There are so many things our body does for us each day that we take for granted: breathing in and out without thinking, heart beating along unnoticed, words coming out of our mouths with barely a thought. You only start to notice when things begin to break down. Unfortunately for me, this happened about 10,000 feet into climbing Mount Fuji.
I’m young and in reasonably good shape. I have strong legs and lungs from biking 12 miles a day in New York. Though I had no mountain climbing experience, I’ve done plenty of day hikes in California. Information on the internet suggested that spry octogenerians made the trek every year – why couldn’t I?
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We ascended first thing in the morning after arriving from Tokyo, planning on descending by nightfall, doing it all in one day – as many do successfully. The first three hours were child’s play. We took the Yoshida trail, which started at the Fifth Station at Kawaguchiko, about 7,500 feet above sea level. I noticed I got out of breath slightly quicker than usual and took short breaks to compensate, but I felt pretty good.
Once we broke above the clouds, it was a magical feeling. We took in the beauty at the 7th station, feeling on top of the world. I was out of breath and my ears were starting to ring a little bit, but I felt good enough to keep pressing on. A short break taking in the views energized me, and we continued up the path.
But between the 7th and 8th stations, around 9,000 feet up, I started to feel differently. Altitude sickness hit me like a truck at high speed. My ears had a heartbeat of their own, and I had a migraine so blinding that every noise – even the sound of my own huffing and puffing – was agony. I had an inexplicable rash spreading on my chest, and my face felt flushed and puffy. I couldn’t walk more than a hundred feet before stopping, gasping for air that did little to quench my lungs.
I expected this maybe near the summit, but not with so far still to go. This was not even my first time being that high up – I had previously spent two weeks in Quito, which is around 10,000 feet above sea level. However, the combination of 4 hours of hiking and the rapid gain of 9,000 feet in altitude in 6-hour span took a hard toll on my body.
I knew that from the 8th station, there was still about another 1,500 feet of altitude to gain up increasingly difficult terrain. But things were starting to get dangerously out of whack in my body. Going up wouldn’t salve anything but my ego. The only way was down.
My travel companion was completely furious with me. I urged her to continue onwards and reach the summit herself, that I would be fine as long as I went down, but she felt uncomfortable going it alone. I can’t say I blame her – climbing a mountain is a taxing physical and emotional experience, and the added stress of doing it in a foreign country is surely no small feat.
So down we went, which was in itself a whole new challenge, as we were colliding with traffic heading up the mountain. Still, everyone was friendly as we occasionally held up the flow of people, some looking concerned at my ashen face and wishing me well. My travel companion barely spoke to me except to mutter how dangerous it was to head down this way and how we should have kept going. I understood her frustration, but when you feel that things in your body are going seriously awry, you have to honor it and listen.
It was incredibly frustrating to come so far, to come so close to summiting a mountain only to turn back. The pain I felt for the next few days – the ache in my legs, neck, and shoulders; the blinding headache that lasted three days; a nonstop ringing in my ears – felt hollow for having not achieved what I set out to do.
I tried climbing Mount Fuji, but it won. I do regret not preparing more for it – but I don’t regret trying. I haven’t given up, and there are more mountains to climb in my future. Next time, I’ll be more prepared.
Lessons from Climbing Mount Fuji:
Altitude sickness is no joke. If you start to feel seriously ill, you’re already in the throes of it and you need to take it seriously. In addition to packing the right outdoor gear, you should be aware and prepared for potential altitude sickness. Here are a few tips for preventing altitude sickness.
Don’t try to summit all in one day
If you don’t have at least two days to summit a mountain of this height – or three for other higher mountains – I would recommend not doing it at all. Summiting Mount Fuji in a day is possible, but it depends on your own physical stamina (which changes with altitude), weather conditions, your mindset, and timing. Leave yourself wiggle room. I know when you’re traveling Japan on a budget, you’re trying to save money, but if you can’t afford to spend a night on the mountain if needed, it may not be the best idea for you to go.
Don’t climb if you’re still recovering from jet lag
Another mistake I made was trying to climb the mountain too soon after arriving in Japan. I should have given my body more time to acclimate to the new schedule. By climbing Fuji, not only were my Circadian rhythms totally out of whack, but my oxygen levels were too, leading to total body shutdown. If you’re coming from a long way away, use these tips to surviving a long flight to minimize the impact of jet lag.
At the onset of symptoms, go down or stay level and try to acclimatize
The only thing that mitigates altitude sickness is going back down. You don’t necessarily have to turn back, but have a plan for staying put and resting your body without putting it through the stress of climbing. Climbing Mount Fuji would be exhausting even if it were at sea level; altitude makes it 10x harder. Have a Plan B – whether it’s camping overnight, staying in a mountain lodge (there are many available on Mount Fuji for $60+ USD a night), or even taking a long break.
Stay hydrated with oral rehydration salts
Even though I brought 4 liters of water with me, I still ended up getting severely dehydrated on my climb. I wish I had brought some oral rehydration salts, like Pedialyte, to help me replenish much-needed electrolytes and hydrate more efficiently. These are now one of my go-to packing items, perfect for everything from fighting hangovers to climbing mountains.
Consider asking your doctor for medication to fight altitude sickness
I had never heard of Diamox until after my trip, but I wish I had! Though I can never know, I wonder if I would have been able to make it to the summit had I taken this medication. The next time I try to conquer a mountain, this will be in my bag. Doctors also recommend taking 600 mg of ibuprofen 3 times in a day (for a total of 1800 mg, but no more), starting 6 hours before you plan to ascend.
Have travel insurance
OK, so travel insurance won’t prevent altitude sickness, but if something seriously wrong happens on Mount Fuji, you’re looking at being airlifted out with a helicopter. Luckily I had the presence of mind to turn around before things got serious, but if I had kept going and needed to be airlifted, I’d be living with a mountain of debt, as I stupidly didn’t have travel insurance at the time. It’s inexpensive (the one I have now costs $50 per month and covers quite a bit) and necessary, just do it, really. I use World Nomads now because it’s affordable and time-tested by many established travel bloggers. And who knows better than us?
Have you climbed Mount Fuji or any other mountains? Any tips for combatting altitude sickness?
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