Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Mount Fuji

Friends: For thirty minutes or so I had the snow-doffed summit of Fuji in my sights, some 3,000 vertical feet nearly straight up. It finally came into view after I had been hiking for an hour, finally emerging from a bank of clouds that had been smothering me and my view.

I hadn't anticipated hiking all the way to its 12,000 foot summit when I set out at 8:15 this morning, but now I began to consider this seeming window of opportunity. But by the time I had gained another thousand feet the clouds began swooping up towards me, bringing at first a mist, then a drizzle, then sleet and finally snow. The sun wasn't going to burn this off. I had been pulling myself up Fuji's rugged volcanic rock side with the aid of a chain hand rail.

I knew my descent would be more treacherous than climbing it, especially when wet. I was well beyond the accepted climbing season.  Only one of the dozen or so rest houses along the way had been open and that a while half an hour. I huddled against a closed one for a few minutes to protect myself from the wind and blowing snow hoping it might pass, but I couldn't dally long, as I started rapidly cooling off. There was no one to consult. I hadn't seen another hiker all day, just the foot prints of some gaijin who passed me in a cab as I was finishing off the last three miles of the climb to road's end on my bike. As the sleet showed no sign of relenting, I knew I had to turn back.

I had camped three miles short of the trail head the night before. I knew camping was prohibited on the mountain, so I didn't want to push on too close to the cluster of business at road's end, where I might have been spotted. There hadn't been a great many viable camp sites as the road wound upwards through a thick forest. But as always, a near perfect campsite emerged just when I needed it--a slight flat space behind a small shed and a solar panel and some bushes, providing shelter from what little traffic might pass on the road. The toll road closed at seven, so it was going to be a quiet night. I was happy to quit biking a little early anyway, 800 feet below road's end and trail head at 7,800 feet. It was going to be a cold night, but a degree or two warmer at this lower elevation. It rained off and on all night. If the rained persisted I had enough food and water and reading material to spend the day in my tent. I wouldn't have objected, as I could use a rest day. But there was a break in the rain shortly before seven allowing me to hup to it.

There was a large parking lot when the road ended and a cluster of restaurants and souvenir stores and a Buddhist temple. At the start of the trail a sign warned, "Attention. Yoshidaguchi Mountain trail is closed from Sept. 5, 2006 to June 30, 2007. During the season this trail is not safety (sic). So we are not responsible for your life and what you do." Another sign said it was 6.3 kilometers to the summit. That wasn't much really, but more than 1,000 feet of altitude gain per mile, a fair amount. The paved road gained a steady 300 feet per mile, a six per cent grade, similar to a Category One Tour de France climb. It went on for 18 miles, three miles more than I had been forewarned. Its length might have qualified it for Beyond Category status. It will most definitely rank as one of my most memorable climbs.

Puddles and wet leaves littered the trail. For a long stretch it was a twenty-foot wide thoroughfare with switchback after switchback held in place by retaining walls. I began seeing patches of snow at 9,000 feet when the trail suddenly shot straight up and turned from volcanic sand and gravel to volcanic rock. I continued onward, drawn by the site of wooden huts clinging to the mountain side, though I knew it was most likely I would soon have to turn back.

As I descended, I alternated between clinging to the icy cold chain and crouching crab style seeking safe foot holds amongst the slick, pocked volcanic rock. It rained all the way down. My Gore Tex jacket kept my upper body warm but my cycling tights were soaked. As I neared the trails end I encountered a couple of Japanese tourists under umbrellas and a dozen or so businessmen in suits and clear ponchos, all obviously just going for a little stroll.

At first I thought I'd hop right on my bike and get off the mountain while I still had some body warmth, but when I paused to jot a note I discovered my hand couldn't curl around my pen. I was much colder than I realized. It was a little past noon. I ducked into the nearest restaurant and ordered a couple of rice balls. I was their first customer of the day. Someone came out and turned on the heater in the middle of a room of picnic tables. I moved a bench in front of it and sat there for an hour trying to warm up. I stuck my hands alternately under my armpits. Even after half an hour my hands failed to warm up. At least my tights dried quickly with the heat blasting on me.

After 45 minutes I was joined by a group of jovial 30 year-old men and women. As has happened previously, they wanted to take their picture with me. Time up at the computer.

Later, George

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