Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Negative 47

Mt Fuji Trip Report: 23-24 Feb 08

Our team of five (four Marines and a Corpsman) made the trip, and we safely returned to the US yesterday. We didn't make the top because it was -47 Fahrenheit with 55mph winds (seriously). But despite all that, the team still made it high onto the mountain and were quite successful all things considered. It was clear immediately that we were the first people that high on the mountain in months- for a variety of reasons. Some smart, some not so smart. Super-cold and super-windy weather aside, there were logistical barriers, planning barriers, policeman scare tactic barriers, and then the occasional honest-to-God road blocking barriers that routinely thwart people considering a climb during the "off season". The bottom line is that while some challenges are legitimate, many other challenges facing a climb team are more due to a Japanese culture of "it says the mountain is closed, so therefore we need to wait until it is open". Some rationale factors into this, much more does not. I'm now convinced that somewhere a few years back, a Japanese businessman sleeping on a subway came up with the beginning and end dates, told his friend at Tokyo Disneyland who was standing on a massive line to ride Space Mountain and then collectively decided to make it so. Then everyone else in the country went along with it and noone stopped to ask why. But the fact that we did make it as far as we did makes me very happy with the outcome, even if we didn't make the top this time around.

On the morning of the 23rd, we made our way to the sleepy little town of Fujiyosida via two subway rides and a tourist loaded bus with no problems and only about 20 confused stares. We then loaded into two groaning taxis that were completely unfamiliar with the loading weight of Americans outfitted with heavy packs bungee corded to the trunk. Twisting and winding slowly up the Fuji Subaru Line, the taxis finally dropped us off at a point where we had a 4 mile hump along the remaining- and closed- portion of the road that would eventually lead us to the technical portion of the climb. After spending an hour putting on altitude and moving ever closer to our bivouac objective, we found ourselves poised for some good climbing.. and also quite exposed as we found out once intense winds pushed in and storm clouds arrived in dramatic fashion. At first, we were all under the impression that the winds wouldn't start hitting us until we were much higher on the mountain- as in like 10,000' or so. Not the case. By the time we rolled in on 5th Station at ~7,500', we were buffeted by significant gusts, sideways snow, and rolling clouds. So much for the cold and pleasant climb, the trip moved into high gear quite quickly as five blissfully unaware team members continued on.

One by one we arrived at 5th Station and began to hunker down to wait out the winds and snow. We lined up our packs and squatted behind them, but after a while the winds gained in intensity we began to get quite cold. It didn't take rocket science to recognize that we were way too exposed and needed to move away from our little shelter to establish our position, especially after Leonard and Schactler were both knocked over. Doc and I then decided to have Huntington committed for stripping down to his boxers to add on warming layers. Ever see a grown man cry? Put him in that environment, let him take off his clothes and then have Leonard - acting as a wind break- casually walk away for a second.

Even though we brought along two 4-Season tents, we recognized that they were going to be a complete pain in the ass to set up in that level wind. One tent pole in the body of an unsecured tent and the thing turns into a sail. So looking for better cover, the five of us wandered around and tried door after door, window after window on all of the surrounding buildings. Building owners had done a good job of buttoning up their rest houses for the winter, but I don't know if they were prepared enough for the five of us. We are all pretty creative, and given the new-found agenda, there really wasn't much that was going to keep us out in the cold.

In due time, we scored big-time and found a 3rd floor breezeway with an unlocked sliding glass door on the leeward part of the building. Ahh, home. It was perfect too- everything that one looks for in a refrigerator. The doors didn't close all the way and were single pane glass, but we weren't complaining given the protection from the wind. The glass walls looked straight down in to the valley, so we had an amazing view when the clouds parted intermittently. Over time, the winds picked up even more and the temp dropped over the next few hours. At one point, I had to move a metal rod and even though I only held it for ~5 seconds, it was so cold that it felt scalding hot. Cursing loudly and dropping the rod, it still took 15 minutes of my hand straight on my stomach to warm back up to normal. Huntington wandered out to start a fire and after spending 30 minutes gathering wood and getting a fire pit prepared, the rest of us stood inside our little aquarium looking out at him with jackets on and arms folded. Have fun, buddy. I'm not going out there. The fire sounded like a great idea but no-one did anything about it and it quickly died. Or the flames froze- I don't know which.

