By George, I'd
made it! The altitude must have affected my mind, mercifully blanking out hours
of climbing. Elation welled up. What stuff I was made of! Then my elation
sagged. Those remaining switchbacks were the worst yet. The brightness of the
lights revealed how inhumanly steep the trail was. It was better in the dark,
not knowing. I began to wonder at each step if I could make it. The
anticipation of reaching the summit was washed away by my increasing conviction
that I wasn't going to get there. Finally it happened. I put my right foot up
but it refused to lift my weight. I stood in shock, wondering how to alert the
others to my predicament. But the crisis was deferred, for simultaneously a jam
developed in the line ahead. We all had to wait several minutes. When the time
came to move again, the leg had revived enough to lift me.
absolutely refused to tick off in the agony of those final switchbacks. I
looked reverently up at the lights illuminating buildings and crowds of people,
hoping I could make one more step. I did not want to drop dead before I reached
When I got there
I was too weak to exult. I searched for a place to collapse, two square feet if
possible, but there was no space. The crowd of people wasn't a crowd at all. It
was a long, thin, tightly packed line, slowly inching ahead, single file, along
the edge of a precipice. There weren't any buildings, just roofs over lean-tos
facing the trail, under which vendors displayed unappetizing snacks or offered
to burn a Japanese symbol into your climbing stick for a few yen. In confusion
I tapped the climber in front of me on the shoulder, expecting it to be Minoru.
It was a stranger.
me," I said. "I thought you were my friend."
enthusiastically and triumphantly held up six fingers.
dawned. I had forgotten about the stations. This wasn't the top; it was only
the Sixth Station. Behind the row of miserable huts, hidden until now by the
bright illumination, was the familiar string of Christmas-tree lights fading
upward in the darkness.
The crowd nudged
me along and helplessly I inched past the row of huts on what was actually
nothing more than another switchback, only this one had been made level to
accommodate the Sixth Station. I sensed that Minoru was behind me. I tried to
let others go by, but the trail was not wide enough to let someone pass without
risking falling over the edge onto those below. I wedged myself between two
tiny huts and waited determinedly for the climber behind me to move on. He
absolutely, and wisely, refused to try it. Finally, sharing his discretion I
At the end of the
level switchback was the inevitable sharp turn and the beginning of another
steep climb. I started up, wondering where my companions were. No one near me
was familiar. I didn't want to leave them before I had explained why I was not
going to the top. This thought actually worried me awhile before I realized
what good luck it was. I didn't have to explain! There was no one to explain
to. I could stop whenever I wanted to. Not at this moment, of course, because
there was no place to stop. But when I found one my ordeal was over.
I studied every
rock we passed for a place to step off the trail, and with this goal greeted
each new turn as a golden opportunity. Anticipation alone took me up several
more switchbacks. But there was no place to be found. I became crafty. I
learned to gain a slight respite by occasionally letting an eager hiker pass
me. It was courteous but, more to the point, it was restful. I let several by
until a man behind appeared equally courteous. He bowed at my offer but refused
to be rude enough to pass me. I wondered how I could trick him into going
When I had given
up hope of ever stopping, I saw a group of stationary climbers off to one side
resting. They had found a ledge. Above them a minute later was another cluster
of climbers, also resting. Was the terrain becoming more friendly? Were any of
those resting ready to begin climbing again? I tried the courtesy routine of
bowing and inviting a lucky one to step onto the trail ahead of me so I could
take his place. There were no takers. Pressure behind me built up and forced me
onward. I passed several groups of resters too tightly packed to accept me. It
was like looking for a parking space on Times Square.