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Learning how to overcome the impossible...Climbing Mt. Fuji

In 2014, my husband and I climbed Mt. Fuji, the highest volcano in Japan at 12,388 thousand feet. Little did I know that this experience would help me be able to deal with the current troubling times.

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).

The Mt Fuji Challenge

Mt Fuji is a dormant volcano that last erupted in 1708. 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 she was!

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 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 every year.

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.

A tough trek

When I told people I was going to climb Mt. Fuji, I 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 hike…it was a monstrous, hardcore, gut-wrenching climb over rocks and boulders and that it was flat out grueling.

The power of words

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: “Indomitable."

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 Facebook 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'd ever done.

And to this day, I have used these phrases over and over during times of not knowing what will happen next with the pandemic.  In a way, Covid 19 is like climbing a mountain.

And thank goodness this experience has given me the resilience to know that I can weather whatever comes my way.

Preparing my mind for the impossible

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 to Tokyo.

As part of the trip, before getting to Fuji, we spent two days walking around in the city which felt like an inferno. Tokyo was brutally hot in August 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 and 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 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 start of our monumental climb

The bus left 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 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.

Another young woman we met, who was 6 months pregnant, was already hiking. Was she going to do this? She looked ready enough. There were others who didn’t look so fit. But all of us were 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.

A crazy adventure

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 were 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?

Insanity or just determination?

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 second pair I had remembered to bring.

While I had my socks and 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. Yay! We had 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.

We had been warned about altitude sickness… nausea, headaches, dizziness. The only way to get rid of it we were told was to come down off the mountain.

My head was starting to bother me now. More Advil and more water. We kept going.

Indomitable. Unable to subdue or defeat. It was powerful to say these words to myself as I heaved my left leg up unto a huge rock.

In-dom-i-table. I WILL NOT be defeated by this damn mountain.

Just keep going

I looked at my watch and said to Thom on one of our rests, “we’re supposed to be a lot further up by 12. It’s 11 now."  We’d been climbing for 6 hours straight.

I remembered that the tour guide had said that if we didn’t make it to Station 8 by 12 pm, then we had to come back down.

We were still at Station 7. I wasn’t even sure how many damn stations there were.

In my mind, I thought that we had to get to the station that was still quite aways away by 12pm but the bus wasn’t leaving until 7 pm…

So what was the big deal? I didn’t think it would take that long to come down off the mountain, what the hell was he talking about?

Thom was slowing down. I kept going to the next level ahead of him to get my stamp.

I wanted to stop and lay down but we had been warned not to do that. The guide had said, don’t do that because you won’t want to get back up.

Rubbish, I thought, I’m sitting down anyway. I got someone to take my photo before I collapsed.  

I waited for Thom and was happy to see him cross under the Torri and up to another station and rest point.

By now we had 8 stamps, one from each station.

I felt proud. It was noon. We called Mark, the tour guide, as directed. “Hey, Mark, we’re at 7.6.”  I felt the wave of disappointment when I heard Mark say, “you need to start coming back down, you don’t have enough time to get to the top.”

Sticking together 

Thom said, “why don’t you go on ahead and we’ll meet up at the bottom? You still have time; you can make it.”

I said no. He pleaded with me.

For a second, I thought, “well maybe, I could make it up to the top. We’re so close. I can see it from here.”  I heard later that it was straight up from where we were.

The last stations were grueling. It would have taken 3 hours from that point.

Thom would have never left me, that’s for sure. I quelled my desire to race to the top and prepared mentally for the long trip back down.

I learned a very important lesson that day. It’s not always about the individual. It’s about the team, us, as a couple, the partnership.

Thom was my team, my rock, and the reason I was even there.

The journey matters

I discovered it isn’t about the destination either. It’s about the journey.

And the journey we are all on today is just that. It’s a journey. No one was prepared for this time we’re in and like me, I wasn’t prepared for this experience, and yet I learned how to deal with the negative thoughts in my head about how to climb this mountain. And I am learning like the rest of the world, how to deal with difficult times.

We climbed up to one more station… Station 8

The last steps up to 8 were murderous. Even this last section was impossible.

But I could see the small hut, the station, and repeated “indomitable” one more time to myself. I was not going to be defeated.

Stubbornly I said to myself… “I will not be subdued.”

While waiting for my last stamp, I met two women who were trying to get down, they were going no further.

One was in tears…”I just want to go home, she cried.”She looked exhausted.

Along the way, it was fascinating to watch the variety of people climbing.  I saw a couple of Japanese men downing beers as they climbed. Thom saw a man smoking. Some people were obese, others fit. What a range of people that were making this trek.

There were even young children climbing with their parents.  Our pregnant friend I found out later made it all the way to the top and back down.

Thom and I sat and rested before we started the climb back down.

High above the clouds

We were in wonderment about the fact that we were over 10,662 feet up on a mountain, in a foreign country, gazing out above the clouds.

What had we just done?

I had promised myself that I would do a headstand on the top of Mt. Fuji.

I decided this would be the closest I would get so, above the clouds, with people around everywhere, I lifted my heavy boots up over my head, wondering if I could actually pull it off.

It was surreal to be upside down looking out on top of the world.

No one seemed to notice there was a crazy lady standing on her head. I think everyone was just trying to survive. The trip back down was hard

The incline was insane. But it was easier than going up although nothing about it was easy.

I kept thinking I could fall flat on my face it was so steep. We constantly repeated short switchbacks back and forth.  After hours of turning back and forth, we made it to the bottom.

We were beyond exhausted but incredibly proud of ourselves. It was all I could do to hold my head up.

Seven years later I’m still processing this phenomenal experience.

I learned so much about myself and what I could do. Most of all I learned how to be resilient and to know that I can do more than I think I can, just like now. We will all get through this time because we are stronger and more capable than we think.

These are the power words and phrases I used. These are the things to say to yourself when things get hard or you feel like quitting:

I’m choosing and I alone am choosing to do this.

Indomitable — unable to be defeated or subdued

If you think you can, you can.

I have strong legs and a good heart. Count to 10 and say yes, yes, I can.

Find a way. Spell out loud or silently everyone in your family’s names

And my very favorite — think of someone who isn’t able to do what you can do and think of yourself doing it for them and send them strength and courage… whatever they need.

Now it's your turn

Challenges in life come in all forms. We are living in one of the toughest times in history, in this global pandemic, with the climate crisis, and in a world that is facing massive uncertainty. 

Think about the times when you’ve been challenged in your life, it could be right now or at another time.

What did you say to yourself? How did you keep going?

I invite you to choose your own power words and write them in your journal so you’ll remember.

Because you can get through this time and you can do more than you think you can. 

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Women's Special Fall Online Weekend Retreat

Friday 25 September - Sunday 27 September

Fall is a time for us to slow down, to ground ourselves and to nourish our bodies. This retreat is designed to help you stop and listen to what it is you need right now. It's a fun and restorative weekend with mindfulness exercises, morning yoga, an online cooking class with the fabulous Chef Bai, healthy recipes to try at home, meditations and group calls to connect you with other women.