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Sep

Mount Fuji: Part 3 of 3

SEE EPISODE THREE

Read about my Fuji experience in greater detail: Part One, Part Two and Part Three.

In the dark, the terrain was uneven and a bit rocky for the beginning of one of the more trafficked nature trails in the world. Regularly, either my chance at night-hiking was ruined or my idiocy was saved by other groups of hikers with miner’s helmets, headlamps and the occasional flashlight.

My stretches of lone connection and attempts at mystifying my Fuji adventure were shortened increasingly the further I climbed and the faster I went. Moreover, the narrower the path got, the more often I was stuck behind slow-moving hiking groups.

Stuck in that uninspired pace, I must have fell into a trance of sorts as I forget passing most of the stations that occasionally interrupt the trail. When I did get a chance to leave the apparent queue to the top, I would sometimes turn and watch the thousands of headlamps lining the trail into the mist below. It was one of the views that my little camera couldn’t capture and my words can’t describe. Above me I would lose the trail into the darkness of rock and sky meshing together, save for a glow of a far off pack of light and noise.

At around one AM I was pushing the summit, far too early I felt. I took a seat overlooking what, I could only assume, would be a remarkable view if the clouds and the sky and the sun could cooperate. I met two French physicists who were breaking from a series of conferences in Tokyo by scaling Fuji. At that point they too refused to pay the thousands of yen the stations charge for an hour or so of warmth, and instead took refuge under an overhanging rock. I stood alternating which bare hand held my broken umbrella up to protect my already frozen and drenched clothing from the piercingly cold rain.

We stayed there for an hour or more. I tried my French; they laughed and asked me questions about English. In time, we decided to climb together. The crowds had grown, as those that had hiked in the day and paid for a night’s stay in one of the stations added to the number of hikers aiming to see the sunrise from Fuji’s oft-cloud shrouded top.

It was then that I began to feel the cold and notice the change in altitude play tricks on my breathing rhythm. Nevertheless, after a few stops to finish off my first liter of water, we found the wooden archway that welcomes hikers to the summit of Fuji. My new French physicist friends and I parted ways and I moved through the top.

The cold and sweat played their role as an efficient anticlimax as the extent of my self-congratulation for completion was to sit down on a wet log. There, at the top of a medium-sized peak in late August, it was hovering above 32 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius), yet with more than an hour before a sign of a sunrise would appear, I fell asleep, my head in my hands and broken pink-handled umbrella fixed partially over my frosty back.

I woke just half an hour later and pushed my way through the growing crowd and entered one of the well-stocked stations there 13,000 feet in the sky. Full with dark-skinned Asian faces, I took the only bench seat available in the heated shack. The smell of miso soup and more exotic, just-as-warm Japanese dishes was treat enough for me and I watched the tick of an off-centered wall clock.

It was nearing five AM when I stopped my freeloading and reentered the chilling mountain arena, seeing the first trickles of light over the horizon. I made my way towards the descending trail, away from the crowds. Before me, still disguised in dark, the clouds that brought the rain that had tortured me throughout my climb taunted me still, convincing me that I would be granted the same end so many who have climbed Mount Fuji have found.

Fuji is notorious for obstructing what is, those who have managed to see it have said, a nearly unequaled view. I have heard that Fuji can be seen from Tokyo, if not for the clouds and mist and smog and fog and other unscientific words we use for “naturally” disrupted views. The reality is that that view, like the one on top of Fuji, is almost always unable to be seen.

I had navigated a complex subway system for the first time alone, found a bus terminal in a foreign city, bought a ticket in a foreign language, traveled three hours from the city that was supposed to be my very new temporary home, spent some eight hours on Japan’s highest peak in the freezing rain unprepared and ill-equipped, yet that was the first moment I thought my Fuji trip was ill-advised. I slowly descended in the early morning light until something stunning happened.

As the light grew and the rain subsided, the clouds that I surmised would ruin my view replaced the traditional view of a mountain vista and created something I had never seen before.

It appeared to me that the cloud system consolidated into a floor of white cotton below me as the Japanese sun cast a golden tinge to everything, including myself and the equally dazed climbers around me. I sat on a rock off the trail and watched, completely and totally awestruck at what was unfolding before me.

When I think critically of that hour I sat on that rock, I see it is silly. They were the clouds, that was the sun and there was I. In words, there was nothing particularly notable about anything. Yet to my young eyes, this climb brought me somewhere I would likely never be, something I likely would never see, ever again. That floor of clouds, one that no one can convince me wasn’t able to be walked upon, with the sun making it seem as if I, alone, was watching the calm backstage of the rainy storm thousands of feet below, was extraordinary to me at that very moment, at the very place in time.

See, as Japanese climbing clichés go, the king is this beauty: “one who never climbs Mount Fuji is a fool, and one who climbs Mount Fuji twice is twice the fool.” It makes even more sense once you contemplate it on your way down from its peak. I would trade nothing for that view I found, but as an eager American outdoors person the climb was too crowded and the trail offered nothing originally challenging or breathtaking. For those that want to climb Fuji just as an accomplishment, the four to six hour climb is strenuous and yields nothing you can’t find on a postcard or on a plane or even at the top of some elevator shaft in a tower somewhere.

I climbed Mount Fuji once. Once is just enough for now.

Jaa mata,
Christopher

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