Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Fuji-san ( Short Story 3000 words )

My number had been called and I politely collected the two bowls of Pork and Noodles and two equally hot cups of coffee, pausing only to balance the tray on the counter’s edge long enough to grab chop sticks, sugar and more than my fair share of the tiny milk portions that were available. Surveying the first storey cafe for a good table I decided on the one in the corner, by the window. I could have chosen anywhere really, as apart from me the only other person in the room was an elderly lady who busied herself sweeping the floor and wiping down the tables. Outside, hundreds of visitors bustled in and around the large gift shops or, like us, visited the shrine to make an offering and take some photos. We had selected the café nearest the start of the trail, and apart from being conspicuously empty at lunch time, the café was wholly unremarkable. In fact I could have been anywhere in the world, but I was here, in Japan.

At the top of the stairs leading back down to the gift shop, I paused; one last thing was still required. When I was sure we were not being watched I kicked off my boots, dropped my shorts, and pulled on my thermal layer, tugging my shorts back on as quickly as I could. I then repeated the process, pulling off my shirt. Thankfully as far as I am aware my pale, hairy, chubby little torso did not cause undue distress to any of the fair natives in the vicinity. Toby had changed while in the toilets and stood there during the entire operation, as my clothes were thrown at him, like some sort of dutiful husband in the middle of a 70% off closing down sale. We now felt ready to begin our adventure and started our ascent along a narrow tarmac-covered road.

The path continued its slow climb through the trees and we greeted more and more people coming in the other direction with a friendly “Konnichi wa” or something in English when we spotted a Westerner. It was one of these young Europeans who wished us “good luck” without a smile, tight lipped and exhausted, that made us look at each other and wonder what was really ahead of us.

Five years ago, my good friend Toby and I visited Japan: we had a great time, visited many sites of interest, snapped away on our little cameras, and after a fantastic fourteen days returned to the UK vowing to return again as soon as possible. We both hoped this would be in the next year, maybe two, but life doesn’t always go to plan and sometime in the past five years one of us, and I forget who, uttered the words,
“I know: if we don’t get to do it before, why don’t we climb Fuji for your/my 40th birthday”. Until a week before the flight I was still more apprehensive than excited about this trip. In truth I was not the man I had been five years ago. That version of Lee was married and owned his own company. He was also a dedicated Martial Artist and the trip had been a ‘boys own adventure’ to a country he had been fascinated with since he was a teenager. Now divorced, bankrupt and disenchanted with the Arts, having not trained for two years I was overweight and unfit. Maybe it’s a cliché, but I was missing Lee. In this state of mind and body I had consented to climb Fuji, but I had absolutely no idea that the hardest trial of my life lay ahead of me.

It had been a much harder climb since leaving the sixth station - until then it had been a gentle uphill ramble through the trees. We were keeping a good pace, laughing and joking with each other as we walked on. Even before reaching the sixth station we could hear its tannoy system broadcasting a looped safety message for the climbers. After passing the station the trail soon emerged from the tree cover, onto a barren landscape of volcanic sand and rock. The route started to zigzag up the mountain.

As we climbed into the clouds we donned our cold weather gear. I could tell you that walking amongst the clouds was a tranquil, beautiful experience but in reality it was a bit like fog: visibility was poor and the temperature dropped. By now the effects of the altitude on my body were really starting to make the climb unpleasant. Until you experience it for yourself I don't think you can really appreciate the dizziness and shortness of breath, your heart seemingly pumping twice as fast as normal with a slightly sickening feeling as it flops around in your chest like a fish out of water. I remember listening to radio coverage of a bunch of celebrities who were trooping up Kilimanjaro for charity going on and on about the altitude sickness, and not having any sympathy for them at all. Ignorance is truly bliss. My inability to draw a decent breath had now put an end to my singing, which I’m sure Toby was very grateful for. We found ourselves further hampered when we had to clamber up some very large and uneven volcanic rocks. This section turned out to be the first of many and if it hadn’t been for the altitude would have been as easy as clambering about the rocks on a beach, if not easier, due to the absence of seaweed at 3000 metres above sea level. The lack of oxygen was now causing us both to move very slowly as we attempted to force our limbs into some action. Frequent breaks were required to get our breath back.

