The sun was just rising when I met my two colleagues at a train station outside Tokyo. I’d been really excited ever since Yoshi Ando, who was then vice president in the Asian IS Group, had invited me to climb Mount Fuji.
The Japanese say everyone should try to climb Fuji once in their lives, and it’s been one of my goals since I started shuttling back and forth between Texas and Tokyo for Tokyo Electron America five years ago. I’d given myself four goals as a way to get to know Japanese culture: Go to a Japanese baseball game and a Sumo wrestling match, soak in a hot springs and climb Fuji. I’ve achieved two of those goals so far, climbing Fuji in August 2003 and soaking briefly in a hot spring after the climb.
For the climb, Ando-san and another guy from IS, Tatsuya Kawamura, brought rice balls and sandwiches, fleece jackets and gloves, forehead-mounted flashlights and bottles of oxygen. I showed up wearing jeans and a polyester windbreaker, carrying a bottle of water and bag of potato chips. I thought this was going to be like a nature hike. I was wrong.
We drove to a starting point about halfway up the snow-capped volcano and started climbing. It was easy at first but pretty soon we were climbing on all fours along the narrow ledges. I kept reminding myself not to look down. We stopped chatting about our families and started asking each other, “Are you all right?” By late afternoon we had nearly reached the top. We were 12,000 feet up and the view was like looking out the window of an airplane.
Going down was worse. It got dark quickly and I was falling all the time. I didn’t have my own flashlight and I had to follow closely behind my colleagues. It was treacherous and tiring. Ando and Tatsuya kept me motivated by telling me that I could achieve another one of my goals when we got down: bathe in a hot spring.
We made it back to the car at 3 a.m. and celebrated by doing a traditional Japanese “Banzai” cheer.
Before the climb we were colleagues; now we’re friends. We developed a higher level of respect for one another. That will happen when you are clinging to the side of a mountain.
Japan has a formal society and it sometimes seems impossible to get to know people. Now we have dinner together and tell stories about our climb all the time. I’ve been to one of their homes, which is pretty rare in Japan. I also gained a lot of respect at Tokyo headquarters. At board meetings, people talk about how I climbed Fuji.
I won’t, however, do it again. There’s a Japanese proverb that says: “A wise person will climb Mt. Fuji once, but only a fool will climb it twice.”
—As told to Susannah Patton