We decided to wait until the winds died down a bit, and at 03:00 there was a full moon but winds were still easily 55mph. So we all stayed in our bags to stay warm and passed the time by having casual conversations about what was cold, what was really cold, and what was ridiculously cold. Currently studying Chemistry in college, Schactler started going on about "absolute zero"- a theoretical temperature somewhere around negative 459 degrees Fahrenheit that is literally so cold, there is no emission or absorbtion of energy. All oxygen and hydrogen atoms freeze. It is colder than outer space itself. We were all convinced that we must be close to that temperature and were willing to test the theory, except that noone wanted to get out of their bags. Except for Doc, who decided at one point to show us all that he could walk around without a shirt on but then decided after about 30 seconds that he really wanted his shirt on after all and dove back into his bag. Huntington shook his head and recalled how Leonard made his nipples freeze by walking away earlier. To which Leonard just laughed as his breath froze and fell back onto his face. Absolute cold, we all agreed.

As a side benefit, the vapor from our breaths caused the glass to frost over and provided us some insulation- ambient temp-wise it was only -11, but I think that the frost covering the glass warmed the temp in our shelter up to a balmy 0 degrees, warm all things considered. As 06:00 rolled around, we again woke up and noticed a lesser degree of howling to the winds- so smart or not, we decided to go for it. Gearing up, we hit the trail and basically shot straight up the side of the mountain. There's a trail that you can follow but we had snowshoes & crampons so there wasn't any need for that and wanted to make altitude fast.

It was interesting to note that this temperature and wind made it clear very quickly as to what equipment does and doesn't work- things don't sort of work at that temp- they are either fantastic or they are flat-out terrible. For example. My Wiley X Goggles, coupled with a balaclava (say that fast five times) is not a good mix in this weather as I learned. After three breaths through the fabric, vapor shoots straight up the fabric gaps alongside your nose, somehow finds mini gaps in your goggles and instantly fogs up the lenses from the inside. Which also means that in .005 microseconds, the breath manages to flash freeze on the inside of your goggles thereby rendering them useless for the remainder of the day. All within 2 minutes of starting off. See what I mean? Then about three minutes later, all the rest of that vapor that has been hitting the fabric continues to freeze and forms an ice patch about the size of a coaster around where your mouth and nose are. Breathing in, especially in that rarified air becomes akin to breathing from the bottom of a pond through a pixie straw. So five minutes into the climb, in -47 degree winds, you quickly find yourself looking like Jack Frost with no sunglasses and facemask. It's truly great and I recommend it to everyone who wants to understand what the sensation of having your face fall off feels like.

Somewhere around 9,000', two of the team started developing mild frostbite on their faces where their skin was exposed to the wind. That, coupled with these gusts that were coming very close to knocking us over made it too hazardous to continue up higher. Knowing that we still had about another 3,400' to go where it was another 15 degrees colder with stronger winds was enough- the team turned around before we had serious issues that would get us into trouble. I wanted to arrive back with all fingers and toes, and the mountain isn't going anywhere anyway. So, we took a few last pics to show how motivated we were, and then downclimbed back to Schactler, who had stayed back (the day before a wind gust knocked him over and he re-broke his foot when he landed on it with full pack) to load up and egress out.

After the barricade and about 6 miles down the Fuji Subaru Line, we kept asking ourselves- "Hey, where are all the cars?" Coming to the grim realization that the taxis we had coordinated with weren't coming, we all looked at each other and basically said "What the (rhymes with Chuck)! Thanks alot, mister (chucking) taxi (chuck)! How (chucking) awesome that you leave us out here with our (chucking) 50 pound packs in this warm ass (chucking) weather. How (chucking) great, mother (chucker)!" It truly was a great moment to relate in our mastery of the English language and likely was even more flowery than that.

