My Turn: Charting a trip to the mountain top in a not-so-swift way

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Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

Forty-three years ago, in what seemed to be a different life, I scaled one of the world’s great – and perhaps most recognizable – mountains.

Such a feat, of course, now pales in comparison to the exploits of Dutch daredevil Wim Hof, who in 2007 attempted to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak at 29,029 feet.

Hof, who reportedly holds 26 world records, including one for finishing a 26.2-mile marathon in the Namib Desert in southern Africa without the benefit of water, made it to 24,500 feet at Everest before he turned around and headed back to base camp.

Even though he failed to reach the summit, falling some 4,500 feet short of his goal, Hof did etch his name in the record books at Everest – as the first climber to reach such a height while wearing shorts and open-toed sandals.

When I first read of Hof’s mountain-climbing exploit, I was two parts amazed and three parts dismissive of such poppycock, figuring it must be that the Russians are at it again, doing their underhanded best to wreak havoc with The Guinness Book of World Records.

But then I remembered my own mountaineering adventure in the late summer of 1975, when I, too, made a fashion statement while climbing to the top of one of the most majestic peaks in the Far East.

Like Hof, I was clad in shorts, dispensing with sandals in favor of the latest running shoes. For good measure, I wore a short-sleeve running shirt and baseball cap, carrying a few provisions in a small backpack crammed with sunscreen, five-flavor Lifesavers, a canteen of water, and
three Tootsie Rolls.

Unlike Hof, I set my sights considerably short of the Himalayas, preferring instead to make the trek up Mount Fuji, one of Japan’s “Three Holy Mountains” that “has inspired artists and poets and been the object of pilgrimage for centuries,” according to UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

With its familiar snow-cone look, Mount Fuji is the highest peak in Japan at 12,389 feet, which is akin to a stepping-stone when compared to sky-high Mount Everest. Still, on that 80-degree sunny day in 1975, Fuji proved to be a tough test for a bunch of would-be mountain-climbers, who began the scheduled seven-hour ascent with little idea of the true challenge ahead.

Our group of 20, which included my oldest sister and her husband, was a bit of a rag-tag bunch, some of whom knew almost immediately that they had bitten off more of Fuji than they could chew. The path to the top was a steep, rock-laden route that offered breath-taking vistas of the surrounding countryside.

It also wasn't a place for those short on stamina or long on a disdain for heights, as each step up brought us ever closer to the cusp of the volcanic crater on top. Once there, we were collectively mesmerized by Fuji’s inner beauty, alternately gazing back at our path to the top in true wonderment.

But on that day, time was not on our side. The trek to the summit, hampered by the heat, took longer than our guides had calculated, leaving no room for the planned 4-hour descent before darkness took its grip on the mountain.

Plan B was to take shelter at the top in a cramped cabin, where we could pile on top of each other on a rock hard floor for some 10 hours while we waited for daylight to appear. It proved to be a long night, as we huddled together in a cold, hungry, and sleep-starved state.

Once dawn broke, we were greeted with the most spectacular sunrise in memory, a fiery glow that seemed to pop out of the Pacific, giving us all pause to enjoy the magic of the mountaineering moment.

Perhaps more importantly, as we began our descent, we heard the faint echoes of a well-known Japanese saying:

“A wise person will climb Mount Fuji once, but only a fool would dare climb it twice.”
 

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