My story of Mount Fuji

The climb of Mount Fuji, Japan’s highest peak, came about by accident! In January 2018, I had the pleasure of visiting Japan, and went to Kawaguchiko with my son Johnny to see the iconic Mount Fuji up close. It was winter, so we gazed from afar, from a viewing point, from the town and from the lake. During that time Johnny asked if I fancied climbing the mountain. My immediate, and heartfelt, response was a resounding “no”. For Johnny, that was not the answer he wanted, so he kept and on, about it. Eventually I said ‘maybe sometime, but not now’.

A few days later I discovered he had enquired from his Facebook followers if anyone would be interested in a charity climb of Mount Fuji.

That was the beginning, and the whole thing snowballed from there. For me there was so much to consider, not least the fact that I didn’t do mountains, and I certainly didn’t know if I could get up this one.

The 3776 metres height caused me concern and a considerable amount of thought because 2 months earlier I had been in South America, and suffered quite a bit from altitude sickness whilst in Bolivia. In fact, I had to get down from a similar height fairly quickly; but then I had forgotten to bring altitude sickness medication with me, and although I bought some locally whilst in the throes of my discomfort, it was too little too late . Not prepared to be daunted this time round, I would prepare as if attacking Everest, and I devoured Internet articles, albeit, I confess, rather selectively! I learned altitude doesn’t necessarily attack the same person every time, and ignored the ‘but usually‘ bit! I happily tried to convince myself that altitude sickness is not compulsory anyway, that Bolivia was a blip that came about because I didn’t acclimatise, but flew straight to La Paz. . Most of the time I was convinced, but I can confess now, there was always that little niggle of concern lurking, especially in the wee small hours.

Perhaps my son knows me better than I know myself, because, in reality, there wasn’t any question as to what I would do about the challenge he had issued. The response, the fact that I had seen Fuji in all it’s magnificent glory, all added up. I would do it.
Johnny seemed thrilled, but warned me of the necessity for considerable training;  my daughter, Aisling, on the other hand, was concerned I was biting off more than I could chew, that I was being coerced into it, and while that was what she articulated, I hate to think what else was going round her mind at that time! I know it’s another case of ‘too little too late‘ but I can only say “I’m sorry darling, for putting you through that”. When she realised I was serious, Aisling totally supported and encouraged me, and shared her considerable knowledge about training.

There was also an issue about dates – my actual birthday is in early April, but Mount Fuji is officially closed until July , and because we were such a big group, it would have been be extremely irresponsible to flaunt safety and other instructions.

And so the dates were set – we would start our climb on 9 July, 2019, and finish (all being well) the following day, 10 July.

Johnny took on all the hard work with, I am ashamed to say, very little input from me. The amount of time and effort he put in was staggering, and I have to say that the following days in Tokyo, and the sense of achievement felt by us all, not to mention the money raised by everybody for The Cure Parkinson’s Trust is entirely due to that hard work.

My job, it seemed, was to get as physically ready as possible for the mountain, and to that end I attacked local hills and mountains, and I upped my gym work. Because it makes such a difference to my movement and comfort, I already attended the local gym 4-5days a week; so I upped that to 5-7 days, and I worked harder when I could.

My gym work was interrupted by a planned trip to South America in November and December 2018, but I countered the lack of gym work with as much walking, especially where there were hills or steps. Or that was what I did until I reached the afore mentioned La Paz in Bolivia. What I went through there was horrible, so horrible that at one point I thought I might be coming home in a box! I am delighted to say that the altitude sickness was relatively short lived, and remedied by following medical advice and moving down to sea level. A couple of quite lazy days in Arica in Chile had the desired effect, and normal service resumed.

I returned to the UK just before Christmas, and remained with Aisling and family until after the holiday period, during which time Aisling had arranged temporary gym membership for me near to her house, and a local trainer there helped me devise a routine.

I worked hard to return to my pre trip state of fitness, but my body wouldn’t respond. I felt lousy! Not death’s door lousy, not even go to bed lousy, just a long way from 100% well.
Progressively that feeling worsened, until, by the end of January, I knew I’d have to see a doctor. The result of that was a diagnosis of chest infection. But the doctor explained that while there was a bacterial infection, for which an antibiotic was prescribed, it was probable that the underlying problem was a viral chest infection which would not respond to any medication, neither antibiotic or anything else. Not only that, the prescribed remedy was rest, apparently to help the body heal itself. Great news with less than 5 months to go!

Apart from a very good friend, no one knew just how rotten I felt. I told Aisling and Johnny the bare bones of what the doctor had told me, but kept to myself the extent to which it affected me. A basic workout in the gym virtually floored me initially, and thus I realised that the doctor could be right. I worked out a system for myself of a gentle workout daily, and as my body coped with it, I upped the ante. But it was a very slow process, and at times was one step forward and two back! However, time did it’s helping trick, and I was back to climbing local mountains, albeit at a pace best described as funereal

In the mean time, I learned of the Mt Fuji landslide, and the distinct possibility that we would be unable to climb on 9/10 July as planned. Were the Gods conspiring against us? Was something trying to put us off? I really began to wonder if this was a sign that the Mount Fuji climb should be stopped before it started. Again, I kept these feelings to myself. Johnny was stressed enough already, and most certainly did not need me to contribute my worries to the equation. I can confess now that I stretched the truth quite a bit when he asked me how my training was going, although I never actually lied.