For anyone who is interested in knowing what it feels like to come to the naked understanding that they have been stranded and/or forgotten about, I wrote a blog entry on a bunch of helicopter pilots who pulled the exact same stunt on us during a rescue a few months back. I tried my best to relate the overwhelming feeling of gratitude that one encounters when looking at several hours of hard hiking to get back to civilization. Typically, one of the best ways of getting through is to talk endlessly about how much you are looking forward to finding, and truly thanking the person/people who left you. And to eat as much of your food as you can to lighten your pack. Sour Patch Kid, anyone?

Some other offshoot cause-effects of this realization? Schactler started running- strangely enough given his broken foot, Huntington and Doc started talking about how the Mt Olympus 30 hour death hike in July truly wasn't as bad as this one, and I got mad at Leonard for pointing out that his math- much superior to mine- showed us with 10.45764356 miles to go when cross-translating from Kilometer markers, not only 8 as I optimistically volunteered.

Our guess (which was proved to be right on a few hours later)- was that the access road was closed to traffic by the Fujiyoshida Police who had barricaded the access road in two separate spots. So, we had to hump all the way out- a combined total of 22 miles with full gear. One thing I impressed on the team during and after that egress was that they should never, ever rely on anyone as a crutch to take care of themselves or their team. We made it out under our own power, with all our equipment, and with speed. All covered in under 6 hours which I was happy with given that everyone carrying close to 50 lbs and Schactler even had a broken foot. It may have been a character building event, but they took care of themselves and never gave up through that entire ordeal. I think they heard me, but they may also have been asleep when I rambled on about it through a dazed glassy eyed stare.

After we made the last barricade I called for taxis. Believe it or not, there was a payphone right next to the last barricade. As a result, I'm now convinced that the Fujiyoshida Police and that guy sleeping on the subway pull this barricade stunt all the time on unsuspecting American climbers. I made the point of walking in to the police station where two completely unfriendly Japanese guys probably no taller than 5' and who must have been pushing 70 years old were hiding behind a locked door. Knocking, I basically pushed our way in and invited the team to enjoy their space heater without asking their permission. I made the point of thanking these two for going to check on us when the taxis arrived and told them that we were way up the road and hadn't even bothered to see if we were ok. Their response? When we asked for water, they casually pointed us to a frozen spigot outside of a restroom building. Jack asses. I need to remember to write some more about these two on some climber blogs around the Internet. They were truly that helpful and caring.

We all did notice that there wasn't much chance of these two even being able to rescue our packs, let alone one of us if we had called for help. So I don't know what sort of rescue team there is in the Fuji area, all truth be told. If it is them, I sure hope they bring their space heater along with them because that's about all the help they will be able to bring to the game.

After a few minutes, we were back in taxis, arriving back at Kawakujiko Station in time for the last bus back to Tokyo and a comfortable night in a great warm bed.

So- after all said and done, the team decided that we are going for it again- likely October (after the official climbing season is over) when the weather still presents some challenges but isn't as crazy as February, and when there aren't any people on the mountain.

Link to Fuji Trip Report 2009:

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Negative 33

I was going to take a picture of my pack and hang it onto this blog but apparently my new camera requires drivers to upload pics and I smartly forgot the disc that comes with the camera back in Seattle. Good one.

Anyway, so we are in Tokyo right now and the weather is beautiful! Mild, sunny, tranquil. We arrived with little fanfare yesterday but sped quickly through immigration and even did a good number in entertaining the customs officials who thought we were comical with our 400 lbs of climbing equipment. We went out to Ebisu and Roppongi last night, had a great time and barely made the last subway back to Hiroo. Our rooms are now cluttered with climbing gear as we do some last minute packing to prepare all gear.

