MOUNT FUJI, SHIZUOKA PREF. - Mount Fuji is trying to break me, one hairpin turn at a time. My bike groans with the strain of each pedal stroke and a fine drizzle coalesces into rivulets that run down my skin, cutting a path through the grime of the previous four hours in the saddle.
It’s 1 a.m. and I’ve just crossed the 2,000-meter mark in an attempt to complete a sea-to-summit climb of Japan’s tallest mountain with my old schoolmate Ollie Leader.
What had started out as a semi-serious conversation in mid-February is now a peculiar form of self-inflicted punishment. The poor weather, the endless climb, the thinning air; everything tells us to turn back, but the drive to reach the top is stronger.
The allure of Fuji is a strange one, powerful enough to have drawn me back three times. “Once a wise man, twice a fool,” goes the old adage. “Three times is strange, four times is cruel,” you might add. And in truth, it’s a better mountain to look at than climb. Fuji’s stark symmetry gives it a perfection at a distance that is not reflected in any similar level of visual appeal when actually stood upon it.
Perhaps it’s living in Tokyo, where everything towers above you and the sky feels closed off by buildings and wires — a distant, untouchable patch of blue — that makes the vast expanse of Mount Fuji so appealing. On its upper slopes, all is open, the horizon visible, Tokyo and its mighty glass towers a gray speck in the distance.
Ollie and I are almost the only passengers on the 7 p.m. bullet train from Tokyo to alight at Shin-Fuji Station, and certainly the only ones carrying bikes. It’s already dark and, eager to begin, we work our way down to the coast to our starting point. I had pictured a scene of tranquility, a welcoming beach, waves quietly lapping against soft sand, but what greets us is entirely different.
Before us is a vast concrete sea wall designed to separate ocean from land and us from our journey. Beyond that, a rocky beach is occupied by the ghostly forms of half-buried tetrapods assaulted by waves egged on by a biting wind. It is a conflict zone.
With salt spray dancing off the ocean, we fill a small bottle with sea water to carry with us to the top of the mountain — a tradition for those attempting a sea-to-summit — running forward to meet the swash before each wave comes crashing in.
As we take our first pedals away from the shore, Ollie and I share a nervous energy, but neither of us questions what we are about to attempt. The route starts flat, but just north of the station, the road kicks up and we start the climb. It will last the next 50 kilometers, until we reach the fifth station of the Fujinomiya trail, 2,400 meters above sea level.
Fifteen kilometers into our journey, we enter the dense forests at the foot of Mount Fuji. We are suffering from the temperature more than the gradient; the intense August humidity is a cloying blanket of heat that wraps itself around both body and bicycle.
But a greater challenge manifests itself in the dense fog that meets us as we climb farther through the pine trees. Visibility, already limited, drops to a halo of light from our head torches that extends barely a meter ahead of our front wheels.
Occasionally a break in the cloud affords a glimpse of trees at the edge of the road, or a car illuminates the corner ahead, but otherwise we seem to be traveling through nothingness. I am glad for Ollie’s company, for in the darkness and fog I feel alone, accompanied only by the sound of my breath and spectral figures that float through my peripheries, illusions born of the swirling precipitation and fatigue.
With no visual stimulation, we continue our climb for two hours in a maddening state of sensory deprivation until at nearly 2,100 meters above sea level, we break through the fog. As the road takes us through and above the clouds, the sky opens and we are rewarded by a bounty of stars and air that is both crisp and cool.
Occupying the skyline over Shizuoka Prefecture to the south and east, ferocious cumulonimbus clouds rise up, their tops peaking at just above eye level. Great sheets of lightning leap through the clouds and a ripple of thunder echoes through the air. With less than a kilometer to the trailhead, a shooting star appears to pierce a cloud, and its fiery demise is complemented by a single bolt of lightning that ricochets to the ground. Hours of climbing are worth this one moment.
The transfer from bike to foot requires a moment’s rest. After being tucked over on the handlebars for so long, our legs need stretching, and it is with a grimace that I take my first steps up the Fujinomiya trail.
Despite building exhaustion, we make good progress toward the summit, and though we fall short of our initial goal to get there for sunrise, we are treated to another display of natural grandeur, the early rays turning those same cumulonimbus clouds a deep combination of red and orange.
Daylight prompts a brief burst of energy, but exhaustion soon catches up with me. The next time I sit down to rest, my eyelids droop and I fall into a deep, if momentary, sleep. Ollie nudges me awake and I quietly curse my surroundings as I open my eyes. I am not in my bed, but slumped over a railing, my arm more than comfy enough to act as a pillow.
So it is with genuine relief that I spy the torii gate that marks the entrance to the summit. After a relentless nine hours from the coast, I find myself hugging the left hand pillar of the gate, partly to stop myself collapsing, but mostly out of joy.
Fujisan Hongu Sengen Shrine oversees proceedings at the summit. Inside, I present the bottle of seawater to a monk, who looks at me with gentle concern when I explain our journey, and places it as an offering at the altar with an unexpected solemnity.
Before turning down the mountain, Ollie and I each buy a bowl of udon from the hut at the top. The noodles have the same salty tang that accompanied the spray off the ocean, and I am transported back to the moment we set off on our adventure.
We are humbled by the experience: exhausted, broken and I’m sure to the cashiers at the 7-Eleven who serve us coffee as we cycle back into the town of Fuji, quite deranged looking. But there is a purity in our achievement that I have not felt on any of my previous summits, a perspective gained from every meter climbed. I have no desire to attempt the mountain again, but am sure it will draw me back.
The official climbing season for Mount Fuji continues until Sept. 10. For more information, visit www.fujisan-climb.jp/en.