Wednesday, August 29, 2007

An Attempt on Mt. Fuji: Part 1

A principle of life I seldom appreciate is that sleep serves more to differentiate your days than anything else. The mere passage of time is the turning of the pages, we need a good sleep for the chapter breaks.

This was driven home to me earlier this week when I climbed Mt. Fuji and what I would honestly call the longest day of my life.


You like how I segued into that?

First of all, a big shout out to Mr. Rodger Takeuchi who masterminded the operation, and Michelle, his friend who actually took care of all the nitty-grity.

The thing about climbing Fuji is, it takes a good damn long time. If you keep your rest breaks few and short, and keep yourself on a brisk pace, you can hit the summit in about 6 hours. This is of course assuming you are leaving from the uppermost bus terminal, Gate 5. One of my old co-workers told me I should climb from the mountain's foot, that it would take about 3 days, then laughed his ass off.

So the thing to do when you climb Fuji, apparently, is crest the summit in time to see the sun break over all of Japan. Tack a 2 hour bus ride from Tokyo onto your ETA and it turns out that you will need to catch the bus by 8 PM, start hiking before 11, and try to make the peak before 5 in the morning, when the sun rises.

Seeing as how this takes a normal days schedule and replaces "Get a Full Night's Sleep" with "Climb a Huge Mountain" I sort of expected to avoid the infamous Fuji climbing crowds. This was evidently not a delusion the other 6,000 climbers shared. Thanks to some last minute scrambling we (Me, Cousin John, Rodger, Michelle, Juhi From Town and a Japanese girl no one knew was coming with us until 15 minutes before we got on the bus) managed to reserve a few seats on a bus that had completely booked up, like all the others, by the time we went to get pick up our tickets. Apparently the late night climb is *the* climb to do, particularly among the foreigner set who made up something like 1 in every 3 climbers I saw.

In order to give you a sense of what it was like to climb the mountain re-read this sentence 3,000 times . For those of you less committed to a reenactment of the tedium I’ll do my best to reconstruct my impressions of the mountain. Unfortunately my brain kept giving out over the 30 some hours that constituted the experience so these are largely scattered. At any rate:

Arrival at Gate 5, and the warmly lit general store next to it:

- Resisted the temptation to buy a jangly, flag bedecked walking staff. Partly due to its ludicrous mark up (1,200 yen for a 20 yen length of wood), partly because I had no desire to carry it with me across the length and breadth of Japan the next year, and finally because of the sage advice of my mountain-seasoned Colorado cousin.

- Chipped in on some frou-frou wine to guzzle on the summit when we all stood exaulting together in the glorious sunrise.

- Asked to throw out a magazine I brought with me to read on the bus ride. Was told “We don’t have any trashcans here.” This struck me as a bald-faced lie and a particular inconvenience since the magazine in question was a phone-book sized manga which I had to keep in my backpack for the full hike. From this moment my attitude toward the one-way culture of the mountain (eager to sell expensive necessities, unwilling to be helpful) soured and I began a little campaign of spiteful transgressions.

-I use the pay toilet (50 yen) without paying

The Trail:

-In the black, moonless night we stumble about for a minute or so trying to figure out which way the mountain actually is. Eventually we set off after a line of fellow hikers, trusting they are not hiking back to the city. This certitude begins to falter as the trail descends robustly downhill for ten or fifteen minutes.

-Gaze at the beauty of the city lights nestled in far off valleys that look like (to me) luminescent squid.

-Hit the start of the trail head - a sign which proclaims that Mt. Fuji is part of the Yamanashi prefecture. This leads me to chortle a bit and explain that Yama-nashi can have the meaning in Japanese of “No mountains”. This fails to entertain anyone else at all.

-We get a lovely group photo taken by a couple helpful Japanese girls who, presumably inadvertently, steal Rodger’s disposable camera, thus raining shit on his parade for the rest of the day.

-We start up hill to the first way-station. Me and John hit it first, followed shortly thereafter by the Rodger-Michelle pair, and finally by Juhi-Japanese Friend. We decide to break into pairs and climb at our own rate.

-We hike for time out of mind.

