A 78-year-old friend of mine climbed Mt. Fuji last week. A lifelong Japan-ophile whose powder room has a Japanese sign on the door that translates, literally, “Honorable Hand-Washing Place,” she has lived in Japan, and speaks Japanese, but this was the first time she had climbed the “mythic, mystic” mountain, as she put it.
“I don’t even know why it was important to me to do it, but it was,” she said after the successful 18-hour round-trip hike. “Probably something about getting older, and seeing friends sometimes be so feeble, living in assisted living homes.
“One friend said, ‘Why in the world would you want to do something like that?’ But I do feel different now. I feel changed.”
The Japanese talk about how shy “Fuji-san” is, always skirted by clouds. The mountain appears suddenly and mysteriously, almost magically, on very clear days. “When we were living in Tokyo, we used to joke about the Japanese having the mountain on wheels, because it was always showing up in unexpected places,” says my friend, who prefers to remain anonymous.
“I enjoyed reading about routes, and buying hiking boots, and entering into whole ethos. It was fun, until I got to the base of the mountain and looked up and thought, Oh my, what have I done!”
Six hundred thousand people climb the mountain every summer – “so it can’t be that difficult,” says my friend, who ran her first 10K in her early sixties and raised five children, including a mountain climber.
“When you start out, it’s not that steep. It just takes persitance and tenacity and endurance.”
This friend is the founding member of my reading group, which has been meeting monthly for fifteen years. Last night we discussed The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald, while my friend and her husband served us a dinner on china plates called, thematically enough, “Blue Rose.”
For dessert we enjoyed a homemade Mt. Fuji ice cream sculpture made of Rocky Road ice cream, complete with tufts of whipped cream snow.
On her way up Mt. Fuji, my friend learned that last year, a 100-year-old man made the journey. So she doesn’t feel particularly remarkable.
“The last 200 meters were tough, and downhill was tough too, because my quads were like rubber,” she recalls.
But she took it all – even the falling – in stride. “Every time I fell, the guide would say, “Good time for a rest,” she relates, laughing.
What’s extraordinary about this story is that it’s not extraordinary any more. Every month, AARP: The Magazine receives story pitches about older (or downright old) athletes who have achieved things someone considers remarkable. The editors turn them down, explaining that impressive athletic accomplishments by older people simply aren’t unusual enough to make the news.
Which is not to say they’re not important – to the people themselves. “I don’t like to toot my own horn, but I do find myself telling people, ‘We just came back from Japan, and I climbed Mt. Fuji!” says my friend.
“I don’t think I’ll do it again,” she continues. “The Japanese have a saying: “Every Japanese wants to climb Mt Fuji once, but only a fool wants to climb it twice.”
No need. Sounds like once was just right.
Now, as for you, Dear Reader: What’s YOUR Mt. Fuji?