Somewhere between the eighth and ninth station I thought I would give up. My body was covered in a thin film of sweat. I smelled. My hair stuck to the back of my neck. I could see the stone walls of the summit, but they stood above a winding trail of jagged rocks, ashen hills, and cobblestone steps. This was Mt. Fuji.
I knew that it would take everything out of me to finish as each muscle in my body burned and screamed at me to stop. Not three hours before I stood at the fifth station surrounded by a tangled forest of intertwining beech trees and the large trunks of ancient pine whose roots corrupted the way. Yet we, my husband and I, trudged up the volcanic rocks and dust where beside us were lines of climbers moving as one.Every few hours when we would reach a station we stopped to consume vitamin drinks, protein bars, bananas, or a Calorie Mate stick. I was not hungry, my stomach having long since suspended the want for food, but I ate nonetheless.
It was 1.6 more meters to the summit and I began to feel my body want to quit. I had to force my legs to lift up to my chest so that I could walk up the boulders. There were few people climbing up, most having quit several hundred meters below. I could hear the strained, heavy breathing of those around me. Every now and then a shout would ring down the slope calling “Minasan, Ganbaru!”, urging us all to go on and push past the threshold. My boots clung to the powdered black sand as I lifted myself upwards. I went beyond the point where life could thrive. The land around me was a constant slope of ash where white smoke danced around the surface. At certain points on the length of the trail, there were patches of vomit off to the side which were sometimes dry from age and others fresh. It was a sobering reminder of what stood before me.
I stared up at the summit where I could see the white Torii gates above an oblique slope of protruding rocks. It was there in front of me in the last few hundred meters. I breathed deeply, trying to fill my lungs with oxygen when so little existed in the air around me. My legs shook, the bed of my fingernails were a pale blue from oxygen deprivation. Still, I heaved my arms up each rock, pulling my feet onto the small ledges for stability. Each few meters I traveled closer to the white gate, but when my head began to spin I stopped to recover among the rocks. Around me was silence. No insects lingered there, and every person climbing up did not waste a breath on speaking. Sporadically there were the airy sounds of oxygen tanks as some held the mask to their mouth and breathed in. I turned to climb once more, going ever higher until my body could do no more and I would rest. In the last stretch the white gate and stone lion statues stood before me and I rose up towards them, climbing with my hands and feet until I could touch the stone of the lion’s mane. We rose past the white gate and emerged on the top of the mountain where there stood a shrine and a large food shop. To the left was the concave depression of the crater; a giant circle of black ash. I could only think of food and was drawn to the smell of it from inside a small shop with long rows of benches and no tables. I ordered Miso Ramen and it came quickly. As I drank the broth I felt my entire body breathe out in relief. I made it to the top of the highest mountain in Japan under my own mental and physical power. It was an exhilarating feeling to sit with my bowl of ramen in hand and look out to the sky around me. There was a thin mist hanging between the sky and the ground.
Our stomachs full, we stepped out of the shop to retrieve the last stamp on our staves. We each had long wooden poles to assist in the climb, and at each station going up a stamp was branded onto the side of the pole. In the stone shrine that smelled of incense and fire, our poles were etched red. We turned from the shrine to begin our descent. And then the rains came. I slipped my parka out from my backpack, a dark green camouflaged coat with sleeves that hung past my hands.
The long descent of the mountain was like a purgatory. For hours the scenery seemed unchanged as we zig zagged down a path of red rocks and mud. There were times when my feet fell from under me, the pebbled dirt rubbed against my hands when I tried to catch myself. I pushed myself up to gather my bearing and continued down the seemingly neverending path. Those around me kept their heads down, watching their feet, and walked down as if they were mindless bodies concerned only with ridding themselves from the prescence of the mountain. I looked up from my feet at one point and there was a man in front of me, his walking stick slipped into his backpack, sticking up into the air. Covering every side of the wooden surface were the branded stamps, some were worn from wear and some others fresh. My mouth was agape at the understanding of what that meant.
The first signs that our trek was nearing an end were the small indications of lychens and grass that flourished into flowers, bushes and trees as we finally came to a level ground. There were birds darting between the branches and I’ve never been so relieved as to hear chirps from within the bushes. Mules would pass at times carrying those who worked on the mountain or rescuing climbers who passed out and could go on no longer. They would clop past steadily, their breath exhaling thickly in the air. And when we reached the fifth station once more where crowds gathered in front of restaurants and some carried ice cream in their hand, I let out a deep satisfied breath. It had taken us seven and a half hours to scale the mountain.