Thursday, January 24, 2013
Danger on Peaks
How narrow is the line which separates an adventure from an ordeal.
A couple mistakes, some wise decisions....
When Wes fell down the slope onto the rocks, I thought that we were both finished.
About eight hours earlier, we'd pulled into a small village at the base of the ridge. Initially, we 'd intended to snowshoe up from the ski area, but as we drove north in Shiga, there wasn't as must snow as expected, so we decided to do a simple hike instead. I aimed the front of the car toward Jyatani-dake, and parked where the road ended at Hata, which advertised itself as one of Japan's one hundred most beautiful villages. Jyatani itself had been specifically chosen as today's goal since the first character in its name 蛇谷 could be read as "snake," and we were three days into the Year of the Snake.
I was a bit too warm on this pleasant afternoon, dressed in my ski wear and in insulated boots. We moved up past the rice fields, along a small stream, and onto some simple trails. Most of the paths through here looked like they were used more by local farmers and woodsmen than hikers. We tried to make sense of multiple trails criss-crossing one another, until we found a definitive white sign which had an arrow pointing us toward the mountain. Up we went.
Not long after telling Wes that I don't mind hiking during this season because you rarely have to worry about bears or snakes, we saw prints with their unmistakable outline of five fingers and claws. They, like the snow, were a few days old, but it was obvious that the bears used this trail too. In fact, we followed those tracks all the way up to the pass.
There hadn't been much snow on the trails, and even here on the ridge the path was pretty obvious. I took a quick reading off the GPS, and thought that the peak was probably only about 2km away. We prudently agreed that if we weren't on the peak by two o'clock, we'd turn around and stay safe.
The ridge rose gradually, the snow deepening somewhat. It was still only about mid-calf deep, and except for the occasional post-holing, we made good speed along the ridge. The final half km was pretty steep, and it was here I pulled out my trekking poles. Wes was just ahead, and I found him waiting on top when I arrived, the snow swirling around him in small violent eddies. It was about ten minutes past two at this time, so we decided not to linger. Magically, the clouds parted then, and rewarded us with incredible views in all directions. After a few photos, we headed down. It had taken us less than two hours from car to peak, so we'd easily get to the car by four, with a buffer of more than an hour until dark. Then the hot springs, some hot noodles...
We saved even more time by glissading down, laughing as we skidded down the snowy hill on our waterproof skipants. Then following our own prints back along the ridge again, appreciating the warmth of the sun on our faces. We came to a sign we'd somehow missed earlier, telling us that in another half km we'd be back at the trail junction and out of the snow.
It was around here that we made an honest mistake. Rather than follow the blazes of tape that we'd seen earlier on branches along the trail, we kept following our prints, which led down to the left. It turned out that those hadn't been our prints after all. They now looked to be those of a woman, or a small man, though they could've been animal prints that had broadened as they melted during the warming of the day. In any case, we were off the ridge and off trail.
Here was our second mistake, one we created. Rather than backtrack, we looked at the stream in front of us and thought that it was probably the same stream we'd crossed a few times lower down, so if we followed it we'd meet the trail further down. The snow started to lightly fall.
The terrain was relatively flat for awhile, but after awhile the walls on either side of the water began to rise, and we wound up walking in the stream itself. Still no problem; the water was only a few centimeters deep and we both had solid waterproof snowboots. Eventually, the waterfalls began to appear, forcing us to shuffle sideways along the cliffs above the water, kicking footholds into the snow for ease of footing. At one point, we had climb fairly high up to get around a steep curve in the stream. From here, it didn't look too far to the ridge itself, so we decided to climb back up. Following a set of deer prints, we angled up the steep rise, taking good care.
