I lived in Japan for several years, and I had taken to doing all the most sincerely “Japanese” things while I was there, one of which of course included climbing Mount Fuji. Japan’s picturesque, iconic summit is synonymous with Japanese imagery, and millions of climbers make the venerated trek each year. And so, being a dutiful gaijin (foreigner), I felt it had to be on my check list. The only problem was, I’m not much of a climber, and aside from a bit of vigorous but fairly tame hiking at the Grand Canyon, I didn’t have much experience with mountaineering. In other words, I was pretty much your average schmoe tourist, naively under-prepared.
So, a group of friends and I decided we were going to do the climb. We conferred with other foreigners who had already made the trek, and got conflicting reports on the difficulty of the mountain. I had several friends tell me it was a breeze, they practically jogged up it. And I also had several friends who told me they either got altitude sickness or just plain wore out and had to give up before they reached the top. Disconcerting news at least. I took to climbing every hill I could find in my small mountainside town, as often as possible. I was adamant I would get to the top. Probably. As long as I could breathe, I was going to do it.
The plan was simple: start at the 5th station base (the last stop for the bus, about a third of the way up the mountain) around 9pm, climb for 6 hours, reach the summit by 4am, and bask in the glorious sunrise before making our way back. And on a sweltering July evening, we made our way to Mt. Fuji, prepped in climbing boots, camelbaks, and under armor. After realizing that 2400 meters up was rather chilly even though it was over 80 degrees when we left Tokyo, we layered on the clothes, bought walking(climbing) sticks, turned on our headlamps, and took a photo for posterity. And off we went, naively optimistic and rather chipper, right around 9pm.
Absolutely, Mount Fuji is no Everest. There is no snow on the mountain in the summer, and while it happens every once and awhile, most of the very few people who die on Mt. Fuji do so when they overexert themselves on the climb, rather than succumbing to the elements or any accidents. But that 6 and a half hour climb was hard. Mostly because it was deceptively hard. Once you leave the 5th station, you make your way up to a progressive number of stops. There are rest points along the way, where you can get the station seal seared into your walking stick (for a small fee of course). And in the beginning, it’s all fun and games. The trail starts out groomed, mostly dirt and stone stairs. It gives and the incline is small. You just march for an hour or so, and in the dark, we mostly entertained ourselves by singing and joking back and forth.
Once you reach the 6th station though, it starts to get rocky. Those groomed pathways change into large, volcanic gravel that slides underfoot and the walking stick becomes more than just decoration. The next rest area gets a liberal break. And now, instead of joking and singing, we were all breathing a little heavier, and started to guess just how much further it would be.
Of course, the optimism was still there, though nagging doubts and a good bit of tiredness crept in. After all, it was about 11pm, and I was yawning just from the disruption in my normal sleep schedule. But I could rally, keeping a tune in my head and marching on, trying to keep the spring in my step.
Then the 7th station reared it’s ugly head. Now, it wasn’t gravel, it was actual boulders. And that’s life until you reach the literal gate(torii) of the summit. For another 1000 meters, you had to scale large rocks, often needing the walking stick to pivot your weight off of just to get to the next switchback. Of course, the dilemma was that I didn’t know it was boulders the rest of the way up. I kept thinking, “Just a little further, I’m sure the terrain will change again, you can do it!” But by 1am, I was bitter. I had already smashed my head into a boulder that overhung the trail, because I am a giant by Japanese standards and I was busy watching my feet instead of looking for low rocks overhead. So, I gulped down udon soup at a rest area, burned my souvenir seals into my walking stick, and then moved quickly back to the trails. It wasn’t necessarily out of determination, but rather I could feel it in my body that if I stopped for more than a few minutes, I wouldn’t be able to keep going. Skipping the rest areas meant I had left my friends behind, and I was, by this point, solo-climbing. My muscles and joints were beginning to ache and burn, and focusing on breathing became my main focus. That, and obsessively staring up.
Every few steps, I’d look up into the darkness. There was a decent waxing moon, but we were so far out into the Japanese countryside, the sky was dark and the looming summit was just an indistinguishable blackness that seemed to go on forever. All sense of distance and scale were gone, so I simply vainly assured myself that it couldn’t be much farther. Surely. I was definitely going to get there soon. The fatigue was swinging my mood back and forth, from driving optimism to scathing pessimism that made me feel a bit bipolar. Just a little further. Why am I even doing this? I don’t even like hiking that much… Come on! It’s just a little further, you’re doing great! Yeah right. That’s what we thought 500 meters ago. I’m sure the next station will be the last one before the summit! This is the longest night I’ve ever experienced. That sunrise will be worth it. IT BETTER BE.
By the time I reached the third to last rest area, I was so thoroughly fatigued that it soothed my mind. I just didn’t have the energy for all those thoughts anymore. I knew I was going to make it. I just had to endure. And suddenly, I noticed the people around me. The crowd was a lot thicker up near the top. With about 250 meters to go, I looked up and saw all the little headlamps of my fellow climbers, creating our own lightshow to rival the beautiful stars overhead. Like a line of fireflies following a piper, we blinked our way forward and headed to the peak, still scrabbling up boulders.
I passed through the stone torii gate that signified the top of Mount Fuji at around 3:15am, a good 20 minutes before my friends joined me, and a whole hour before the sunrise. So I wandered around and suddenly had time to marvel at the feat I just performed. I didn’t really know what to do with myself, frankly. Until the sunrise. I took picture after picture and relished the moment.
So, what does all of this have to do with riding horses? Dressage? Well, it’s the metaphor you’ve been guessing at since you read the title. But it’s a bit more than your average “Just keep climbing” message. Because my journey with horseback riding has been pretty similar to my trek up Mount Fuji. It started out deceptively easy. I was sure I could handle it. And then it got a bit harder, and the doubts crept in. And then it got downright dangerous. And exhausting. And I suddenly couldn’t help but to obsess over how much longer it was going to take. I’d stare at how far I had to go instead of marveling over how far I’d gone. I’d lost friends along the way. And I felt tired and wanted to give up more times than I can count. But I’ve finally reached the place where I really believe that I’m going to make it. I’m going to reach the level I’ve been hoping for all these years in my riding. And I’m starting to really enjoy the scenery. The moments of connection with these beautiful creatures, and the amazing company I’ve suddenly found myself surrounded by. I’m still definitely down in the boulders, slowly clambering up in the dark, hoping to see the summit one day, but I’m okay with the process now. I know it’s up there, and I’ll reach it, and I don’t have to stare up at it to try to see if I’m getting closer. I know I am. Step by step, I know I am.