let's climb that mountain
We've travelled two hundred kilometres from Okazaki to the base of Mt Fuji and it’s just before ten pm as we wind our way up to the Yoshida Trailhead. I wonder if we will be the only ones silly enough to be climbing tonight.
We plan to start hiking around eleven o’clock, climb through the night and arrive at the peak in time for the sunrise. Our sleeping bags will help us to avoid hypothermia at the summit if we get there before sun up. We are fast hikers but we're still allowing the recommended seven hours for the ascent.
It is dark and we have the road to ourselves, a rarity in Japan. The tourists have fled! It is just the two of us, cruising through the shadows of the quietly resting forest.
We slow for a bend in the road and as we round the corner a magnificent stag with antlers reaching into the starry night, stands motionless. I catch my breath. For a moment he looks into the lights, startled.
Nonchalantly, nostrils steaming, he moves off the roadway and slips into the safety of the undergrowth. We are stunned.
Apparition-like, his fleeting beauty leaves us wanting more. I’m not a superstitious person, but I wonder if he is some sort of omen.
Just a short drive later, we reach the carpark. Its emptiness rattles my nerves. I am alternatively excited and filled with dread. We know that the huts and medical centres are all closed and there will be no support on the mountain. There is little room for error.
Winter has been slow to arrive this season and luckily there is no snow, but we quickly pull on beanies and gloves. We make some last minute gear adjustments and another car arrives. My heart slows a little knowing that we aren’’t completely alone tonight.
The other party leaves before us but we aren't far behind. As we start the trek up the hill we warm up quickly and peel off our coats.
The visitors’ centre signals the start of the climb. It is closed of course, and we walk past the large caution signs and step over the chains that are supposed to warn off the fools that try and climb the mountain out of season. As I start to find some rhythm in our ascent, I am conscious that we are those fools.
I am feeling fit as I follow Drew up the zig-zagging track, a little distance behind him. He is stronger than me and I expect that he will lead the way right to the top.
The going is steep, but the moonlight is bright and our head torches throw enough light to keep us on the trail. Other than the silhouette of the odd shape in the distance, there is little to see.
Under the cover of darkness we have no real concept of distance but we are plodding steadily and seem to be making good progress. In what feels like no time at all, we reach the sixth station and take a quick swig of water. We keep walking. We’ve fallen into a good rhythm and don't want to get cold.
Drew sets off. I wriggle my backpack into a more comfortable position, put down my head and start off behind him. It will take a concerted effort for me to keep up.
Occasionally I can hear the distant voices of the party in front of us, or see the twinkle of their lights. I am conscious of Drew ahead of me, but mostly I am lost in my own thoughts. How life has changed for me over the last few years. I am on a trajectory I never envisaged.
The path has gotten a little trickier, weaving throughout the landscape and stepping up steeply in parts. Pausing slightly, I look up. I am surprised to see that the distance between Drew and I has closed. Pushing on again, I smile to myself because I am a machine!
Soon I am on Drew’s heels, close enough to have a conversation. We discuss the wisdom of climbing this mountain out of season. We are missing out on the crowds, apparently one of the most interesting aspects of Mt Fuji; the camaraderie and the experience of ascending among hundreds of other people.
It's not something we would relish at all; avoiding crowds has become habitual for us. I look at a hikers' hut as we walk past. Staying in one might be interesting, but we’ve visited them in other places and they are bound to be overpriced, yet another great tourist rip-off.
We are about to clamour up another group of rocks. Drew pauses and without a second thought, I walk around him and keep going. The wind is biting now and I push on to keep warm.
We continue up the switch backs. The steady beat of footsteps is the only thing on my mind. I’m completely focussed on moving forward and haven’t noticed that Drew has fallen behind me. “Is your knee hurting?” I ask, worried that his old injury is playing up again.
“No, it’s okay,” he says. But he doesn’t look okay and I wonder what is going on as he begins to pause more frequently.
“I need rest at the next station,” he says, breath labouring. “My head is splitting.”
And then it dawns on me. “You’ve got altitude sickness,” I tell him. “We might need to go down.”
“I’ll be fine,” he mumbles. But he’s not very convincing. We plod into the seventh station.