Two hundred metres away, the seventh station appeared as a large but ramshackle single storey hut hugging the steep slope above us. It didn’t seem that far away but with the daylight fading the orange glow of its lights made us both realise that night was drawing in. Through the gaps in the clouds below the lights of Kawaguchiko started to twinkle in the distance. I stood head down, hands on my knees, gasping for breath. As I looked up I caught Toby's eye and wasn’t sorry to see that he was apparently in much the same state as I was. He may have been faking it to make me feel better, but if he was it did the job. We had just witnessed one of the most spectacular sunsets that I had ever seen. The previous choice for number one spot in my sunset chart had been while line fishing on a small boat anchored off an island in the Southern atoll of the Maldives. As we lazily bobbed about, almost ignoring our lines, the sun had been growing steadily more orange and beautiful as it lowered in the sky; the sea reflected the sunlight, almost blinding, as the water glinted with thousands of tiny sparks. Five minutes later the sun was gone and it was night, but here on Fuji the night was thankfully a long time coming: the sunset stretched across the horizon between the clouds below us and the high level cloud that still shrouded the peak. The lower clouds looked like another mountain range in the distance against the sunset with their peaks ablaze. It was breathtaking.

As we ascended the last set of steep and uneven steps to the seventh station I was struck by the quantity of people settling in for the night, most looked exhausted but happy as they sat around chatting, smoking or forcing down the evening meal of curry and rice. We pushed on as it was almost dark and we still had to reach the eighth station where Toby had booked our bed for the night. Three hundred metres in the twilight was all that was left until we could eat a meal and get some well earned sleep. It sounded easy when I thought about it like that, until Toby pointed out it would probably take a further hour’s climb to get to our beds. At this point I was just starting to have my doubts that I could keep moving for another hour: I’m sure I could, couldn’t I?

The climb away from the seventh station was immediately steeper, the sharp and jagged volcanic rocks required considerably more care to grip or move over. After about thirty or forty metres the path resumed its steep series of hair-pins. We now had to stop for a rest every other corner, the pace had slowed and every step was a major effort, just to move your legs one in front of the other. Our conversation had mostly dried up. Now only the absolute basics as to how each other were holding up, or when we should next rest were attempted by either of us.

I could see the lights from the eighth station but as much as we walked or climbed they just didn’t seem to be getting any closer. I was on autopilot - a machine of meat just putting one foot in front of the other, over and over. We just kept climbing towards the lights. Toby was saying something to me. At first it was like waking from a dream, I couldn’t focus my mind. He was asking about taking a break. So soon? Looking about me to get some sort of bearing I realised I was close at last, it was impossible to tell how close but I was sure it was less than fifty metres. I needed to pause to take on some water. I had never felt anything like this: I was exhausted. We pushed on.
At the next rest spot I just mumbled something to Toby and continued to climb. I couldn’t stop. I knew that I’d passed my limit; my body had stopped complaining, the pain was gone, my body was numb. I had been a student of the martial arts for almost twenty years and I remember my Sensei telling me – on many occasions - about the importance of the spirit, not in a divine way but just as a human being’s force of will. I had taken gradings which attempted to break me down over many hours, so at last all I had left is technique and the will to use it. Now here on Fuji, in the dark with Toby walking a little behind me, I was alone; no-one was going to carry me to the eighth station, no-one could stop my heart exploding; it was beating so fast in my chest. What if it gave up? It may all sound a little melodramatic but I was determined to get to the eighth station or die trying, and as I staggered on I realised I had passed one of those points in my life; a defining point, a marker that I would always look back on and know that all the excuses that I had made up to this moment were just that, excuses. They all paled next to what I was putting myself through now and as I finally clambered up the steps to the eighth station and found a bench to sit on I realised I had made it.

