Back in August of 1991, I joined thousands of people to make the overnight climb to the summit of Mt. Fuji (12,389 feet) to witness the sunrise. Our family was living in Japan at the time because JT Hume was stationed with the United States Air Force just outside Tokyo. We took advantage of the opportunity by attending traditional cultural events, sightseeing, and taking our young kids to Tokyo Disneyland several times. As a result, we have wonderful memories of the three years we spent enjoying the Land of the Rising Sun.
The climb up Mt. Fuji is one of my clearest memories of living in Japan. JT made the ascent the summer before I did and his guidance helped me to have an easier time than he had. In the months prior to that August day, I trained with daily workouts where I walked the neighborhoods of our base housing complex and then climbed eleven flights of stairs in the tower apartments numerous times. When the day came where I finally boarded the tour bus to the mountain with the rest of our group, I felt as ready as I’d ever be to start my adventure.
The bus dropped us off at the Kawaguchiko 5th Station, about halfway up the Yoshida trail, is at an altitude of about 7500 feet so we only had another 4,844 feet to climb from the time we left the 5th Station at about 9pm until sunrise the next morning. This would be easy.
Boy, was I wrong!
Mt. Fuji is an active volcano that last erupted in the 1700s so the soil is dark, rich, and strewn with boulders and tiny rocks. The Yoshida Trail is the most popular of the climbing routes and thousands of other people were walking along the narrow winding pathways or climbing over rocky spots where I sometimes found myself on my hands and knees. Most of us carried a souvenir climbing stick and the sound of the attached good luck bells mingled with the voices of many climbers chanting “Domo arrigato gozaimashita” (thank you very much) with each step.
Darkness overcame us not too long after we left the 5th Station that evening and soon I found myself alone. All my training hadn’t prepared me for the steepness and rockiness of the trail and I felt like the rest of the climbers must have been part mountain goat in order to move as quickly as they did.
Small stations are positioned at various points along the trail to the summit and my most immediate goal was to just reach the next one. The warmth, light, and companionship in the crowded huts helped ease the fear and loneliness I felt during the long, dark, and lonely spaces in between them. At each stop, I had my walking stick branded, and the scent of the burning wood is one of the things I remember most about that long night.
As the sky lightened with the coming dawn, I hadn’t yet reached the summit, but found myself partway along the highest part of the trail before reaching the top. At this point, the path winds along the iconic cone-shaped portion of the mountain so often covered in snow in the photographs I’d seen; the trail only about four feet wide with a steep drop off to one side and the side of the mountain on the other. The wind came up as the sun rose higher and I found myself looking out over a sea of clouds. None of the mountains nearby are close to the height of Mt. Fuji and were hidden from view so that I felt I might be climbing to the heavens. I clung to the side of the mountain as I continued my ascent for fear of plunging to the unseen ground so far below.
I hadn’t yet reached the worst part of the climb, though. That came when I neared the summit and found myself facing a set of rocky stairs built into the mountainside. My only consolation at this point was that I’d almost reached the top – and that I now had a rope to help me pull myself upward now that my legs were shaking with fatigue.
The rising sun soon chased away the chill of the long hours of the night and I pushed up the sleeves of my windbreaker as I warmed up, a mistake which caused me a blistering sunburn so bad I ended up going to the ER later (and left a mark on my arm I can still see to this day).
In all honesty, I can’t say that I stood on the highest point of Mt. Fuji before I started my descent – that spot was within my view, but I couldn’t bring myself to make the final climb to the little weather station. I reached high enough to visit the Station at the top of the mountain and get my brand burned into my stick, looked down into the caldera, then headed for the Subashiri Trail that would take me back to the waiting bus. The trip up the mountain had taken me about twelve hours, whereas the trail down took three or four, and I spent most of that time surfing the loose reddish soil on my backside while using my walking stick as a rudder.
I reached the blissful air conditioned bus in plenty of time, despite my fear I’d miss it due to the time I’d taken to get up the mountain, and I settled in to relax my aching muscles during the journey to our home base where JT and the kids were waiting for me.
The reason I bring up my experience right now is that I’ve been feeling that writing is very much like my climb up Mt. Fuji all those years ago. Despite all the time I spent preparing to be a self-published author, despite knowing that many others are doing the same thing, the reality of my experience is much different than my expectations. I feel I’m again alone in the darkness at the back of the pack, struggling to reach the next Station, while everyone else is scrambling happily along to reach the summit in time for sunrise – something I didn’t quite achieve, though I got very close. My consolation is that I did get a beautiful view of the rising sun from my place near the top after enjoying the beautiful star-studded skies of the long night before. Even if I never reach what I might consider to be the “pinnacle” of a successful writing career, I have to remember I can enjoy the beautiful view along the way without worrying too much about missing the bus home.