One of the things my dad used to always warn me about when hiking was not to get wet feet on account of the blisters it usually causes: after all, it’s no fun limping out the last few miles of a hike. He also warned about getting wet in general on account of hypothermia: he always said that it was a danger even when it doesn’t seem that cold out. I remember him telling me about how delirious and disoriented he and one of his buddies got when they got rained on during a winter trip back when he was in college. And whenever I do happen to get a little wet on a hiking trip, also I’m reminded of the man and his two sons who got rained on while hiking the Ozark Trail one winter back in Missouri. It was January at the time, but a warm day so they weren’t dressed too heavily. A sudden storm blew up and they got soaked pretty good. As evening drew on, the temperature dropped and they got cold. And disoriented, as one will when you get hypothermia. Then they got lost. They died.
I found myself thinking of them as I sat in a small pavilion on the side of that mountain in the Japanese East Alps, somewhere above the Taiyôji. The rain had begun again since I left, and stronger and heavier than it had been before. The trail had become so saturated that a small stream was now flowing down it, and the rain was coming down hard enough that even my water-resistant shoes were soaked through and through, not to mention the rest of me. I was getting cold.
Hiking in the rain is no joke, but in August in Tokyo the temperatures never get very cold — in fact, they never get cold at all. For that reason, I wasn’t too worried about the typhoon. In the hot summer, it’d surely just help cool me off and make the trip more pleasant. I’d therefore set off with nothing more than a T-shirt and my running shorts. Of course, up there in the mountains the temperatures were actually cooler than they were down in the plain, and doubly so because of the rain and wind from the typhoon. Luckily, the body heat I was generating from hiking combined with the cheap poncho I bought at 7-11 were doing fine to keep me plenty warm, but whenever I took a break, as I was now, I would quickly start to cool off. Conscious of my body temperature, I set off again. As I walked, I started to wonder what color my lips were. A sure sign of hypothermia is blue or purple lips, or at least I remember being told that when I was a kid. I didn’t have a mirror, though, and it was raining too hard to take a picture with my phone.
Despite all this, I was still in good spirits. I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, what a story this will be! Who goes hiking in a typhoon? I must be pretty bad-ass.” As the afternoon wore on, though, I started to get more and more annoyed with the weather. I was thinking particularly about setting up my tent tonight. I intended to use my poncho as a ground cloth, but that of course would require me to take it off while I set up the tent, which I wasn’t at all enjoying the thought of. Nor was I thinking that I would enjoy sleeping wet in my sleeping bag all night. On top of that, given the intensity of the rain, I wasn’t sure how well my tent would be able to keep my dry either.
Eventually I came to a fork on the path. Though I couldn’t take out my maps because of the rain, I remembered the spot: the trail would split in two, one going up to a peak, Kirimo ga Mine (霧藻ヶ峰, “Moss Peak”), and the other bypassing it and going directly towards the destination I had originally planned for the night, Kumotori Lodge (雲取山荘), which is located high on the ridge near the summit of the mountain of the same name, the most famous peak on the hike. I wasn’t entirely sure what the lodge would be like, but given the name I figured I’d be able to get out of the rain and dry off for the night. A worthy destination for one in my situation. Unfortunately, I’m stubborn, so instead of taking the shortcut I decided to go straight up to the peak.
As I climbed onward, though, I couldn’t help but think again about the man and his two boys who died on the Ozark Trail all of those years ago. They were hiking in an apparently safe, familiar location, and yet by some accident they managed to end up dead. Here I was in a completely unfamiliar environment, hiking in the last gasp of a typhoon soaked to the bone with a downpour that was only getting stronger. I couldn’t help but wonder if this might be the time that I’d bitten off more than I could chew. Knowing that it was difficult to tell that you were getting delirious with the cold when you were in fact delirious with cold, I had to constantly question my own mental state: Am I tired, or is the cold setting in? It was an interesting feeling, probably akin to being a patient in a mental institution who feels like he’s sane, but isn’t quite sure given his situation.
These thoughts and others came and went as I scaled Moss Peak. When I was surely approaching the top, I rounded a corner of the trail to see a small structure ahead of me, make of brown wood with an outer wall fronting an inner structure hallway linking two entrances on either side. Looks like a bathroom, I thought. But by god it was shelter from the rain! I immediately went inside. Sure enough, it was a bathroom, and smelled like one too. But it was dry in there at least.
Once I managed to dry out my hands sufficiently, I pulled out my maps to check how long it was to the lodge, thinking I might just be able to push it out for another hour. Not so lucky. I was still several hours away according to the map. I really didn’t want to spend that much more time in the rain. I was cold, I was wet, and frankly I just wanted to wait it out somewhere dry. Then slowly it dawned on me: I was in a dry place right now. Sure, it was a stinky dry place, but it was a dry place after all. I could just throw down my sleeping bag in here and I could spend a dry, smelly night and then continue on early in the morning, hopefully after the storm had passed. If I was lucky, I might even be able to make up the time I would be giving up this evening. But then I got to thinking. Why is there a bathroom up here on the top of a mountain? There can’t just be a bathroom, can there? Surely there must be more. I resolved to go back out into the rain and check.
