I grew up fairly, active and hiking and hill walking was a not insignificant part of my upbringing. The UK has some beautiful and historic areas. From the hills of Snowdonia and the Lake District, to the dales of the Peak District and Yorkshire, the nation caters to many tastes. In my youth I would often take advantage of the countryside. At least yearly, I would be hiking in the Welsh hills, Cadair Idris being a, somewhat nostalgic, favourite. And at least weekly, I would be walking the trails, the hills and old railway lines of Derbyshire. Although admittedly many times it felt forced upon me, the love of the outdoors certainly stayed with me.
One thing that the UK hadn’t been able to give me, at least in the areas, to which I had immediate access, was the experience of hiking at a significant altitude. While I was relatively athletic and a keen, if very amateur, sports player, I had no notion of what hiking at a few kilometres above sea level takes, nor the impact of altitude upon the body. I was confident through ignorance, and under the impression that fitness is fitness. This lack of awareness was soon hit, forcefully home.
In the early 2000’s during a family trip to Japan, my mother had suggested I climb Mount Fuji. Although not an enormous mountain, Fuji is well an incredibly well known and iconic landmark. Standing proudly mere miles away from the modern metropolis of Tokyo, it is a beautiful juxtaposition to the brash lights and fast pace of Japan’s largest city. The snow covered peak of this, still active, volcano has been depicted in numerous pieces of art and is one of the nation’s most recognisable features. To me at least, it is synonymous to the old and pure way of life practiced by the Japanese peoples prior to the birth of the age of technology and capitalism.
The mountain, from its base, is as any other, suitably daunting. The plan was to hike up to a lodge, where I would sleep. From here I would rise early in the morning to begin my trek to the summit where I would watch sun rise from the top of Fujiyama. The truth of hiking Mount Fuji is not as glamorous as the photos would suggest. The landscape is predominantly scree. It is loose underfoot and the rocks are, quite honestly, ugly. The majority of the hike is on this constantly moving terrain and is a seeming never ending saga of switchbacks. If you don’t have hiking poles, you can buy cheap wooden ones from the base of the mountain where, every so often, you will meet someone who will brand a stamp into it. It’s a nice touch and makes for a pleasant souvenir, but does highlight the commercial nature of the hike.
During this time of my life, as mentioned previously, I was relatively athletic and had no understanding of the effects of altitude. As we got higher and higher, I kept on pushing. I neglected to drink, rushed up the switchbacks in order to take photos of my companions, and generally disregarded the rules of altitude for the uninitiated. When, after some hours, I reached my lodging for the night, it hit me at a million miles an hour. My footing became uncertain, my mind became clouded and my head was ringing like a brass band was rock climbing inside it. This was shortly followed by nausea and, eventually, vomiting. Even then, I assumed it was something I had caught, rather than the result of my fool’s errand. Despite having a voracious appetite, I didn’t touch my food, I couldn’t even tell you what was prepared. Having suitably alarmed everyone I was with, I finally managed to get some sleep.
When we awoke in the dead of night, I felt remarkably good again. The latter part of the climb from our lodging to the summit was much nicer, although I do wish I had done it in the day rather than the light from our head torches. It was much less scree-laden switchbacks, and involved a bit more clambering over rocks; still not technical, but certainly more enjoyable. I reached the summit before day-break, still tired, still fatigued, and still slightly slow of thought. The sight of a local smoking on top of the mountain did not make me feel better about my situation.
When the sun began to rise, however, the pain and hardship evaporated. My feelings about this moment on the top of Fuji were correct. It was a truly breathtaking experience and one that, up until that point in my life, I had never experienced before. Watching the sun rise and paint the surrounding landscapes from its tallest and most prominent piece of, vertical, natural beauty was as close to peace as I had ever felt. And while the country itself has found a new place in the world, I felt sure that the feeling of calmness and serenity that washed over me with the sun’s bright rays was something that had been enjoyed by man for millennia and longer. Although I had been in pain, although my body had rejected its environment, I had my first taste of how impactful hiking in the mountains can be. I had this moment of immense pride in myself, this very personal belief that I had overcome the challenges that my body had presented. I hadn’t truly discovered the emotional connection with the mountains yet, but I was on my way to doing so.