Posted by: tsubakuro | January 17, 2012

Climbing into the Storm

Recently I have not been posting much about the Japan Alps, only updates on what is happening with the photographs. Last night I once again looked over some old posts from another blog site where I used to post and I found this story. This dates back to July, 2008.

Kitadake is Japan’s second highest mountain – 3,193 metres and a full 583 metres lower than Mt. Fuji. I had been to the summit once before but this time my plan was to shoot scenes of the mountain from the south side, from a mountain called Notoridake. My original idea was to climb up Notori and cross the ridge to Ainodake and then descend by Kitadake. But the hike from below Notori was long and I wouldn’t be able to get there early enough to reach the campsite on the ridge before dark. So I decided to go up by Kitadake and cross over to Notori and descend. This plan was later changed to just going over to Notori and coming back by Kita.

I went with my friend, Mr. B. We left by train early Saturday morning and went to Kofu City where we transferred to a bus and reached the trailhead around noon. It was a hot, sunny day though the top of Kitadake was hidden away in a soft crown of clouds. We joined several groups of hikers on the trail. Some groups were only three or four people large; some were over 20 people large. My pack was big and heavy, as always, and every time we passed people there were many comments about my pack. Especially since there were many women over 55 in those groups (they were carrying day packs and heading up to the nearest lodge) there was a lot of chitter chatter and exclamations when they saw my pack. In truth, though I often go with a 25 or 30 kg pack, this time I was feeling the weight more than usual.

When we reached the first lodge I was welcomed with applause. Mr. B had gone ahead of me and was sitting with four men, the youngest just under 60 years of age, and having a beer. Though we still had more climbing to do I was glad to take a rest for a bit and I too hoisted a can of draught beer. I’ll tell you, beer never tastes better than after a couple of hours of grueling hot exercise.

The other hikers were staying at the lodge and were already in party mode. At one table they were hitting the sake and one man insisted he had to try to carry my bag. Like a drunken clown he strained and groaned and laughed out loud. A woman at the same table looked at the scars on Mr. B’s legs and asked about them. I told her he likes skateboarding, snowboarding and motocross. She gave him an admonishing look like a mother would her son. I said he liked outdoor activities. She said even outdoor activities have limits. When we loaded up to continue up to the ridge, the woman looked at us like a mother seeing her grown sons off on some potentially dangerous journey and told us over and over to be careful.

From here the climb really wore me down. I didn’t know but one of my straps had lengthened itself and my pack was not evenly sitting on my shoulders. I developed a very painful backache and had to stop many times. Clouds had come in and thunder boomed in the far distance. I nearly gave up once but Mr. B kept encouraging me and finally helped by taking my tripod, which was about 3kg. At last we made the ridge. High overhead a few clear openings in the clouds revealed huge billowy ships of cumulus clouds catching the orange rays of sunset. There was a wind blowing but no rain fell. Thunder continued far off and sounded like a heavy drawer being closed inside a mattress.

We reached camp after dark and set up in the chill wind, got inside the tent and changed into dry clothes and heated up water for dinner. Outside was dark but flashes of distant lightning frequently added illumination. We looked outside and saw a gigantic white mushroom over the Kofu Basin emerging ominously from the darkness with each pulsing glow from inside the cloud.

Mr. B woke me up saying the sun was coming up. A dark orange ember stretched across the horizon. It was still 45 minutes before sunrise and ten minutes before my alarm was going to go off. We ate, dressed for the chilly wind outside and went out to photograph the dawn. One man near me was having an epiphany. “The sun has come up! The world has turned once again!” He clapped his hands together in what would have seemed like mock prayer because of the big grin on his face but I think he was serious. Had this been sunset I might have taken him for drunk. But he was simply expressing his appreciation for the beauty of a sunrise seen from a mountain. I have seen a number of sunsets on mountains but I have never seen someone so intoxicated by a sunrise before, so he actually caught my attention more than the sunrise.

Mr. B and I finished our shoot and began the climb up to the summit of Kitadake. The clouds came in and soon we were walking in fog. Fortunately, as we stayed on the summit with some 30 other people, the clouds cleared off and once again we could see the neighbouring mountains. I was geared up to continue to Ainodake. Mr. B followed me down from Kita, but I got the impression he had accomplished his goal as was content to stay longer on the summit and then go back. He had to go that day. I still had one more night.

