Saturday, June 11, 2005

Lowest Lows on High

There is an old Japanese proverb that says: "He who climbs Mt. Fuji once is a wise man, he who climbs twice is a fool." Personally, I think climbing it once makes you a fool, or at the very least a glutton for punishment.

Since June is outside of the official climbing season, the Japanese government makes it next to impossible to get out the mountain. Our group (consisting of Brian and I and our friends Dennis and Andrea) were hell-bent on getting there so we took a bus to the first station, Kawaguchiko and then hired a taxi from there to the base of the mountain. When we first approached the taxi-driver he said "No." No? What do you mean no? What he meant was that the gates to the fifth station were closed (of course they were - foiled by the Japanese system once again. They're smart.) "But..." said the taxi driver. But what? "But the other station is open. It is on the other side of the mountain." At this point we were stranded in Kawaguchiko and determined to see the summit of Fuji. We piled in and rode for an hour or so up to the base of the mountain. He dropped us off (at about 10:00) in absolute darkness and pointed up..."That way." We paid him $120 for the ride and he left us. We turned on our headlamps in an attempt to cut through the pitch black and started up the mountain in good spirits.

The first hour or two was great. The trail (although it kept disappearing) was decent and we were excited by the big adventure we were on. Everything we had read estimated the climbing time to be about 4.5 - 5 hours and we were making good time. We could feel how high we were getting when our ears started to pop and we made it above the clouds. The white peak was off in the distance and although it was chilly, we were well-dressed. After about hour 4 things took a turn for the worse. The climb was steep and the air was getting thinner. We started to get a little light-headed and dizzy, and took a break so we could adjust to the altitude. We were getting tired but had passed a few stations so we knew we were on the right track. It wasn't long after that we started to get sick. The altitude sickness was making us nauseous and we were puking our way up the mountain. Too determined to stop but too sick to go on, we stopped and tried to rest in the dark. But every time we stopped moving the cold would set in and we would keep pushing, partly warm up and partly because we didn't know what else to do.

By the 8th station we were way above the clouds, over 3000 metres up. The sun was starting to rise and it was beautiful. It would have been more beautiful if we weren't so sick. We were close to the peak when the sun rose over the clouds and Brian and I had to stop and rest. We hunkered down against the station and tried to get some warmth from the sun. My toes and fingers had long ago gone from painful to numb and I tried to warm them up under Brian's arms. At that point, I seriously thought that we might not make it off the mountain. We were physically exhausted and had altitude sickness. Everything we had eaten had been "ejected" and we were shivering. Mentally, we weren't all there. Things weren't making sense and I felt stoned. We managed to fall asleep in the sun for about 20 minutes before melting snow began dripping on my arm and woke me up. I have to say that waking up to a sun over the clouds is am amazing experience.

We knew that the only way off the mountain was up the mountain so we pushed on. The last part of the climb was really steep and covered in ice and snow. We would take three steps and stop. The climb had been cut into switchbacks so we would try and so one switchback and then rest. It took us hours. It also took everything I had mentally, physically and emotionally to keep going. It was a vulnerable but empowering feeling to know that the only person who could get me home safe was me. Nobody was going to help us. At this point Dennis and Andrea had gone on ahead of us while we slept. It was just Brian and I, the sun and that goddamned mountain.

Hours later, we reached the summit of Mount Fuji (3,776 metres). The mountain is a volcano, so at the top there is a giant crater. We walked around the crater and found Dennis and Andrea who still hadn't found the trail down. There were cold, exhausted and as mentally unstable as we were. The whole experience felt like a dream. The silence, the snow, the sun, the wind and the full feeling in our heads contrasted with the emptiness of our lungs. We decided to head back down the mountain and started to stumble our way down the trail.

Going down is supposed to be easier. It wasn't. The snow made for treacherous conditions going down and at one point I fell and cut up my arm. After the snow we reached the descent trail and it looked like the fires of Mordor. Red volcanic rock and sharp cliffs. It was horrible...nothing like what we had imagined. It was steep, dry, barren and rocky. We were all in survival mode and powered by sheer instinct at this point. Every station seemed further away then the next and as the hours dragged on we started to doubt (again) if we would ever get off the mountain. It took us more than six hours to get to the fifth station (where we could catch a bus) and 10 hours to get to the top. All together we had been on the mountain for close to twenty hours. Without sleep and without food. We were wrecked. I couldn't walk, I couldn't talk and I couldn't think.

We eventually made it and managed to get on a bus bound for Tokyo. I slept on the bus, on the subway and as soon as I lay down in our bed. If I had done the climb alone I would have doubted any of it really happened...the altitude sickness gave it all such a surreal dream-like quality.

The next morning I awoke to find myself and Brian badly sunburned. His face was actually blistering and we had to bandage up my right hand. It was the worst sunburn I have ever had and climbing Mount Fuji was the hardest thing I have ever done. But I did it.

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. " - Mark Twain

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