I also had enough on my plate because my dear son had dropped into the mix that a friend of his, Selim Bayraktar, a documentary maker, wanted to make a documentary about me and my Parkinson’s, and to bring along a two man crew and get lots of footage on the way up the mountain. Johnny was contributing towards the cost and was hugely optimistic about the idea. I was very reluctant, but Johnny’s method of persuasion took the form of suggesting that it might just improve the lives of people who had given up as a result of a Parkinson’s diagnosis, something he knows I would not refuse to do even though I loathe the idea of being the centre of attention. So no pressure then!

I used local mountains, less than a quarter of the height of Mount Fuji, as barometers of my state of readiness, and that particular ploy didn’t exactly fill me with confidence. Nor did the fairly regular occasions on which I met friends who were joining us in the climb. They were visibly blooming with all the walking and training they were doing. A twenty something from my home town who was also on the Fuji team, with whom I went up our highest local mountain, was as fit as a fiddle and also blooming with good health.

Sleepless nights have long featured in my life, and these are exacerbated by insomnia being a relatively common side effect of my regular medication.
You can understand that my current sleep patterns were not improved by my mindset, and lack of sleep is not exactly conducive towards healing a viral infection.

Another bacterial chest infection in May led to me using an inhaler again, so as you can imagine, I was more than a little concerned. Then in June, the general ache in my shoulders caused, I think, by using my walking poles, and not being really used to them, worsened considerably. I wasn’t terribly concerned about my left shoulder because I knew it to be a long term injury, but the right side was new. A visit to the doctor resulted in a steroid injection which, although it worked perfectly, was, far from ideal preparation.

My friend, who knew the real situation, kept assuring me that no one would think any the less of me if I pulled out either before or during the climb, and while I knew she had my best interests at heart, I also knew that wasn’t going to happen. If I started it, I wouldn’t stop until I reached the summit, or collapsed in the attempt. Was that silly? Was it risking my health? Maybe, but I reckoned any risk would be temporary, and that if it was silly, so be it because I would still have to look at myself in the mirror, in the knowledge I hadn’t tried hard enough and that was a much worse scenario.

Before I knew it, it was July, and I was off to Bangkok to meet Johnny so that we could travel to Tokyo together, and there was still no news about the state of the avalanche repair! Fortunately for my state of fitness, it was a topic much further down the priority ladder than the state of the mountain and the future documentary. Not so fortunate for my state of mind was my first film session with Selim! He is an absolute pet, and never once gave me a hard time, even though I’m certain that first session was all but disastrous. I don’t think I’m a show off , but I think to be a successful subject, there probably needs a little of that kind of personality.

Until we got to Tokyo, I had hardly given the group as an entity, a thought, but I have been on tours run by Johnny before, and whether it’s due to his skill in picking people or because of the personalities of his followers, they always seem to gel together. When I thought closely of this particular group, however, I was uneasy – possible disparities were glaringly obvious – age, nationality, financial position, attitudes, backgrounds, social status, the list went on. Johnny has always had a very positive attitude towards his fellow man, whereas mine is rather more realistic (some would say cynical!) and I was cross with myself for not stepping in this time, I should have done something.

In retrospect, thank goodness I didn’t interfere! Yes, the disparities were there; yes, these were very different people; yes, there were varying reasons for them joining this particular group; but the personality traits which united them were much stronger than those which divided them. Without exception they were sympathetic, supportive, encouraging, generous, kind, caring, self deprecating, warm, loving and much more. They were good people, simply the best, and with each day that goes past, I appreciate each one even more, and recognise how lucky I was to meet them.

The mountain Gods had a change of heart the day before our climb, Johnny got information that the Yoshida trail was mostly open and that the worst bit at the top, will be passable for the first time. Waheyyyy!! There was no need to cancel huts, no need to worry about the route, no need to worry getting to the start of a new route, or about the unknown difficulties of a new route. In fact he could just relax and do nothing more than ensure his mother got to the top!

Little did he know, but his task was only starting, what had gone before was a picnic when compared to the actual mountain!

The weather in Japan should have been hot and humid at that time of year, but we found it wet and windy. Any of the team who lived in a hot climate found it to be quite chilly, but those of us more accustomed to a more temperate summer, relished the warmth. I am so grateful to the weather Gods for making sure we didn’t slowly melt in the usual heat!

