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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I arrived at still another level path in front of tiny buildings. There was no railing. The ledge was packed three and four deep with waiting photographers. For a moment I was tempted to pause and become one myself, but pressure from behind kept me moving. There was no space left in which to stop to take a photograph. But at the end of the row of huts I found a spot between buildings. I stepped into it gratefully, as much to escape the frightening traverse as to take up photography. But since I had the chance, why not? I leaned my climbing stick against one hut and with stiff fingers opened my camera case. The wind blew my stick down and whipped at my sleeves as I raised the camera to eye level. Then the wind died for a moment and the aroma of an ancient and overtaxed latrine filled my lungs. So that was why this niche was vacant! I lowered the camera and, gagging, bent to retrieve the stick.

I mistimed the appearance of the sun. It remained frozen out of sight below the horizon for hours, refusing to come up and gratify the thousands of photographers waiting all over the mountain. I saw another vacant level spot. I studied it suspiciously for some latent unpleasantness but saw none. I took it and began adjusting my camera. Through the viewfinder the composition was uninspiring, a flat horizon extending from one edge of the frame to the other. I took a couple of practice shots to be sure the lubricants in the shutter had not congealed. Then I waited and waited and waited. A sliver of sun appeared over the cloud horizon accompanied by the sound of thousands of clicking shutters all over the eastern face of Fujiyama. I stood for some minutes watching the sun emerge from the bed of clouds, taking a few more foolish shots of a scene no more remarkable than any sunrise seen from a 747.

No one was climbing now. The whole mountain was motionless, eyes east. Finally the sun cleared the horizon and people began to stir. I was ecstatic. The ordeal was over. Now for those martinis. But I was wrong. Not one climber started down. They all turned upward and resumed the climb. Were they still going to the top? After the sunrise? Right. Onward and upward.

The sun did not warm me. The wind blew stronger. The oxygen content of the air dwindled. My leg muscles trembled. My big toe was hot with friction. My ankles wobbled. Occasional high steps started my lungs convulsing. My vision tricked me. I noticed frequent brilliantly polished metal tubes on the ground, glowing in the sunlight. After-marveling awhile over what they could be, I stooped to pick one up. My vision cleared. The metal tube was a discarded cigarette butt.

The view from the mountain was uncomplicated but gigantic in scale. A sweep upward into the sky and downward into a sea of clouds. The crowd was now as dense as before, all headed upward. This was a one-way trail. Maybe it was a one-way trip? Were we all lemmings, streaming to the top, doomed to destruction by the pressure of those behind, pushed over the edge into the pit of a huge crater that dropped to the center of the earth?

The trail took a sharp turn to the right and a figure in a red jacket reached out a frail hand and rested it gently on my forearm. "Lee-san." It was Yoshiko, her pleasant face wreathed in smiles. "Yoshiko!" I shouted and engulfed her child's body in a one-armed bear hug. I squeezed with heartfelt affection until I realized that next to her stood Minoru. Belatedly wondering about the relationship between them, I released Yoshiko to hold out a hand to Minoru, who smiled politely and shook it. I had begun to suspect that I would make it to the top without any audience. Now I would have witnesses.

An hour and a half later we were able to see the summit. Even Minoru agreed that it was the summit. It was broad and flat with nothing but the sky beyond it. It was a long, long way off, but after what we had been through I knew I would get there if it took forever. My knees were in agony, my ankles unreliable. Every lurch necessary to regain my balance after a stumble was torture. But these were minor discomforts now and did not weaken my determination. The lure of the summit was as strong for me as for any Japanese. I laughed happily as I saw Minoru falter and stagger sideways. We were all exhausted.

Behind us, through lulls in the wind, I heard snatches of song and turned to look. A full switchback behind us in single file was a group of hooded, white-robed monks, chanting as they climbed. Not only were they wasting their breath singing, they were passing other climbers. At our slow pace they gained on us steadily. When they reached our level we stepped aside. One monk my own age was not singing. He was saving his breath.

The wind had become dangerous. Great gusts would hit the line of climbers and stop it. A sudden blast toppled Yoshiko. Minoru reached for her a second before the same blast hit him. He sagged to his knees and grasped a jagged rock in his hand, holding on till the wind slackened. Yoshiko clung to the ground, eyes shut.

It was no longer I alone who staggered, who gasped for air, who cowered. In our mutual misery I felt comradely with the entire stream. A high pitched " Yahoo" rang out in the air behind us, and a young man in an Australian army uniform sprinted past our creeping line in a contemptible display of stamina.

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