher we got the more excited I became. Everything was going according to plan and a successful ascent looked very promising.
The end of the road came too soon. There was the usual collection of eateries and souvenir shops together with car parks with tour buses. We parked and threw the gear out onto the ground and got ourselves kitted up. There was also another group of lads getting themselves ready which was in a way comforting to see. The view from the car park was rather grand. There was a thin layer of broken cloud below us stretching across to the South Alps and Yatsu ga Take. Up above us were the dark shadowed lava slopes of Fuji and then bright blue sky. It was cold and fresh. As usual my pack was bigger and heavier than I wanted but only contained the bare essentials, plus a small bottle of champagne. [Note: the Fuji Skyline road from Fujinomiya on Fuji's south side is closed from December to April. On the north side, the Fuji Skyline road remained open to the fifth stage of the Kawaguchi-co trail. - Ed.]
We set off from the car (2300m) at just before midday and followed the Kawaguchi Ko trail around the mountain away from all the tourists. The plan was to climb to the top where we would pitch the tent in a sheltered spot, celebrate at midnight and then get up to watch the sunrise. On the trail we were joined by another bloke who had done the climb on the previous New Year's eve. He was camping at the fifth stage and would set off early in the morning to see the sun rise. He explained that this was what most people did. The trail, then to my horror, started descending. Down we went and then plodded up again. The view from the trail was good. We were walking along just above the cloud, which stretched away from us, as far as we could see. A cool breeze kept us refreshed and focused. Up to our left I observed some huts and a gate. We headed up onto a concrete platform, the sixth stage, and had a quick breather. The sixth stage had come very quickly and easily. We met an older couple there who were planning to camp at the fifth stage and climb to the top at night. That afternoon they were going to the seventh stage for a hike. I thought they were mad. Plodding on Fuji is not much fun and to just go to the seventh level for an afternoon walk is something I don't understand. They warned us that it was icy above the eighth stage. We followed them up the wide lava trail/road switch backing up and past large barriers positioned to prevent landslides. The seventh stage took a long time in coming. We passed many huts on the way but none were marked as level 7.
Not far past the seventh stage we met an American (Jeremy) descending. He had started at the first stage (not the fifth, like 99% of all Fuji climbers). He had been to within a few hundred metres of the top but as he didn't have crampons had had to turn tail. We chatted until we got cold and then headed on and up. Coincidentally, we met up with Jeremy a few days later on the streets of Matsumoto. He was an interesting bloke hailing from Skagway, Alaska and in the summer months guided people on the goldrush trail.
The route was steep. I don't understand why it gets so steep as whenever you see a picture of Fuji the slopes never look that bad. The trail was now largely snow with a line of lava at the side. I had refrained from getting cramponed up and steadily plodded and kicked steps in the snow. Unlike the last time we climbed Fuji I was finding it much easier and moved at a steady pace. Mal, meanwhile, was slowly dropping back. Not far past the eighth stage I veered off the trail line and traversed out between some large lava retainers covered in wire. The slope was steep and the snow hard and icy. All of a sudden I was in a position I didn't want to be in without my crampons on. Cursing myself for being so stupid I carefully climbed up to the wire bound lava rocks, kicked out a small ledge, took off my pack and clipped it into the wire, then quickly and carefully put my crampons on. In the mean time Mal had caught up with me and was keen to stop and camp for the night. Looking up I could see a hut so suggested we climb up to it and discuss stopping in more detail once there. I was hoping by then he would have settled back into a pace and would want to continue.
Not so, at the hut he was quite adamant about halting. Surprisingly, he was really feeling it and wanted a good rest. Being a two man team I had no option but to stop. I was a little disappointed but Mal also reckoned we wouldn't get to the top before nightfall; it was already 4:30 and light was beginning to fade. There were a few huts around us, perched on the snowy slope. We hunted around for a flat sheltered spot to pitch the tent but could find nothing that satisfied both requirements. We chose a site on the flat snow covered roof of a hut, positioning the tent so that it would be as aerodynamic as possible. As we finished securing it another American, Rob, climbed up on to the roof. It was a nice surprise and I thought a bit of a coincidence that the only gaijin (probably) on the mountain were camping in the same spot. A few minutes later his partner, David, arrived and they set about making camp. They were both students who had travelled up from Kitakyushu with the same intention as us. Before settling into our tent I suggested to them we head for the top together the next morning. Before getting into the tent I made two small piles of snow in the tent entrance and took some photos. We really were in a very special place. Way down below there was a huge sea of cloud stretching off to the horizon. On top of the cloud was the ever lengthening shadow of the mountain. To our left and right, huge snow slopes with rocky ridges of dark lava swept away and down to the cloud. It was getting dark and the wind, coming from the west, was cold. So too were my feet.
In the tent I took my boots off , quickly put on some fleece socks and wriggled into my sleeping bag. Amazingly my feet heated up instantly. We were both warm so got the stove going and melted some snow. Dinner was excellent, a fresh pasta pack of four cheese tortellini covered in a mushroom and lava cupa soup followed by a mars another cup of soup and a finger of fudge. After dinner we spent the next half hour melting more snow to refill our water bottles. It was then lights out with the intention of getting up to see in the new millennium.
As the evening progressed the wind got stronger. To start with I wasn't too concerned as I still had strong memories of the tent bending and getting bashed about in the Wind Rivers during the summer. After about 10 o'clock it had got way too strong for my liking. I spent the next two hours feeling very scared and concerned. As midnight drew closer I thought of everyone down on the ground in Japan and the rest of the far east partying, drinking and having a whale of a time. I would have given anything to be off the mountain. We were at a height of around 3,400m and there was nothing as high as us to break the wind for thousands of miles. I could picture exactly where we were and felt very exposed and totally at the mercy of the wind. I knew that at that height the wind could do whatever it wanted and had thought of us literally getting blown away or the tent (not 4 season) getting shredded.
