Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Fuji: a Mountain of Pain

Late again, but this time it’s almost for a good reason. If I had written this up earlier, there would be more bile and hard feelings poisoning my writing. Now that most of the hurt is over, I can try to highlight most of the best parts, before everything goes to crap.

So ya, Fuji. I think climbing it is on most people’s “things to do before I die” list for one reason or another, although I’m not sure why. It’s not particular huge in comparison to others like Everest, but I guess it’s pretty and peaceful in its own right. I never understood how thrill seekers punish their bodies knowingly like this.

Anyways, a group of teachers got together discussing a trip, and it was a good kick to go and tackle this huge objective which, like the beach the weekend before, has a limited season for being open and gets pushed out of the priorities.

I had gone to the gym a couple times hoping to be better prepared, but it’s funny how things change. I once laughed at the idea of doing jumping jacks or sit-ups as they were absurdly easy to do, but now they work me hard. I feel I got somewhat ready for the mountain, but really it was going to hit me no matter what I did. I’ll just have to rely on my stubbornness and never-give-up attitude.

We started the climb Friday night around 10:30. We drove half way up to the 5th station or whatever and proceeded to climb. At first the dozen or so of us stuck quite close together, but before we even started to climb we were getting separated. I was lagging behind because of all the pictures I was taking of the beautiful lights down below, and the small clouds over hanging them.

I pushed myself a bit too hard, and climbed quite a ways to the next stop, the 6th station. Looking up from the bottom, it’s hard to tell how far you have to go, especially when it’s dark. That first stretch was quite long and I considered it about ½ way from where we started, but really it was maybe a 1/3rd at best. Somehow I did ok keeping up with the leaders of the group, but really our conditions couldn’t be much better.

There were no clouds. There was a bright, full moon. There was very, very little wind. There were few people as the season was “over” to climb. Many times I had no one in front or behind me and could go at my own pace, while we were told normally there is so many people and the que is so long, you literally follow a line to the top. There is a somewhat narrow and specific trail to follow which is “safer” as if you got off it, it got steeper and the rocks were loose. I did that once in a rare case of skipping a clot of people slowly going up, and they gasped which made me giggle. If I have some gas left in my tank, I’m not going to waste it by waiting in line when I have so much further to climb.

For the most part you’re walking up a steep hill. Rarely there were stairs, and for a long stretch you are actually climbing up rocks. I was carrying up 110kg; I’m 100, and my backpack was 10 that had energy drinks/snacks and a winter coat for when it got colder, and boy did it ever. It’s surprising there wasn’t more wind given the shape and bareness of the cliff we were scaling, but when it did hit you, it cooled you to the bones.

So you had this weird situation where you are too hot, but yet you are freezing. I tried to balance that and stay dry as best as I could, but the climb took over 6 hours. My camera was in the front pocket of my winter coat and it was practically dripping it got so wet with sweat through my t-shirt, spring coat and winter coat.

I stopped a number of times to catch my breath and try to slow my heart rate. I was breathing quite rapidly, but once aware of that it was surprisingly easy to take a deep breath and calm down; even if my heart was still beating like crazy. Sometimes I got a bit dizzy too, but I hear that’s part of altitude sickness. One guy went up much faster and was puking for an hour at the top. Poor Neal got the sickness by the 7th station and had to turn around, suffering from the worst headaches he’s ever had.

Worse yet, my car was locked and he didn’t have the key, so he found a bench to try and sleep on through the cold night while sick and suffering, being woken up by many people walking around and the occasional police officer checking on him.

To the top, it was 3700 meters. We started at around 2000 meters and there were 10 rest stops, even if they were quite horrible. Mostly they were lit areas, and some idiot telling you to be quiet or advertising his $6 instant noodles. Bathrooms weren’t free either but luckily they worked on the honor system that we chose to not honor. If you wanted to go inside these buildings, you had to have booked them in advance; or maybe that was during the busy season. Either way, we stopped at the 8th station for over 20 minutes as it wasn’t freezing like the top was and we were making great time.

That 9th stop was practically non-existent though, as that last stretch from 8.5 to the top took over an hour and was mostly in the dark. Most of us had little headlights on, like miners, so we could see where we were stepping or reaching to grab; big lifesavers. I don’t think chocolate has ever tasted as good as that first stop when I snacked on some for the sugar rush of energy.

Easily the best part of the night was during that long, dark stretch when I took one of my many stops for a break on a hard rock. You were free from the light pollution of the rest stops, noise pollution of the people, and could just sit and relax; gazing over at the breathtaking view of the cities, mountains and clouds below you. Maybe it was the lack of oxygen, or maybe it was the exhaustion. Even if it was for a brief moment, it felt like I had found true zen for the first time, and I was overwhelmed with the feeling of life being “perfect.”

It was a bit fleeting, but I’m happy I got a taste of this amazing feeling and experience. I need to learn meditation already. I sat there for a little while, trying to grasp the gravity of what I just experienced, but near the top you kept moving more to stay warm despite your exhaustion. It was cold and I still had a ways to go.

