A few years ago I was given the opportunity to climb Mt. Fuji. It wasn’t what I set out to do, climb a legendary mountain. The suggestion caused me to dream, though. I started to imagine myself in Japan. The distance and cost, once prohibitive, now seemed manageable. The language barrier became a hurdle, rather than a road block. A task beyond my wildest imagination started to shape into possibility. I found myself sitting on the balcony of a friend’s apartment in Fujiyoshida, staring at Mt. Fuji. The mountain stood, clear as day, looming in the distance. Standing on the flat ground of an island staring up at a 12,388′ peak was intimidating. I wondered where this opportunity was taking me and if it was worth the risk.
I prepared to climb Mt. Fuji to the best of my ability, having only begun imagining this feat. I read and researched. My friend gave me advice. I worked through the summer, climbing the mountains of Colorado, hoping to be elevation acclimated and full of strength. I bought new shoes. The hardest thing about climbing that day, was talking myself into doing it. I second guessed my preparation. I worried about my shoes. I was jet-lagged. Honestly, I was scared. Not scared to climb the mountain, but scared I wouldn’t make it to the top. Scared I would talk myself out of the climb completely. Luckily, for me, I was on this journey with the athlete I admire most in the world. She had not only climbed Mt. Fuji, but she had run up and down it, multiple times. I wasn’t climbing alone. In fact, thousands of Japanese would be making a pilgrimage to the top with me that weekend. If all these people had gone before me, I knew the climb would be a challenge, but not impossible.
I had no way of knowing what was waiting for me on top of Mt. Fuji, or what difficulties I would face to get there. I had a bit of preparation, a healthy dose of fear, and a friend. It was time to show up. We started at station 5, which is the highest drivable point on the mountain. Our ascent began at 10pm, and for 7 hours we listened to people giggling about our shorts and t-shirts. The Japanese were wearing parkas, scarves and gloves. If I would have taken the comments as criticism, I might have started my descent in the dark. They had no idea how far I’d come to summit this peak. At each station was a small set of steps. I looked at them and my legs screamed in pain. The trail was steep; the steps were worse. My friend quietly asked me to put one foot in front of the other. One foot…one foot…one foot…became my mantra. Nearing the summit, and close to sunrise we hit an unexpected delay. Thousands of people were stopped on the trail waiting to get to the top, where thousands more stood waiting for the morning. At this point we could choose to turn our bodies 180 degrees to watch the sun rise, or start scrambling up scree to bypass the traffic jam. We climbed hand over hand, holding on to the outside of the chains lining the crowded path. The voice of self doubt I carried from bottom to top crashed on the steps below.
As we summited Mt. Fuji, the sun rose beyond the horizon. The world came alive and we watched light pour into dark places. Valleys, hill tops, lakes and ocean were perfectly formed at the foot of this towering volcano. We stood arm in arm, tears running down our cheeks, amazed at the creation of our bodies, the sky before us and the earth below. Silently I was thankful that the mountain my friend handled with ease forced me to persevere beyond my wildest imagination. The steps, the climb, and the preparation were well worth the risk. You can’t face a mountain and expect to remain the same. There is no going back once you’ve started the climb; the dream of it changes you forever.