“A wise man climbs Fuji-san once, but only a fool climbs it twice.” ~Japanese proverb
“Two words. Three vowels. Four consonants. Seven letters. It can either cut you open to the core and leave you in ungodly pain or it can free your soul and lift a tremendous weight off your shoulders. The phrase is: It’s over.” ~Maggi Richard
“Are You Breaking Up With Me…ON MOUNT FUJI?!?” ~Kevin to Lynn just after summiting Mount Fuji
“Just you here didn’t protect my heart turned to stone.” ~a message left by Lynn on my refrigerator using those magnetized cardboard-backed word cutouts….
Mount Fuji (富士山), located on Honshu Island, the main island of Japan, is the highest mountain in Japan at 3,776.24m (12,389ft). It is an active volcano that last erupted in 1707–08, which lies about 100km (60mi) south-west of Tokyo, from where it can be seen on a clear day. It is one of Japan’s “Three Holy Mountains” (三霊山, Sanreizan), and was added to the World Heritage List as a Cultural Site in 2013 since it has continually inspired artists and poets and has been the object of pilgrimage for centuries.
Approximately 300,000 people climb Mount Fuji annually. The most-popular period is from July to August, when huts and other facilities are operating at various “steps” on the way up the mountain. Climbing from October to May is very strongly discouraged, having resulted in a number of high-profile deaths due to severe and unpredictably cold weather. Most Japanese climb the mountain at night in order to be in a position at or near the summit when the sun rises. The morning light is called 御来光 (goraikō), or “arrival of light.”
Flashback to the fall of 2006. Lynn and I are dumbfounded at the summit of Fuji-san. We made it! But it was completely anticlimactic: tropical storm force winds, blowing clouds, driven sleet and rain, and near-zero visibility was what greeted us at our sunrise summit. The soil buoying our descent was bereft of life, and strong clouds of acidic sulfur stung our noses and made our eyes water. We passed through the last tori and reached our “goal.” We literally took a few seconds to look this way and that, and after barely being able to discern the volcano’s inner crater, we started down on our escape without even discussing it. The wet, cold, fierce wind did all the talkin’ that was necessary….
Coming out of the goo at about 10,000-11,000 feet, we were greeted by a beautiful day down below. Clear skies, lightened winds, and perhaps a chance to finally dry out. We continue on a bit in relative silence, but as we reach a switch-back in the rather step and dusty trail, Lynn whirls around and says, “You know I’m Emma online….” I stopped, confused at first, trying to connect the dots that she was peppering me with. She sensed my lack of understanding, and continued, “You know, Emma C. on Yahoo 360. She’s all me. And you are so busted….”
“What?” Is all I could mutter back, rather meekly I must say. My mind was racing a million miles a minute, trying to match what I was hearing to what I had experienced with “Emma” online…. And before my mind could fly through all the permutations of what this declaration could mean, Lynn looked steely into my eyes and said simply, “It’s over.” And just as coldly and quickly, she spin on a heel, and literally took off hauling ass down Fuji.
I remember watching her drop down below me, on this step dusty trail, admiring the way each of her steps seemed to pound into the earth, releasing a portion in cloud form, freeing it the same way I felt a tremendous weight coming off my shoulders…in soul-freeing fashion.
As I continued to watch her separate, the opening physical distance between us seemed to be matched by an emotional split just as large. Now both clearly recognizable. And as she was approaching the outside range of my voice, I cupped my hands to my mouth and yelled with all I had, “Are you breaking up with me…ON MOUNT FUJI?!?” No echo, not another person within sight. And complete silence, less the whispers on the wind.
Lynn spun back around, ejecting a much larger cloud of volcanic ash and dust from her sudden stop and about-face, and yell back, even louder and without so much as a measurable hesitation, “YES!!!!!” And just as quickly, she spun back around, and was off again in her dust-emitting temper-tantrum.
And all I could do was just stand there and watch, and think to myself, how odd this is to be breaking up on this spiritual quest up and down Mount Fuji….
A fellow blogger recently posted a story about trekking to a mountain top in Japan in stormy weather. Such adventures make for the most entertaining and colorful stories, and instantly reminded me of one of my own favorite stories…that just happens to involve a mountain and a whole plethora of stormy weather bur more so typhoon-powered emotion. While I am often heard to say, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” what you will read here is every bit true. And therein lays the beauty and preciousness of this story!