There are several huts here, but no life. They are boarded shut for the winter. We walk to the end of the station, looking for an obvious resting spot. Nothing presents itself.
During climbing season the weary trekker would be enticed into one of the huts, parting with a fee for the privilege. But that is not an option for us, so we head back to the start of the station and drop our packs next to a stone wall. It will have to do.
I realise that we are in for an extended stop as Drew pulls out his sleeping bag and climbs in. “Maybe if I can sleep for a while I’ll feel better,” he says.
I grab my sleeping bag too and assume the position of watch. It is cold and uncomfortable and I am worried about him. There will be no sleep for me, sitting on the side of the mountain.
The wind whistles and somewhere along the station a loose shutter on one of the huts is banging. It is eerie and feels more than a little surreal. I am sitting on Mt Fuji in the middle of the night! Anxiety rising, I pull the bag up higher around my neck and try to relax.
Surprisingly, several other parties walk through the seventh station behind us. One group also stops for a short rest, but most of them troop quietly past. A couple of men ask if Drew is okay and I tell them he is unwell.
After about an hour we pack up our things and continue on again. Drew says he is feeling a little better, but I am hardly reassured.
We head up the dirt track, trampled over the years by hikers from all over the world. The wind is wailing making the going even tougher. My body which was moving so freely before, now feels stiff and sluggish and I’m finding the going more difficult too.
We are travelling much slower now, and I need to wait for Drew frequently, so I’m having trouble staying warm. Am I also suffering from the altitude a little? I can’t imagine how Drew is feeling.
The stars still light our way, but time is ticking and there is a hint of daybreak way off in the distance. Finally we make it to the eighth station, one from the top.
Drew has been vomiting since the seventh but has somehow managed to keep going. His determination is amazing, and I have nothing but admiration for his grit. But I know that to push-on is foolish and for his sake, it’s time to get back down.
“Enough,” I say. “We need to turn around.” He wants me to keep going and offers to wait at the station. I shake my head. I have no interest in going to the summit on my own. He tries a little more to persuade me to go on.
“We’ll catch the sunrise on the way down. It will still be magnificent,” I say. I wonder if he realises how sick he is. I cannot possibly to leave him alone.
Going down is treacherous and I follow Drew closely. He is punch-drunk and unbalanced on the narrow trail and while I feel the urgency to get down quickly, I let him pick down the path at his own pace.
Slowly we retrace our steps. Mentally I tick off the landmarks we passed on the way up, roughly calculating the remaining distance. Small pebbles like ball-bearings cover the trail in places, making it slippery as ice. We move over them cautiously.
Daylight is only minutes away now, and we can see the path for the first time. “Let’s watch the sunrise from here,” I say and we sit down and wait for the sun to come up.
Drawing a deep breath, I relax a little. At least Drew isn’t likely to stumble off the path while he's sitting down. His complexion is grey, he looks haggard and is still vomiting.
Seconds later the orange fiery ball lights the sky. I welcome it like an old friend. I turn my face towards it. The sun is reviving, and feels as if it is somehow flowing magically into my veins.
Looking down we watch the next few groups of out-of-season hikers beginning their ascents below us. Perhaps a day-time ascent would have been a better idea. When Drew is ready, we start the remainder of our descent.
As we reach the bottom station, just above the tourist information centre, Drew transforms before my eyes. His colour returns, the nausea stops, his body straightens and our shuffle is replaced by a more purposeful walk.
“You seem better,” I say and he tells me that he is completely fine.
I am so relieved to reach the carpark. I feel like we have dodged a bullet, maybe something very bad.
“You could have kept going,” Drew says, as we wander over to look at the information sign. He is disappointed, but I don’t care a bit that we didn’t quite make it.
I shake my head. “It doesn’t matter,” I say. “We almost got there. It was a journey, and we did it together.”
Driving home I quietly reflect on our expedition and Drew catches me smiling. “What’s up?” he asks.
“Do you know, that is the only activity that we have ever done together where I have been better than you?” I tell him. I can’t but help see the funny side of it and laugh softly. He shakes his head.
“Give me the moment,” I say. “I need to bask in the glory!”
- An excerpt from The Okazaki Tourist