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 4 mms. 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 50 meters.
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 two-dollar 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 slick rocks and 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. Other climbers passed us.
Visibility varied from 10 to 100 meters. 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 near a switchback, 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 lost my balance in part because 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.
When I looked at other climbers, I saw only one happy face all day: A mother trying to jolly her young daughter up the mountain.
Morning turned to afternoon. As we climbed higher, the temperature dropped. Many climbers passed us. We were going slow.
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 3700 meters, the highest I had ever been on foot. The going was treacherous on big slippery rocks. We needed to hike less than 200 metres to the summit, but we were progressing very slowly, the rain was increasing, the temperature was dropping, and darkness was approaching.
We would need about 90 minutes to summit. It would be pitch black by then.
I started climbing down to where my partner was and told her: “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.” I added that it was possible that one of the sleeping huts down the mountain a ways would have a place for us to stay until morning. My partner replied that her hands were numb.
Go up or go down — what would you do?
Situation at this point: Trying to show grit, my climbing partner and I had marched up Japan’s Mt Fuji for eight hours in constant rain. Near the top as daylight faded, I was soaking wet from a day in the rain and I was cold. We had no way to get safely down after dark. My climbing partner had just informed me that her hands were numb. We had to decide whether to continue climbing to the summit or to start down immediately.
It was a tough decision, but I knew that numb hands were a preliminary to finger loss. We started down, progressing very slowly on the slippery rocks.
The rain began hitting my eyeglasses, making it hard to see in the fog and looming darkness. I slipped on wet rubble and fell hard on a knee. I stayed down several seconds to calm myself. I got up and moved on. As the temperature dropped, I started shivering. We had to gain shelter and get out of our wet clothes. Soon.
After 30 minutes, we reached a sleeping hut. I asked if it had room for us. If the answer was no, I feared that we might survive. A woman said she could fit us in, barely. The cost, which had to be paid in cash, was high. I asked if we could buy dry clothes. Yes, but that cost was also high. We did not have enough cash to get a place and the clothes. We chose the place. A nice employee then gave us new clothes for free.
We changed into the dry clothes. My partner needed help because she could not use her hands.
Then we got into the sleeping quarters. Eighty people, shoulder to shoulder. Almost all of them had climbed partway up that day and planned to rise early and summit the next day at about daybreak. Our single-day attempt was a rarity.
I knew I would not be able to sleep with so many people in the room, so I just rested. Two men snored like bulls snorting. Another man sounded like a boar. Noises and lights came from all sides.
At about 2 AM, many individuals rose to start their climb to the summit. They had head torches.
I rose at 6 AM. I felt imbued with grit and thought about trying again to summit. But our gloves, socks, and shoes were still soaking wet. Putting on those sopping wet socks was unpleasant.
We headed down. The going was easy in some places and treacherous in others. We moved slowly, slipping here and there on the wet rocks.
Rain came. I saw many individuals slip and a few fall. Also, a few people walked down backward, probably to avoid toe pain.
By the time I approached the bottom of Mt Fuji, I had planted my walking stick thousands of times going up and down the mountain. I could never guess how many falls it prevented.
At the bottom, I gave my stick to a young woman who was heading up. I told her she would find it helpful.
My partner ended up keeping all her fingers, but she had sore toes for days.
My mountain adventure showed me that grit can be valuable. However, it is most valuable when combined with prudence.