The Most Highest Mountain In Japan
by Ian Birnbaum
"A wise man climbs Fuji once, but only a fool would climb it twice."--Japanese Proverb
Nine o'clock at night, somewhere near the 7th stage, Mt. Fuji, Japan: The two of us lay between two large boulders in a small outcropping, sharing body-warmth and the shelter provided by a small emergency rain poncho that bowed and floated as the wind whistled over it. We shivered there, huddled together. Strictly speaking, we weren't supposed to be resting without paying extortionate fees for a night-long stay in one of the small cabins that were scattered across the slopes; we had instead snuck off the well-marked trail until we found this small nook, and had settled down for a break and to warm ourselves. The weather was definitely getting worse.
Will and I, best friends through high school, had been climbing Mt. Fuji, Japan's sacred mountain and national icon, for about 4 hours. Starting from The 5th Gate, about 2300 meters above sea level, we began climbing the remaining 6300 meters at about 5 p.m. that day in July, 2005. The two of us had been in Japan for about 3 days on the trip that we had sworn we would take back when we were freshmen in high school; graduated now, and fluent in Japanese, we made good on our promise to each other and went. We had been watching Mount Fuji, referred to in Japanese with the honorific Fuji-san, for two days already when we began the morning that would end so many miles later with us cold, hungry and wet, trudging down the side of a dormant volcano two thousand miles from home.
Starting from the 5th gate, about half-way up the mountain, Fuji-san lures prospective climbers in with its beauty and an easy, sloping climb. From the massive hunting-lodge style buildings where one can find food and supplies for the climb to ponies offering to take riders farther up the mountain, anyone stupid enough not to know better would certainly assume that the climbing of Fuji-san is a symbolic pilgrimage, not a true pilgrimage of personal danger and sacrifice. If nothing else, the long, long trains of elderly Japanese, outfitted with walking sticks and parkas, embarking on a mountain climbing expedition would certainly give the impression that Mt. Fuji is iconic but mostly harmless. The guide books note, however, that no one should be dumb enough to attempt to climb the mountain wearing light summer clothes: I was wearing a hoody and my Converse high-tops. I'm certain, now, that the idea of being scaled by a punk American kid in Converse angered the mountain spirits greatly, and they proceeded to take a giant dump on the two of us.
We had been climbing for 20 minutes when we walked straight through a cloud that was sitting lazily, resting from its journey on the sides of the sacred slopes. Walking through the Japanese forests, rich with mosses and ferns, soon gave way to the desolate barren landscape of a now-retired volcano: rocks, gravel, sand, rocks. As the climb grew harder, sometimes to the point of lifting ourselves over rocks on hands and knees, the weather was growing worse. Wind and cold tore down the small corridors of the path carved into the mountain, and our energy ebbed and sank. We rested where we could, and [Will walks into a cloud] then again where we weren't allowed to, but we kept climbing until we could no longer see the towns in the valleys below.
The plan, in our minds, was to climb from 5 in the evening to 5 in the morning and then sit and watch the sunrise. It was an iconic, traditional goal: the kind of memory that you could proudly tell grandkids and friends for years to come. But I wasn't athletic, or even fit, and I was scraping the bottom of the barrel to continue taking steps through the volcanic gravel towards the top. I just kept saying to myself that I would climb this mountain no matter what - that I would make it to the top.
Hours later, near the eighth gate, I broke first and suggested that we sleep for a couple of hours (it was now about one in the morning) at a stupidly-priced wooden mountain shack. Sick from the altitude, tired and hungry, I got the worst three hours of sleep of my entire life. It wasn't enough, but we still wanted to be up so we could watch the sun rise over Japan from the peak of her holy mountain. We rose, bundled up, and stepped outside. To our dismay, the weather had only gotten worse, and hail and rain had joined the wind in pelting us directly in the face as we tried to climb through the soft, sifting red rock.
It was one of the defining moments of my life thus far: I gritted my teeth and walked, one foot in front of the other, because I was going to climb this mountain. The wind came barrelling down the zig-zagging corridors, physically pushing us back into our own footprints; with each step, the sliding rocks and the wind pushed us back half a step. The rain was frigid and horizontal, slowly soaking us to the bone and pulling warmth away from out bodies. I kept going, literally pulling myself along using a frozen steel handrail; no matter the shit, no matter the weather, no matter my legs burning like someone had set fire to my jeans, I was going to get on a plane and come home from Japan with the successful conquest of Fuji-san under my belt. I climbed as if my manhood, reputation, and life were staked on it, as if I would be shamed by coming home without reaching the top. It just wasn't meant to be.
As we neared the top: 400 meters, 300 meters, only 45 minutes to go, only 30 - we started to see people walking down the mountain on our trail instead of the standard descent path on a second face. We caught eyes with a German woman climbing down with her friend, and she told us that the weather was the worst on the peak, and that officials were sending down anyone who made it that far. We were apparently 20 minutes away from the peak, and were climbing into a full-on storm. Will and I looked at each other, reluctant to give up. I laugh now when I remember that we actually kept climbing for five minutes after receiving that news. We were moronically set on our goal, but we turned a corner and got a full blast of grit and rain on the wind: we shuddered, then turned and headed back down the mountain: 20 minutes would have to be close enough. We consoled ourselves with the knowledge that the view of the sunrise would be obscured by the storm clouds, and we were in too much physical danger to keep going for pride alone.
And we did find ourselves, on our way down, in real physical danger. Because of the altitude sickness, Will had given me his rain poncho, which broke the wind and kept me considerably warmer than I should have been; conversely, Will was soaked and starting to feel hypothermic. We were sleep deprived and hungry. We slipped and scattered rocks on our fast retreat down the mountain, and I could see a glaze start to come over Will's eyes, and his teeth chattered. As we fled the storm, I gave back the poncho and put my arm around him and tried to rub circulation back into his limbs; most of all, I made sure we kept walking. He saved my ass on the way up, and I saved his ass on the way down.
Two years later, I still tell people that I climbed Mount Fuji in Japan. If they ask, I'll tell them that I never reached the top due to the weather, but failing to reach the peak never felt as disappointing as I imagined it would. There was certainly no shame brought down upon me. Fuji-san is a sacred, ancient peak that teaches lessons in life to any who climb it; it has done for hundreds of years. The Japanese, in fact, say that everyone should climb the mountain once in their lives. But, in the end, Fuji-san taught me more lessons in denying my victory than by granting it.
I'm still sure to mention, however, that I did it all -every last step- wearing my Converse.
Ian remembers that every journey begins with a single step. Archives