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VAN STOCKUM: Mt. Fuji Climb, Aug. 20-21, 1956; Part 1: A penchant for peaks

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By Ron Van Stockum

The ultimate scholarship

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Upon graduation from the University of Washington in June 1937, as the Honor Graduate of my ROTC class, I was offered a commission as 2nd Lieutenant in the Regular U.S. Marine Corps. This I accepted with enthusiasm.

With a modicum of hyperbole, it could have been described as the ultimate scholarship: a 30-year career in the Marine Corps. However, it imposed accompanying commitments: Duty, Honor, Country!

Military officers of the United States are appointed by the President, but subject to approval by the Senate. The list of those of us appointed by the President for commissioning on July 1, 1937 was delayed a month by a typical procedural and political holdup in the Senate.

Officers are commissioned; those in the ranks are enlisted. My original commission, archived at the Filson Historical Society in Louisville, is a large, impressive document. It is remarkably similar in format and wording to the Commission as Major General, awarded to Alexander Hamilton in 1798.

Shortly after 1937, during the military buildup for World War II, such commissions became much plainer and have remained so.

Matterhorn of the Cascades

In the meantime, while awaiting the arrival of my commission, I had become acquainted with a group of capable mountaineers who were climbing some of the snow-capped peaks surrounding Seattle. In July, they hauled me, with a rope around my waist, to the top of rocky Sloan Peak in the North Cascades. There I wondered how I would ever get down to become a Marine!

In retrospect, I realize that it was certainly no place for a novice climber. It has been called, with some exaggeration, the “Matterhorn of the Cascades”! I finally got down and finally my commission arrived.

However I did develop a penchant for high places, provided they were easy climbs, requiring only stamina, and not skill. No more challenges like Sloan Peak!

Mt. Whitney, 14,505 feet

On June 21, 1940, a week after Paris, half a world away, succumbed to the Nazi “Blitzkrieg,” I climbed Mt. Whitney in California, the highest peak in the United States at 14,505 feet. [In 1959, after the admission of Alaska, Mt. McKinley at 20,310, became the highest. In 2015, in a highly controversial decision, it was renamed “Denali.”]

From Lone Pine I drove 13 miles to Whitney Portal, parked my car, and took a three-mile switchback trail to Outpost Camp (10,300 Feet) where I spent the night.

Next morning at two, another climber and I started our climb by moonlight. At noon we were on top, having walked nine miles in the process of climbing 4,000 feet.

My Journal records:

The snow field which led to Whitney Pass covered the trails and practically “defeated us.” At 12,000 and 13,000 feet, a 60˚ slope is difficult to climb. We were too tired to take many pictures at the top and slid down in about three hours.

Whitney is not a difficult climb; the principal problem is the “thin” air at that altitude.

Snow-capped Mt Hood, 11,485 feet

The following month on July 16, 1940, I climbed Mt. Hood in Oregon, with a party of four, led by an experienced guide. This was an easy climb of ten hours duration over snow most of the way to the top, 11,485 feet. The weather was perfect and the trip was made more interesting by the guide’s explanations of the phenomena of the formation of the mountain. He had guided some 70 parties to the top.

Mount Fuji (Fuji-san), 12,389 feet

Fuji, located on Honshu Island, is the highest mountain in Japan. An active volcano that last erupted in 1707–08, it lies about 60 miles southwest of Tokyo, and can be seen from there on a clear day. Its exceptionally symmetrical cone, which is snow-capped for about five months a year, is a well-known symbol of Japan. Mount Fuji is frequently depicted in art and photographs, and visited annually by thousands of sightseers and climbers.

Japanese refer to the mountain as “Fuji-san”. This “san” is not the honorific suffix used with people’s names, such as Watanabe-san, but the Sino-Japanese reading of the character yama (“mountain”.)

This account of my Fuji climb, is based upon my detailed report, written in 1956, shortly after the climb..

Climbing Mt. Fuji, Aug. 20-21, 1956

My initial assignment in Japan in 1954 had been as a colonel serving as G-2, Intelligence Officer, of the 3rd Marine Division, at Camp Gifu, about 170 miles west of Tokyo. After a year’s unaccompanied tour, I returned to the United State where I picked up by family, who accompanied me to Japan for my second tour. There I became Headquarters Commandant of the Far East Command at Pershing Heights, Tokyo, my duty station at the time of the climb.

The climbing season is short, the rest stations being open only during July and August. At either end of this season climbers have to brave the hazards of spring rains or September typhoons, without the support of the stations. Fuji during the climbing season is impressive, slate colored by the volcanic ash and plumes; earlier and later, it is magnificent, covered with a mantle of snow.

Our climbing party consisted of Hiliary Uyehara, a Japanese graduate student. His name reminded us of Edmund Hillary, first to reach the summit of Mt. Everest (29,029 feet) three years earlier. Capt. Larry Ingham and Lt. Bimstaeffer of my Far East Command Honor Guard Company, and myself. Hiliary had climbed six or seven times and was a valuable guide with his facility in both languages. Reports of weekend crowds, numbering ten to twenty thousand, prompted us to make our climb during the week.

We departed Washington Heights in Tokyo, where my living quarters were located, in Ingham’s convertible early on August 20, 1956, picked up Hiliary on the way and proceeded to North Camp Fuji by way of Miyanoshita and Nagao (Long Trail) Pass. After passing through the tunnel at Nagao, we gained a clear close-hand view of the pile of ash. Rising symmetrically out of the plain, it appeared tremendous and a real challenge.

We reached North Camp at 10:30 a.m., changed into our climbing clothes, left our gear and car and departed up the Gotemba Trail by jeeps. Stopped at the first station where the buses park to buy our Fuji sticks. (Traditional walking sticks which are stamped at each station.) Fortunately, the jeeps were able to continue up the side of the mountain, by virtue of hard driving, to Station 2.5. This was undoubtedly the absolute limit of jeep travel on the slope of the mountain, being nearly 6,000 feet high.

Next: Mt. Fuji Climb Aug. 20-21, 1956: Part 2 (Concluded)

In addition to his numerous columns and magazine articles, Brig. Gen. Ron Van Stockum has published six books: Kentucky and the Bourbons: The Story of Allen Dale Farm, Squire Boone and Nicholas Meriwether: Kentucky Pioneers, Remem-brances of World Wars, Coming to Kentucky: Heaven is a Kentucky of a Place, My Father: British Sergeant Reginald Bareham (1894-1916) and the Battle of the Somme, and his latest La Maison de Charette de la Contrie. Copies can be obtained at Amazon.com by searching RON VAN STOCKUM, at Terhune’s Style Shop in Village Plaza, or by contacting him at ronvanstockum@mac.com.