Diary entry: Day 1. 17:00
We thought we were ready, or at least I thought everyone else was ready. My bags were packed for the voyage. Winter clothes, raincoat, torch, food, it was all there. Enough supplies to survive on while we risked our lives on a hopeless cause. We weren’t doing it for money. Not for honour or selflessness. It was foolish glory that pulled that rucksack onto my burdened shoulders and drove me out to meet the others. The glory of defeating the mountain.
We were an odd band. None of us hikers or climbers and most hated any angle more acute than 180 degrees (Elodie turns to the darkside the moment she meets a flight of stairs. Vader missed an obvious trick when he was trying to convince Luke). But it was the proposal itself that enticed us, that lured us away from reason and sanity. It wasn’t just scaling a mountain as symbolic to Japan as Mt Fuji; we planned to begin at 10pm that night at climb up in the black. Once we reached the peak it would be morning. Just in time to watch the sunrise. Sunrise from the peak of Mt Fuji; it was too hideously romantic a prospect to turn away from.
I met the others downstairs; Kara, Winona, Tamu and Adele with bags as bulky as my own. Elodie at the end looked suspiciously lightweight.
“Do you have everything Elodie?” I asked, peering behind her at the tiny bag she was carrying.
“Oui, I’m ready”
“Are you sure? Food, warm clothes, a torch…”
“I said I have everything! Nah!”
“Poncho” Kara interrupted, pointing at my arm, “why the fuck, are you bringing your umbrella, up a fucking mountain for?”. It didn’t sound like a question. I hung Shella off my shoulder like any other day and hoped she hadn’t been offended.
Diary entry: Day 1. 19:30
We reached Tokyo in good time and were waiting for the bus to take us to Fuji. While we waited, Winona made a disturbing discovery.
“Ok” she said, putting down the bag, “it seems that Elodie has forgotten her coat, her torch, food, gloves….pretty much everything”.
“No, no! I didn’t forget everything! I have coffee!”.
Perhaps it really was the most essential piece of gear she needed. After all, everyone knows if France lost coffee for a day the entire country would collapse over night. We had no time to procure new supplies and with her delusional assurances that she’d be fine, we reluctantly boarded the bus to what seemed to now be certain doom.
Diary entry: Day 1. 22:00
Pilgrims over the years had helped set way points up the mountain. Stations to both measure how far you’d climbed as well as an opportunity to rest up. More importantly, there were supplies at these stations. The bus took us as far as ‘station 6’, half way up Fuji. Our immediate goal was to resupply Elodie with everything she needed, as she lacked the funds to buy everything herself. Tamu at this point revealed that he had forgotten his gloves, forcing me to lend him my own. With what little money I had left, I bought a new pair (skin tight heat-tech gloves, with block patterned grip on the fingers. I felt like I was dressed from the film Tron. All I was missing was the motorbike).
Before we started the ascent, I prepared my camcorder. On such a perilous journey all of us ran the risk of dying up on that mountain, perishing from the elements or from a sudden slip and plummet downward. There’s no guarantee any of us could come back. Having our voices and faces recorded on film might be the only way I can ensure someone will know our story if none of us make it home alive. However it seems pestering friends with a camcorder after they’ve been hoping in the cold, spouting pessimistic rhetoric on our potential doom, has a tendency to make them less than receptive to questions (and in one case, violent).
It took less than 30min before I noticed a direct correlation between how Fuji’s romanticism drops dramatically in unison with how fed up you feel. At first the excitement and energy of the group was overpowering. We felt basked in the glow of comradeship and social contentment. All that we needed to complete the stereotype of the happy group of young but foolish friends out in the wilderness, was the camp fire, marshmallows and a wild bear that could have conveniently eaten Elodie. I pointed the camera at Tamu.
“What do you think of Mt Fuji so far Tamu? It’s your first time too right?”
Tamu surprised us by looking over and abruptly shouting.
“…err, yes. We just left station six. Thanks Tamu…I guess”.
As the path continued it narrowed and we began to march in single file. Within an hour, all excitement had been forgotten and replaced with exhaustion. In spite of what everyone had thought, cold winds, achey legs and sleep deprivation doesn’t amount to a stunning time.
Diary entry: Day 2. 00:30
In the ‘pringle’ crisp adverts, they always make a show of how they pop the lid open. I’ve always struggled to see how exactly it manages to pop off; rather it takes some prying and brute strength in my experience. But not with high altitude. All you need is a bit of air pressure and it’ll blow up in your face. I like to think that if the volcano were to erupt at this very moment and we knew death was unavoidably imminent, I’d at least be snacking on something that pops. It would be a much needed comfort while my flesh is being seared off.
“Tamu what are you eating there?”
“Not the question I asked. This is going to be a thing with you isn’t it?”.
Diary entry: Day 2. 03:00
The climb is definitely harder at this point, and it’s much colder now (even for the Welsh it’s pretty chilly). It’s raining too but we’re pressing on (being British there is no corner of this earth I can go to where the weather isn’t abysmal). Kara is injured and we’ve been carrying Elodie since the last station. We have a moment to rest so we’re hoping recovery will be swift.
“Thanks Tamu. I didn’t know that. I had an inclination we might be here after I walked headfirst into the ‘8th station’ sign”. (If you wondering how I did that, please bear in mind that it was very dark and my torch had been lent to someone less prepared).
