I have wanted to climb Mt. Fuji for many many years. I don’t know how it got into my head. I met a Japanese exchange student when I was in the 11th grade, so perhaps that is when the thought first lodged itself. Whatever the path followed by my synapses, the fact is that when I found out I would be working in Japan this summer, one of my very first thoughts was, “I have to climb Mt. Fuji.”
Every time I get to a new base, I read their latest magazine. In Sasebo’s June publication, I found an upcoming weekend Fuji hike that caught my attention. The timing was perfect. I’m not authorized to take vacation days during my Japan trip, so I am forced to work within weekends. It was to be a joint venture between the Single Sailors groups of several bases, including two of the bases at which I work: Misawa and Sasebo. It took some strategy to get myself to Navy base Atsugi, where the trip would begin. After a week at Misawa, I was supposed to take Friday as a travel day to Sasebo, then hang out for the weekend and go to work Monday. Instead, Friday I took a taxi to the local train station, rode the Aomori line to a Shinkansen train. Rode that to Yokohama, then took two subway trains (with a slight delay due to getting onto the wrong subway train in Tokyo and having to backtrack) plus another taxi, in order to arrive at Atsugi. I dumped my gear in my room, then found group leader Jay at the recreation center and he helped me with paperwork and payment. Jay told me he would be stopping by my lodging at 2:45am to pick me up.
There was a large group of mostly very young, fit Sailors, and me. I reminded myself that they may have their youth, but I have a bucket list. We drug our sleepy selves onto the bus and the driver was underway at 3:30am. The light drizzle from the morning had turned to an outright rain. After an hour, the firehose was opened, and buckets of rain came down amidst crackling flashes of lightning. I was sitting up front, so I heard Jay when he said to himself several times, “I may just have the bus turn around.” Even though the water on the highway was two inches deep, and lightning and mountains are not a good mix, I crossed my fingers and silently begged, “Please let us at least try. I don’t care if it rains!” By 6am we were at the 5th Station. Miraculously, the rain had stopped. The black clouds were lifting and thinning, and the low clouds were dissipating to clear our view to the higher clouds.
The 5th Station is not the only place to begin, but a popular one. The map I carried showed that I would hike through a 6th station, 7th, 8th, and 9th before arriving at the summit.
We gathered for a group photo for AFN (American Forces Network) while Jay handed out hiking sticks pre-branded with the stamp for the base, then began hiking at 6:30am. The beginning of the trail is deceptively flat, winding through shady forests. We did not see any more of the deer that we had spotted from the bus as we drove to 5th station. I was overdressed for 7500 feet, which, even though much cooler than Atsugi, still felt around 50 degrees. I had on insulated thermal pants with windbreaker-like hiking pants over the top. Thick wool socks and high-topped hiking boots. I could only bear a t-shirt at first, because my bottom half was so warm.
I was soon feeling the incline on my legs and in my deeper breaths. I began to doubt myself right away, in a bit of a panic. I have not been doing the kind of aerobic workouts I prefer for the last year because of a knee injury. Instead, I have been working out on an elliptical and a stationary bike, and doing 15-minute runs when my knee can take it. I had been fretting that I had not conditioned enough, and my early fatigue made my hopes plummet right away. “Well,” I tried to tell myself, “At least I am on Mt. Fuji. That is something.” My boyfriend, Arno, the best support in the world, had emailed me the day before that climbers agree that actually getting to the mountain is a big part of the overall challenge. “Just the fact that you’ve made it to Atsugi and you are actually going to Fuji is something to be proud of,” he had said to me in an email.
