Mt. Fuji is No Basic Bitch, or, How I Didn't Pee for 15 Hours

It is 3 a.m. and I am on a 45-degree slope that has lasted approximately five hours and won’t end. My thighs are wrung out and heavy. I have miraculously not yet lost my shit. Nor have I peed in the last five hours. I eventually will hold it in for a further ten.

That morning, the plan had been  to climb Mt. Fuji via the Gotemba trial on the southeast side of the mountain. It’s the longest route to the top, with the trailhead located at 1400 meters above sea level, and it’s also the least popular. The ascent has been described as a “gentle” slope, which seemed more reassuring given that we would be climbing in the off-season, when the mountain and all the huts along the way are officially closed. With an unseasonably warm weekend coming up, it was our last chance to climb to the summit this year. Suddenly I was packing a bag with borrowed gear and pulling out my base layers. Because, how bad could it really be?

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According to my parents, I was going to die. “Rocks will come flying at you,” my mother said. I wasn’t sure what that meant. “Bring your bike helmet,” she insisted.

This contradicted what I’d heard of Mt. Fuji: essentially, that it’s the basic bitch of mountains. Mt. Fuji is accessible enough from Tokyo to have become a tourist attraction; a heavily Instagram-ed, bucket list item that appears to be easily conquered by the “reasonably fit.” Online, the climb is described as a boring, non-technical ascent, almost like it could be done with a bottle of water and yoga pants.

That characterization is misleading. Temperatures at the summit can fall to below freezing, which is a terrifying concept if you’re the type of person who considers anything below 24C, “cold.” I layered almost every cold-weather item I had from commuting to law school on a bike through Boston winters, and borrowed an Arc’teryx coat from my mother. I looked like I was prepared to climb Everest. Come what may, I was at least dressed to survive.

Unfortunately, although I had realized that I could freeze to death, I failed to take into account several factors, such as the route being largely unmarked, the length of the trail, and the large elevation gain. We started our climb from the Gotemba fifth station at around 10:30 p.m., two hours later than planned, but figured we’d make good time on the trail.

“It better not be like this all the way up,” Jwizzle joked within the first half hour. I’d laughed in response. We would eat those words.

View from near the 8th station.

View from near the 8th station.

 With one headlight between us and no trail markers, we would later learn that we’d veered off the trail onto a path for whatever tanks they use to climb the side of mountains. After an hour, we were climbing a 45-degree slope. After another three hours, the soft, volcanic sand had sucked the strength out of my legs. On a much-needed break, I sat back and stared at the stars, which speckled the sky in varying degrees of brightness, like how I imagine my skin looks if examined under those skin analysis machines that show you exactly how shitty your complexion is. I kinda needed to pee.

The thing is, we were essentially in Mordor. There is no cover on Mt Fuji. It’s a barren landscape of volcanic ash and the occasional rock that is no bigger than a medium-sized dog. Ascended in the dark, every marker pole becomes a promise of some sort of turning point, before reality sets in and it breaks your soul. And then there’s the dust. Frodo may have been traveling with an anorexic suffering from a personality disorder, but at least he didn’t have volcanic ash blowing into his face the entire way.

By the time I started questioning whether I was going to get black lung, turning back wasn’t an option. We were still battling towards the 8th station when the sun came up, stretching its rays across the lakes below. The light gave me a little boost of hope and optimism. It lasted about five minutes before my legs were back to screaming and I was deliriously chanting the chorus to Joe Dassin’s “Les Champs-Elysees” in my head.

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Luckily, whatever path we were on intersected the real trail near the 8th station. The landscape changed from Mordor to Mars, the soft sand turning into large volcanic rocks and puddles of pebbles, the trail now a sadistic scribble of switchbacks. I heaved myself over unstable rocks, running on fumes and determination. That French chorus quickly became my only companion as I started to seriously lag behind. Every few switchbacks, I could see Jwizzle waiting for me to catch up.  

“You don’t have to wait,” I gasped unconvincingly, “I’ll be fine.”

It only dawned on me later that he was most likely waiting because he didn’t want a dead body – or the responsibility of being associated with one found on the side of a mountain – impeding his descent. At this point, although there were large enough rocks to sneak behind to pee, we started to see other hikers, both above and below us. This was enough of a deterrent; the last thing I wanted to do was to subject several Japanese mountain climbers to the sight of my bare butt. It was also cold. Cold enough that I didn’t know if I’d be able to warm up again if I exposed more than my face to the elements. I checked in with my bladder and reassessed my priorities. Peeing could wait.

We reached the summit a long, hard five hours after arriving at the 8th station. Near the rim of that volcanic crater, we ate a snack and I curled up against my backpack. I closed my eyes ready to jump into unconsciousness, fully aware that this is most likely how people die of exposure and/or freeze to death. I wondered where the helicopter would land to pick up my dead body.  