Reaching the top was really anti-climatic. You’re climbing, struggling, feeling pain, and suddenly there is a huge building or temple or who knows what it is in front of you and you have nowhere left to go. Technically the mountain is 3770 meters, but that last 70 meters to the summit is off-limits, as Fuji is still a somewhat active volcano or something. You can walk around in a big circle around the summit, but nuts to that; we were on the East side and were early enough to get a great view of the sunrise.

We got front row seats on iced-over benches, I laid down my rain poncho to try and limit the freeze on my behind, and we sat clumped together waiting out the sun. I didn’t take off my backpack because my back was so wet I got cold quite fast. Now it was an endurance test. The last 20 minutes of the climb there was frost and snow starting to form around the mountain, and it was a bit scary at times, like when you slipped and thought you were going to fall. If you fall down Fuji, unless something specific stops you, you can tumble for a long, long time I think.

I was reminded of ice fishing; no feeling in my hands or toes, shivering violently, waiting. Waiting. The horizon got more orange all the time, and finally the sun broke over a tiny stretch of clouds. Those clouds weren’t much, but enough to block the sun. It was light and I was cold so I decided to go on ahead to get down from this torture. No one wanted to go with me, so nuts to them I thought; I’ll still see the sun in ½ hour when it finally comes out and I (hopefully) won’t have frostbite.

The first 20 minutes of the climb down I shivered violently. There are 2 paths: one for ascent and one for descent. The descent one was worlds different, as they smoothed a path in a lazy snake pattern down the mountain. The first half went great! I stopped maybe twice for a break, and that was mostly to strip off layers of clothes as it got warmer all the time. I was in a great mood, and after I heard how Neal was I wanted to rush down to give him some company and assure him he didn’t miss much. It was after 4:30 in the morning I think when I started.

Well that snaky path goes left and right, and half way down it went rather far to the right, then signs pointed, every 10 meters or so “this way to 5th station”. Alright that’s where I’m going. It then pointed down a path that I will refer to until the day I die as suicide. It was STEEP. It went down, a LONG way. It had a piddly pathetic guide rope that was too short to hold or grab (decoration), and more signs pointing down this insult of reason.

My first step down this path and I knew it was a horrible mistake; it was a slew of gravel that went up to my ankle; so after my first step my shoes were full of rocks. Because everything was so loose, rocks would tumble down and sometimes they clipped me from behind after clearing a spot.

You didn’t really “walk” this path as much as you swung around wildly trying to keep your balance and not die while skidding and sliding all over the place. If I weren’t so tired, I would honestly believe I was going to die before it was over and I was all alone. It was almost good that I was alone though, given how those rocks tumbled and fell constantly; I can’t imagine having to avoid tumbling ones behind me.

It took me about 2 hours of almost dying to get down this suicide hill, and then I saw a sign saying the 5th station was another 5 kilometers away. It was dark on the climb up, and the descent trail was getting further way, but the signs wouldn’t lie right? I didn’t know where I was, but why would the many, many signs lie? I could see a big parking lot in the far distance… apparently 5km away. I braved the unpleasant descent somehow and made it to the 5th station. It looked completely different when I finally arrived from weird jungle paths.

What the hell? I was lucky a dude knew English and told me I was on the wrong side of the mountain. Apparently some designer/planner/cretin/dipshit thought it was a great idea to name these starting locations with the exact same name. On opposite sides of the mountain. And wants my foot up his ass.

Maybe it hasn’t been long enough yet, I’m really angry again. I was so unhappy at the start of suicide hill that I only have 2 pictures on my camera and I’ll try to wrap this up fast before I get angrier. I had to take 3 buses, spend $40, and wait 5 hours to get back to the “5th Station” that I wanted to be at. During that time I suffered greatly from fatigue, from my injuries, and my sanity. My friends suffered too wondering where I was, why I was so late, and why I haven’t got down the mountain yet. It was about noon when I limped to my car, and a panicked Neal ran over to see if I was ok. I forgot my knee tenser somehow and it was hurting greatly. My mind was literally poisoned with “this is the worst day of my life” infinite loop.

Well, now that that’s over, let’s try and end this trip and story off with a positive note. I got home and had fast food for supper. I fell asleep on my couch watching a movie. I spent all of Sunday in my 'pajamas' watching TV, and playing video games. I got mail from my Mom in Canada that had my favourite candy inside. (Thanks mom!) I had root beer. I had beer. I later ordered a big fat expensive pizza and drank beer while eating it during a movie. Pure. Bliss.

The only thing missing is if I had the energy, or the will, to leave my house, to go to an onsen to sit in a hot bath for a while. Well that’s done and I have my pictures and my memories. I realized I don’t have good luck climbing mountains, as the only other one I climbed in China with Chris was its own interesting/horrible experience. Chris and I could tell you an awful, long story about that ordeal too. I think I’ll retire from ever climbing a mountain again. If “Climb Fuji” was on something of a “to do” list of mine, I can now strike it off, and continue striking it until it left a hole in the paper. It is done, it is over, and it’ll never ever EVER happen again. :) See? Happy note. I’m all smiles right now :D

"Life's challenges are not supposed to paralyze you; they're supposed to help you discover who you are." -Bernice Johnson Reagon


No comments: