Okay. Okay. So. Fuji.

It’s hard for me to know exactly where to begin. Possibly because this is maybe the coolest thing I have ever done, the most brag-worthy. I have done things more momentarily exhilarating, but nothing that is more awesome.

Parts of the trip were extremely boring. The bus ride was very long: I got on at Takaoka at 7:30am, and got to Fuji at 6:30. (We were supposed to get there earlier: there was a serious car accident that blocked the road, and also, we did have some rest stops. STILL.) Also, it would not be Japan if they did not talk everything to DEATH, and thus, before we could start the hike there were speeches.

Part of that speech was a warning, not to overexert yourself. Just a few days before we climbed, a man died on the mountain for reasons nobody translated other than “he should have stopped climbing.” Did he have a heart attack? Was he old? Did he get dizzy and fall and crack open his skull? I have no idea. They also said that because of the late start and the masses of people on the trail, we might not make the summit by sunrise, and that various parts of the trip would be therefore set back. This made me very sad.

And then finally we started, in full dark, with our trusty souvenir belled walking sticks. Some people brought regular hiking sticks or ski poles, but a lot of people bought the wooden ones from Fuji – there are branded stamps that you can purchase at each Station, to prove you made it so far, and the chime of the hundreds of bells was simultaneously inspiring and annoying.

In some ways, Fuji itself was boring. Because of the dark, there was very little to see. We started out below the cloud cover, and then began to climb through it – that was cool. Wispy mist tendrils floating along beside the climbers, illuminated by headlamps and providing a nice cool temperature after the ridiculous heat of the day. But hiking is kind of boring in general – you watch the ground so you don’t trip, but it’s mostly a physical rather than cerebral exercise. You can chat, but only if you have the breath – after a while, we needed all of our lung power just to move, and talking pretty much stopped. (Not to mention, we’d already spent twelve hours chatting in the bus: there’s a limit, sometimes.)

But then we passed above the clouds, and the moon hung huge and low and glowing in the sky. The headlamps of other climbers glittered against the mountain, snaking up the side before us. The stars were bright, and positioned differently than I anticipated: I could recognize Cassiopia, and one of the Dippers, but both were at new and unexpected angles. There were other stars I thought I ought to know, clusters I thought might be constellations with which I was unfamiliar, but in general I am bad at stars. And the light of the moon reflected dimly off the tops of the clouds we had just finished walking through, and the ripples of the clouds looked like the ripples of a giant ocean surrounding the mountain.

It was incredible, when I had the energy to look at it.

This wasn’t that often: we were on a schedule, trying to reach the summit by 4:30 for sunrise. Also, the ascent was considerably harder than I expected it to be. I have hiked mountains, or perhaps more realistically I have strolled up large hills. But reaching the top has never taken more than, oh, 3 hours? It took us 9 hours to reach the Fuji summit.

It was hard for several reasons. Obviously, it was long and exhausting. The closest I have come to this experience were the few days I spent as a door-to-door salesperson, during which I spent 7 solid hours walking quickly around the suburbs of Auckland. Similar, possibly, were the days I spent walking Paris – but that was more of a relaxed, if lengthy, stroll. So the sheer length was an important factor. More difficult than that was the terrain. In some places, the ground was smooth. In others it was gravel – a challenge to slog through, but ultimately acceptable. And then in many places it was a steep clamber up boulders of volcanic rock, switchbacking across the mountainside but far more vertical than horizontal. With a four foot climbing stick, on a trail solidly packed with climbers, and doing my best not to accidentally smack anybody in the head – or get smacked myself.

Please don’t forget that it was very dark out, though many people (not me!) had lights.

Occasionally, a kindly Japanese person ahead of me would turn around and illuminate my path with their headlamps, though whether this was intentional or they were looking for somebody behind me or just ogling the scenery was unclear.

As we got higher, the air got thinner. I didn’t get dizzy, but many people did. It did make me more tired – and it made me afraid that I would suddenly become dizzy, and my exhaustion made me worried I’d do something stupid, and that a combination of the two would lead to my slipping on boulders and cracking open my chin, or my head, or falling backwards and off the mountain, or spraining an ankle or any of another dozen hazards that come when you really shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing.

