Chapter 1: Never Give Up
“So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable.” —CHRISTOPHER REEVE
The terrain became increasingly steep and rocky. As the air got thinner, I was strugg ling. I wondered, Will I be able to do this? My climbing partner, a local Japanese girl my age named Yumi, repeated the words imparted to us by climbers trekking down the mountain: “Never give up.” A few members of a large group lining the winding trail also uttered, “Never give up.” I looked at Yumi and nodded. We knew we were close to the summit of Mount Fuji.
The year was 1980. I was sixteen years old and had received the opportunity to travel to Japan as part of a student exchange program. I was influenced by my brother Ranjit, or Ranj, as we called him, who had traveled there in twelfth grade and had loved it. He talked for months about his homestay family and their hospitality. He had developed this larger-than-life persona in Japan among the local school faculty, students, and his fellow exchange students from Canada. He was practically the leader of the group and was even featured on the local television station.
Back home in New Westminster, British Columbia, Canada, we also had regular, early visits from Japanese students who stayed in our home to experience Canadian life. Our influence and friendships ran deep with Japan and its people. It was natural for me to sign up for the six-week exchange program, where I would stay with two families, three weeks with each.
My trip to Japan was my first trip abroad. I quickly developed a strong affection for the people of Japan—their perspective, their kindness, and their hospitality. I understood quickly what awed Ranj. The trip impacted me so much that I later took Japanese language courses in college. I learned to read and write in Japanese and speak a little of the language as well. I also had close Japanese friends throughout college.
My homestay was in a town called Oyama-cho. This tiny town was surrounded by rice paddies on carefully terraced hills. By far the most magnificent sight to see from any point around the town was the picturesque view of Mount Fuji. We had been driving around this massive mountain monument for a few weeks now, and I was ecstatic to learn that a last-minute plan had been made to climb it. My host family set the trip up with three other experienced climbers.
Our small group started climbing in the early morning from the base of Mount Fuji, hiking up a rocky trail on the Subashiri route. At that time, the base was at the bottom of the mountain, unlike nowadays, when one can start halfway up. As we climbed, the incline got steeper and steeper. I have heard Mount Fuji described as an “easy to moderate” climb. I can attest that it most certainly is not. I was not prepared for this climb. There was no training ahead of time, and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. It sounded like a fun hike at the time. Even my hiking boots and my layers of clothing were all borrowed from my host sister. What had I gotten myself into? There was no going back now.
I certainly felt privileged climbing this near-perfect volcanic mountain, iconic in Japan for its beauty as well as many other qualities. Mount Fuji is associated with ancient myths and spiritual powers. One fascinating belief is that the peak is the home of the fire god, the dwelling place of the goddess of trees, and the abode of the Buddha of All-Illuminating Wisdom.
The trail gained elevation very quickly. The weather was pleasant for the most part, but we could feel a chill later on in the afternoon as we climbed higher and higher. I was thankful that we avoided altitude sickness because we set a slow, steady pace to acclimatize our bodies and enjoy the sights.
We stopped for small breaks to catch our breath a few times, and there were small canteens along the route where we stopped for coffee and snacks. While ascending, we passed people on their way down and asked if we were getting close to the 3,776-meter summit. These people would smile at our sweaty, hopeful faces. Their answer was always the same: in true Japanese fashion, they told us, “Never give up.” The cadence of these three words still rings in my ears.
We finally arrived at a small hut built into the side of the mountain, named Hut Number 8. We had made it to the 3,300-meter mark just as the sun was about to melt into the landscape. We removed our shoes in the genkan (entryway) and walked into the hut to spend the night, our necks bent and heads lowered to accommodate the low ceiling.
The next morning, we woke up very early and stepped outside the hut. At precisely 4:44 a.m. we saw the sun creep up from the earth and slowly felt the warmth across our faces as it grew bigger and climbed higher. At age sixteen, I felt like I was seeing the sunrise for the first time. I am sure there were similar sunrises in British Columbia, so maybe it was the entire experience that made this sunrise one I remember to this day. It was truly awe-inspiring. In those pre-internet days, a sight like this was rare and seen only in magazines like National Geographic. We soaked in the crimson rays and watched the valley below us light up to begin a new day. Yumi took pictures for me every minute until the sun was in full view.
The temperature warmed to three degrees Celsius. Soon after, we turned our thoughts back to the reality of our climb. We added another layer to our clothing, donned our windbreaker jackets, laced our hiking boots, and started the steepest incline of our journey. “Never give up.” I ruminated on those words all the way to the summit. I will not give up. I started finding it difficult to catch my breath. My calves were hurting. I was barely keeping
pace with Yumi.
A sign appeared in Japanese that said we had 100 meters left before arriving at the summit. Yumi and I looked at each other in relief, but it was not over yet. There were a lot of people at that spot; there were as many people heading down as heading up, so we had to wind around the many trekkers. From a distance, we saw a pergola known as the Top Gate. Slowly and steadily, climbing the steepest part of the mountain, we arrived at an entry point to the top made up of large, wide rock steps. We walked between two stone lion figures and then to the Japanese pergola. We stood there for a moment. Yumi and I forced a smile, even though we were out of breath, to get a picture. Then we looked at each other, uttered the words, “Never give up,” and finished the last ten or so steps.
At last, we had made it to the top. What a feeling!
I felt simultaneously illuminated and exhilarated as I stood atop the crater of Mount Fuji. And that breathtaking view! It was the clearest day, blessing us with a gorgeous sight below. I was transformed by that moment. Reaching the top of Mount Fuji became such an invigorating experience, at such a young age, that it set a precedent I would carry with me the rest of my life. That feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had.
I still hear the phrase “Never give up” from time to time in my head. I am reminded of this test of my abilities—one I feel I faced with strength, tenacity, and the willingness to take action. Little did I know, at age sixteen, how vital these qualities would prove to be throughout my life. My will to never give up would be tried and tested again.
Years later, at age twenty-four, my life looked complete. I loved my career, working in an office in downtown Vancouver overlooking the harbor; I loved life with my husband, Gurpreet, to whom I had been married for two years already. We had bought a house; we had our loving families and a close group of friends nearby. We enjoyed our ability to travel freely and did so every chance we could. We took a remarkable trip to India together, where we traveled to destinations that were off the beaten path, from north to south and everywhere in between. I was ready for the next chapter of my life. I wanted to become a mom.
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