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To the summit of Mount Fuji

Rarely does a piece of geography come to symbolise an entire country so completely as Mount Fuji in Japan. Huge, triangular and symmetrical, capped with snow in the winter, Fuji-san is celebrated in Japanese art, culture and religion as a place of sacred power and beauty. Few people can fail to recognise its world-famous image.

Climbing Mount Fuji is an experience not to be missed for any visitor to Japan. In July and August the mountain is open for people willing to tackle what is an arduous but rewarding climb.

Five routes snake their way up the mountain, varying in length and difficulty. On my trip we chose the Fujinomiya route, the quickest – though not necessarily the easiest – path, with an average time of five hours to the peak. To reach the bottom of the route you must drive or take the bus to the Fifth Stage of the mountain, passing dense primeval forests and arriving well above the clouds to begin your ascent.

My companions on the journey were fellow teachers. Coincidentally, both were ex-army men. Paul had spent 10 years in the British Army as a mechanic. He was high-spirited and energetic, and had already climbed Fuji twice before, in the weeks prior to the climbing season. On his first ascent, he had almost become lost in a white-out, as cloud descended to touch the snow, creating a dense mist.

Mike was once in the US army, but his physical condition was much closer to my own unremarkable state. He was still recovering from a broken ankle the year before and climbing the volcano was his first major challenge. For the duration of the climb we kept together while Paul roared off in front of us. 

The first stages of our ascent were easy going, up a slope of black volcanic rock dotted with plants. A steady trickle of climbers descended past us, the pain etched on their faces an indication of what was to come. At each stage there are huts where you can rest and buy refreshments. A popular climb is the night-time ascent, when you reach the halfway point and then rent a mattress in one of the huts, before waking up early and completing the hike in time for the sunrise.

We opted for the less popular sunset climb, and by the upper reaches we were the only people in sight. The trail zigzagged up the mountain with a rope strung between metal rods to indicate the way. It was mainly a tough scramble over boulders, rocks and scree. On either side of us the volcano sloped away at an almost perfect 45º angle. At each stage we glanced down on the vista below us: the sides of the mountain, the twisting and turning trail, the forest far below, and the flat white sheet of the clouds.

Higher up we began to feel the drop in temperature. Even in July there were stretches of snow that hadn’t melted. The cooler air made the climb somewhat easier, although my two layers of clothing were soaked through with sweat. At every step I remembered just how difficult climbing could be. It was hard to say which was the most murderous aspect: the constant motion, the energy expenditure, or the mounting pain. The irregularity of my steps was wearying. I could not stand up straight, and no two steps were the same in height, angle or energy.

Past six o’clock the sunset coloured the sky in shades of pink and yellow. The summit above us had cleared; until now one half of the cone had been shrouded in wisps of vapour. Below us, we could see the great triangular shadow of the mountain falling on the cloud layer.

By now the journey had taken on a gruelling, epic status. Each new stage revealed another beyond it. The world was far, far below us and the silence began to press in. It felt as if we were truly climbing onto some Biblical mountaintop.

A sign appeared: “Hang in there! 30 minutes to the top”. Mike was suffering from dehydration and tunnel vision. We were stopping every ten steps to suck in air and muster the strength for the rest of the climb. The route then turned into a rugged set of steps and at length we hauled ourselves over the lip and onto the flat ground of the summit.

Suddenly exposed to the wind on the top, we felt the bite of the cold, and hurried to pull on warmer clothes. We moved past the post office and the small cluster of tents where some hardy people were sheltering for the night. The going on level ground was much easier and we trudged through a lunar landscape of barren rock and JCB diggers.

The volcano’s crater looked remarkably like a quarry, and as such, was quite unremarkable. Fuji has been dormant since 1707; anyone expecting wisps of steam escaping from a fiery crack in the earth will be disappointed.

There was no disappointment on the final stage, however. We had to surmount one more brutally steep rise to reach the summit, where a plinth marked the very top – 3,776 metres (12,390 feet) above sea level. As we stood by the marker, breathless with triumph, an Eskimo-like figure appeared from around the corner and tramped past us, on his way back to the weather station that rests atop the mountain.

Mike decided this was the time to break out the cheese and miniature bottle of wine he had brought to celebrate the climb. It soon became apparent that it was too cold to take off our gloves to eat the food, and in any case, drinking alcohol at this altitude was just silly.

Next to the weather station was a walkway and a short ladder leading up to a metal platform. From there we saw the dying embers of the sunset and clouds as far as the eye could see. It was like the view from a plane – it was the top of the world. Directly below us the slope of the volcano rolled away, and we could see the gap all around the mountain where the clouds did not touch it, a strip of clear air. The pure and utter silence was astonishing, almost as arresting as the view.

We began our descent with the route shrouded in darkness. Minutes later we were treated to one more spectacular sight. A shimmering through the upper layer of clouds caught our attention. We watched amazed as the moon rose rapidly in the sky before us. First it was a shrouded, distant haze, then it bled out of the clouds into a blood red ball. For a split second it had the terrible beauty of an atomic explosion. We held our breath, half-expecting it to shape into a mushroom. Then the moon tore free of the clouds and accelerated into the heavens. It changed from red to yellow to white, before taking its place amongst the stars above, lighting our descent.

The route going down seemed longer and more tedious than the climb. The distances between stages appeared greater, as if they had been moved further apart since we had passed through. The darkness certainly did not help, and it was easy to lose your footing and make a mis-step. Before long, Paul had disappeared ahead of us, and Mike and I continued at our own pace. I was beginning to experience pangs of nausea – a worrying indication that our ascent had been too rapid. Altitude sickness is a common enough occurrence and the usual advice is to descend immediately – which was what I was trying to do.

By around the halfway point we began to meet the first of a stream of hikers climbing to see the dawn. We managed to make out a few gaijin (foreigners) in the darkness and stopped to say hello. We became like veteran mountaineers offering advice and encouragement. The lower slopes, which seemed to go on interminably, were at least easier going. We watched groups of Japanese climbers go by with the lights on their heads bobbing and the bells on their staffs jingling like the Seven Dwarfs.

Finally we landed back in the car park from which we had departed hours before. Paul had his feet up in the front seat of the van, having arrived over an hour earlier. The total climb had been something like eight hours, with a quick ascent followed by a trickier descent in the dark. There were times on the way down when I thought we would never see the end of that mountain, and no other place in the world seemed to exist other than our rocky trail.

Despite the fact that old people and children regularly make the trek up Mount Fuji, there is no denying the difficulty of the climb. Fuji is after all a sacred site, and the pilgrimage to its summit is supposed to be something of a test. It’s important not to tackle the climb too quickly, as we did, and warm clothing and copious quantities of water are essential.

Climbing Fuji will always be one of those things I’m proud of having done, and the trials and pain of the climb will fast fade in my rose-tinted memory. The view from the top is a sight to behold and you will forever have the satisfaction of looking at a postcard of Mount Fuji and knowing that you have stood on the very top of it. But the Japanese have a proverb: a wise man climbs Fuji once, a fool climbs it twice. I may abide by that.

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