The weather worsened as we climbed and finally we were sent back by other climbers. With the wind too strong, we can’t climb up nor go down. We’re stuck here now on the mountain side, huddling together for warmth as the winds beat us down. Luckily, Shella is protecting us from most of it. As usual she’s been invaluable (Kara has agreed to bite her tongue).
“I’m not building a hut here Tamu”
Diary entry: Day 2. 04:30
The sunrise has come now. We didn’t make it to the top in time. The others are accepting defeat and have turned back. Between injuries, sleep deprivation and intense fatigue, they have little hope of survival but they have to try. As for me though, I refuse to give up yet. I won’t go home and be the one to tell my friends and family “yes, I climbed ‘some’ of Mt Fuji”. Much better to have on my obituary “after a gruelling but brave battle against nature, Poncho managed to reach the summit in triumph before finally passing away in the tragically timed volcanic eruption”. Adele handed me her camera so that I could prove that I reach the summit and Winona fussed over whether or not I had enough money should the impossible happen and I somehow got lost. Who would get lost climbing a mountain?
The elements are even harsher at this level. It’s already snowing and my one chance of salvation has been stolen from me. Station 9 is a pathetic excuse for a rest point. No seats, no huts, no people. Just a caved in wooden shed covered in snow. Congratulations you are 9/10’s of the way up Fuji and here you can see where the last batch of climbers gave up, lost hope, turned to cannibalism in desperation and burned down the hut in the ensuing struggle. Climbing Mt Fuji is a spiritual experience.
Diary entry: Day 2. 07:15
I’ve made it at last. After a deep and painful final climb I emerged at the top, greeted by the crater, the view and the post office. There’s a post office up here. The staff inside stared at me in confusion but honestly between the two of us, it’s a whole lot stranger to find them up here. I can’t begin to describe just how impractical having a post office here is. It’s for those people who want to send a postcard from Mt Fuji; one that looks identical to a Mt Fuji postcard from anywhere else.
I needed proof I had reached the top but there were few I could ask to take a photo so I was forced to do something that I had been resigned never to do. I took my first selfie. Using Adele’s flashy camera, standing atop a beautiful and symbolic mountain, celebrating my triumph over the elements, I stared in confusion down the lens while trying to find the button. I had my back to the crater, lifting the camera high to get us both in but the angle wasn’t quite right so I took a very stupid blind step backwards. I admit my priorities were muddled. Even as I fell I organised my objectives in order of importance: 1. Protect Adele’s very expensive camera. 2. Don’t drop Shella. 3. Don’t die (because dying like this would ruin my obituary. With one hand lifting the camera away from the rocks, I used my free hand to claw my way up the slope with Shella precariously hanging from my arm. Nobody at the post office came to help me; obviously far too busy cataloguing the piles of letters they must get.
Diary entry: Day 2. 10:00
The bus we all booked tickets on left at 13:00, giving me five hours to get back. It took nine hours in total to climb but that included several delays due to the weather. If I ran I was sure I’d have a chance to make it. Luckily, the paths down had been bulldozed into powder, suitable enough for a bob sled, but a running stumble was good enough. There were however limited signs and I was in a desperate rush, so I did not check as thoroughly as I should have. But it didn’t matter because within two hours I had already reached station 7. It looks a little different than it did the night before but everything looks different in the dark compared to daylight. I’ve called the others to expect my arrival; I’m making such good time flashing down this powder path I might even catch them up.
Diary entry: Day 2. 12:15
I’m lost. I made it to the bottom but nothing resembles the station I first arrived that. I checked a map on a sign and discovered my fault. I’ve climbed down the wrong side of the mountain; everyone else and my bus are on the east side. But I have 45 minutes to reach them so I thought of running around the circumference of the mountain (it’s all flat now) but whenever I ask for directions the staff inside the station give me their characteristic crossed arms. Apparently it’s not allowed for reasons I don’t have any time to ask about. But there’s a bus at least to the nearest town and from there I could find a new way home. Except when I open my wallet to buy my ticket, I find it empty (somewhere out there, Winona is instinctively face palming). I had spent all my money on gloves after giving half my supplies to Elodie (damn you Elodie. I’m going to get stranded at the bottom of a mountain and starve. This is the least dramatic death I could have hoped for on this trip and it’s your fault damn you!).
Diary entry: Day 2. 13:30
I’m in the nearby town now after the short bus ride over. Back at the mountain I put on my best ‘poor lost gaijin’ voice along with what little keigo I knew and begged for help from the bus driver. In an act of kindness he offered to bring me to the local town under the condition that I pay the bus station there as soon as I reach an atm machine. After I arrived I kept my word (you can’t allow decent bus drivers to lose faith in us. There are so few kind bus drivers left in the world. If we can save pandas, we can also save kind bus drivers). But even though I explained the situation nobody would accept my money! I was passed along from person to person and nobody seemed to know what to do with me until at last one staff member brushed me off entirely and directed me to another bus on its way back to Yokohama. Japan might well be the only country in the world where people would refuse to accept money for purchases. So I am sorry, my white knight bus driver. There are too few of your chivalrous kind and I wish I could have rewarded your kindness but alas, I was unable. As I boarded the bus to Yokohama I tried to slip in an extra 200 yen for my ticket in order to indirectly honour our deal but even the ticket machine has betrayed me, spitting the coins back into my hand. I have survived Mt Fuji where all else have failed (minus the stream of Japanese climbers) but it is still with a heavy heart that I bid farewell to Fuji’s gentle bus service.