We rose above treeline right away, and soon there was very little to look at along the trail but a mixture of black and red pumice. I had used some tricks from my days of backpacking with my friend Margaret, who always taped her feet with duct tape before beginning a hike. I had no duct tape, but I used a whole bunch of bandaids on the bus, and taped all the usual trouble spots before I put my boots on. (btw, duct tape is the best hiking tip I have ever received, you must try it!) I had a bandana tied tight around my head to keep my hair out of my eyes. I settled into the trail, put one foot in front of the other, and thought about the long days I used to hike with my friend, and Margaret’s suggestions to keep drinking water, and snack a lot. I actually wasn’t hungry for several hours, but I did drink water. I had a 3-liter Camelback bladder in my pack, with the tube coming out over my shoulder for easing sipping all the way up.
The 6th Station was a crude but sturdy hut of wood with a very clean interior that none of us were allowed to touch with our filthy boots! There were a couple of people outside who caught our attention by asking in English “stick? stamp?” and collected our sticks and our yen and carried them to the people who remained inside the hut in their slippers. Soon the sticks reappeared with brands burned into them. There was another person who leaned out one of the hut windows, selling ramen and cool drinks and trinkets. It was nice to reach the 6th station, but I felt discouraged to be so tired, so early into a climb. I had paid 200 yen ($2.50) to get a stamp burned into my stick. I paid another 200 yen to use the toilet to rid myself of the last bit of coffee left in me that I brewed after my 2am wake up call. I realized that getting a station stamp branded into my stick was a legitimate reason for a rest stop, and vowed to get every darn stamp that was available. And then, too soon, I began plodding ahead once more.
I was cheered by the very happy people on their way down the mountain, piping out “Ohayou gozaimasu!” (good morning) as they passed. These are the people who had climbed up at night, in order to be on top at the sunrise, which is supposed to be an especially revered sight. These particular hikers, however, must have been in the middle of the lightning storm. I wonder what their sunrise was like.
To distract myself from feeling my fatigue, I took breaks by taking photos of the beautiful valley below us, that included a couple of towns and several lakes. We could see that the higher parts of the mountain were entirely obscured in fog. I wanted to photograph the views as long as there were views. Before I knew it, we were at the 7th station. But it was getting harder to climb.
Unexpectedly, the next stop came very soon. I was a little confused, but did not resist another chance to pay 200 yen for a stamp and a rest. There was always a line for the sticks, which gave an even longer rest, but I never let myself really stop. I instinctively felt there was value in continuing the forward momentum. We were climbing directly up the side of the mountain, on short switchbacks. Up, up. Those who reached the summit would climb nearly 5000 feet. We came upon more stops in quick succession, and I paid to rest each time!
When the next stop came up again, unexpectedly soon, a fellow traveler remarked outloud that he could have sworn we already reached the 7th station stop, and more than once. The woman collecting sticks understood English and she smiled and nodded. “This is the fourth 7th Station,” she said. “It’s the last one. Next you will reach the 8th Station.” Aha! Obviously entrepreneurs had capitalized on climbers’ desire for stamps and rest. At that stop I saw a woman hand a bowl of hot ramen out the window, and it occurred to me that I was hungry. It was about 9:30am when I pulled some homemade trail mix out of my pack and munched a few handfuls.
On we slogged, up the switchbacks. My breathing became more labored, and the struggle to lift my legs became more noticeable. There were portions of the trail that required clambering over rocks. Thankfully, these volcanic rocks, though wet, have fabulous rough surfaces and my boots grabbed them easily. In many places I had to pull myself up with my hands, and even the hands of hundreds of thousands of climbers before me had not made those rocks smooth.
Yes, that many. Estimates are that around half a million people climb the mountain each year, and this has been the case for many years. There were all kinds of people, mostly Japanese, but many foreigners as well. Children and elderly included. Naturally, when I say “we” I am referring to my fellow travelers. Sometimes I recognized them from the bus ride that morning, but generally we were all unknown to each other. I can’t say strangers to each other, because we were sharing something intimate.
After the last 7th Station, I stopped beside the trail to put on more clothes. I had climbed inside the clouds, and it was cold and wet and very windy. I put on a long-sleeved merino wool shirt, a merino wool hoodie over that, with a rain shell over the top. I dug out my gloves too. And my fleece cap. And I was still cold. But I kept going. I could no longer see the mountain above me or below me: just clouds. So I put a foot forward, and then another.
