In the thin air of an early Saturday morning, I gaze across the landscape of this foreign country and can barely make out the Pacific Ocean in the background. It is an awesome sight to see the sun rise above the ocean and mountain ridges. To witness this majestic beauty, it was necessary to trek to one of the roofs of the world, and the 12,000 foot ascent is one that is not for the lighthearted.
Mt. Fuji, or Fujisan to the natives, looms over the Japanese Kanto Plain. The volcano, one of the largest, has been dormant for centuries, but rests near one of the most populated areas on earth. Tokyo is less than 45 miles from the mountain, and on a clear day can be seen from any downtown rooftop.
The journey up Mount Fuji actually begins at Yokota Air Base. I am taking part in a sponsored tour to the top of the mountain, and we receive our briefing at the community center. Our Japanese tour guide lectures us in a very broken accent about the dangers of the climb, the temperature, lack of oxygen, and traditions and customs. Most of the information goes in one ear and out the other as the excitement of the climb begins to consume me. Our tour guides warnings will haunt me throughout the trip.
The two-hour bus ride to the foot of the mountain takes us through grand valleys and dotted mountain stretches. We finally arrive at Fifth Station, the stopping point for all motor traffic and the starting point for the ascent. Upon arrival, tourists clamor around the lodge to purchase the famous walking sticks, a 5-foot piece of wood that gets stamped at each station along the ascent.
It’s a Friday night, Around 7:00 PM. As the sun sets and cool air blows towards the mountain, we leave the fifth station and begin our trek up. Initially, the trail is wide and easily visible, even at night. A full moon offers us assistance as well as hand held flashlights. In the beginning, the trail is not that congested and getting to the sixth station is a cinch. A stamp on the stick and on we go. A quick glance up and the lights of the stations to come beckon towards us. They seem a lot closer than they really are, and we don’t realize it until we begin our ascent again.
The trail this time twists and turns. The further up the mount we go, the less vegetation and insect life we encounter. With little to obstruct our view at this point, we see the line of people ascending the mountain. The trip to the seventh station is a taxing one. I plead to my comrades to stop so that we can take a water and granola bar break. This was a mistake. As we sit and regain the strength to continue, people by the hundreds pass us, and as I look around the corner at the line that is forming, Mt. Fuji is becoming a traffic jam of people.
I am urged to get a stamp and continue on before we fall seriously behind. The six-hour ascent is only in its second hour, and already I am feeling the weakness. The trail at this point turns into a series of rock obstacles. No clear trail, just massive volcanic rock formations to climb over and between. This is where the problem begins. Japanese people routinely sit in the middle of the trial to rest and cause a traffic jam. I nearly gorge one with my walking stick in an attempt to regain balance on the steep slope. I didn’t really understand how dangerous the climb was and as I think of ways to get more energy, it hit me. Lack of oxygen. I stop just like the unfortunate ones I almost gorge to suck on my oxygen canister, to find that it doesn’t work properly. My comrades vow that I don’t need it and prop me up to continue on. One member of our group gets sick of waiting and continues on. I won’t see him until the following morning on the descent trail.
Station after station, stamp after stamp, and each time I look up, the summit doesn’t seem any closer. This climb is a test, one of physical strength that I find myself failing miserably at. At the 10th station, my spirits dampened by the below freezing temperatures and weak knees, I vow to sit and not continue on. My friend, also in poor spirits, continues on without me. A group of fellow Americans see me at this station sipping a coffee and encourage me to continue. After some prodding, I get up and prepare the walking stick for another perilous journey through volcanic rack formations and crevices. This time, my poor knees have had enough. I collapse trying to negotiate a rather steep formation, and I tell my friends to continue to the top without me. It is here that I sit and contemplate my next maneuver.
I decide to call it a night and retire to a warm bed at the 10th station. I make my way down the mountain, pay roughly $30 for a bed, and relax my aching body. I fall asleep thinking about how to better prepare future climbers for this treacherous obstacle.
Our hosts wake us before sunrise to witness the awesome beauty of the sun breaking the horizon and coloring the clouds pink and orange. I look out the window, take several pictures, and then return to my bed. Several hours later, I wake up and put my gear back on. I look at the descent trail and then I look up. I am roughly 20 minutes from the summit. A crushing blow to know that I was almost there and couldn’t endure the pain for another lousy 20 minutes. A quick look down and I can barely make out the outline of my friends descending the trail. I call to them and quickly run down the trail to catch up. We assemble and talk about the experience of the night before. While I was warm and relaxed, my friends were left to the elements of nature at 12,000 feet above sea level. Cold and bitter wind with little oxygen to breath.
I feel rejuvinated as I listen to my friends complain about how cold it was. I get a small smile when I think about how my nap and warm bed prepared me for the descent. What my nap didn’t prepare me for was the loss of my walking stick, and proof that I climbed the mountain. As I look down the huge mountain, I realize that I am left to descend on the reliance of my weak knees. My smile turns to a frown and I can think of only one thing – what a long trip down.