When I was a small boy, I had a sandscape. In a thick wooden frame, two panes of glass sandwiched a mixture of black and white sand in a viscous liquid. When turned on end, the sand would slowly filter down and form stark monochrome landscapes at the bottom. I would dream of walking through those black moors streaked with snow, the desolate ranges of rolling mountains. But occasionally the sand would funnel itself into a single, impossible cone. An abominable Olympus of obsidian ridges and cruel tongues of shimmering ice. And I would think that no man should ever climb such a thing.
A quarter century later, that same cone stares back at me from behind the window of the train. Fuji’s crown stabs at the troposphere, a plume of snow driven by Siberian winds billowing like a pennant from the summit.
I walk from the station to Sengen shrine, the old departure point for the pilgrims who would climb Fuji in clement months. The ascent from here is a long, slow march through the haunted forests of the Jukai. The headlamp casts a small pool of light on the path. John Coltrane drifts smoothly from the headphone and reminds me of warm bars and fiery whiskey, so very far from where I am now. The path steepens at the 1st stage way-point, and the forest closes in above me.
By late evening, the huts of the 5th stage emerge above the treeline, boarded up for the winter. In a snow drift by the path I dig a trench, throw down the bivy bag and start the process of melting snow to drink. My mind wanders to the icy flanks that hang above me. From a distance, Fuji seems so compact and perfect, the size of your fist held at arms length. It’s not until you are up close that its sheer bulk becomes apparent, or the numerous scars and cliffs that mar that otherwise perfect shape. There are no tents, no lights, not a single other sole on this mountain tonight. Minus fifteen degrees, but no wind. Good signs.
Dawn casts its glow over the peak, but also reveals strong winds higher up. I take the climb to the 8th stage at 10,000 feet slowly, hoping for a midday lull that will let me race to the summit. A shower of walnut sized stones rattle down like bullets a few feet away. I cinch the helmet a little tighter and climb on.
At the 8th stage, the tenor of the mountain changes with shocking abruptness. The soft snows and easy breezes give way to a howling, unrelenting gale and bulletproof ice. Up above the winds have only strengthened. Great vortices of snow are now being dragged from the summit. Two climbers died here only a few weeks ago, their tent torn from its moorings and sent aloft before crashing them down on the ice below. The place has a cruel, malevolent feel to it.
I excavate a crude snow hole in a bank of frozen snow and crawl inside, out of the wind that is rapidly sucking the heat from my body. Melt some snow, rehydrate, sleep a little, and massage the feeling back into my toes. I read the labels on all the food I have, try to guess which bubble at the bottom of the pan will be first to break to the surface. At dusk, I stick my head out of the hole. The thermometer reads minus 20 and falling. I try to sleep again, hoping for a break in the wind before dawn.
At 3am, the incessant battering seems to have died a little. In the cramped snow hole, it takes almost an hour to get ready. Finally I snap on the crampons and drag myself outside. The stars shimmer in the icy pre-dawn air. It’s hard to see where the mountain ends and space begins. Within half an hour, I’m at the ridge that will take me to the summit. The wind blows harder here.
At 12,000 feet, I’m lying prone as the gale whips me with all its strength. A constant express train of wind and ice hammer down from above, while all around me is stained blood red by the first rays of the sun. I mash the front points of my crampons deeper into the ice and pull up a little on the axes. My hands are unfeeling, my forearms are pumped and shaking. An eternity passes. It’s clear this gale will not relent. The thermometer shows minus 27; the windchill must be somewhere south of minus 45. I’m struck the very certain feeling that if I went for the summit now, I wouldn’t be coming back. Inch by inch, I move down. I’d got within 400 feet of the top.
The descent from the 8th stage to the shrine passes quickly. After two days alone, it’s strange to see people again, the way they linger and chat with one another. The wan, wintery sun warms my body, and with the exception of the tips of my little fingers, the feeling returns to my hands. At the Fujiyama hot spring, I strip away the armour that has kept me alive for the past two days and slip into the anonymity of those hot waters.
An hour later and with a cold beer in my hand, I watch the winds batter Fuji’s peak as the sun sets behind it. The windows of the restaurant perfectly frame its mighty form, exactly as I’d seen in that snowscape all those years before. That impossibly perfect cone, that tramontane Olympus.
Should any man climb such a thing?