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
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.