By the time we reached the 8th Station, everyone was suffering. Climbing was slow for all of us. Slog. Rest. Slog. Rest. One of the most challenging things was the fierce wind, that tried its best to blow us down. Several big, strong men ended up on the gravel. Once when I stopped for a breather against the slope, allowing people to climb on past me, one of the wind gusts came up. A line of climbers with focused faces all suddenly dropped in unison, to reduce their profile in the wind. It made me appreciate how much we were all dealing with: very steep climb, lack of oxygen, and sandblasting wind that hit without warning. We cheered each other on, despite not sharing a language. The children’s faces got serious as they faced the trail ahead of them. Some people looked directly down at the gravel path in front of them to keep focused and steady.
Later, as I gasped and climbed a wide part in the trail, beside a 70-something man who was also gasping, a lithe and tanned runner in a t-shirt and shorts came jogging between us. We watched as the runner dodged a few more climbers and headed up the next switchback, out of sight. The old man and I burst out laughing. That was the first of many runners I saw that day, who ran up and then down the mountain, and did not bother carrying water, packs, or sticks.
I never got to the point where I suspected I would not make it. I kept a close eye on the time and each time I did, I knew it was still possible with the time I had left. But I am a practical person and I started to wonder if I was going to be able to finish. Time is only one concern. I had taken one of my prescription migraine pills already, to fight the headache that had been building, and I suffered from a terrible headache anyway. I went through a couple of switchbacks feeling nauseated, which made me angry to think I might have to turn back for altitude sickness before my body gave out. I knew that headache and nausea are common symptoms of high altitude sickness. My right knee was reminding me that it was not healthy, and my heels were hot from the rubbing boots. I hoped I wasn’t getting blisters.
More than those things, I was slowing down considerably. By this point I had begun to climb with one of the sailors from the morning bus ride. Our pace was apparently the same. At station 8.5, we made a longer stop. We kicked back as well as possible in the unceasing wind. I ate a sandwich and a guy sitting across from me says, “Hey, you look familiar. Where do I know you from?” I answered that I had no idea because he wasn’t on the bus ride with me. It turned out he is based at Sasebo, and remembered me from the visit last month. “You’re the VA Rep!” How crazy is it that a random hiker on Mt. Fuji recognized me, and it turned out to be a co-worker, Curtis, from Fleet Family Support Center at Sasebo.
After that stop, the sailor I was hiking with came up with a plan to stop at every switchback. Then we met two guys who had a strategy of walk 10 steps, then rest. Yes, it was that bad! We would stop and rest, and I’d feel good and strong, and then I would be completely wiped out 3 steps later. Three steps! As though I had not rested all day. We would groan and make faces till we got to the next switchback (about 30 feet), then drop onto a rock, or lean against the wall, chests heaving. My climbing partner, like me, also would not really stop. As soon as we had caught our breath, we were both up and at it again.
The 9th station was empty, so no stamp there. But we went through the first Torii (gate), got a little inspired. We were driven by habit at that point. Each stamp I received was directly above the previous one, so the stick was nearly branded end-to-end. I wondered if there would be space at the top for the final stamps.
At the 8th station they had cheerily told us, “Only two more hours to the top!” At station 8.5, “Only one and a half hours to the top!” How far was 9th Station? It seemed like we should be close. A little fire burned inside, and whispered something like, “You did NOT just climb 5 hours to wimp out now!” Then the people coming down from the top starting confirming it for us. “You’re close, keep going!” “How close?” we begged. First they answered 50 minutes, then 30 minutes. But the trail was getting harder; straight up the side, switchbacks every six feet, wind roaring through and blasting us with volcanic gravel. There were chain-link handholds that I clung to, head deeply bowed, each time the wind blasted us. When there was a taller step (larger rock) in front of me, I would pause, then put one foot up onto it, then pause, take a breath, and puuullll myself up onto the step, then pause. The smaller rocks were shorter steps to take, and thus easier.
