Miki and I arrived at Fujinomiya 5th station shortly before 9pm in a thick vacuum of swirly condensation. Hikers milled about the rest house, tightening their laces and zipping their outer layers tight before disappearing into the shadows of dark scree. Each of us bought a 2-meter long wooden octagonal staff that would serve as both our hiking stick and as an memento of our nocturnal ascent. Each stagepoint en route to the summit will emblazon a seal into your stick along the way as proof of summiting the sacred volcano. Soon after entering the path, we caught up to a short, stocky elderly man whose comedic intents bordered on the absurd. “I’m going to rest at the next hut,” he confessed, a mere five-minute stroll away. His strategy was to rest here for a few hours of sleep before rushing up the peak for the sunrise. We turned down his offer to accompany him and continued up the dusty rocks of the broad path.
Headlamps made navigation easier as we slowly marched our way up the barren route. An hour after starting our ascent, we reached our first major hut at the 6th stage point. Hikers shuffled about, faces hidden behind the bright illumination beaming from their foreheads. After getting our staffs branded, we continued our upward march, breaking through the clouds a short distance below the stage 7 hut. Miki and I turned off our lamps, admiring the expansive stretch of galactic fireflies streaked across the blackened sky. Above us, a river of lamps snaked around the switchbacks to a vanishing point on the crater rim. With so many other climbers to light our way, we kept the lamps off and followed the masses in their solemn march towards their ‘been-there, done-that’ glory.
By the time we reached the 8th stage point it was already past midnight. Altitude slowed us even more than the train of congested hikers. We were now about 3200 meters above sea level, but a curving arc of 500 vertical meters stood between us and the summit. We dug into our energy gels and candy bars, trying to conjure up enough stamina to make the peak before sunrise. We pushed on, clambering over pumice boulders and slippery scree towards our vertical horizon. Just below the 9th stage point the sky started to glow from behind the backlit cone. We were on the western side of the mountain, and the only way to see the sunrise from here was to keep pushing on to the crater. As the two of us reached the shrine gate marking the entrance to the summit plateau, dawn was already advancing over Suruga bay. We shuffled along to the summit of Joyugatake, securing a seat alongside a chorus of 50 other hikers dotted across the exposed perch. Our timing was perfect, as the golden ball hit the horizon less than 10 minutes after our arrival, sending the crowd into a sleep-deprived frenzy.
While most people stayed to absorb the warm rays of the sun, we kept moving, scooting past the village of noodle stalls to the meteorological station sitting directly on the high point of Ken-ga-mine. Scores of mountains stretched out in all directions: little did I know that over the next decade I’d end up scaling nearly all of them. Drowsiness and fatigue were taking over our thoughts, so we continued along the crater rim, turning back down the route we had climbed through the night. Hikers by the hundreds continued their slow advance towards the summit. Most of these climbers had spent the night at one of huts along the way and had missed the sunrise completely.
Miki and I walked in a zombie-like trance back towards the parking lot which we could see clearly in the depths below. We took our first break back at the 8th stage point, where nature came calling. I stumbled over to the decrepit shack concealing nothing more than a deep hole in the ground. I eased over the pit, squatting on an uneven set of wooden planks balanced on both sides of the void. After finishing my business, I headed back outside and turned with my back towards Miki to check for any misfirings. While Miki was checking my bottom and hamstrings, the voice of an elderly woman called from just in front of me: “you’ve got some on you!” I looked down, spying a spot of brown goo attached to my right thigh just above the knee.
I broke out into a hysterical laugh, retreating back to the outhouse to clean up as best I could. Water and volcanic soil did the trick for the most part, and soon we were back on the trail following the river of switchbacks in an insomnia-powered daze. Just past the 6th stage point a field of short shrubs filled the lower depths of the volcano, providing a small but welcome swath of green among the burgundy hues. Back at the parking lot, we just made the 11am bus before collapsing into an exhausted heap. The driver had to wake us upon our arrival at Shin-fuji station.
Fuji nearly chewed us up and spit us back out, but we had survived relatively unscathed. Despite our exhaustion, neither of us suffered from the altitude, which was a good sign considering I still had 99 more peaks to go.