Sandy summited, while just 400 meters below the summit I lay in a fetal position, a pile of tiny volcanic rock grating across my skin as I prayed that sleep would help me get down the summit without the use of emergency services.
Stuck nearly 13,000 feet in the air, I knew that if we could make our way down a kilometer, I would regain normal usahe of my legs. The pounding headache and whirling sensation of a water tower draining in my stomach would diminish greatly.
The dilemma – how would I get down if I could not make it 30 meters across to the shallow pitch of the descent path?
Where did we go wrong?
Poor sleep, massive exertion, and high altitude sickness binded me to the ground in a ruthless combination. Never can be sure how the altitude is going to affect one. My fitness level has always been pretty decent, and related websites claimed the climb was challenging, but not too difficult.
If we had further heeded the advice of these sites, we should have headed up the mountain that day at 10a. Well rested and early enough to beat the heat, we should have then spent 5 hours climbing up to 8th station. We would have called in advance to book a room at a mountain hut and then would have been able to rest from around 4-5p till 2a. At 2a, well rested and given time to acclimate to the high altitude, we would have risen from our bed and gotten ready for a 2 hour climb to the summit, setting up by 4a to catch the sunrise at 4:40a. Plenty of energy stores would have put us in good shape to descend the mountain in three hours. With 2 liters of water, plenty of power bars and electrolyte powder, we should have been fine.
However, we were foolhardy and haphazardly launched into this endeavor. By the time we got back to Tokyo from Hakone in the early afternoon, we still needed to go food shopping and pick up warm clothing for the hike. Then lay ahead of us a train to Otsuji, a second train to Kawaguchiko, and finally a bus to 5th strain (base camp). It was 8p, not 10a, when we finally arrived at the base camp, and we were worn out from the travel, having woken up that day at 4a to hike down Hakone.
The only accommodations at this station were capsule hotels, and seeing as we did not want to split up or stretch our budget renting space from the capsule hotels, we figured we would search the scattering of buildings for temporary refuge. None was to be found, but we did find a brightly lit, open lounge that was buzzing with the excitement of climbers. It was cold, from the doors being propped open around its sides, and it was loud. It was exactly the wrong place to sleep, but barring other options we laid out in a corner and got an hour of restless sleep.
An hour later, Sandy came back from the bathroom with eyes lit up and a big grin, beckoning me to follow him. “I found a better, warmer, more private place for us to sleep.” I was filled with such relief, as even with three layers on, I was too cold to fall back to sleep there.
Unimpressively, Sandy led me into a public family bathroom of course. But this was no ordinary bathroom as it had heated floors! Paved in black rock they radiated so much heat, that an hour into sleeping I had to peel off all my clothing and lay it under me in a layer that insulated me from the burning floor. However, after coming from the hard, cold floor of the lounge this was our own separate little paradise, and if we unplugged the heating toilet seat, we could charge up our drained electronics.
At 2:30a we woke up, gathered our belongings, and left our little room. At this hour we had to light our way by flashlight, and not another hiker did we see for the first few hours. Hiking was arduous. Nearly every step was uphill, varying from slow zigzagging pathways to steep dirt paths one had to be careful not to lose one’s footing on. Sometimes I would take a step forward and the little rocks would slip from underneath, placing my foot back to where it had just been before I made the effort to move forward.
Sandy hadn’t been eating much and had been nursing a sniffle for the past week. He hadn’t eaten dinner before, and halfway up he threw up the only food he had eaten all day – an apple and a lunabar. He claimed that made him feel a lot better, and he easily kept ahead of me much of the hike. Whileas I, three quarters up, started to feel queasy and needed more and more breaks the further up we trekked. At 100 steps. Then 50. 25. 6.
I never made it much further. I tried to get some R&R by heading to the next and last mountain hut before the summit, only to find it laying buried under a pile of rocks.
It was a bit of a failure, but I was unsure I could make it back down as I was so woozy a couple steps in any direction left me tottering over. I bid Sandy to climb to the summit while I rested and was so glad that at least one of us would make it.
I don’t consider this a failure. It was a matter of better understanding my limits and putting making a smart choice about my health over my pride. As I get older I’m learning to accept so called failures better, to know there is no set marker of what I should be doing in order to feel accomplished. I’m glad I made it as far as I could and it was really nice to walk back down the mountain with Sandy feeling a little stronger with every step, both of us a little busted, but no worse for wear.