Fuji, Tramontane.

January 11, 2010 | Filed Under Uncategorized 

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?

Comments

37 Responses to “Fuji, Tramontane.”

  1. Dave Hanlon on January 11th, 2010 9:14 am

    I’m in awe!

  2. Mikael on January 11th, 2010 10:12 am

    Several points to applaud here: Starting from all the way down, climbing self-sufficiently, deciding to go for it in the first place despite the recent unfortunate accident up there, and naturally giving it the best effort and still understand when it’s time to turn back. If I ever climb Fuji, this would be the way to do it. Inspiring!

  3. wes on January 11th, 2010 11:33 am

    I knew it’d only be a matter of time before you went for Goliath. Very happy to see a safe return. It must’ve been difficult to turn back in such beautiful weather, but it’s not like you haven’t been up that peak before. Plus, it gives you a reason to come back another time.

  4. Hendrik M on January 11th, 2010 11:34 am

    Splendid.

  5. George on January 11th, 2010 11:17 pm

    Fuji in the winter…

    I have my hands full-enough with numbing trail-breaking in deep snow, and worrying about the mountain sliding on me.
    Being plucked from the blue-ice by a phantom wind is just something I could do without!

    But glad to see you gave it a good go. An epic in scale and suffering.

  6. Alex R on January 12th, 2010 7:44 am

    I just discovered your blog today and have spent hours going through it enjoying the photography and the writing – both absolutely first class, thank you.

    I was climbing at Yugawara / Makuiwa this weekend with a friend, enjoying the warm rock and sea views (and inevitable but friendly crowd). On the train trip back admiring the fearsome bulk of Fuji-san in her winter clothes, and perfectly happy to be on a warm train with a beer in hand rather than on her flanks. Hats off to you, that was a bold ascent, and if you felt it was time to come back down to earth, it clearly was.

  7. Rockie on January 12th, 2010 8:18 am

    What a great detailed story! I was on the edge of my seat. Especially after the race car driver and the other perished recently.

    Sorry you were so close and had to turn back but happy the summit fever did not possess you during decision time.

    Until another day…

    Bravo!!

  8. hanameizan on January 12th, 2010 11:57 am

    Inspiring photos as always, and a pleasure to read from the safety of a warm seat. Takes guts to hang out for a day and night in a snowhole colder than an industrial freezer at the 8th station, rather than just descending like most mortals would.

  9. Vladimir on January 12th, 2010 2:30 pm

    Inspiring, yet scary. You climbed alone?
    I hope we will have the four season gear section soon.
    Take care.

  10. Jason Hill on January 13th, 2010 2:25 am

    I’ve only ever climbed Fuji once, and it was never in the winter. This was well written and the photography is superb. You have an eloquent way of telling your story. But why did you decide to go it alone?

  11. Michael on January 13th, 2010 3:28 am

    Great story Chris. It’s such a world apart from my Fuji experience that I wonder if it’s the same mountain!

    I of course went up in the summer months as part of a night climb I decided to do on a whim just after arriving at kawaguchi-ko. I thought it a pretty easy climb, although I was chilly at the top with just a thin waterproof coat and a couple of shirts on! Obviously this mountain has more than one personality, depending on the season. I’m sure you’ll be back ;)

  12. locohama on January 13th, 2010 5:28 am

    Wow! Awesome pics and great story telling as usual!

  13. Peter Skov on January 13th, 2010 9:14 am

    I know a man who climbed Fuji in winter and he was rather proud of himself it seemed. I also saw Teruyoshi Uchimura climb it but with a team of experienced mountaineers and rescue helicopters on the standby. Reading your account makes me think that to climb that mountain in winter would be one heck of a feat and experience, but also that there are many risks involved which all come down to your life.

    One thing that always impresses me about your writing is that you manage to tell a tale with less than half the words I would require and yet you always tell it with much more colour and poetry.

    My hat is off to you for your attempt. Glad you dug in instead of trying to pitch a tent.

  14. davehollin on January 13th, 2010 10:50 am

    pictures and experiences to die for…..awesome

    I hate you!!!

    ;)

  15. CJW on January 13th, 2010 12:42 pm

    Dave – it’s an awesome mountain, in every sense of the word!

    Mikael – certainly felt like I’d done it the “right” way, made all the proper decisions. A successful climb, if not a summit.

    Wes – exactly! And I got plenty of good beta for the next attempt!

    Hendrik – glad you liked it :-)

    George – great to hear from you. Yup, those were some wild winds up there on Fuji. It actually would have been better with a bit more snow for the climb up. Oh, and I’ve just figured out how to get your site on my RSS feeder, so I can get those great shots of yours while they’re fresh!

