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.
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.