Grit: Mountaintop decisions

Tough call: Japan's Mt Fuji can prove a challenge to true grit.
Tough call: Japan's Mt Fuji can prove a challenge to true grit.

Psychologists love the concept of grit, which includes passion and persistence. Studies show that children and adults with grit achieve more than others.

I thought about grit as I prepared to start up Mt Fuji, the tallest mountain in Japan. My climbing motto was summit or die.

The last weather report I saw predicted 4mm of rain for the day. When my climbing partner and I exited the bus in the morning, rain was coming down. We were in the clouds, with visibility about 50m.

At 8.30 in the morning, I bowed to Fuji-san and began the ascent with hundreds of other climbers. Most of them had rain gear from head to toe. I had a $5 rain poncho. As we started up, a young Japanese man coming down handed me his long, thick walking stick and said: "Present."

The ascent started easy, but soon we had to clamber over slippery rubble. We progressed slowly as the rain continued. We climbed and climbed, getting wetter and wetter. When we stopped climbing to catch our breath, we felt cold.

Visibility varied from 10 to 100m. Above the tree line in the clouds, I saw nothing alive but other climbers. I focused my vision on the next place to put a foot and my stick.

While I was standing still, waiting for my heart and lungs to calm, I suddenly started to fall. I balanced myself immediately to avoid falling off a cliff. That was the closest I had come to dying in many years. I was unused to wearing a backpack. Tired, on a slope, I was an easy target for a gust of wind.

Showing grit, my partner and I continued to climb hour after hour. The rain never stopped, and neither did we. Morning turned to afternoon. As we climbed higher, the temperature dropped. Many climbers passed us.

As evening approached, I saw no one but my partner. The absence of others could not be a good sign. I twice asked my partner whether we ought to start down. She said no. We climbed on.

At 4.30, we were at about 3700m, the highest I had ever been on land. The going was treacherous on big slippery rocks. We needed to hike less than 200m to the summit, but we were progressing very slowly, the temperature was dropping, and darkness was approaching. We would need about 90 minutes. It would be pitch black by then.

I told my partner: "We can make it to the summit, but we won't make it down alive it we do. We will either die of hypothermia or miss a switchback in the dark and fall to our death.”

My partner said that if she started down, it was possible that one of the sleeping huts down the mountain a ways might have a place for us to stay until morning. Go up or go down - what would you do?

Continued next week.