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A Fuji Misadventure

It was probably an hour past midnight. My teammates and I were huddled together in a shack that was either unfinished, or starting to fall apart. It had to do. The rain had been going on for the last five hours, and we were freezing.

I thought to myself, this was supposed to a touristy mountain? How did we end up this way?

It was not what I expected of Mt. Fuji.

The journey begins

You know that familiar photo: some cherry blossoms in the foreground, a near perfect snow-capped cone on a bright sunny day. Majestic, yes. Friendly, not necessarily.

Cap cloud atop Mt. Fuji as seen from our hotel in Gotemba /Photo credit: Abram P. Barrameda

First off, there was no snow. It was summer. That meant no cherry blossoms, no ice. Just rocks. Being a volcano, there were barely any plants either.

It was a birthday trip for two of us in the team. We had separate solo travel plans around Japan, but we planned our itineraries so that we could climb one of the most iconic peaks in the world.

Upon setting foot in Japan, it quickly became apparent how far I was from the Philippines. Out there, individual minutes mattered. Everything was right on schedule, to the last literal minute! But there was one thing that reminded us that we were still on the same planet: nature, and how it doesn’t care about your schedule.

Knowing that, I meticulously planned the trip with my teammates. We identified the exact date of the climb, the transportation requirements, the itinerary, lodging, costs. We weren’t new to the lifestyle, after all. But while we knew plans were always thrown curveballs, you cannot not plan.

At the information booth at the jump-off point, considering other routes up the mountain / Photo credit: Abram P. Barrameda

True enough, it was as if nature decided to troll us. A typhoon headed straight into the heart of the Kanto region, and guess when it was scheduled to make landfall? Yep, the exact date of our climb.

I found that out in a very cute way, too. Japanese news shows have these cute props when they report on the weather, so I didn’t understand anything: only a fluffy swirly stuffed toy moving into a map of Japan. We didn’t change our plans upon hearing the news. The eye was a little bit north of us. We thought we had a chance. Besides, everything was already booked. It would be such a hassle to postpone!

Wisdom and courage

The afternoon before the big day, we all converged in the quiet town of Gotemba, known to tourists as where the sprawling outlet stores are, and met up at the hotel. We picked the route from that side of the mountain precisely because it was the least popular option. The trail started much lower, therefore making it the longest trek. As avid outdoors enthusiasts, we were averse to big crowds, and as avid fans of the sport of climbing, we liked to pick the more challenging way up.

We called a team meeting that morning, and together we took a glimpse outside our window, so we could see the glorious mountain from afar. It was sunny! We set the logistical nightmare of adjusting climb dates aside, and proceeded as scheduled.

Walking to the bus stop at Gotemba, and hoping that the sunny weather persists / Photo credit: Abram P. Barrameda

On the bus to the jump-off point, we joked about how it always rains in the mountains in the Philippines. We thought, coming from a tropical country, we had some advantage. We’d all experienced climbing with full packs in a storm.

But upon arriving at the jump-off point, we weighed our options, together with a couple of students who did volunteer work practicing their English skills by translating for the guides at the information booth. The whole group turned to the oldest man in a room. One look and you could tell he’d done the route many times, and that he was the wisest of them all. True enough, he enumerated his credentials, as if to say we children had better listen to him. He’d summited Fuji-san more than 200 times, including once during a storm in the winter.

“You can.” A pause.

“But if you’re clever, you won’t.”

Trust the Japanese to deliver nuggets of wisdom in such eloquent packets. The outdoors are our classroom, and classes are officially suspended.

We headed back to the waiting shed for the bus back, as it would be the last bus going down. We huddled and laid out our options.

Plans shut down by the storm / Photo credit: Abram P. Barrameda

We could move the entire itinerary by one day. But that would mean booking another hotel for the night, and having to cancel the hostel we booked in Tokyo for the day after. That would cost a lot of money.

Another option: accept defeat and consider it a loss. That’s always a risk we mountaineers have to accept.

But we weren’t just mountaineers—we were Third World mountaineers. We wanted our hard-earned money’s worth! So, we gravitated towards another idea. It was the cheapest one, money-wise, but it would be doubly grueling: we would instead compress the entire itinerary into one long day hike.

The original plan was to hike about two-thirds the way up, where there were inns where we could spend the night, and then assault the summit at the crack of dawn. We decided to skip that, and go straight to the summit from the jump-off. That meant an estimated 10-hour hike up, and about half that, down.

That turned out to be the plot twist of the entire trip.

Setting off

I never got to verify this, and there might have been some bits that were lost in translation. Someone had told me about this ‘saying’ among locals about climbing Mt. Fuji: You climb it once, and then you don’t do it again.

I didn’t give it much thought. All the while I had this impression of elderly Japanese routinely scaling the peak. Maybe it was a niche, maybe it was an old timey thing. Maybe they just weren’t as outdoorsy as we were. We’d find out pretty soon.

For the rest of the day, there was nothing else to do. So off to the outlet shops we went, mingling with the tourist crowd we were trying to avoid.

Last minute preps at Gotemba station / Photo credit: Abram P. Barrameda

We returned to the jump-off the day after. The weather had calmed down, at least in the middle part of Japan. I later learned that it was battering the northern part while we were climbing.

