'There comes a time when you have to ask yourself: Is the risk worth the reward?' said Eric Meyer M.D. to a room full of Marines at Camp Fuji, Japan on July 4th. "On an absolutely perfect day for climbing above 8,000 meters I had to ask myself that very question. My answer on K2 back in 2008 may very well have saved my life."
Little did doctor Meyer know that in just 30 hours Marine and Army troops would be reflecting upon his words of advice on the side of Japan's highest mountain, Mount Fuji in the middle of the night... as near hurricane force winds, rain and lightning racked across the treeless upper mountain slopes.
Mount Fuji Sunrise Climbing has been going on for centuries, what made this years July 4th Fuji Sunrise Climb unique to our US Armed Forces was the creation of an effort to salute and honor our service members by the small nonprofit organization American300. "We wanted to do something special for our Troops that were so instrumental during the relief efforts immediately following the earthquake and tsunami this spring here in Japan," said Robi Powers, of American300. "Our friends at Army Ammunition Depot Kure were planning on a Fuji climb so we reached out to the Marines at Camp Fuji and asked if we could help bring Marines and Army soldiers together on our nation's birthday."
To raise the bar on resiliency, American300 went a few steps further by enlisting the help of Chhiring Dorje Sherpa, one of the Worlds most renowned Himalayan climbers along with acclaimed author and reporter Graham Bowley of the New York Times and book: "No Way Down", the story of the 2008 tragedy on K2 the world's second highest mountain, in which both Doctor Meyer and Chhiring Dorje Sherpa were a part of and featured in.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I think that we'd go up the mountain with 85 people and only see 26 summit," said Ed Bell of Cleveland Ohio who came along on the trip as a senior advisor in his role as American300's board chairperson. "The best part was that those who needed to turn around did... no one was hurt or injured on the mountain last night, to include one US Army Soldier being guided down the mountain in the middle of the night as a result of altitude sickness."
With lightning bolts slamming into the mountain, winds tearing across the exposed slopes and rain turning even the most waterproof material into a sponge, two leaders stepped forward in the darkness and quickly made command decisions. For the US Army soldiers the choice to wait out the storm was one that LTC James Hooper, Commander of the 83rd Ordinance Battalion made with his senior staff, from the relative warmth and protection of a high mountain shelter. For the Marines the decision to create a supported withdrawal down the mountain was made by Camp Fuji base commander Colonel Craig Kozeniesky under the harshest, most exposed conditions.
In the end, both leaders and their staff executed mountain movement plans which left 26 individuals climbing while 70 would descend to climb another day. "In 2008, when everything was going wrong on K2, my teammate Chris Klenke stepped forward as a leader and did an amazing job for the international teams on the mountain." said Doctor Meyer. "What I witnessed last night on Mt Fuji was nothing short of flawless, choices had to be made and two great leaders and their teams made them and supported them."
Ichi Dan - literally translates to 'One Team' in english, and was the overall theme of the American300 joint force resiliency effort over the past 72 hours here in Japan.. a theme that played out in the darkness of Japan and daylight of our countries birthday. "We had a number of troops that got caught in a weather band between stations 6 and 8.2 last night and literally got blasted. To say that they jumped into an ice cold swimming pool wouldn't be an over exaggeration," said Powers, who along with Bell had departed with the Army members of the joint service effort earlier in the day to take advantage of a high mountain shelter just 3 hours below the summit. "When Command Sargent Major Williamson whispered to me at midnight that Marines were moving past our shelter, I looked at my watch and saw that it was only midnight hours ahead of when we expected the Marines to be that high on the mountain... I knew something was up" he added.
With the Marines that got caught in the storm band turning down the mountain, a small group of 20 or so Marines along with Chhiring Dorje Sherpa and Doctor Meyer managed to push up the mountain and out of the most severe weather leaving them in position to regroup and make a summit attempt hours later. Powers and Bell, knowing that the Army plan was to wait until 3am to make a weather decision, both chose quickly to join in with a group of Marines headed up the mountain a little after midnight; a decision by the two American300 volunteers and organizers of the event that would in retrospect be the reason that they were able to join in with the final sunrise summit team. "We caught a window in the weather that couldn't have lasted for more then 20 minutes, but was just enough time for us to climb up and out of the storm cell," said Bell.
That storm cell would moments later slam the door shut on any hope of climbing upwards, until much later in the morning. While missing the 'sunrise' 11 out of 17 Army team members were able to summit while the rest of the team was forced to descend later in the early morning hours.
After one final 'thinning' of the ascending party, a total of 15 Marines along with the American300 guests made the summit just before 4am. "Much like Everest Summit today" said Chhiring Dorje Sherpa. "We say hello and good-bye in same breath today," referring to the gale force winds on the summit that would force the group to hunker down in the leeward side of an ancient hut on top of the mountain while Powers attempted to capture in photography the summit teams effort.
By 8am, the iconic mountain that rises 12,388 feet above sea level and has played host to millions of climbers was void of any US Marines climbing boots and not long after would be void of US Army boots. The storm that had raged on for over 10 hours was loosing it's ferocity and our Heroes were well on their way back to respective bases by afternoon... all to face a new day serving our country and the nation of Japan, in the Land of the Rising Sun.
For more information about American300 please visit: www.American300.org