For those who know me well they’ll tell you that I’m an amazingly over prepared person; boy scouts got nothin’ on me – if I can’t MacGyver myself out of some situation or reach into any of my Mary Poppins-esque bags and materialize just what I need at that moment then chances are I didn’t really need it anyway. It was with this lifelong sense of absolute faith in my own abilities that I departed for Mount Fuji. I was ready to take on the mountain.
Headlamp; check. Rain gear; check. Reflective survival blanket; check. Boots, quick clot, camel pack, and survival tool with knife, flint striker, and whistle; check. In a bag the size of purse I had someone managed the superhuman feat of packing 3 liters of water and everything that I thought I might need to keep me alive given a worst case scenario on the mountain. I even had a baggie of energy jelly beans.
Like many others before me I headed out for the mountain in the evening; the idea being that you started hiking up from the 5th station around six in the evening and continued up to the 7th or 8th station, there to take a rest, then get back up around 2:00AM and continue on to the summit just in time for sunrise…or so that’s the general idea.
As I got off of the bus at 5th station though, it hit me like a bag of rocks.
“You really think you’re about to do this?” whispered a small voice in my head. “You’ve never done night climbing before in your life, especially up a 3776 meter mountain. You’re about to kill yourself.”
“Shut it, you,” I grumbled to my inner critic. “I said I’m doing it and I’m going to do it.” I had made it all this way to Japan, couldn’t chicken out now.
For those who have seen it 5t station has a very mountain tourist ambiance – sort of like a miniature Vail or Aspen. There are lodges and souvenir shops; each one touting their wares and trying to get you to buy everything from Fuji shaped cookies ( I caved in and bought some) to novelty underpants with Fuji printed on them (a Japanese girl that saw me laughing at this last item was kind enough to inform me that the translation on the packaging ran something along the lines of, “So that she can climb Mt Fuji anytime she wants!”, or something similarly provocative). We shared am informed female laugh together, both perfectly aware that such a ridiculous proposition was not likely to conclude with “summiting”.
Ahem, I digress though, back to the trail. The first few thousand meters were pleasant enough, even with it being overcast and cloudy. I could just make out Lake Kawaguchiko below me. The trail was almost level, even with a slight decline as I made my way around the first bend.
“See?” I told my inner doubting Thomas. “It’s not all that bad, is it?”
"Just give it time, Ducky."
An hour into it though, and my mostly positive outlook had diminished somewhat noticeable - as my inner critic had predicted. Every hiker will tell you the same thing; for the first few kilometers everything is new and breathtaking and beautiful. Even the clouds with their ever morphing shapes and their smell of wet atmosphere seemed charming. I must have stopped to take pictures of sixteen different flowers before I’d made it even 1 kilometer. By the 5th kilometer, and now mostly in the dark, I couldn’t have cared if an entire botanical garden had been sprouting from the ground right in front of me.
By then the pleasant strolling path had turned into a steep rocky incline which had deceptively slippery patches of volcanic gravel – not to be outdone, the rocks and boulders were equally slippery with heavy mist. The path occasionally veered sharply up and a series of very unleveled but very high steps would require my full attention to navigate successfully – I say steps, but in all honesty a feature stops being a step and becomes a rock climbing obstacle once it requires me to raise my foot more than the length of my shins.
The weather hadn’t made up its mind about becoming outright rain or simply continuing on as an endless mizzle. I wasn’t sure of the time, but at a guess it was around 8:30PM when I looked up from a rather difficult rock outcropping in the path and suddenly realized that I couldn’t see. In a moment of annoyance I thought that my glasses had fogged over again so badly that I couldn’t see, but it was worse. In the few meters since I’d come around the last switchback the fog had settled into a deep and thick cloud that wrapped itself around me and engulfed my part of the trail even as I stood there staring down at the rocks disappearing under my feet – also watching my feet disappear below the knee.
A glare of blinding white was all I could see; even my hand held out in front of me disappeared into the mist as I stretched my arm out full length. I reached up to turn my headlamp off but all this did was substitute walking in the blinding light for walking in the pitch black. Given the choice I preferred the blinding light; maybe they’d at least be able to use the light to find my body if I fell and broke my leg.
The path on this part of the mountain, somewhere between 7th and 8th station, was a series of long switchbacks that wound up the mountain side, getting steeper and steeper. I had, up until that point , had fairly clear visibility of the 8th station above me. Each small mountain hut was equipped with a loud but efficient little generator that made the trail ahead glow and sparkle with electricity against the blackness of the mountain. Now though, with the fog thick enough that I could breathe it, I’d lost my reference for how close or far I was from my goal.
I paused for a moment. The fog would surely let up in a few minutes as the wind blew it around to a different part of the mountain. Note: fog never lets up. In a doggedly determined effort of stubbornness I continued on, using the walls of the trail palisades as my reference for where I was – following these walls would ensure that I didn’t somehow take a wrong turn in the mist and walk right off the side of the mountain – a prospect that while unlikely was also absolutely possible.
I tried to calculate the number of switchbacks I’d already done before the fog had descended; maybe I’d done five? Six? How many kilometers was that? Had I been closer to 7th station or 8th when I lost sight of 8th station? I felt like I had been closer to 8th station, but in the dark and under the influence of bone-weary fatigue I could have been overestimating how far I’d come. Should I turn back? I turned to look back behind me on the trail, listening for the jingle of hiking bells or the crunch of gravel that would indicate other hikers on the trail close behind me. Nothing. There was no trail, no sound, no indication that heading backwards would be any better than going on.