The Summit:

-No, just kidding. It wasn’t that quick for me, so it won’t be for you either. The six hours of the hike up the mountain in the middle of the night were, as I suspected, a test of physical and mental endurance. On top of that, however, the notions in my head of a well-tended staircase cut into the mountain side turned out to be well off the mark. Considerable stretches of roughly cordoned off rock face showed up often. At times I was scrabbling up the detritus and scree on all fours, and more than once I was nearly bit it due to the uncertain and wobbly stones. For me this was my first full mountain hike and I found it properly daunting. Some ten rest-stops dot the face we took up, and I was thankful for each of them even if we only stopped to rest at 3. John sang a different tune however.

The mountains of the Colorado Rockies are rough, mostly untamed things. Some are forbidden to climbers entirely because of the danger they present. In general they are scantly hiked, and never crowded. The omnipresence of humanity on the mountain led John on a train of complaints that he still brings up; the crowds, the huts peddling soba and beer, the lines and the waiting he took as almost insults. Like I said, it was my first mountain, and at the start I thought he was gripping over what was only to be expected, but as we climbed I couldn’t help but agree with him. Particularly toward the end, as we passed the last of the way-stations and entered the last stretch, the last 600 vertical meters, when dots appeared before my 0 altitude acclimated eyes and my head swam and fatigued sapped me, I couldn’t help but agree that we shouldn’t be standing in line here waiting for tourists up ahead to take pictures at the torii gates to the summit. Wasn’t that sort of thing somehow profane to why we climb mountains? Isn’t it to get away from it all and see how small the little towns we live in really are? Don’t we climb, as the saying goes, just because its there?

I left my smushed trail mix in my backpack, sucked mechanically at my water bottle and wished I was already finished with the damn thing. No longer exalting in the climb or the outrageousness of the situation, just unhappy and ready to be done.

I hate that feeling, when it comes seeping into me, because that, alone among all things, is true failure. It is the will that makes the thing, to my mind. A situation can be incomprehensible, or loopy or just plain bad, but it doesn’t mean you have let it get to you. You make your own happiness, and as long as you don’t give up and think, “Well this is shit and that’s all that can be said about it” it never will be. When you just give up and wish it was over, that’s when all the joy goes out of you. I hate that feeling.

The Summit

John and I, alone of the six, hit the summit by 4:15. The last I saw Rodger and Michelle was maybe 4 hours ago. The last I saw of Juhi and her friend was when we originally decided to split up. The peak is not how I expected it. After the last hour and a half of unsettled mountain side I began to imagine the top might be the same. Instead it is crammed with small buildings built of the native volcanic stones, a truly strong smelling bathroom with a mile long line, and vending machines selling beer for 500 yen. We shuffle forward with the crowd past grubby souvenir vendors who must live on the summit for weeks straight. The eastern horizon is glowing a very amazing sort of livid pink that suggests the sun will break any second.

Amazingly, the hordes we came tromping up with have seemingly dissipated. The wide cliff edge encircling the enormous Fuji crater has plenty of room for everyone. Me and John slog it up a hill to where a very weather beaten torii stands, studded from stem to stern with coins that have been pressed into its wood, and dutifully take each others pictures. Good seats facing East are amazingly easy to find, but we abandon ours to look for any of the others. Then the sun breaks.

I have not seen very many sunrises in my life, I am a little ashamed to admit. Whenever I do though, I am surprised how unlike sunsets they are. The glow of the advancing sun warms the horizon well in advance of the main event, and it is entirely possible to believe it will suddenly show up at any second. When it finally does come though, you are never ready for it. The sun, rising. It is amazing to see the sun rise. It is the best of all metaphors, if we hadn’t been given it we couldn’t have dreamed it up if we tried. The sun rising on the dark and cold of night, the endless climb, the exhausted, spent body. The sun rising and there again warmth and light and somehow even new life in my tired legs. We're joking again, we're smiling again. Before us lie so many other mountains, tiny and insignificant by comparison, and off in the distance low cloaks of clouds drape over sleeping towns with no idea of what we just accomplished. It is amazing, and I recommend you do it.

A few minutes later we find Rodger, having soldiered the last leg of the mountain by himself but not quick enough to have seen the sunrise from the top. He tells us he was uncertain he was going to make the peak but in the final moments he felt like Fuji was telling him to do it. That is something I have no trouble believing. The three of us crack the wine. Nothing in a long time has felt better than that early morning sun and when I saw hikers lying on jagged mounds of lava rock, sleeping soundly, I knew I could join them in a second.