Posted by Jess Kim (RIKEN Brain Science Institute – Tokyo, Japan)
About two weeks ago, not too long after my 21st birthday, I climbed Mt. Fuji. I have to preface this story with a couple facts: 1) I am not a mountain climber in any form, shape, or capacity. I hike occasionally but the last full mountain I climbed was in 4th grade, when it was compulsory, and shortly after I wiped the sweat from my brow, re-Velcroed my shoes and vowed “never again.” 2) For some reason, I have been wanting to climb Mt. Fuji for the past few months, maybe because I don’t know when I will be in Japan next (and it’s only open two months out of the year), maybe because you can buy a cool stick that they brand at every station on the way up, but not for a particular reason any more palpable than the stick. 3) About two weeks ago, not too long after my 21st birthday, when I climbed Mt. Fuji, it was raining torrentially with gale force winds and 4) the guys we climbed with were my friend Chris ’10’s friends, whom I had never met before and he had met on Sunday, and they were hard core.
Oh, and 5) I did not know or fully realize all these facts until I was about halfway up the mountain, legs and throat on fire, clothes soaked through to my underwear, and ready to throw in the really, really wet towel I was wearing around my head.
Here are some other facts that I didn’t know – thanks, Wikipedia: Mt. Fuji is the highest mountain in Japan at 3,776 m (12,388 ft). It is an active volcano and a well-known symbol of Japan that is frequently depicted in art and photographs, as well as visited by sightseers and climbers (okay, I kinda knew that part). The mountain is divided into stations; typically climbers will ascend from the 5th station to the 10th (the summit); as well as four main trails. Most climbers take the Fujinomiya trail – to the extent that it becomes very crowded during climbing season, and there is a line to the summit past the 8th or 9th station – but there are some other very steep and challenging trails, like the one we climbed. The one we climbed was called the Subashiri trail, which when I heard it I thought they were calling it the Samishii trail, or the Lonely Trail. Which made sense to me, because I was dead last in our group, and therefore pretty much climbed the damn thing myself.
Oh, and its sunrise is supposed to be legen – wait for it – dary. Awe-inspiring. Epic. Life-changing. LEGENDARY.
And so we started off at the fifth station, shortly after devouring bowls of chicken, eggs and rice, and buying a backpack cover that cost me my firstborn. Fuji may be a rather strenuous mountain to hike, but it’s also a tourist trap, even when it’s pitch black, windy, and wet – a fact I was to be reminded of when our trail merged with the most popular trail after the 8th station. (FORESHADOWING!) There were five of us: Yasu, our insane driver and leader who had hiked two weeks ago when it was still snowing, Takuya, Yasu’s friend from his university who took hiking PE classes for fun, Alexis, Yasu’s other friend and my fellow inexperienced climber, Chris ’10, who’s in pretty good shape, and me, who used to run like a 20 minute mile in school and probably still does.
We left at about 9 or 9:30 PM. The plan was to hike all night to see the sunrise at 4:30 AM, hang around at the top for seven hours or so, then watch the eclipse from the highest point in Japan at 11:30. Then we would head back down and hit up an onsen (hot springs) at the base of the mountain. It seemed flawless except for the weather, but there was no other night to do it because eclipses wait for no man. So we set off onto the dark and rainy path, Yasu and Takuya in their hardcore hiking gear, and Chris ’10 and I in really cheap rain suits we’d bought from a Walmart-like place near our work for $20. (FORESHADOWING!)
It wasn’t too bad at first. But then it started getting harder. And harder. And harder. There is something truly to be said about the masochism of MIT students, and as I was dragging myself up the tree-shrouded path between the 5th and 6th stations in the pouring rain, the main thought that crossed my mind was “how am I going to blog about this later??” And then it came to me: with a hugely cliched metaphor!
Kids, climbing Fuji is like going through MIT in a lot of ways. You have no idea what you’re about to put yourself through – and in some ways, this makes it easier, since I couldn’t see behind me or in front of me any further than where I was stepping. You’re tired a lot of the time. You think if I could just make it through to the next station, I can chill out for a little bit.. but you’re glad your friends are there with you. You don’t sleep. And you’re sweaty a lot of the time. Maybe that’s just me. Anyway.
We eventually made it up to the sixth station, which we thought was the seventh station because it took us more than an hour to get there from the fifth station. It was probably the longest distance between any two stations, and it took even longer because we kept stopping on the way to reflect on the beautiful view of Japan below us.
Not long after the sixth station it looked like we were about to reach another station, but we didn’t. Because they had this terrible thing called “Old Xth Station” in between every station to make you think you were reaching another station, but you weren’t. This is why when Yasu, Chris, and Alexis reached the Old 6th Station about a minute before Takuya (who was kind enough to wait for me) and I did, I heard Alexis yell, “nooooOOOOOOOOO!!!”
We stopped briefly at the Old 6th station to reflect on the world below and also how much our thighs hurt, then traipsed on. The 7th station was not too far off, but I was starting to feel the fact that it was a little past 1 in the morning and that we’d been hiking for about four hours straight at that point, so when we finally made it up to the 7th station I used my expertly honed-at-MIT abilities of being able to nap anywhere to promptly fall asleep.
When I woke up I found the rain was now going sideways and underneath my $20 plastic bodysuit, and that most of my extremities were rapidly transforming from waterlogged to icelogged – oh, how phase changes plague me even now, at 3,000 meters above sea level and really far away from thermodynamics – and since the hut was closed, the only place for me to stand was inside the bathroom. Unfortunately, I didn’t check the signs and about twenty seconds after I parked myself in the entrance, huddled against the side of the bathroom wall for warmth, a very large Japanese dude brushed past me and stormed into the urinal. Instead of a normal girl who hadn’t been hiking up a mountain in the rain and wind who might’ve taken this as their cue to leave, I took this as a good time to take another one minute nap. (Don’t judge me. Especially since this was not my first time accidentally hanging out in a men’s bathroom. What? Who said that?)