Looking at the latest weather forecast for the next few days, we found an ever-shifting wind scale. What we have noticed is that despite the winds, it will remain clear and cold. As in negative 33 degrees cold. Here's the latest on 23 and 24 Feb:

In order to protect the team from this wind and cold, we have added a few snow shovels to the gear list in order to build up some robust snow walls. We also have down jackets to add on to the goretex and soft shells. Down mitts, face protection and some quality head gear top out the list. It's going to be cold, cold, cold.

But with all the extra equipment added to our thorough gear list and already heavy packs, we are extremely prepared for any situation we encounter.

More to follow later- the team is heading out to explore Tokyo for the rest of the day and then call it an early night. Maybe by then I'll be able to figure out how to upload pics.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Japan or Bust

Our flight departs tomorrow at 12:30 from Seattle, arriving in Tokyo on the afternoon of the 21st. Our goal is to spend the 22nd preparing and then on the 23rd head to the mountain.

Judging from today's weather forecast, it looks like we will be getting some good weather- but still super cold. The winds are expected to die down, but when that happens the high pressure system that brings that clear weather isn't strong enough to hold in place.. so the clouds come rolling in sooner than expected. According to the below chart, that will be the case soon after we are looking to leave the mountain:

Dates: Weather-wise, 23-24 Feb are target dates.

23 Feb Conditions (summit): 60mph winds, temp: 7, wind chill: -33
24 Feb Conditions (summit): 20mph winds, temp: 0, wind chill: -24

Sunset: 06:22
Sunrise: 17:32

Day 1- Depart Yoshigaduchi Trail 1st Station, move up to 8th Station for overnight at/about 10,000'. Anticipate snowshoes from 5th to 7th Station, although the past week of sun and winds have likely minimized softer snow and may provide us with hard pack leading all the way up to 8th Station. From 7th Station on, crampons/ice axe are likely needed. Team will be roped from 5th Station onward if conditions seem hazardous.

Day 2- Kick off the climb after sunrise at 06:30. Move to summit over the next ~2 hours, descend back to bivouac site, pack up and return to Yoshigaduchi Trailhead. Return back to Tokyo in the afternoon.

Mt Fuji Yoshigaduchi Trail is composed of ten "stations"- essentially climbing stops that during the regular season are a cluster of rest houses, stores for food, and a place to get a staff branded.. a complete tourist trap sort of thing. Unsurprisingly, Fuji is no different from other parts of the world in the concept of the higher you go, the more expensive things get. For example- the climbing brand for your walking stick is about 5 times more expensive at the 9th Station as it is at the 2nd.

Our plan is to start the climb at 1st Station. While not really the normal way of climbing, it's all we really can do this time of year. After November, the road leading up to 5th Station is closed. So, off from 1st Station we head. The climbing trail map identifying the Yoshigaduchi Trail route is attached below.

Monday, February 18, 2008

T Minus 3 Days- Fuji

Looks like the beginning of our Mt Fuji weather window is starting to reveal itself. Showing clear, cold and windy weather.

What to expect at the summit:
22 Feb: 9 temp, -22 wind chill, 40mph winds, some clouds. Freezing level 5086
23 Feb: 0 temp, -36 wind chill, 70mph winds, clear. Freezing level 2133
24 Feb: 0 temp, -31 wind chill, 30mph winds, clear. Freezing level 1805
25 Feb: TBD

*what this means*

- The team will definitely have goggles or something to protect our eyes from high winds (WileyXs for example) and something to protect our face.
- To the gear list, adding mitts or heavier duty gloves for the top.
- We won't hit significant winds until 8th Station or higher from what I read.

On the chart, the worst wind is on the 23rd with winds picking up the evening of the 22nd, dying down on the evening of the 23rd. As this high pressure system moves through, we should have a nice calm window on the back end of the pressure system movement for a day or two to sneak up top before the clouds move back in. We'll keep anticipating this window and look at the weather closely. If this system that's in place right now holds, the sun will do a good job in packing down the snow lower on the mountain for us (good thing). It will also keep us from making the summit on the 23rd, should we go that route. If we leave on the 23rd, we'll head up to 8th Station, bivvy for the night and then head up next morning. 8th Station to the summit is estimated on as ~160 minutes.

