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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"Climbers still come up. In daytime, too, climbers come up. Can't go down."

"How does anyone go down if they only come up?" I asked.

"Go other way from top. Faster. Rest, and then climb."

He was giving me no choice. But neither was the weather. As we talked, my overheated body cooled off. As my breathing returned to normal, the wind turned icy. A few minutes later I was numb. I knew I couldn't stand still. I had to warm up. Climbing would do it. With false courage derived from the rest, I said, "O.K. then. Let's go."

I stepped out into the stream of climbers and started up. Minoru and Yoshiko followed. In minutes I was once again out of breath, heart racing, knees weak. But I was getting warm.

Sometime later I heard a commotion ahead that sounded almost like a fight. There were shouts, scrambling in the dark, flashlights waving. Then out of the darkness loomed a packhorse, stumbling down the narrow path. Cautiously the animal put out one hoof at a time, reached down until it found footing, lurched forward as it shifted its weight and then tried the next foot. Angry climbers protested as they saw what was coming at them but found ways of pulling themselves off the trail to avoid being stepped on. When the horse got to me I flattened myself against the uphill slope and was almost rotated against it as the animal pushed by. Immediately behind walked a small man with one hand on the horse's right buttock, so near to the horse that the tide of humanity could not close behind it and squeeze him out. For a wild moment I thought I should turn, put my hand on the horse's left buttock and follow this battering ram down the mountain. I looked at Minoru, who returned my look with such inscrutability that I faltered. The opportunity was gone as climbers closed in behind the animal and heaped vocal disapproval on the cowardly driver.

We went through several more cycles of spotting clusters of lights high above us and clawing our way up to them. I was keeping a rather crude count, not that it mattered much whether my heart gave out at the Seventh or Ninth Station. Still, each that we passed signified progress of a sort. At the third cluster Minoru turned back to me and said, "Congratulations. Seventh Station." Sixth Station plus three was Ninth in English. I held up nine fingers. Minoru took my hand and bent two of them back down. "What about those other stations?" I asked indignantly, pointing down the mountain. "Those not stations. This is station. Station Seven." He nodded his head in agreement with himself. I looked at my watch. It was only two o'clock. Had this nightmare been going on for just two hours? I could have smashed the watch but hadn't the strength to spare.

The trail became wider and we were sometimes able to walk abreast. It was more sociable than facing someone's behind. I found myself next to Yoshiko. We bowed our heads into the wind and straightened up only when it eased. I had been on my two lungfuls of air per step routine for so long that it was automatic. The air moved through my larynx in a wheezing gasp. Once when the wind stopped abruptly I found Yoshiko looking at me in great alarm. Such was my vanity that I cut off this needed air supply, smiled casually and breathed normally for several seconds. Then the tornado from my throat resumed.

I developed what I thought of as a Kamikaze attitude. Some in the crowd around us were going more slowly now. I stepped out briskly to pass them. Minoru and Yoshiko would know that when I quit it would not be from cowardice. It looked good and provided me with some variety instead of always being the slow poke. I passed one small group, and then a few more. My lightheadedness delighted me. Go down laughing, no tears. Finally sobering, I stopped to let my Japanese friends catch up. They didn't come. They were resting below. I had overtaxed them. Well, it would do me good to rest. I rested quite awhile. They didn't come. I became uneasy. Could they be ahead? Could they have passed me in the dark without my recognizing them? Was I lost again? Good! Well, no, it wasn't quite that simple. They had waited for me before. They would do it again. I started off again, this time with a sense of urgency to make up for lost time.

Far, far above was another cluster of lights. That is where they would wait. My legs were feeble but I drove them hard, refusing to count the passage of time, blotting out any disappointment at slow progress, refusing to look up until I was there. Finally, I did look up. The lights were no closer.

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