Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Climbing Mt. Fuji: Strange Pilgrims

-Strange Pilgrims
-Lights Above
-Into Sleep
-The Summit
-The Descent

Mount Fuji holds a sacred place in the history of Japan. According to Wikipedia, its first ascent was made in 663 A.D. It was off-limits to women and foreigners until the 1920s. I can assure you that I had no idea of any spiritual significance to Fuji before I began the hike. But along the way, I encountered some very interesting people.

The Son and His Mother
My brother and my mother told me to go ahead of them. They said that if they didn't catch up, they'd meet me at the bottom. So I continued along and eventually was far from them. This was still in the middle of the night--around 1 am or so (recall we began the hike at 11pm). Every now and then, I'd turn around and flash my headlamp at them and they'd flash back--until it was too far to see.

Around 3am, I passed out on a bench outside one of the huts--between the 7th station and the 8th station. After some strange dreams (more on those another day), I stood up, got my bearings and began the hike again. Just as I was leaving a woman in her early 50s and a man in his early 30s were leaving the hut.

We inadvertently kept the same pace for quite some time. They had been re-energized by a nap at the hut and were keeping good pace. As I was focused solely on the mechanics of climbing--taking deep breaths in the thin air, pacing my breathing, making my muscles work--they were stopping to pick up trash. The son had a bag attached to the back of his backpack and he was cleaning up.

I would never litter on the mountain, but at the same time, I'd never take it upon myself to clean up the mess of others. This son had not only the task of climbing the mountain himself, but also that of helping his mother AND picking up the trash. I was impressed.

The Canadians
Eventually, I got ahead of the son and his mother and continued up the trail. As I neared another hut, I came upon a family of tall blond Canadians (they had Maple Leave patches on their bags). I rested on the bench and silently watched them prepare. They too were just getting up and readying for the rest of the hike after a night spent in the huts. I was amazed at how prepared they were. Straps, and bags, and these covers they put over their shoes. I glanced down at myself--old tennis shoes, jeans, and a fleece hoodie. I was an amateur and these were the pros. The parents were probably in their early 40s and their son and daughter both appeared to be high school aged.

The dad and the son were fussing over the mother because the strap on her shoe-covering thing had broken. She tried to brush them aside, but they insisted on fixing it. The son even had some extra elastic cord--like the type used on the shoe covering. I watched as they cut, and restrung the cover.

I waited for them to leave ahead of me so I wouldn't be put to shame when I had to stop to rest long before they needed to.

The Husband and Wife
Also at that hut, I encountered an older couple--late 50s or early 60s. They had slept there and were just starting their day.

They took more breaks than I did, but I took longer ones since every time I sat down, I closed my eyes and passed out. We reached the summit about the same time. Once there, I was totally focused on wanting to go and collapse on a wooden bench, and get something warm in my belly. The first thing I saw them do was enter the shine and kneel their head to pray.

The Man and his Daughter
The descent was possibly worse than the climb up. It was long, I got soaking wet, and my toes got stubbed and were bleeding. More on that later. Along the way down, I heard behind me a little "iegh, iegh, iegh" like the squeak of a mouse. The fog--or should I saw cloud I was in--was too dense to see where the noise was coming from at first.

When the squeaks got closer, I saw a man and his young daughter--around 7 or 8 years old. They were well geared with rain suits (hers was bright pink), good hiking boots, and climbers poles. They were making good time down the mountain because their poles kept them from slipping in the loose red basalt gravel that covered the descending trail.

I was thoroughly impressed that this girl had made it all the way up the mountain in the first place. Her little sighs of agony with every food step did nothing to take away from that accomplishment. She was merely vocalizing the pain she was feeling every step in a way that I've been socialized not to.

Although I do have to admit--about 12 hours into the hike, when no one was in earshot and it was just me and the Mountain, I would punch the volcanic gravel let out a grunt. It made me feel better--even if just for a second.

I chose the name of this post from Gabriel Garcia Marquez's short story collection of the same title. On a basic level, the collection is a look at Catholic faithful converging on the Vatican.

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