The Torii gate at the summit.

The Torii gate at the summit.

I felt a small pang in my gut and I opened my eyes. I was okay with the embarrassment of dying on the side of a mountain, but the idea of being found dead in a puddle of my own urine roused me from any chance of sleep/death. Because if I had to go, I’d strongly prefer it wasn’t with a full bladder. I drummed my fists against my dead thighs and prepared to get off the mountain.

Since we had wandered down the scenic route, it had taken us a total of twelve hours to climb to the top. It would take us a laughably easy three to descent. Once we scrambled down the web of switchbacks, the rest of the route is made of deep, soft volcanic sand that’s referred to as “the sand slide.” We were able to almost jog down, the sand cushioning the impact you’d usually feel on the walk down a mountainside. Back at the trailhead, I made a beeline for a bathroom that smelled like a damp corner of Paris in the summer. It was probably worse than the alternative, but at least I didn’t have to worry about volcanic sand getting into my underwear.

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 A couple hours later, I emptied about four tablespoons of ash and small rocks from my shoes into a hotel trashcan. After a shower I only got out of so I could lie down, I dozed off to Japan stunning the world by beating Ireland in the Rugby World Cup, and dreamed of toilets.

 [Some of the photographs in this post were taken with an expired disposable film camera.]

Rugby World Cup 2019: Blaine Scully

TRY TRY TRYYY!!!

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Subject: Captain of the U.S. national rugby team Blaine Scully

Materials used: chocolate chip cookie crumbs

*Inspired in part by the Yomitan Beach Boys, a rugby football union team in Okinawa made up of American civilians and active military service members. Check them out on Facebook and get in touch if you’re interested in being a sponsor!

Search and State Artist in Residence

Last month, Search and State - a New York City-based cycling apparel company that makes the kind of jerseys I used to dream of - were kind enough to ask whether I’d be interested in creating a postcard for them as part of a monthly Artist in Residence series. The postcards will be included in select packages later this month.

SAS collaboration postcard

Check out their products and a write up about me here.

A big thank you to Search and State for including me in this project. This was so much fun to do!

The Godzilla Store

There is a Godzilla store here and it’s pretty awesome.

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They have Godzilla-themed everything: t-shirts, hand towels, mugs, chopsticks, and books. They even sell Godzilla toilet paper.

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If you’re looking for a unique gift or a you’re a Godzilla fan, this is definitely worth a visit.

The Godzilla Store

Marui Annex 1F

3-1-26 Shinjuku

Shinjuku-ku

Hours: 11:00 to 21:30

 

Getting High at TeamLab Borderless

Back in college, I walked into a friend’s room – a place we all seemed to gather when the requisite amount of desire and boredom hit – to get high. Through the sticky-smelling smoke snaking from the end of a lit joint, I saw an acquaintance curled up on the end of the couch in the small room, his tall frame folded awkwardly together, stuck in a bad trip.

“He took some ‘schrooms earlier,” someone said, as he twitched and grimaced.

I’d never been tempted to try magic mushrooms, largely because I have enough self-awareness to stay away from anything that will suddenly heighten everything that I’ve been suppressing and bring it to hallucinatory life. “You just have to concentrate on positive things,” someone once said, in response to how best to avoid being reduced to a trembling pile on a friend’s couch, as if that was not only possible but that it could be done with ease, while under the influence of a semi-controlled substance.

“Have you met me?” I wanted to ask. 

The purchase of narcotics that could lead to terrifying experiences is further compounded by the fact that, with the exception of my monthly weightlifting membership, I’d like some guarantee of a pleasant experience in exchange for my hard-earned money. A 50/50 shot at a good time seems like a coin toss with my hidden demons that I’m bound to lose.

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Luckily, for Tokyo residents and visitors adverse to psychedelics, there’s TeamLab Borderless. An interactive, digital art museum, it’s a giant space where thousands of lights, sensors, projectors, mirrors and algorithms come together to warp your perception of both time and space. Elephants made of flowers lumber past in the hallways, water lilies lazily swirl past from the ceiling, images of water can be diverted. I laid on a giant hammock-like net with about 20 other people and watched the room spin, rise, and fall. Dark hallways partially hide curtained doorways that lead to rooms filled with lanterns, lights, and mirrors. It feels like an Alice in Wonderland-esque scavenger hunt on a wildly mind-altering substance that gave me the kind of vibrant imagination I could only wish I had.

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Buzzed from the sensory overload, we wandered around, exploring the space for what ended up being five hours. We bounced giant balloons, jumped on a trampoline painted with projections of planets, and got caught in a downpour of LED lights.

We emerged to a sterile, stable Tokyo sky, starving, but still humming from TeamLab.

TeamLab Borderless

Mori Building Digital Art Museum

Odaiba Palette Town 2F

1-3-8 Aomi, Koto-ku, Tokyo

 *Note: tickets have to be purchased in advance.

