Climbing Mt. Fuji - learning how to do the impossible Part 1


Five years ago, my husband and I climbed Mt. Fuji, the highest volcano in Japan at 12,388 ft.  Mt. Fuji is actually a dormant volcano that last erupted in 1708.

This was an epic trip for me. In the telling of this story about our adventure, it’s important to give you some background on what it’s like to climb Fuji-San (Mr. Fuji).

It was a Buddhist monk in 700 A.D. who first climbed Mt. Fuji. A temple was built at the summit 400 years later. It became a pilgrimage site for Japanese. In 1860, the first foreigner climbed Mt. Fuji.

In 1868, Lady Parkes, an Englishwoman, defied a ban on women climbers and ascended the peak. The ban was lifted afterward. What a badass woman :).

It was my husband’s idea. Thom had dreamed about this climb even before we moved to Okinawa in 2013.  He’d always said, “I’m gonna climb Mt. Fuji.   

I really didn’t want to go on this trek. I heard about the hike from people who had climbed as well as those who hadn't. It's a thing that many Japanese do every July and August. I learned that only about one percent of the Japanese population has reached the summit although it’s reported that 300,000 people climb yearly. 

There’s a Japanese saying, "He who climbs Fuji once is a wise man, he who climbs it twice is a fool." Some Japanese have climbed dozens of times.

When I told people I was going to climb Mt. Fuji, a got quite a few statements like this:  “It’s harder than you think.” “You can do it but it’s tough.” What no one really said was that it wasn't a was a monstrous, hardcore, gut-wrenching climb over rocks and boulders and that it was flat out grueling.

While packing for the trip, my son Andrew, an active duty recon Marine at the time, asked me, “Mom what are your power words?”

I looked puzzled. “When things get tough, you’re going to need something to say to yourself to keep going,” he said.

I asked him what he used for himself. I thought to myself, I need to listen to him. Andrew knows what he’s talking about as he and his Marines do certifiably crazy things like running up mountains with bricks in their backpacks.

He replied, “I say the recon creed, "It is my choice and my choice alone.”

I texted my younger son, Rob, also an active duty Marine at the time, to find out what he would suggest I use for a power word. He said:


Confession.  I had to look it up. The definition of Indomitable is “unable to be defeated or subdued.”  Hmm, I thought. Good one.

I put a request out to my sisters and friends. I even asked on FB for power words.  And I received a ton of helpful ideas and words.

I typed them out and laminated these words on a small card to carry in my pocket. Little did I know that these words would save me from quitting and giving up as I attempted to take on one of the hardest things I had ever done.

I prepared for weeks ahead.  Not so much physically because of my daily cross fit workouts with Marines, but I was nervous about the mental part. Would I be able to handle being uncomfortable?  If we got soaking wet, what would I do? What would I do if I got too cold? I hate being cold. 

We flew over to Tokyo and as part of the trip, before getting to Fuji, we spent 2 days walking around in the city which felt like an inferno. Tokyo was brutally hot in July and there were no breezes between high buildings. It was fun but the thought of what we were about to do was always in the back of my mind.

The night before the big climb, we checked and rechecked our backpacks. Flashlights packed? Maps? How about sunglasses & sunscreen?  We filled our camelbacks…and I checked to see that I had packed my extra pair of socks.  We were prepared and ready. 

It was 11:00 pm that night when we finished packing. I tried to sleep. But it was impossible.  One hour of sleep. That’s what I got before I heard the alarm buzz. The bus left from our hotel at 2:45 am. 

Most people slept on the ride to Mt. Fuji. Not me, I was too excited.  We arrived just after 4:30 am.

By 5:00 am the sun was rising peering out beneath the clouds to greet us on our journey as retrieved all our gear.  We started to walk.  I thought of the quote “the journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step”

How silly, Jo, it’s not 1000 miles.  It’s just a mountain we’re climbing.  

We started, adjusting our backpacks along the way and the things that weren’t quite right. 