We’d almost made it up to the 8th station – and I’d almost gotten that manly bathroom smell off me – when the weather started to get really, really bad. Difficult to stand up, let alone walk, bad. So I don’t think I am exaggerating too much when I tell you hiking up to each station began to look like the Pearly Gates:
You can imagine our disappointment when we found that the 8th Station was nothing more than a closed hut with a bunch of lights and a huddled group of freezing hikers sucking on oxygen tanks. But despite its more irritating, earlier counterparts, the Old 8th Station was definitely my favorite. We stopped to get some of the best hot chocolate I have ever had in my life, probably because I was hallucinating hot springs everywhere at that point, and warmed up for a few minutes since we were a little ahead of schedule.
From the Old 8th Station to the summit, and the time we spent to the summit, the weather was so bad that I couldn’t take out my camera anymore, especially since my fingers wouldn’t permit me. At this point, however, our trail merged with the most popular trail, which meant we started seeing more and more people. It was pretty surprising considering I was two minutes away from turning into a snowman and was sure no one else could be as crazy as we were, but as I said, Fuji is only open for two months out of the year, so any time during that two months you can be sure there will be people. Even if it’s pouring and a Tuesday night/Wednesday morning and a bunch of the huts are closed – the moral of the story is that any day of the week, PEOPLE ARE CRAZY.
It got so bad past the 9th Station that we were literally standing in line to get to the top of the mountain, right about the same time the weather decided to take a turn for the worse. For about an hour we stood in lines of tourists, feeling the rain slam down our necks, every now and then taking a step, every now and then getting blasted with an angry gust of wind. For about an hour I stood almost but not quite at the top, shivering and hating myself for doing this, wondering why I would ever put myself through this, what was I trying to prove, when this was ever going to end.
I forgot to add that the majority of the time we we’d been hiking, besides all the times I wasn’t breathlessly trying to keep up with the guys or playing songs in my head over and over to keep my mind off things, I was counting the ways I was lucky. Lucky that I couldn’t see anything – because if I had been able to see how far up we were going, I probably would’ve turned around and gone home. (Alexis had headed back down shortly before the 7th station because of his fear of heights, and I knew at that point I had to keep going.) Lucky that I was so out of breath, because my body heat was keeping me from really feeling the cold most of the time. Lucky that I was so ridiculously unprepared and had no idea what was in store for me because that made it harder for me to psych myself out. Lucky that Takuya was nice enough to wait up for me, lucky that the wind kept me from getting too overheated, lucky that it was raining so I didn’t have to get out my water bottle. (You ever hear that song? If allll the rain drops were lemon drops and gum drops..)
But at this point, we had essentially stopped hiking, and I’d really begun to feel the cold. I was no longer warmed by being sweaty or out of breath, and the plastic bags I’d tied over my shoes (did I mention we were REALLY unprepared?) had torn completely off so that my socks were soaked through. In fact, everything I was wearing was completely soaked through – my gloves, my sweatshirt, my fleece, my jeans, my hair – oh, yes, ALL of my hair – and I was reminded of particularly cold mornings in Cambridge when I’d run to class – late, of course – just out of the shower, and my hair would freeze over or break off. I imagined the same thing happening to my fingers, one by one, like icicles that would be left on the ground to melt into Fuji’s rocks forever.
And then Takuya, loyally trudging behind me in line, yelled “200 m to 10th station!”
“200 m left! Yatta ne!”
“We did it!” I yelled, flailing my arms around and almost knocking Takuya back down the mountain.
Those last 200 m were the longest of my life, but the sky had started to lighten as day began to break and I slowly began to feel lucky again. I looked up and started to see dozens of other hikers, all drudging slowly and patiently up to the peak, and I felt that same sense of warmth spread through my chest like when you find someone in the lounge up at 3 in the morning doing the same pset you are. Finally, FINALLY, we stumbled up the final stairs and jumped around the summit of Mt. Fuji, pumping our fists in victory and in the desperate hope that feeling might return to our fingers.
Takuya and I had been long separated from Chris and Yasu at that point, so we wandered around for a bit trying to find them before succumbing to the internally heated temptation of the huts at the top. These huts sold ramen and curry and hot drinks at ridiculous prices and offered all the comforts of the men’s bathroom at the 7th station without any of the smell. Except for the smell of VICTORY. (In case you were wondering, victory kinda smells like burned rice.)
We didn’t get to see the sunrise. The sky was too cloudy and it was still raining by 4:30, so there were no legendary skies for us, despite all extra grief we’d been through to get there. And at around 7:30, one of the hut workers told us we were going to get altitude sickness if we stayed up there any longer and advised us to go down – so we didn’t get to see the eclipse, either.
But the view on the way down was spectacular.
Two weeks later back at sea level, I’m not sure if it was worth it. It was worth it in the sense that I wanted to climb Mt. Fuji, and I wanted to prove I was just as hardcore as the boys I climbed with, and the view on the way down was really something else. It wasn’t worth it in that I had really wanted to see the sunrise and the eclipse, but if I keep thinking about all the regrets I have about the things I have no control over I’d miss out on the chance to think about how lucky we were – especially since there were two climbers that went missing a few nights before we climbed Fuji.
But we conquered Mt. Fuji, and now I feel like I can do anything.
“GREAT!” my mom said, when I’d finished telling her this story (not in so many words) over Skype. “So now you can do it again when we get there?”