Eternal Arrival
clouds at mount fuji
Japan

I Failed at Climbing Mount Fuji: Altitude Sickness & Calling it Quits

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?

kawaguchiko mount fuji

Already in the clouds at the fifth station at the Kawaguchiko trail, where most buses drop you off. If you forgot anything, buy it here, as things get more expensive up the mountain! There’s also an ATM here.

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.

mist on mount fuji

At first, you walk up a dirt path, in mist so thick I assume it must be a cloud.

 

climbing mount fuji

Later, the winding path gives way to a rocky trail that gets steeper as you go.

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.

clouds at mount fuji

Despite the looming altitude sickness, it was an amazing feeling as we broke above the clouds.

 

sitting above the clouds on mount fuji

Taking a breather above the clouds at the 7th station on the Kawaguchiko trail

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.

mount fuji clouds

A long way 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.

climbing mount fuji

The only good thing about having to go back down was to be able to actually see the amazing view I missed on the way up.

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 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?

 

Note: This post contains affiliate links. That means that if you purchase something using one of these links, I will receive a small commission at no added cost to you. No BS – I only recommend accommodations, services, and products I truly believe in.

 

6 Comments

  • Reply
    Simon
    March 2, 2017 at 5:42 am

    Hi Allison,

    Good write-up; a shame you didn’t summit, you’re absolutely right that only you know what your body is telling you and you should listen to it – although that said, altitude sickness at 3,500m isn’t the kind of extreme condition it is on e.g. Everest, where it can cause pulmonary or cerebral edemas.

    You’re absolutely right about the rapid gain of altitude being the problem on Fuji – a bus straight from sea level to 2400m means it’s far too quick an ascent to get above 3000m.

    In my case, I felt really rough at 8th station but pushed on to the top; it was most unpleasant to be honest! But for me, the issue was that we stopped for the night in the 8th hut – it was spending those additional 7 hours at that altitude while trying and failing to sleep that allowed the sickness to set in. Had we done it as a 1-day climb straight up and down, I would’ve been descending by the time it actually started kicking in. So my advice is that a 1-day climb is actually less likely to result in altitude sickness – after all, one day or two days are both inadequate time for acclimatisating from sea level to 3,700m.

    Imagine how you were feeling at 8th station, then imagine spending a night there like that! It just makes you suffer for longer! Anyway, I’ve discussed this in more detail on my own Fuji post, if you have time to give it a read please let me know what you think.

    Cheers

    • Reply
      Allison Green
      March 5, 2017 at 3:33 pm

      Hi Simon! Thanks for taking the time to leave such a detailed comment, and congrats on summiting Fiji!! It’s a freaking tough one, that’s for sure. I learned a lot from your comment. Having never experienced altitude sickness before, it scared the crap out of me and I’m glad I turned back. Your point is a good one though, and I wouldn’t have wanted to spend a second longer at that altitude… sleeping there would have been next to impossible for me. I think it would have been good to spend a night at the 5th station before trying to climb Fuji, for me personally, and if I ever try it again I think I’ll do it that way, or at least with more climbs under my belt. It was a bit mad to take Fuji on as my first at-altitude hike!

      I’ll definitely check out your post now – thanks for leaving the link here 🙂

  • Reply
    Simon
    March 10, 2017 at 4:30 am

    Hi Allison, I left the same reply to your comment on my site, but thought your own readers might want to follow the thread too… so yeah, I think that a night at 5th station first is a good idea – it should set you up nicely to tackle the summit and descend again in one go during daylight, and the slower rate of ascent from sea level to 3500m should take the edge off the altitude sickness. It still isn’t enough time to fully acclimatise, but I’m sure it would improve your odds of avoiding sickness (or at least getting up & back down before it got too bad). The downside is you’d miss the sunrise, but that’s probably a price worth paying to achieve the main goal of summiting (and sunrise is hit-and-miss anyway what with the high likelihood of clouds). I hope you have the chance to go back and tackle
    Fuji again some time!

    • Reply
      Allison Green
      March 10, 2017 at 4:37 am

      Thanks for following up! I think that would be a good plan. I’m sure it’s lovely at the top regardless of the time of day and probably a bit less crowded as well! I’m going to try to do a few mountains in between here and Fuji. I did a 2500m mountain last summmer, and that was pretty perfect for my fitness level so I’ll try to do some incremental ones in between here and there.

  • Reply
    Slay
    April 15, 2017 at 8:52 am

    Sorry to hear about your aborted attempt. Here is an account of our ascent which included a non-climber/hiker.

    When we did it in 2012 we went during the night. We caught the last bus up, which arrived at 7pm, and stayed at the 5th station for 2 hrs (while everyone else from the bus charged up the mountain straight away). After this, using self control not to run up the easy trail, we slowly walked and then waited for half an hour at each consecutive station. By the end we still needed to take baby steps, as we could feel the altitude, but easily reached the summit before sunrise. In the process we passed many of those who rushed up in the dark without adequate cold weather clothing (some so ill equipped that they needed to be wrapped in space blankets by mountain staff). After proceeding to the summit in a time of approximately 10 hrs we then descended all the way back to the 5th station in about 2 hrs. This is how such a unique mountain should be attempted if unacclimatized.

    • Reply
      Allison Green
      April 15, 2017 at 4:54 pm

      That’s a really smart ascent! I admit I had no idea what I was doing, really. I found most online accounts to be a bit blasé about the difficulty of the mountain, actually, so I was supremely underprepared for everything but the cold. Noting this for future reference the next time I try a hike of this altitude! Thanks for the comment.

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