The last few months have involved almost no travelling - just working, eating and drinking and not always in that order. I’ve done a couple of small hikes and bike rides but nothing too strenuous or different. On Saturday i went to Mount Fuji with two friends and climbed it. People always talked about the view from the top and that it’s a fantastic once in a lifetime kind of thing to do. But things don’t always go according to plan though, do they?
The most popular way to climb Fuji is, strangely, at night presumably because everybody wants to watch to a sunrise on the roof of Japan whilst being utterly knackered and completely sleep deprived at 4am. This didn’t seem like much fun (i’ve seen the sunrise before and i quite enjoy sleeping) so me and two friends got a train to a small city called Gotemba near the mountain. We wanted to stay the night there, hike up on Sunday, see the view and be back in Tokyo that night. We arrived in Gotemba at 6.30pm. We went to four hotels. They were all fully booked. A nice man working in the fourth one we tried told us that there was a “formula race” taking place and there wasn’t a free room in the whole city. We had a choice – get the train back to Tokyo or climb at night.
After quickly buying some torches and inhaling some sandwiches we got the bus to the start of the Subashiri trail – one of four that goes up Fuji. The weather was good, spirits were high, the trail was busy. Busy with people who looked like they were prepared for a long war in Antarctica. Headlamps, ski-masks, walking poles, boots, water-proof gaiters, wind-proof hats, bullet-proof gloves. It looked like a North Peak fashion show. We found out why.
The lower parts of the trail were great. We walked through a forest out of the tree line and into a grey lunarish landscape. The sun had set but the horizon was still glowing from greater Tokyo that was busy enjoying Saturday night on the other side of the hills. The further up the mountain we ventured the cloudier, windier, colder, wetter and steeper it became. The wind became a relentless howl; gusts would threaten to throw you off balance and they would always be accompanied with a few handfuls of rain, freezing cold and sandy volcanic ash that would take route in your ears and nostrils and teeth.
After a few hours of this Jessica, one of my friends, had had enough, didn’t fancy going any further and decided to spend the night at one of the stations/hostels that are on the routes up the mountains and are open for the two months of summer when it’s possible to get up Fuji. Me and Dave continued along with thousands of other people wedged onto a single path that zigzagged its way through the volcanic ash and rocks upwards towards the summit. It was so busy that as we got closer to the top, and therefore colder, wetter and more tired, the slower we were able to walk which meant the colder and wetter and more tired we became. Neither of us had weather proof gloves or rain proof socks or, well, any item of clothing suitable for climbing Mount Fuji at night time in a storm. At 3400m we took a rest and tried to get out of the wind at one of the stations/hostels. A foreign guy (it turned out he was from Iceland) walked past in shorts and a woolly jumper with his hands in his pockets as if he was walking in the park. Sat next to me was a woman wearing thousands of dollars worth of clothing breathing in a can of pure Oxygen. It was the last time i smiled until we reached the top.
The next few hundred metres up were hell. It was late night/early morning, the rain invaded every pore i own, cold covered my bones in a layer of frost and the wind was a never ending brutal bitch. I was a soggy tired mess and Dave wasn’t much better as we trudged single file for what seemed like hours until eventually we arrived at the summit of Mount Fuji. We stood on the top of Japan and celebrated by finding the first piece of shelter out of that fucking wind. Immediately at the top there are a couple of little buildings which were huts serving noodles and coffee for ridiculous prices. We grabbed a corner, sat down, ate drank and giggled at ourselves. We were spent. It was 3.30am. We started the hike at about 8.45pm. I was too tired to figure out how long that was.
We didn’t see the sunrise. 4am duly came and went and the cloud, wind, cold and rain slowly turned from black to white. There was a hint of light blue for a few minutes but that was about as once-in-a-lifetime-amazing as my Fuji summit sunrise got. Visibility was about 10m and wasn’t going get better anytime soon. The wind still hadn’t stopped and the cold and rain seemed equally up the fight. Me and Dave weren’t. We got as dry and warm as we could, stayed in the noodle/coffee huts for a few hours and started back down.
Well, we ran back down actually. We were so desperate to get out of the cold gale force rain that we skipped and jogged down most of the trail bypassing the descending North Face catwalk with ease. The landscape was covered in volcanic ash and stones that had been there for centuries. My feet were sliding over crumbled remains of a volcanic explosion that occurred hundreds of years ago, feeding the Earth with more earth in a wonderful geological exercise in recycling. I didn’t give a shit. I didn’t even stop to take a picture. All i wanted to do was get off fucking Fuji.
Me and Dave got split up but i figured it didn’t matter as we’d both be pretty happy to be out of the clouds and rain and approaching acceptable temperature levels considering our clothing. I met Jessica at the start of the trail as she’d gone back down that morning. But, surprisingly, there was no sign of Dave. We waited. And waited. We got something to eat. And waited. After a while we started to worry. Where was he? Did he get lost? Was he injured? He didn’t have a phone so i couldn’t call him. Four hours later we asked a nice woman at the tourist information if she could help us make some phone calls to the station/hostels to ask if they’d seen him. She took us straight to a little police station where two policemen who looked genuinely excited by the prospect of somebody being lost on Mount Fuji started asking questions. They got out maps, asked where i’d last seen him, how he was feeling, what he looked like, what was he wearing, names, addresses, phones numbers, work, mother’s maiden name, fathers inside leg measurement, they made phone calls, got answers and started making plans for a search. But, they asked, was it possible that he took the wrong trail and then just went home from one of the other four start points? No, definitely not, we assured them. Dave, me and a few other teachers all live in the same apartment block. I called another mate and asked if Dave was back there. He said he’d call me back if he was. We waited. They started a search mission. Two guys disappeared in a four wheel drive. We’d been in the police station for an hour sorting stuff out, writing things down and giving information. Jessica looked worried. The nice women from the tourist office told me that this would probably be in the news. They gave us biscuits. They look worried.
My phone rang. “Hey, Dave’s right here. I’m looking at him. You wanna speak to him?”
Erm, yeah, sorry Mr Policeman and Miss Nice Tourist Woman but you were right. Dave just took a wrong turning and went all the way back home by himself...Yeah, just arrived, got the train and everything...I’m so sorry...Really sorry...Erm, i guess those two search and rescue dudes can come back down now...Uh-huh...Yeah, it would appear that our small little journey up Japan’s highest mountain has turned into a complete clusterfuck...Yeah, yeah...Thanks for your help...Bye.
Me and Jessica took the bus back to Gotemba. We wanted to take the express bus from there back to Tokyo but it had been in an accident so we had to take the trains again which took longer and cost extra. More luck. I got off the train at Tokyo Station and stubbed my toe on an escalator which oozed blood all over my flip-flop and the dripped on the platform. It’s a rare thing on a Sunday evening to think to yourself, “I can’t wait for Monday.”
Fortunately, Monday was a national holiday and this week is the end of term and the end of another work contract teaching English. I’m heading to Hokkaido for six weeks at the end of July with a bike, a tent, a map and, hopefully, more luck than last weekend.