From our starting point at the fifth station, it had taken us an hour to reach the sixth station, and then another hour and a half to reach the seventh station, but we had been walking for almost two hours without a further station in sight. Soon after that, we came to a small shack, just a rest stop really, and it took us ten minutes just to catch our breath so that we could ask how much farther it was until the eighth station. We were told it would be another thirty minutes. At that point we really did start to have doubts, because the way we were feeling made it hard for us to imagine that we could go another fifteen minutes, let alone half an hour. The light was quickly fading and the mercury on the thermometer on the wall read ten degrees Celsius (fifty degrees Fahrenheit).
Kyoko looked at us with despair in her eyes, and it appeared as if she were having second thoughts. I guess we all were. We didn’t realize that a mountain with such a gradual incline (from a distance anyway) could be so wearing. But we weren’t ready to give up just yet. After a few more minutes of rest, Kyoko nodded silently and gestured for us to go forward. Reluctantly, we did. When we looked back, she was trudging along behind.
After what we thought had been about half an hour, we still couldn’t see the eighth station, although it was dark and visibility was poor. It was also becoming cold and we all felt like we could go no further. Mandy looked miserable, and Kyoko simply looked defeated. I had to admit that I was also quite surprised by how tough this mountain was to climb, in terms of the level of fitness and perseverance required. I, too, felt rather crestfallen and despondent. None of us said anything, and we just stood there in silence, leaning against the mountain, in the darkness. Stars began to appear in the evening sky above us. We rationalized that we had achieved our dream, sort of, in that we had come to Fuji-san and climbed it. However, with the cold night upon us, we were in a bind.
Mandy and I agreed that we couldn’t stay there, as the temperature seemed to be dropping further every minute, and it was becoming rather frigid, but when we suggested that we continue on, Kyoko just shook her head. A freezing wind blew down the mountain path from above, and we all took our long coats out of our backpacks and put them on. We also removed our battery-powered torches and turned them on, as it was then almost pitch black on the mountain.
I mentioned that it would be foolish and dangerous to attempt to descend the mountain again in total darkness. We were now above 10,000 feet, and I was starting to feel nauseous. None of us felt as if we had any energy left. Just then we heard footsteps coming towards us up the gravelly path. As the person’s face came into view, Kyoko gasped. It was an elderly man, who appeared to be in his eighties. He smiled kindly and informed us that the eighth station was only a few minutes up the track. This instantly gave us all encouragement and finally inspired Kyoko to change her mind and continue.
As we walked with the old gentleman, he informed us that every year since his wife had died, he climbed Fuji-san. He also told us about the famous old proverb in Japan, saying,
“A wise man climbs Fuji-san once, but only a fool climbs it twice.” He laughed out loud at this and we all felt a bit warmer and stronger in his presence.
Friendly faces greeted us inside the well-lit interior of the station, and as a man took our mountain sticks and branded them, the elderly fellow we arrived with excused himself and made his way over to the chemical-based ‘eco’ toilets. We bid him farewell, and slumped down on a nearby wooden bench. While we were resting, we opened our backpacks, had a long drink of water and ate some of our food that we had prepared.
Complimenting ourselves on reaching the eighth station, and how well we had done so far, we knew that we still had to continue on to the ‘Yama-goya’ before we could stop for the night. I felt a bit better, Kyoko looked resigned and Mandy looked determined, as we slapped each other on the back and encouraged each other to find some reserves within ourselves to keep going. Psyching ourselves up, we pushed on. Onward and up!
Picking up our backpacks, and our mountain poles, we walked into the black of night, with just a torch to light our way. Our refreshed energy reserves didn’t last long, and so a short time later we were delighted to spot some lights a little way above us! We eagerly pulled our bodies towards them, but it was another fifteen minutes before they seemed any closer to our last position. Mandy was now completely spent, and so was I. Kyoko closed her eyes with her head between her knees, and sighed. We joked about calling a helicopter taxi, and the humor helped. Looking at the lights, we stood up and climbed.
At 9:45 pm, we crawled up the last stone steps to ‘Yama-goya’, a large, brightly lit hut, looking not unlike heaven to us. Lots of people were wandering around talking about their way up here, what route they took, and about the weather forecast for the next day. We had been climbing for five hours and didn’t give a damn about the weather or how we got there; we were just ecstatic to have finally arrived, knowing that we could stop for the night. There were various plastic food dishes on display, and a beer dispenser. Beer!
A man asked us if we had a booking. He quickly found our names and escorted us to a table set low on the tatami floor in the middle of the mountain hut. Gas heaters were turned on and it felt wonderful to feel their warmth. We looked around for the elderly fellow who had accompanied us to the eighth station, but we never saw him again. Soon our minds turned to other things though as we were served bowls of hot curry rice and tall glasses of cold beer! It was almost too good to be true. We were all beaming.
