by J. Andrew Curliss
photographs by Patrick Davison
Chuck Stuber is standing halfway up Mount Fuji at a place where climbers begin their slogging treks to the summit of Japan’s tallest mountain. There is a pay toilet here and a small shop, where a woman offers soup for strength. A family is hunting mushrooms in the damp woods nearby. The peak of the mountain, a national symbol of Japan, is somewhere up in the sky, hidden by clouds.
Chuck looks at his daughter, Andie. She has just tightened her backpack, fixed her hiking poles, and added layers against a 40-degree chill. Her breath puffs into the air.
It is September, 2014. The Stubers have traveled from Raleigh — 14 hours on planes, two hours on trains, and an hour on an empty mountain bus — to reach this spot. It is the main launch point on what is called the Subashiri Trail, the hardest of four paths that wind to Fuji’s summit.
“I want to say three things,” Chuck tells his daughter.
“Polēpolē,” he says.
She nods. It is a Swahili word that means “go slowly.” They learned it on another trip, to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, two years ago.
“Strong like Simba,” he says. They both know it means to stay upbeat and sturdy, like the star of Disney’s popular animated film, The Lion King.
Then, Chuck’s voice wavers.
“And,” he says, “embrace the suck.”
“That’s what Alex would say,” she says. “That’s Alex.”
Alex, who died a little more than a year earlier, is why they are here.
Chuck’s son and Andie’s brother, Alex loved adventures like these, traveling with family to climb or ski or dive. He was a backpacker, an off-roader, and a mountain biker. When the going got tough, Alex would encourage resilience and tenacity. Keep on pushing. Don’t give in. He often boiled it down to three words: Embrace the suck.
Alex’s death had nothing to do with risk. He was driving with a friend after work. His car veered off the road and rolled over. The authorities said the reason for the crash was unknown. He was 25.
Alex had graduated from N.C. State in 2010 with a perfect grade point average. Two years later, he had earned a master’s degree at State in aerospace engineering. He moved to California, where he was working on the future of aviation at a NASA research center.
His death left Chuck, his wife Janet, and Andie in shock, and numb. There were days in the weeks and months after the accident when Chuck would say he was just trying to put one foot in front of the other.
“It would have been very easy to crawl into a hole and just sort of go away,” Chuck says. “We had to decide not to.”
Before Alex died, Chuck, Andie, and Alex had been discussing a big trip to South America and Antarctica, the only continents the Stubers had not yet visited.
A wide world
Indeed, the Stuber family travels. Chuck’s parents, longtime Raleigh residents Charlie (an expert on plant breeding at N.C. State and with the USDA) and Marilyn (the retired chairwoman of Meredith College’s home economics department), had always made it a priority to see faraway places. They traveled with Chuck, Janet, Alex, and Andie to postcard-perfect spots, touring Australia and Africa, traveling in Europe, and seeing most of the United States.
Chuck says the zest for adventure and travel springs from how they have tried to approach life — to make the effort to see new things and experience the world. It helped that Alex and Andie developed a love of the outdoors, for climbing mountains and scuba diving and skiing and, as Andie says, “enjoying the journey.” Andie, 23, studied in Italy while she was earning her degree from Meredith, also with a perfect grade point average. She now works at an interior design firm in Raleigh as a project designer.
Chuck, 54, was a longtime FBI agent in Raleigh, focusing on political corruption cases and sensitive hostage negotiations. He retired this year and now works for the state as an elections investigator. His wife teaches preschool at a Raleigh church.
“We have been blessed to do a whole lot of things in life,” Chuck says. “I would feel a lot worse about Alex’s accident if we hadn’t approached our life this way, of trying to give as many experiences as possible. I can’t think of any regrets about any of that. We found ways to make things happen.”
As Christmas 2013 approached, just a few months after Alex’s death, the Stubers decided they didn’t want to be home in Raleigh without him. Talk of traveling somewhere, anywhere, turned into a plan. The whole family visited Argentina and watched whales and penguins in Antarctica.