9th July was a Tuesday this year, so we had all met on the Sunday in a pre booked Tokyo hotel, when Johnny gave us a run down on the situation as it was then. The next day we made our way, by train, to Kawaguchiko, the town at the base of Mt Fuji. The intention was to have a look at the task ahead from the lake and from the top of the little cable car route.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view) , the weather continued in a similar vein throughout our climb, though the wind became non existent. The biggest problem with the weather on the actual climb was mostly about whether or not it would impact on the sunrise at the top. Again we came out on top. Everyone in the group, apart from one person, who was taken off the slope following a nasty fall, saw a sunrise. Alright, the clouds came soon after, but we got our sun rise on Mount Fuji.

Now for the actual climb! This will be the first time I have allowed myself to consider the actual climb in isolation, not least because I have very little recollection of most of it; and what I do remember is generally not pleasant Also, in retrospect, I am more than a little embarrassed about the drama on the way down, and I can’t help wondering, could I have worked a whole lot harder, and consequently been at least a little fitter? The short answer, of course, is a resounding YESSSS! Of course I could have worked a bit harder, but would I have been fitter? I’m not so sure.

The first few hundred metres of the mountain was hellish! My breathing was awful, I felt dizzy, and my Parkinson’s symptoms appeared with a vengeance. What had I done? What was I doing?

Johnny urged the others to go on, and I heard him say we would catch up! Yeah right! I was having to stop every couple of minutes to catch my breath, and this showed no signs of easing. Worse still, I could see the concern and doubt in Johnny’s face, was I okay, should he take me back, had he asked too much of me. I assured him I’d be alright when I got my second wind, and after an hour or so, things did improve.

At the first set of huts, the sixth station, I took the first of I don’t know how many gas canisters containing oxygen and felt the benefit almost immediately. We had brought some of these in case of necessity at the end!!

I remember after that that the going was much less arduous, or maybe I had just got my second wind!
I believe we sailed through stations 6 and 7 without incident, although between 6 and 7 the going was tough, and showed evidence of the fact that Mount Fuji is a volcano, in that the terrain consisted of volcanic rock, very steep volcanic rock!

After the 7th station, the going got difficult, very difficult. Photographs taken by other members of our party remind me that this part of the climb was hands and knees territory, and virtually perpendicular – truly horrible.  It lasted nearly three hours, but felt like three days. The altitude was really affecting me, and affecting all my Parkinson’s symptoms, which in turn made me much more aware that falling was more likely. I concentrated on staying on my feet, no matter what it took – falling here and possibly breaking something was not an option!

Station 8, where beds were booked was the reward for getting through all this. All the others on the team had already got there, some hours earlier, and were hopefully getting some much needed rest. But they weren’t resting, they were there waiting for us, and giving us a guard of honour! I completely broke down in the face of such a generous gesture, and even now am in tears thinking about that awesome bunch of people, and the love and care in which they wrapped me that night.

We sat for dinner, but it might as well have been cardboard as far as I was concerned, and got our heads down for a couple of hours. I hardly noticed, but this part was traditional Japanese, sitting on the floor to eat at a very low table, and sleeping quarters were mats laid out side by side, row by row.

I have little recollection of anything more after leaving station 8 for the last push, although I do remember being disappointed that my view of sunrise on Mount Fuji would not be from the summit. We eventually got to the 9th and final station, and without mishap even though it was much rougher and less stable underfoot. I also remember we saw the sunrise from there and that it was an awesome sight, in the fullest sense of the word.

Just before the summit is a another smaller hut, not a station, but a shop. I have no idea how I got there, but I do remember buying postcards to send, but I could hardly hold a pen, and just managed tot scribble “made it, on each of them. Johnny did the addresses, bless him. We were no distance from the actual summit, less than fifteen minutes, but at this time, I really wasn’t sure if I could make it. I was vaguely aware of where I was, and why, and also that the object of the exercise was a few minutes away, but I really didn’t care. I do remember Selim, our documentary maker, asking me something about how i was feeling. I don’t recall my response, but I doubt if it could be televised!!

I don’t know if I walked, ran, crawled or was carried to the summit, but I got there, and I do recall Johnny asking me to raise my poles for a photograph But I couldn’t do it, I hadn’t the strength to raise my poles beyond my shoulders! I also was aware of some of the others being there, or maybe I think I do because there are pictures of us together

Going down, I remember fog closing in after a short time, my legs literally refusing to work and having to sit on the ground, and really that’s my last coherent memory until i started to return to something that resembled normality in what seemed to be some kind of utility vehicle. This thing was hurtling down the mountain at a speed which made me wonder if we would make it in one piece! We did and I was transferred to an ambulance, transferred to a Japanese A&E and eventually certified well enough to leave.

I did it, I got there – with a lot of help and support. How do I feel? I don’t know, I really don’t know. I’m told I should be proud of myself, but I’m not sure that I am. I’m very proud of the money that has been raised for The Cure Parkinson’s Trust, and I think I’m proud to have got there. But I can’t help feeling I should have been quicker, I shouldn’t have made such a meal of it, I should just have got my head down and got on with it.
Anyway, it’s done, it’s over, and I don’t think I will ever even consider going up a mountain ever again!

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