It’s early 2006, and I have my first girlfriend in the states after returning from Okinawa, where I was stationed with the Navy from 2004-2005. During that timeframe my then wife and I separated; well, more like she cheated – repeatedly – and left, which in hindsight was fine with me. After a rebound relationship I had on Okinawa, I dated here and there for two months in Pensacola, and then met Lynn, who lived in Mobile, Alabama, about an hour’s drive away.
Fast-forward to the fall of 2006 and Lynn and I started out to attempt Fuji-san from Tokyo, and simply getting to the mountain was an adventure: subways, buses and trains! And, in foreshadowing of our misadventure, it was already raining as we left our hotel.
We started out from Step 5, which is not really cheating for Fuji. We did so partly because we were climbing late in the season, the 3rd week of September. While this makes for unpredictable and often bad weather, and many of the concessions and lodges on the mountain are already closed, it also made for a rather solitary climb. Not only were the summertime crowds and long lines of climbers absent, there were barely any other people making the climb – up or down. This too should’ve forewarned us about the events that lay ahead!
Lynn was a nurse who worked in Mobile, Alabama, divorced herself for just a couple of years, and perhaps most unapologetically, a bleeding heart liberal Canadian. She also owned her own home, was wickedly smart, a quick-witted triathlete, and an extremely creative and artistic individual who ran an interior decorating business on the side. All attractive qualities, especially given the women I had been dating up to that point. We hit it off, and started dating steady after about two weeks of seeing each other. The distance was an issue (Pensacola to her place outside of Mobile was easily an hour), but also a blessing; that type of physical separation can help one retain their own sense of identity, especially when both of us were still really just starting to mend from our respective divorces. For those of you that have survived such calamity in their lives, full recovery is measured in more than a couple of years.
We start our climb up Fuji-san, fully unprepared in almost every respect. While I am in decent shape, I was not aerobically prepared for the mountain’s assault on my lungs and heart. Lynn, being the active and trophy-winning triathlete, barely broke a sweat the entire time. I was climbing in jeans – a BIG mistake, and while Lynn had on more athletic wear, she didn’t have on or carried enough of it. We didn’t tot along nearly enough provisions; the liquid I brought for the ascent was gone in the first two hours…. Instead, I decided to carry up my new expensive Nikon D200 camera along with all its lenses, of course all protected in a large and heavy waterproof backpack. So, in essence, only the camera gear was fit to climb. And it didn’t need to drink, or bathroom breaks (although I peed all over the mountain), it didn’t get cold, and oh, it was the ONLY stuff that stayed dry. And of course it didn’t bitch, nor encumber us with a poor attitude!
Lynn’s ex was a college chemistry professor, who taught at the same school where she graduated with her nursing degree. She taught at the school’s charity hospital, all of which to mean that she maintained fairly close contact with her former husband. And when we met, he was still trying to mend the faults between them, even if they were simply half-assed attempts. One night he called her yet again, and she was fed up with his sad, depressed tales of woe and want. Basically she exclaimed in an exasperated tone, “Look, there’s no way you can compete with something new. Stop calling and stop trying. It’s over….”
Even though we were climbing late in the season – way too late for how we were dressed and provisioned, thankfully a few of the huts at a few of the steps on the way up were still open where we could grab a snack and replenish our fluids. We started climbing in mid-afternoon, and planned to climb until last light, where we figured on eating dinner and grabbing some shuteye at the 10,000 foot step. We would get up early the next morning and climb to summit at sunrise.
But back earlier that year in the spring, Lynn’s declaration to her ex-husband that “it’s over” with healthy dose of finality could go one of two ways: if could can either cut him to the quick, or, present a source of freedom that perhaps had been eluding him since their own separation and divorce. In Lynn’s ex’s case, he took it as the former…
….and committed suicide the next morning.
But back on the mountain, we made decent progress. No doubt I was slowing Lynn down. But Lynn was more in a hurry not just to climb, but to get out of the weather. The higher we climbed, the more intense the weather became. The temperature steadily dropped, the winds constantly increased, and the rain started to shift from pelting annoying drops and driving hurtful sleet. We were both drenched at this point, and Lynn was getting chilled. The physical activity of climbing wasn’t even enough to keep her warm as the sun started to drop low on the horizon.
Lynn’s ex was dead. Now, Lynn was still quite fond of her ex-husband. And was totally floored and completely shocked by his irreversible actions. As a chemist, he knew what he was doing when he took orally enough potassium cyanide to ensure he’s if not quick demise, at least a permanent one. And, then the guilt set in…. Her sister flew down; I spent many long hours and nights with Lynn trying to console her best I could. And what ended up happening, at least from my point-of-view and perception, was that Lynn changed. And necessarily so did our relationship.
