Monday, August 24, 2009
Lessons that Mt. Fuji Taught MeIt was the 3rd hour since we started our 2nd-day of climb at 5:30am. My eyes started to get watery, visions blurry, nose running non-stop like a broken faucet, and my feet no longer felt or walked like my feet but simply robot legs trying to keep up with the pace and steps programmed from the beginning. I panted and panted, no longer caring about how loud I may sound - like a hunched-back old lady struggling with the subway stairs in Tokyo or a furry golden retriever or some sort dying from the summer heat - and how scarily short of breath I still felt after each intake of breath. For every 5 steps I took I had to give myself a few seconds of break. Then another 5 steps, then another, and another. B took on a faster pace than me and was kind enough to stop every so often to wait for me to catch up. No pain in the chest, no headaches, no heartbeat racing too fast to start making me panic like how I once experienced in Tibet. Thank God, I thought. Yet when B and I glanced at the roadside sign that read, "900 m/60 min till the top", I realized the longest 60 minutes of my life are yet to come.
"Well, let's think of it as a very long subway transfer," B suggested. I sighed, and my mind began to think of the very long subway transfer that I sometimes do run into in Tokyo. Would it be from the Tozai-line subway station at Iidabashi to the JR platform, or would it be from the B7 subway platform of Oedo-line to the south ticket gate of Shinjuku south exit? Or maybe the walk from the south exit to Park Hyatt Hotel? Or perhaps just twice the distance from the subway station to the W Univ. library?
It was one of the longest and most painful 900 meters of my life. Painful not b/c I was experiencing any physical pain per se, but because I was engaged in a battle that perhaps is harder to fight than one that evokes physical pain.
The battle of the mental will.
The day before when the 3.5-hour of climb brought us to the steepest rocky slope right before our 8th-level station, I came close to the brink of losing that battle. It wasn't a battle against the rocks or the slopes or the G*D**m gusty wind that swept you off balance per se. It was the battle against the limit of your mental will, when in a blink of a second you could suddenly just snap, and lose it, that mental will of yours, which all together would bring down all sense of confidence, control, and composure in life that you are usually way too familiar with.
Had it not been that stretch of hand from MS or the encouraging words of R following right below me, I think I would've broken down right there, half-hanging between the rocks and swaying off-balancedly from the gusty wind that just would not G*D**m stop blowing.
So in a blink of a second you snap back, restore to your original senses, pose and control, and you keep your mental will intact. I'm ok, it's ok, I can do it because IT'S ALL JUST IN THE MIND - you have to tell yourself that.
An hour later when the 4 of us were all sitting down, warm and cozy and stomach-filled with a tiny Japanese hamburg (not hamburger) in the little 8th-station cabin, MS and R proposed wanting to climb non-stop throughout the night in order to make it to the summit just in time for sunrise.
"Guys, I appreciate you having the confidence in me. But I know my limit. I came very close to having a breakdown on that slope earlier, and I know that if I go with you guys - in pitch-black darkness - I would for sure have a breakdown moment somewhere in the middle of climb. And you will ALL be cursed, SEVERELY, as well as the Mt. Fuji will be, by a non-sensical me. I'm sure none of you want to see that happening."
So we decided that MS and R would continue on after 2 hours of nap, and B and I would be content with enjoying the sunrise at 4:40am at the 8th level before resuming our climb the next morning.
You don't fight with the mountain - lesson one that I learned from this trail. Lesson two - you don't fight for the stupid pride or meaningless face issue while on the mountain. It's about knowing your limits and be readily willing to be humbled by them. It's about knowing your limits and learning to be comfortable with them so that you don't lose the whole journey all together. The point of the journey isn't about competing to see who could get to the top the fastest. Nor is it about how heroically one could accomplish the climb. The goal is simply to get to the top and still to have a good time, period. And one should, and is entitled to - judging upon one's own limit - make that climb as fast or slowly as he/she deems suitable by keeping the spirits high.
(Does this in any way resonate with the truths of life?)
In fact, when hours of fatigue compounded by the lowering of oxygen begin to really wear you down, it is nothing but that simple goal that keeps you going. Your mental will knows that it can't selfishly impose something beyond your body limit - when you just need to pause in order to struggle for one sufficient oxygen intake, your feet naturally stop and your body adjusts. Yet, in the meanwhile, it is also the mind that encourages your body to go further. "I only have one goal, that is, to keep moving this heavy body weight forward, even just by one tiny step at a time," your mind keeps telling you. And then your body follows.
