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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1 comment:

ian watkins said...

Wow, you weren't kidding about the temperature. I hope to be part of the madness in March