Climbing Volcanoes

by Greta Olsson

Was there a funicular on Mt. Vesuvius in 1912? Either there wasn't, or my father chose not to use it. His description of his climb entailed so much dust, heat, and fatigue that a cable car doesn't enter the picture. In fact, the high point of his tale was meeting a friendly, generous Italian man who shared with him a glass of wine, "The Tears of Christ." Dad said that it was the best wine that he had ever had in his life. He was so grateful for this touch of kindness at the end of his adventure that I heard about "The Tears of Christ" all through my childhood and young adult years.

UCLA's evening extension classes had one on comparative wine tasting. We'd sample usually eight bottles of one type, examining the differences in color, bouquet,and flavor. Our final exam took place at an elegant restaurant, and there were an embarrassing number of glasses in front of each plate. I was proud of our group's ability to identify what they were drinking. However, at no time did I ever come across "The Tears of Christ." It didn't occur to me to inquire about it from the lawyer who taught this class. He maintained that a man was not a man unless he had one hundred bottles of wine in his cellar. Also he dismissed all Italian wine as inferior because of bad soil. French, German, and California got the top points.

Forty years after my father did so, I climbed Vesuvius, using a funicular most of the way. Our group had to snake its way to the top, following ash covered hairpin turns. To my utter dismay, there was a Coca-cola stand on the very rim. I refused to have one. I wanted "The Tears of Christ." It wasn't until another trip through France, riding on a motorcycle, that three of us stopped at a small market to buy bread and cheese, and I was at last able to sample "The Tears of Christ." I couldn't believe how bad the wine was. My father COULDN'T have raved about a BAD wine all those years. My heart broke.

Climbing Fuji was an entirely different experience. If you recall a picture of Fuji, you know how long and gradual its slopes are. We took a car part way, after staying at a lovely Japanese Inn the night before. Then one could rent horses between Stations five and six or six and seven - I forget which. Most people bought a long walking pole, really needed for the descent on the "slip and slide cinder path".

Fuji is a religious mountain with a Shinto shrine at its rim. "A man is a fool who does not climb Fuji", is one saying. A second one warns, "He is an even bigger fool if he climbs it twice". It's at least eight hours ascending, and one can "sleep" in a hut to wake early for the sunrise.

The reality is that "sleeping" climbers are packed tightly on the hut floor. We were placed head between two sets of feet - that is, the bodies alternated with either the head or feet faced a certain direction. A long runner-like rug covered all the bodies. We were packed so tightly that when I was lying on my back, with my feet touching each other, and wanted to shift my position, I pulled my right foot up alongside my right leg to allow my knee to be in the air. When I tried to put my foot back next to my other one, the space was gone. It was impossible to sleep under such conditions.

My friends and I got back up, stepped out the door, and into a line of people with flashlights, all heading for the top. Our progress was marked on our poles at each station and substation. Wood burning was used at the top, and an ink stamp was pressed onto the flag recording Fuji's height at 12,000 and something feet. There was a regular street at the top with shops, food, post office, and wood burning. It took an hour to circle the crater.

The descent took five hours on the very steep "slip and slide cinder path." Luckily a kind Japanese man allowed me to place my hand on his shoulder to help break my slide. The pole wasn't enough for me.

In Costa Rica a car took me to the top of one of their volcanoes, and my driver pointed to a spot where two girls had been murdered. There were no drink stands about. I think the year was 1968.

It came as a shock to learn that even today, 2002, Vesuvius is still active, and is carefully monitored in case of another eruption. The ignorance of youth - I'd thought the place was dead! Would I climb it again? I think I might prefer my fifth bungee jump!

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