The Stars Were Beautiful

I asked Sarah to do a guest blog describing our climb down the mountain and she replied, “It was dark and long.” While I am admire her sparseness I am not sure I can leave it at that.

Many people told us that we were underdressed for our climb up Fuji and we had to reassure them that we had warm clothes in our backpack. A Nihonjin at the bottom told us that it got down to 0 degrees at the top, which sounded cold until we realized he meant Celsius. 32 degrees Fahrenheit is a nice spring day in MN. Kira and Michael who made it to the 8th station never put on warmer clothes while they were climbing. The rest of us put on jackets at about the 9th station, but Sarah took hers off again until we got closer to the top. Even at the top I didn’t think it was very cold and I was just wearing a t-shirt and a long sleeve running shirt. As we started to come down we were in the shadow of the mountain and my hands were cold for about 20 minutes. I was never cold after that. Melanie said she was cold while she waited for us a little bit In the dark, but I am getting ahead of the story.

We started the climb down to station 9.5 and going down was not as strenuous as climbing up, but it was still difficult with the loose volcanic gravel covering everything. Sure footing was never a guarantee and in fact I slipped after only three steps and have a nice scape on my leg to prove it.

There is a very nice sign at the top of the Fujinomiya trail pointing down the mountain and stating that it will take 125 minutes to get down. It took us about an hour longer than it said to get up so I figured it would take us three to get down. The guide book and the nice man who told us it would be zero degrees at the top also said about it would take 2-3 hrs to climb down.

They lied. They all lied. The sign lied. The guide book lied. The nice man lied. I will admit that we were a little slower than some of the other people coming down the mountain, but once we started down i couldn’t conceive of traveling twice or three times as fast as we did going up. Maybe we should have been wearing better shoes, maybe we should have been in better shape, maybe we should have been part mountain goat, but it took us almost the same amount of time to climb down to station 9.5 as it did to climb up from there to the top.

It was at this point I knew we would be climbing down in the dark. We were already in the shadow of the mountain, but there was plenty of light to see. It was only about 5 pm at this point. Nothing was open at station 9.5 so we kept climbing down. It took us another half an hour to get back to station 9. Again, the same time it took to climb up the same path. Any delusional hope I had that we would get faster evaporated at this point. Melanie has surer footing than Sarah or I and was getting ahead of us. I told her to go ahead and try and reach her mother who was most likely waiting for us far down the mountain at station five. I gave her a thousand yen so she could get some water and use the bathroom.

She went ahead and Sarah and I continued on at our slower pace. There was a slight flaw in this plan, which is that we only had one head lamp. I told Melanie that if it got too dark to see then she should wait for us to catch up. We had seen the shops selling headlamps and my plan was to buy at least one more. I couldn’t give Mel enough money to get her own because I only had a single 10,000 bill in addition the the thousand I had already given her. Melanie quickly pulled ahead of us. We saw her for a little bit climbing below us, but eventually she was out of sight. We would not see her again until we reached the end of our descent.

It was still daylight almost an hour later when we reached station 8 and Sarah and I both used the bathroom and got some water. We used up any remaining daylight getting down to old station 7. Sarah was able to use the bathroom here as well and we had a bit of a snack. It was here that my hopes of getting another headlamp or flashlight were dashed. The shop was closed and we couldn’t even get any water. We got out our single headlamp and started down the long stretch between between old seven and new seven with Sarah wearing the headlamp. There was a large light on station 8 that was still providing some light and with the light from the headlamp I was able to see pretty well. Sarah had her walking stick, but we mostly relied on the guide rope for support and to keep us on the right path. We traded the stick back and forth for a bit and when I had it I tested the ground in front of me like a blind man to make sure the footing was good.

Somehow we made it down to new station seven. It took us an hour and a half in the dark. I tried to engage Sarah in a little conversation, but she wouldn’t have it. I believe she just wanted to get it over with and I couldn’t argue with that. I probably said a dozen times, “Thank god for the rope” on this part of the climb and it was a sentiment that was true the whole way down. The rope would change sides every now and again which made us have to shuffle across the path without anything to hold on to.

We sat for a bit at new station seven which I thought might be open because there were people climbing up the mountain to be there for sunrise. The station was closed up tight and in what I thought was a cruel bonus, the vending machines were shut down for the night. [I should note that Sarah disagrees with me on this point and believes that we should have tried to put money in them. Maybe they just turned the backlighting off. Honestly I don’t want to believe that because it means I could have had some water when I desperately needed it.]