I got back on the trail and started walking again. It went down a little and along the base of a small cliff face. Rounding the far side of the cliff, a small cabin came into view. It looked locked up tight, but it had a covered porch and !! under the porch, protected from the rain, stacks and stacks of dry wood. !! Dry wood !! I might be able to make a fire and dry out!! If the exclamation points haven’t appropriately conveyed my mood, I was positively elated.
I immediately got under the porch and dropped by my bag. Right in front of me were three metal panels covering what was clearly a door space. Thinking they had to be locked, I tested them anyway and, unexpectedly, they slid sideways without any effort, revealing sliding glass doors behind them. These, I thought, had to be locked. No way they would be left open. But, I tested them and they too slid right open. I went inside.
What I found was a small room lined by benches, and underneath each was stacked even more dry firewood. Furthermore, right in the center of the room was (I couldn’t believe my luck) a woodstove! It wasn’t long before I had a roaring fire going.
Having thus assured that I wouldn’t spend the night fighting hypothermia, I began making myself at home, storing my bag, setting up my shoes and socks by the fire to dry, and getting ready to make dinner. Digging around in my bag for my package of Johnsonville cheese-filled brawts (yes, you can buy those in Japan), something caught my attention out of the corner of my eye through the front door. I turned to look and just about jumped out of my skin when I saw a face looking in at me. Who on Earth would be on the mountain in a typhoon? I thought to myself without a hint of irony. I walked to the door and opened it the rest of the way. What I saw was a sopping wet Asian man with close-cropped hair carrying a small backpack.
“Konnichiwa,” I said.
“Hello,” he responded.
“Well, come on in!”
He entered, dropped his pack, and proceeded to strip off his sopping wet raincoat and shoes. As I continued with my mission to make dinner, we began to talk. It turned out this guy was a Chinese college student in his masters or PhD, I can’t remember which now, at a university in one of the provinces adjacent to Tokyo. He apparently loved going on hiking adventures, though his generally consisted of going out alone for a single day. Apparently he was doing a Kumotori Mountain course that I’d viewed while planning this trip, an overnight trip that I rejected because I figured I could have done it in just one day. Apparently he thought the same and probably could have if he hadn’t been slowed down by the typhoon. At this rate, he figured he wouldn’t be able to make it down before the last bus left for the night.
“Well, you’re welcome to stay here,” I said. “It’s warm, you can dry out, and then go down first thing in the morning.” At this point I handed him a brawt fresh out of the fire, on a slice of plain white bread.
“This is great! You must be a really good cook.”
“Nah, it’s just that anything warm tastes good when your wet and cold on the side of a mountain.” I started preparing a brawt for myself. “So what brought you up on the mountain all alone like this? Don’t any of your friends like hiking too?”
“No, not really. Most of my friends aren’t interested. They think I’m crazy to go out on the mountain alone all day like this too.”
“They must think I’m really crazy then! I’m going to be out here for four days!”
“All by yourself? Isn’t it scary to sleep on the mountain alone?”
“Well, it is at first, but you get used to it after a while. After a while, it’s starts to be pretty nice. It’s like, well I always take these trips when I have a vacation. You know, after a few days up in the mountains, completely alone, you get a few benefits. Like, first, you spend three or four days doing something this difficult, and when you get back to work, it feels like your starting a vacation instead.”
He nodded with a contemplative look on his face.
“On top of that, being alone is good too. When I don’t have anything to distract me, I have no choice but to fight out my demons, you know? Like, if there’s anything that’s bothering me, like if someone did something bad to me or if I did something wrong and I feel bad about it, I have the time to work it through in my head. And what’s more, when I’m all alone, I have the time to recognize the positive points of the people in my life who I don’t like so much. When they’re completely out of my life for a few days like this, I can really know what life would be like if that person weren’t a part of my life anymore. I guess what I mean is, it helps me know which people I should cut and which I should keep, if you know what I mean.”
“You could be a philosopher.”
“Maybe.” Inwardly I thought maybe I was just living out my own Jeremiah Johnson fantasy, but I figured the reference would be lost so I didn’t say it out loud.
“You know, in my imagination, I think all Americans are like you.”
“Well, I’m definitely not like most Americans.”
“What do you mean?”
“Most Americans wouldn’t go up into the mountains all alone for four days, let alone do it in a typhoon.”
“Real Americans aren’t at all like what you see in the movies.”
As the evening wore on, the storm continued to intensify, especially the wind. We both felt with greater and greater certainty that we’d made the right decision to stay here for the night. By 8 o’clock we started to get tired though, so we decided to turn in for the night.
– – –
Dawn comes early in Japan, that’s one thing I’ve noticed while living here. It comes doubly early in the mountains. I think I first noticed the light at about 4:30 am. By five the two of us were both up and getting ready to go. Thanks to the fire, all our clothes were mostly dry, and to our pleasure we discovered that the storm had died out overnight too. We were ready to continue on our way. But first! We had to take a few photos. Funny, but we forgot to take one together.
Stay tuned next week for Part IV in the series, where I work hard to make up for lost time and learn some hard lessons about hiking long distances with wet feet!
This post is part three in a multi-part series on my four-day hiking trip in the East Alps of Japan. To view the rest of the posts, use the navigation links below.
© 2017 Brian Heise