Since we were planning to do it in one long push, we timed it so that we’d reach summit by sunrise, plus some allowance. That meant starting the climb at around 5pm. By that time, the jump-off point was not full of people and tour guides, as it was early in the day before. It was deserted. It felt anticlimactic.

We knew we were going to hike for at least 10 hours straight through the night. We also allotted about two extra hours to account for whatever that may come up.

I’ll get back to those two hours.

On the move

We were raring to go. We warmed up our legs for the long uphill climb, knowing it was going to be a long day. But no amount of Googling could really prepare us for it. We just knew that we were climbing a volcano, and that it was almost a perfect cone. That meant two things: we would be going uphill the entire time, and there would be nothing to see but rocks and sand.

The trail up is composed mostly of coarse volcanic sand. / Photo credit: Abram P. Barrameda

Long walks tend to bring out the philosopher in people. That’s usually because you’re surrounded by trees, plants, streams. You’re in the shade, and a cool breeze empties your mind, and you turn existentialist. Some of the greats like Kant and Nietzsche are known to have taken famously long walks, even if the habit led them to conflicting conclusions.

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That hike brought out a particular kind of philosopher in me: the stoic. I thought: life is suffering and you just have to suck it up. There was hardly any greenery, and the sky was still gloomy from the rainclouds that were still threatening us. Everything was gray and dull, the stuff Epictetus’ stories are made of. It was going to be that way for hours, until the night hid the gray with just a darker shade of monotony.

Monotonous landscape of the slopes / Photo credit: Abram P. Barrameda

And then it rained.

About three to four hours into the climb, we were already at cloud levels, or just under it. At that height, the cold was already a significant factor to deal with. Cold rains multiplied the suffering. We had packed light, and we did not anticipate how cold it would get. We were shivering. Our stomachs were also starting to feel hunger.

Needless to say, we took every chance we got to hide from the cold winds. It took forever, and tremendous amounts of will to trudge up. By the seventh hour of walking in the dark, we finally reached the lodges where we were supposed to spend the night and split the itinerary. But it was past midnight, we weren’t booked, and everything was closed.

That was when we saw the unfinished hut. It had to do. We huddled there and rested for an hour.

After hours of walking in the rain, the team took every chance to rest and warm up at every lee that was safe from the freezing winds. / Photo credit: Abram P. Barrameda

We couldn’t stay long though. Wet, cold and miserable, the only solution was to keep moving. And we tried. Another six hours of monotonous zigzagging uphill.

Cresting the summit

It would usually be at that point in a climb when I would ask myself why I’m doing this. We could just be drinking highballs, gobbling yakitori in the city. But before an answer came, we saw light. It was the sunrise. We had missed it by an hour!

After climbing for hours in the dark, it would be the first time that I’d see how high up we were. Light crept over the vast lands beneath us. It was breathtaking.

We had no idea how high we were until the first light illuminated the clouds beneath us. A fitting reward for hiking through the night. / Photo credit: Abram P. Barrameda

Every time I get to that question, the mountain always finds a way to answer me in the most profound way.

After about an hour more, we finally reached the summit. It was a tourist spot once again up there, since everyone else who came from all the routes were aiming for those few minutes of the majestic sunrise atop one of the most beautiful mountains on the planet. The summit was actually a point along the one-kilometer-long crater that goes around the top of the mountain. The summit area was sprawling and full of different structures, including a mess hall, a temple, and a communications facility right on the highest point. It was a bit anti-climactic. Maybe because of the crowds, because of the man-made structures, or maybe we were just plain spent from the 14-hour trek we just did.

We couldn’t celebrate as long, too. Aside from already being dead-tired and hungry from the red-eye hike, in the back of our minds we knew, we were going to pass the same trail going back down.

Cold brew coffee to keep us going / Photo credit: Abram P. Barrameda

Denouement

Well, not exactly. We zigzagged through rocks going up, but for a major chunk of the path going down, there was this long stretch of loose gravel, and I mean long. Dubbed ‘The Great Sand Run,’ it was a major chunk of the slope where you had no choice but to let gravity take over, and surfing or skiing downhill. Yeah, it was fun—for the first five minutes. Like the ball pit where kids swim at fast food playpens.

That one, though, stretched for several kilometers. You’d think it would be a child’s dream. No. It lasted about three hours, and it got old real quick. It was as if we were stuck in a bad dream, and we couldn’t stop walking because gravity was pulling us down. The scene did not change for hours. When it did, we were still a couple of hours away from the base, and it was still downhill.

We missed the sunrise by a couple of hours. But that’s okay. / Photo credit: Abram P. Barrameda

All in all, it was a 21-hour day of non-stop hiking. What was supposedly a leisurely trek up a touristy mountain became one of the most grueling tests of will, made worse by the monotony of the trail. Soaking wet at near-zero temperatures, it was also one of the most miserable hikes I’d ever been on.

Well, that’s always the risk. If you’re the type that goes for the unbeaten path away from the crowds, you’re shown the reason why no one else is there. Several of my teammates agreed: you do this mountain once, and then you never go back.

Torii gate at the summit / Photo credit: Abram P. Barrameda

I don’t completely agree. I think it’s the best way to welcome my birthday: a classic story of stoicism amidst suffering, so I can celebrate all the weakness I’ve conquered throughout my many years on this earth. It made the more mundane simple joys of the trip feel even more special, like chugging down whisky highballs as I figure out the subtle difference between authentic kobe beef and wagyu steak.

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