Monday, July 25, 2005

There Are Two Kinds of Fools

Shinkansen Train Between Tokyo and Osaka

[This blog entry is dedicated to Allan E. I wish you had been there for this.]

Hopefully the last of the Fuji-related blog entries...

According to every pamphlet, guidebook, and newspaper travel section about Mount Fuji, there are exactly two kinds of fools: those that never climb Fuji, and those that climb it more than once. If you believe the cliche, Jason, Juan, and I do not currently qualify as fools. We are likely to stay that way.

It is traditional to climb Fuji at night and time the ascent so as to reach the top just before sunrise. There are 4 trails. Along each trail there are 10 "stations" where you can rest, eat, and even rent a bed. There are also numerous huts between the stations that sell drinks and snacks. We chose the most common starting point - 5th station of the north trail. The available literature claims that this is a 1700 meter path taking 5 hours on the way up and 3 hours on the way down.

The day of the climb, we woke up in a traditional Japanese hotel (ryokan) around 8, spent some time in an Internet cafe, got supplies for the trip, and were on the train by early afternoon. The route from Kyoto to Fuji went unexpectedly through Tokyo and was generally longer than anticipated. The original plan called for taking a long nap sometime after our arrival at Fuji. We did not arrive at the 5th station until 11 PM, so there was no time for dozing. I was yawning when we passed the starting line.

The base of the trail was a very pleasant if somewhat steep (by South Carolina standards) path through low forest. Fuji is a volcano, so the trees gave way quickly to a world of ashy red and black rock. The trail is very well marked and easy to climb at night with just a flashlight. It is comprised mostly of gravel switchbacks with the occasional hard rock scrabble. Steps have been built near the huts or where the terrain is too steep to keep the gravel in place.

Fuji-san does not like climbers and has many defenses. The most obvious is the steepness of the ascent. My legs and lungs are not used to sustained climbing. I had to stop to catch my breath at just about every turn. The fatigue is compounded by thin air. We took extra precautions to stave off altitude sickness. The climbing surface is also a hazard. It is easy to slip on the gravel if you are not careful about your footing. I was amazed at the strength and unpredictability of the wind. Sometimes it whipped suddenly around the rock hard enough to almost push you over. In other places there was a strong sustained wind that caught anything it could (hats, jackets, small rocks, backpack straps) and slapped you in the face with it.

The worst of the Fuji perils by far is the cold. Near the top, it was chilly enough that the shivers set in if I stopped moving for more than a minute. Our warmest clothes proved to be very inadequate for freezing temperatures and high winds. I can not remember a time that I felt as cold.

Despite adversity, we made it to the top, and very nearly in time for the sunrise. There had been other parties of climbers along the way, but I did not expect the traffic jam near the summit. The last 100 meters were a single file line of people moving at a stop-go pace - very frustrating. Rather than attempt to push through and possibly miss the sunrise, we holed up on the side of the trail. It was so cold that I could barely use the video camera. Without our liliputian tripod, I am sure that all of the footage would look like it was taken during an eruption. The sunrise was marvelous - well worth the shivering.

I was very energized by the growing light and prospect of being done. The last bit of the climb was easy. Juan thought otherwise. He made the Frodo-esque declaration that he "could not go on". I am no Samwise. Rather than utter some dramatic words and heft Juan onto my shoulders, I left him behind and bounded up to the summit with Jason. The top of Japan's tallest mountain is host to a welcome array of souvenir shops, small restaurants, and ecologically safe bathrooms. Jason and I huddled against a building for the whole ten minutes that it took Frodo to kick himself in the ass and finish the job. I knew he would.

We spent about an hour relaxing in the nicest refugee camp (Jason's observation) in Asia. It was a fairly large wooden building with rows of benches filled with dirty, tired people in ragged clothes shivering and eating soup. Juan scored us some ramen and I secured a couple cans of coffee from a pot of boiling water. A little heat and some third rate noodles do wonders when you've been awake for 24 hours and just finished a 1700 meter climb. A borrowed menthol cigarette pushed me up to 10 for 10 on the self-satisfaction meter. Those things really go to your head at high altitude.

Conquering Fuji was once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that left me feeling full of life. Climbing back down Fuji was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that left me feeling like I wanted to kick a puppy. The route down is endless steep and slippery gravel switchbacks. You are restricted to an annoyingly slow pace or risk falling on your butt into a pile of sharp rocks. Worse yet, the wind and other climbers kick up loads of volcanic dust. It covers everything, gets into your nose and mouth, and sometimes blinds your eyes. Black snot. Ew. My shoes will never be the same.

It was a relief to reach the forest again. We sat for a bit and watched low clouds come down the valley. Beautiful. The bus came an hour after we reached the fifth station, and the climb was officially over. Not too long after that, we were all sitting in our ryokan's outdoor hot tub (onsen) taking in a view of Fuji-san over a placid lake. Our very long day ended as it began - snoozing on futons on a reed mat (katami) floor.

I agree that climbing Fuji twice makes you a fool, but it is not so clear to me that climbing it once makes you wise.

5 Comments:

Anonymous andrew said...

your prose gives me pangs for the mountains and inspires haiku...

Raining in Paris;
An unfamiliar path
Through uncommon eyes

-apb

7/25/2005 12:25 PM gmt

 
Blogger Mik3 said...

Is that 5/7/5? I'm not so sure about "unfamiliar". Lovely, nonetheless.

7/25/2005 1:15 PM gmt

 
Blogger jason said...

How's this for 5/7/5?

I know that you would
Like to think your shit don't stink.
Roses smell like poop.

BAM!
I am one haiku-writin' mofo.

7/25/2005 2:28 PM gmt

 
Anonymous Allan 'Type 1 Fool' E said...

Migrating sparrows
Say yo mamma and Fuji
Look better side-on

7/26/2005 1:37 AM gmt

 
Anonymous andrew said...

un - fa - mi - li - ar

5 syllables

unless you were so blighted by carl that you pronounce it un-fa-mi-ya in which case you don't do haiku you do hard core

7/26/2005 12:33 PM gmt

 

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