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Climbing Mount Fuji

There is an old Japanese saying, "He who climbs Mount Fuji is a wise man. He who climbs it twice is a fool." Although I have no doubt about the latter sentence, the validity of the first is definitely questionable.

This past weekend, I finally got myself outside Tokyo proper and headed to the country, with the intention of climbing Mt. Fuji, not only the tallest and most famous mountain in Japan, but also the most often featured on postcards. Fuji is open for climbing only in the summer time, and this was the last weekend it would be open for climbing until next summer.

Accompanied by my friend David and his in-laws, we drove three hours outside Tokyo into the country near Fuji, and spent Friday night at his in-laws' (very nice) house. To prepare for the climb, we prepared food (actually, David and his wife prepared food while I watched helplessly), made plans for the ascent, and joked about how if 90-year-old grandmothers could climb it, so could we. I also bought, only after being persuaded, waterproof rain gear consisting of a jacket and pants that could be worn over other clothes. "But it's not going to rain," I said. Boy, was I stupid. But at least I wasn't so stupid that I didn't buy the rain gear.

We planned a nighttime ascent, so that we could get to the top in time to watch the sun rise, which we had heard was an awesome sight. Right before we began our climb, we were treated by David's in-laws to the best meal I have had since I came to Japan, in a very Japanese restaurant at the base of Fuji. Apparently, leaving to climb Fuji with a full stomach was supposed to be a good idea, but I am not sure whose good idea it was. Probably not someone who was doing the actual climbing. We ate sushi, corn-on-the-cob (who said I'm not in Kansas anymore?) and a delicious miso soup that contained, beneath the opaque surface, a shrimp head that stared right back at me. It is a mark of becoming accustomed to Japanese food that this discovery did not startle me too much.

Anyway, with full stomachs and adventurous spirits, David and I got on the bus that would take us to the 5th station, halfway up the mountain. There are 10 total stations, but very few people climb from the absolute bottom, since that would entail a climb of several days. (Besides, Fuji is such a wide mountain that the absolute base of it is probably three blocks from my apartment.) On the bus, we met two young women who were clad in sandals, shorts, and t-shirts. ("How cold could it be in August?" they asked.) We also met three foreigners who were interested in Internet access. I gave them my card.

Even at the 5th station it was a bit chilly. We set out from there, and at first, the climb was quite pleasant. It was basically just walking uphill on a shallow incline. But after the 6th station, it got rough. It quickly turned from a walk to a hike to a climb. At many points, we literally had to use all four limbs to pull ourselves up craggy rocks in the dark. Also, it was raining, the entire way up. (Naturally.)

At first, I was able to bound up the rocks cheerily, singing as I went. But at higher altitudes, the oxygen gets a little thin--the singing stops, and the wheezing begins. Fuji really is a test as much mental as physical, to force yourself to keep going even though you feel like you can't really breathe. At first, the thin dry air felt great, after being trapped in humid, sweltering, polluted Tokyo for five months. But very soon, even polluted air would have been welcome.

Just past the 8th station, Dave twisted his ankle on one of the more tricky climbing points, which slowed us down a bit. He asked me not to mention this to anybody, because injury, slowness, and the mention thereof are in direct violation of the Guy Code of Honor. However, I will say here that he made the ascent, and later, the descent, in considerable pain, and athleticism despite injury is commended on page 2 of the Guy Code. So, it was an even more amazing ascent for Dave than it was for me. After all, I was luck enough to escape any injury, apart from the blow to my head I must have received last week that convinced me to climb in the first place.

After 6 and a half hours, at about 3:30 am, we made it to the top, and found that about 1,000 other people had as well. There was no place to sleep, just some cabins so packed with people there was barely enough room to sit, much less lie down. (It felt a little like being in Tokyo.) So we sat for an hour, awaiting the sunrise, and shivering despite the multitude of layers we were wearing. It was below freezing, as the ice explained. At this point, I wondered where the sandal-clad girls were.

The sunrise was indeed one of the most spectacular sights I had ever seen. The weather was cloudy, but with first light we quickly discovered that the clouds would not bother us-we were above them. It was like looking at the tops of clouds from an airplane. As the sun rose, the carpet of clouds lit up in orange, red, and yellow, and at about ten minutes after 5 am, the sun burst brilliantly above the cloud cover to illuminate the entire sky, as well as the crowd of people we were sitting with, who all looked as disheveled as we did. The sight of the sunrise almost-almost-made the climb worth it. (For pictures of the sunrise, click here.) Also, one picture was published in Computing Japan magazine. Well, not so much published--it was printed as part of an advertisement my company placed. Can I say I was published if we paid for the space? ;-)

Anyway, the descent, which we began right after sunrise, was not much easier than the ascent. Even though there was a path leading down, it descended at an angle shallow enough to make the descent way too long, but not enough to prevent ankle injury with every step, as we tried to not build momentum that would send us crashing into the people in front of us. Also, the path was mostly comprised of loose rocks, so remaining standing was tricky, let alone being balanced. How David was able to walk down that path at all was beyond me, as it was really hard on the ankles, and one of his was injured.

The whole parade of exhausted people, possibly thousands of them, all gingerly walking on jellied legs, at times felt like a forced march. On the way up, it is easy to maintain enthusiasm. I just kept thinking to myself, I gotta get to the top, I gotta get to the top. On the way down, I just kept thinking to myself, wow, I am really tired, which isn't a particularly motivating thought. The descent took four and a half hours.

I finally got home at about 3 pm on Sunday. After a long cool shower and a long hot bath, I ate some food, and then went to sleep for 14 hours, barely waking up in time to get to work. My whole body is sore today, but it the good kind of sore feeling you get after a particularly hard workout.

On the whole, it was painful and difficult. It was too dark, too dangerous, too steep, too hard to breathe, too narrow, and too crowded (you would think the other factors would prevent this one). But I climbed a mountain, and saw nature's most awesome (and most regular) display in a way I had never seen it before. I am glad I did it. But I think I would be a fool to do it again. At least until next summer.

See the pictures from the top of the mountain.

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