A spring ascent of Japan’s highest mountain stays just ahead of the weather
Between us, we had been typhooned off it in summer and soundly rebuffed by a late December snowstorm. In this last venture, we had envisaged dinner for six at the bottom of the crater, a folly that the mountain shrugged off. Still other attempts never made it beyond the ticket barriers in Shinjuku. And now it continued to glitter provocatively in the spring skies, as if to underline the fact that Paul had only two more weeks to make the ascent before his return to Europe. Yes, that familiar bulk on the horizon had become the Obsessive Cone.
So it was that we found ourselves at the Gotemba Fifth Station at midnight on Friday, April 7th. This is one of the lowest starting points for a Fuji climb, offering, by the same token, one of the longest slogs to the top. The original plan had been to bivouac in a derelict tea-house, but the Cone gleamed so alluringly in the moonlight that we immediately set off uphill.
Although the air temperature was a toasty zero, the snow, which started as soon as we were off the abandoned ski ground, was frozen hard, presumably by radiation cooling. The moon set behind the ridge of Hoei-zan at around 2am, but starlight on snow was just sufficient to show us the way from one marker post to the next. Those posts were intended to guide the relief crews and their porters to the summit radar station, but they served us just as well.
Dawn found us performing the tea ceremony (Epigas-ryu) at 2,700 meters; unfortunately, the tea house itself was buried up to its eaves in hard-frozen snow, affording little in the way of shelter for the guttering stove and climbers. Day revealed an open expanse of hard firn-snow, smooth except for the odd ripple, with no windslab or avalanche debris. Just to be on the safe side, we kept toward the rocky rib which is the summer route to the top, and soon the monotonous crunch of snow under crampon was varied by the merry zing of axespike on lava. It was a bright morning, but the usual Fuji wind now kept us grabbing for support on whatever rock or guardrail came to hand (this is a well furnished cone).
We reached the top at 9:00am, the air temperature still a cosy minus 5 degrees C. As the crater was drifted in places to a depth of tens of meters, rash thoughts of a closer inspection were soon dropped. Veil cloud now announced the arrival of a front. We took the hint to descend in haste. On our way down, we met the freezing level coming up at 2,500 meters. After taking a look at the hole made by Fuji’s most recent eruption in 1707, the Hoei crater, we were back at the Gotemba roadhead by 12:30.
Shortly afterwards, the Cone was further truncated by lowering cloud and spindrift driving across the upper slopes. There remained a long trudge in the rain along the road down to Gotemba. The bad weather came too late to spoil Paul's last mountain outing but in good time to trash all the sakura-viewing parties planned for the next day. Cherry blossoms, like summit joys, are fated to be evanescent.