KOFU, YAMANASHI PREF. – Mount Fuji is supposed to be open to hikers only in the summer, but Japan’s iconic mountain attracts climbers who brave the wind-swept peak during the off season.
Accidents occur almost every winter on the nation’s highest mountain, including one last month that left two people dead and one injured.
Because the 3,776-meter-high mountain, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is an independent peak, not part of any mountain range, weather conditions are severe in the winter, with strong winds blowing from all directions.
“From the eighth station and up, it is the toughest mountain to climb in Japan,” said Toshitaka Furuya, the 66-year-old chairman of the Yamanashi-ken Mountaineering Federation, who has been climbing mountains for about 50 years.
Mount Fuji straddles Yamanashi and Shizuoka prefectures.
In the winter, trails on the cone-shaped mountain are described as “tilted skating rinks” by Yamanashi Prefectural Police officers who have served as rescue workers on the mountain.
The ice on the surface is so thick that climbers find it difficult to use their picks.
“Once you slip, you may slide several hundred meters down the mountain,” an official from the Yamanashi Prefectural Police said.
Several years ago in late December, the police asked Furuya to rescue a man who had slid from the ninth station to the sixth.
Although the man was believed to have been alive right after the accident, Furuya and other rescue workers were unable to spot him immediately. His body was found several months later.
“As temperatures fall as low as 20 degrees Celsius below zero, even around the fifth station, you lose physical strength if you are injured,” Furuya said, warning that climbers may be putting their lives in danger.
Local officials say many of those who slip and fall on Mount Fuji lack hiking experience and skills.
The ascent to the summit involves major risks, Furuya said, so those who intend to attempt this challenge should practice repeatedly at the fifth or sixth station and gain experience in order to make better judgments while climbing.
Trails are open during Mount Fuji’s official climbing season, which runs between July and early September.
The Environment Ministry and others have drawn up guidelines, including bans on ascending Mount Fuji without proper preparation during the off season.
However, this often has a limited effect in deterring maverick climbers since the guidelines are not legally binding and violators are not subjected to any punishment.
Yamanashi Prefectural Government officials and local police have also cautioned climbers around the Mount Fuji first station against climbing the mountain during the off-season, but almost none have heeded their warnings, the officials said.
Local officials said the best they can do is call on visitors to submit their climbing plans and not enter the mountain alone.
When accidents occur, the prefectural police send rescue helicopters to the mountain, with related costs shouldered by administrative authorities.
“Rescues of alpine accident victims involve costs, so the authorities should ask victims to pay a reasonable amount,” said Kiyotatsu Yamamoto, an associate professor at Iwate University who is well-versed in national park management.
He said submitting climbing plans should be mandatory.