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Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012
How not to climb Mount Fuji
A warning against a too-casual approach to your summit assault
By VICTORIA JAMES
If you're considering trekking Mount Fuji this year, look sharp — just four weeks remain of the official open season. But if you're making last-minute plans for an ascent of those conical 3,776 meters, think carefully about what you're taking on. Unless, that is, you've always pictured yourself summiting on all fours during a white-out, drenched to the skin. As I did.
I'd lived in Japan for six years but had never quite got round to climbing its national icon, although I'd absorbed all the lore: that Fuji was a doddle; that busloads of sprightly Japanese centenarians hiked it every year; that the summit at sunrise was the most beautiful sight in all Japan — if not the universe.
I also knew the famous proverb about climbing the mountain — and I'm going to attempt a world-first in Fuji-hike literature by not including it here.
The day I decided to return to my British homeland for good, I wrote a bucket list of things to do before I left. At the top was: "Climb Mount Fuji." The only difficulty was that it was already late July; the following weeks were my last chance for a climb. But that was all right. It wasn't as if I needed to prepare or anything. After all, Fuji was a doddle!
So I roped in assorted friends and we laid our plans: Take a bus to the Kawaguchi-cho 5th Station, stroll for a few afternoon hours along the Yoshida trail (one of four routes to Mount Fuji's summit), stop at a mountain hut at the 8th Station for a bowl of ramen and a good kip, then launch a final assault in time to watch a spectacular sunrise seated comfortably on top.
I donned comfy trainers, cotton trousers and a T-shirt — ideal for the sticky summer heat. I packed a light sweater, which might be needed high up, and at the last minute threw in a fleece — it'd make a good pillow when sleeping, I thought.
I was briefly disconcerted by one friend's gear: stout hiking boots and an all-weather jacket, a walking pole and head-torch. But she was German, I reassured myself, and German people are famously said to leave nothing to chance. That was probably what she wore to pop out to the corner shop.
We sauntered up the slope in wide, lazy zig-zags. The scenery was raw and otherworldy: volcanic scree feathered with vivid grasses that thinned as we ascended. We made a photo stop at the 7th Station, then powered on to the 8th Station and dinner.
I counted it off on my fingers: Stations 5 to 8 in two hours; that left just 9, 10 and the summit. I estimated another 90 minutes of climbing, max. But then, I failed math in high school, so I should have known better than to trust my digital arithmetic.
The 8th Station was enchanting: tier after tier of long, low stone huts strung with prayer flags, just as I pictured the Buddhist mountain kingdoms of Tibet and Bhutan. We stepped through a wooden doorway into a room steamy with ramen broth. I slurped down my noodles, congratulating myself on a job well-nigh done.
Our allotted sleeping space looked more like three people to a mat than the tatami apiece we'd imagined. The girls in our group nominated the guys to go on the outside, and we all huddled together. It felt too uncomfortable to sleep, but I must have dozed off because soon someone was shaking me, urging me up. It was midnight; time to resume our ascent.
The first inkling that my preconceptions were a little awry came when I stepped out into the night. The temperature transition was a physical shock — like rolling in snow after clambering from a hot-spring pool, only distinctly less pleasurable. I pulled on my fleece. It was drizzling. And pitch black. That was fine; I would follow my German friend with her head-torch.
During the hours we'd spent in the hut eating and resting, half of Honshu had flocked to Fuji's slopes. The night was full of shambling figures, voices raised on all sides, among them the unmistakable cries of tour-group leaders. A squad or two of those sprightly centenarians had clearly arrived — and they were ahead.
As the rain intensified, and the cold, too, I shrank into my sodden fleece. My breath was becoming more labored — I blamed my unfitness, never imagining I was high enough to be feeling the effects of altitude. My German friend disappeared into the darkness, last seen scrambling nimbly over a stack of boulders. Older members of the group dropped behind. A fellow Brit stayed with me in a manner that near brought a lump to the throat.
"Not far!" she cried, just as I was flagging — and I triumphed inwardly that though it had cost a bit of puff, I was there. Atop Mount Fuji! — atop Japan, no less! That was until I saw the wooden sign for the 9th Station. Deflated, I insisted we stop for cocoa, and pretended not to notice as yet more speedy seniors surged past, following their leader's flag.
The hours after that were a blur. I only remember that they were hours. My fingers went numb. My flimsy cotton trousers were soaked through, though my burning muscles warmed me. We passed several people lying by the trail, retching or immobile. My friend fed me tomatoes: "They help," she urged kindly — and they did. Occasionally, over boulders or steep sections, I inched forward on hands and knees.
As dawn broke (I can't say "as the sun rose" because we were in dense cloud, so the arrival of day was heralded by the fading of blackness into grimy gray, then dull white) the two of us were stationary in a line that snaked up to the summit viewpoint, like children queuing desperately to have their photo taken with a particularly popular department-store Santa Claus.
Then I realized I couldn't see the line ahead of us. I peered into the whiteness — had we strayed off course? I could just about see my own hand, so it wouldn't be hard to have lost sight of the people in front. My friend tugged my sleeve and pointed down to a wooden sign: Gomi wa mochikaerimashō (Let's take our litter home).
Then, as she fished out her camera and handed it to a blurry figure in the fog, I saw there were other characters on the board — and that they spelled: "Mount Fuji Summit."
Journey's end. I could barely see our impromptu photographer, but I grinned at the camera like one demented. By that stage, I probably was — though warmed anew with pride at our achievement.
I learned a lot on that Fuji trip, mostly about doing my homework. When I trekked to Everest Base Camp this year (see "A lifelong dream comes true on Everest"), I trained for six months and was fully kitted out. Mount Fuji doesn't demand anything so extreme, but to get the most out of Japan's magic mountain, treat it — just as generations of Japanese have done — with a little awe and respect. (See box below.)
Reaching the summit of Mount Fuji is the thing I'm most proud of from my bye-bye Japan bucket list, and also the most memorable. To this day, I'm thrilled to have done it. But ... well ... we all know the second half of that proverb I won't mention. I reckon it holds true, too.
Victoria James is a London-based writer who blogs at www.bettertotravel.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @TrailMinx.