Then, Chuck and Andie began talking about completing something else unfinished — reaching the summit of Mount Fuji. Seven years earlier, Chuck, Andie, Alex, and a relative had tried to climb Fuji while visiting family in Japan. They didn’t prepare much ahead of time, and they paid for it. As they reached 11,000 feet, the weather turned, and torrents of cold rain fell. Altitude sickness weakened Andie.
“I don’t want to overdramatize it,” Chuck says, “but it was a situation with the rain and cold and the wind was really blowing and…” His voice trails off.
Finally, he says: “Let me just say, we really had to find a way to get down. You read about people dying up there. I wondered how we would get down.”
Even Alex agreed. They had to turn back.
Andie sums it up in a word: “Awful.”
But last year, Chuck and Andie began to think of finishing that climb.
“It’s kind of a crazy thing to do, go halfway around the world for a weekend to climb a mountain,” Chuck said. “It was unfinished business in a way. And we wanted to do this, to try to get back and get to the top, and in doing that we would feel like we were honoring what we had started with Alex.”
Matching their busy work schedules to travel halfway around the globe wasn’t easy. Eventually, a weekend in late September worked, but it came with a different set of complications.
Mount Fuji, an active volcano (its last eruption was in 1707), is one of the most climbed peaks in the world. Tens of thousands reach the summit each year. It is one of the most painted and photographed mountains, too, with a version of its wintry snow-capped cone on display or for sale most everywhere in Japan. Even in Raleigh, you see Fuji: it’s the logo on Infinity cars and SUVs.
The preferred way to climb Fuji is to begin in the afternoon, stop for the night at one of several mountain “huts” that dot the side of the mountain, and hike to the summit the next morning. The huts are mostly reinforced steel shacks without running water, perched on cliffs. Hut workers serve simple food to climbers who need a spot to sleep and acclimate to the altitude. In the early morning, it’s back to climbing. Many Japanese aim to see sunrise from the summit before clouds pile up and obscure the view.
With good weather, climbers can start early, skip the huts, and make it up and down Fuji in one long day of hiking. Almost all go in July and August, when weather is best. At the busiest times, the climbers queue in lines, like ants on a hill. The climbing season generally winds down by Sept. 1 for safety reasons.
Fuji rises near the north Pacific Ocean to a peak at 12,388 feet, standing alone instead of in a range of other peaks. As a result, it’s known as a “weather catcher” and will see snow, sleet and rain any time of the year.
But winter is a bear. Authorities advise visitors to avoid Fuji after about mid-September. By late September, the Stubers knew, only one mountain hut above 9,000 feet would be open for an overnight stay. It would close for the winter on Sept. 21 and open again when it was dug out of snow the following June.
The Stubers reserved two spots in the hut for Sept. 20. They also filed required paperwork with local authorities, who warned there would be no rescue if there was trouble. They had to submit their blood types.
Five days before their climb, the forecast was ominous: heavy rain turning to “moderate” snow at the summit, before a predicted blizzard of 11 inches with 40 mph winds. It looked like Chuck and Andie Stuber would be tourists in Tokyo instead of climbers on Fuji. As the climbing day approached, though, the forecast shifted to show only the possibility of rain.
The Stubers begin ascending about 2 p.m. under a slate gray sky. Mount Fuji’s Subashiri Trail starts in woods on the east side of the mountain; the Stubers climb for more than an hour before the trees fade away and a rocky, volcanic landscape takes hold.
Because it’s an off-season climb, they have the mountain virtually to themselves. Occasionally, a downhill climber passes, almost always offering a cheerful “konnichiwa.” Good day! Few are visible ahead.
As they push upward and daylight begins to fade, the sun emerges and the sky turns shades of red and pink. In the distance, peaks of a mountain range, colored in shades of blue, stand behind a placid lake. The Stubers hike a bit and stop, snapping photos and taking in long views they never thought they’d see. Between them, Chuck and Andie carry six cameras.
