Fuji San: Climbing Among the Stars

Fuji San in deep snow--sketch based on Hokusai

Fuji San in deep snow–sketch based on Hokusai

Mount Fuji in Deep Snow based on Hokusai

Fuji San*I woke up freezing at 2 am. An old man snored heavily, and the echoes of his roaring snore filled the entire mountain barracks of the Eighth Station (Hachigome) I could not drift back into sleep and instead got up and walked out into a dazzling starry night after a full day of climbing up to here in the rain. The stars gleamed overhead, and the small towns of Mishima and Fujinomiya near the eastern coast of Japan glowed far below like underworld constellations. Fuji looked as though it had become part of the Milky Way, with its upper snowfields blending into the heavens. I felt like Shimamura, a character in Yasunari Kawabata’s famous novel Snow Country (Yuki Guni), as he stood outside in the hilly, wintry north country of Japan in silence: “The Milky Way. Shimamura too looked up, and he felt himself floating into the Milky Way.

Its radiance was so near that it seemed to take him up to it. Was this the bright vastness the poet Basho saw when he wrote of the Milky Way arched over a stormy sea?”I stood and stared until my teeth chattered. The promised warmth of the building with its open-pit charcoal fire (kotatsu) finally pulled me back inside. By now the noisy old man was up, but my family and friend remained in a deep sleep. Crawling back into my sleeping bag, I quickly dozed off for a half hour or so until I hear a loud crunching sound. Maura awakened startled, and wondered if Fuji was becoming an active volcano again (it hasn’t erupted since 1704). Both of us dressed quickly and went outside to find hundreds of Japanese hikers with headlamps crunching up the mountainside from the Fifth Station (Gogome) where we had begun yesterday. While we had climbed in the driving rain, they waited for better weather.They looked like mythical beings attempting to return to some sort of Japanese Shangri-La.Astonished, Maura and I went back inside and discovered the rest of our group up and eating a breakfast of oranges, seaweed crackers, and hot green tea (o’cha). The first glow of morning light was already visible from far out in the Pacific as we hit the trail. Japan’s rising sun is Colorado’s setting sun. We slowly hoofed along toward luminous snowfields 2,000 feet above us. All of the valleys below had clouded in.

About 800 vertical feet above the eighth station, a Buddhist torii framed the rising sun. The torii glowed red and then gold above the black lava rocks. And then one of the most mystical alpine views of my experience suddenly sprung before me. The pyramid shape of Fuji San cast itself on the lower clouds and moved slowly westward. The only time before had I seen this Brocken Specter (as John Muir calls it in The Mountains of California), and that was on Longs Peak, Colorado twenty-two years earlier.

Except for Maura, all of my climbing party were weary, tired, and sick. Realizing they were suffering from altitude sickness, I suggested we stop at the Ninth Station (Kugome) for some restorative tea. It was warm and cozy there, with some lively but plaintive Japanese folksongs as background music. But the children still looked weary.

Maura volunteered to stay at the Ninth Station (11,000 feet) with the sick ones while my restored daughter Maureen and I hiked up to the ninth and a half station and slowly and carefully picked our way along the lava trail to the Tenth and final station (jugome). It was chilly at the summit of the highest point in Japan, 12,388 feet, but very exhilarating to peer down into the 600 foot deep crater. The temperature at 8 am was a blustery 34 degrees F. We ducked into the Buddhist jinja, or shrine, to warm up and chatted in broken Japanese with one of the monks kneeling on a tatami mat. All of Honshu Island remained enshrouded in silver banks of cloud far, far below. But here, in the lodge of the sun, we stood humbly in the radiant brightness of crisp sky and white snow. Maureen and I could not wait to tell the rest of our family what the summit of Fuji San looked like so high above all of Japan.

Summary

Climbing Mount Fuji (Fuji-San) is magnificent at nighttime when the tiny dots of city lights below look like stars and the stars above, so brilliant, create the illusion that the climber feels that he is in outer space.

* This is a modified excerpt from my book Breaking Through the Clouds (Pruett, 2005).

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