Our flight arrives from Seattle-> Tokyo on the 21st and we fly back to Seattle on the 26th. So on Tuesday we'll make another target departure date based on what the weather forecast is as to when we leave- 22nd, 23rd, or 24th.

Best case, the high pressure system moves through a day early, the winds die down to 20mph and we keep on track. The below link is to a live webcam of the mountain. Check out how clear it is today.....

Keep your fingers crossed that the weather holds and winds ease off a little.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Second Beach

Earlier this week, Rick, Jason and I made a quick trip to the Olympics for an overnight/ snowshoe trip from Hurricane Ridge to Mt Angeles- more or less a 3 mile course from trailhead to Class 3 summit scramble. It took forever to get out of town thanks to side events including a quick call to the cops on crackheads near the building, Rick taking a grumper and failing to convince woah-easy-does-it ferry toll collectors that you really should get on the ferry that's leaving in 2 minutes. But then we were on the peninsula, working our way across the Hood Canal Bridge to Port Angeles.

Arriving at close to 21:30, we inched up to the Ranger toll station and were immediately confronted with a giant "ROAD CLOSED" sign. 100 feet past the station was a well constructed barricade that we would never be able to get around. This winter has been one giant snowstorm after another out in the Pacific Northwest, including several days of back-to-back accumulation- frequently a foot or more of fresh powder. Fantastic for snowboarding, not so fantastic for trying to drive up to Hurricane Ridge.

After spending about 5 minutes bitching and complaining, we made a group decision to head to the coast. Why not? We were almost there ("almost" on the Olympic Coast being a relative term.. sort of like when we are in DC we are almost near New York since they are both on the east coast) and had a car loaded to the gills with camping gear.

So off we went. I think we finally hit La Push at close to 11:15, and made it down on to the beach at 11:45 with our gear. Using Night Vision Goggles to search out the high ground for a bivouac site, we scared up a tiny spit of sand that seemed like it might work when high tide hit around 3:30 (it didn't).

Jason kicked off a fire with duraflame logs and wood that had been saturated by rain since October while Rick and I set up the tent, moved the tent to higher ground when sneaker waves came in, moved it back, and then moved it again. All the while, we cooked hobo meals (a combination of meat, potatoes, onions and other miscellaneous veggies wrapped in aluminum foil and which you essentially throw in the fire to cook). While pitch black out, the crash of waves and lapping of water just feet from the tent made for an amazing setting. Peering out at the sea stacks through NVGs gave the setting an almost ghostly feel as we realized that we were the only people for miles.

For the next four hours we joked around, drank scotch, fought to keep the fire going and ate dinner. After we were confident that we had safely passed through high tide on our little spit of sand, we let the fire go out and hopped into the tent. Our final site was a small and safe area pitched in between massive driftwood logs that litter the beach. If any wave came in at that point it would have to be significantly larger than these goliaths that acted as a wave break and allowed us to sleep comfortably. We slept away the rest of the night, waking to the gentle sound of waves crashing and rain pelting the side of the tent. In the morning, I unzipped the fly and took a look. Pretty cool view from the front door, no?

We were drenched in rain, but spent an hour exploring the coast of Second Beach at low tide, in some cases walking several hundred yards out to one of the monsterous sea stacks and checking out tide pools that are created in rocky areas where the unbridled force of the Pacific Ocean meets land. In these little pools exist creatures that take a brief rest from the turbulence and persistent crashing of waves that nail the area twice a day at high tide.