At the top of the ridge, we found some taped trail blazes. I checked the GPS, and we doubled back the way we'd come, assuming that we'd find the trail we'd come up fairly soon. Instead, the trail led us back to the stream again, a section we'd walked down about thirty minutes before. I knew that if we headed in the opposite direction toward the next peak, we'd find a logging road which we lead us back down to our village and the car. So we turned around and climbed back up the trail. It was a stiff ascent to the next peak, and atop it, we found a faded sign. The only thing we could make out was the red dot marking out location, and the faint squiggles of a logging road somewhere nearby. The GPS showed it to be to the south, unfortunately down into a very dark stretch of forest. It was just past five now, the dark coming. I can't speak for Wes, but this was the first time that I thought we might be lost. The batteries on my iPhone were just about dead.
We dropped into the gloom. I pulled out my compass and kept it close, trying to keep us heading west. We came to another stream and decided to follow it, thinking that even if we missed the road, the stream would be the source of irrigation for somebodies rice fields, and we'd pop out above a village somewhere. I lost this optimism about a half hour later when the first of the water entered my boots. Then the situation became fucking serious. We were in a far steeper watershed than the one earlier, and the waterfalls got taller and taller. Arriving at one pool, I couldn't see the depth because by now it was well past dark, the snow still falling. I lowered my trekking pole into the water to check the depth. Up to the grip. We sat and talked awhile, then I leapt forward, hoping to land in the shallows beyond the pool. I found myself in waist deep water. I scrambled out quickly, but was wet to the skin. Behind me, I heard Wes make his own leap and the corresponding splash.
Things began to spiral. The snow was falling harder now, and the strength of my headlamp was like a car headlight, making it difficult to see against the swirl. Wes broke his trekking pole, and we were down to one each. At some point I fell sideways, and was now wet to the chest. I pulled my gloves off my sopping hands and poured the water out, then put them back on. Down the stream we went.
Finally, we were near constantly climbing around waterfalls. The risk was getting too great, so we decided to climb to the top of whatever ridge we were on, and hope to see lights from above. As Wes was making his way toward me, he dropped his light. He took a few hesitant steps toward it, then he accelerated into the darkness, followed by the sound of tumbling stones. I thought then, if he's injured, neither of us will make it out of here alive. All night we'd been diligent in not getting out of each others' sight, but now I could no longer see or hear him down there in the dark.
I heard him call up to me. He was pretty banged up in the fall, splitting his shin and forehead, and bruising his knee. Worst was that he'd somehow lost both his gloves when he'd tried to slow the rate of his fall with his hands. But he could walk. And climb. Slowly, laboriously, he made his way up to the ledge where I was, and sat heavily beside.
He went into his pack and pulled out a down jacket, reasonably dry, and some of those chemical hand warmers. With the hand warmers in his palms, he pulled his closed fists into the sleeves of the jacket for warmth. This sort of thing should generally take only a couple of minutes. Wes took ten. He was fumbling and dropping things, obviously beginning to go into shock from the fall. My own situation was getting out of control. Though I had fallen repeatedly into the stream, my insulated ski wear had down a pretty good job keeping most of the water out. As it wasn't very breathable, my own body heat dried me out pretty quickly. When I was moving, I didn't feel the cold at all. But since Wes took his fall, I'd been sitting for probably twenty minutes, and was finally starting to shake. When he was ready a few minutes later, we started to climb.
It was incredibly punishing work, pushing upward, trying to find decent footholds in the snow and the spongy, slippery leaves underneath. We deliberately followed a line that had the most trees, so we could grab their branches and pull ourselves up. Too often they would break, the weight shifting scarily backward. Between the trees were exposed roots, and small ground shrubs that offered a grip. If the gap between these was too great, often I'd lunge for a handhold somewhere. We would take a step, then pause, breathing heavily. It was agonizing.
And at one point, I wanted to just give up. It was a pretty casual feeling, like when you're involved in some monotonous task, and you suddenly think, "This sucks!" and stop doing it. I just wanted to stop right there and do anything but what I'd been doing. But I knew that that would be the end.
Yet even that idea seemed okay. In those heartbreakingly painful months and years after losing Ken, I had an attitude that I didn't care if I died. Not that I wanted to kill myself, but that I just didn't care either way. Perhaps to die meant a chance to be with my son again. And I thought that now, halfway up some nameless ridge north of Kyoto. I liked the sound of it, and the fatigue and tension in my body began to release. But then a stronger voice suddenly said, "You have Sora now. Ken doesn't need you. Your daughter does."
