On Surviving Solo Hikes

Before you go on a solo hike, it’s critical to make sure you have a detailed itinerary and that you give it to someone close to you before you leave: if something goes wrong and you end up stuck out there, you want someone to send help, and you want them to be able narrow down the area where you might be as much as possible.

This point was driven home to me pretty hard on the last day of my summer hike, when I finally got wifi and received a text message from Ivy asking whether I was alright after the typhoon passed over three days before. The thing that hit me rather suddenly was the date stamp — she had sent it the morning after the typhoon and hadn’t sent another since. Clearly she assumed I was fine and that I just couldn’t get signal up in the mountains and indeed, her assumption was 100% correct. But in that moment I asked myself the question, what if I hadn’t been alright? What if I got into trouble on that first night on Moss Peak? What if I’d been stuck up there all that time before Ivy finally realized she needed to send help? This was followed by an even more chilling thought: I hadn’t even told Ivy where I was going. It was such a basic error, but it could have cost me my life.

Now, back in the same mountain range in December of the same year, I made efforts to rectify this situation, providing Ivy with a detailed day-by-day plan indicating where I would be on each day. On top of that, I instructed Tianyu to contact her when he got home on the second night to let her know I was fine when he last saw me. If she didn’t receive that message, she could assume that we were both in trouble and that were somewhere between the Karisaka Trailhead and Kobushi Peak, narrowing the search area to less than half. On the other side, if she did get Tianyu’s message but I didn’t send her a message some time in the afternoon of the last day, then yet again she’d still have a narrower area where I might be. It was a good plan.

Except for one problem: we were about half a day behind schedule and on the first day I had had to change the last day of the hike to end at a completely different destination — heck, in a completely different prefecture — on account of the fact that the bus route that I wanted to take down was closed for the winter season. This, I gradually realized over the course of the first day and a half, put me in a potentially more dangerous situation than the one I was trying to avoid: if something were to happen on the last day, the rescue parties would end up searching in the wrong place, meanwhile assuming that I definitely wouldn’t be in the place I actually was. I was in an incredibly dangerous situation.

Leaning against a rock on the slopes of Tokusa Mountain (木賊山, “Horsetail Mountain”) and taking in the view, I waited for Tianyu to catch up so I could explain this to him.

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The view from the slopes of Tokusa

“Make sure you tell Ivy my new plan when you get home tonight, alright?”

“No problem,” he replied.

I felt somewhat more secure, but of course whether I actually was or not was dependent on whether or not Ivy got the message, a fact that I wouldn’t be able to verify until I got down off the ridge.

 

The Race to Kobushi Continues

It was about 10:00 a.m. earlier that morning, the second day of our trip, when Tianyu and I left Sasadaira Shelter (笹平避難小屋) with a bare two hours to reach Kobushi-ga-Take and still have enough time for Tianyu to get back down to catch the last bus. I, on the other hand, would be continuing along the ridge alone, higher and higher into colder, snowier territory, all the while hoping that my last liter or so of water would last me until I reached Ôdarumi Pass (大弛峠) sometime tomorrow.

If one were to simply consider the distance, we actually weren’t all that far — a mere 2.4 kilometers. Such a small distance is deceptively simple, especially for those like me who are used to terrain like the Ozarks in southeast Missouri. Back there, 2.4 kilometers over two hours would be a piece of cake in those low, rolling hills. Make no mistake though: the mountains of Japan are completely different, rife as they are with abrupt changes in elevation sometimes spanning well over of meters of elevation change over a single kilometer of trail. This was one of those locations: over that short distance we needed to ascend a full 400 meters, or 166 meters per kilometer. For the uninitiated let me just say that that’s means a crazy steep slope.

Ordinarily on such slopes I’m pretty content to take my time and not rush since I hike more for the view and the psychological benefit than I do for the exercise. Unfortunately we were in no position to take it easy, so we rushed upwards as fast as we could, which, mind you, with our heavy packs wasn’t all that fast, but it was incredibly strenuous. I personally was breathing heavily and felt hot enough to not even notice that the temperature was well below freezing. Tianyu, despite the fact that this was his first winter hike and his first over nighter to boot (including his first time hiking with such a heavy bag), didn’t offer a single word of complaint, though the expression on his face told me pretty clearly that he was suffering.

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Where we came from: Mt. Hafu in the distance

As can be seen from the photo above, we crossed a decent sized patch of rock and sand on the ascent, but eventually the trail passed into forest again and, thankfully, leveled out. Eventually we came to a fork in the trail, with one side heading up to the summit of Tokusa Mountain and the other remaining level as it curved around the north side of the mountain, a more direct shot to Kobushi. Given our time contraints, we followed the latter path.

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A last shot of Fuji before entering the trees.

The snow was noticeably deeper here, not at all surprising given that the sun probably never shines here in the winter. In no time, we arrived at Kobushi Hut, which sits just below the final ascent to the top. I checked the taps, hoping that I might be able to get some water (recall that I only had a little over a liter to last me until sometime tomorrow), but everything was locked down tight for the winter and were likely completely drained anyway on account of the cold — no doubt if any water was left in them, they’d be frozen solid.

The hut was right along the main path — the most direct — from Nishizawa to Kobushi, and accordingly we started to see other hikers passing by on their way up and back down. I felt somewhat relieved seeing them, thinking that Tianyu might be able to bum a ride if he couldn’t catch the last bus. After a rest that was probably longer than we could afford, we ascended the last 100 or so meters.

 

A Parting on the Peak

When Fukuda wrote of the top of Kobushi, he said that the place had little to recommend it outside of the name, but though I wouldn’t go so far as to say the view was spectacular, it was still nice, with a sweeping view encompassing Fuji to the south and Nagano to the north, plus an excellent look at the ridge ahead of me extending off westward. Off in the distance, I saw what I hoped was Mt. Kinpu, the next famous peak on my itinerary for the trip.

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Fuji from Kobushi, just below the summit.
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Nagano
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Is that Kinpu in the distance? I hoped so.
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Nagano directly ahead, my route is on the left.
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A last shot of Fuji.

It seemed rather anticlimactic to walk so far, to endure such cold and physical exertion, to spend such a short amount of time on top. But, after what seemed like only five minutes, Tianyu had to leave. We said our goodbyes, shook hands, and departed, he back towards Tokusa Mountain and Nishizawa below, and I ahead towards Kinpu, alone. Or so I thought. It wouldn’t be long before I was joined by a new companion, one that would accompany me in silence for the rest of the trip.


This post is part of an ongoing series my 2017 winter hiking trip in Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park. Be sure to check out the other posts in the series as they become available.

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