Friday, August 12, 2011

My climb of Mt. Fuji

Where do I start?
I'm lying here in bed, aching all over, with a headache that has lingered since yesterday. Before the climb began, I met a 76-year-old man who said it was his ninth time to climb the volcano. He wanted to climb it ten times. I thought that was great. Maybe I'd do the same thing some day. I was in such a good mood. I was going to climb Mt. Fuji! We were all friends; we were all comrades in arms, ready to conquer the mountain. If I saw that old man today, I'd punch him in the face. What kind of idiot climbs Mt. Fuji more than once? Turns out, a crapload.
I climbed with two of my friends. We took a bus to the Fifth Station. Fuji has ten stations, the first being at the bottom of the mountain, the tenth being the summit. Almost everyone starts from the Fifth, because until that point, the mountain is forested. Mosquitoes would kill you. Or the humidity. So, we started at the tree line.
I bought a walking stick with "Fifth Station" branded into it. Along the way, hikers stop at each station and get the stick stamped. I didn't. I figured I'd just get the "Tenth Station" stamp at the top.

We set off, singing songs and having a good time. It was 10 pm. I will always think of Fuji as that black monstrosity filling the night, with the stars and the nearly-full moon just out of reach. The climb between the Fifth and Sixth Stations was mild. We were in good spirits, and we kept gawking at all the stars in the sky. See, when you live in Tokyo, the sky is nothing more than blackwashed background light, so you forget there are stars up there.

We saw shooting stars, we made jokes, we laughed, and we chatted with other hikers. One man asked if I was born here. I said no. He thought I had been because my Japanese is so good. Wow. The best compliment I've ever received about my Japanese ability. Things were great. Everything was perfect. I was climbing the most beautiful mountain in the world, one of the most spiritually-significant places in Japan.
At the Seventh Station, after picking our way up large, misshapen outcroppings of volcanic rock, one of my friends started to feel queasy. His supper wasn't sitting well with him. He'd tried to climb Fuji the year before and had failed to reach the top. He was prone to altitude sickness. I wondered if it might be striking him again. He soldiered on, though we paused for five-minute breaks at every ramen- or curry-selling hut we came across, these little wooden shacks manned by two or three men, selling food, drink, or places to nap at exorbitant prices. $6 for a bottle of water?? $50 for a place to nap for a couple hours??

Before we reached the Eighth Station, that same friend couldn't go on. He felt lightheaded, queasy, and he couldn't feel his fingertips. Not enough oxygen to his brain, I guessed. We were just below the 3000-meter mark. He called it quits and shelled out a lot of cash for a place to crash for the night. My other friend and I carried on.
From the Eighth Station on, our merriment evaporated as quickly as our sweat in the cold, night winds. The mountainside grew twice as steep, and the air got thinner with every step. My legs would pick my feet up and put them down, but often I would step wrong, slip on a large stone I had not seen before me. My vision blackened at the edges. My walking stick was the only thing that kept me upright. I was always in the lead, and sometimes I thought I was holding up my friend, but whenever I turned back, there he was, leaning on his stick, swaying. I wondered if he might tumble backwards down the mountain. But then I realized I was doing the same thing. Climb five steps/rocks, then stand still like a zombie and just sway there, trying to catch my breath, trying to figure out why I ever decided to climb this mountain in the first place.
Fuck this mountain, we decided on our next break.
We saw lights ahead. We could even see the summit. The black mountainside was riddled with blinking dots of light. The Ninth Station -- just ahead! We reached those nearest lights. Nope. OK, that next set of lights, then! Nope. The next? Maybe. I don't remember. Eventually we reached the Ninth Station. We could hear thousands of people at the top waiting for the sunrise. It was 4 am. We were almost there. The sun would be up within the hour. We could make it!
Although we knew this, we didn't feel it, neither in our minds nor our bodies. We resumed our zombie shuffle-climb. Seriously, fuck this beautiful mountain.
The little space between the Ninth and Tenth Stations was like a bad dream: no matter how far we climbed, the summit had not moved. It was just as far away as the last time we'd checked. Fuji was fucking with us. The mountain, now grey in the pre-dawn light, was mocking us. You'll never make it to the top, it said. That's the thing about Fuji: those who have the will to make it to the top, will; those who don't, won't.
Sunrise was imminent, and the summit was as unreachable as it always had been during that last, interminable hour. We stopped on the mountainside, took up a couple of seats on rocks spewed out of the volcano ten-thousand years ago, and fumbled with our cameras. We took pictures because that's what we were supposed to do, not because we wanted to. Know what we wanted to do? Die.
Without warning, cheering erupted from the summit. Those people were above us. It would be about fifteen more seconds before we would see the sun crest the horizon. I felt human again; the cheers of the people above me inspired me to press on, to reach what they had reached. And then the sun came. Night was gone. It was a new day, a day in which I could conquer the mountain. We heard a man scream, "Honjitsu ha 2011 nen 8 gatsu 11 nichi!" And everyone screamed out "banzai" while raising their arms toward the rising sun.
Our stumble to the top was not pretty. We passed the final torii gate, a coin-filled, wood-cracked structure. Less than 1% of Japanese ever make it to this point on the mountain.

I waited for my friend to catch up, and when he did, we put our arms around each other and 1-2-3 stepped at the same time onto Mt. Fuji's peak.

We had done it, and with a few more steps, the crater of the volcano opened up to us. It was as deep as nearly a third of the mountain's height. The biggest hole I'd ever seen. On the other side of the crater--on the other side of the world--stood an old temple, stood against typhoons, strong winds, winter snows, and brutal sun.

We decided not to walk around the crater. It would've taken an hour or more, and we were dead. I was shaking all over from the cold, so after a short rest, I got my stick stamped, and we began our descent.

The descent takes a different trail, very much a zigzag of not-so-steep declines made of loose, red, volcanic soil. I don't have much to say about the descent except that it sucked. Going up the mountain is tough; going down is painful. Can you imagine how badly your feet would hurt after slide-walking down 1500 meters of loose soil? Blisters formed and then popped and then formed again. My feet are raw. I did the whole thing in jeans and running shoes.

Our smart, rested friend met us at the Eighth Station on our way down. We all slapped on sunscreen, and as I was faster than the others, I told them I'd meet them at the Fifth Station. I had to get off the mountain as soon as possible. Fuck this majestic, amazingly beautiful mountain.
I ran into all kinds of people along the way, old men, couples, even a gaggle of junior-high school girls who asked me every question they could think of asking a foreigner. But I was in a foul mood at that point, grumbling my answers, vowing to never step foot on a mountain again.
I got home and slept 13 hours. I guess I'm glad I climbed Mt. Fuji. Bucketlist and whatnot. But if someone asked me if they should climb it, I'd say: Hell. No.


  1. Hey! I think I know what we could do when next I come to visit!
    Love, POPS ;)

  2. I climbed it the second time this year and am looking forward to my third climb next year :-)


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