    Alex – very kind of you to say so. I think we know some people in common, we should try to get together for a beer at some point. Will shoot you an email.

    Rockie – I’ve thankfully never suffered from summit fever, for better or worse. As a buddy said, it’s better to live to wimp another day :-) The accident up there last month was tragic, but understandable in the conditions…

    Hanameizan – guts is one word for it… And you know, snowholes are remarkably comfy (OK, relatively) once you get settled down..

    Vladimir – yup, this was a solo effort. And a 4th/5th season gear section is in the works, should be up within a couple of weeks!

    Jason – that’s a good question. One reason is that there’s not many people who are up for a trip like that, and the ones I know who would be were up to other things that weekend. But also, I’ve found I make very good decisions when I go solo. There’s a clarity of thought that I find sometimes gets muddled when there are other people and other opinions to take into account. It’s a matter of personal preference.

    Michael – absolutely. I had to keep asking myself if it really was the same Fuji that Yuka and I climbed a couple of years ago in September. To be honest, given the forecast, I was expecting at least one or two other teams up there. It was sobering to get up there on Friday night and not see a single light anywhere on the mountain…

    Locohama – thanks buddy, that means a lot given the great prose you consistently put out. Pleased you enjoyed it!

    Peter – ah, you saw the Ucchan program too? Did you see the crappy self-arrest tutorial that guide gave him? Talk about the best way to snap an ankle… I think it was Hemmingway that said that even if you erase a word from your writing, it stays somehow in the text. So I usually just slash, slash away…

    Dave – not quite to die for, but a great experience nonetheless :-) I didn’t quite get the shots I’d wanted – up close, Fuji is difficult to get decent photos of, and most of the time I was more focused on staying alive rather than snapping the scenery. I’ll know for next time!

  16. Project Hyakumeizan on January 14th, 2010 8:47 pm

    Another great account that reminded me of an end-January attempt on Fuji many years ago. I also gave up somewhere above the 8th station. The combination of wind and ice is deadly – all the more so because the 30-degree slopes seem innocuous. Until you slip and try to ice-axe arrest …

  17. mikesblender on January 15th, 2010 3:07 pm

    Damn amazing stuff Chris…

  18. Jason Collin Photography on January 16th, 2010 1:51 am

    I think you reports on solo climbs are better as well. That was in interesting point about your decision making being better when you are climbing solo. I would be it’s because you can “feel” the whole situation better. Human verbal communication shatters concentration and the connection with the natural world and one’s own continuous thought pattern. I bet you can follow through on a single thought from start to finish on a solo climb like the above in a way that is just impossible in daily Tokyo life.

    My respect for your physical skills and poetic sense and blog post producing increased after reading this report, and I very rarely give praise to anyone in these regards.

    Somehow I almost like it more when you made the decision to not quite summit and turn around. Just seems like wisdom to me and it is something very hard to find displayed anywhere in 2010. And real wisdom as well as the lack of it would cost your life.

    Maybe that’s it. These blog posts are about risking your life. Daily life, especially in Tokyo, is far, far too safe. No life in something that cannot take your life.

    In my limited mountain climbing experience (in comparison to yours) after returning from a particularly challenging climb/hike, there is just no way in regular daily life to replicate that feeling of being alive. About being able to traverse all challenges in one’s environment.

    Everyone should do something that risks their life at least once a year. The thought came to me last year that nothing has any value if it does not have an end.

    I can remember a life risking experience that was not at the top of a remote mountain, but just some bouldering and minor rock climbing I was doing near my cousin’s house at a coastal park in Rhode Island. Started to climb up a near vertical 30 foot cliff from a beach. Each time I made sure the handhold I reached for was solid. However, the next to last handhold from the top, for the first time in my life, I was not sure if it would hold. I posed with my hand on that hold for five minutes contemplating options. Down climbing was not one of them. I wished a helicopter would come and drop me a ladder. After 5 minutes of deliberating I just went for it, and fortunately the handhold held. Can’t tell you how alive I felt when I was a few seconds later standing on solid ground.

  19. CJW on January 18th, 2010 1:40 pm

    Project Hyakumeizan – absolutely. “No chance of self arrest” was how one account put it, and I could see why. Every step was a work of concentration, all 12 points banged straight into the ice. But that wind, I’ve never experienced anything quite like that before..

    Mike – it’s an amazing mountain. It was an honour that it let me get as far as I did.

