They say that travelling changes a person. The smells, the cultures, the frustrations, the wonder, the longing for home… somehow it comes together to change you. Having probably seen more of the world than the average person, I’m not sure that I can confidently say that’s true. At least, not in an immediate, obvious way. I think that — like every experience in life — travel contributes to shaping who you are. It would stand to reason that the more you see, the more diversely you are shaped. Maybe it’s like gaining wisdom over time. With travel, you gain appreciation over distance.
Hiking Mt. Fuji was a dream of Rob’s, who had been a karate-obsessed child enamoured of anything Japanese. And me, well, I’m up for just about anything. So while in China in 40 degree heat, we bartered for two Columbia winter jackets in preparation of our upcoming trip to Mt. Fuji. At $20 each they were a steal, and we stuffed them in our backpacks until we reached Tokyo.
The night before the climb we checked into a pod hotel. Those are the ones that you pay to basically sleep in large microwave, stacked two high and twenty deep in a narrow room with only a bamboo curtain closing off your crawlspace. Eight floors in this hotel, and only one of them admitted women. Which meant that my room had 40 women in it, while Rob almost had a floor to himself. Needless to say, between the excitement for the impending hike and the collective human noises of shuffling, stirring, sniffling, and snoring, I didn’t get much sleep, and napping the next afternoon was equally fruitless.
That evening we made our way to Shinjuku Station, which was easier said than done. After boarding the light rail instead of the metro, and getting lost, and then trying to run through the busiest subway station in the world, we made our bus with ten minutes to spare, sweating in the 35 degree heat even though it was already dark. Two hours later we arrived at Kawaguchi-ko, the 5th station of Mt. Fuji. It was only then that we realized we were already starting above the cloud line. The temperature plummeted to 10 degrees and we put on our fleeces, tied our jackets around our waists, and began to ascend.
As we started moving the cooler air became refreshing. We hiked in almost total darkness, guided by our flashlights and the current of hikers around us. We reached the 6th station in good time, and were given a pamphlet that listed all the stations and stops, first aid stations, toilets, and symptoms of altitude sickness. We passed a rest station that served food and sold bottles of oxygen. The 6th station was at an elevation of 2,390m. It was 10:30pm.
Our pace slowed after that, due in part to the congestion on the mountain, and just a naturally slower pace after a few hours. We stopped at the 7th station (2,700m) for some bread and dried fruit that we’d packed. Until that point the hike had been mostly steps and scree. The 7th to the 8th station was only 320m, but it was estimated to take 100 minutes, as the climb was at its most challenging. Almost straight up, we began to use our hands for balance, and (in my case) for pulling myself up when I couldn’t get enough momentum on the steep steps cut out of the rock face. I enjoyed this section the most, as it required attention and concentration, and kept my mind off my growing discomfort.
When we stopped, I became extremely cold, almost like I had a fever. I realized that my Columbia jacket was soaked through with sweat… Rob rang out the outer shell for me. I couldn’t stop shaking, and although I thought the adrenaline would keep me awake even during an all-nighter, my eyes were increasingly heavy and my head foggy. Once we reached the 8th station at 1:30am, Rob tried to get me to eat. He was starving, but the idea of food made me queazy. It wasn’t until I threw up shortly after the 8th station that we realized I wasn’t just tired — I had altitude sickness.
We still had another 2.5 hours to go until the top, and I don’t remember very clearly past that point. I know repeatedly Rob told me we could turn back, and I refused. I went onto auto pilot, keeping my eyes on the ground in front of me because whenever I raised them I threw up. My breathing became increasingly laboured, and once we passed 3, 360 meters I felt like a fish out of water, only able to take shallow little breaths through my mouth. Rob insisted we sit for at least 20 minutes. I was shivering, nauseated, unable to concentrate, and barely able to keep my eyes open. If I had been able to think clearly, I think I would have been pretty worried at that point. But we were so close to the top I didn’t want to turn back. It would have been nearly impossible to go against the tide of people pushing for the summit in any case.
A couple of Japanese women at that point stopped to make sure I was okay. They seemed a little amazed that we hadn’t purchased a $17 bottle of oxygen further down. After a year in Asia, we’d though it was a cultural health paranoia, like wearing a mask when you have a cold. With the help of a younger male interpreter, they strapped one of their bottles onto my mouth and nose. The first hit of oxygen woke me up quite a bit, and I felt instantly more alert. They left us their bottle, and after a few minutes we kept climbing.
Shortly after 4am the sky began to lighten. We were going very slowly, but determined to watch the sun rise from the top. Close to it, Rob made the call to stop. We hunkered down on the gravel and he wrapped himself around my shivering self to block the wind, not saying anything as I threw up between my knees and kicked dirt over it. I tried to keep my eyes open while we waited. The view was phenomenal – just enough light to make out the puffy cumulous clouds below and distant mountains. The sun passed over the clouds, and we sat there for at least an hour watching the sunrise. At one point I found myself crying. What an amazing planet we live on. There is so much to see and so much beauty. The light changed continuously. I picked up my camera for the first time, and asked another climber to take a picture of us.
The hike to the summit was 20 minutes farther. We took a picture with the huge 3,776m marker, sat and ate breakfast (at least, I tried), and went to take pictures of the crater. We would have loved to walk around the mouth of the crater, but I was feeling like death and shivering so hard I thought my bones would break, so we started our descent.
The way down was a well-groomed trail of gravel and dirt, switchback after switchback. We slalomed for hours, and the farther we went the better I felt, until the headache, fuzziness, and nausea disappeared completely. We started peeling off layers of clothing and eating during our rests. In the light of day, the view was amazing. The mountain was a deep red, and farther down, where vegetation started to grow, the contrast of red earth, green plants, blue sky, and white clouds was beautiful. At times it seemed as though you could walk off a cliff and into a cloud.
We finished at 11am after 13 hours of hiking.
If travel did change me, that sunrise is now a part of me.