Just after midnight I timidly wished Mal a happy New Year. We weren't in the mood for celebrating so the champagne remained inside my sleeping bag. I started to relax thinking that whatever was going to happen was going to happen and there was nothing I could do about it. After dozing for a couple of hours Mal shook me and said we'd lost our anchor on the front of the tent and if we didn't sort it we'd lose the rest of tent. Not the best start to the New Year. Luckily Mal had a spare bungy chord so we attached it to the tent and then to an ice axe that was poorly planted in the sugary snow. Leaning over the axe I started to push a large piece of lava against the axe when it popped out and up thumping me in the forehead (carry on camping!). It hurt but fortunately it missed my eyes and didn't cut me. Mal decided to get the other axe and hammer it in to the snow and refix everything. It was holding so we zipped the tent back up and tried to relax. My thoughts turned to what we'd do if we did lose the tent. The first option was to go into the other tent next to us or pick up the axes and hack our way into one of the heavily boarded up huts. For the rest of the night the moon shone brightly and I could see the shadow of our anchor axe holding firmly. The wind also started to slowly move round to the west again, fortunately that end of the tent was securely anchored into icy compact snow.
At around 4:30 the other two were up and getting ready to go to the top. They came over to the front of our tent to tell us they were going to go for it. I said they were mad and that if the wind picked up again they really would be in a dangerous predicament. They went away and came back 15 mins later saying they would now descend. We wished them luck and off they went. I suggested to Mal that we too get up and get down as quickly as we could. He preferred to wait for daylight thinking there would be a lull with the wind around dawn. Feeling tired and groggy I didn't argue.
At around 5:30 I asked Mal if he wanted to go up. The wind had dropped and we had heard a couple of people slowly trudge past the tent. Mal wasn't up for it, he'd been to the top three times before and wasn't quite as fired up as I was. Feeling lousy I got my boots on and unzipped the tent. The view was mind blowing. Light was slowly seeping over the horizon. There was a bright smiley moon, venus was shining brightly and many other stars were twinkling. The colour of the sky ranged from a rich dark blue to black. Down below the lights of Fujiyoshida and other small towns twinkled. I was really moved by it. I think it looked doubly impressive after the adrenaline filled night in the tent. I quickly got my crampons on and slowly plodded upwards. Up and below me I could see the odd head torch. The wind was not too bad and only occasionally would blow so hard that I had to stop and keep my balance.
I realised that I was not going to make the top before sunrise so constantly looked over to my left for the first sign of the sun. The snow was hard and icy. I caught up with a bloke who was standing on his own waiting for the sun. I waited with him for a few minutes and watched it slowly creep into the new day. This was the second time I had watched the sun rise on Fuji and this time it did feel special. The first time was in the summer with all the hoards, and to me it was just like watching from an aircraft window. We took a few photos and then I continued on. The sun slowly started to light up the icy slopes casting a warming alpenglow across the crisp snow. More impressive, though, was the colour of the rock. It was a vibrant rusty red hue and mixed with the rich blueness of the dawn sky and the white snow made an unforgettable sight. I remembered the same scene from the last time we had climbed Fuji. All the colours were so rich and simple. I was incredibly happy with my position and knowing I was going to top out. The views now had made the night all the worthwhile.
The route continued to zig zag slowly upwards. Way off to my right I watched a helicopter coming in. The passengers would have had an incredible view of the mountain. I think it landed on the top, flew around a few times and then flew away. Above me was one final steep snow slope separating me from the top. Looking down at the snow, small ice crystals and pieces of lava skipped across the icy surface in the fresh wind towards the ever brightening horizon. I slowly ascended the last section picking out my own route. It was the steepest section but didn't last too long. Two lions and a new gate marked the end of the trail and the crater rim.
On top at last and mighty happy to be there. The last section had taken about an hour and a quarter and I had arrived on top just after seven. I wandered around the boarded up huts. There were a few tents pitched up against the walls and a few other folk outside. The scene was the opposite to the summer one when there are hundreds of people resting and walking around. I considered walking right around the top but quickly changed my mind. I got someone to take a couple of photos of me and then started my descent.
I passed several people slowly plodding up including a Canadian bloke. I stopped and chatted with him. He was being guided but his guide was way off on front. His guide also had a key to a hut at the seventh stage and he had spent the night there with a group of others. I continued down. The views were still impressive. All of the much lower surrounding hills were covered in hazy mist, otherwise the visability was good and the sky cloudless.
Back at the tent Mal was still resting. He got up quickly and with cold induced speed we packed up, stuffing the tent into my pack doing our best to make sure nothing got blown away. Dave and Rob had also done a swift job of packing and had left quite a few tent pegs lying around. We didn't bother with breakfast and started the never-ending descent. It was a relief to be plodding down. Back in the night I had visions of us having to crawl down. We moved slowly and stopped a few times to lose layers and crampons and drink our crunchy Fuji lava water. I was slow and Mal pushed on out in front. Once past the seventh stage we got back on the wide lava trail/road and then had to slowly plod back up to get to the fifth stage. The nearer to the end we got the more tourist day trippers we saw. We also got some strange looks being gaijin and fully kitted out.
The weather was excellent. The sky was still cloudless and the whole of the mountain on display. Back at the car I quickly fished out my champers and swigged it down. I had a reason to celebrate. The climb was finally over and we were back down safe and sound. It had been a great start to the new millennium, with possibly a touch too much wind.
Driving down and off the mountain in search of an onsen I vowed never to climb Fuji again or at least until my hundredth birthday. Two winter and one summer ascent has been more than enough. From now on all my admiration for Fuji will be done well away from it.