    Jason – you nailed it, and perfectly echo one of my favorite passages from Al Alverez’s “Feeding the Rat”:

    “The truth is, I like an unforgiving climate where if you make mistakes you suffer for it. That’s what turns me on… It does you the power of good. I think it’s because there is always a question mark about how you would perform. You have an idea of yourself and it can be quite a shock when you don’t come up to your own expectations. If you just tootle along you can think you’re a pretty slick bloke until things go wrong and you find you’re nothing like what you imagined yourself to be. But if you deliberately put yourself in difficult situations, then you get a pretty good idea of how you are going… And if you did blow it, at least there wouldn’t be that great unknown. But to snuff it without knowing who you are and what you are capable of, I can’t think of anything sadder than that.”

  20. butuki on January 20th, 2010 3:17 pm

    Beautiful and mesmerizing account, Chris. I used to live at the base of Fuji until ten years ago and have spend a lot of time walking around the lower half (up to the 8th station) and climbed to the top once, in summer. Having walked there in winter I know just what you mean about winds that you can’t believe. People who’ve climbed it in summer often pooh-pooh Fuji as being “too easy”, but they haven’t seen its alter-ego, which is harsh and frightening and merciless.

  21. CJW on January 21st, 2010 10:21 am

    Good to hear from you, Butuki. And absolutely right about Fuji’s wintery alter-ego. The other surprising thing about her is that it can be deadly still in the forests below, and a roaring gale at the top. Definitely not a mountain to take lightly!

  22. Damian on January 22nd, 2010 3:51 am

    Bugger that. But well done. Please don’t die.

    Here is a forecast for the top of Fuji, as of today the winds are expected to reach 130kph. http://www.mountain-forecast.com/peaks/Fuji-san/forecasts/3776

    damian

  23. Scott Amundson on January 27th, 2010 7:30 pm

    Very cool blog!

    I started my own hiking blog at http://www.ultimatehikingguide.blogspot.com

    Check it out! I think you’ll dig it!

  24. Japanese phrases on January 29th, 2010 6:01 am

    Great write up and beautiful pictures. After all my time living in Japan, I still haven’t had the chance to go to mount Fuji. Only pass it by on trains.

  25. Sonya on February 5th, 2010 1:53 am

    Absolutely stunning photography from Japan! Thanks so much for the inspiration!

  26. Gekkan J-News Review – January 2010 | loneleeplanet on February 6th, 2010 12:51 pm

    [...] Fuji, Tramontane by CJW [...]

  27. Keela on February 8th, 2010 9:24 am

    These pictures are unreal. Japan is one awesome place

  28. Billy W on February 8th, 2010 2:04 pm

    Wow, haven’t been by for awhile, but when I do return, you’ve got some beautiful shots of my favorite neighbor.

    BTW, I’m at http://tokyofilter.com now.

    Hope you don’t mind updating your blogroll.

    Cheers!

  29. David on February 18th, 2010 1:04 pm

    By the way, is the book project becoming a concrete thing or is it still a floating idea?

  30. CJW on March 2nd, 2010 9:49 am

    Damian – no intention of dying any time soon… Great site, BTW, been using their forecasts a lot.

    Scott – thanks!

    Japanese Phrases – honestly, I don’t think you’re missing much. Fuji is better viewed than climbed. If you’re burning to climb something in Japan, go for Yari-ga-take instead. Much nicer.

    Sonya – glad you liked it!

    Keela – sure is, can’t disagree with that…

    Billy – good to see you back. Blogroll updated!

    David – still very much a floating idea… Too many projects, too little time. A high quality problem to have, though.

  31. mary on July 4th, 2010 1:14 pm

    Awesome and inspiring! Those decisions when to turn back,a real climber!I climbed Mount Fuji last summer 2009,and made it to the summit(climbed with group and 2 guides).It was summer season,but the peak was winter cold.And yes,the wind blows dangerously,i can’t believe it.And it comes without warning,really dangerous.I just couldn’t imagine what it was the time you made the climbed.That was REALLY GREAT!

  32. Administrator on July 5th, 2010 2:00 pm

    Hi Mary – congratulations on getting to the summit. Fuji’s a tricky mountain. It’s so popular that people forget the dangers sometimes. They picked a guy up at the weekend who’d gone up on a whim in sneakers and T-shirt – he made it to the 8th stage before phoning the mountain rescue. And there was a big mess a few weeks ago, where a friend of mine had to participate in the rescue of half a dozen people. So I’m glad to hear you got up (and down!) safely & enjoyed it.

    January was intense. I’ll give it another go next year, perhaps later in the season when there is a bit more snow and less ice on the ground..

  33. Kris on August 30th, 2010 7:13 am

    Hey there,

    Just got back from my second summer Fuji ascent. Now thoroughly bored of the mountain after that descent! Since you’re a man who has experienced the fearsome alter-ego first hand, I wondered what you would think of this video I found…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-d6flBDoQ8

    ps Thanks for the Nantai advice a while back. T’was very useful and I’m happy to say it was a successful climb.

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