We all looked at each other in stunned silence. With a gaze, I looked up at the towering volcano ahead of me. It seemed more than one hundred times larger than I had imagined. At that moment, I wanted to turn around and get back on the bus as it was leaving the mountain. How were we supposed to climb to the peak without a leader? But by that time, the bus had already departed. Moto-san, Okubo-san, and I were left leaderless with a daunting adventure ahead.
Sensing my panic, Moto-san said, “Don’t worry Dima-san. We’ll figure it out! We will work together as a team. We’re going to be okay.”
So, as a team, we put one foot in front the other and slowly began making progress, hiking from the starting point at the fifth station, onto the sixth.
Right away I realized that the hike was much more difficult than I had anticipated. There was no smooth path. The only signs of life were scattered random plants that were feeding off of the rich volcanic soil. Soon, the dark gravelly rocks grew to massive burgundy boulders, some of them as big as a bus. These boulders blocked our path, so we had to carefully climb over them in order to move forward.
Two hours into the hike, my muscles began to ache. As the slope steepened and the rocks increased in size, it took more and more energy to climb. My feet throbbed and my legs ached with each step I took. My shoulders hurt from carrying my heavy backpack, and my arms grew sore from climbing the towering rocks. The higher we ascended, the more exhausted we each felt, but we kept moving forward, one step at a time.
The oxygen level decreased as we climbed. It became difficult for us to breathe, and our lungs tightened as we struggled to inhale a full breath. Imagine having a headache, feeling dizzy and nauseous while continuing to climb. I could see Okubo-san stop and try to take a full breath while he wiped the sweat from his brow. To walk a few yards could take us ten minutes or more as we trudged up the steep incline, breathing heavily. It felt as if we were tethered to one spot, unable to walk without resistance. We had discussed the symptoms of altitude sickness as we were preparing for the hike, but now, we were experiencing them. Even so, we continued to climb.
Despite the difficulty of the hike, I was impressed with Moto-san and Okubo-san because they ensured that we stayed together. Steve had long disappeared, but my trustworthy and stalwart teammates made sure that the three of us were safe. We helped other hikers we encountered and shared our oxygen and water bottles. Okubo-san and Moto-san took turns holding my and other hikers’ backpacks as we climbed the huge rocks. We saw family members hiking together, and we cheered them on, encouraging them forward; it was our way also to energize ourselves to keep moving forward.
Since the beginning of the hike, I was surprised to see little children and older adults doing the same strenuous hike. Their perseverance and dedication inspired me to keep going. They were not hiking for the team-building experience like us. They were climbing the mountain as pilgrims.
Many Japanese believe that Mount Fuji is a holy mountain, and hundreds of thousands climb it each year during a two-month hiking season in the summer. At the mountain’s peak rests a temple to the Goddess of Fire. The Japanese climb to worship the Goddess, hoping she will prevent the volcano from erupting. It is a holy mountain for both the Buddhist and Shinto religions, and multiple places of worship are marked along the hiking trail.
Eventually, we reached the seventh station. We still had a two-hour climb before we would get to the eighth, where we were looking forward to having a warm meal at the lodge. But, by this time, we had no energy, so we had to stop to rest. Because of the high altitude, we had to keep inhaling oxygen from Moto-san’s heavy oxygen bottle.
Sunset was approaching, so we sat on a bench, and for the first time, I decided to turn around and look out from the mountain. Because of my fear of heights, I intentionally climbed without turning back, but when I finally worked up the courage to look out and view the landscape, I saw the most gorgeous sunset. Seated above the clouds, we were surrounded by a mix of red, orange, pink, and purple blending together to make the most beautiful sunset above the fluffy lining of clouds that hid the world below.
We took a few minutes to enjoy the break and to breathe in the cold mountain’s fresh air. With the sun disappearing beneath the layer of clouds, the sky became dark. The evening brought with it a chill, so Moto-san, Okubo-san, and I were eager to reach the warmth of the lodge and were even more eager to have a hearty dinner, since we have not eaten for hours.
With little energy left, we pressed on, step-by-painful-step, and continued up the volcano. At that point, the only motivation we had was the image of a big bowl of hot miso soup and steamed rice. Although the path got steeper and rockier, the three of us continued to climb together with no sign of our leader.
FEEDING THE EGO AND NOT THE TEAM
Finally! We reached the eighth station around 9:30 p.m. When we arrived, we immediately went to the lodge to get some nourishment. As soon as we entered the building, Steve appeared out of nowhere. He was waiting in anticipation for our arrival. Contrary to our own exhaustion, Steve was energized from his accomplishment. His eyes were wide with excitement, and he beamed with pride. He had wanted to reach the lodge first, and in doing so, he was filled with a sense of triumph. He had won his game!
I asked him: “How is dinner? We are starving!”
Steve replied, “Dinner was great.” To my horror, Steve continued, “They served hot miso soup, steamed rice, dried fish, and hot green tea…but, there’s nothing left. The kitchen closed 30 minutes ago.”
Moto-san, Okubo-san, and I stood there with our mouths agape. We were freezing, exhausted, and starving. How could there be nothing left to eat? With one last hope, I asked, “But you saved us some, right?” He paused for a moment and then answered, “Oh…I didn’t think about that.”
At that moment, I felt like a volcano myself, ready to erupt. I was so angry with Steve for once again putting himself before the team. He cared more about his ego and personal achievements than his team’s well-being. All we had left were three energy bars. Moto-san, Okubo-san, and I found a corner to sit in. Moto-san pulled the energy bars from his backpack for us to share. We ate them knowing that they were not going to fill our stomachs and that we would not have any left for breakfast the next morning.
The lodge was a simple one-story building. Inside was a large, open space where everyone was to sleep. The communal lodging space had a colorful array of mismatched quilts and blankets. Instead of beds or comfortable mattresses, there were small cots lining the floor. Each hiking group was allocated a small area within the room to share. Steve, Moto-san, Okubo-san, and I slept side-by-side on an orange colored quilt that felt smaller than a queen size bed. It was in a cramped corner with each of our backpacks hanging on a metal hook above our heads. We did not have any energy to change into clean cloths and decided to keep wearing our dirty ,sweat-smelling hiking clothes that we had worn all day. Our backpacks dangled right in front of our faces, and I feared that my red backpack would fall on top my head in the middle of the night.
At 10pm, the lodge staff turned off the lights, indicating that everyone should stop chatting and go to sleep. Even with the uncomfortable conditions, we immediately fell asleep. But, less than four hours later, we were awoken to the banging of a gong. The goal was to get everyone up to continue the climb in order to reach the top of the mountain before sunrise. As I stood up from my cot, my whole body felt sore. My legs were tight and my feet ached from the previous day’s journey.
With little sleep, little food, and little energy, we walked from the warm lodge out into the freezing cold darkness and began our hike. Steve turned to us and said, “See you at the top.” Once again, he was gone!
All I could do was mutter “You’ve got to be kidding me.” I looked at Okubo-san and Moto-san. They also appeared in shock.
I wondered if Steve really believed this was a team building activity. It became clear to me why our department in Tokyo had such low morale and many issues with employee engagement. The ineffective and self-absorbed leadership style was the same in the office as on the hike: a leader focusing on getting to the top first while leaving the team behind; leaving them lost, hungry, and feeling unprotected. The only difference was that we were wearing hiking clothes and climbing a mountain instead of dressed up in well-ironed, professional suits and executing work projects.
So, once again, our tenacious team of three was left to finish the climb together.