A Hike to the Top

  • Published
  • By Capt Michael Akins
  • 43 ADOS
Never having lived north of my current home in Fayetteville, N.C., my idea of severe weather was surviving triple-digit heat in Del Rio, Texas and Okinawa, Japan. Consequently, the cold-weather experience I had about five years ago caught me a tad ill-prepared. 

Believe it or not, my cold-weather adventure occurred in the middle of August. My family and I decided to vacation in Tokyo, Japan, just a short hop from Kadena Air Base. Our trip included a hike up Mount Fuji. We'd never done any climbing like this before, but had heard that this was for novices and that our 10- and 11-year-old boys would enjoy it. So, I started planning our trip. 

I knew that living at sea level for three years might be a factor as we approached the thinner atmosphere at the peak, and I was also aware of the temperature difference on the mountain. As the trip got closer, I encouraged the family to go for long walks to increase their stamina. At the same time, I started shopping for jackets, thermals and gloves; garments we have no need for in Okinawa's tropical climate. As I recall, I had to order most of our cold-weather clothes online. From my research, I found August temperatures on Mount Fuji to be mild, but I wanted us to be prepared, just in case. Unfortunately, this was my first point of failure. In my haste to secure warm clothing, I neglected to consider weather proofing.

The big day arrived. We were very excited to start our pilgrimage up the mountain, feeling very prepared with our camel backs and hiking sticks. With our backpacks filled with snacks, some cans of oxygen, and our seemingly unnecessary warm clothes, we began our trek. I remember getting hot along the way, even wearing shorts. After all, it was August. We welcomed each checkpoint to take a short break and have our walking
stick souvenirs burned with the highly coveted stamps. After some time, as our fatigue, hunger and shortness of breath started to increase, the temperature had noticeably dropped. Apparently, a front had moved in, and we were in store for a pretty exciting afternoon. Big deal; we didn't come all the way out here just to turn back before reaching the top, especially when we were so close! This is where the second point of failure occurred. I blame the lack of oxygen for my poor judgment. 

Now donned in our warmer, yet conspicuously nonwaterproof outer garments,
we surged forward. It wasn't long before the rain and sleet appeared, and just like that, we found ourselves in the middle of a nasty storm. That was when I started thinking that maybe this wasn't such a good idea, as I looked down on the shivering faces of my kids. Even though we could see the top, I suggested that we head back down. My family looked at me as if I suggested we throw ourselves into oncoming traffic. It seemed they were not going to be denied their final checkpoint stamp on their hiking sticks. So, despite only seeing people heading in the opposite direction and the lack of feeling in my fingers, we made a final push. It was truly surprising how long it takes to travel 1,000 yards up a mountain. 

Finally! We made it, and not a moment too soon. I don't think we could have dealt with the wind chill much longer. Fortunately, there was a checkpoint near the top to warm up in before we went back down. I was thankful to be returning to the base, but even more thankful that we managed to escape severe hypothermia in our wet clothes. I've wondered if we would have continued if we'd had another few hundred yards in front of us. 

On the way down, we ran into a father and son not as lucky. The father had slipped and broken his leg. He and his son had been there for a while and were suffering from hypothermia. Their location prevented rescue vehicles from reaching them in those weather conditions. I sent my wife and kids down on their own and remained with a few others on the scene to help get the two down the mountain. It made me realize how easily a fun family activity can turn life-threatening. 

We were able to carry the injured father and son down on litters fashioned from jackets and hiking sticks. Fortunately, we were able to get them to a point where rescuers were waiting. At the base, I reunited with my family, and soon we returned to the hotel. It seemed like forever before that inner chill disappeared and my fingers were warm again. I don't recall ever having a better night's sleep than that night. 

Looking back, I realize the situation could have been much worse. Lack of proper preparation, lack of respect for severe weather, and an overabundance of ego nearly got me and my family into a lot of trouble. Now, I incorporate a little more ORM when I plan these types of activities and "what if" worst-case scenarios.   There is definitely some value to the old adage "Better to have something and not need it, than need something and not have it." The last place I want to be is up the creek without a paddle, or up the mountain without dry clothes.