Sarah was on the verge of tears of frustration as we contemplated the next leg of the descent down to station six. I could not blame her. We both knew we had to continue, but wished that somehow we could get out of it. The last hour and a half climbing down in the dark had been difficult. Now we had to do it again. If you recall, the stretch between new seven and station six is touted as the hardest.

I think I tried again to engage Sarah in some conversation and at some point I looked up and saw the stars. The sky had a few wisps of clouds and the stars were so clear it looked like they were close enough to touch. The stars were beautiful, but neither of us really cared. At this point we had been on the mountain for over 10 hours. I couldn’t just keep moving; I needed a distraction. On long runs I will sometimes promise myself a reward, usually water, when I reach a certain spot in the distance. I couldn’t see more than three steps ahead of me so instead I counted steps. I didn’t have any water, so the reward was a 30 second break. Initially I counted to 100 and we took our first break. That was not long enough so I told Sarah I was going to up it by 10 each time until I hit 200 and then go down by 10 back to 100. I counted and we took breaks most of the way down to the next station. I knew this might take longer, but we were exhausted and I wanted to make sure we didn’t trip and make things worse by being too tired to watch our footing.

I believe it was during this section that we received our first messages form Kira waiting down below. I knew she would be out of her mind with worry the longer it took us to get down, but I had no way to contact her. I thought about asking the shops at the stations to call down to station five, but they were all closed. many people were passing us going the other way, climbing up the mountain and a man who I thought was from the Middle East stopped me during my counting and asked, “Are you Mike? Your wife is waiting for you down at station five.” (I later found out he was from Spain, or at least that he spoke Spanish. He was on some journey that had brought him from the sea that day walking all the way up the mountain.)

About a half a hour after this a young Japanese woman saw me coming down and said that my wife was waiting for at the fifth station and that she had sent my young son back to his grandmother at the hotel. I quickly realized that I forgot to ask about Melanie when I saw the first messenger. I asked about my tall daughter and she said that she was with her mom. That was a relief because it seemed like we should have caught up to her by now if she stopped when it got dark.

I kept counting and we kept taking breaks until I could see the outline of the sixth station. When we were climbing up you could gauge the distance traveled by the stations getting closer, but in the dark they turned off all of the lights and we couldn’t see them until we were practically on top of them. Sarah and I agreed that after a promised 5 minutes rest at station six we would stop taking breaks and just push down to station 5. This section only took 20 minutes coming up and was the flattest part – flat being relative of course.

I laid down on a bench when we stopped at station six and Sarah cautioned me not to fall asleep. I said I wanted to fall asleep, but I couldn’t because I had to go to the bathroom for the last hour. We started down the last part with some good speed and I think it was probably 20 minutes down as well. Right before you get down to the last station there is a bathroom open to everyone asking for a 100 yen donation. I fruitlessly tried to find some coins digging around in the backpack for the coin purse we brought just for this purpose. I finally gave up, deciding I would be able to find it after I went to the bathroom because I wouldn’t be so frantic. I was right.

I could see two figures outlined on a bench as we came down and I knew it was Kira and Melanie. I was right and Kira came running over to give us hugs. Not only were they waiting for us, but so was a cab to take us back to the hotel. The cab driver waited for us for over three hours. Kira ordered them when she got down thinking it would take the cabs an hour to get up the mountain and we couldn’t be that far behind her. We rushed to the cab and I forgot to get a drink from the vending machines that were still on at station five. My throat was sore form dehydration and I had a horrible headache. The cab ride was more than an hour back and the poor cab driver who had waited for us all that time now had to listen to us share our three separate stories. I don’t think there was a moment of silence during the entire ride back.

I found out that Max and Kira made it to the 8th station and got back down to station five at about 7:30 pm. It was a good thing that Kira made it down before it got dark because when we divided the backpacks I ended up with her eyeglasses. She was still wearing her very decorative prescription sunglasses until we got back to the hotel.

From the sounds of her story, Melanie was about a half a station ahead of us when it got too dark to keep going. She sat and waited for us in the dark until she also got messengers from below and people asking to help her. I don’t know the whole story, but eventually Someone gave her their extra flashlight and she was able to continue down.

We had left the hotel at 8am that morning in our taxi and we arrived back after 1am. We’ve had better ideas, but all’s well that ends well. We got to climb Fujisan, and we have a great story to tell about it.

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