We were in dense fog, and the visibility was only about 20 feet. We had no way of seeing how much mountain was left. But then! The second Torii! It was not the top yet, but we knew we must be nearly there. Slowly, slowly we drug ourselves up the rocks, and finally, there was a bigger hut than usual, and we had made it! “Is this it? Is this it?” I asked, and smiling people confirmed: The Summit! I was so relieved, because it meant I could stop climbing.
At the summit, one can circle the volcanic crater. I headed down the trail a ways, and could not see a dang thing. Dense fog still obscuring everything, and the wind was crazy fierce! I had to keep ducking behind structures to stay upright. So I gave up on the crater idea. I turned around and wandered back to see if I could find my traveling companion again, and he shouted my name from a hut along the way. He had found the curry he was looking for, then kept a lookout for me. This guy had climbed before, and told me that the curry on top was expensive, but it was the best curry in the whole entire world. I knew what he meant. Like Theresa Panza in Don Quixote had said, “Hunger is the best sauce,” climbing that mountain ensured that the curry I ate at the top would be the best. And it was. My knees went weak, it was so good. And expensive. And I didn’t care one bit how much I had paid for the best curry on the planet.
When we emerged, we saw a miracle had happened: the clouds had cleared and we could see all the way to the base! A weak ray of sun periodically touched our faces. We euphorically took a few photos in the sandblasting wind with sun. We had rested 45 minutes, and it was time to descend.
The trip down was – yes – very hard. But nowhere near as hard as going up. It was a different kind of endurance. Going up I was out of breath and fatigued. Going down I had pain. Right away, both knees began to hurt from all that pressure. Heading down a steep, steep slope, using my knees to hold myself upright with every step, took all the tolerance out of my joints. Oh, it hurt. But there was no other way to get down other than to keep walking. My sailor friend also had bad knees. His hurt worse than mine, and he stopped to put on a knee brace just below the summit. The track down was through pumice gravel; a different route than up. We would take a step, and slide to a stop in the pebbles. Five thousand feet back to the 5th station.
We talked a lot on the way down because we had the breath to do so. We stopped often, but that was to rest our knees, and not to catch our breath. Finally at 4:30pm we reached Jay, who was waiting for us at 5th station. It had taken us 5 1/2 hours to reach the summit, and 3 3/4 hours to get back down. We drug ourselves onto the bus to wait for the rest of the crew to show up. Our time to go had been scheduled for 5:30, but two people remained missing. Because of cell phone coverage on the mountain, Jay had some information. One had gotten lost. One had suffered knee problems. Since we didn’t know the extent of the injury, Jay asked for a volunteer to head back up the mountain with him to help the Master Chief who was in pain. He later got word that the lost guy had found his way again, and was heading back. Master Chief was ok, just had to go easy on the knees. Kudos to the sailor who volunteered to head back up after reaching the bottom. The lost sailor had reached the summit at 11:30, and had taken 8 hours to get to the bottom. We finally pulled away at 7:30 pm.
It had been a long day, but Fuji was not done with me yet. Near the bottom of the hill, our bus hit pavement grooves that had been intentionally cut into the road to make a song as a vehicle drove along them. Our driver explained it was the song of Fujisan. Neat! About twenty minutes later, I was nearly dozing in my seat, and Jay whispered to me, “Crystal! Look at the mountain!” It was pitch black by then, of course, but in front of us we saw a beautiful sparkling zig-zag trail up the side of the mountain, and stretching all the way to the top. “Is the trail lit?” asked one of the Sailors. “No,” Jay told us. “Those are the flashlights and headlamps of the night hikers, heading up to be in place for sunrise at the summit.” It was an incredible sight to hold as my final memory of Fuji.