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.
As daylight 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.
My rapid 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.