Whatever they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men, the last forty-eight hours had nothing to do with them. I didn't reach the summit of Fuji, though I did make it within eyeshot. I barely saw the dawn. And unfortunately, there's no pictures.
What I did get was one heck of a cold, a respect for the harshness of nature, and six hours of utter misery. Oh, and a need to say thanks to a U.S. Marine.
The trip started well. The bus got me to the base of Fuji about nightfall, and I joined a group of missionaries who were a bit better prepared. (One nice thing about travelling on one's own--you meet people.) I had on three shirts, two pairs of jeans, some gloves, and a hat. The weather seemed mild, and the ascent was easy all the way to the seventh stage. (Fuji has eight stages, with the summit slightly past the eighth.) The fact that my flashlight burnt out wasn't a major killer, because with several thousand Japanese making the same ascent, light wasn't much of a problem.
(An image that will stay with me forever--looking down the slope from the sixth stage, observing the trail of walkers in the darkness. They formed a slowly ascending river of flashlights, like a highly organized firefly migration.)
About the middle of the seventh stage, it started to get cold. This was nothing I wasn't prepared for: I put on my final shirt, and wrapped an old t-shirt around my head to keep my ears and back warm. Yes, this looks pretty stupid, but it works quite well, and it wasn't like I was trying to impress with my fashion sense. Though the wind was picking up, I barely felt it through three layers of shirt.
Then the wind really began.
One of the astounding things about Fuji is that even with three thousand people per day attempting the ascent, there's not a lot of official help up there. Sure, there's guest houses, but unless you have a reservation they'll be of no avail: they won't even let you in the door. And whilst I wasn't kitted up like a lot of the Japanese making the ascent--covered head to foot in really quite significant climbing gear--I was a lot better off than some of the people up there.
Nonetheless, I spent three hours huddled in a windbreak near the Mt. Fuji Hotel (which is nothing like a hotel, to be honest), loving it every time someone opened the door and some of the heat escaped. At times I thought I was going to get close to hypothermia. I surely needed warm food.
At this point, a U.S. Marine--one of a number who were climbing that day as a part of a 'friendship hike' with some Japanese natives--passed by and offered me a windbreaker. I've got his name, his post address, and he's getting that windbreaker back with a very nice gift, because it probably saved me from frostbite.
By the time I got towards the last few huts, before the final ascent, it was 2 AM. The wind had gone from merely dangerous to a full-blown storm: those were thirty mile winds if they were a breeze. I was afraid to keep going upwards: the black rocks shone slick and sharp, and if I injured myself, I had no idea how to get down.
I certainly wasn't getting the worst of it. Outside of the last two huts--which wouldn't let anyone in without a reservation--people were huddling for warmth and shelter wherever they could get it. One woman--a tourist of unbelievable naivety--was up there in jeans and a t-shirt. Her legs seemed almost blue, and I worried that she might not make it through the night.
In any event, when it came time for the final ascent it had begun to rain, and I simply couldn't make it. The wind had yet to die down, my legs were soaked... there was no way I'd go any further. I could barely see the top through the mist. Sun rose for me outside a hut my the eighth station, and it wasn't as if I could even see it: the cloud cover was too thick.
And yet the descent... it takes quite a while, and goes own a long, winding route completely different and much safer than the one you climb. And after the sun rose, the wind began to die and the air began to warm itself. Gradually I shed wet clothing, until finally at the bus I was down to two shirts.
And the view... it's beautiful. A companion I met on the way promised to send me some pictures, and if I get them I'll post them.
All in all, I probably won't try that again, and if I do, I'll spend the vast amounts of money it takes to equip myself correctly. The morning was lovely, but it was a very long, cold night.
[I know this entry is rather disjointed, and would like to blame lack of sleep. I'll re-edit it when I've had sufficient rest to recover from this venture.]