A sign on the wall declared in bold lettering that we were at 3,450 meters (11,300 feet)! After finishing our meal, washing our faces, and changing into some dry, fresh clothes, we almost felt human again. Before hitting the sack, we decided to go outside and use some of our bottled water to clean our teeth. The three of us sat on an old wooden plank that was situated right on the side of the mountain, with our feet dangling over the edge. Then we poured water carefully onto toothbrushes, applied some toothpaste and looked at the stars as we brushed our teeth. Suddenly we heard a whoosh and were shocked to see our water bottle slide down the mountain! It had toppled over, and then gravity took it from there. There was nothing we could do as we watched it slide rapidly out of sight.
That’s when we realized how precarious our position was, and we inched back off the plank onto level ground. Luckily we had another water bottle, still full, in our backpack.
I felt a headache coming on, and took some pain relief tablets before climbing into bed. Mandy did the same. Bed consisted of a thin futon on the Japanese tatami mat floor, with a single blanket to throw over oneself, the futons side by side in a room containing about twenty people situated on the floor, and more in second and third level bunks. Despite this, fatigue overtook me and I fell asleep in minutes.
Three hours later, at 1:30 am, we were woken up by a soft metallic gong, and got dressed. My headache had gone, but what was undeniably altitude sickness had settled in, and I felt horribly nauseous. I then noticed that many of the Japanese were carrying small, pressurized cans of oxygen with a plastic funnel for placing over their nose and mouth. I asked the attendant at the front of the hut but he informed that they didn’t sell them.
Outside, Kyoko and Mandy and I ate the last of our sandwiches, but I didn’t enjoy mine as much due to my condition. I ate slowly, trying to gauge my feeling after each bite, as one cautiously does when feeling nauseous. We sipped our water, and discussed options.
Mandy was still physically tired; Kyoko was tired but willing to go on, and my altitude sickness was swirling around inside my head, chest and stomach. It was 2:00 am and if we wanted to see the dawn from the summit, we had to be leaving. I told Kyoko and Mandy to go on and that I would join them later but they refused. This was just as well, as the ascent and descent routes are actually different! I groaned and stood up shakily.
Still waking up, we reluctantly joined a slow moving group and started our final ascent.
Just a hundred meters later I felt like throwing up, but the feeling passed. I was so annoyed at myself for feeling that way, and for slowing the others down. My head was throbbing, and my body felt weak, but I tried to ignore that and push myself up the path.
I also distracted myself by looking at the stars, and right at that moment I saw a shooting star. Mandy looked up and she saw one, too. Kyoko saw it as well. We continued walking and staring at the night sky, which was the clearest any of us had ever seen. Saying my prayers silently over and over again that I could make it to the top in time for sunrise, things started to change. My body had obviously realized that I wasn’t going to stop (or it had become used to the different altitude), and I could feel myself pushing through my attitude sickness as though it were a thinning veil of cobwebs.
I recalled saying to Mandy that I thought Fuji-san was like a shy lady, conservatively hiding her face behind a veil of mist most of the time. I now felt that mist dissipate, and fall away. My headache was almost gone, my breathing coming easier, my heart not pounding like it was before and I was beginning to feel stronger. Mandy also felt more confident as she pushed herself forward, and of course she looked like an angel with the clouds below her in the background. Kyoko was trudging on like a soldier, even though her weary face could not hide how tired she felt.
At 3,550 meters (11,647 feet), we reached the last level before the summit – the ninth station. Strangely, the three of us were feeling good. Had it been the few hours’ sleep, or the fact that we had been going at a slower pace? We weren’t sure, but we were happy to be feeling so lively again. There was nothing between us and the stars, and at this altitude thousands were visible! We saw more shooting stars from time to time – we had never seen so many before. Other people were remarking on them as well. This heavenly display was just so very beautiful. Our spirits were high (no pun intended), and we had more of a jump in our step (which was quite dangerous considering where we were) as we continued our mad mission up the mountain. We were smiling and talking to people who were no longer strangers but fellow sojourners. It was then that everyone stopped to stare at the first ray of light creeping up over the clouds to look at us. We were close to the top! And dawn was approaching.
Kyoko, Mandy and I reached the summit of Mount Fuji at 4:30 am, on Friday the 13th of August, and felt great! We broke away from the long line of fellow hikers, and found a perfect spot over to the side, from which to sit and wait for “Goraiko” (the Japanese word for the first ray of sunlight, pronounced ‘gor-rai-kor’). We were exhausted, but grinning from ear to ear. We had made it to the top of Fuji-san!
© Chris Ryall