Lost Soles on Fuji

The plan seemed simple enough: Catch a bus half the way up then hike through the night to the summit of Mount Fuji to witness the majestic sunrise. Despite this being the common plan of most visitors to this destination, there is also a Japanese proverb that says,

“He who climbs Mount Fuji is a wise man, but he who climbs it twice is a fool."

This trip would cost my friend his sole; actually, it cost both of them.

A two and a half hour bus ride from Shinjuku Station, in Tokyo, to Kawaguchi fifth stage at 2,400 meters is the highest starting point visitors may reach by public transportation. To allow our bodies time to acclimate to the elevation, Leroy and I browsed the gift shop for 30 minutes after arriving at 9:50 p.m. As the crowds began to make their way to the trailhead, we joined the procession. It was then that Leroy mentioned he had forgotten his flashlight. I offered to share mine, and we joyfully pushed on.

After about 15 minutes of walking the trail drastically began to ascend. Leroy and I have both spent time hiking the Himalayas of Nepal, but the confidence of past accomplishments can sometimes overshadow the truth of one's present physical fitness. At 30 minutes, the altitude robbed us of our breath. At 45 minutes, Leroy's back began hurting, and he felt light headed. Our mountain ascent was transformed into a continuing series of 10 minutes hikes followed by five minute breaks, but we diligently pushed on.

In keeping with Japanese tradition Leroy purchased a walking stick at the base of the mountain on which he could collect the crests of the different stations along the trail. Hikers collect these symbols by having them branded onto these sticks at each lodge to commemorate their journey to the top. That cumbersome piece of wood is too bulky to be functional as a walking stick. Carrying this cumbersome stick, we slowly pushed on.

Climbing Fuji can be deceptive because there is no vegetation on this volcanic mountain so hikers are often taunted by a view of the next rest station for hours while hiking. The climb from sixth stage to seventh stage was a difficult climb because it requires one to traverse nearly vertical rock-faced sections that must be scaled using guide chains, which is a task that proved difficult for even the other hikers that were not sharing a flashlight. Slow and steady. No large dynamic movement was my mantra. It is how we tried to preserve our muscle stamina as we cautiously pushed on.

Our confidence was up as we left the seventh stage, but that is when the mountain took Leroy's sole. Our spirits were up and the worst seemed to be behind us when Leroy's left boot sole was unexpectedly ripped off by a rock. Now, he had one normal shoe and one that had no traction at all. That is a nightmare for the middle of any climb, especially when the path is made of loose lava rock and a 15 percent grade. We begrudgingly pushed on.

My hands took a real beating by the wet and cold because I did not have any gloves. At one point I lost some feeling in my thumbs and a few fingers, but nothing was getting dark or really red, so I didn't bother mentioning it. By the time we arrived at the eighth stage, Leroy's muscles were burning due to the over compensation he was making for his lack of sole. I used the restroom for the first time, which cost 200 yen, and the steam generated was so thick it eclipsed my lower half. After some rest and crackers, we hazardously pushed on.

After several hours and many setbacks, it became obvious that we were not going to summit Fuji before dawn. The sun came up as we left the eight-and-a-half stage at 4:30 a.m. and fortunately for morale, it was so overcast and cloudy that we would not have seen a sunrise if we had been at the top. With some slowly growing light, we were able to break our flashlight tether. We started to recognize people that we were leapfrogging up the mountain. Everybody looked exhausted but outfitted in technical clothing including crampon-ready tundra boots, gators, rain gear, hiking polls, and large capacity backpacks. Most of it looked brand new, and most of our fellow climbers were not using their equipment as it was intended. There I was in jeans and my Greek fisherman's cap and Leroy was carrying his son's Spiderman backpack. Our bewildered stares were mirrored by those around us as we confusedly pushed on.

The final ascent was a very narrow trail that bottlenecked into a single file line. At 6:30 a.m., in the cold beset by fog, we stood still waiting for our turn to summit. I thought there was an earthquake but then realized that actually my legs had just decided that they were done supporting me. I hastily reacted out of fear that I might soon find myself on the ground only 30 meters from the summit. With a desperately repeated “pardon me," dangled out in front of me, I politely pushed my way to the front of the line without Leroy.

The line at the summit of Fuji results because every group that arrived there takes time to pose for pictures and join in a chorus of screams to celebrate their completion, but nobody in the line behind looks bothered in the slightest. I have never seen such patience exhibited by a group of cold and tired people, and even though I had just cut in line nobody begrudged me. As atonement, I decided to wait outside the summit gate for Leroy and the others to pass through before me. When Leroy made it, we walked through the summit gate together after 10 hours of hiking.

The summit of Fuji is a magical place full of vendors and the authentic feeling of a true Japanese experience. Leroy and I shared a cigarette and a hot coffee served in a can at 3,776 meters. Despite the fact that Leroy's other boot sole tore off on the way down the mountain, for 30 minutes we sat at the top of Fuji and felt like wiser men.

Lou Hebert is a writer, photographer and independent adventurer documenting the mankind through firsthand experiences around the world. His pictures capture the commonalities he has found throughout the world that demonstrate how mankind's similarities can transcend cultural partisanism. He is currently on an adventure in Japan with his family.