The Mount Fuji hike

By on December 29, 2009

At the tail end of last year, my wife and I made personal lists – not of resolutions but of ten things that we wanted to accomplish this year. Without hesitation, the first item I jotted down was to climb Mt Fuji. Well, as of sometime around 5am on Sunday, my list had become one item shorter.

Now, I could describe to you how it all transpired: Signing up for the hike months ago, making the bank transfer, my nervous and excited anticipation the night before as I packed my gear, clothes and food (of which, in the final analysis, I brought way too much). I could tell you about meeting my fellow hikers the day of the hike or the bus ride to the 5th level, during which I met Steeve from France, who would be my climbing partner, at least for a short while. There was the purchase of the walking staff and the removal of its jingly bells as per our guide’s request, the changing into the clothes we would all be wearing for the next 9 to 11 hours, the pre-game pep talk and stretching, the group photos taken, and the final question period before we all started off, a determined group of 48 strong-willed women and men from Taiwan, the US, Canada, the UK, France, the Netherlands, South Africa, Australia, Korea, New Zealand, China, Germany, Italy, Singapore, the Philippines, and Japan.

I could tell you how Steeve and I started hiking together towards the front of the pack as daylight still hung in the sky, and how he consistently reached the next rest stop significantly before me.  He was always concerned and asked if I was okay; then we’d start off again, together, and then almost immediately drift apart.  Or I could tell you how, upon reaching the 6th level, it started to rain; cold, whipping rain from a variety of directions.  How wet and cold I felt afterwards as I kept pushing on, just wanting to change into my wife’s thermals but didn’t for fear of losing the group (which I eventually did, on purpose, much later on).  There were the pay toilets, honor-system style that I completely ignored, in which I eventually put on my thermal top and instantly felt better after doing so.  There was the constant procession of hikers passing me by, mostly Japanese, some oh-so-young, others so much older, making me feel… well, embarrassed.

There were the few moments of doubt where I thought that I might have bitten off more than I could chew.  I had hiked before – Mt Takao, Mt Misen in Hiroshima – but this was FUJI and maybe it was better than me, stronger, harder.  But on I progressed.  There was the falling behind, to the end of the group, to hang with the “Turtles,” as I affectionately called us stragglers, each taking turns leading while regularly stopping for deep breaths from our oxygen canisters. Together we waled hugging the walls with one hand as our headlamps lit up the mountain’s pitch-blackness.  Up, always up, zig-zag, back and forth, up.

At the 8th or 8.5th stage, I lost everyone, by choice.  I stopped to pay yet another ¥200 for another brand on my walking stick.  I patiently waited as the burly Japanese lodge worker used a makeshift hairdryer to heat the coal’s embers enough to ready the branding iron. Then, on I trudged.

It was outside one of the last lodges that I found a small place to sit, and where one of my group’s members snored as he slept beside me. In and out of the lodge, hikers kept coming and going, so out of sheer curiosity, I entered. Shoganai, I thought, nothing ventured, nothing gained. It was dimly lit with bodies strewn about. To the left was a large, enclosed room in which bunk beds stood side-by-side, bodies laying asleep, or sitting up and quietly chatting. In the common area, makeshift beds with comforters and bean-filled pillows lay about.  I slipped into one to put on my thermal undies. Now, I was starting to feel better.

The lights brightened as the staff eventually appeared to start branding more hikers’ staff and to sell food. I watched everyone for a while, then after reorganizing my pack, curled up for a bit of kip. I was awoken and told that if I wanted to sleep, I could do so for ¥3,000 in one of the bunks. So I bought some miso soup, got myself ready, and after relaxing for just over an hour, regained my composure, and started back up the mountain.

I could tell you that I climbed alone, surrounded by Japanese people, all of us in the dark, following our headlamps. I started to ask myself why I, along with what I estimated were hundreds of – if not a thousand – people, was climbing this rock? I looked down, and all I could see were lights crisscrossing the mountain like a crack in a wall heading for the floor.

Soon, a thin red line split the horizon and I could start to make out some faces and shapes. With every upward step, it got brighter and brighter. I climbed on with one eye looking forward and the other peeking backwards over my shoulder. As the day continued to break, people started to get restless, wanting to be at the top for sunruse. I looked up and knew that I wasn’t going to get there in time, so I pulled out of the traffic and plopped down on some rocks, taking a whiff of oxygen, eating a carrot stick, taking a swig of water.

A deeply radiant purple orb peeked thought the clouds, and then turned a blindingly bright yellowy orange. I had heard somewhere that looking at a sunrise could be damaging to the eyes, so I peeked between my cupped fingers. The daylight overran the darkness, the clouds far below blanketed the sky like fluffy cotton balls. The crowd thinned and I started up again, the Tori gates looming so close – then I passed through them, up a bit more, and I was there: On top of Mt Fuji, just after daybreak.  I did it, slowly, methodically, patiently.

Now, I could tell you more of all this, and how content I felt upon finding my group members, who were happy that I had succeeded in my challenge, about making the four-hour journey back down the other side, with loose gravel underfoot, practically sliding all the way down, in the new day’s light, with clarity, fresh wind in my face, and good tunes on my iPod, but I think it’s really something you have to decide to experience for yourself.


About Stephen Lebovits