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Thursday, Aug. 5, 2010

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To the top: Joe Pournovin (left) and Linton Rathgen (third from right), and fellow climbers pose near the summit of Mount Fuji, near the border of Yamanashi and Shizuoka prefectures, on the morning of July 18. JOE POURNOVIN

Die-hard hikers assault Fuji from the coast


Staff writer

It was a 22-hour hike from the sea to the top of Japan's highest peak, starting out in scorching summer heat and ending with the temperature near zero.

Joe Pournovin and Linton Rathgen's crazy idea was shared by six others at 6:15 a.m. July 17 when they met together at Tagonoura Beach near the foot of Mount Fuji in Shizuoka Prefecture.

The goal was to reach the top of the 3,776-meter-high volcano from the beach rather than the fifth station, the way it's usually done.

"Most people climb Mount Fuji from the fifth station. What's the point of climbing a mountain from the fifth station?" Pournovin, a 26-year-old Briton, told The Japan Times as his leg muscles still ached nine days later while sitting in a Tokyo restaurant.

Pournovin and Rathgen, 32, a New Zealander, were experienced at long treks. But this was nothing like anything they had tried before.

"Heat, time and altitude. It was really hard," said Pournovin, an English teacher in Numazu, Shizuoka Prefecture.

The eight people who set out from Tagonoura were joined by two others at the fifth station at 8:45 p.m. and the group reached the summit at 5:06 a.m. the next day.

"We didn't know each other at all. (Only Pournovin and Rathgen did.) A great thing about hiking is that we have lots of time. So we got to know each other very well," Pournovin said.

The 10 hikers donated ¥1,000 each to Oxfam Japan. Pournovin is a member of Oxfam Japan International Volunteer Group.

"We all had different reasons for climbing Mount Fuji, but we all did it for Oxfam and many people in the world," he said.

"Billions in the world have nothing," Rathgen said. "There are people walking a long way to fetch a bucket of water every day. Anybody in Japan should be able to do this (climbing Mount Fuji from Tagonoura Beach.) Just tell yourself to do it."

Oxfam is a global aid body that provides training and funds for people in developing countries and disaster areas.

"We did this to raise awareness of Oxfam. We want to let people know there are people who don't have things we take for granted," Pournovin said.

Before the hike, the eight who were in it for the long haul — including Oxfam intern Mio Shishido; Oxfam employee Masaki Kataoka; Marcus Springer, an American who teaches English; Paul Kissen, a Scot; Chris Kingshott, 24, from Britain; and Paul Woodgate, a British investment banker — held a ceremony at the stone monument of Yamabe no Akahito.

Yamabe's poem about Tagonoura and Mount Fuji was one of the 100 poems compiled in "Hyakunin Isshu" ("A Hundred Poems by a Hundred Poets") in the Kamakura Period (1192-1333).

During the ceremony, Rathgen, an expert on the "karuta tori" game using Hyakunin Isshu cards, recited Yamabe's poem, which he translated as: "When I take the path to Tago's coast, I see perfect whiteness laid on Mount Fuji's lofty peak by the drift of falling snow."

Also at the beach, they each filled a plastic bottle with seawater to pour on Fuji's summit.

"It's a spiritual motivation. The water will eventually go back to where we began climbing the mountain," Rathgen said.

The heat, which reached at least 30, took an exhausting toll, Pournovin and Rathgen said.

To be sure, climbers need to be aware of how temperatures can change at different altitudes. At the fifth station it felt like 20 degrees and by the time they reached the peak everybody was wearing jackets and long pants, the pair said.

Hiking from the beach to the fifth station was harder than going from the fifth station to the peak because of the heat and nonstop walking, they said.

Also, they had the feeling of togetherness after the fifth station because many people were setting out from there.

From the beach to the fifth station, "buses were our only company. In Britain, buses honk at pedestrians on country roads, but they don't do it here," Pournovin said.

Briton Sam Woodgate and American Emily Robinson joined the eight at the fifth station, 47 km distant from the beach and 2,400 meters higher in altitude.

Many people, including a kid who looked to be about 8 years old, were climbing from the fifth station with the usual aim of viewing the sunrise from the summit, they said.

A turnoff was that they had to wait in line near the peak because the mountain path was jammed with people.

It took about two hours from the eighth station to the top, a hike that would take about an hour if it wasn't crowded.

They reached the summit at 5:06 a.m., too late for the 4:30 a.m. sunrise, but they saw it on the way up.

Magnificent the view may have been, but they were all happy it was over.

"I kissed the stone at the highest spot of the peak," Pournovin said. "What kept me going was that everywhere we were, if we looked back we could see Tagonoura Beach, our starting point."

On the other hand, Rathgen was discouraged by the multiple signs on the way up indicating the distance to the fifth station. "It reminded me how far we had to go. I hated it," he said.

They originally wanted to get to the fifth station at 7 p.m. and take a 2 1/2-hour break but didn't get there until 8:45 p.m. The two are thus planning to set out at 6 a.m., an hour earlier, next year.

They took five-minute breaks every 90 minutes, and a 25-minute break for lunch.

After reaching the peak, they went back to the fifth station and took a bus the rest of the way down.

Though the trip was tough, Pournovin said he will do it again the same weekend next year. Rathgen, who will return to New Zealand this month, promised to return just to climb Fuji again.

"Next year, we want to collect more people. Lots of people who did it this year already told us they want to come back," Pournovin said.

For information on such events, go to oxfam.jp/en/whatyoucan/ivg/


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