Climbing Mount Fuji (Part III) / by Deborah Clague

At 1:30am, I decided to stop pretending to sleep and commence preparing for the day. I tested my headlamp, evaluated my dwindling water supply, and put on additional layers of clothing. I also discovered that the epic snorer was a woman (!!!) in my group, which definitely defied my belief that there was a grizzly bear slumbering in the vicinity. With just two hours sleep, I wasn't sure how I was going to make it through this very rough day but I was confident that I would and sometimes confidence is all that matters. 

Stepping outside, I took a moment to gaze once again at Tokyo's glittering mass below and the waning crescent moon hanging overhead. The cold seeped into my bones. "Let's do this!", I thought to myself and so I headed out, the first in our group to hit the trail. The lead didn't last long though. The path from the eighth station to the summit is basically climbing over jutting rocks and boulders. It is extremely physical work. Despite having a (small) light source, it was very difficult to do in the dark. My earlier enthusiasm dissipated within 30 minutes. 

When we reached the ninth station, another victim of the mountain had fallen: a second member of the Singapore trio from my hiking group gave up. I overheard our guide tell her that it was okay, she should be proud of what she accomplished, and that the view was pretty much the same here as it was at the top anyway. This, admittedly, gave me pause. I was doing this for my dad. I'm pretty sure my dad wouldn't want me to have a heart attack and die on this damn mountain. Perhaps I should reconsider this foolhardy decision to exert myself beyond means and just give up and have a nice cup of warm tea while watching the sunrise comfortably from this lesser – but SIMILAR – vantage point. As the thoughts filled my head, I didn't notice that I was already on the move and half-way to the tenth station: the summit. I forced myself onwards. 

My hiking style on this second day could be described as "slow and steady", with an emphasis on "slow". I was supposed to be at the tenth station by 4:00am but I didn't get there til well near 5:00am. This was alright, as I did relax and take the time to watch the sunrise over Japan, definitely one of the most memorable moments of my life, and spent time conversing with the fellow hiker in my tour group from Alaska. He had remained at the back of the pack for the entirety of the journey to aid those who may have needed help and was now stuck with me. As we talked, I learned that he had climbed many mountains in his lifetime, both physical and metaphorical it seemed, and had thus developed a gift for motivating people. As we hiked, I admired his gentle spirit and naturally empathetic character and was glad that we were partnered for this final leg upwards. I needed encouragement; without his, I probably wouldn't have made it (which is disappointing to admit). As he reminded me though, "sometimes we carry and sometimes we are carried."

Walking through the final Torii gate and reaching the summit, I expected to feel differently than I did. I had hoped to take a moment to reflect on the achievement and think of my dearly missed father but I didn't. Or, rather, I couldn't. Despite being drenched in sweat, my body was nearly frozen, I was light-headed and facing extreme fatigue. I took a handful of photos to prove that I made it and then desperately scoured the area for a place to rest. This ended up being a bench at the entrance to the communal washroom, which is exactly as glamourous as it sounds. I didn't care though. I was ready to curl up and die.

About three minutes into my nap, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Alaska. 

"The last bit up, I got a bit teary-eyed thinking of your reasons for doing this. You worked really hard and made it, so I got you something to celebrate the achievement." he said, handing me a small bag. 

As I opened it up, I held in my hands a bronze-coloured medal signifying that I had climbed Mount Fuji. All 3,776 meters of it. It was even stamped with the date: July 13, 2015. A special day, as it would have been my father's 65th birthday. I was at a loss for words. The gesture was beyond what I'd expect from people I know, much less a stranger whom I'd known for less than 24 hours. I tried my hardest to express thanks but it would be impossible. My gratitude would extend beyond words. 

Somewhere between the ninth and tenth stations (©Deborah Clague)

Somewhere between the ninth and tenth stations (©Deborah Clague)

The final Torii Gate before reaching the summit (©Deborah Clague)

The final Torii Gate before reaching the summit (©Deborah Clague)

Proof that I made it – me at the summit of Mount Fuji (©Deborah Clague)

Proof that I made it – me at the summit of Mount Fuji (©Deborah Clague)

The summit has a restaurant, gift shop … and even a post office (©Deborah Clague)

The summit has a restaurant, gift shop … and even a post office (©Deborah Clague)

Beginning the hike down, which was just as difficult (but in a different way) as the climb up (©Deborah Clague)

Beginning the hike down, which was just as difficult (but in a different way) as the climb up (©Deborah Clague)

Hiking – and occasionally falling – in the deep ash on the way down was hard and necessitated emptying one's shoes of debris every 100 meters or so (©Deborah Clague)

Hiking – and occasionally falling – in the deep ash on the way down was hard and necessitated emptying one's shoes of debris every 100 meters or so (©Deborah Clague)

Hikers leave offerings of remembrance (©Deborah Clague)

Hikers leave offerings of remembrance (©Deborah Clague)

Celebratory Fuji mountain of rice at the fifth station (©Deborah Clague)

Celebratory Fuji mountain of rice at the fifth station (©Deborah Clague)

Awesome packaging of a banana-flavored drink I had (©Deborah Clague)

Awesome packaging of a banana-flavored drink I had (©Deborah Clague)

The medal I received from Alaska (©Deborah Clague)

The medal I received from Alaska (©Deborah Clague)