Were these two
strangers really entitled to the luxury of courtesy at such enormous risk to my
family? The lights were beyond my limit. How would my limit be announced? Chest
pain? Spastic legs? A mercifully abrupt loss of consciousness, sparing me the
worry of what to do as I lay there on the trail? The gruesome fantasy engrossed
me for awhile. The mental break did me good. The trail was wide enough at this
point to stop, but the slope was so steep that it was an effort just to stand
still. Anyway, the wind was too cold to rest. So I went on, cursing my shorts
and lightweight parka. The air was full of whirling cinders that blew into my
eyes, lodged in my hair, stung my legs. I unfurled the parka hood and put it
over my head. It narrowed the sting of cinders to my face and muffled my
hearing in an unpleasant way. But it was warmer. I wasn't sure if the climbing
stick was a help or a hindrance. I became conscious of loose rocks on the rail.
How about a sprained ankle?
There was a faint
light in the sky to the east. My watch showed three a.m. It must be wrong. I
heard American voices. I was indignant. I thought the mountain was mine alone.
I moved faster and caught up to them. I spoke to them. Not out of camaraderie
but out of spite. I wanted to deflate them as they had me. But they were a
self-contained group of youngsters, college age as they should be for this sort
of jaunt. I was out of my element, old, lost, exhausted, on this damned
mountain with its howling wind, the air full of cinders, beer cans and empty
cigarette packs on the trail. It was like climbing a dump. My fellow climbers
became unpleasant. Racers appeared, show-offs, cutting across the carefully
laid-out corners, climbing straight up, sending small avalanches of stones and
boulders down on the trail below.
I began to think
again about getting down the mountain. It was insane to compound the task by
going on. Every step up meant a corresponding one down. Yet I couldn't endure
the cold if I stopped, so I went on, grateful for the exertion, impatient to
move faster, to warm up. I bent my head into the wind and waited impatiently
for the privilege of taking my next upward step.
The faint light
on the horizon promised dawn. I noticed occasional large, oddly shaped blobs
glued to the slope. It took awhile for me to recognize them as huddled humans,
completely sealed to the mountain under plastic sheets. Nothing could look more
snug to a bare-legged man than those cocoons, protected from the wind, secure
against the hazards of further climbing, past all decisions, resting on their
already considerable accomplishment. Given the chance I would have joined them.
Not given the chance I felt an absurd superiority: the old man was going higher
than these copouts. But every new cocoon drew my lingering attention.
As the light
along the eastern rim of the sky grew brighter I could see my footing. Abruptly
the flashlights vanished and the pace of the crowd picked up. For the second
time that night I began to contemplate reaching the top. People were dropping
out. Others must be reaching their limit. I was still on my feet. I might make
the top, but it seemed a dubious goal. I had no friends to witness the
achievement, no one to celebrate with. If I made it, who would believe it?
Perhaps I would ask another climber to take my camera and photograph me.
increased I could, for the first time, see the fearful landscape around me—huge
cinders, piled so precariously they threatened to roll down the slope at one
reckless stamp of a foot. I was grateful for the comparative refinement of the
trail. It was a fragile web of smoothness, built at enormous effort to permit
this ritualistic trek. I saw more and more dropouts glued to every possible
ledge. It was no longer a disgrace to stop. Maybe those still climbing had just
not been lucky enough to find a place to rest.
breathing, two in-and-outs for each step, served well for the average step, but
after an occasional extra-high step I found myself out of oxygen for several
moments. By breathing furiously in advance of these hurdles I was able to keep
the suffocation to a minimum.
The cold grew
along with the daylight. It would be hours before the sun provided any heat.
The increased visibility only reminded me how bare and exposed to the elements
I was compared to the other climbers. Now as I turned to look far down the
mountainside heavy, motionless clouds extended to the horizon.
My spirits rose.
Across the air came a sound completely in tune with this headiness. Some
climber with the strength to carry unnecessary weight had turned on his
transistor radio. It was playing Al Hirt's Java, a record I remembered
listening to on my hi-fi. I could taste the martini that went with it. How soon
would I have my next martini? I worked it out in my mind. The sun would be up
in half an hour. Then the throng would turn back down the mountain. It should
take about half the time to descend that it took to come up. At most, three
more hours on my feet. Then a couple of luxurious hours on my fanny returning
to Tokyo. Another half hour to shower and dress. That would make it noontime.
Not too early for two martinis, maybe three. Then a hearty lunch and to bed for
18 hours. These delicious mathematics built up a wave of utter sensuality.
A tragedy on the
trail brought me back to Fuji. Stretched lengthwise on the path was a young
man, face up, eyes closed, gasping for air, while a friend knelt nervously at
his side. I stepped carefully around him, glad for once that I did not speak
the language. Am I tougher than he, I wondered with morbid arrogance. From time
to time a climber would step out of the stream and take up a perch on a rock to
be sure he had a spot to photograph the sun the moment it appeared. The
climbing line thinned as people readied cameras. I took advantage of the
dwindling congestion to surge ahead. Surge is too strong a word, perhaps, for I
went slowly, but the traffic jam was over.