The hike up Mt. Fuji was about the most amazing experience of my life. It seems as though i keep on saying to myself that something was the most incredible experience and then i say it again a short time later! Anyway, we climbed from about the half-way point because we had only one day to do it and although we got to the mountain at 7:30 we knew it was immediately evident that the hike would take a lot of doing!
Fuji-san is one of the hardest climbs i have had, not because it was the steepest (the one in Korea was steeper) or because it was rocky (Mt. Washington has larger rocks), but because it was the longest steep climb on loose gravel i have ever attempted. The whole slope of the mountain is made up of gravel sized pieces of lava. There are occasionally big rocks too, but don’t step on them! You see, they are lava and therefore light enough to move under the weight of a full grown person. We started at the tree line. I think that it is a tree line not necessaarily because of altitude but because of lack of soil.
It was really amazing to go up a mountain that is easily twice as high as the next highest mountain in view and is as steep as Tuckerman’s Ravene but has no trees or bushes at all. The view was completely panoramic. At the plodding pace that your legs force you to maintain, there is plenty of opportunity to look back and see the world from a distance of about 7000 feet. It is like being in a plane that is all glass so you can see everywhere.
I am in better physical shape than the other guys, thanks to my hacky-sack, so i was alone for most of the climb. After the hustle and noise of Yokohama, the clean mountain air was astoundingly silent. The only quiet sounds were the calls of the iwatsuzume, or rock sparrow. I was amazed at how high up these little birds were. I wondered what the heck they could possibly find to eat among the sea of poreous rocks and decided to keep my eyes peeled for a hint. Eventually, caught a brief glimpse of a spider and some other crane fly-like bugs; i had my answer.
I kept wanting to stray away from the trail to go look at the crater on the east side. I don’t think that i had ever seen a volcanic crater before. However, i had decided from the bottom that i would eat my lunch at the highest shack i could see from there, so i kept going straight (well, as straight as one can go considering the switch-backs in the trail). Anyway, i started up again and soon found myself approaching the building that had looked so far away a few hours before. When i turned around again, there was a massive cloud coming up the mountain toward me. It was thick enough to block out all visual contact with the ground far below. It looked like the world was gone and i was about to be gone too. I looked up and decided to race the cloud to the building. Slowly and painfully, i tried to pick up the pace a bit but it was nearly impossible to get my tired body to move any faster than it was. I pushed myself, the whole time thinking that there was no way that i was going to give up! Eventually, i made it to the building and when i turned around, the cloud was about twenty feet away. It looked like a huge white wall that was sweeping toward me at an incredible rate! Smiling, i watched as the first mists of it speed passed me and on up to the top. Soon, i could only see about ten feet in all directions!
It got frigidly cold and very dark. My hair was collecting condensation and i wondered if i was going to actually be inside a rain cloud. It never actually rained, although i could feel water droplets hitting my face. Soon after it arrived, it started to thin and i could see a little way down the mountain. My friend Joe was down there. We ate lunch next to that building and it as very good! I leaned over to get an apple out of my bag and when i stood up again, the cloud was completely gone! There was clear air all the way up to the overcast sky above. I was stunned enough to just stand there for a minute wondering if i had imagined the whole thing!
So, after lunch we continued up and soon, as Joe fell behind, i was alone again. I kept on thinking about how i was doing this all because I wanted to and not because someone was helping me or challenging me or pushing me. It was something i had become quite determined to do. My legs were burning with pain, but i pushed myself passed my limits in order to get higher and achieve more.
I had long since been watching as more and more snow fields were becoming evident. I began to worry as the snow on the sides of the trail got deeper and closer to the trail itself. I thought back to the night before when i realized that i might not have the equipment and skill to get to the top–which i knew would be covered in snow. But i trekked onward. The higher i went, the closer the snow got to the trail. Eventually, i was walking in it. Then, i got to the building where i would turn around. It was one of the many huts for overnight hikers. People were coming out with crampons and climbing picks and i realized that i was way out of my league.
I walked around the building to look at the rest of the slope, and my heart feel to the ground. Snow. Snow as far as the eye could see through the clouds! I just stood looking longingly toward the top–which i was sure that i should be able to see were it not for the clouds. The more i looked, the more i accepted my inability to ascend further. Soon, i became quite pacified. I had finally come face to face with the most important symbol in Japan. Further, i had come to understand this beautiful relic of nature as a being. It brings tears to my eyes to think of what happened to me there. I came to life! I came to life in a way i never knew possible. As my wind-blown hair whipped around my head, my thoughts raced my emotions at a break-neck pace to gain control. The tears froze on my face and i started shaking as i realized what it felt like to be there. To REALLY be there, on top of the highest point east of the Himalayas. The Japanese revere Fuji-san as the gateway to God and it is easy for me to understand, now, what would drive these Shinto Shamen to haul such massive timbers up to that lofty height to form a square archway for lowly mortals to walk through before coming upon God itself.
I am permanently changed by this event. I will never unlearn what Fuji-san taught me.
After a long moment of standing there in the biting wind (feeling that wind rip through my soul to reform it), i finally turned and went back to my pack to get the camera. Nothing man-made will ever come close to being able to relay what that spot really is, but i decided to at least photograph what i could. However, a Japanese man happened along who offered to take a picture of me there. I don’t think i will treasure another photograph as much as that one-even if the cloud that passed between us completely obscures me. I posed for the picture and then went back to see if Joe had caught up and wanted to go down yet. He did. So, with one final wet-eyed glance toward the most beautiful place i have ever been, i began to take my leave of my teacher: the mountain called Fuji.