We hadn’t gone far up the path toward Ainodake when Mr. B said he was tired and would turn back now. We parted ways and I continued climbing. Clouds came in and I took some time to photograph wildflowers. The weather wasn’t improving. Ten minutes from the summit of Ainodake I stopped for lunch and looked at the grey mist. The sake party members passed and greeted me. I decided not to go to the summit of Ainodake. I had been there before and this time I would just be standing in the clouds. Notoridake would be out of view. I went back towards Kitadake and stopped by the lodge for a rest.

After 3 o’clock I decided to give up on the weather. I started the hour-long haul back up to the summit of Kita, which I had to cross to reach my tent on the other side. The rain started when I was about 20 minutes from the summit. I had a pack cover and a jacket, but the jacket was not meant for pouring rain and soaked through within minutes. Hail fell and thunder boomed near. I had heard that on mountains lightning can actually travel uphill. The sky flashed and thunder came with a tearing sound, a sign that the strikes were not so far away anymore.

I realized my predicament. Here I was climbing up into a thunderstorm. Lighting strikes higher objects and I was about to reach the summit of the second highest object in the whole country with a thunderstorm sitting right on top! I thought about seeking shelter under a large rock until the worst had passed but there were no large rocks with a sheltering dry space below and the wind was blowing the rain horizontally anyway. Also I was still warm because I was moving. If I stopped I would start to feel cold and that could lead to hypothermia. Another concern was that in this strong wind my tent might not stay put. The ground was too rocky to get the tent pegs in securely and so Mr. B had tied the strings on the fly to large rocks. I didn’t trust them in this wind, however.

So I climbed up and lightning continued to flash. I knew I had only one option and that was to keep going. I thought about my wife and child and hoped God wouldn’t think it appropriate to strike me down with lightning now. Even if a lightning strike didn’t kill me it could leave me unconscious or immobilized and I might die of hypothermia. But I crossed the summit unscathed and made the slippery journey down the other side back to camp.

The rain abated and the lightning moved on. I came back to camp at last, a bedraggled mess, and saw my tent on its side and struggling to hold on to (or break free from) the last of its tethers. I rushed over and struggled to get my pack off and thrown inside to weigh down the tent. Everything was wet from rain blowing in through the bottom and dirty from the dust that got everywhere in the dry weather. I managed to get things in order and dried myself with a towel I had brought. Thankfully I had had the foresight to put my dry clothes in a plastic bag and I could change right away. I then heated water and had cup pasta. Feeling better I went out and re-secured the tent, then slid into my sleeping bag and waited for dawn. I hoped for a sunny day so I could dry my things before heading down.

The moon came out at night but dawn brought more fog. I waited until some time after seven and then finally decided it would be better to just start heading back. I ate and packed up camp, the wind still trying to send my tent off into the sky. I was ten minutes down the trail when the rain began again. My clothes from the day before were already soaked through and packed away. Now my dry clothes were getting wet. My rain pants held out the best. It was nearly an hour before I felt my legs damp.

The route down was steep and made more difficult by the rain. Rocks and earth became slippery and unstable. I had to go down not only with groups of other people but also had to step aside for groups of people coming up, sometimes as many as 20 people in a group. The rain went on and off. Whenever I thought, “Well, at least the rain stopped now,” it would start again. Some people had umbrellas and stood at the side of the trail, waiting. I managed a smile and looked at the situation lightly. I was soaked. There was nothing I could do but continue down the trail. There had been patches of sunlight in the valley below when I first stated out but they were replaced by mist and rain. The trees looked beautiful. A kind of birch with bark peeling back to show a caramel colour reached their branches into the mist. All leaves glowed soothingly green and buttercup-like flowers made yellow spots in the fresh verdure. Further below in the valley I found rushing streams, waterfalls, shiny boulders with striated patterns sitting in roiling foam, and the sweet heady scent of a healthy, damp, oxygen-producing forest. It was tempting to stop for photos but the rain always threatened to start again soon. It did stop at last and in the final hour of my descent I began to dry off a little.

Today, two days after coming back, my legs still ache and walking isn’t easy. I haven’t felt this sore for a long time. Usually hiking a few times a year prevents me from having stiff legs but this time it’s like I haven’t hit the trails for a year. Maybe my pack was too heavy. I am off for five days next month. I had better check the weight of my pack before I go. And I should not take distant thunder so lightly.

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