Weeks 27-31: The Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done

There are two kinds of fools: those who have never climbed Mount Fuji, and those who have climbed it more than once.

Japanese Proverb

Konnichiwa from Japan! I’ve sat down to write this post about four or five times this month, and I have been unable to start. I thought about doing the typical recap of my month in Japan, going through the various amazing things I’ve seen in this country in detail, but it just did not feel right. And so, for this post I’m going to do something a little different. (Don’t worry, I’ll still post all the photos).

This month, in our first week in Japan, I did the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I climbed Mt. Fuji. Not only did I climb Mt. Fuji, I did it on virtually no sleep. Not only did I climb Mt. Fuji on virtually no sleep, but I did it while suffering from acute altitude sickness. I’ve thought about it a lot in the weeks since, and I’ve concluded that only the perfect set of factors coming together in that moment allowed me to actually complete the climb up and down alive. If anything (or anyone) involved had been slightly off, it wouldn’t have happened.

The timing. I’ll start with being on Remote Year in the first place. Had I not already had six months of travel and adventure and pushing my limits under my belt, there is absolutely no way I would have considered doing the climb. I (naively) had more confidence in my physical abilities than I ever had before. I also knew that I could do things I’m very afraid of and come out on the other side. It’s not that I wasn’t totally freaked out to climb a mountain for the first time, it was that I knew that I could feel the fear and do it anyway. If this had been our first month on Remote Year, I don’t think I would have been able to push myself to do it. But I was buoyed by a newfound sense of accomplishment and will.

The ignorance. To be honest, I had to go into it with a certain level of ignorance. With other major treks we’d done this year, like Machu Picchu, I had it so built up in my head, that the climb itself was almost less grueling than I expected. I had NO Idea what to expect from Mt. Fuji. I knew it was going to be a climb, but I figured if they let anyone just walk up and do it, it couldn’t be that difficult. Boy, was I wrong. Perhaps if I had read too much about it beforehand, I would not have had the chutzpah to go for it and do it.

The guide. Thank goodness we decided to spring for the Remote Year option and go up with a guide. (Many groups go up solo). Our guide was incredible and knew exactly how to manage the climb, how to keep encouraging us, and when to push us and when to let us take breaks. He also was the first to realize my lips had turned blue and that I needed to take it easy with the altitude. If we had had a less experienced guide, or a guide who did not care whether or not we finished, or who did not pay close attention to detail, it may have been a different outcome.

The gear. A few of us went back and forth about whether to rent the relatively expensive mountain gear. Thankfully, our experience manager in Kyoto encouraged us to get warm fleeces and rain gear and walking poles and gloves and boots. Every single one of these pieces turned out to be necessary to complete the climb. It was really unfathomable I was planning to just go up with a sweatshirt, a jacket, a pair of sneakers, and my fingers crossed. I probably wouldn’t have made it through the first section of the mountain.

The people. I also had the comfort of knowing I was doing it with six other people with whom I had developed an extremely close level of comfort and camaraderie. I felt an obligation to them and to myself to complete the climb. Particularly the six people I went with, though, were so caring and supportive and when I was struggling the most, let me be in front to set the pace. I always felt their encouragement, even when I could barely move one foot in front of the other. Had one person been different, or had a different attitude, or made me feel a different way, or not pushed themselves as well, or had given up, I would not have made it up.

The climb itself is honestly a blur. The beginning started out normally enough. The climb started at “Fifth Station,” which is partway up the mountain where the bus (nausea-inducing, I might add) drops you off. Fifth Station is at 2300 meters above sea level (about 7500 feet). We were still in warm sunny weather, and it was a short hike to Sixth Station, which is only about 90 meters (300 feet) in altitude higher than Fifth. Our guide called it our “warm-up” hike. We then began our trek to Seventh Station. Seventh is at 2900 meters above sea level or about 9500 feet. This was definitely difficult on the lungs and the legs, and the weather definitely changed. We quickly had to put on all of our layers, which included the crazy full-suit rain gear, as we were now heading above the clouds and the sun was going down. We went from summer to winter in the matter of a few minutes.