Others in our group took off ahead of us… a family with a 3 year-old and a 6 year-old.  They had decided they’d see how far the kids could go before they turned around. The young 6 months pregnant woman we met was already hiking.  Was she going to do this?  She looked ready enough.

There were others who didn’t look so fit. But we were all determined.

We all had our wooden hiking sticks, purchased before we left.  We knew that at each station along the arduous way, we would get a stamp branded into the stick, a symbol of our progress along the way. And quite a badge of courage if you could get all the stamps all the way to the top.

We had begun the hike at Station 5.  I had no idea how long it took to get to one station or the next, I only knew that it was the place to get a stamp, water, use the restroom and get a bit of a rest before carrying on. There were even places at some of the stations where you could sleep and then climb up and be on the top before sunrise. We were climbing all in one day.

I looked up ahead of me. Is that the top? I was so naïve! It was so high that there was no way to see the top from where we were.  At that moment I realized the craziness of this adventure. We were insane to try to do this, I thought.  And yet, we were there, doing it. 

The incline was 20% I had heard Thom say.  I think that’s steep, but I didn’t know.  Well, I found out what 20% is that day.  It’s crazy steep. I remember thinking, it’s time to use my power words. “I’m choosing, and I alone am choosing to climb this mother of a mountain.”

Thom was struggling already.  I heard him say, “my feet are hurting; we shouldn’t have walked around so much yesterday.” I was a little worried that it was only the beginning and he was having a hard time. For someone with COPD it’s rather insane to think his lungs would hold up. A year later we discovered that he had an 80% blockage in his heart.  

I thought about my power words. I thought of the tips that some of my friends use: count to 10, then say yes, yes, yes.  Then start again. We did that until the next resting place.  

“Thom,” I said out loud, “this time we’re going to spell everyone’s name in our family as we go up.”

I looked up and I saw where the steep trail touched the blue sky. I felt so grateful it was a clear day and not raining.  After brief rests, we kept going. I was sweating now but there was a slight breeze that cooled us off.  I looked around and could see that it was a perfect day. There were deep blue skies against white snowy clouds. The higher we got, the more I looked back and I was rewarded with a gorgeous view and how much progress we had made.

We arrived at station 7 for our first stamp.  It felt so good to give the branding guy my 200 yen ($2) to get the stamp.  Accomplishment.  Pride.  I can do this.  I AM doing this, I thought.  Thom arrived just behind me and we sat together on the edge of a wooden bench with hoards of other people taking a break.

Onward.  And then, it seemed worse suddenly. There rocks..huge ones to climb over. What we had just done was like kindergarten climbing.  

"I have strong legs and a good heart."  Over and over again I repeated my sister Ceya’s words.  And I thought, I’m climbing for you, Ceya, because your heart is not strong enough. Because sometimes you can’t walk and your knees are bad. Keep going, Jo. Walk for her.

Another rest.  I looked back again. There were so many of us. Why were we doing this, I wondered?  Because it’s a challenge? Because it's’ a fun thing to do?  Because Fuji is sacred and we want to be near it?  What are we all doing I asked myself. Are we all insane?

 I wasn’t sure why I was climbing but with each step, I was determined to get to the top.

Steeper rocks loomed ahead of us.  Sometimes I forbade myself to look up because it seemed impossible.  It was too easy to say this is so not possible.

"If you think you can, you can." I heard my sister Maie's words in my head and I felt her strong presence with me.  

My feet were on fire. I had worn thick wool socks. I took them off at the next rest stop and added the 2nd pair I had remembered to bring. While I had my socks & boots off, I slathered on moleskin. For sure there would be blisters.  

Up we climbed to level 7.2, and then another level, all the way to 7.6.  Yaaay!  We made it this far. 

 Thom didn’t look so good.  His face was red, he looked worn out, but he was smiling, he was living his dream.  And he was determined.  We had a small canister of oxygen. He took a hit of it and so did I. 

 Stay tuned for what happened next...

Over to you: 

Challenges in life come in all forms. 

Think about where you have been challenged in your life. What did you say to yourself? How did you keep going? Post your comments below or send me a message. I want to hear how you handled it. 


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