Category Archives: Hiking

Climbing Mt. Fuji

Mt. Fuji

Despite its steep slopes, Mt. Fuji can be climbed up quite easily even by beginners, for it has signboards and mountain huts.

This is from an official website on Mt. Fuji, the highest mountain in Japan.
I first learned that average hikers can think about climbing Mt. Fuji from a piece by Susan Orlean , author of The Orchid Thief about her climb.

Really? I never thought of her as an outdoor person but her personal essay got me thinking.

From the moment Hannah and I decided to go to Japan, we had Mt. Fuji on our agenda. We were extremely lucky to have Charlie, my son’s colleague at Ohio University, working in Japan and interested in taking his teenage kids up the mountain as well.

I had worked out the details of the climb.

Station 5 is 7,606.5 feet (2,305 meters)
Station 8 is 10,230 feet (3,100 meters)
Mt. Fuji is 12,460.8 feet (3,776 meters)

The Yoshida Trail also known as Kawaguchi -Ko Trail, the most popular trail up the mountain, is only 3.7 miles from the 5th station and 4.3 miles going down. The difficulty is in the steepness and high altitude.

Danny, Hannah, Charlie, Mina and Shaw

We take a train from Tokyo to Mt. Fuji Station 1 and a bus to Station 5. There’s a crowd at Station 5, a large roundabout with buses, groups, leaders waving their flags and restaurants and gift shops galore.

I’m anxious. To put it in perspective, the altitude here at Station 5, 7,606.5 feet, is higher than anything than you can climb east of the Mississippi -Mt. Mitchell at 6,683 feet.

Am I going to get up there? Is Hannah going to make it? If she doesn’t make it, I don’t make it but not the other way around since she can climb with Charlie and his children, Mina and Shaw. We start on a good tourist trail at Station 5.

I had been worried enough about the altitude that I obtained a prescription for Diamox, a pill which is supposed to mitigate the effects of high altitude. I don’t like to take “unknown medication” but I’ve heard so much about Diamox as a standard for altitude problems that I feel I’ll probably be OK. I take it the first day of the climb.

The bus driver announces at least ten times that the restrooms at Station 5 are the last free toilets, so use them.

We start climbing as a group of five in a crowd. I want the kids in front of me. “I don’t have the mental energy to worry about you lot,” I say. Mina and Hannah stay together while Charlie and his son are way ahead.

Dinner at Horai-Kan mountain hut

The trail is rocky and volcanic. Any vegetation on the side of the trail has long disappeared. All you see are bare dirt. At each bend of the trail, one of the girls stops to breathe. So the three of us stop. Drink, eat a little and take deep breaths.

Many Japanese take a break by pulling out a cigarette. [Now that makes sense since we’re all oxygen deprived as is. :):)]

Everyone carries oxygen but me. My pack is already so full with warm clothing, food, water and my first aid kit.

There’s no potable water on the trail. I started with three pints and realize that I will have to get water at our hut. The only water on the mountain is what you can buy for 500 yen per pint. Snicker bars are 500 yens but  think of what it took to get the bars up here.

A smooth, parallel trail snakes up the mountain for caterpillar trucks. That’s how workers, trail maintainers and supplies go up the mountain and take garbage down. Plastic water bottles and other packaged, convenience foods must create a huge environmental impact.

Crowds snake up the mountain. I try to pass a few hikers slower than me and give the faster walkers a wide berth. But most are content to follow the person in front of them. Large groups of hikers start and stop at the same time. The Japanese are used to crowds.

Finally, we reach station 8 and our hut, Horai-Kan,  at 3:30pm. The young man charged with giving us an introduction focuses on the toilet rules. Using a toilet the first time costs 300 yens, then the rest is free for the duration of our stay at the hut.

“Put your toilet paper in the garbage bin, not the toilet.” If you want water, you need to buy it. I wish I had known this before I started so I wouldn’t have packed my toothbrush, toothpaste and soap.

Horai-Kan hut on Mt. Fuji

After paying 10,000 yen a person, he shows us to our sleeping quarters. The double-decker bunk is long. We’re given a sleeping bag and pillow and our personal space is the width of the sleeping bag. If one person turns over, we all turn over.

Since we got to the hut early, our scheduled dinner will be at 5 pm. Dinner is rice curry, a Scotch egg and potato salad with green tea. I keep asking for tea since that’s the only liquid I don’t have to pay for. At dinner, we’re handed a breakfast Bento box consisting of packaged Spanish rice and two white flour buns in an air-tight wrapping.

Most hikers then go to bed at 6pm. They’re exhausted with nothing to do. But I wait until much later, since I’ll be tossing and turning otherwise. But when I crawl into my sleeping bag, I find that the people on either side of me have expanded into my space. I wiggle, push them aside, and reclaim my spot. The next group of hikers now have dinner.

As I look outside from our hut , I see a much bigger dragon formed by hikers slowly climbing. Hikers pass our hut and continue up through most of the night.
The first group of hikers who wish to see the sunrise on top of the mountain get up at 10:30pm. A second group start out at 2am. But we wait until it’s light outside at 4:30am, eat the breakfast that was handed out yesterday along with a small bowl of miso soup and start walking. Everyone has to be out of the hut by 6am.