This was when things REALLY started to get dire for me. Seventh Station led to “Old Seventh Station,” which is 3200 meters (10,500 feet) above sea level. I started to feel like there was a vice pressing on my chest, I could not catch my breath. My feet were barely trudging, one in front of the other, moving by inches at a time. When we finally got to the second Seventh Station, I completely collapsed. The guide looked at me with concern and told me I needed to start breathing in a certain pattern (almost like yoga ujayi breathing, for those of you who practice…) and told me my lips were turning blue. The group then let me go in front, right behind the guide to feel like I was surrounded and that I was setting the pace. I must have moved about one foot a minute during that next stretch. I knew we had to make it to Ninth Station, which is where we would be sleeping. The guide said that the hike from Old Seventh Station to Eighth Station was the hardest one. The terrain genuinely looked like Mars. It was so barren and rocky and inhospitable. People talked to me, but my brain genuinely could not process what they were saying. Everyone felt and sounded a million miles away. Opening my mouth to speak felt like it would take an immense amount of energy I just did not have in me. After what felt like hours and hours of barely moving, we finally made it to Eighth Station (3,400 meters above sea level/11,200 feet above sea level). I genuinely thought they were going to have to medevac me off the mountain and had started to think about how that would occur.

It took every ounce of energy and willpower I had to do the final stretch to Ninth Station. I was moving like molasses; my feet felt like they were caked in cement. When we finally made it to the top, I had a complete mental and physical breakdown. I fell down to my knees and uncontrollably sobbed. I could not speak or think, I just cried. It felt like it was months of pent up emotion coming out, but also the sweet relief of my brain having to no longer will itself . This was not even the summit, mind you. This was just where we were spending the night, to get up at 3 AM to THEN hike to the summit. But I just broke down. I felt like I had pushed myself way farther than I ever had before. When I watch sports, particularly tennis, the athletic prowess is incredible, but what I find completely mesmerizing is the players’ willpower. There are certain marathon matches where the player is genuinely just WILLING him or herself across the finish line. They have nothing physical left, it is purely their mind that is keeping them in the game. That is how I felt going up Fuji. My body did not get me there, my mind did. It is wild what our brains are capable of if we push ourselves to our absolute physical limit.

Even if I had stopped there and not been able to do the rest of the climb in a few hours’ time, the experience would have been life-changing. Our accommodations on the mountain were sparse at best, I knew I wouldn’t get any sleep, the seven of us were packed into a small cubby in sleeping bags like sardines. I knew the odds of me having the energy and wherewithal to summit at sunrise after no sleep would be slim. But I had gotten this far. When we got up the next morning, we walked outside of the station and saw the sun just beginning to clear the horizon and the city lights twinkling below. My breath genuinely caught in my throat. It was one of the most magnificent sights I had ever seen. I am not sure if that is what gave me the courage and stamina to steel myself against the rest of the climb, but somehow in that moment, I decided I was going to do it. I was going to summit!

The beginning of the climb that “morning” was extremely difficult again. I again felt that vice-like grip on my chest and could not catch my breath. Yet this time, I had the breathing exercises and the hydration to propel me forward. We got to Nine-and-a-Half Station, which is the last station before the summit, and stopped to watch the sunrise. It was seriously the most insane thing I’ve ever experienced. I’ve never TRULY understood outdoorsy types; the NEED to climb mountains and trek unknown terrain. But seeing that sunrise, I get it. I’ve never felt more alive nor more insignificant. It was truly humbling and totally contradictory. I felt every nerve tingling, every pump of blood coursing through my veins, but yet, I also was acutely aware of how I was just a tiny dot on a mammoth mountain staring at a massive fireball that were both there for millions of years before me and (hopefully) millions of years after me. I’ve never existed so starkly in my life.

