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Night-climbing Mount Fuji

Everything I need to know about life, I learned while climbing Mt. Fuji. 

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s getting older, and this year my 24th birthday approached with a velocity more rapid and upsetting than birthdays past. 

I decided that in order to face the fateful day with good spirits, I needed to do something insanely cool.  Something that would prove I wasn’t old.  Something to test strength and will power. Something I would remember forever.  Something like mountain climbing. 

So on June 25, three friends and I piled into a small Japanese car and set out for Mt. Fuji.  A six hour drive from Wakayama, a prefecture in southern Japan where we’ve lived as English teachers for the past year, Mt. Fuji stands 3776 meters high.

Japan’s highest mountain, Fuji or Fuji-san as it is called, is actually a dormant volcano that last erupted in 1708. 


Our car arrived at Fuji’s fifth station around 6 p.m. and we spent a few hours acclimating ourselves to the altitude and chugging coffee for stamina.  This was to be an all night climb.  The mountain officially opens for climbing the first weekend in July.  We were climbing one week off season, and the crowd of fellow climbers was small, but the sky clear.  At 10 p.m. we began our journey to the peak with the goal of watching the sunrise from the summit at 4:30 in the morning. 

Lesson #1  Don’t look up

I’m not in the best physical shape.  I learned this within the first five minutes on the mountain when two of my friends went flying toward the top, and I was struggling to take even three steps in the sand.

I underestimated the difficulty of the climb.

“If Japanese grandmas and their grandchildren can climb Fuji, how hard could it be?” I thought.

Picture a sand dune stretching upward into the stars, and an altitude that makes a few steps feel like a staircase.  With each stride, I slipped backwards in the sand.  The mountain loomed above us. 

“What was I thinking,” the self doubt set in, “I can’t take six more hours of this.  I’m not in shape for this.  I’ll never make it to the top.  I should turn around.”

Beside me, my friend read my mind. 

“Don’t look up.  If you look up you’ll get intimidated by how far you have to climb.  Look at your feet.  Focus on walking.  Just step.”

So I started stepping.  I stopped thinking about the giant mountain peak hovering above us.  The sunrise and the mountain’s summit no longer existed to me.  I began to realize that focusing on an enormous goal instead of the most immediate task, makes for an impossible journey.  When focused on the task-at-hand, the goal no matter how large becomes manageable.  At least I hoped it would. 

Lesson #2 Baby steps in the right direction will eventually lead to the destination

“Left foot.  Right foot,” I repeated in my head.  Bent over under the weight of my pack, I watched my feet.  The only thing that existed in my world was a 5X5 square around my shoes.  Somehow, focusing on that little box made climbing easier. 

Just keep walking.  It seemed so simple.  One foot, then the other.  If I stepped long enough, somehow I would end up at the top.  The concept was ingenious.

The terrain turned from sand to volcanic rocks and then to large stones, positioned like a staircase.  A welcome break from the sand, the stone steps made the journey seem less demanding.

Lesson #3 Just make it to the next station

The hardest part of any journey is the first obstacle.  The wanna-be marathon runner has to jump the first hurdle of waking an hour early each day to jog, before he can finally start running longer and faster and eventually enter a race.  I learned this on Fuji.

Climbers on their way up

From our starting point at the fifth station all the way to the seventh station, I focused on walking: one foot, then the other.  Fuji has 10 stations total, where huts or lodges offer climbers a place to spend the night for around 5000 yen ($50).  Many people sleep at the eighth station and wake around 1a.m. or 2 a.m. and hike the last few hours to the summit in time for sunrise. 

When I saw the shape of a building in the darkness, I felt a twinge of hope. 

“Is that the sixth station?”

“It’s the seventh,” my friend said.

Euphoria set in, and energy surged through my veins.  The entire mountain felt possible.  When we finally trudged across the seventh station, all that filled my mind was reaching the eighth.  I no longer needed to focus on my feet. The first hurdle of “just walking” ended and a new goal, “focus on the next station” filled me.  Accomplishing each small goal gave me a feeling of accomplishment powerful enough to propel me halfway into the next task. 

Lesson #4 You’ll get farther on a mountain or in life, if you are kind to yourself; take lots of breaks.

