I am in the business of climbing mountains.
Mostly, I blame my Japanese grandfather, who, at the ripe old age of 82 years old, still goes on regular multi-day treks to climb mountains. I grew up to him recounting story after story of his adventures into the unknown. He even made a memoir about each and every one of his journeys in completing the “Hyaku-Meizan” – the one hundred most famous mountains in Japan.
In the summer of 2016, I had just graduated from nursing school. I scrounged up the little savings that I had and bought a cheap, albeit extremely lengthy, flight to Narita Airport in Tokyo. My memories of living in Japan are quite limited, as I moved to America with my parents as a four-year-old, but Japan was and will always be my homeland. That summer, I went with the sole mission of climbing to the top of Mt. Fuji.
At 3,776 meters elevation, Fuji-San is nowhere near the list of the tallest mountains in the world. However, this mountain is one of the most well known spiritual symbols in Japan, and it has been said that every Japanese person must make this pilgrimage at least once in his or her life. So there I was – clueless, naïve, without a plan or hiking shoes, and a starry-eyed dream.
As I began hiking this unrelenting ascent towards the top, my legs quickly began to feel an unfamiliar burn. My heart was pounding out of its chest. Every step was a struggle, and I had the strong urge to throw in the towel and call it a day. I questioned myself on why I had even wanted to climb Mt. Fuji. “It looks way prettier when you’re admiring the mountain from afar, anyways,” I remember thinking. But if my 82-year-old grandpa could do it, I wasn’t going to be the one to give up first.
We woke up at 2am the next morning to begin the final ascent to the top of the mountain in an attempt to beat Mother Nature in catching the first glimpse of the sun. I was cold and tired, but I kept going. Left, right, left, right… At one point, I started counting my steps so that I wouldn’t stop. Once at the top, the temperature was below freezing, and the biting wind chilled my bones. The oxygen was two-thirds the density of normal oxygen at sea level, and I was feeling slightly light-headed. But more importantly, I had made it. We all gazed out into a magnificent sea of clouds at the summit of a sacred volcano that had last erupted in 1707.
All of a sudden, the dark sky burst into brilliant colors of purple, pink, orange, and red. And from the depths of the sea of clouds rose a blinding golden bulb that erupted into the heavens. And it rose higher and higher. And it took my breath away.
This was the first of many climbs to come. Later that year, I climbed to the top of the Royal Arches Trail and Twin Sisters in Colorado. I flew to Spain and hiked in the Sierra Nevadas, near Grenada. I summited a mountain called Debela Peč in Slovenia. In memory of my little brother’s life, I flew to the United Kingdom, and hiked along the chalky white seaside cliffs of the Seven Sisters, from Eastbourne to Seaford in Sussex. I’ve hiked through the German and Austrian Alps, with plans on summiting both the Zugspitze and the Großglockner (the highest peaks in Germany and Austria, respectively). I have dreams of through hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, which is a 4,265-kilometer trail that stretches from Southern California to Canada and completing the Everest Base Camp trek in Nepal.
I had caught the bug.
My mind is always clearest when I’m on the trail. It is an indescribable sensation of both peace and alertness. I am in the moment, and I have a single goal of getting to the top, or finishing my route. Yet, I am also able to appreciate my surroundings, and notice the little things that I seem to forget about in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. This paradox is what makes hiking and climbing so special to me – this contrast of stillness in movement, of calm in struggle.
I think in many ways, life is a series of mountains that we must climb. That mountain is always going to look prettier from afar. But isn’t that how it always is before we embark on a journey to conquer our dreams? The ascent will never be painless or smooth sailing. If it feels too easy, you’re probably not doing it right. Life is tough. It knocks you down, and it makes you doubt yourself a lot of the time. But you just have to grasp on to your dream and keep at it. Left, right, left, right. One day you’ll look back, and realize that you climbed a lot further than you thought you had. One day, you will be able to stand at the very tip of the summit, while soaking in the sunlight, enjoying the breeze, and drinking lime water. You will be able to look out into the beautiful landscape and survey the great lengths you have traveled to stand where you are in that single moment. These fleeting moments are the ones that make the struggle worth it.
At least that’s what I tell myself.
I am in the business of climbing mountains.
I am in the business of living life to its fullest.