Sitting there we exchanged a tight lipped smile. I had started to shake with exhaustion and quite possibly with relief. Toby entered the hut to sort out our booking and as I sat there staring out into the night I removed my gloves and then leant forward to untie my boots. Toby had reappeared and as he crouched next to me, he uttered what I hoped would be the cruellest joke I'd ever hear. He went on to explain we were at the new eighth station and our booking had been for the old eighth station, another fifty metres above our position. I could have cried. I didn’t think I was going to get this far; I looked up again trying to will the hut closer to us.
“Could we not stop here” I said,
“Already asked” said Toby,
“But…” I started,
“Fully booked” he said,
“Fuck it then, let’s go”,
With gritted teeth I re-tied my boots.

We had arrived, registered and after our brief tour of the ‘facilities’ we returned to the main room; our evening meal had been prepared, complete with a small bottle of water. I was by now so exhausted that even the smell of the food was making me nauseous - it was all I could do to get a couple of spoons of rice and one of the curry before I had to stop: the last thing I wanted to do was to vomit all over the hut. I drank some fluids, passed my meal to Toby, and took myself off to bed. At this point I would like to say that I was unconscious as soon as my head hit the pillow but that wasn't to be the case. One reason might have been that I had made my pillow out of my badly folded coat, or maybe it was the cold. Whatever the reason, sleep eluded me for almost an hour and when I did drop off I was disturbed twice by other people coming to bed.

Two thirty in the morning: it was cold and dark in the hut. All I could hear was the odd clink and clang of pots and pans from the kitchen and the low murmur of voices from the next room. The Japanese man at the end of my sleeping bag had woken me with a gentle pull on my toe and very politely in slightly broken English informed me of the time and reminded me that we had asked for the alarm call. Thanking him, I tried to calculate how long I had slept - not long I knew that much.

Standing there in our thermals, like a pair of modern day hillbillies, we dressed quickly to avoid the cold. Breakfast consisted of a couple of energy bars and water, and then we joined the slow procession of people making their way to the summit. We had about two hours to climb the last three hundred metres or so if we wanted to conquer Fuji in time for the sunrise. The sleep had done me the world of good and although it was still an amazing effort to keep going, the track we were following on the last stage of the climb was very narrow and the slow procession of the hundreds of climbers in single file made the pace a comparatively easy one. While I waited for my turn over one of the more difficult sections I could see just how many people were ahead of me. The snake of head torches wound its way through the dark to an unseen destination. Looking behind me, down towards the eighth station, the tail of the snake continued down past it and beyond. There must have been a thousand people winding their way up to see what we hoped would be a fantastic sunrise.

If getting to the eighth station had been a supreme test of will power, then the last stage was a test of patience. The slow pace was enormously frustrating but, as the sky started to lighten I could see people milling about around a few huts about a short distance above me. We had made it. The end was in sight. We clapped each other on the back and with renewed vigour made full advantage of the widening path. In comparison with most of the other climbers this was a sprint finish.

At the top of Fuji 3770m above sea level we had wandered past a selection of huts, most of which were much like the various stations we had passed on the way up, with nearly all the staff busy cooking food or selling tea to the exhausted masses. There were also monks selling incense and other tokens to use at the small shrine, and in typical Japanese fashion there were also vending machines selling a selection of beverages; including cans of hot coffee, so we bought two cans from the nearest machine, found a good place to sit looking out at the dawn sky, and waited for the sunrise.

I cannot speak for Toby but I was elated: this climb had almost broken me physically, and mentally this was the hardest thing I had ever endured. Far harder than losing my long battle to save my business. The grief of my separation from my wife was falling away; the ghost of that woman finally exorcised, replaced with happiness of knowing I was truly alive. In my pocket a photo of my Son who would soon be five. He would know how much I had missed him and how much he meant to me at that very moment. I would tell him about my adventures. I vowed to resume martial arts and put the politics that had poisoned my enjoyment of them far behind me. I would get back in shape physically. Somehow I understood that this journey had changed me, at this point I could only guess as to how much.

On July 23rd two men sat at the top of Mount Fuji amongst a crowd of almost a thousand people, they drank their coffee, and, as they finished one can and decided on a second, the sky opened and a sudden heavy downpour of rain sent most people running for shelter. Some had brought umbrellas, others pressed themselves against the huts for protection. Toby had returned to the vending machine for more coffee and I continued sitting there in the rain. Feeling alone on the mountain I was glad of the rain, silently I wished myself a Happy Birthday as the tears rolled down my face…

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