I love the jokes people tell when they are nervous or scared. Not only do they come with an extra kick of honesty but that lifeline of a giggle is great when you are desperately trying to shut your mind up about how old tennis shoes is probably not going to cut it on crumbling volcanic rock. Nothing like some self-deprecating humour to convince every other passenger on the Tomas the tank engine bus heading to mount Fuji, that at least they are better off than those four South Africans. Sure Roland and I had only gone to bed at around 2am the previous night due to our replacement bus needing a replacement bus and our plane being delayed to the point of missing the last train from the airport. I have it on good authority that cup noodles, coke and kitkats are an extremely good way to carbo-load the night before climbing a mountain and the best way to rest up the morning before is to run around Tokyo trying to renew your passport. Oh yeah, we were in fine shape.
The frosty wind that rushed through my hair had nothing on the stare I directed at Roland as we fondly remembered him saying, `oh why bother with beenies and down jackets, it`s shorts wearing weather on Fuji at the moment`. Luckily I was beaten with the stubborn stick and packed semi decent ways to keep warm but Roland grabbed a light jacket, sweat pants and a superhero shirt. I will treasure the photo I have of me wearing the extra pair of pants I took along, as a hat/scarf combo until the day Roland regains feeling in his fingers and toes.
We paid our R5 to pee, adjusted our backpacks full of energy drinks, oatmeal cookies and downed the last of our starbucks coffee as we confidently headed in the wrong direction for the first five minutes of our climb. Cornelia and I celebrated getting to what we thought was the next base camp (after about 30 minutes of walking) with a little sit down, until the nice man handed us a map and said welcome to the start of your climb. We decided to climb at night because having a nice warm sun and being able to see where we are going is way too mainstream for us extreme climbing types.
As all good horror stories start, our first few hours were all fun and games. We happily skipped up the loose gravel stairs, yes stairs of the yoshida route and bought bananas and cocoa at the 6th station. We took photos of the moon light bouncing off the clouds so far below our feet and said things like `Wow guys, just think about how amazing this is for a moment`. And then somebody lost an eye, well metaphorically at least. The fun started morphing into taking deep breaths due to the lack of oxygen and the games quickly turned into trying to rub the volcanic dust out of our eyes and ears. Our dialogue became less `can you believe we are here` to `what were those people talking about when they said Fuji is challenging but not so bad` and `nobody said anything about proper climbing with boulders and hands and knees`. If someone has told you that climbing Fuji is easy, they are either in good shape or lying, trust someone whose only exercise is asking Roland to pass her the remote control.
By the time we reached the second last station even a zombie would be all ` it’s not you it’s me` but even here Roland still managed to be charming as he told me that the mud caked around my eyes kind of looked like mascara and that I was totally working the pants/hat/scarf combo. An insanely icy wind was blasting us from every angle and there was nothing more in the world I wanted after 7 hours of solid climbing than another hour and a half of the same. It is strange to think of that final push now, I just zoned out and put one foot in front of the other as I stepped in the little puddle of light my R10 torch provided.
However, when we stumbled through the tori gate emphasizing our arrival and Roland squeezed my hand as we looked out over all the world covered in soft clouds my breath caught and not from the thin air. As the light of the rising sun colored the sky in shades of my little pony pink, the other climbers started to sing the national anthem. Sure I was tired and sure I just paid R40 (400 yen) for a cup of tea and sure I had a 5 hour climb down the mountain ahead of me but there I was, standing on mount friggin Fuji, hearing such pride on the voices beside me and it was perfect.
That childlike wonder lasted all of until I put my 1st foot down on the way back. Oh the torturous horror that is the decent of that bastard mountain! Fuji`s exit is one, unending line of bulldozed zigzags made up of crumbling stones forged in the fires of mount doom and placed there with the sole purpose of making you slide, fall and stumble your way down. Cornelia and Andrew locked arms and in so doing managed to keep the other from tumbling down and breaking crowns, whereas I just clung onto Roland like a limpid as I tried to break the world record for complaining. I could not even fake a smile for the poor, hopeful day-climbers we met at the end and I was happily dreaming and drooling by the time the bus driver closed the doors.