I was very glad when we switched back to gravel, and the path became less steep.

When we started the climb, we could see the sun dropping below the horizon, so I spent the majority of the climb positive that we were on the western slope of the mountain, and that if we didn’t reach the summit by 4:30 we would miss the sunrise. Somehow, we had circled the mountain – the switchbacks no doubt had something to do with that – and when I noticed a glow in the sky at my back around 3am, I was a little baffled and surprised. This was an excellent development, however, as we didn’t actually reach the summit in time, though not through any fault of our own. The mountain was packed. In many ways, I felt as though I was making my way through a particularly challenging queue for some sort of Extreme Holiday Shopping contest: there were no more than a few feet between me an the next person at the most empty of times, and as we climbed higher we were more frequently shoulder to shoulder. We couldn’t reach the summit because there was simply no room. People who made it to the top before sunrise certainly weren’t going to start down sooner, they waited around. And then the trail up started to fill with people, and I ended up stopping nearly an hour’s hike from the top to watch the main event. There was no land to be seen, only clouds stretching into the distance, with the occasional tall mountaintop peeking through like far-off islands. It was, as a Japanese girl exclaimed, “fushigi” – a word I understand translates as “wonder, miracle, strange, marvelous,” and which was perfectly accurate.

Ironically, there weren’t enough clouds in the sky to make a truly astonishing sunrise – or rather, there were, but they were all below us.

I tried to send Doug an email from my phone at the top, but I think it didn’t work – I did have reception, so I don’t know why.

Sadly, the hike down was mostly just wretched. We took a different path (a very good thing, given the boulders) that was entirely gravel. This was clearly a constructed path, one that would even allow motorized vehicles to travel up and down: a concern I wondered about on the way up concerning the evacuation of injured climbers, and which was answered when I saw a tank-like treaded vehicle carrying a boy with an injured ankle and a man who was presumably his father down the gravel path. This path had a steep incline, and the gravel was deep – it was not a question of if you were going to slip, but when, and how far, and how frequently, and if that sliding could be controlled or whether you would fall.

My new boots were invaluable here, and also on the way up, and I left the mountain with feet that were sore but blisterless. This is in contrast to one of my fellow ALT climbers, who may lose both her large toenails and who was in a great deal of pain on the last stretch. Without the boots I likely would have turned an ankle on that gravel, or been less steady with the smaller tread.

It was also filthy. By which I mean, it was dry, and dusty, and the hundreds of fellow climbers created a cloud of ever-present dust: Fuji has a flavor, and that flavor is not delicious. Dust got in my eyes, my nose, my ears. It stuck to my teeth – which desperately needed brushing anyway, it was extremely gross – and caked itself to my sweaty hair. It collected in the creases of my elbows and palms and coated my everything.

My nice winter coat, the only heavy coat I have here but (a peacoat) completely ridiculous for climbing, may never be the same. (It’s supposed to be black. Currently it’s sort of … brown. ICK.)

But painful as it was, the slog down took significantly less time – about 3 and a half hours. And then we piled back on the bus, sweaty and dirty and disgusting, and made our way to an onsen about 45 minutes away. (Technically, it was not an onsen, because it was not a natural hotsprings – there is some other word, sento maybe? Not important.) We ate lunch, and washed, and relaxed our extremely sore muscles in the very hot water.

Never having played a sport or showered in lockerrooms, I am unaccustomed to semi-public nakedness, but the Japanese are extremely unselfconscious about it. (Gender segregated, of course.) It was weird, but their unconcerned attitude made it less awkward – it was maybe the only place I have not been stared at for being gaijin, which is good, because that would have been super awkward and weird and would have made me very uncomfortable.

Because I was smart, I brought a change of clothing and sandals, and the ride back was mostly comfortable if hot and long and boring. And then we were home, and I cursed living on the second floor, and I crashed into my bed and stayed there most of Tuesday too, leaving my apartment only once briefly and walking as little as possible. Wednesday was better – walking was fine, stairs not so much – and today, Thursday, I’m pretty much as good as new.

I don’t ever need to climb Fuji again, unlike the Japanese woman with us who was on her third trip. But I am so, so glad I did it.

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