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A Tiring Ascent on Fuji, Then a Flood of Gratitude

July 19, 1998|ERIC TALMADGE | ASSOCIATED PRESS

EDITOR'S NOTE

Associated Press correspondent Eric Talmadge and photographer Junji Kurokawa accompanied heart transplant recipient Kelly Perkins and her husband, Craig, both of Laguna Niguel, as they ascended Mt. Fuji on July 10. Kelly didn't know it until they reached the summit, but Craig was carrying the ashes of the woman whose heart now beats inside her. The woman's daughter had asked Craig to take the remains with them on their journey. Here are some excerpts from a story Talmadge wrote after he watched the Perkinses release the ashes at the summit of Japan's tallest peak.

*

The ascent was split into two legs.

It began at Station 5, a little base camp 8,250 feet up, complete with restaurants, lodges and a post office.

From there, Kelly, who is 5 feet 3 and weighs 95 pounds, hiked for four hours with her husband and a personal trainer to Station 8. There they rested and acclimatized for several hours.

Mt. Fuji is an almost perfect cone. The volcano is a symbol of beauty in Japan and has been worshiped for centuries.

The climb is not technically challenging. Pilgrims need no mountain-climbing skills. But Fuji's slopes are covered with a muscle-grinding mixture of ash and loose stone.

That was a problem for Kelly.

Because her heart's nerves were severed for her transplant, it does not "know" immediately when to start beating faster to match the exertion of her body. Adrenaline kicks in after a few minutes, but until then she must endure an oppressive feeling of fatigue.

And, unlike her previous climbs, the trail up Fuji offers virtually no level ground.

*

The climb was over.

In her hand she held the photo of a person she had never met, never spoken to, never seen.

Just after sunrise, crouching on Fuji's rugged rim, Kelly and Craig opened the small leather pouch containing the woman's ashes.

Clutching the photo and weeping, Kelly watched the gray remains of the woman who gave her a heart swirl from the pouch and disperse over Japan's sacred volcano, vanishing into the alpine storm.

"It's almost like seeing an angel," she said. "She has been a kind of mysterious figure in my life for so long. But now it's real."

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