Climbing Mount Fuji

by Christine on June 2nd, 2010

filed under Exercise, General Information

Mount Fuji in SpringToday I was reading through one of my favorite blogs, “Did I Just Eat That Out Loud” (click here for link), where the author asked, “Have you ever had a chance to make one of your wildest dreams come true?”

I did, actually.  How many people can really say “yes” to that question?

In 2001 I went to Japan for the second time. I went with a group of international exchange students from my college, and we stayed with a friend who was from Japan.  We represented the USA (me), Japan (Ayako), France, The Netherlands, South Korea, and the Ivory Coast.  Our wonderful hostess asked us all to pick out one thing we wanted to do while we were in Japan. France picked karaoke, The Netherlands picked visiting a famous temple. I chose something totally nuts: I wanted to climb Mount Fuji.

Mount Fuji Seen from Green Tea Field in AprilNow, keep in mind I was 220 pounds (at 5’2) and hardly in any athletic condition to be tackling a real mountain. Furthermore, I grew up in Illinois had had never even seen a real mountain first-hand, much less attempted to walk up one. Yet, I said, “I want to climb Mount Fuji,” so off we went on a bus trip to the mountain.

Lava Rock so sharp!Mount Fuji is not just a mountain. It’s a volcano.  There’s not much difference, except perhaps for the landscape and footing. While a real mountain has dirt, evergreen needles, rocks and tree roots (vegetation) to give you a pretty landscape and the all-important foothold, Mount Fuji does not. It’s comprised of palm-sized lava rock, which is sharp as hell if you fall on them. (see photo to the left) It’s very loose, like gravel. You take one big step and slide 2/3 of the way backwards. You take another step and slide backwards yet again. Climbing Mount Fuji is literally like climbing uphill while constantly sliding downhill.  (See photos below)

Lava Rock on Mount FujiWe started out climb at 4:30 p.m., and we climbed until we reached the top at sunRISE, which was about 6 a.m. That’s 14+ hours of nonstop climbing upwards for those of you who are math-deficient.   The goal is to reach the top of the mountain at sunrise in order to epitomize the spiritual journey needed to reach the top.  Well, I hadn’t really signed up for that, but we were stuck on a tour of Japanese-only speakers, and I didn’t speak a single bit of Japanese, so I didn’t really know.  In fact, the entire trip was a calamity of errors. For instance:

  • We started the climb in July, and it was 110 degrees F where we began. Thinking that the trip would be warm, I embarked wearing only shorts, a t-shirt, a pair of gym shoes, and a pair of socks. But I planned ahead (I thought)!! I packed an extra pair of socks. JUST IN CASE.  I’m such a dumbshit. At 12,000 feet, it was less than 30 degrees at the top of the mountain, complete with snow and sleeting rainstorm.  Did I mention that I wore gym shoes? Not hiking boots (with crampons) appropriate for climbing in loose gravel?
  • I brought one bottle of water. ONE. BOTTLE.  Because I thought it would be a short jaunt to the top.
  • I brought one package of salty crackers. One package.  Because I thought it would be a quick trip to the top. That same package of crackers literally EXPLODED in my backpack on the way up, from the altitude.  Did I mention that it took 14 hours just to reach the top?

Climbing up lava rock on Mount FujiWe started about one-third of the way up the mountain, and I knew instantly that I was in trouble.  For starters, I was getting passed by 60 year old Japanese men fully decked out in hiking gear. They scoffed at my t-shirt and shorts. I scoffed at their jackets and trekking poles. Let’s guess who was doing the laughing three hours later

I felt the hiking burn about 2 hours into the trip. I thought I would need to quit right then and there. But I looked up and the top didn’t look so far away, so I thought, “Gee, how bad can it be?” Then it turned black as night out there. They do not have lights illuminating the walkway.  (The professional hikers had the foresight to bring headlights. I did not.)  There were no bathrooms — well, none that were free, anyway.  I peed crouched down along the path when I had thirty seconds between groups passing me.

The second sign that I was in way over my head: They sold oxygen along the way.  Real oxygen.  Soon I found out why: my international group of friends began puking like crazy. The altitude got to them. Slowly they started dropping off, deciding to go back rather than go forwards. I kept plugging along.  It wasn’t a conscious decision; I was in a total exhausted haze. I was alone, in a foreign country, without water or food, 100 pounds too heavy for the trip, but I wasn’t going to stop now, not nine hours into the hike!

My legs found a rhythm and I completely blanked everything out. Every inch of my body hurt. I ached. I was mentally done. I was ill-prepared. I was freezing. I used the extra pair of socks as mittens on my hands. Some 70 year old hiker took pity on me and gave me an extra sweatshirt. I don’t even remember the transaction now, or if I paid him for the sweater. I cried at least a third of the way up to the top. I told myself a million times, “I can’t do this. I’m too fat. I’m too out of shape. What the hell was I thinking? Stop now! ” but I kept talking to myself while walking in that mind-numbing motion forwards. Upwards. I didn’t stop.

At the top, the climb turned more treacherous.  Instead of loose gravel, it became large boulders that you needed to climb hand-over-hand.  It was sleeting and my extra sock-gloves were soaked. I had icicles on my eyelashes, and my eyes kept literally freezing shut. I was wet and freezing. I couldn’t stop shivering. But I didn’t stop moving.  I followed professional climbers that used rock-climbing gear, carribeaners, crampons, and climbing picks to reach the top, but I didn’t have any of that stuff: only my hands and feet. I cried the whole way.

Top of Mount FujiThen I reached the top. My friend told me that I would reach the top and see the crater of the volcano. The sunrise would occur in front of me, and it would be magical, like a movie. That image kept me moving during the climb, but it didn’t really work out that way in reality.  I only knew I reached the top because there was  a warming hut (free!) at the top. The sleeting storm got worse. It was hazy and dark. There was no sunrise. There was no crater. There was nothing but freezing rain and a poorly lit fire.

I cried for a solid hour. I couldn’t believe I did it. I couldn’t believe I reached the top. Never in my wildest dreams could I have dreamt that I would achieve something so huge. I climbed 12,388 feet to the top of Mount Fuji.

With an amazing amount of non-ceremony, I stood up from my seat and started sliding my way down the gravel, down the hill. Trumpets did not blare. I didn’t get a handshake from the Prime Minister congratulating me on my challenge. I didn’t even have a single friend with whom I could celebrate. I reached the top, I was exhausted, I started going back down. Going down was remarkably fast due to the gravel. I fell a thousand times, backwards, onto my hands and butt. My hands were raw and bloody from landing on the sharp lava rock.  I cried on the way down too.  When I met my friends at the bottom of the mountain, I had little to say, and little emotion left in me. I was drained in every way possible. I found my way to the charter bus and watched the scenery pass me by as we drove back to Kyoto.  I may have dozed a little, but mostly I was just numb. It took me weeks to process what had just happened to me.

Thank you to Mrs.FatAss for reminding me of that journey. It changed my life. Without a doubt.

Have you ever had a chance to make your wildest dream come true? Tell me all about it. Or, tell me what dream you would LIKE to make come true?

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