Misadventure on Mount Fuji

Tokyo, mid-August, and a heat wave the like of which the Japanese weather centre claimed Kanto region had never seen had washed the land. The weatherman on the TV pointed gravely to a sun symbol with 41C marked next to it.

Tokyo, mid-August, and a heat wave the like of which the Japanese weather centre claimed Kanto region had never seen had washed the land. The weatherman on the TV pointed gravely to a sun symbol with 41C marked next to it. People loitered in air-conditioned shops pretending to look at things they were not going to buy. Everyone outside skuttled amongst the shadows.

Fuji is 3776m. Getting to the top however involves a tough walk rather than a climb. Because it's a perfect cone spat out volcanically, no one face is any more difficult than another. Therefore which of the four approach routes one opts for is simply a matter of convenience. Each of the four routes has dotted along it a series of eight stations - little collections of huts providing limited accommodation and selling drinks and snacks priced at the point where great demand meets meagre supply.

For those approaching from Tokyo, Kawaguchiko serves as the starting point. From the train station it's the normal option to take a bus to where the road ends at the fifth station and begin the walk from there. Suggested walking time to the summit is six hours. There's no entrance fee for the park, but you do get a small yellow map and a leaflet pointing out how easy it is to become disorientated when the treeless landscape all looks the same. I didn't pay much attention to this.

All non-essential stuff left in a locker - which meant everything except clothes - I set off at 4pm. It was a promising start. A combination of dusk and the adiabatic lapse rate softened the blaze from below and for the Fuji pilgrims the heat receded. Three hours in and the six hour target looked generous. The sun had dipped leaving the form of Fuji wandering across the valley below, its shadow lengthening from equilateral to isosceles as the evening drew on. The ant line of walkers thinned with each passing station and then came an idea.

An hour later and the mountain was blanketed in darkness. I was now wearing every piece of clothing I had as the temperature plummeted to near zero. At the last of the stations I'd decided instead of staying in one of the huts to put to use my redundant sleeping bag and walk to the top of the mountain that night to be at the summit alone in the morning.

With a towel for a scarf, I left the eighth station and a Czech fellow I'd walked up with who insisted he would have joined me if not encumbered by his wife. I was soon completely alone. I walked for an hour noticing that the summit was obviously much further than I'd thought. Then came a threatening drip, followed by an ominous drop. Then pitter-patter and the stars were disappearing. I found my tropical poncho (green bin liner) and decided to make a dash to the top.

But then, as suddenly as the rain had begun, it stopped again. Yet actually it hadn't stopped, I'd simply climbed above the cloud layer. Down below and all around the mountain, sheet lightening flashed through the clouds. The blues and purples were something from a Frank Miller comic, and in the flicker I saw ahead of me the gargoyles of a Shinto torii gate as I approached the crater lip.

I must have climbed a sheltered side because on top the mountain was wild. Sleeping in the open wasn't really an option. Up ahead I saw a wooden hut. I tried the door and it opened. Inside was Spartan, with a bucket and mop and a small bench. There were gaps between the planks and the door flapped on its hinges. It was sheltered, though, and I hung up my wet clothes, sat down on the bench and started writing my journal for the day. It was 10pm, exactly six hours since I'd left the fifth station.

Finally I climbed into my fake but extremely warm North Face sleeping bag, which I'd picked up in India, and settled down as best I could. I slept in fits and bursts, waking up regularly and listening to noises outside. While still dark I heard voices and crawled off my bench to look. There in the flicker were three men. One turned out to be Swiss and the other two Japanese. They'd mis-timed their climb for dawn and arrived while it was still dark. Everyone squeezed into the tiny hut and arranged themselves in improbable sleeping positions.

Two hours later the sky was turning a milky blue and the ant line of people had resumed its meandering to the top. An hour more and I'd walked the track leading around the crater. The sun rose, the mist burnt away and I could see once again Fuji's shadow stretching out across the clouds below.

At least I'd achieved that bit of solitude that gives pleasure to a mountain experience -something not enjoyed by most of Fuji's visitors.

Exhausted, I found the track and started back down. After three hours I was approaching the fifth station, most of which I spent fantasising about cold Asahi and a shower. But then I saw a spied that set alarm bells ringing. With a sickening feeling I reached into my pocket for the little yellow map and realised what I'd done: I'd just walked down the wrong side of the mountain to another of the fifth stations. I sat on a rock and looked back at Fuji towering above me and began to process the metrics of the walk back up and down. It was a salutary reminder: always read the instructions - something I would intone step by step over the next nine hours.