To my surprise and joy, the trail from here is much smoother than yesterday. It’s still incredibly steep but at least I don’t have to use my hands to get over rocks. We pass and are passed by many hikers. Finally at 7:30am, I reach the torii gate at the entrance of a Shinto shrine. The moving fog lets me take pictures of Japan spread out at my feet.
Charlie is waiting for me with his camera in hand. The kids are already sitting in the rest area, eating a bowl of Ramen noodles.

“It’s lunch time somewhere,” I think.

I walk into the shrine. By now, I know the ritual of clapping, bowing, and holding your hands together in prayer in front of the shrine. But I feel that Shintoism is a religion and leave the ceremony to believers.

Fog has enveloped the crater. After a 300 Yen bathroom stop on top, we take a dedicated trail, going downhill. The trail consists of loose volcanic rocks and red dirt. Some hikers run down, others, afraid of the steepness, slowly pick their way down. We’re still at a high altitude but going down is a lot less challenging than going up.

We arrive at Station 5 at about 11:30 am in a sea of tourists and trekkers and head for the ice cream stand. I certainly don’t feel I’ve “conquered Mt. Fuji”. It will stand as a Japanese icon forever but I feel good about having climbed the mountain.

Hiking Everywhere – Athens, OH

There’s hiking everywhere.

It can be glamorous and far away like Europe and New Zealand. You can hike in a national park like Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Or you can hike locally in Athens, OH.

Mystery mushrooms

Athens, the home of Ohio University, is a smaller version of Asheville and just as hippy-dippy.

Local food, local art, music and spirit but no national parks. Located in the northwestern end of Southern Appalachia, the town has rolling hills and an amazing greenway, more suited to biking than hiking.

But, there’s hiking right from town. My son, Neil, had designed a hike which started at Dow Lake in Strouds Run State Park and took us to Sells Park and back – a total over about 10.5 miles.

It was only 22 degrees when we started out by climbing on top of the Dow Lake dam. With no other information, I assume that the lake was created for recreational use – primarily boating and fishing. We walked along the long narrow lake and I had my doubts if my frozen fingers would ever work again.

In Stroud Run SP

But there was just enough altitude gain (not much) and I was so bundled up that after about an hour, the heat from my core spread out to my fingers. By then, it must have been in the low 30s.

Once we left the lakeside, we encountered artifacts of past homesteads. Daffodils are a dead give-away that people lived here. The flowers must have been freezing, like hikers.

No native spring flowers yet. But we did see red mystery  mushrooms. Though they look plastic, I assure you that they are real.

Once we got to Sells Park, it wasn’t long until we reached E. State St., the main shopping street and Cafe Sol, a Cuban and Caribbean restaurant. What a brilliant idea! No need to have our sandwiches outdoors in the freezing weather.

I had a Spanish omelet with potatoes, cheese and beans. It was wonderful. I could eat that every night in Spain.

And then we went back the same way. By the afternoon, mountain bikers and dog walkers had come out to enjoy the cold sunshine. An easy all-day hike which can be modified to try other intersecting trails. There’s hiking everywhere.

PS I finally looked up where daffodils are natives. They’re from Spain and Portugal. I wonder if I’ll see them on the Camino de Santiago.

Boomers on the Trail

It all started with a routine physical with my internist, a man I’ve been going to for years. He’s a runner, a fit baby boomer only a few years younger than me.

“As you age, your lung capacity decreases, even if you’ve never smoked. You should expect some changes.” He probably said something about heart function but I can’t recall now. I was mad. I plan to die with my hiking boots on.

On Heartbreak Ridge

I again told him about the older folks in Carolina Mountain Club, some much older than me, but I think he’s heard it all before from me.

Last Sunday’s hike on Heartbreak Ridge was in the Appalachian District of Pisgah National Forest near Old Fort, NC.

The trail is 11.5-mile with a 3,000 foot ascent, which is considered strenuous. Eighteen hikers showed up, a larger number than usual. Carroll K. was leading this hike and this was his fan club. Carroll, who’s 87 years old, is the “poster hiker” of the fit, serious, all-day hiker who just keeps on going.

Still thinking about my conversation with my doctor, I took a survey of ages and their genders. I know that 18 data points is a very small sample size but it was a start. No one hesitated to give me their age.

The average age of the hikers was 61.6 years old. The women averaged 59.3 years of age (46 the youngest, 70 the oldest). The average for men was 65.1 years old (51 years was the youngest, 87 the oldest).

Not surprisingly Carroll was the oldest man and I was the oldest woman. That’s been true for a long time on all day-hikes. We seem to accept the disparity in ages between the genders but Bruce questioned it. Why?

I don’t know is the quickest answer. After all, Grandma Gatewood did her first A.T. thru-hike when she was 67 years old and again seven years later. The oldest person, a man, completed a thru-hike when he was 81 years old. Historically only 15% of the completers (2000-milers) were women, though the numbers are rising. See the numbers on the Appalachian Trail Conservancy website.

I do know that the professional advice is meant to scare older exercisers.

“See your doctor”.
“Don’t overdo it!”
“Carry a cell phone, a stick, a ….”

After all these dos and don’t, it’s easier to just stay on the couch.

Why do we see fewer women over 70 on the trail or in the gym? Ideas?