Hints of dawn

During the climb, I listened to myself and stopped often to prevent altitude sickness.  This was especially difficult when very fit people passed me by, including one man who clipped past carrying a bike on his back and vanished out of sight.   Food and water breaks filled me with more power than I could have imagined.  A bag of nuts at the eighth station was the best food I ever tasted, and I didn’t even know I was hungry until I started eating.  Give your body what it needs and make sure to stop and rest.  It will give you what you need in return.
Lesson #5 Slow and steady wins the race

When we reached the eighth station at 1:30 a.m., I gazed down at the glow of headlamps climbing toward us. We were right on schedule to reach the peak by sunrise. Looking down, I felt amazed we covered so much ground in only a few hours.  With more of the mountain below us than above us, reaching the peak by 4:00 a.m. seemed a sure bet. 

Still, my pace left me two hours behind the friends who went charging up the mountainside at the start of our trek. 

Despite my snail-like pace, I made it to the summit by sunrise.  I didn’t have to sit shivering on the cold summit waiting for the sun.  Instead, I arrived just in time.  Thanks to my inchworm speed, I was the only one who didn’t get altitude sickness. 

Lesson #6  Always fight for what is important to you

In the last half hour, the sky streaked with white and I knew the sunrise was approaching.  I could see the summit, but knew it was at least 20 minutes away. 

Ten minutes before we had arrived at the tenth station which I mistook for the top.  I stifled my victory cheer when my eyes fell upon a new stretch of rocks winding upward.

Exhausted, I fought to catch my breath in the thin air.  The terrain turned to boulders as high as my thighs but the approaching sunrise motivated me to push on.  It was too cold to stop and rest, so I had no choice but to keep moving.  I used the yellow rope marking the side of the trail to pull myself along. 

When the white streaks mixed with orange, I pushed even harder, sucking in four large breaths and then blowing out four more times with a step for each breath. I had to get there. 

We finally stepped onto the summit, only to see another peak with a better view, where our other friends were no doubt waiting. The sun was taking its time, so we began the walk into a slight valley and up to the higher peak.

Lesson #7 The journey is more important than the finish line

Once I got to the top, I spent 10 minutes feeling accomplished and the next 50 wishing for a magic carpet to take me back down.  With the hike down on no sleep to think about, hanging around the top of the mountain wasn’t as much fun as I imagined. 

Fuji’s crater

On the summit, hikers can walk another two hours around the volcano’s crater, or send postcard from the post office that sits just below the highest peak.  As for me, visions of large beds with warm down comforters filled my head. 

During the journey, I learned more about myself than any mountain top epiphany could have supplied.

There’s a saying from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “The only Zen you find at the top of a mountain is the Zen you bring up there.”

For me, the Zen appeared on the way up the mountain, as I focused only on my movements, and thoughts of problems, family, and life at the bottom disappeared beneath a layer of clouds.

The most memorable experiences in life are the ones where we push ourselves, test ourselves, and surprise ourselves. When people ask if the sunrise from the peak of Fuji was really that magnificent, I have to say no, because when held up to the glory of making the trek itself, no sunrise can compare.

Overcoming the struggle makes the trek memorable. Why else are people jealous when someone says they climbed a mountain?  It’s certainty not the night without sleep, the cold weather, the lack of air, or the sore muscles.

Lesson #8 What goes up must come down

After you’re on top of the world, the only place to go is down.  The trek down Mt. Fuji, while easier, puts a great deal of stress on the knees. 

With morning upon us, the sun beat down and we shed the sweatshirts and heavy pants that had made the cold peak bearable.  Although the journey down was shorter, it felt just as long.  The guy who plowed up Fuji with a bicycle strapped to his back, zoomed down the mountain on his bike. We watched him slowly navigate a corner and then shakily straighten out before picking up speed.  

As for me, I tried the short cut of sliding on the snow like a sled, although I don’t recommend it as stopping before the edge of the mountain became a bit of a challenge. 

If Fuji’s lessons seem simple, it’s because they are.  In my opinion, the simplest things are often the most difficult.  Now when making career or personal goals, I remember what Fuji taught me, and I start my slow journey toward the top. 

Fuji’s climbing season opens the first week of July and continues until the end of August.  Climbing too far off season can be extremely dangerous and the huts or lodges are closed.  If climbing in August, avoid Obon week (August 13 -15) when the crowds are heaviest.    

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