Saturday, August 10, 2013

Climbing Mount Fuji

I've been wanting to climb Mount Fuji since last year, when my friends Max and Ryan conquered Japan's highest mountain.

Now, I'm not a hiker/climber/anyone with any sense of athletic drive or coordination, and I've never conquered a peak of any kind in my life. But I heard stories of even both retired elderly and elementary school children conquering the mountain, so I went in with, "How hard could it be?"

In my case, Mount Fuji is one of those challenges where I attempt to prepare and prepare, but I would never be prepared until I was finished with it.

Friends had told me that to prepare to "walk a lot" and if I could, "to climb some hills or mountains."

Easy, I thought. I'll be in Kansai all week before Fuji, and walking was well written into the trip itinerary, and a hill? Well, Fushimi Inari-taisha was on a mountain, so I'd walk around a lot and climb a mountain. Two birds with one stone.


I might have conquered Fushimi Inari-taisha with no particular problems, but Mount Fuji was a completely different story.

I scheduled for us to climb Mount Fuji on August 6th, and we weren't returning from Kansai via bullet train/shinkansen the afternoon until August 5th. When we got home on the 5th, I also had to run errands and do some quick and dirty packing for our overnight trip to Fuji the next day, so I was picking up energy drinks, Calorie Mates, and other high-calorie portable foods.

The other big challenge was clothing. Extensive research warned that the weather at the top of Fuji was unstable at best. Even if Tokyo was baking in its typical summer island humidity below, it could easily be snowing at the mountain top. Looking ridiculous aside, I didn't us to be baking in our clothes and getting heat stroke before we even got to the 5th Station at Fuji. There was no choice but to layer up and hope that we'd have enough clothes to take us through the night.

We caught a late afternoon bus from Shinjuku which would take us to the famous 5th Station at Mount Fuji, where most climbers began their journey.

My first reaction getting off the bus at the 5th Station was, "Oh no, it's raining!!" My second reaction was, "Oh no, we're completely under dressed," when I saw everyone surrounding us with sticks and full body climbing gear and backpacks.

Not the best way to start a climb.

We began our climb by holding umbrellas and trying not to soak our sneakers in mud, and eventually the rain cleared and my brother paused to take in the view surrounding us as I huffed and puffed, trying to keep up and not get too scared about how high up I realized we were.

"It's beautiful," he said, and all I could do was give him a quizzical annoyed look (I was already out of breath about 30 minutes in) for his optimism. "No, really," he insisted pointing over my head. "Look."

This was what he pointed at.

Needless to say, that view motivated me a little.

Unfortunately, the rest of the climb wasn't quite so beautiful and it didn't help that the lack of rest from a week's trip to Kansai was beginning to catch up with me. Altitude sickness hit me fairly badly, and I threw up at least twice in the dark on the way up to the peak. My brother was with me at one of those times, and I could hear him holding back laughter at how pathetic I undoubtedly looked.

"You're laughing at me, aren't you?!" I accused after spitting most elegantly into some rocks.

There was silence as he tried to swallow his laughter before I grabbed my walking stick and continued up the path, "Well, whatever. I'd be laughing too."

We made progress than I expected and reached the last station much earlier than I expected, and we were feeling very optimistic despite my mishaps with altitude sickness and being perhaps unprepared for the trip.

We soon hit our next obstacle though.

The 9th Station was closed when we arrived there around 11:30pm, and we were extremely cold with no blankets or extra covers. I also was stubbornly useless because I had just thrown up again and was huddled in a bulldozer's step as my brother wandered around in the dark trying to see where we could at least stay somewhat warm.

Which is how we found ourselves huddling for the next 5 hours in a two-person toilet with at least 10 other people, both Japanese and foreigners. Luckily, it really did keep us warm and we had spirited conversations until 5am, when the 9th Station would finally open.

There, we had extremely overpriced but hot soups and headed back out into the cold around 5:30, about half an hour before the sun was expected to rise.

The crowd began to thicken over the past twenty minutes, and everybody waited the 御来光 (goraiko sunrise).

My apprehension led me to almost believe that the Hallelujah chorus would begin to trumpet the moment the sun magically would burst into sight in the horizon.

Alas, no chorus--just a really beautifully majestic silent sunrise and an amazing shared experience with strangers from around the world.

My brother and I were naturally ecstatic.

We soon started making our way down the mountain and, oddly enough, going downhill in the brightness of morning was actually much more frightening than going uphill in the dead of the night. The loose dirt and gravity made it feel as if we could easily slip off the edge of the very wide path and go downhill in a much more dangerous and faster way.

But make it we did, and I reveled in the heat of the lower elevations after an extremely cold night.

Naturally, to reward ourselves after an extreme physical challenge, we rewarded ourselves with some good old-fashioned American junk food.

Oddly enough, as I cursed myself for even attempting the climb on the way up, I was filled with an exhilaration of completing the daunting task after we were back at normal sea levels.

Of course, also a big thank you to my brother who was nothing but encouraging and optimistic as we took on this big challenge together. Alex, you were awesome :)

Till next time!

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