Four more switchbacks and I leaned heavily against the palisade wall. My legs trembled beneath me and my breath came in deep gasps that were cut short by the feeling of drowning – the mist was thick enough to taste. I’d thought that I had been closer to 8th station, I should have reached it by now. I looked up over the rim of the wall but no glow of electric light showed in the distance; I might as well have been on the mountain alone.
“You need to rest,” I grumbled to myself. My calves ached with the deep burning that only comes when one has been forced to do some extreme physical task but also do it with extreme care and delicacy – climbing a mountain in literal blinding fog was taking up more energy than I’d anticipated. I’d overshot a few of my stepping stones within the past hour and while I had been limber enough to correct myself before I fell I didn’t think that I’d be able to keep up the balancing act for much longer.
On the next switchback I doubled over, leaning into the wall with my bag in front of me. No sign of my elusive 8th station. I could stop here, I thought. Why else did I bring a survival blanket if not for this exact scenario? I looked at the wall behind me; it was solid and firm, a good windbreaker at my back. I could wrap myself in the blanket and either wait out the fog or simply wait until daybreak and then head back down the trail. It was the safe thing to do.
Unfortunately, mother nature often has other plans in mind than what is easiest or safe. As I was sitting there hee-hawing about getting out my blanket a huge echoing “thwack” shattered the silence next to me. Then another, and another. And within seconds a blanket of hail stones rained down, deciding me that the best course was indeed ahead of me.
Beyond fear, beyond pain, and strongly compelled by hailstones the size of my thumbnail I hurried on up the trail, stumbling on random rocks and pitfalls. No matter how much further 8th station was it had to be closer to me than 7th station at this point.
It was with this detached sense of urgency that I came to the top of a set of climbing stones and discovered myself literally on the doorstep of the first hut of 8th station. I approached the door slowly, half convinced that this surreal illusion was exactly that; and illusion. A young man at the window answered my tentative knock. I had to shout to be heard over the hail, though my voice was raspy with damp and cold. I was so prepared to lay down that I was about to tell him that I didn’t care if they didn’t have any beds, I’d gladly lay on the floor, as long as it was inside and out of the hail.
Such drastic measures were fortunately unnecessary, they had a spot left. The most profound sense of relief came over me and I nearly wept as he unlocked the door and ushered me into the foyer. This was a small low ceilinged room with a sunken hearth – I mean a real hearth, with a dirt floor and a fire pit – and a few pillows scattered around for those who wanted to sit by the fire to warm themselves.
My wet jacket and shoes properly stowed away I was shown my ‘bed’. It was how I imagined human beings must have lived and survived in such inhospitable conditions for thousands of years. Two long platforms ran the length of the room, one upper and accessible with a ladder and one below; a sort of room sized bunk bed. This impression was increased with the realization that there were no individual or separate sleeping spots, each person simply lay down where there was a blanket and pillow, headless of the fact that there was another person right next to you. They were bunk beds a la sardine tin style. I couldn’t have cared less.
Plopping my sweaty hoodie onto my spot as an informal marker I went back to the fire pit; the young man had said they had food. Despite my earlier lack of appetite small spasms of hunger trembled deep through my stomach as I rounded the corner; I could smell something savory and hot. This turned out to be a cup-o-noodle (seafood flavor) and a coke. I approached that cup of noodle with an eagerness bordering on rapturous lust. It was the best thing I’d ever tasted. The heavenly choir was surely singing somewhere near as I ate that celestial ambrosia.
Sometime later – I think I might have possibly blacked out for a few minutes in my single-minded determination to suck every molecule of broth from the cup in my hand – I found myself back at my designated “spot” for sleeping. A brief glance around made it apparent that everyone was already in various stages of sleep, and I, completely not interested in sleeping in my wet jeans, shamelessly stripped them off and climbed under my blanket.
I was a little concerned that I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep in such conditions - being a natural light sleeper has its ups and downs – but with the combination of absolute weariness and physical exhaustion it must have only been a few minutes before I too was softly snoring away, surrounded by the amorphous lumps that were my fellow mountaineers.
Morning comes early on the mountain, sunrise was predicted at around 5:00AM and many people get up an hour before. With the slowness of waking sloths my bunk mates and I gradually came to en mass. It was then that I realized I had somehow wormed my way into the midst of a group of Chinese tourist. They all sat there staring at me with wide blinking eyes; I clearly hadn’t been there the night before when they had gone to sleep and they couldn’t seem to figure out when this white girl had snuck into bed with them. Dazed and slightly drunk on the altitude I stared back; was I really the only white person in the entire hut?
This sense of surrealism grew; with a loud chattering like birds a few dozen Japanese kindergarteners popped up out of their blankets like jack-in-the-boxes and started to climb down the ladder to the floor below. I felt oddly like some sort of modern day Snow White, but instead of animals and dwarves I had Chinese tourists and Japanese children (which, when you think about it…)
It was over breakfast that we discovered that the 9th station (the summit) had been closed for safety reasons, the fog and hail making the climb too dangerous. Not that I was too disappointed at this point; being here at the 8th station or a thousand feet higher at the 9th station wouldn’t have made much of a difference, the sunrise wasn’t going to be anything more than a gradual lightening of the clouds outside, what with all the fog.
It was in the midst of all this bustle and preparation to depart that I realized that this hadn’t really been a journey about making it to the top, although that would have been nice. It was about me seeing just how far I could really go, and what I would see along the way. Had this been a challenge? Of course it had. Would I do it again? Maybe. If someone had asked me that same question hours earlier, when I had been alone out in the dark on the cold rocky trail, I might have answered differently – likely I would have said that this was the f-ing stupidest idea I’d ever had. Sometimes our circumstances alter our perspectives, and sometimes we alter them for ourselves, by gaining a little altitude. The cup-o-noodles helped restore my faith in life though, just a smidge.
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