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Climbing Season Ends on Mount Fuji

October 27, 2003

ATOP MOUNT FUJI, Japan (AP) _ It’s almost quiet along the rim of Japan’s most famous volcano.

The official climbing season has just ended, and the flow of hikers _ as many as 200,000 scale Fuji’s gravel and crag-covered slopes each summer _ has dropped to a trickle.

At the height of the season, the summit looks like a picnic gone out of control, with groups of revelers drinking, cheering, hamming it up for snapshots. Crowds huddle over bowls of hot noodles in a concrete barricade that serves as the summit’s general store, or buy tacky trinkets.

``Climbing during the season is just silly,″ said Mieko Mitsuishi, a 61-year-old housewife at the top of the volcano for the 16th time. ``It’s like a conveyer belt, there are so many people.″

Now, however, the crowds have gone.

The wind is the summit’s loudest guest, swirling around the crater, animating puffs of vapor into a restless, patchy display of fog. The smell of sulfur, vented from the yawning, yellowish brown crater below, faintly taints the invariably cold air.

Despite the inescapable mark of humans _ the concrete huts, the permanent weather station, the cigarette butts _ it is a bleakly beautiful place to be.

``It’s the symbol of Japan,″ Mitsuishi said. ``There’s no other place like it.″

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The official season for climbing Mount Fuji starts in July and ends in early September. That’s when the lodges and safety stations are operating and before winter weather that can be risky for inexperienced climbers sets in.

During the two-month season this year, 156,000 people made the climb, well on the low side of average, according to Tsuyoshi Katsumata, who is in charge of Fuji-related affairs for the city of Fuji-Yoshida at the volcano’s base.

Katsumata said last year 172,000 scaled it, and added that a season of 200,000 or more is not unusual. Over the whole year, about 300,000 people will reach the 12,385-foot summit.

Though Fuji is far and away Japan’s highest peak, the climb isn’t especially challenging. The cone-shaped mountain has no glaciers, and except for a few short sections that involve scampering over crags, the ascent is more like backpacking than mountaineering.

Most climbers start at the ``fifth station,″ a little tourist village with restaurants, souvenir shops and a couple of large parking lots at the 7,606-foot level.

There are four more stations on the way up, with 18 lodges where climbers can spend the night, have a meal or just have their climbing sticks stamped. During the season, each lodge packs in the climbers so tightly that it is not unusual to share a pillow with a stranger.

All kinds of people make the climb.

Older people are common. So are foreigners. This year, Alaskan Keegan Reilly became the first paraplegic known to have reached the summit. In 1998, California’s Kelly Perkins, a heart transplant recipient, reached the peak. Perkins has since gone on to climb Africa’s Kilimanjaro, and, this summer, the Matterhorn.

People even race to the top.

Every July since 1948, there have been two competitions _ one on a 13-mile course and the other over nine miles _ to the summit. The winner of the longer race this year, beating out a field of 3,000, was 34-year-old Tsuyoshi Kaburaki, who ran from foot to peak in 2 hours, 47 minutes and 57 seconds.

Of course, not everyone who attempts the climb makes it.

Katsumata said 317 people required medical help this year, which was roughly average. Most, from 70 to 80 percent, fell victim to altitude sickness. Since the climb takes only six or seven hours, climbers don’t have much time to acclimatize.

Most are on the mountain long enough to leave behind more than just footprints, however.

Nearly 900 pounds of trash had to be carried off the summit last year, and another 4 tons was collected at the 5th and 6th stations.

Mitsuhiro Mishima, a government official responsible for protecting the area’s environment, believes the total amount of trash appears to be decreasing. ``People’s manners are getting better,″ he said.

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Still, Mount Fuji poses some longer-term concerns.

Just 60 miles from the Tokyo area, where roughly a fifth of Japan’s 120 million people live, the volcano is a significant disaster threat.

A government report issued last year said an eruption could spew lava, ash and smoke over hundreds of square miles, disrupting roads and trains and causing up to $21 billion in damage.

Fuji has erupted at least 16 times since A.D. 781, most recently in 1707, and is listed as one of 20 active volcanoes in Japan by the Central Meteorological Agency, with a moderate risk of eruption.

Since October 2000, scientists have detected a sharp rise in the number of low-intensity quakes near the mountain, which they say could indicate possible underground volcanic activity.

So, after a 300-year nap, is it overdue for another blast?

Hoping to get a better idea of when and how the mountain might erupt next, a team of scientists recently detonated a series of explosions below Fuji, triggering mini earthquakes.

Waves from the artificially induced quakes will help map the volcano’s underground structure, including pressure points of congealed magma and likely paths that magma would flow if an eruption were to occur.

``This is very important research,″ Keiji Doi of Tokyo University’s Earthquake Research Institute said after the blasts were set off in September. ``When the next eruption will happen is very difficult to forecast, but for these 300 years we’ve been waiting and waiting.″

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Though not quite as dedicated as her mother, Megumi Mitsuishi is also a Mount Fuji fan.

``We made this climb to celebrate my 35th birthday,″ she said. ``It’s my fourth time.″

Having just reached the top, the two sat down on one of several sturdy benches overlooking the slope, the forests below and the city of Fuji-Yoshida that stretches off toward the horizon.

The Japanese have always regarded Fuji as more than just a mountain.

Shinto shrines on its summit attest to the cult that the volcano has inspired. At one, hundreds of coins, offered for good luck, have been jammed into the cracks of a wooden ``torii″ gate, the traditional Japanese wooden arch. Climbers often say a brief prayer before the summit altars. Many time their arrival to coincide with sunrise _ seeing the rising sun from the mountain is considered auspicious.

But the summit is an odd mix of the sacred and the mundane.

Near where Megumi and her mother rested, a young man with his hair dyed orange was busily packing up and closing down the summit store, whose shelves are lined with beer, plastic toys, souvenirs.

His boombox played ``The Eminem Show.″

``We wanted to see the sunrise,″ Megumi said, undaunted. ``But it was too cloudy. Maybe next time.″

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