"It's like trudging through deep sand on a beach. Only uphill. For hours upon hours."
That is how one person in my hiking group described the climb up Mount Fuji. I would agree (although I would add the adjective "hellish"); physically, this has been the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. At 3,776m, the iconic symbol of Japan is slightly smaller than the highest peak of the Canadian Rockies (Mount Robson at 3,954m), but with altitude sickness, insane humidity transitioning to frigid temps, long queues, and 500 Yen+ bottles of water, it is a formidable challenge nonetheless. I might be slightly melodramatic when I state that I thought I would die on the mountain, but I believed it at the time.
While the climb is a transformative experience that many people partake in annually, I decided to do this on a whim last summer with little training leaning up to it. My only motivation was to keep a promise I made my late father. Contemplating various grand gestures I could make to celebrate his life and give him assurance that I would be alright and continue to lead the type of existence he helped inspire, I settled on climbing a mountain. Because … why not? It's bold which is my modus operandi. And Mount Fuji because we shared a wonderful holiday there in 2009 (and I really, really wanted to return to the awesomeness that is Tokyo).
It also seemed achievable. After all, thousands of people do it a year, right? Surely, I could join them.
Thus, my mission was born.
My backpack was filled with additional layers of clothing that I would eventually be adding as I neared the summit, a power bank, a first aid kit, bottles of flavoured water, veggie bars, and a half-loaf of cheese bread from Fauchon, a french bakery that had a shop across the street from my hotel in Shinjuku, Tokyo. It is one of the most delicious ways to indulge in carbs. I planned on rationing it and rewarding myself with one slice for every station I passed.
The cheese bread was consumed ravenously within the first two hours of the hike.
Our climb commenced at a more remote access point, the Subashiri Trail, which was enjoyable for two reasons:
1) the ascent partially ran through a lush, unspoilt forest which took on a mystical quality with the fog and low-hanging cloud that welcomed us on the first day, and
2) there were less people on it.
My immediate tour group of ten individuals consisted of several other Canadians representing the nation from coast-to-coast, a group of friends from Singapore, two Americans (a photographer from Florida and an Electrician from Alaska), and an Australian. We interacted well, cracking jokes and placing bets on who would be the first to drop out.
To commemorate the inevitable, this ringtone was prepared in advance by the photographer. I'm really hoping everyone gets the reference, as it's hilarious. By our stop at the 6th station, it would already be in use; our first comrade had fallen. Citing a bad knee, one of the group of friends from Singapore dropped out of the hike.
And then there were nine.
The aforementioned stratus made it hard to tell just how high the summit was and just how much further we would need to hike. While my spirit (and motivation) remained high the first day, I will admit that by dusk when I reached the 8th station, it was chipping away. I could barely feel my legs and was starting to feel light-headed. The terrain had changed from deep volcanic ash to jutting rocks of which no real trail was marked, just a roped fence guiding people along a suggested route.
Through clearings, the view was absolutely one of the most beautiful I had ever witnessed but I didn't feel any sort of spiritual connection, to nature or to my father. All I felt was an intense desire to slumber that was becoming increasingly harder to deny. As I entered the mountain hut where we would be resting for a few hours, I threw my bag down and claimed an empty space on the floor. The mountain was kicking my ass.
I was prepared to lay down and take it.
To be continued...