Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Fuji-san 2: Restricted Access

Lake Kawaguchiko, Japan

When we finally began hiking up Fuji-san, I caught my second wind. It was refreshing to be out in nature instead of cramped away in some sweaty train car.

The beginning of the hike was beautiful. The woods around the base of Mt. Fuji were impressive at night, and the trail we followed was wide and had a slight slope. Other hikers were rare, so we got to enjoy Fuji's splendor on our own. Once we moved above the tree-line, the view became even more spectacular. In the valley below us, we could see the city lights glowing beneath the slow-moving haze of evening clouds. The vague outlines of other mountains could also be seen around Fuji-san. And the japanese stars finally made their appearance. If the hike had maintained this atmosphere the entire way, it would have been pleasant, but probably not very satisfying. "Luckily", things changed rapidly once we passed 6th station.
All vegetation quickly died off, and the relaxed walk along the wide beaten path turned into a straining scramble up a heavily bouldered mountainside. At this point, I seriously began to doubt the claims that the elderly frequently make trips to the top of Fuji-san. There may be some grandparents that could make it through that part of the climb, but for those few that could, it would be quite a struggle. For the three of us, it wasn't easy. After about an hour of the boulder climbing, the terrain once again changed into a slow slog through loose-graveled switchbacks. And we were tired.
It became clear that the rest of the climb was not going to be easy. The higher we got, the colder the air became, and the wind began to really pick up. It was occasionally even strong enough to make me lose my balance. We had to stop and rest every fifteen minutes or so, and every station became a godsend. Stopping inside of the stations wasn't an option, as they charged a ludicrous amount of money per hour to rest inside of it's fire-warmed environs. They even had overpriced soups, drinks, gloves, flashlights, etc. Anything a struggling climber might need. We never went in, but the stations still provided a perfect place to hunker down, get some cover from the wind, and perhaps eat a little Crunky and drink some water.
As the climb progressed, things only got harder. The switchbacks became steeper, the air colder, and the wind stronger. There was a brief return of the boulders of doom, and I could feel every step in my thighs. Also, because we were rising in altitude so quickly, the air thinned rapidly. Breathing became strained, and the breaks became more frequent. Altitude sickness was a serious concern, so we were constantly on the lookout for any signs of nausea or headache.
When we finally made it to the last leg of the Fuji climb, things became crowded. Most climbers had timed their ascent to reach the top around sunrise, including us. So, as it was nearing 4:00, everyone was clogging up the thin trail heading up the final 100 meters of Fuji-san. After a bit of this stop and go hiking, the sky began to lighten, and it became apparent that we weren't going to make it to the top before the sun showed itself on the horizon. So, we found a nice flat spot about 50 meters shy of our target, and made a little camp. We took a bunch of pictures and video of tired climbers and some nice sunrise shots.
Eventually, about twenty minutes later, the crowds thinned, and we made the final push to the top. There was a brief period where Juan just gave up. 5 minutes short of our goal, and he sat down and quit. I must admit, I was feeling nauseous, and cold, and dirty, and tired... but I wasn't going to stop when I was so close. Mike and I pushed ahead.

At 4:30, we made it to the top of Mt. Fuji.

Juan joined us five minutes later, and found us huddled against the side of a building. It was a relief to finally be at the top, but it was also unbelievably cold. At the crest of Fuji-san, there is no protection from the wind, and it was biting. The climb was done, and my endorphin high was rapidly fading away. I needed some warmth. Luckily, the top of Fuji is an oasis.
There is a tiny tourist town up there, with warmed buildings and hot soup. We ducked into one such abode, and got us some hot ramen and boiled cans of coffee. After torturing ourselves through five-and-a-half hours of mountaineering, these simple items were exactly what we needed. We rested inside for about an hour, letting our bodies warm up and our minds clear. It was like a refugee camp in there. A good forty people crammed into a small wooden shack, looking haggard and beaten, gratefully sucking down hot bowls of soup. It was perfect.
When we had finally recovered, we packed everything back up, and once again braved the top of Fuji. Somehow, it had become colder since the sun came up, but it was alright. We would be climbing back down soon, and we had warm food in our bellies. We took a quick walk to the rim of Fuji, and looked down into its volcanic depths. Duly impressed, we ran back to the entrance, and hastily began what we hoped would be an easy jaunt down the slopes of Fuji.

Unfortunately, Fuji-san never makes anything easy.


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