After what must've been at least an hour, we finally reached the ridge, sat in the snow, drank the last of the hot tea from the thermos. We seemed to be on trail, and passed a few trail blazes, saw a few concrete surveyor's marks. We tried to follow the ridge, but it was hard to figure anything out due the snow, falling in a blizzard by now. My headlamp made it impossible to see any perspective, and turning it off brought complete darkness.
But Wes now had cell phone reception. We called our friend Mike, who called the police. We were sitting beside surveyor mark 074, and surely that location had been input into a database somewhere. They should be able to pinpoint exactly where we are. We started to gather kindling to make a fire. If a rescue team was coming, we needed to stay put, but if we did, we'd get cold. I had some good stormproof matches, but had a hard time getting them lit, since the striker was damp. Wes tore some pages out of the guidebook. (We later got a big laugh out of the fact that they were the from the winter survival section!) A few pages started to burn, then blew out quickly. The wind and snow were just too much, the wood too wet.
Then a strange thing happened. We both saw what we thought were lights over on an adjacent ridge nor far away. The rescuers must have taken a logging road up. We started shouting, and I was sure that they could see my headlamp. But as our eyes got used to the swirl of snow, we sat that the lights were from villages miles away down by Lake Biwa. At least we were sure which way was east.
The police called back and told us that the storm had prevented a rescue until morning. We'd be dead by then. Hours earlier, as it was first growing dark, Wes had said to me with a serious face, "We're going to get home alive." And I said calmly "I know." I don't think that either of us truly felt that we were going to die, yet we were realistic enough to recognize that we wouldn't survive until morning. I'd hoped that we could get the fire going, and could get warm and dry and just tell stories for the rest of night. A snow shelter was not a real possibility, since we were already wet and to lay down in the snow meant sure hypothermia. Most of our food was gone, the water in my backpack reservoir had frozen long before. If the cavalry wasn't going to save us, then we had to find our own way down.
If we sat too long, we got cold. I thought that if we couldn't get down, we could at least keep walking the ridge until dawn, and stay warm. We began to notice that many of the trees around us had been wrapped in blue tape, signifying a cedar forest harvested for logging. Some stumps verified it. If there was active logging up here, then the road was close by. We kept going back and forth across the ridge top a few times, hoping to find a road or trail, but the snow kept disorienting us, our tracks now pointing in all directions.
Then Wes saw the lights, close in, just below us. More wrapped trees lined that side of the ridge. We were both worried about entering another watershed again, but decided to shoot straight down toward those lights. We did come to a stream, which mercifully wasn't very steep. The loggers had really done a job through here, the streambed covered by a jumble of discarded branches and trunks. Though the water level was low, it was hard work making our way through them, and at one point Wes slipped and bruised a rib.
Moving downward, I looked up to the right and noticed that there seemed to be a gap between the standing trees and the edge of the stream. Many trails in Japan tend to follow watersheds. It took me a few minutes to pull my exhausted self up and out of the river, and I finally flopped onto trail. I called to Wes who was a little ahead of me, and he too climbed up.
After about five minutes, we came to a road, and better still, a gate on the far side that was there to keep the animals out of the fields of a village that would surely be no more than few hundred meters on. After passing through, I wearily joked to Wes, "This is the point of the night where we meet the bear."
To our right, the rectangular indentations of rice paddies. Triangular silhouettes of thatch-roofed farmhouses. If this wasn't one of the 100 most beautiful villages in Japan, if was certainly the single most beautiful one to me.
Our plan had been to find a house with lights on, and ask the inhabitants for tea and a hot bath. We'd deal with the car later. We made our way through the village down a road flowing with hose-drawn water in order to keep it from freezing. And there at the bottom, miraculously, was my car. When we had set out at noon, there had been no snow at all here. Now exactly twelve hours later, I wiped about 30 cm off my windshield before opening the door.
