Well, it didn’t take me a half an hour to get there. It took two hours! By the time I got close to the hut, I was feeling beyond exhausted and ready to collapse. There had been no benches along the descent, and the ground had been wet and muddy from the rain. My only option was to stand still or keep walking. By the time I was approaching the hut, my legs were numb and shaking. Everyone I passed was speaking Japanese, and they didn’t understand English. I felt so lost without my team.
I walked and walked, and as I got closer, I could begin to make out the hut’s gray exterior. I felt more and more excited to finally be saved. I could imagine many of the other hikers inside the hut, laughing and warming their hands as they held their steaming hot drinks. Sitting at light brown wooden tables with bamboo rugs below their tired feet, they share their experiences in finding their relatives or teams near this hut. They reflect on the morning’s beautiful sunrise and their hike down the mountain. The location of the hut was ideal; at that point, out of desperation, I was open to paying $100 just for my hot cappuccino. I would even pay the same for a hot cup of water!
When I finally reached the old hut, I rushed to the metal door and placed my hand on the handle. As I pulled on the handle, the door did not open. Confused, I tried harder. I pushed and pulled, but the door would not budge. I could feel my heart rate begin to escalate. Perhaps someone inside would be able to let me in.
I peered into the small window next to the door, and my heart immediately fell. The lights were off, and old chairs and dusty tables were scattered around the interior. Rising tears began to make my eyes tingle. My palms became sweaty as panic began to take over. I felt so alone and lost.
I was about to completely lose hope, when I heard a familiar voice speaking in Japanese. It was Moto-san’s voice!
Just like that, I was once again filled with hope. “Moto-san!” My breathing quickened, and my head darted from left to right, desperate to find the source of the voice. I walked around the hut to the opposite side, and I found him! Relief flooded through my body. A deep exhale left my lungs, and once again, I could feel tears filling my eyes but this time, out of joy. I couldn’t help but smile, while at the same time, my tears were dropping down my cheeks.
Moto-san was talking with an older Japanese couple – a man and a woman who looked to be in their seventies.
“Moto-san!” I called. I excitedly waved and ran toward him.
“Dima-san! I am so glad you are here. I was so worried!” he said with a strong Japanese accent.
“I am so glad that you are okay too! You have no idea how happy I am to find you! Have you seen Okubo-san or Steve?” I asked
“No, not yet,” Moto-san responded in a calm voice as he was focused on the older couple.
My attention shifted and was directed to the couple he was standing with. They were both shivering, especially their hands, and the man’s lips were turning dark blue.
I was panicked, and immediately insisted for Moto-san use his phone to call emergency services!
Moto-san calmly replied, “That is not necessary. We will be okay. We are almost to the end.”
But, I kept insisting. We would be better off with some help, so Moto-san made the call. But, it turned out that the emergency responders were overwhelmed trying to reach others in need of help on the mountain. There were thousands of people climbing Mount Fuji that day. One hiker even died due to the unpredictable conditions on the mountain. So, even though we called and asked for help, nobody came.
Just as he had looked out for Okubo-san and me, Moto-san cared for the older couple he encountered. He helped the man by rubbing his arms to warm him and kept speaking with him in order to keep his attention. To my shock, I watched Moto-san take off his jacket, put it on the shoulders of the older man, and then help him wear it. Moto-san was left in his short-sleeved white shirt in the freezing cold. I had never experienced such a generous act before.
TRUDGING TO THE END
After the older couple started to feel better, the four of us – Moto-san, the couple, and me - finally mustered the energy to continue our descent, going step by step. As we neared the end, I saw something strange. There was a person walking towards the mountain, while everyone else was walking away from it. I couldn’t help but question this bizarre sight. Who in their right mind would choose to walk towards the mountain again?
I soon recognized it was Okubo-san in his white jacket!
He had apparently reached the end of the trail and found Steve. Okubo-san asked Steve where the two of us were, and Steve responded that we were probably still on the mountain. When Okubo-san suggested that they should try to walk back to get us, Steve replied, “Well, why don’t you go and find them? I’ll stay here to wait for them.”
So, Steve stayed at the bottom, waiting.
By the time Okubo-san reached us, Moto-san and I were beyond exhausted. It felt like we had been pulled inside out. We didn’t even have enough energy to carry our backpacks. Okubo-san carried them for us, and ensured we were safe while Moto-san continued to care for the older couple. The five of us walked step by step until we got to the end.
With Okubo-san’s help, we finally reached the bottom of the mountain and arrived to a rest area that was adjacent to a bus stop. None of us had any energy left. When we found Steve, he was not as enthusiastic as he had been at the lodge on the first hiking day. Head in hands, he looked exhausted and weak. As we greeted him, he immediately shared his heroic experience of surviving the terrible hailstorm.
Much to my surprise, he actually admitted that separating from the team was a bad idea. He had hiked alone before, but when faced with dangerous weather conditions and potential injury, he felt truly alone without anyone to help him.
Starving, Okubo-san, Moto-san, and I immediately sprinted towards the vending machines in the rest area that we were in. We bought green tea flavored KitKats, which is one of most common flavors in Japan. We sat next to each other on a long bench. Too tired to speak, we sat silently, staring at the cement floor as we devoured our green-colored KitKats. After all we had been through, just sitting still for a while never felt so good.