We set off towards the famous angular white slopes of Mount Fuji at eight on a Saturday night unprepared, sleep-deprived, and undoubtedly still nursing a hangover from the previous night’s revels in Hamamatsu. The four of us, Matt, Tim, me, and the slightly creepy Johnny Yi crammed into a efficiently-built Nissan after having a very obliging woman take the same photo with each of our four cameras and began what would be a trip so exhausting that I would almost forget how severely beautiful it was until I saw the photos two weeks later.
As we slowly ascended the mountain, car laboring and us bantering, I noticed the rather beautiful and eerily mythical forest that was slowly enveloping us. The ancient wood was so crowded with trees that pushed out towards the road as if with a plan to overtake it that you couldn’t see very far into it. The proliferation of rakish trees and heavy vegetation soon formed a dizzying wall that prevented any penetrating view. It seemed a place that could suck unwary travelers into its labyrinths and then bear down on them with all the treacherous devices possessed by an enchanted forest.
I later learned I was not the only one to notice a strange quality in Fuji’s guardian forest. It turns out that Aokigahara Jukai (Sea of Trees) is worthy of more than just a casual wariness. The soil that fuels Aokigahara is heavily veined with iron which causes traditional compasses to malfunction and leaves travelers unable to distinguish between North and South. More sinister is its apparent strong pull on those unfortunates who find themselves wanting to end their lives. The forest has for many years been Japan's location du jour for suicide with over 78 bodies dragged out in 2002 alone. In a coping strategy of questionable effectiveness authorities placed “no-suicide” signs throughout the area. Locals also reluctantly undertake a search of the macabre wood annually.
The road thinned beyond the forest and my ears began to pop as we drove steadily up the mountain and out of the treacherous forest. We pulled into the parking lot at stage 5-there are 10 stages or stopping points throughout the mountain-and had to navigate through an army of amateur astronomers and their equipment. At last finding a spot amid the telescope-village we stepped out of the car and stretched, suddenly alert in the cold night air.
We started the climb at what we thought was a moderate pace but soon found ourselves gasping from the steep trail and lack of oxygen. Johnny Yi announced his resignation from our team after around fifteen minutes of silently wheezing behind us; I was relieved. As Johnny turned around we quickly adjusted and vowed to keep the pace slow. We created a breaking system wherein every ten to fifteen minutes we took a brief respite, leaning against the large porous boulders scattered about, and let our raw lungs and bodies acclimate. After each rest Matt and I would trade the head lamp which carried with it the distinguished position of leader. Though it bore more responsibility, the leader regulating both path and pace, the lead position was actually easier-provided there was no avalanche-because directing the light made every step more sure and reduced the amount stumbles and unnecessary steps.Each dusty step we took up the mountain’s southern route, Fujinomiya, found us closer to the 6th stage. With burning lungs we reached the rusted metal shack that marks our first real stopping point and found to our dismay that the heavy iron doors were locked.
After a short rest against the sealed doors we snapped some photos of ourselves in front of the invitingly ominous, “trail closed for conditions,” sign before stepping around it. About 100 meters from the 6th stage we discovered why the trail was closed: it was completely gone. The guide-rope, our greatest alley against the steep inclines, had been covered by a season’s worth of iced-over snow and the correct path was decidedly non-existent. “Should we keep going,” someone asked but we all just stood, feet shifting, looking skeptically at where the rope dove into the white and the vast icy incline rose beyond. Though we were all thinking the same thing, namely that it would be stupid to try and continue, none of us wanted to be the one to say so and thus it was that after ten minutes of hesitation we dug our shoes into the ice and moved on.
With one flashlight, old running shoes, no climbing equipment, and no gloves climbing was, well, hard. Every direction held precarious steps and, as I realized about half-way up, a distinct possibility of serious injury. As it grew steeper we were forced to crawl. Our hands grew raw from grasping frozen outcroppings and it was with great joy that I discovered a discarded work glove stuck to the ice in front of me. We took a long rest at the metal structure that appeared before us at the end of our climb. After pondering our idiocy and eating a packet of Ritz crackers apiece we began our hike again. By then I had implemented a two-minute glove exchange between my right and left hand thus distributing the cold equally. As we hiked on I noticed Matt was wearing a pair of extra socks on his hands. Tim noticed too and for the rest of the trip he referred to us respectively as, “socks,” and, “one-glove.”