On Fuji, however, we made it to our accommodations. And initially we were the first – and only ones there. The hut’s proprietor welcomed us in, and oddly enough he was reading a pamphlet on the Nikon D200 – the very camera that was hanging around my neck, and heavily so! We were shown our less-than hostel-like berthing, and we ordered dinner. He cooked in the middle of the common area over a cutout opening in the floor filled with hot coal (which also served as the only heat); dinner was both hot and rejuvenating, but Lynn was still freezing. There was little heat to be found anywhere in the berthing area, a separate facility adjacent to the hut’s warm dining room and living area. It was time for both of us to get out of our wet clothes and dry ourselves, then retire to the covers and try to share some bodily warmth to ready ourselves for the final push not long after midnight.
After her husband’s death, Lynn was no longer the rather energetic and carefree woman who was really into me. Gone was the excitement of seeing each other, of looking forward to the future with gusto and anticipation. Replaced was a woman who became anchored down by deep, dark feelings that I had little hope of adequately dealing with. And although I started to lose my intense feelings for Lynn, I certainly wasn’t going to abandon her in such a condition. So I stayed….
Under the covers at 10,000 on Fuji-san, Lynn was literally shivering in our “rack.” The hut’s bedding was a series of long, continuous tatami mats with only the lightest padding. We were provided some linen, and our pillows were small sacks which were filled with what felt like was rice. There was no light, and no heat in this room. We hung our soaking wet clothes in the hopes they would dry, knowing they would not. As I held Lynn in an attempt to restore her body temperature, I had my doubts of summiting early the next morning. Between her physical state and my physical unpreparedness, I was seriously contemplating going back down once the sun rose high enough in the morning sky to take some of the chill away.
But back in 2006, not yet divorced and just getting used to my newly unencumbered lifestyle, even though I was with Lynn I certainly still found myself restless and unsettled. At the time I was a very active blogger on “Yahoo 360,” an old social media site that I believe at the time was competing with MySpace. So I had a lot of “friends” online, especially because back in that day I was writing daily about not only my own life, separation, divorce, and family issues, but also about all the political turmoil of the time with the Bush Administration and the wars we were fighting overseas. I was successfully able to funnel and channel the restlessness and displaced passion of my life into my prose, and it became in a sense quite addictive.
However, on Fuji something quite amazing and almost unbelievable happened in the middle of the night that simply and profoundly changed my mind about conquering Fuji-san. I had to get up to pee, which I was NOT happy about. There was no way I was putting on my cold, wet blue-jeans, so I found my cold, wet underwear and headed just outside to the bathroom. There was a male and female toilet, but as I was standing at a urinal in the men’s room, I heard a growing commotion outside, one that was closing in, coming closer and closer. Turns out there was a group of rather old Japanese women climbing Fuji during the night and in the rain, with only those miner-type headlamps to light their way. Well, it was potty-break time for these women, and they literally took over all the facilities! So, a steady stream of 5-foot, 65 year-old Grandmas are streaming in past me as I try to retain my own composure, trying to force myself to pee and deal with shrinkage issues! And I thought to myself: if these women can do this in these conditions, I certainly am! The imagery of that night remains one of the strangest of my life…but it served to cement my will to conquer Mount Fuji.
Earlier in the year, however, as my relationship with Lynn slowly and continually morphed, I took more and more solace online. Believe me, online “friends” are an odd lot; you have no real way of knowing who is who, what is what, and where reality and fantasy merged, let alone where they are delineated from one another. Yes, I engaged many people online. And Lynn, knowing me well at that point, used her intimate knowledge of me and us to create an online Yahoo 306 profile that she knew I would with which I would connect.
In our 10,000 foot hostel, however, we got up around 3 am to make our final push to the summit, just over 3,000 feet above, but a much longer linear haul to be made. Ah there’s nothing like putting on wet jeans that are chilled to an ambient temperature of about 45 degrees! Lynn was certainly worse off, but in much better spirits; there was no holding her back. After my tales of the night, we both set out refreshed in one sense, but dreading what lay ahead in another.
