Commentary / Japan

Mount Fuji in off-season not to be trifled with

by Oscar Boyd

Staff Writer

The biggest story in the mountaineering world the last few days is that of former soldier Nirmal “Nims” Purja, who in record time successfully climbed the world’s 14 peaks measuring 8,000 meters or more. He completed his attempt in just 189 days, approximately 6½ years faster than the previous record. It is an almost impossible achievement.

Closer to home, a more tragic climbing story has emerged: The probable death of a climber on Mount Fuji, who livestreamed his fall from the summit on the video-sharing service Niconico. It is the worst possible collision of the mountain’s harsh off-season conditions, inexperience and technology.

The footage shows the man near the top of Mount Fuji’s Yoshida route in clear weather. He can be heard saying his hands are numb from the cold and that he wished he’d brought heat packs. He says the trail is slippery and covered with snow and he can be seen sliding all over the place. Listening to the video, it lacks the distinctive sound of the bite of crampons on ice — a necessity for climbing Mount Fuji in the snow. He is walking into his own fate.

When he falls, he tumbles quickly. Mount Fuji’s average gradient is 27 degrees — even steeper at the top — and there is little to break a fall. There is the flash of a mobile phone, and a pair of hiking poles; perhaps with an ice axe he would have been able to halt his descent. The video cuts out a few seconds later, the camera broken. The man is falling at speed.

A body was found Wednesday near the seventh station of Mount Fuji’s Subashiri trail, at an altitude of around 2,700 meters. At press time, it was not yet confirmed to be the body of the livestreamer, but if it is, the man slid approximately 1,000 meters from the summit (3,776 meters) before coming to his final resting place.

The story illustrates the point of Chris White’s excellent blog post on climbing Mount Fuji in winter to a T.

“If you do slip,” he writes, “you’ll have at most one chance to self-arrest, and if you miss that then you’re probably taking a highly injurious or fatal one-way trip down the mountain.”

Alas, that seems to be what has happened to the livestreamer.

I was on Mount Fuji the day before the accident. It was my seventh attempt on the mountain (my third in the off-season) and I was with my climbing partner Matthew Firpo. Together we summited the 4,810-meter Mont Blanc this summer.

We took a similar approach on Fuji as that climb up Western Europe’s tallest mountain, gearing up with crampons and ice axes, mountaineering jackets and heat packs for extra warmth. Even then it was a struggle against the bitter minus 16 degrees Celsius cold, and neither of us found it an easy climb, battling fatigue, weather and altitude to make a successful and safe summit.

We chose the Fujinomiya route on the south side of the mountain, which receives more sunlight than the Yoshida route the livestreamer took, meaning it is less icy and the snow more accommodating if you do slip. These were all decisions made based on my previous experience of the mountain, and the guidance of people far more experienced than myself.

The livestreamer’s likely death is tragic and my sympathy goes out to his friends and family, but in many ways it was completely avoidable. Simply put, it is insanity to try and climb Mount Fuji in the off-season with neither the gear nor the knowledge.

I have made podcasts for The Japan Times’ Deep Dive of my summer climbs and have written about climbing Mount Fuji in the off-season for this paper before with the view that it is a fantastic challenge and that people should try it, but only if you are properly prepared for everything the mountain can throw at you.

Yes, the mountain is technically closed once the summer season ends, but that doesn’t mean it is prohibited to climb, only that the huts are shuttered and unstaffed, and there will be no quick medical assistance if you do have an accident. After the wave of summer climbers, Fuji becomes a more normal mountain in the off-season.

If you are determined to try it but haven’t yet the experience of working with crampons or ice axes or at altitude, choose a guiding company such as Kanto Adventures, which offers experienced leadership in English. This was how I first climbed Fuji in the off-season and our leader David Niehoff’s guidance proved invaluable in difficult conditions and got us all home safe and sound.

Mountains will be always dangerous and inhospitable places, but risks can be managed to make climbing as safe as possible. Take inspiration from the phenomenal achievement of Nims and head out to the big mountains, but when you do, be sure you have the right equipment and experience.

Oscar Boyd is the travel editor at The Japan Times, his full article on climbing Mount Fuji in the off-season can be found at bit.ly/ClimbFuji . You can hear a podcast of his climb up Fuji on The Japan Times’ Deep Dive podcast at bit.ly/FujiPodcast .

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