Week 29: Climbing Fuji
I arrive at the 5th station of Mt. Fuji at around 10 p.m. on a Monday, having taken the last bus for the day from Tokyo to the great mountain. I'm alone, but I know that Fuji is an experience full of camaraderie for many, with climbers often befriending others trekking at the same pace.
In Japan, I'm with a group of travelling digital nomads - Hacker Paradise again, for those of you that follow me - several of whom climbed Fuji a few days prior. I didn't want to go on a weekend during climbing season, which lasts for only about two months out of the year before the trails close again in September.
So I came on my own.
The Yoshida Trail 5th station, which the vast, vast majority of people ascend from (instead of from the true bottom of the peak), is already halfway up the 3,776 meter mountain and is the last point that automobiles can reach. So technically, I'm going to climb half of Fuji. I'm attempting the night hike, which climbers choose because the crater takes 5-7 hours to reach and offers stunning views of the sunrise. Japan is, after all, the Land of the Rising Sun.
I buy a basic so-expensive-I-won't-tell-you-how-much headlamp at the only store that's still open, and try to figure out where the trail starts. There are only a few stragglers from the last bus still around, so, with a lot of darkness involved, we band together in attempting to find our starting point. And just like that, I have climbing friends.
Mandy and Carlo are a couple, possibly in their 30s, from South Africa. They're both professional dancers and Carlo is in a Tokyo production of Evita. Gerardo (Gerry) is from Texas and maybe younger than me. He's what a Japanese hiker would call underprepared - he only brought a cotton jacket and some food - although by their standards we are all underprepared.
Mandy offers us each a Haribo gummy, we find our trailhead, and we commence. We need to reach the summit, which hosts the 10th station, by around 4:30 a.m. (spoiler: we don't quite make it). But if we don't make it (spoiler: we don't), this trail faces the sunrise and we'll be treated to mesmerising views all the same.
Our motley crew ascends quickly, and soon we are at the 6th station. We each eat another Haribo, thereby starting a pattern, and keep climbing. At the 7th station, pattern morphs into tradition as we eat another Haribo, but every subsequent station also indicates that we are at the 7th station, so it seems like there are three or four of them. We don't eat a Haribo at each of these: we're waiting for the 8th station.
The climbing is steep, and oftentimes we are scrambling over lava rock with no set trail. As we go higher, my breath becomes shorter. The climbing is manageable fitness-wise, but my lack of altitude adjustment demands that I often stop to just breath. But more than anything, I feel so calm, climbing this mountain.
We are doing well on time, and soon we do reach the 8th station. We've planned to rest for a few hours here, as is advised for altitude reasons, and because the higher we rest the colder we will be (we can't rest inside the station unless we pay around $50 per person).
We stay here for 90 minutes, and the bone-chilling cold makes it the hardest part of the climb. The greater the intensity of a challenging situation, the more tightly we generally bond with the people who go through it with us, so these are also bonding moments.
We huddle tightly, we try and create a wind barrier with a tatami mat, we share 'blankets' (read: dirty clothes and anything that can cover us, like backpacks). Even my soaked bathing suit and towel from canyoning earlier in the day come out to act as insulation over a dry sweater. Carlo kindly lends me his beanie and I tie my dirty dress around my neck as a scarf.
We are all giddy with happiness when we begin to climb again at 3 a.m. I've had one of my favorite songs, Landslide, in my head, and it adds to the reflectiveness of the climb.
The most impactful part of my entire Fuji experience lasts for mere moments, when twenty minutes after we start again, we stop for a different reason than to rest.
We turn off our flashlights and look upward. I see the Milky Way for the first time in over a decade. We see thousands of stars that I've forgotten existed in this sky I live under. I already feel so small on this mountain, and this view puts things into perspective the way no human can.
Time pauses, and the sense of grandeur that makes you seem like a little ant trying to build an anthill of a life takes over. But it's the kind of grandeur where you don't think of yourself - the thought only surfaces afterwards. All that remains is a tiny soul stunned by the beauty of this galaxy, our home for the time being.
It's a beauty that I never remember, that I always surpass for the beauty of makeup, social media, nice clothes. The most amazing thing in existence may not be unadulterated nature - it could actually be how distracted and forgetful we can become in the midst of it.
Eventually, the lights of fellow climbers near us and we trek on. I hope to experience this again, but soon the first light appears, and it won't be the same.
We realise our mistake when, after 45 minutes of leaving the 8th station, we come to the 8th station. The next station after that is also the 8th station. We assumed the first 8th station we came to was the one we intended to rest at, so now we are far behind schedule. At this point, around 3:45 a.m., faint light has been on the horizon for a while and I feel a rush of adrenaline to ascend as high as I can for the sunrise.
I know I won't reach the summit before the sun says its first hellos, but I feel the familiar kick of 'making things happen,' and the glorious calm of climbing Fuji until now evaporates.
I'm back in the familiar zone of powering through, but I can feel myself watching myself - seeing how I'm sacrificing my connection to this mountain, the calm of feeling grounded, the feeling of being part of something much larger...for a better view. Now, it becomes more about myself and how fast I can climb, and in these moments I leave Mandy and Carlo.
I'm still watching the horizon though, and when I'm halfway between the 9th station and the summit, it happens. At around 4:40 a.m., a slight sliver of sun peeks over the cloud layer, and everyone starts clapping. It is beyond beauty.
But I find the sight looking up the mountain to be equally beautiful, and a view many people probably miss. Of course, the people at the summit are watching, motionless, but everyone above and below me is also stopped dead in their tracks, transfixed. No one moves. Everyone's face is a sunflower, turned towards the day's first light.
Gerry and I reach the top a few minutes past 5 a.m. and wait for Mandy and Carlo, who are fitter but not afflicted with the need to rush moments in order to "make it" to something else (neither is Gerry - he's just tall and fast).
The older I get, the more I realise happiness is not in checking items - or countries - off a list or cramming life into a schedule. I might have had a more valuable experience lower down on the mountain, still peaceful and unhurried, had I not been touched by this pressing need to get to the top.
Soon enough, Mandy and Carlo join us and we see the crater, take pictures, and walk around for half an hour.
It feels so rewarding to reach the top, but thankfully, ever since the forest bathing experiences, my interactions with nature have taken on an interactive quality. It's like feeling that I'm participating in an exchange or conversation with nature, instead of conquering her, even though I had a little blip while running to meet the sunrise. It's a humbling and wonderful feeling.
And Fuji totally defeated me in the descent back to the 5th station, but that's for another day.