“I’m gonna die. I’m gonna freaking die.”
The sharp breeze cut through me as I scrunched up against the metal ladder, trying my hardest not to look at the vertical drop to my right. The ladder was reliable enough, bolted solidly to the mountain face; hundreds of trekkers before me had gone up and down it without incident, but its overt slant towards the edge of the cliff filled me with green vertigo. It drew my gaze and held my hands and feet still in an inner Mexican standoff.
Dawn that Saturday found us shivering in the trailhead parking lot of Mount Chokai, a 2236-meter (7335-foot) high peak divided between Yamagata and Akita prefectures in Japan. We had arrived a good half-hour or so before our designated 7 a.m. meeting time, and as the others trickled in, my energy bubbled up. Eventually, a dozen of us or so split off from those waiting and headed up to start the trek to the peak.
As we were taking a picture at the mouth of the trail, a middle-aged Japanese man hopped down the last of the stairs and said, casually, “There’s a bear.”
“Yeah, a big one. Stay on the path and you should be fine though. Good luck!”
We looked nervously at each other, adjusted our backpacks, and started the climb.
The trail started off nice enough, if rather steep–a paved staircase with flat uphill breaks in between for the first twenty minutes. It dribbled off into a broken stone pathway, and about an hour and a half up, the path disappeared completely. The only indicators to show us the correct way were arrows painted here or there on the rocks.
I channeled my inner mountain goat and scrambled up the rocks using both hands, pausing every few minutes to draw deep breaths of cold autumn air. My lungs and legs burned, but the gorgeous view captured my attention–the rolling greens and oranges and yellows, the Japan Sea visible in the distance, merging with the sky with no discernible horizon.
We reached a stretch of trail that hugged the edge of a cliff and all appreciation for the beauty of our surroundings fizzled away. Adrenaline spiked in my system. I willed my limbs to be steady, focusing on the area directly in front of me, blocking out everything else, definitely not thinking about tumbling to my doom at the bottom of the cliffs.
Then came the ladder. We were not hiking Chokai anymore–we were clinging to it, slowly ascending to the summit as we hoisted our bodies over each boulder.
After we endured four hours of this, we finally reached the top of the mountain. We huddled together in the harsh wind, scarfing down our lunch. It took us a while to gather the shreds of whatever energy we had left for the descent, abused as we were by the whipping cold.
The way back down wasn’t nearly as bad as the way up, but my legs had been aching since before the ladder; now they were absolutely screaming. I had to grab onto the loose fabric of my pants to lift my feet high enough over some stones. I crouched down at every drop of a foot or more, grabbed hold of nearby boulders, and eased my body down. People who had started with the second group passed us and were out of sight before I could find my next foothold.
Somehow I made it back to the parking lot in one piece; tired, sore, and thirsty, but intact after the eight-hour ordeal. The next two days found me grimacing and groaning like someone four times my age every time I had to get up or sit down. My legs were dead weights attached to the bottom of my torso. The sick part of this is that I did it all over again the next year. Willingly. Happily.
I beat my time from the previous year, all but skipped on the way back down, and barely felt any soreness at all the next day. I kicked that mountain’s ass*.