Mt. Fuji Sea-to-Summit-to-Sea [Video]
Updated: Apr 17, 2020
I believe it was 2013 when I first heard of the insane idea. My close friend and business partner, Justin, began telling an endlessly fascinating series of stories of his many adventurous attempts to climb from the ocean to the top of Japan’s iconic Mt. Fuji. I myself had made it to the summit several times over the years, but the thought of starting at the sea had never crossed my mind, and I found this crazy talk enthralling.
The catch was that despite his excellent level of fitness, abundant hiking experience and unquestioned mental fortitude each of his numerous attempts had been met with failure. And perhaps, or more precisely - because each story ended in disappointment at various points short of (and sometimes tantalizingly close to) the ultimate goal, it only added a relatable sense of scale to the imposing efforts and raw authenticity to the drama of the retellings. It also majorly upped the intrigue. As humans - dreaming big, going after the impossible, is part of our DNA and hearing of someone else's outrageous, and as of yet unattained dream, resonated in the challenge-seeking corner of my own soul. I could hear the whispered hush of "what if" echoing inside my head, and feel the rush of blood to my brain as more and more of it was awakened by Justin's tales.
Sea-to-Summit: 1st Attempt (June 2014)
The following June I had managed to parlay my inspiration into an actual plan, and had even convinced Justin himself, as well as four other friends to band together, embrace the crazy and chase this elusive and audacious goal together. With the exception of Justin, it was the first time for all of us. We set out from the ocean early in the morning and slowly ambled our way towards the towering behemoth of a mountain that we could clearly see from our very first steps, intimidating and seemingly an infinity away.
Planning foolhardy expeditions on paper is an all-too-easy exercise, usually done with unearned confidence from the plushy confines of our modern homes. "Wouldn't it be cool if..." always sounds good from the couch, but has a high chance of leading to regret, tears and streams of profanity on the trail. Looking at the mountain SO FAR AWAY had me confronting that reality from the start line. But then again, that’s what spurred me on to even try, the fact that it all sounded so impossibly hard.
In the end, it was an exceptionally and unseasonably hot day, and the slow, sweaty grind along the sweltering asphalt roads, on a poorly-researched route (with several wrong turns to boot) cost us dearly, both physically and mentally. Our band of brothers fought the good fight as long as we could, and a respectable 5 out of the 6 of us made it to the traditional starting point of a Mt. Fuji climb, the 5th Station (2,400 m), under our own power. But that turned out to be the beginning of the end for most of us.
Ultimately, only two members of our group found success on the elusive summit, while the other four of us fell victim to the mountain for varying reasons between the 5th Station and somewhere below the peak.
In my particular case, stomach problems at around the 8th Station (3,200 m) sealed my fate and decided my early retirement. In retrospect, my attempt to combat dehydration during the extreme heat of the day backfired. I almost never drink sports drinks, and I knew trying out new and unproven methods on “game day” was a risky notion, but I felt on this day I needed to do something drastic to replace the sugars and electrolytes I was losing in my steady stream of sweat. And so I drank, and drank and drank Aquarius & Pocari Sweat (Japan’s answer to Gatorade) until my stomach went into a state of unbridled mutiny. All told, I believe I had more than 8 liters of sugary drinks that day - and yes, now I can clearly see that was too much.
Sea-to-Summit: No Attempt (June 2015)
Reason: DERAILED BY THE RAINY SEASON
Another funny thing about our species is that early failures seem to ultimately push us harder towards success than early successes do. Determination and resolve are the counterintuitive byproducts of of disappointment and defeat. I knew I wasn't done after my failed first effort in 2014 - but I also wanted some time to rework the route, rethink some of the logistics and get myself in better shape before trying again. I tentatively scheduled my revenge for a year after the maiden voyage, in June of 2015. A year would be a long time to wait, but having a big goal on the table to work toward and look forward to is part of the fun.
However, there would be no attempt in 2015. As a general principle, I prefer to climb Fuji in the offseason. The official season (July and August) is just too much of a rat race for my personal liking, with thousands of people crowding the trails and choking the life out of the mountain along with all of the joy I typically derive from hiking. Yet, Fuji can be a dangerous peak outside of those months, especially during the snow season, so finding the right timing is imperative. For me, late June, just before the official season kicks off has proven to be a good compromise over the last several years.