Which brings me to this moment. This month I had to decide something else incredibly difficult–one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make. I decided that the time had come for me to leave Remote Year. For a number of practical and emotional reasons, this was the right call. Remote Year was much like Fuji. Had it come at a slightly earlier or slightly later time, I would not have been able to do it. Had I not worked at my firm, come to a certain mental and emotional state in my life, saved up a certain amount of money, turned 30, I probably would not have been able to gather my wits to actually do the program. This girl who was afraid of flying, of going places by herself, of change, of discomfort decided to quit her cushy job, leave all her friends and family behind, and travel the world for a year. The timing.

Getting to month seven was like getting to Station Nine. There have been moments where I genuinely felt like I would not make it. There were moments where I was so challenged by the experience of being away from home, without a job, a routine, in new surroundings, with new food, new streets, new cultures, that I wanted to throw my hands up and say, “Screw it, I’ve made it this far, and that’s far enough.” But, I didn’t. Even if I was only moving by inches certain days, I was still moving. One huge reason is the people I’ve gotten to do this program with. Although we’ve been through our own challenging moments, we’ve known how to lift each other up and get to each other to the finish line. I’m so incredibly grateful for each and every one.

And while it may seem like I am leaving before the finish line, I actually view the next few months as the final “summit” of my journey. I’m taking off the training wheels and flying solo. I will be traveling to two new countries, Australia and New Zealand, by myself. Totally alone. I know no one. I will have no Polarians to come home to, or ride a scary/long plane with, or text if I’m lost, or to borrow a cell phone charger from, or grab dinner with. I will be truly on my own in a far corner of the world, far away from everything and everyone. Just typing that out is difficult. This time, the ignorance is not there. I know exactly how hard this will be for me. It preys on all my deepest fears. But, if I’m truly conquering fears this year, this is the final step.

This time, my gear and my guide will have to be me. I will have to listen to and rely on me, myself, and I at all times. For six weeks. Straight. I will decide what is good for me and what isn’t, what sights I want to see and those I don’t, how to get myself out of hairy situations, or to give myself pep talks when I am scared speechless. I will have to start from scratch and try to make friends wherever I go. But, I know I’ve gained 25 friends who are cheering me on, along with my family and friends back home. I can feel the love from all the way over here. I also know that just by stepping foot on that first plane, I will have accomplished something massive. My transformation from letting my fears control me will truly take a giant leap forward. This is a trip I have stopped and started planning for many years. I always found reasons not to go. All those reasons still exist, and more, and yet, I’m still going.

And, to ease the pain of saying goodbye to the group, and the discomfort of (what feels like) falling off the edge of a cliff, I’ve made plans to meet up with some folks in the Middle East (showing them my favorite place, Israel, and seeing Egypt and Morocco!) in November and then meeting up with the whole group in Portugal for my birthday week before finally heading home.

It helps to be leaving on such a high note. Japan has been by far my favorite country we have visited thus far. I’ve loved living in a big group house here. I’ve loved the food, the public transportation, the bullet trains, the kindness the people here exude, the respect in every area of life, the street corner vending machines, the pristine cleanliness of every single thing (including public restrooms), the MATCHA TEA (am an addict), the technology advancement, the wildly different cultural norms, the no open-container laws. It is the first country we are leaving where I feel like I could stay weeks longer and still be completely happy and fascinated (read: I could genuinely live here). And, I was lucky enough to have THREE friend visitors this month: Daniela, another lawyer from DC who is doing her own round-the-world-trip with her husband, Jeremy, this year, and Meredith and Eric, friends from childhood who came a bit early on a work trip to spend some time. It was an incredible month overall, with everything rolled into one. Enjoy a massive stream of all the memories below.

Sayonara for now, I’m off to spend a last night with all my special Polaris folks, and hopefully I’ll be speaking to you from Continent Number 5 soon!!

ATZ

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