But back online, yes, she created a complete profile online, which is an eerie thing to even consider. Why? Because it wasn’t like a basic match.com profile with a few pictures, an astrological sign, and a few iniquitous paragraphs of wants, needs and desires. No, her online persona had existed since about the time we met. She had many friends of her own, who she interacted with often and at length. She found and put up pictures of “herself,” along with a complete fictitious family, other friends, pets, places and things. There were long exposés on dreams and wants and needs, along with the more mundane recollections of social events, vacations, and holidays here and there. I have to hand it to Lynn: she did a very good job creating her alter-ego online. She fooled me, along with her other 200+ “friends” online. And she fooled me for many months prior to our trip to Japan.
Nearing the summit I was literally climbing for two minutes and resting for one, at times almost gasping for oxygen. The weather was, in a cliché, like dog-shit. Low visibility, driving winds, and rain shifting from a bone-chilling soak to pelting sleet. Finally, the summit came within view. We were going to make it after all!!
Now, in my own defense which acting online, I did not approach Emma for a date, for sex, or for anything that would or could be construed as cheating or approaching unfaithfulness. Looking back upon the whole “affair,” especially after having had numerous post-breakup discussions with Lynn, the very worst thing I did was take a “phantom phriend” into my confidence. When Emma questioned me about my plans or future with my girlfriend Lynn, I replied, quite truthfully mind you, “Lynn is not the one, but only a one.”
Now the lead-in break-up scene should make a little more sense….
After our spiritual breakup on Mount Fuji, we descended the rest of the mountain alone. It was a peaceful hike; I believe we didn’t even pass anyone on the way down. I generally kept Lynn in sight, although she tended to make better time than I was able to. Believe it or not, descending the mountain was in many ways harder than climbing; the path is so steep and the ground so shifty that different less-used parts of your quads and hamstrings take not only a repetitive impact at an odd angle, but the literally shifting sands stress those muscle groups out even more. I had trouble walking for at least three days after that descent. For those of you yet to make the trip: take your time on the way down!!
So, considering my shared confidence with Emma and my comments online. Did Lynn deserve to know this as soon as I felt it? Absolutely. Should I have voiced these feelings sooner – you ‘betcha, eh. But I could not figure out the timing of when to leave given the emotional minefield that Lynn and I were negotiating, even if Lynn already had an inside track on the more truthful reality of our relationship.
After descending down, we met up back at Step 5, the place where our hike literally began. And we had a quiet yet respectful lunch together. I was torn; I felt as though I was used for a trip overseas (I paid for it all), and I certainly didn’t look forward to the three days we still had to spend with each other in Tokyo, let alone the idea of flying all the way across the Pacific and the Continental United States sitting next to this lady….
I learned a lot from the spiritual adventure to Japan. You see, climbing Mount Fuji is a calling for the Japanese, a pilgrimage to their most spiritual mountain, where you climb through the night to reach the summit at sunrise to say a prayer and toast to life at the first arrival of light. And I had no issue sharing such a spiritual quest with Lynn, regardless of the near-certain breakup that was coming. Although initially I was quite shocked at her timing which initially for me ruined this particular spiritual quest, I came to realize that there was really no better place for our breakup to occur. The mechanics of this type of emotional exchange in both of us coming clean in essence helped wash away our transgressions, resulting in a much-needed catharsis. We are both better people for it, and we both have a rather terrifically entertaining story to tell about climbing Mount Fuji.
Lynn is married, and has become a CRNA. I do not keep in touch with her, but I do carry something from her in my heart every single day. One of the last times she was over my condo after our breakup, she ended up leaving after I did. And before she left my physical presence for good, she left on my refrigerator the shortest note, spelled out in those magnetized cutout cardboard letters and words that can be so fun to spend some idle time with, this phrase that said all there was needed to be said:
“Just you here didn’t protect my heart turned to stone”
Climbing Mount Fuji helped teach me that spiritually we all share in a great responsibility to tread carefully with others’ hearts. That we are all fighting hard battles, no matter how things may appear superficially. And that we all deserve more in terms of honesty and openness.
And Lynn, if you are out there, thank you for helping to make me a better man. I have never forgotten our lessons learned in our transcendent escapade – and breakup – up and down Mount Fuji.
- A Pilgrimage to Mount Fuji (富士山) Mount Fuji (富士山 or… (instagram.com)
- Surviving Mount Fuji (mygingerroots.wordpress.com)
- Ascent of Mount Fuji (2wheelsbetter.wordpress.com)
- AP PHOTOS: Mt. Fuji’s Heritage status worries some (bigstory.ap.org)
- National › Mount Fuji’s World Heritage status worries some (japantoday.com)