Sunday, October 14, 2018

From Snow to Snow - and Mountains Full of Lessons On The Way

--Susan, every other Sunday

On May 14, 2018, two weeks after completing chemotherapy for breast cancer, I moved to Japan to face my fears by climbing 100 mountains in one year.

Me, May 2018 - two weeks after finishing four months of dose-dense chemotherapy.

Shortly after my arrival, I set out on the grand adventure, leaving home at 5 am to climb my first summit: Mt. Akagi, a day trip from Tokyo.

Yes, it was still dark out when I left that first morning. So eager. So naiive...

That day, I learned an important lesson: I am capable of climbing mountains. (A fact that remained somewhat up in the air before I actually started this adventure, despite its relative importance to the ultimate success of my hiking plans.)

Shortly thereafter, I left for the northern Tohoku region of Honshu, Japan's main island, where I discovered that May is still "snow on the peaks" season in much of Japan. I also discovered that vertical, snow-covered slopes are slippery and absolutely terrifying.

It doesn't show well in the photo, but this slope - on the final rise to Mt. Hakkoda's highest peak -  is extremely steep.

I reminded myself I had trained for this. I broke through the paralysis of fear. I made the summit.

Lesson learned: it is possible to push through choking fear.

And learned not a moment too soon, because the next two mountains also featured quite a bit of snow. (But with admittedly less "steep" in the snowy bits.)

Snow on Hachimantai.
By the time the thaw arrived at the upper altitudes, I'd made my peace with snow . . . and discovered rocks.

The road to Mordor runs through northern Honshu.

Another lesson learned - this one somewhat obvious, in retrospect: Mountains are made of rocks. You'll have to climb them.

While becoming one with the boulders and pebbles, I also learned that Japanese summers are the playground of the largest, and loudest, cicadas known to man (or woman).

Bug. With hiking boot for scale. In the tree, it sounds ten times this size.
Fortunately, I like cicadas (at least, when they stick to the trees and not to my backpack). And not too long thereafter I had the chance to hike with something else I like:

My family and friends, who joined me in mid-July for an overnight ascent of Japan's highest and most famous peak: Mt. Fuji.

Team Fuji 2018.

The lesson here? Climbing alone is good for meditation and mental health, but climbing with friends and family gives you someone with whom to share your joy.

No visit lasts forever, but mountains do, so after my family went home I returned to the wilderness, learning more important lessons like, "don't eat raisins on the summit, because the nearest bathroom is still at least two hours away," and "this might not be a good place to drop your hiking pole." (Spoiler alert: I didn't drop it.)

When I arrived, two young guys were jumping up and down and shooting "aerial" photos at the end of this ledge.            No, they didn't take the short way down.

I also learned that butterflies like the taste of human sweat. Which is awesome, because it causes butterflies to land on your hands when you're hiking.

mmmm....tasty salty human...

It's also pretty gross, if you consider it too long.

By the time September rolled around, I'd climbed just over 20 peaks, most of them well over 1,500 meters high. With a little experience - and many lessons - behind me, I headed over a thousand kilometers north, to the island of Hokkaido, where I met an amazing trio of guides from Hokkaido Nature Tours who hiked with me on six of Hokkaido's hyakumeizan peaks.

I climbed six mountains in eleven days - a personal record - in which I also learned more about myself, and about hiking, than in all twenty-plus mountains that went before.

With Ido, one of my guides from Hokkaido Nature Tours

I also made three great new friends (four if you count Hokkaido itself, as well), who I hope to see again as soon as possible.

After leaving my guides, I made a solo ascent of Mt. Asahi - Hokkaido's highest peak - arriving on the summit on a spectacular, temperate day two days after the mountain had its first real snowfall of the year.

On the summit of Asahidake, Hokkaido, Japan

I've now officially climbed through all four seasons, from snow to snow.

Fortunately, autumn is only now arriving in most of Japan, and I still have a couple of beautiful months of hiking ahead before the snow begins in earnest.

icicles on Mt. Asahi.

With 67 mountains left to climb before next May, I suspect I also have a lot of lessons yet to learn.

The next time my post here at MIE rolls around, I'll be in the mountains once again - but I won't be climbing solo. Annamaria Alfieri arrives in Tokyo next Thursday, for two weeks of adventure, history, and shenanigans - some of which, we may even share with you here at MIE!

Jokes aside, it surprises me just how much I've learned about myself, and life, in these high mountains.

Early morning, on the summit of Mount Fuji

From profound to profane, and silly to sacred, the mountains have as much to teach as we have the capacity to learn, and then some. I can't wait to see where they take me in the months to come.

Sunset on the Sea of Okhotsk, Shiretoko Peninsula, Hokkaido.

And I hope, if you can, you get out in nature, and listen to its lessons, too.


  1. A wonderful story, Susan. Maybe one of the lessons is: If you believe you can do something, or if you believe you can't, you're probably right. And you believe you can!

    1. An excellent point, Michael. The mind, and belief, are powerful things - something I'd heard, but am only now coming to truly appreciate.

  2. I’m part way there, Susan. Open to what the mountains will teach me. One thing I know for sure, being with you makes peaks of joy and fun easy to achieve. That happened the day we met at the Historical Novel Society conference! See you Thursday!! Just saying that makes me deliriously happy.

    1. I can't wait to see you too! I love our time together, and I suspect this time will be the best one yet - because we have two entire weeks to climb and play and discover and ENJOY!!

  3. [sung to the tune of "Roll On, Columbia, Roll on"] Climb on, dear Susan Spann, climb on! What a great adventure.

    1. Thank you! I can't believe it's not even halfway over yet!

  4. This was so beautiful to read and see parts of thank you for sharing your adventure & lessons with us.

  5. I can't believe that my two favorite hikers in all the world will be climbing together! You two are are the hiking boots.

    1. Thanks Jeff! Next time you and the Photobomber have to come over and visit too! (And I hope you'll recognize that for the sincere invitation it is!)