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[A Photographer's Notes] The 'Mt Fuji One Stroke' Challenge

Take Japan's iconic Mt Fuji and add running athlete Ruy Ueda as he climbs all four paths up and down the mountain in 10 hours for a perfect day of action shots.

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Every year there are a few memorable moments in my photography career that stand out well above the rest. And although 2022 is still far from over, I am quite certain at least one of my Top 3 moments of this year has already happened. 

On July 13 of this year sky running athlete Ruy Ueda undertook the “Mt Fuji One Stroke” challenge. It was a challenge that had him attempt all four major hiking paths up and down Japan’s famous Mt Fuji, with the goal of finishing in under 10 hours. I was fortunate to be part of the team documenting this challenge, which turned out to be one of the most physically demanding photo shoots I have ever been on. 

(Photos by Jason Halayko)

Heading Into Position

As you can imagine Mt Fuji is a rather large location for a photo shoot of any kind and there would be no way any single photographer could possibly cover the entire story on their own. This is why the team I worked with consisted of four photographers, strategically placed in three different locations on the mountain: one at the bottom, one in the middle, and two at the top. I was one of the two photographers located at the top of the mountain, meaning we had our own set of special challenges for the shoot. 

First off, we had to climb Mt Fuji… Well, we could have taken the bulldozer up that was carrying all our heavy camera equipment. But in the end several other staff and I decided to climb to the top ourselves. 

As the exact date for Ruy’s attempt was still not decided due to changing weather conditions, we climbed from the afternoon of July 12 for a possible start on the early morning of the 13th. This was my 5th time climbing Mt Fuji, so I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting myself into. But the last time I had climbed was well over 10 years earlier, so my mantra for the day was slow and steady, just get up the mountain before it got dark.

Getting Up the Mountain

All in all it was a very nice hike, with mostly dry weather and some great views along the way. I thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon on the mountain ー at least until we got close to the 9th station. 

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One real danger of Mt Fuji is climbing too fast and suffering from 高山病 (kozanbyo) or altitude sickness. By the time we were reaching the last several hundred meters, I was really feeling it, especially the headache. I had expected this to happen so I had some decent painkillers. But it still made the final push ー and the rest of that night ー quite uncomfortable. 

But we made it! Other than my sore head, we had done pretty well actually. Even with my slower pace we reached the top in 6.5 hours and were VERY ready for a quick dinner and rest. 

It is important that I mention here just how crazy Ruy’s challenge was. What took me, a relatively healthy 44 year old, 6.5 hours to do, Ruy was going to do 8 times in 10 hours. 

What?????? Absolute insanity! 

But I was looking forward to seeing just how close Ruy would get to his 10h hour goal.

After a quick location check before dark, a team meeting and some of the best curry rice I have ever eaten (anything would have tasted divine at that point), it was time for lights out at 7 PM. Although my 9 year old self would have hated going to bed so early, we had a 3 AM wake up the next day, so I was more than happy to crawl into bed as soon as I could.

Let’s GO!

At 3 AM we woke and got all of our gear ready to head out and start the day. Unfortunately, although we had relatively decent weather up top, it was apparently pouring rain at the bottom where Ruy would start his climb. 

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Therefore, nobody knew what time the challenge would actually start. As a photographer in these situations, though, you have to just get ready and wait because the start can happen at any time, and you never want to be caught with your pants down during these kinds of historical shoots. 

Luckily, after about an hour's wait ー and a decent sunrise at the top ー we got the call that Ruy was starting and the challenge was happening that day. Great! Let’s go!!!

The First Leg

Now the real waiting game began. How long would Ruy take to get up the first leg? We took 6.5 hours, but just how fast could Ruy get up here? No one knew, so we all just waited and watched as his little dot on our GPS app moved up the mountain. 

Wait, what? Why is it moving so fast?? It has to be broken right?? Watching Ruy's progress, he was on pace to climb what we did in 6.5 hours, in under 1 hour!! As he got closer to the top more and more people came to cheer him on, and everyone was amazed at his pace, even the veteran guides helping us on the shoot. 

With my 500mm lens I spotted Ruy come out from behind the 9th station. How can he be going SO fast? It was amazing to see. 

Shooting what I could with my long lens I eventually changed positions to get him coming through the Japanese arch at the top of the trail. As I sat at my second position I could not see Ruy but I could hear other people at the top yelling and cheering him on. No one could believe he had made this first section in under an hour! 

