Preparation. Preparation can be the difference between life and death, winning the championship or going home empty-handed. Preparation is so important that the Boy Scouts of America, the bastion of out-dated morality and endless recent controversy, have made it their famous motto: be prepared.
I thought I was.
Climbing a mountain is no small feat. Ask someone why they want to climb a mountain and a common answer is “because it’s there.” Ask me why I wanted to climb Mt. Fuji and my answer isn’t much different. It’s Japan’s most famous and recognizable landmark. I’ve never climbed a mountain before. I want to conquer it. So I prepared.
The briefing about climbing Fuji was filled with great information: wear the right shoes, avoid cotton clothes, bring plenty of water and snacks. I soaked it all in. For about a week prior I was gathering everything I’d thought I would need. I already had running pants and a dry-fit shirt, a big water bottle (51 ounces!). The internet told me what kind of hiking footwear to get (hiking shoes for an “easy” day-hike), so I bought those. I brought snacks. I brought everything I thought I would need. Of course, I’m pretty dumb sometimes so I forgot a few important things: a hat, and that important but occasionally neglected fact that I’m no athlete.
I woke up at 1:30 in the morning to get ready for the 2:00 AM bus ride. Skip the shave, fill up my water bottle, brush my teeth. Normal stuff. The bus ride was long but uneventful. Prior to reaching our trail’s base, there are grooves in the road to play a song as you drive over it. I didn’t recognize the song, but it was pleasant to hear. Around five o’clock we reached the foot of the mountain and our final preparations were made. Pop in my contacts, buy a stick (seriously, potential mountaineers, buy a stick), one last bathroom break. Then we were on our way.
It was a clear, cold morning. The sun rose over the trees, bathing the trail in gold. We made our way through the trail, slowly moving vertically. My group quickly dropped from four to three, as one person had to fall behind to catch his breath so much he told us to go on without him. This happened a lot. It didn’t take long before we were above the clouds, which is something I’d only experienced in an airplane.
I was part of the Navy’s tour group, and everyone quickly fell into their own cliques at their own paces. My group of three moved, I would say, around the middle. We steadily climbed and everything seemed fine. The higher up we got, however, the harder the path became. What was previously a steady slope of gravel turned into a far more vertical rocky path. We never had to climb straight up, and hands were rarely necessary to climb, but it wasn’t like ascending a staircase.
Well, that isn’t entirely true. The last few dozen feet before a rest stop was usually a straight up staircase. I tried to ask the people manning the rest stops if they lived at their stop, but the language barrier curtailed any meaningful conversation. That didn’t stop anyone from getting their sticks stamped. These sticks, by the way, are not required. You can bring your own sticks or free climb, but the sticks offered by the mountain’s staff offer three things: the opportunity to look like a wandering wizard, a climbing aid, and a souvenir.
Every rest stop has stamps for your stick. Some have two. These stamps are burned onto your stick and act as proof that you survived up to that point. It gets pricey, which is why we were suggested to bring about 20,000 yen (around $200) in cash. That money goes to other things, too. Namely, food and water.
Like I said earlier, I am not an athlete. I haven’t ever worked my body this hard for this long since boot camp, and even boot camp had mandatory breaks. The RDCs could only beat you so hard. The mountain has no such mercy. You’re on your own on the mountain, left do determine your own fatigue. They’re called rest stops for a reason. Catch your breath, eat a granola bar or a sandwich and try to hydrate. I was over-confident at the foot, but I quickly became humbled.
Climbing Fuji-san became a personal challenge. It wasn’t merely for bragging rights or a good story. To me, defeating this mountain was proving to myself that I could withstand Officer Candidate School. It was to show myself that, even when facing a seemingly insurmountable goal, I could persevere and triumph. I have made a lot of mistakes in my life, and I have more personal failures than I care to admit, but I would be damned if this mountain was one of them. So I pushed on. Up and up, always up.
Eventually my group went from three to two, two to one. Maybe it was the lower oxygen or maybe I am out of shape. Probably a 20/80 split, if I’m being honest. Rest stops became bigger breaks and I had to stop more and more frequently. My goals shrank. I was telling myself to just go up to the next turn, then catch my breath. Up, stop, up, stop. One of my friends/coworkers/former bosses (Navy Sailors wear a lot of hats) wanted this to be a race, but I am not competitive. That said, there was no freaking way the Chiefs were going to beat me. That was a newer motivator. I’d stop until I saw a Chief, then push forward. They were going slow and steady, I was rushing and stopping. Their numbers dwindled. All of them did, not just the Chiefs. I saw fewer and fewer people from my ship the higher up I got, and it wasn’t just the distance. People were dropping out. I would not be one of them.
The final push was hard. Gauging how much further is difficult when all you can see is rock and sky, but I knew I was nearly there. The final rest stop before the top was mostly buried, probably from a small landslide or time. I took a big break here, finished my (already refilled once) water, ate my last granola bar. Another guy from my ship saw me and rested with me, then we pushed onward together. We were both exhausted, but we helped the other. Then, the end was in sight. There were statues and a torii gate, and I knew this was it.
We made it to the top. There was such a big crowd. Shops, knick knacks, food.
I arrived just before 11:00 AM. Six hours of climbing and it felt like a month. I was tired, physically and mentally, I had a headache, and I was hungry. Thankfully, there was something to solve all of these issues:
That’s partially a joke. The beer wasn’t really a great idea, and I forced it down. I bought another couple bottles of water and rested for an hour and a half. That time flew by. The fourth member of my group made it to the top. Eventually it was time to head down.
Descending was a different beast. The mountain is mostly gravel. Every step forward would double in length because of sliding, and my group went at three different speeds. I was in the middle with another Ben. We walked/slid at a moderate pace as we weaved down the far simpler descent path. People say going down is harder than going up, but I can’t agree with that. Going down is boring and slow. The fact that we were seemingly inside a cloud the whole time only made it that much more dull. I started counting the number of left turns we had left (get it?), a gesture which didn’t seem to make the walk any more exciting. We got to the last turn, then had to hike another couple kilometers to reach the base. Either Mother Nature or the trail’s designer must have had a cruel streak because the path sometimes went back up. We thought we took the wrong path a couple times. Finally, the base was within sight. We got back and collapsed in the bus.
The mountain took a few things from me. I forgot my glasses in the base’s bathroom when I put in my contacts that morning, and they were long gone. All the sunblock I applied washed off from sweat and time because I was too ignorant to wear a hat or reapply. My whole head and neck were completely burned, even parts covered by hair. My left knee is injured (hey doc, if you’re reading this I think I should get it more thoroughly checked out). I can hardly walk for twenty minutes before it starts to hurt, and I climbed this mountain almost two weeks ago. I came to the mountain arrogant and unprepared. I underestimated the gravity the word “mountain” carries and why people don’t do this every day. Climbing a mountain is no small feat, but I did it. I’m no athlete, I’m an indoors-bound geek. But I did it. You should do it too if you get the chance but there’s no way in hell I’ll climb Mount Fuji again.
I root for you down here.