Finally, it was time to depart. We packed up our site, hiked out through the pelting rain while scrambling over giant logs and then through the forest. Two hours later we were in Port Angeles and then two hours after that we were back in Seattle. It's always amazing to me that this sort of environment is so close, yet so rarely visited. Truly unique.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


In many respects, there are plenty of little "gotcha" things that can reach up and scuttle this trip well before I even lay eyes on the Hillary Step. One of those items is simple enough- teeth. Get a cavity in Base Camp, and I'm not going any higher. In the Marines, a mandatory stop before you can deploy is a swing through dental to make sure that the chance of a tooth emergency is minimized. Last place you want to be with the need for root canal is some remote corner of the world with medieval tools jammed in your mouth while the rounds are flying.

Same goes for climbing. I watched one episode on TV where a climber was sitting at about 22,000' when a crown popped right out of his mouth. The pressure and temperature extremes made an exposed nerve go bananas, he immediately flipped out, and his climbing partners basically had to then deal with a crumpled mess in the snow. The team lead tried emergency tooth surgery with some sort of cotton jammed into the hole and rudimentary epoxy solution to try and re-attach the tooth. It didn't hold for more than an hour, which of course immediately led me to wonder what this world is coming to when you now can't find reputable epoxy in any quantity at 22,000 feet in the Himalayas. Anyway, to make a short story incredibly long the climber had to go down- climb over for him.

So who knows. Cavities happen and maybe one too many cups of yak butter tea will do in a molar mid-April. But having them checked out now seemed like a good idea and an effective way to minimize via preventive maintenance.

Now I can eat all the Sour Patch Kids I want with no worries, right? ;)

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Why I Climb

The days have been ticking by, the hours and hours in the gym becoming almost routine. 30 minutes of bike here, 30 minutes of treadmill there. It almost became mundane until yesterday when I looked at a calendar and was shocked into the realization that I have about 5 weeks until I'm flying east. Five weeks! Yee cats. That gave me a new sense of urgency and immediately went back to the gym.

Interestingly enough, (and maybe the reason I took a look at the calendar) yesterday my good friend Pam Vitaz asked me a simple question: "why do you climb, Doug?" How many climbers have been asked that question? More importantly, how many have had a reasonable answer? Countless explorers and adventurers over the centuries have been compelled to leave the warm bounds of hearth and home to head afield. Why? It's truly one of those questions that elicit deep thought in some, casual brush-off in others.

Some examples to The Question:
George Mallory- "Because it is there."
Sir Edmund Hillary- "Nobody climbs mountains for scientific reasons. Science is used to raise money for the expeditions, but you really climb for the hell of it."
John Muir- "Doubly happy, however, is the man to whom lofty mountain tops are within reach."

My favorite quote- which is more a Golden Rule of climbing.. and until recently I credited to a guy I climbed McKinley with is now one that I know actually came from Ed Viesturs.. "It's a round trip. Getting to the summit is optional, getting down is mandatory."

Spiritually, it makes me feel closer than ever to my Grandparents, Sampson and God. Hokey, I know. But when you are in an environment where something as simple as a sunrise can make you stop for no reason other than to revel in the majesty of the moment, it is profound. Looking out from thousands of feet above the sleepy day-to-day of cities, highways, town, and the welcoming warmth of our planet.. how can you not believe that there is a God? Honestly, it's just plain that simple.

To me, climbing is more a passion than a challenge. Simply put, I love it. Just you and the mountain, challenging your skills in a place where you have to rely wholely on yourself and in many cases on your teammates. It forms a bond among members rarely seen outside of this environment. It makes you push yourself in ways you didn't know you were capable of being pushed. You invest more than just time and money- you invest your dedication and spirit in an endeavour not guaranteed. I have always -firmly- believed that the mountain isn't going anywhere, and if conditions aren't right? Turn around. I have done it time and time again, to climb another day, and this mountain will be no different in that respect. But even though being smart about it means you turn around, it doesn't necessarily mean that you feel good about not making the top. Sometimes you feel sad, sometimes you feel frustrated. But every time- every last time- that I have turned around, I have still felt a sense of reward about being able to make it under my own power and via my own skills to a place where few have tread.