Mt. Fuji and Me
Memories from My Friend David Carlson on Our Mt. Fuji Climb
I wanted to climb Mt. Fuji from the first time I saw it up close. And although it was a beautiful sight, I would have been content to just view it from afar. Seeing Mt. Fuji’s beauty up close was not the reason I wanted to climb to the top. My first visit was to the fifth step in early May of 2011 with my good friend Makato Seki. I was definitely impressed by the mountain’s majesty—its peak still shrouded in snow—but I didn’t really have the desire to get to the top just then. But the thought crossed my mind and I asked Seki-san if he ever made it to the top. He said no. For some unknown reason I blurted out that I was going to climb to the top one day. I thought Seki-san would dismiss my remark but he didn’t. He said, “Really? I doubt it.” Now climbing to the top of Mt. Fuji because someone doubts that you will is not a very good reason for doing it. It’s sort of like someone challenging you to jump off a garage roof into a swimming pool. In fact, it’s probably the worst reason to climb a mountain. And maybe somewhere in the back of my mind I figured the chance would never present itself since the window to climb is a relatively short one and a half months, from early July to mid-August. But I answered Seki-san’s doubt of my resolve, limited as it was, by saying yes! He didn’t believe me. I didn’t believe me either.
A couple of months later I was talking to a co-worker who, unbeknownst to me, happened to be a mountain climber. He said he was planning to climb Mt. Fuji and he invited me to go with. I thought, how hard could it be? A week later my co-worker told me he had to do the climb a week earlier than the original plan. I had psyched myself up by inviting two friends, Austin and Tom, to go along on the climb and they couldn’t rearrange their schedule. But Austin and Tom still wanted to go and my time to meet the Seki-san challenge had come.
I decided to get some intel from my co-worker after he finished his climb. I took him to dinner and he gave me tons of information including maps and bus schedules. All of it was very informative. Then I asked him what I should wear. Since he was a mountain climber he recommended sturdy hiking boots. I told him all I had was gym shoes and asked if that would be OK. He shrugged. He asked what sort of pants I had. I said jeans and asked if that was OK. Again, he shrugged. Now to me, a shrug is like saying maybe or ‘I guess.’ What I know now is that he should have said, “No you idiot. You’re climbing a frickin’ mountain.” Unfortunately I took his shrug to mean it wasn’t the best idea but it would be OK. It wasn’t. The last thing he asked me is if I had been working out. I had been walking several miles a day through the streets of Tokyo for several weeks. He shrugged again for the last time that evening. A week later as I trudged up the mountain, those shrugs came back to haunt me like the ghosts of Aokigahara.
I met Austin and Tom on Obon at the Tokyo train station and we boarded the Shinkansen—Green Car of course. We wanted to travel in style. There was no panic or concern until we got to Shin-Fuji station and saw we had to wait an hour for the bus. This didn’t fit well with our plan to get to the mountain as early as possible, climb to the top and climb back down in the same day. That’s what my shrugging co-worker recommended. At the Shin-Fuji bus station there were taxis. Luckily, Austin speaks Japanese and the driver told us that for 10,000 yen he would drive us to the fifth step. That was only a little more that the total bus fare for the three of us so once again we were riding in style—taking a taxi to the fifth station of Mt. Fuji. I think Mt. Fuji was a little offended but decided to wait a while before letting us know that.
Before we embarked, we had more good luck. Two young climbers decided not to climb and gave us their souvenir walking sticks--and the sun was shining, the temperature a perfect 20 degrees C. We embarked with our rain gear, backpacks, snacks and water. We were prepared. We thought. And from the fifth station to the sixth station we made progress ahead of our schedule. The path was wide and not very steep. We even took a long break because we were making such good time. It turned out to be a little optimistic and naïve. Image the incline getting steeper as we went higher. That seems pretty obvious now but at the time, 1000 meters seemed like a 1000 meters. The truth is that 1000 meters at a 10 degree incline is a lot easier than 1000 meters at a 45 degree incline. Go figure. As we went our times got slower and we got behind on our schedule. Tom and I weren’t worried because we had headlamps. Still. Climbing down at night wasn’t something I was looking forward to. And since Austin had no light he was determined to make it down before dark. So we kept going and the path became steeper and the lava rock gravel turned first to lava rock pebbles and then stones and finally to rocks. I did bring gloves and the ropes along the trail helped. But it was work. The temperature about halfway to the summit reached about 30 degrees C and the sun was full on. It felt great but my jeans were wet with sweat and clinging to my skin. It made for rough walking. My backpack became lighter as I drank the two liters of water I brought. I ended up buying water from the rest stop huts at each station. By the time we reached the eighth step, the temperature was dropping and it started to rain. I brought rain gear but it was more a windbreaker than waterproofing, as my jeans were soaked anyway.
After the eighth station, Tom had doubts about being able to make it to the top and back down so he told me and Austin to go on and he would catch up later or see us on the way down. We didn’t want to abandon Tom but we figured we would be at the top soon and we could be back to pick up Tom in a couple of hours. It almost seemed pointless because of the wind and the rain but we were so close. We struggled to get to the top but we made it. The last 200 meters to the old weather station were grueling. Once we were there it was a little disappointing because of the clouds that blocked the sun. Austin and I decided to take pictures anyway. Austin climbed the ladder to the platform on the old weather station, the highest point in Japan and I followed to take his picture. Just as I was about to snap the shot, the grey clouds behind Austin slid away, exposing the brilliant sun and bluest sky. We were above the clouds—in heaven. We climbed down off of the tower and went to the crater. We watched the mist swirl around the crater rim and then dive into the depths of the crater where it danced like a dervish and then slid up the other side and out back into the fog that had returned. Just then we heard a familiar voice. It was Tom. He made it. We all made it. I commented that it wasn’t easy but that I was glad it wasn’t easy.
We paid our respects to the wondrous mountain and started back down. Austin led the way, partly because of his superior agility and partly because of his urgency to get back down before the sun went down. Tom and I took more time. The rocks were slippery and I fell just as we started to ascend. I banged my hip a little and walking down became a chore. Tom stuck with me. My gym shoes were fine going up but going down they were useless. Every step reminded me of my shrugging co-worker as my toes jammed into the front of my shoes. Later, my toenails on both of my big toes turned black and fell off.
It got dark and we passed many people going up the mountain in the dark. There weren’t a lot of people going down. I understood why. Walking down the mountain in the light seems like fun. You can pretty much glide. At night if you did that you could glide right off the side. It took me and Tom a long time to get back to the fifth station and about 100 meters from the end we saw Austin heading toward us with one of the guides. They thought something had happened to us. Fortunately, the only thing that happened to us was that we missed the last train back to Tokyo. We ended up spending the night in a cheap hotel, the only one available since it was Obon and it was late. But it had a bed and that’s all I needed. When I woke up the next day I realized that I had met Seki-san’s challenge. I had climbed Mt. Fuji. I had heard the saying that a wise man climbs Mt. Fuji once and a fool does it twice. I guess I’m a fool because I would do it again. But only if somebody doubts that I will.