During Golden Week of 1999, 26-year-old Tom Fearnehough and six friends skied down Mount Fuji. A Japanese man had attempted the same feat the year before and plummeted 2,000 meters to his death. Fearnehough and his friends, however, were better prepared.
With crampons on their boots, the seven JETs hiked all night under a full-moon sky to reach the 3,776-meter summit. At sunrise, they worked their way around the icy crater and found their point of descent. With ice axes securely strapped to their wrists to stop any fall on the icy slopes, Fearnehough and his friends descended into the golden morning light. For the next 60 minutes, the expert skiers enjoyed an experience of Mount Fuji that few will ever know.
Such adventure is not unusual for Fearnehough. Last December, he completed a 6,986-km trek across the Japanese archipelago, climbing 98 mountains en route, just two short of becoming the first person ever to complete the hyakumeizan (100 famous mountains) course completely on foot.
“I got the idea for doing the walk while I was working as an assistant language teacher in Hokkaido,” says Fearnehough. At his desk at the Urahoro board of education, the young Briton was often observed poring over piles of maps and guidebooks as he planned his momentous journey. It was a dream, however, that took him two years to realize. “I wanted to do the journey,” he says, “but I needed a greater purpose than doing it just for myself.”
As his one-year JET placement drew to a close, Fearnehough debated whether to follow his dream or attend graduate school. Finally, Fearnehough decided on a master’s program in Fishery Science at Aberdeen University in Scotland. As part of his graduate research, he traveled to Cambodia for three months in April 2000 to help subsistence farmers develop catfish breeding programs. In Cambodia, he was struck by the large numbers of people who had fallen victim to land mines and were missing arms or legs. “For someone like myself whose passion is to wander off the beaten track, I realized that for people living with the threat of land mines, such simple pleasures can cost them their lives,” Fearnehough says. “I wanted to do something to change the situation I saw in Cambodia.”
Fearnehough recalled numerous stories he had heard of people in the United States doing fundraising walks for charity. “I realized that trekking across Japan for the land-mine cause could be a way to clear a path to a safer world,” he says.
Back in England, he contacted Adopt-a-Minefield, a charity that encourages groups and individuals to raise money to clear specific areas of land. They wrote back expressing enthusiasm about his plan to raise money and awareness for land mine clearance and rehabilitation efforts.
By early August, Fearnehough had started writing letters to friends and contacting potential sponsors. Fearnehough invited Paul Briffa, 24, a friend and skilled outdoorsman, and Ben Davies, 23, an outdoors- training instructor to join him. After six months of planning logistics, negotiating with sponsors and giving interviews to the media, Fearnehough and his two partners set off for Japan.
On Feb. 12, 2001, they climbed their first mountain on Yakushima Island in southern Kyushu. It was the beginning of an arduous 10-month journey for the three men — each of them survived on a budget of 750 yen a day in order to conserve pledge money. They slept under bridges, rummaged for food in convenience-store bins, and when possible, stayed with JETs along the route.
“We traveled like vagrants,” says Fearnehough. “It was an experience that showed us another side of Japan.”
What particularly moved the three Britons was the generosity and warmth of strangers who offered them food and invited them into their homes.
Fearnehough, who spent his childhood with his missionary parents in Hokkaido, had always harbored a special feeling for Japan. The long overland trek allowed him to experience the great diversity — of environments, people and cuisine — of the country where he was born.
But by October, however, the journey had taken its toll on the team. They were three weeks behind schedule, and Davies was forced to take a month’s rest due to a recurring ankle injury. He rejoined Fearnehough and Briffa as they reached Hokkaido, only to encounter their first heavy snows. Before them lay a six-day trek into the desolate Daisetsuzan region of central Hokkaido. It was the most difficult stage of their journey — with waist-deep snows and temperatures that plummeted to minus 15 degrees at night. Briffa and Davies had reached their limits and could go no farther.
Fearnehough, left to challenge the final peaks alone, was blessed with clear skies for the first five days of the ascent. The winter mountains offered some exquisite scenery, but by the fifth night his luck took a turn for the worse. After an all-night storm, he awoke to find his tent covered in snow. Outside, near gale-force winds and blinding snow reduced visibility to almost zero.
He had no choice but to descend and wait for the storm to clear. The storm continued for five days as he waited it out in a local village. Snow drifts along the local roads were nearly shoulder-high. On Dec. 7, he decided to call it quits.
It was not the winter mountains that stopped him just two mountains short of his goal. Fearnehough knew that once the storm cleared and the snow hardened, he could make the ascent wearing snow shoes. It was the final stretch of road, snaking 600 km toward the final mountain on Rishiri Island in northern Hokkaido that concerned him. With snowbanks piling up along the sides of the road, he’d be forced to walk in the middle and endanger road traffic.
“Of course, part of me wanted to continue and could have,” says Fearnehough. “I miss the personal satisfaction of being the first person ever to climb all the hyakumeizan while traversing Japan on foot. But I’m satisfied with what I’ve set out to do and that’s to raise money and awareness of the land-mine problem.”
The achievement of the three-man team has resulted in nearly 4.5 million yen being contributed to mine-clearing efforts, and Fearnehough is now back in Britain planning his next adventure. In September, he will start training to become a teacher in biology and outdoor education at Bangor University in Wales.
“In teaching I hope to encourage students to look at the environment around them and understand its value as an amenity and a resource.”