It is 3 a.m. and I am on a 45-degree slope that has lasted approximately five hours and won’t end. My thighs are wrung out and heavy. I have miraculously not yet lost my shit. Nor have I peed in the last five hours. I eventually will hold it in for a further ten.
That morning, the plan had been to climb Mt. Fuji via the Gotemba trial on the southeast side of the mountain. It’s the longest route to the top, with the trailhead located at 1400 meters above sea level, and it’s also the least popular. The ascent has been described as a “gentle” slope, which seemed more reassuring given that we would be climbing in the off-season, when the mountain and all the huts along the way are officially closed. With an unseasonably warm weekend coming up, it was our last chance to climb to the summit this year. Suddenly I was packing a bag with borrowed gear and pulling out my base layers. Because, how bad could it really be?
According to my parents, I was going to die. “Rocks will come flying at you,” my mother said. I wasn’t sure what that meant. “Bring your bike helmet,” she insisted.
This contradicted what I’d heard of Mt. Fuji: essentially, that it’s the basic bitch of mountains. Mt. Fuji is accessible enough from Tokyo to have become a tourist attraction; a heavily Instagram-ed, bucket list item that appears to be easily conquered by the “reasonably fit.” Online, the climb is described as a boring, non-technical ascent, almost like it could be done with a bottle of water and yoga pants.
That characterization is misleading. Temperatures at the summit can fall to below freezing, which is a terrifying concept if you’re the type of person who considers anything below 24C, “cold.” I layered almost every cold-weather item I had from commuting to law school on a bike through Boston winters, and borrowed an Arc’teryx coat from my mother. I looked like I was prepared to climb Everest. Come what may, I was at least dressed to survive.
Unfortunately, although I had realized that I could freeze to death, I failed to take into account several factors, such as the route being largely unmarked, the length of the trail, and the large elevation gain. We started our climb from the Gotemba fifth station at around 10:30 p.m., two hours later than planned, but figured we’d make good time on the trail.
“It better not be like this all the way up,” Jwizzle joked within the first half hour. I’d laughed in response. We would eat those words.
With one headlight between us and no trail markers, we would later learn that we’d veered off the trail onto a path for whatever tanks they use to climb the side of mountains. After an hour, we were climbing a 45-degree slope. After another three hours, the soft, volcanic sand had sucked the strength out of my legs. On a much-needed break, I sat back and stared at the stars, which speckled the sky in varying degrees of brightness, like how I imagine my skin looks if examined under those skin analysis machines that show you exactly how shitty your complexion is. I kinda needed to pee.
The thing is, we were essentially in Mordor. There is no cover on Mt Fuji. It’s a barren landscape of volcanic ash and the occasional rock that is no bigger than a medium-sized dog. Ascended in the dark, every marker pole becomes a promise of some sort of turning point, before reality sets in and it breaks your soul. And then there’s the dust. Frodo may have been traveling with an anorexic suffering from a personality disorder, but at least he didn’t have volcanic ash blowing into his face the entire way.
By the time I started questioning whether I was going to get black lung, turning back wasn’t an option. We were still battling towards the 8th station when the sun came up, stretching its rays across the lakes below. The light gave me a little boost of hope and optimism. It lasted about five minutes before my legs were back to screaming and I was deliriously chanting the chorus to Joe Dassin’s “Les Champs-Elysees” in my head.
Luckily, whatever path we were on intersected the real trail near the 8th station. The landscape changed from Mordor to Mars, the soft sand turning into large volcanic rocks and puddles of pebbles, the trail now a sadistic scribble of switchbacks. I heaved myself over unstable rocks, running on fumes and determination. That French chorus quickly became my only companion as I started to seriously lag behind. Every few switchbacks, I could see Jwizzle waiting for me to catch up.
“You don’t have to wait,” I gasped unconvincingly, “I’ll be fine.”
It only dawned on me later that he was most likely waiting because he didn’t want a dead body – or the responsibility of being associated with one found on the side of a mountain – impeding his descent. At this point, although there were large enough rocks to sneak behind to pee, we started to see other hikers, both above and below us. This was enough of a deterrent; the last thing I wanted to do was to subject several Japanese mountain climbers to the sight of my bare butt. It was also cold. Cold enough that I didn’t know if I’d be able to warm up again if I exposed more than my face to the elements. I checked in with my bladder and reassessed my priorities. Peeing could wait.
We reached the summit a long, hard five hours after arriving at the 8th station. Near the rim of that volcanic crater, we ate a snack and I curled up against my backpack. I closed my eyes ready to jump into unconsciousness, fully aware that this is most likely how people die of exposure and/or freeze to death. I wondered where the helicopter would land to pick up my dead body.
I felt a small pang in my gut and I opened my eyes. I was okay with the embarrassment of dying on the side of a mountain, but the idea of being found dead in a puddle of my own urine roused me from any chance of sleep/death. Because if I had to go, I’d strongly prefer it wasn’t with a full bladder. I drummed my fists against my dead thighs and prepared to get off the mountain.
Since we had wandered down the scenic route, it had taken us a total of twelve hours to climb to the top. It would take us a laughably easy three to descent. Once we scrambled down the web of switchbacks, the rest of the route is made of deep, soft volcanic sand that’s referred to as “the sand slide.” We were able to almost jog down, the sand cushioning the impact you’d usually feel on the walk down a mountainside. Back at the trailhead, I made a beeline for a bathroom that smelled like a damp corner of Paris in the summer. It was probably worse than the alternative, but at least I didn’t have to worry about volcanic sand getting into my underwear.
A couple hours later, I emptied about four tablespoons of ash and small rocks from my shoes into a hotel trashcan. After a shower I only got out of so I could lie down, I dozed off to Japan stunning the world by beating Ireland in the Rugby World Cup, and dreamed of toilets.
[Some of the photographs in this post were taken with an expired disposable film camera.]