Average temperatures are not as warm as July or August, but also not that far off on decent weather days. There is usually still some soft snow remaining on the mountain, but limited to just the uppermost portions, and not the unforgiving consistency of the perilous sheet of ice that flanks Fuji in the winter. BUT, June is rainy season, and it can be hard to find an extended clear weather window for a trek spanning this many hours. Despite being eager and ready to go, the right forecast never materialized on the days I was free in June 2015, and I was not willing to chance it with a less-than-ideal forecast. Thus, the dream faded into the background for yet another year.
Sea-to-Summit: 2nd Attempt (June 2016)
When I began gauging the interest level amongst my friends for the planned second attempt in 2016, it soon became apparent that not everyone was as singularly obsessed with the goal as I was. Not a single person from the 2014 trip was interested in giving it another shot in 2016. I had to look wide and far to find some new partners willing to give the Sea-to-Summit a shot with me, which I eventually found in my hiking friends Naoki & Michal.
For attempt 2.0 I exhaustively researched an alternative route, decided to start in the evening to avoid the heat of the day at low elevation and knew what to expect and how to pace myself better because of the previous year’s experience. With Michal & Naoki accompanying me this second time around, we got off to a good start, seemingly made all the right logistical decisions/route choices, and kept pleasant, steady forward progress for the entire climb. It was a plan run to near perfection, and in the end, Naoki & I were able to check a successful Sea-to-Summit off our bucket lists, while Michal fell just short due to complications from the altitude - the only disappointment of the day.
Oddly enough, with the re-worked route, I found that I actually enjoyed myself this time around, despite the monumental effort. The tough but atmospheric trail through the dense forest at the base of the mountain was more direct, and more rewarding than the endless, merciless asphalt of the previous year. I had such a good time, that I already determined to do it again within minutes of wrapping up. And next time I had ambitions of going faster, and MAYBE even to try what had once seemed unthinkable - a round-trip assault.
Sea-to-Summit-to-Sea: 1st Attempt (June 2017)
With my newfound confidence from having sampled success on an enjoyable route in 2016, I was quickly able to rally some troops for the next year. This time my girlfriend Riho (first attempt) and good friend Hisao (second attempt) hopped onboard for the one-way sea-to-summit journey, while Naoki signed up for the second year in a row to join me in going for the round-trip sea-to-summit-to-sea. We would start out together as a group of four, primarily because I was in charge of navigating - but once we reached the well-marked trails above the 5th Station we would split up into pairs and continue on as independent teams each seeking their own goal.
Things went well early on, but predictably as the distance grew, the hours passed and the path steepend, some of us started to tire and slow, and we fell quite a bit behind our goal pace. This might not have been a huge problem, except that we were operating in an extremely tight window of predicted good weather, trying to beat the onset of forecasted severe high winds. We reached the 5th Station in perfect weather, and could see all the way up to the summit uninterrupted, but the weather turned swiftly and unforgivingly higher up the mountain and by the time we reached the 9th Station, visibility had been reduced to barely a meter and our bodies were being whipped about by gale force winds.
This was June, during the Mt. Fuji off-season, and there was still snow on the final, steep approach to the summit. It was there that Riho and Hisao decided to turn back, while Naoki and pushed on ahead of them. But the winds across the exposed slopes were making it hard to stand up straight and in the now whiteout, we were having a hard time finding the trail (which we ended up losing). Not wanting to give up, I began to scramble up a random snow-covered slope in the general direction of the summit when Naoki stopped, looked at me and said he wanted to turn back because he "didn't want to die." Those words snapped me back to the sharp risks of continuing on, and even though I did not want to accept defeat so close to our goal - I knew that he was right. Even though some 50 vertical meters were all that separated us from the summit, we let the goal take a back seat to safety and reason and turned our energies to getting down safely. And just as had happened the last time, that bitter taste of “almost-made-it” sealed my intentions to try again the following year.
Sea-to-Summit-to-Sea: 2nd Attempt (June 2018)
I knew if I was going to do it again, that I would try to push harder and faster, so I had reservations from the beginning about inviting other people. I didn’t want to pressure others to keep the bullish pace I hoped to go at, or to skimp on breaks like I was planning on doing. The few times I did mention my plans to select friends to try and test their interest, I was met with clear and decisive NOs across the board. That was fine though. I knew the route, I knew myself - and I was confident I could complete the challenge alone, maybe even more confident that doing it solo would lead to success. So on the last day of June, 2018 - I drove 4.5 hours to a spot near the ocean around Mt. Fuji, parked my car and embarked on my latest sea-to-summit saga. The rest of how it went that day is told in detail in the video below. By all means, if you’ve read this far - check it out.
There isn't much additional information included, but for reference I am pasting the link to my original preliminary trip report and photo album that I posted on facebook immediately after completing the hike.