Where else could I meet so many people from around the world? The two women from Malaysia gave me friendly smiles from across the aisle on our bus as we left Tokyo. At one point during the first day of my climb I looked to my left and saw one of them next to me. “Can I walk with you?” she struggled to say, a look of desperation in her eyes. I thought for sure she would not make it up the mountain.
As we trudged up the steep slope, the thinning air was no match for Jin the professor, originally from China, but living in Fargo, North Dakota for many years. It seems he never stopped talking (sometimes to the embarrassment of his teenage son Sam). Along the way, we heard him picking up phrases in new languages from our multilingual members.
Another hiker and also my hut-mate (along with a tech worker from Australia) came from Germany but was raised in Japan and Argentina. The 18-year-old is regretfully leaving his Japanese girlfriend to return to Germany for a stone mason job after completing his apprenticeship.
I enjoyed speaking Spanish with two women from Los Angeles, originally from Mexico and Peru. Other climbers in our group of 28 came from China, the UK, and there were three brothers from Norway, all in their 20s and very fit! They walked up the mountain as if they were out for a stroll.
One of our guides loved mountain climbing so much that he was working this job on his two-week vacation from his job as a cabin crew attendant for a Japanese airline. Our lead guide was from Nepal and very knowledgeable. Our third guide was in his 70s and does this climb a couple of times a week during the two-month climbing season. They taught us how to breathe properly in order to adjust to the altitude, they reminded us to take small steps, helped us adjust our headlamps and strap on our helmets, and watched out for our safety every step of the way. We were in excellent hands!
The climb itself was at times easy and beautiful and at other times required the encouragement of 28 fellow climbers and 3 expert guides to take the next step. We called ourselves Team Samurai and worked as a team, even though we had just met. Jin and the Norwegian brothers carried the backpacks of some who just couldn’t carry theirs anymore. We walked slowly and took frequent breaks, taking over six hours to climb to our mountain hut on the first day.
We were told the plan at several points along the way. This is where we will go next, this is when we will take a break, the next mountain station is number x and we will sleep at station 8. Still, as we climbed further, I found it increasingly difficult to think about anything other than the next step. I would look up and see five or six mountain stations in view along the zig-zagging ascent. Each one had a number, but they all looked the same to me and I felt like we kept passing the same one again and again.
At some mountain stations, other groups had removed their hiking boots and sat sipping tea or eating a meal before settling in for the night. I was envious and wanted to join them, but then I knew we’d be closer to the summit in the morning.
When we finally reached our mountain hut, we were assigned our sleeping spaces, enjoyed the view of the lights far below, and wondered how much colder it would get. After our meal of curried rice and tea, we were in bed by 9:00, though most of us reported sleeping in 20-minute fits throughout the night.
Up at 3:15, breakfast of bread and jam, and time to put on the many layers, helmets, and head lamps before continuing our ascent. Though we were relatively close to the summit, just two stations away, the thin air made every step harder and harder. We moved in slow motion. After the beautiful sunrise we could actually see the summit. It looked so close, but still so far.
Then the moment came. I was at the top of Mt. Fuji, the tallest mountain in Japan, 3776 meters high (12,388 feet), the highest I have ever climbed.
We congratulated each other, took tons of pictures, spent time to just absorb the beautiful and ever-changing view, peered into the crater of the still-active volcano (where there was still some dust-covered snow), and rested for what we were told would be an even more difficult descent. I also celebrated with a glass of a hot white sake drink for sale at the summit.
I kept telling myself the way down wouldn’t really be worse. After all, with each step the air would get thicker and we’d be closer to the bottom. We were allowed to descend at our own pace and were told it would take anywhere from 1.5-3 hours.
Most of it involved steep switchbacks in deep volcanic gravel. It was so tough I wondered at times if I would make it. With each step, my legs got heavier and less reliable. My walking poles saved me from falls several times. I had not felt any pain at all climbing the day before, just the effects of the altitude. Going down, though, hurt!
When Sam, the son of Jin, caught me at one of the resting points and told me I was fast and how he was also struggling, I felt a little better! We had a long rest at that point and didn’t see anyone else from our group, so we continued on.
In the end, all 28 of us made it to the summit and back to the starting point – safely! Team Samurai lived up to its name. Our guides were proud of us and we were proud of ourselves.
It felt strange, then, a few hours later back on a Tokyo street, to walk off the bus and say goodbye to these people from around the world who I had shared a deeply moving experience with. I may never see them again, but I will always remember the guidance, teamwork, and determination that brought us to the top of Mt. Fuji.