Catch Me If You Can

A couple weeks ago, in attempting a snatch, I threw the bar behind me for the first time. As the bar flew backwards, and with no weight to counterbalance me, I fell forwards onto the wooden weightlifting platform. I landed on the same knee that I destroyed when I got my first adult bike, and was failing to learn how to not get my front wheel caught in railroad tracks in Boston. Those falls had torn more and more away from the front of my knee; the skin has essentially been replaced by a big, blotchy, shiny patch of scar tissue.

I haven’t thought of cycling much recently, other than in a spectating sense, but the fall reminded me of the mental fortitude that’s forced on you when you ride alone enough. The kind of resilience you develop when you end up having to pull yourself out of sometimes awful situations on dead legs, fully aware that help – in any form – isn’t coming. Cycling often requires a good dose of “I’ll figure it out if it happens” and the willingness to get lost, with the faith that you’ll find your way back because you got yourself into this damn mess in the first place. It’s probably why cycling is a sport particularly appealing to lone wolf types; personalities that are open to hectic, solo ventures, who like to go to places you really shouldn’t on two wheels.

hookgrip casualty.

hookgrip casualty.

But cycling never taught me confidence. It was, instead, insecurity in my ability and speed that fueled training rides and trainer sessions. I wanted, desperately, to be better, faster, stronger, because so many people had said that I was too slow, too heavy, too whatever to be a “decent” cyclist, and I’d believed them. The reality is that you can do a lot with cycling even with the debilitating insecurities that I had. It fuels the dieting, the training rides in winter, the hours spent on a trainer. Because if you’re convinced you’re not good enough, you try harder.

I took that mentality with me into CrossFit, then weightlifting. It worked, for about seven months. Since late December, my snatch 1 rep max stubbornly stayed at a measly 30kg. No amount of strength training seemed to work to pull anything over 30kg over my head. I leaned into my insecurities, trying to stoke the fire that fueled rides, trying to bully myself into raising my 1 rep max. Instead, my doubt creeped into my lifts. I would psyche myself out once 30kg was loaded onto the bar and my form would fall to pieces. I held back tears of frustration in class. I considered quitting a lot.

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Something changed around late April; the box offering daily weightlifting classes and an additional coach who seemed to see something that could be salvaged were two big ones.  At one class, paired up with a friend, K.H., who is significantly stronger than me, I kept missing that 30kg snatch. We were supposed to do sets of two, but I’d get under the bar maybe once, only to have it crash in front of me the second time. In the end, I never got that two rep set, but for once, it wasn’t not fun trying. Plus, I got something a lot better. After K.H. got a new two rep max, she watched me again fail another attempt.

“What’s impressive,” she said, “is that you’ve lifted 30kg like 50 times.”

I realized then that I’d been looking at weightlifting entirely the wrong way. Missed lifts, until K.H.’s comment, had been failures. All I was seeing were non-reps and reinforcement of my belief that I couldn’t do it. The other side of those missed reps was acclimatization to a weight I’d only been able to pull once or twice. It actually blew my mind.

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Her comment was undoubtedly a part of my piling on 5kg to my snatch two rep max in the space of a month. Another part of that was the observation that I was lifting scared.

“You’re still catching the bar in a safe place,” my coach said, “be more aggressive. Get under it like you know you’re going to catch it.”

Unlike riding, the scenery never changes with weightlifting. The adventure is always the same: you, a barbell, and a bunch of heavy plates. There’s no risk of getting lost and having to find your way – physically, anyway – home. There’s no mess to get out of, no situations where a cell phone barely works and you’re hopelessly lost in the middle of nowhere.

But weightlifting starts with a brash belief that you can, one more time, launch an uncomfortably heavy barbell high enough to get under it, often while your whole body feels like deadweight. It requires, before you step up to the bar, that you not only believe you can make the lift, but you execute with that confidence. That you dive under a potentially lethal barbell with the conviction that you’ll catch it, or at least, not drop it on your head.

All the training in the world ultimately doesn’t mean shit if you lift scared. So I started to fall, diving aggressively enough to throw the bar back and slam onto my knees. It makes missed lifts look a lot worse than they actually are – usually, you just end up with some impressive bruises – and there’s a weird sense of confidence in knowing that you tried lifting that weight with no fear. That you somehow managed to wipe the slate clean of doubt, insecurity, the knowledge that your muscles are close to dead, and replaced it, for a brief second, with pure faith.

Note my coach looking not horribly disappointed in me, for once.

Note my coach looking not horribly disappointed in me, for once.

A million thoughts still run through my head as I approach the barbell, about form, triple extension, where my weight should be, my elbows. “What the hell,” I think, as I grab the bar with hands white with chalk. I vaguely imagine completing the lift before all thought drains from my brain and I’m pulling, falling, diving to catch another snatch.