SI Vault
John William Lee
October 02, 1972
What was meant to be a leisurely afternoon hike in the foothills of Fujiyama turns instead into a devilish night as an American businessman finds himself trapped on the torturous paths of the sacred mountain
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October 02, 1972

Ye Gods! What's Up!

What was meant to be a leisurely afternoon hike in the foothills of Fujiyama turns instead into a devilish night as an American businessman finds himself trapped on the torturous paths of the sacred mountain

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As the sun set, we gathered downstairs to eat. Minoru again introduced me in words that drew a polite round of applause. A pregnant lull followed his introduction and, finding all eyes upon me, I gave in to an absurd impulse, stood up, thanked them for their hospitality and failed utterly to declare that I had not the slightest intention of climbing Fuji-san. I sat down amidst another ripple of applause and the feasting began.

I picked up my chopsticks only to find a young girl at my side offering me a knife and fork. I took them, thanked her, but went on eating with my chopsticks. "Our hostess is honored that you use chopsticks in her house," said Minoru. I looked across at our hostess and received a deep bow of acknowledgment. I began to wonder about accepting all this acclaim when deep in my heart I knew that I was going to fail them. The meal was mysterious and lengthy. Early courses remained while new ones were brought. The table was loaded with hundreds of dishes by the time we finished.

My roommates and I returned to our room for the rest period preceding the assault on Fuji. Feeling an idiot and scoundrel, I lay down on the floor in the dark with the others, feigning sleep and making plans for escape. I would ride with them to the mountain, walk along for a while and then apologize and turn back. I would stop in at the attractive hybrid Japanese-Swiss chalet ski lodge that was sure to be there or grab a cab to the nearest train station. The others would be so engrossed with the climb they would barely notice my absence. The sake that had been served at dinner made it seem a plausible solution.

I awakened to find everyone unpacking knapsacks, unrolling bundles, extracting heavy hiking boots, sweaters, cold weather underwear, ski pants and other assorted mountain-climbing attire. Yoshiko stripped to her undies right there next to me and put on parka and pants. Everyone seemed to be dressing to withstand the severest weather and I felt naked by contrast. But, at last, I had what I needed, an excuse for not climbing to the top. Obviously, I did not have the proper clothing. I would go along with them until it became cold, then point out my lack of suitable attire and regretfully turn back.

We rode through the night in a small bus to the Fifth Station. Fuji at one time was divided into 10 stations from bottom to top. Then a road was built taking softer climbers up to the Fifth Station, which is as high as a vehicle can go. From there you proceed on foot or by horse. En route we stopped at a roadside stand to purchase climbing sticks, hexagonal poles that are supposed to be of great help in making the ascent. The latter part of the drive was in low gear because of the mountain switchbacks and heavy auto traffic. I began to realize climbing Fuji was no idle excursion; it was a major business and a mass movement. The traffic jam was equal to a holiday weekend at Jones Beach. We waited in line, squeezed ahead, honked and shouted at other drivers before finally reaching our destination and finding a space to park.

We stepped out of the bus into a chill night and, armed with flashlights, set out briskly, soon leaving the pandemonium of the parking area behind. The trail was level and wide, running under trees at first and then out beneath the open sky. The huge dark mass of the mountain was to our right, blotting out a section of stars. After a 15-minute level walk, the trail changed abruptly to a narrow steep path that began to zigzag up the mountain. Above us stretched a fantastic string of Christmas-tree lights, switchbacking up into the sky, thousands of flashlights, fading upward in the distance. I innocently wondered if the most distant lights, those barely visible up near the Milky Way, could be on the top of the mountain.

The trail was steep. Within two minutes my breath was gone and my heart pounding. It seemed a little early to drop out of the party. I wasn't cold enough yet. In fact, I was hot from the exertion of climbing. So I went along but knew it would be no time at all before my legs and lungs failed me. The decision of when to quit would be out of my hands. I would just hang in until it happened.

The pace was slow because of the line ahead. It was like trying to get on a crowded escalator. We couldn't go up until those in front of us went up. Still it was too fast and steady for me. I was desperate for air. I remembered Norgay and Hillary climbing Everest, taking two and three breaths for each step. I tried it. Surprisingly, it brought relief. Superficial concerns like what to say when I dropped out fled my mind. I concentrated on basics, on cramming air into my lungs, watching my footing, refusing to listen to the terrifying tempo of my heart. Then it occurred to me that it might not be my legs that gave out. My air-flight insurance did not cover this kind of nonsense. I had to quit on behalf of all those pending college educations back home. I came to my senses and looked about for a place to step out of line. I looked and kept looking. The trail was man-made, built on an unfriendly terrain of large, jagged lava rocks and grave-sized cavities. No one strayed idly off this trail. One false step could be fatal. The only steps I could make were in the footprints of the man ahead. And as soon as he left one vacant I had to take it or the man behind me would have no place to step. With mounting concern I realized that I was trapped in a narrow, slow, irresistible stream.

I paused as an experiment. The climber behind me bumped into me as the climber behind him bumped into him and the jam reverberated back down the trail. I looked down the mountain, amazed at the altitude we had gained, the distance we had come. How long would they stand for it if I stopped? I resumed my climb and the endless glowworm behind stretched out and resumed its lockstep progress up the mountain. Surely there would be a place soon where I could step out of line, let the others pass, and then start down. But until I found it I had not the courage to create a scene by quitting or collapsing.

The trail went on and on, with no rest area. I wondered what if I should panic, just sit down and refuse to budge. How complicated would it get? And then a miracle occurred. We rounded another turn in the trail and I saw ahead a host of bright lights, not feeble flashlights but strong steady lights on a level plateau no more than five or six switchbacks above us.

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