After four hours of sleep on the last day of July, nine graduate students, their professor, and two friends piled into three cars at six AM and headed for the shores of Lake Yamanaka and the thrills of Fuji-yama, including the world's largest and fastest roller coaster. This was our preparation for the challenge of Fuji-san - to churn our stomachs, have machines turn us upside down and make our hearts beat with insistent thumps.
We spent that night at a pleasant University of Tsukuba hostel-type inn with basketball courts and a beautiful lakeside view. Still, the dormitory-like setting didn't promote an easy night of sleep for many of us. We set off for the mountain and began our ascent on a hot, clear day, at two PM. We couldn't keep sight of each other and so split up into three informal groupings: the adventurous daredevils, the middle-of-the-roaders, and the rear guard, which included me and the professor, the two oldest of the group.
We were in various physical conditions, but no amount of exercise could really have prepared us for what we eventually faced. The slopes were jammed with people from ages seven to seventy, all trying to reach the summit by sunrise. This is considered de rigeur because it's the clearest time of the day, and a sign of increased dedication. Seeing the sun rising from the highest point in the Land of the Rising Sun. Should it be a haiku? Is it already?
By six-thirty, after frequent water and breathing stops, we'd reached the eighth station. The air was thinning and we were constantly pushing upwards. Our heads were beginning to hurt from the lack of oxygen and exertion. We had arranged to stay in of the "huts" along the way, where travelers get a hot meal and a rest space crammed in tight with hundreds of other weary climbers. It is so cramped that they jam you in head to shoulder for maximum space usage, so you sleep with someone's feet next to your face and your shoulders practically touching people on either side of you.
There's no room to move, just lie still and wait for the wake-up call. Ours came at eleven-thirty PM, less than four hours after we'd been squeezed into our cubbies. No one in our group had slept.
We peeled oranges and munched on bread or crackers and sipped cold tea, then set off for the top at midnight. In the last forty-eight hours we'd had four hours of sleep and the oxygen was thinning, the temperature falling, our hearts pounding with every step, and our breath coming in quick gasps. We even tried some of the bottled oxygen, which cost 1,500 yen and lasted about one minute. It offered little relief. Our temples throbbed insistently with every step, every step measured in pulse beats.
The night was dark and cold, the wind whipping madly, and the climbing turned rugged. We added layers of warmer clothes, but our stamina was rapidly falling, and the last leg to the top was a nightmare of trying to see where we were stepping, scrabbling for foot or handholds, and a nagging feeling that we were punishing ourselves in the name of "fun".But, there was no alternative, no turning back down the steep slopes with thousands of climbers all going in one direction - to the top at any cost.
Finally, we made it, just about four AM, in time for the very brief sunrise, but it was almost impossible to locate all our party in the immense pack of people, moving as a mass, with guides shouting directions and pushing at us like we were a single organism. We couldn't have gotten any closer together without taking our clothes off, and it was much too cold for that. There was no feeling of elation, no sense of accomplishment, just an aching weariness. We took a quick look at the crater, but opted not to spend another hour circling it. Like nearly everyone else, once we'd reached the top, all we could think about was going down.
Climbing up was tough, but going down reminded us of the roller coaster at Fuji-yama. It was kilometer after kilometer of zigging and zagging, stumbling down through the loose lava rock that lined the path. The monotony of the motion was hard on our knees and our senses were already dulled into near unconsciousness. As we trudged down, the temperature climbed up, and just as we'd added clothes on the ascent, we peeled them off on the descent. After eight hours of climbing and five hours of descending, we were becoming Fuji-zombies, mindless members of the pack searching for a stopping place. It was hot again, the sun beaming mercilessly on our tired bodies, sapping our spirits.
When the zigging stopped, we still had a long way to go and were extremely thankful for a station with cold drinks. As the oxygen level had increased, our headaches had subsided, but we were almost too tired to notice. I spied a cold beer and made the mistake of guzzling it. On a nearly empty stomach, practically no sleep in three days, and overwhelming exhaustion, it made my head spin. When I stood up to continue, I was woozy, but somehow managed to put one foot in front of another until we collapsed back at our starting point. We had made it. We had survived Fuji-san.
Though we eventually rendezvoused with our group, there was a sad postscript. The teacher, who was really in charge of the expedition, took a wrong turn in coming down and ended up on the opposite side of the mountain. As we compared notes, we found that somehow no one had met him at the top, and we spent several hours of uncertainty. It points out the importance of clear planning and making sure everyone is accounted for at regular intervals on group outings, particularly a potentially hazardous one.
Nearly everyone knows the French phrase, "c'est la vie." In Japan, it's said that a wise person climbs Mount Fuji once, but only a fool climbs it twice. "Fuji-san ni 1 do mo noboranai hito wa baka desu, soshite, Fuji-san ni 2 do noboru hito mo baka desu."
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