Ascent to the top, overcoming Fuji's challenges
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan -- I detest nature. As a Washington, D.C. native, what makes me feel at home are tall buildings and overcrowded sidewalks with street musicians performing drum solos on old, worn out buckets. As I stood at the base of the mountain, hearing nothing but the sound of gusting wind whistling through the never-ending sight of rich-green trees, I felt out of place. The vision I had when I was first told I'd be climbing Mount Fuji was slowly coming to fruition. And I didn't like it.
Nature and I don't have the best relationship, or any relationship for that matter. Yet, I've had to reluctantly face the elements on more than one occasion. But, no amount of school field trips, vacations to the beach or summer camps could prepare me for climbing a 3,776-meter active stratovolcano.
Before I volunteered to join Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James Cody and 85 other Yokota Air Base members as a photographer, my colleagues warned me about how miserable it would be to climb to the summit. Shortness of breath due to the constantly thinning oxygen, trails made out of awkwardly shaped rocks and paths that make absolutely no sense are just some of the things I was cautioned about. Though, for some odd reason, I envisioned myself easily conquering Mount Fuji, standing victorious on the summit.
The idea of my journey being an easy one lasted from my time napping on the bus ride to the mountain until about an hour hiking along the Yoshida trail. Even initially after arriving, I was not impressed with Fuji. It didn't appear to be this ominous force I was warned about. It looked...small. With nice mild heat and clear blue skies, I was relieved. My co-workers were wrong, or so I thought.
An hour into my climb, I was miserable. My impression of the mountain's size betrayed me. The nice weather betrayed me. The mild heat caused sweat that made it easy for my t-shirt to cling to my chest. My combat boots continued to shrink tighter and tighter against my swollen feet. The ember red sediment and dust kicked up from climbers in front of me began caking to my face. And worst of all, it appeared as though I hadn't made any significant progress. Still, my own pride would not allow me to resign just yet.
As I continued up Mount Fuji, I discovered rest stations sprinkled along the trail. These stations provided hikers with places to sit comfortably and reenergize before they continued their trek. These stations could easily be mistaken for heaven to exhausted and inexperience hikers. More experienced climbers know to quickly pass through these posts. Aching legs and mental exhaustion effectively strapped me to the small wooden benches. I realized that escaping each station's luxury was yet another obstacle that I would have to overcome if I was ever going stand on the summit.
It's strange to try and escape comfort only to willingly meet pain. Yet, this is what I found myself doing not only at rest stations, but also during the hike itself. About half way up the mountain, I simply stopped. I had endured enough. "Nobody will know if I don't make it to the top," I thought to myself. I could take solace in knowing that I had at least given it a try. Continuing to slowly inch along only to have to immediately descend was just too much for me to handle. I began to question why I had volunteered for this hike. Why did I have so much confidence that I would overcome this challenge even though everyone told me it would be difficult? Where did this self-assuredness come from? That's when I remembered a resiliency tactic that helped me get to this point.
One year ago, I was in my first week of basic training, struggling to adapt to a radically different lifestyle. For me to even try and picture a graduation day that was more than two months away was mentally debilitating. Attempting to count down each of the 61 days I was to spend at Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, simply served as a reminder of how much time remained. Instead, I simply focused whichever task was at hand. Whether it was an early morning physical training session, clipping strings off of my uniforms or making it though a meal without incident, I focused on one and only one task, until one day, I realized it was graduation day.
Resting only after reaching a large boulder that was a mere 200-meters away became an accomplishment. Overcoming a relatively small set of stairs made from splinted rock and dirt became success. This tactic of attaching a meaning of success to small victories helped me reach the end of what had once seemed to be a never ending trail.
Akin to a runner crossing the finish line, my passing through a large wooden torii gate guarded by two porcelain white lion statues signaled the end of my ascent to the summit. I made it. I'd finally made it. After initially collapsing on the ground beneath me and resting for what felt like hours, but only spanned 10 brief minutes, I finally stood to peer over the edge and appreciate the view. It wasn't until I had a chance to see the paths beneath me that I could finally recognize the full worth of my journey.
When it was time to begin my decent, I left the summit with a new found respect for Mother Nature. Her ability to force an individual to move out of their comfort level and push past their perceived mental and physical limitations is both unique and effective. Although I don't foresee myself visiting her anytime soon, I'm sure the memories of my climb will serve me well in the future.