The sun kept blazing, the wind kept blowing, and my feet and legs and arm muscles no longer felt like my own. I couldn't see beyond the immediate 2 footsteps that I was trying to make. But maybe because there were only 2 footsteps that I had to concentrate on, it became all the easier. Just 2 steps, then another 2, then another 2. Forget about the 900 meters. Just focusing on the 2.
When we finally reached the summit, unlike what was expected, I didn't experience any instantaneous euphoria. It felt like we had just come up to another station that could lead to more climbs behind. The shops, the ramen, the oden that we had, the little bit of shopping mood that returned to us, and the momentary of rest were all great. But if you asked me what had left me the greatest imprints of all from this trail, it wasn't the time spent on the summit but that very last stretch of hour, struggling with the 2-step, 2-step rhythm, that would never leave me.
Because it was then that I saw how my mental will was all that mattered and what kept me moving forward. It was the 2-step, 2-step self-chanting, not my physical muscles or strength, that kept me going.
And when the goal vanishes - when the summit has been reached and the seemingly hardest part of the trail is over - we find ourselves having a even tougher time descending. The descending route is meant for sliding, not walking, esp. when you are trying to accomplish the same distance that took you a total of 8 hours to cover upward in merely 3-4 hours downward.
So lesson 3 that Mt. Fuji taught me - how you get to the top, that's how you should get down. If we had completed the climb up in strong will, we should have been able to descend in the same, unyielding spirit.
Unfortunately, all the mental willingness had been lost to allow me for a graceful descend. The innate slope-phobia was unexpectedly confronted and challenged and pushed to the limit. Before the insanely long and slippery slope came to a temporary halt, I lost the faith (that this would ever end) and had a breakdown right there, in the middle of a terrible slope descend with my right hand still holding onto the wooden stick and left hand clutching to B's backpack. I had nothing spare to wipe my own tears.
I cursed at Mt. Fuji and hated it with passion. Lesson one rang harder in my mind - you don't fight with the mountain.
So we stopped fighting for this desire to return as quickly as possible and just concentrated on descending in the least harmful way to our knees and toes. At each turn of the downward slope when we saw more slopes ahead of us, we allowed Mt. Fuji to humble us, again and again. The road signs sure know what it means to not fool people. When it says, "60 min to the 7th-level public toilets", it means 60 min. There is, again, no need and point or possibility of rushing or proving that we could go faster than anyone else.
"How you get up, that's how you come down, kid," I felt like Mt. Fuji saying this to me behind my back, over and over again, with a condescending laugh each time. No shortcuts no bargains no negotiations no mercy no exceptions, regardless of how scared I was at first, resentful after a while, and relinquished of all the idea of "control" at the end.
When we finally came back to the 5th level and walked down that seemingly never-ending walk to the entry of the route, we met many newly arrived visitors beginning their journey to the summit, walking in big strides and saying "Konnichi-wa" to us in beaming smiles.
"I can't decide if I should smile at them in return in order to fool them further into believing that this is going be an experience as easy and merry as if they are having a casual picnic in the local park, or should I exaggerate my fatigue on my face to provide some kind of pre-warning to their innocent excitement?" I turned to B and asked.
B's face showed an ambivalent look that offered no answer to my Q's. "I just can't be bothered, at this point" - that's all that B's face was saying.
So continuing on we go, trying to complete the very last stretch of the very long, 26-hour journey to the top of the Mt. Fuji and down. We passed by the place where we encountered the rare mountain goat just the day before, and we wondered how come the long stretch of road leading to that place seemed so short 26 hours ago yet tortuously long now.
As the old saying goes - "He who climbs Mt. Fuji is a wise man; he who climbs twice is a fool" - for now, I'm happy to be the wise man. And I'm not ready to risk being a fool anytime soon.
Addendum 1: We learned later that it took MS and R 6 hours to come down with MS having terrible chest pain (most likely evoked by altitude sickness) while descending and R, the old-time Yosemite camp volunteer and semi-experienced rock climber, calling this a trip of unforgettable "torture".
Addendum 2: Perhaps one of the sweetest memories of the journey was sending out postcards from the summit to the beloved friends/families. I figure that since none of them would ever attempt to be a wise wise man like me, I might as well take the honor to send *for* them postcards from the highest point and post office in Japan. Sorry B, for dragging you down to the post office, another 30-min, not-so-easy walk from the summit shops.
Addendum 3: A quote from R that perfectly sums up the whole experience - "I did not climb Mt. Fuji. Mt. Fuji climbed me."
Addendum 4: Do get yourself a Japanese/English award certificate that testifies to you making to the submit. As cheesy as it could be, at least it's one form of vanity-filled bit of memory that I could savor for the rest of my life out of this very long journey of unforgettable suffering.
梅ちゃん at 6:47:00 PM