Two hours into the mountain, we saw a shadowy light to one side of the trail. We watched the light grow brighter until at a fork in the trail we saw two figures emerge as if from the fog behind. I knew, even before we found out they had both been climbing Fuji alone, that they were crazy. Both of them wore shorts. Dave, a Canadian Grad student turned out to be quite funny-if unintentionally so-and a bit strange. Daigo was Japanese and spoke literally five words the whole time I knew him but I found him an amiable enough companion. After introducing ourselves we voted to continue the climb together and set off bolstered by our new forces. The next few hours were tiring but pleasant, punctuated by frequent rests that allowed us to watch the dark skates of clouds that roamed the silent sky below. When not resting or trudging silently up the lifeless slopes we listened, bemused, as Dave explained how he came to be on Fuji that night. Apparently a concerned family had found him, unable to speak the language and lost, at a store in a town near the base of Fuji and had graciously taken him to their house and offered him some dinner. About half-way through dinner he began to feel tired and rather than attributing it to jet-lag or sleep-deprivation, both of which he was surely suffering from, he concluded the family had poisoned him. As soon as he came to this realization he rose from the table and announced his imminent and hasty departure. Somehow despite his boorish and strange behavior he still managed to extract a ride from the family to the 5th stage where he began his hike. Naturally we pointed out the danger he put himself in by accepting a ride from someone who had so recently tried to poison him. The other thing about Dave that I found hopelessly funny was that, unable to remember Daigo's name, he simply addressed him by a different one each time, some of which were little more than mumbles.
I had perfected my glove-transfer timing by this time and was rejoicing in my relatively warm hands when we came upon a sign proclaiming 90 minutes to the summit. It’s hard to tell distances when climbing a mountain; sometimes far looks near and sometimes near looks far. Whatever the approximate distance was then, I was ready for it to be half to a third less than the sign said but there was no chance of giving up then. We were right on for reaching the peak at sunset and had no intention of sacrificing that. The final 400 meters of the climb is broken up by steep but comparatively soft-terrain of wide snaking switchbacks. As we reached this fateful point we noticed we were now quite able to see our surroundings, the red-gray sand and rocks suddenly visible in all their dusty resplendence. This, however, was not good. Our time was running out.
I was starting to think that the sunrise would look quite nice from the bottom of the switchbacks but Tim and Matt had been re-energized by the slowly pinkening sky. Brains clouded by the race with the sun and noting that we could see the peak just beyond us, they suggested we ditch the trail and go straight up the rock-strewn rise straight ahead of us. It would mean taking the elevation gain all at once rather than slowly with the switchbacks but presumably we would reach our goal faster. Dave was against it, pointing out how steep it was, we would have to proceed hand-over-foot, and how dangerous it would be. Daigo was, per usual, silent on the matter-though his face seemed steeled to accept any decision-which seemed to leave the decision up to me. Sealing our fate, I looked up at the shimmering peak and said “well, we’re almost there right?” And with those marginally encouraging words we began to make our way, at a pace that seemed alternately very slow and ludicrously fast, up the mountain’s final feet.
It took less than five minutes for me to nurture a deep regret regarding my decision to skirt the path. By then we had then been hiking for over five hours at a time when we were usually in bed. Each successive movement was more exhausting. I was resting at least as much as moving forward and still with every rock I grasped my chest grew tighter. I was fighting off dizziness and nausea of which the former was alarming given the precarious situation I was in. The mountain seemed to drop off behind me. I looked up and saw Matt disappear over the top and cursed him to myself. When I finally pulled myself over the last rocks of our improvised trail every one of my muscles felt utterly useless and I wanted nothing more than to take a quick nap but as I walked into the icy gusts that batter the top of Fuji I forgot all that and fell into an awed trance, struck by the uncommonly perfect beauty surrounding me. The sun had just overtaken the horizon and bled a striking orange across the sky, enshrining the sharp outline of the far peak. As I watched fiery dark-red tints join the orange Matt walked over and we congratulated each other.
“God,” I yelled into the wind, "look at that."
“Yeah,” he yelled back smiling.
We walked carefully across the icy surface that flowed up and down like great motionless waves, keeping our heads down to avoid the wind. Looking down into the crater, tremendous and gaping below, I felt huge. Rather than overpowered by the immensity of everything, I felt strengthened by it. The exertion, the hours spent slowly climbing the mountain, and the fact that we alone had shared the night with its rocky curvatures led to a feeling of oneness with it all. I hadn't defeated the mountain and the mountain hadn't defeated me; we existed symbiotically.
When the biting wind became too much for our already-chapped faces we retreated to a nook about twenty meters below the peak. Huddled there in relative comfort we pulled out a small bottle of sake and with little delay passed it around following each drink with “cheers” and “kanpai” while looking down on the mountain we had summited.
The walk down, which at some points would have been more aptly described as a stumble, was still long though we cut our climbing time in half. Occasionally we would snap out of our exhaustion-fueled trances and glimpse the new mountain daylight had revealed. The tropical vegetation at the base seemed almost obscenely green and the large patches of snow sparkled white all around us. In all honesty though I spent much of the hike down imagining the meal I would have at Denny’s later and trying to ignore the pain in my feet. The last dusty mile of trail was hell. It was like a slow-motion dream or an exhausted astronaut's moon- walk, every step obscenely big and awkward. Our feet sank into the sandy ground and my legs functioned at about 30 percent of their capacity. When we at last reached the bottom we spread out in front of the sign that marks the start of the trail and took a group photograph. I wanted nothing more than to sleep but as I looked back up Fuji’s slopes, marbled white and dotted with porous red-brown rock, I remembered the vastness of the sunrise and the beauty we saw alone on the top of the mountain.