Lessons Learned Climbing Mount Fuji
Growing up, my family did not have much, certainly not the resources for travel. I trace my love of adventure to my childhood. Books fueled many of my experiences to faraway lands and developed creativity by fostering my imagination.
Carried away to fantasy lands by C.S. Lewis, in The Chronicles of Narnia, adventurous children instilled in me a sense of strength. I became courageous and brave beyond my years, even in situations in which I felt small and vulnerable.
As an avid adult traveler, exploration holds a compelling and almost magical allure. Getting outside of my comfort zone and broadening my horizons is part of the appeal. My perception of the world is based on my orientation as viewed through my lens. Travel challenges my world view and builds awareness of my blind spots.
On a recent trip to Japan, we challenged ourselves to climb Mount Fuji, the tallest mountain in Japan, and an active volcano. The climb has been on my bucket list and personal physical ambition for as long as I can remember. For the Shinto, an ethnic Japanese faith since the 7th century, reaching the Summit in time for sunrise is considered a sacred pilgrimage. According to H. Byron Earhart, “The notion of sacrality, or kami, in the Japanese tradition recognizes the ambiguous power of Mount Fuji to both destroy and create.” Mt. Fuji is considered a non-technical climb, which means ropes and body harnesses are not necessary. However, I felt humbled, realizing it is not an undertaking without risk. The potential dangers include volcanic eruptions, rockslides, avalanches, and severe altitude sickness. In our case, the preparation involved embracing the challenge and its inherent risks.
Mount Fuji is a two day, slow and steady climb. The first hour felt effortless. But by the fifth hour, the terrain had changed dramatically, and I began feeling fatigued. Luckily we had realized the importance of continuing to hydrate earlier in the climb, and at this stage, I was eternally grateful for the candy bars we brought with us. My husband, Colin, a partner in all things wild and beautiful, became talkative; this is his modus operandi when things get tough. Mt. Fuji was teaching me my need for introspection. The experience built my confidence with every step allowing me to explore my self-defined limits and then expand them. Between the Sixth and Seventh station, the path is narrow, and only one or two climbers can pass at a time. Finally, by 8:00 pm on the first day, we arrived at the Eighth Station. Grateful to enter the mountain hut, relieved to be able to remove our heavy backpacks and boots. Shortly after that, we devoured an unfamiliar dinner with chopsticks, followed by a cup of warm tea. Because water is scarce on Mount Fuji showering or even washing hands is not possible, hand sanitizer quickly becomes a close ally.
After dinner, we exchanged stories with fellow mountaineers who came from all over the globe to take on this adventure. As time passed, exhaustion crept in, and we trundled off to our bunks. Despite extreme fatigue, it was difficult to get comfortable in a narrow bunk on a straw mat. At most, we slept on and off for two hours. At 1:00 am, we were woken by the cacophony of cell phone alarms, quickly geared up and went downstairs. I will never forget the welcome aroma and taste of the instant coffee that morning.
As I stepped outside of the hut, the cold morning air and sharp wind startled me. I quickly zippered my jacket, secured my helmet and headlamp, slipped on gloves, and adjusted my poles. Despite physical and mental fatigue, we carefully followed hikers in front of us; snaking the narrow trail all the while drawing on inner strength and determination. For this last part of the journey, the terrain was rocky, rugged, and very steep. Slowly putting one foot in front of the other became a humbling accomplishment. Looking down, I noticed the almost sheer drop and realized that one wrong step, would have severe and potentially fatal consequences. As an asthmatic, the altitude was taking a toll on my breathing; I deliberately shifted my focus to a controlled complete inhalation and exhalation. The soothing sound of my rhythmic breath and the strong wind calmed me down.
At about 3:00 am, I was relieved to see a sign that read 200 m to the Summit. I looked up and realized this was an almost vertical climb and was going to be the most challenging part of the journey. Determined to put one foot in front of the other, we kept going. Just before sunrise, we passed through the red Tori Gate that marks the entrance to the Summit of Mount Fuji, which symbolically denotes the transition from the mundane to the sacred.
After 12 grueling hours of climbing, finding a perfect spot to watch the magnificent sunrise was our reward. Tears streamed down my face as I sat on top of the iconic Fuji-san, my silent teacher.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” ~ Mark Twain
Photos from Natasha Reisner