We sat in the bus shelter next to my car, out of the snow still falling. Wes had some dry clothes to change into. My own had mostly dried under my waterproofs, but my socks were still sopping. I changed into a dry pair shoes that I happened to have in the car,, but went sockless, planning to buy a pair at the first convenience store we came to. As we changed, we assessed the damage (though it wouldn't be until later that we'd know the full extent).
Compared to Wes, I was pretty lucky: only a handful of scratches, some soreness around the back and chest from some unremembered fall, thigh muscles occasionally cramping from fatigue. Despite the fact that my feet had been wet most of the night, my toes seemed okay. The real worry was my fingers. Even as I type this a few weeks later, I still don't have full sensation in two fingertips of my right hand. Wes had given me two disposable heating pads to put in my gloves, which probably saved me from worse. Strangest was that if I bent my thumb, I couldn't straighten it again. This was probably due to muscle fatigue in the wrists from grabbing trees and the tight grip on my trekking poles. Luckily, my thumbs would be fine in the morning.
Wes was much more banged up. He'd bruised a rib, had nasty bruises along both legs, and had ugly cuts down his shin and on his forehead. He'd injured his knee pretty badly, which he hadn't felt due to the natural icing effect of the cold. (By the time we returned back to my house, it had swollen to the size of a softball.)
We threw our gear in my car--wet and muddy clothes, bent trekking poles--and drove off down a road covered deep in snow. Wes called Mike to tell him we'd gotten out, and he passed that on to the police. It was little surprise when they called back a few minutes later.
They wanted us to come to a local police box. We asked them if could wait until morning. All we wanted was to get to a convenience store for something hot. Plus I didn't like the look of the roads, and we were over an hour away from home. The cops promised that it wouldn't take long. We entered a cold police box, waking an officer as we did. Two others came in, and the paperwork began. The cops were pleasant, but it was apparent that they were more interested in finishing their paperwork than in caring for our well-being. The only heater was on their side of the desk. No blankets or hot drinks were offered. Wes finally asked for water, which was thankfully hot. And as we went through their questions both pertinent and not (why do you need to know my occupation, or my wife's phone number, or want my fucking photograph?), something dawned on me.
While we'd still been in danger up on the ridge, they'd told us that any rescue would have to wait until morning. And this wasn't due to the storm or the lack of available team members on a holiday night. They simply weren't prepared for this kind of thing. This idea solidified in my head over the next couple of days when reading the news. Two climbers dead on Fuji. One more in Hokkaido. Half of an eight person hiking group dead in Nagano. A party of twelve in Gifu managed to survive two nights in the wild. The storm we'd been in had packed a wallop across the country. Hikers were lost and dying. And the police didn't have the training nor the plan to get them home alive. I thought of the efficiency in which Search and Rescue operates in the Western Rockies. Japan needs to train their firefighters, or their SDF forces, to tackle these emergency situations. It is indisputable that this current hiking boom will continue to grow, and the body count will surely rise along with it.
Wes and I warmed ourselves at the counter of the Family Mart, eating cup noodle and downing multiple bottles of hot drinks. The storm outside was getting worse. I normally don't like driving in snow, especially in a kei car that weighs little more than a paperclip. But as we drifted slowly over the snow, I didn't have the usual fatigue in the shoulders, the usual eye strain from intensely scanning the surface for black ice. I was calm, happy to face this lesser danger after our near escape from a greater one.
Yet one last point lingers, albeit a silly one. I think of that Ambrose Bierce story, and of old Peyton Farquhar. Three weeks have passed since we came home, weeks filled with the usual peaks and valleys of a life lived. But how can I be assured that this isn't all just a game of the mind, and I'm that I'm not still sitting up there on the ridge in the snow, dreaming our escape, and a subsequent life that will never actually come to pass?
(Wes has written his own take on it all, in five parts. Part One is here.)
(And video of my telling the story at The Flame can be found here.)
On the turntable: Lucinda Williams, "Live @ the Fillmore"