Suddenly one of the other cameramen yells out that Ruy is coming around the corner. I get ready and as he comes into view I start working. 

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Shooting as many pictures I can as he comes up and passes by, I could see he was actually smiling! Even though he was climbing at a pace that would have 100% killed most people, he was still smiling and enjoying himself. Just amazing…

Preparing for the Next Legs

Just as quick as Ruy came around that corner he was off to the next section of his challenge. And I was off for some much-needed breakfast, haha. As it would take at least another 2 hours for Ruy to go down and come back up I had lots of time to grab some food and water and get to my second position, just a few hundred meters away. 

I may have mentioned this in previous columns, but during shoots it is important to always eat and drink when you can. This goes 1000% for shoots in locations like Mt Fuji where you never know where your next meal is coming from, and if you pass out from exhaustion it's a LONG and expensive ride home. 

And this is how the rest of my day went. 

From the meeting the night before I knew I would have roughly 4 tries to get images of Ruy coming and going at different trailheads throughout the day. And after each time he passed by I would have at least 2 hours before seeing him again. This meant for each try I had I needed to get at least a couple of good shots, and squeeze everything I could out of each location. 

This can make for not only a very physically tiring day (moving around with all my gear at that altitude was much more difficult than I expected) but also a very psychologically tiring day as I put a lot of pressure on myself to not miss any chances for getting the best images possible. Add the constant changing weather, raining one minute, so sunny that you can feel your skin burning the next, and you have one long, tiring day of photography

(Photos by Jason Halayko)

Catching the Surprising Moments

By the end of the afternoon I was luckily able to get a wider variety of images than I anticipated. Of course I got lots of shots of Ruy running, but at one point he stopped to take a rest and ended up talking with a small group of people who had gathered to watch him come up the 3rd trail. 

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These kinds of intimate moments are also crucial in telling the whole story of the event so I am super happy to have noticed this interaction after Ruy had run past my position. It was also a nice chance for me to chat with Ruy (for only a second) and see that he was still smiling and in good spirits. 

This challenge was just as much about the mental as it was the physical, so I was relieved to see he still had the ability to laugh and talk with everyone even so late into the challenge. 

Final Push

A couple hours (and a small lunch break) later I was waiting at my final position for Ruy to run past me one last time. 

Waiting for him gave me lots of time to reflect on just how lucky I have been over the years to participate in so many amazing photography shoots like this. Even though I was wet, tired, and probably a little spaced out from the altitude, I was having the time of my life. Big thanks to everyone who made this possible! 

After a while of waiting and contemplating the wonders of the universe (one gets rather existential when faced with the scale and beauty of Mt Fuji all day) Ruy suddenly appeared in front of me one last time. By now all he had to do was circle the crater at the peak of Mt Fuji and head back down one last time, but the smile I had seen just a few hours ago was gone, replaced by a hard look of determination. 

While getting my final shots I could see how tired his body must have been. But that look in his eye gave me confidence he would finish his challenge one way or another. 

As he faded off into the distance I wished him luck, and started my own long hike off the mountain. 

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(Photos by Jason Halayko)

Finishing the Challenge

First, heading back to our base camp I met up with the rest of the crew still on the mountain and had a short break. Then we started our descent. 

This was honestly quicker than coming up, but so much harder on my legs. Coming up I only had some food, water, and extra clothes. But going down I needed to carry all my own camera gear (15-20 kgs of gear) as the timetable for the bulldozer down didn’t meet with our requirements. 

Also, as we headed down it dawned on us that although the path was wet from rain, and super rugged (so much so that several of us slipped and fell on the way down), Ruy probably ran even through this last section of the descent. Super respect! 

After a few mins of our descent we heard over the crew LINE that Ruy had finished the challenge, and in UNDER 10 HOURS! Even though we were all wet and exhausted we cheered for Ruy’s amazing accomplishment as we rushed to get off the mountain before dark. 

Reflections

Looking back on my two days on Mt Fuji, I am still amazed everything got done ー despite so many challenges for not only Ruy, but the organizers and crew as well. 

Again, a huge thank you to Ruy, the organizers, our crew, and all the people on Mt Fuji that day who stopped to cheer Ruy on through this grueling challenge. 

In my mind I feel like if I was asked to be part of this challenge again next year I should say no. But in my heart I know I would say YES!  Congrats Ruy!! You are one amazing human being. 

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Jason Halayko is a professional photographer specializing in action sports and portrait photography. Follow him on Twitter (@jason_halayko) and Instagram (@jason_halayko).

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