Chuck wears his son’s hat, jacket, and hiking boots. And they talk often of Alex, recounting other trips and hikes and adventures – including a failed attempt in 2012 to summit Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the continental United States. Ice and snow turned them back.
Guidebooks for climbing Fuji suggest it is roughly three hours from the trailhead to the hut where they plan to stay. They soak in the views.
It takes the Stubers five hours, not three, to reach the hut. They arrive in darkness to a cold dinner. They’re all smiles.
At the hut, about 30 people – almost all of them Japanese – are settling in to sleep in a large spare room with assigned spots on wooden platforms. Kerosene heats the dim space.
About 1 a.m., Andie sits up. A pattering sound suggests rain has started to fall. That would almost certainly mean snow or ice at higher elevations. She goes outside, where the temperature is just above freezing, and looks up.
The sky is brilliant, with the Milky Way visible in an arch from one horizon to the other. Shooting stars occasionally streak above. The noise, it turns out, is from the wind turbines behind the hut that are used to generate electricity.
Andie wakes up Chuck.
“Hey. You won’t believe it. The stars are all out. It’s beautiful. Come.”
While the other climbers sleep in the hut, the Stubers sit on a ledge about 10,000 feet above the sea, looking up into the heavens.
At 5:35 a.m., after fish, rice, and soup for breakfast, they’re back on the ledge, watching the sunrise spread orange rays across the mountain. With clear weather, gazing out from high on the mountain leaves them mostly in awe.
For weeks, the question had been whether the Stubers would be able to pull off this climb at all. With a narrow timeframe, would the flights and logistics work out? Would they avoid the effects of altitude? Most of all, would the weather hold up? They took the chance. Now, they’re enjoying its reward. This is why people come to Fuji.
But the climb isn’t done.
The terrain from the hut to the summit can only be described as achingly steep. Ropes and ladders aren’t needed. There are no crevices to traverse or boulders to scramble over. It’s a trail. A long, steep trail. Imagine climbing a stairwell covered in sand and rock for five hours. That’s what it’s like to summit Fuji.
Chuck and Andie labor to the top. Andie would later say there were moments when she wasn’t sure she would make it. But one foot went in front of the other. By midmorning, the Stubers are passing through a torii, a traditional Japanese gate, that marks the final push to the summit.
Andie raises her arms and cheers.
Chuck pumps his into the air and lets out a deep roar of celebration.
“There was no way we were going to give up, even if it meant crawling on our hands and knees,” Chuck says. “There were times during some of the hardest parts of the climb when I could hear Alex’s voice in my head, telling me, ‘You got this, Dad. You can do this. Keep on going.’”
At the summit, a few climbers explore the rim, posing for photos. One man says this is the 17th time he has made it to the top. Waving his hand across the deep blue sky, the man says these are by far the best conditions and views he’s ever seen. He’d been at this spot one month before, in late August, as an inch of snow covered the ground and an inch of miserable sleet fell.
The Stubers explore the crater, then climb up a hill of black rocks that offer an expansive view. They are above the clouds. Andie reaches into her pack and opens a small container. It holds a portion of Alex’s ashes.
Chuck and Andie decide to spread them there. Andie sprinkles first as Chuck looks upward.
“Alex, we love you,” Chuck says. “Thank you for getting us to the top, thank you for helping us. We love you.”
Then, Chuck sweeps his son’s ashes into the air.
“God, what a view,” he says. “I think he’d like that.”
Chuck said he and Andie felt that Alex was with them all the way.
“We felt it was a great way to honor Alex by spreading some of his ashes at the summit,” he says. “It was an awesome feeling to be able to complete the journey and finally get Alex to the top.”
But now, it is time to go. Building clouds signal rain, or worse. The hike to the bottom is quicker. They say little in nearly four hours to the trailhead through what has become thick fog. Soon, they’re in Tokyo, and on a 14-hour plane journey home to Raleigh. And then, a week after the Stubers stood on the summit of Mount Fuji, they’re in the air again. They’re off to Utah, backpacking and canyoneering on a long-planned seven-day trip. They are off to experience more of the world.