2017 Winter Hiking Part V: My Silent Companion


This post covers a section of trail where I had little to photograph, but a lot to write about. If you’re here just for the pictures, then consider skipping over this one. If you are interested in my musings, then read on.

When We Met

I met my silent companion not long after Tianyu and I parted ways at the top of Kobushi-ga-Take. I had just descended the steep and rocky western slope and arrived on the forested ridge that would lead me onward to Kokushi-ga-Take, the Peak of the Country Master, and beyond that to my true aim, the next of Fukuda’s 100 Famous Mountains, Kinpu-san or Mt. Goldpeak.

The path from Karisaka Pass to Kobushi, although exceedingly steep, had at least not been impeded by deep snow: the path had passed through mostly low shrubs and kept to the highest point of narrow ridges, maximizing exposure to the sun. In contrast, the ridge on the west side of Kobushi was much wider and covered in thick pines, and what’s more, the trail tended towards the north face. Between these two features, the path was covered in constant shade, leading to a deep accumulation of snow that would plague me for the rest of the trip.

At first, though, the change wasn’t so drastic. Far from the sense of foreboding that I might have felt if I had a sign of what was coming, I was instead drawn willingly along by the crisp outlines of a single pair of footprints marking the trail masked by pristine snow. From that moment, we traveled together.


The Path to the Country Master

Once I descended from the Peak of the Fist, the path became relatively level, though the way alternated between lower areas where the ridge was broad and higher areas where the ridge was narrow. I wasn’t sure how long it would take and part of me thought maybe I could make it as far as Ôdarumi Pass and the next source of water by nightfall, but deep down I knew that I probably wouldn’t get that far. I fully expected to run out tonight and to have to walk empty until as late as noon tomorrow before I could get more.

Hours pass as I walked, and, as anyone travelling along is wont to do, I began to entertain myself with all kinds of musings, but central in my mind were thoughts about the identity of my new companion. Just what kind of person had passed through here before me?

One thing I surmised was that this person must be fairly short in stature like myself, a conclusion I came to after noticing that my own feet fit neatly into the prints. I thought it might even be possible that this person was a woman. I found myself intrigued by the idea that such a person might be up here braving the cold with me. Little by little, I began to think of my companion more and more as a she rather than a he.

Whatever her sex, my companion clearly knew her way around these snowy mountains. The trail was completely covered by snow and therefore was nearly invisible, and yet my companion’s footprints showed no mistakes and backtracking — she walked forward with the confidence of one who could read the subtle outline of a trail covered in the snow.

I walked and walked, passing a place called Water Master (水師) with no water and a place called Fujiview (富士見) with no view of Fuji. At some point, when reaching into my inner coat pocket to withdraw my smaller water bottle (which I kept there to make sure it wouldn’t freeze), I noticed that the pocket was a bit damp, damper than what I would have expected from sweat alone. I suspected my water bottle was leaking.

I checked it over and sure enough, about halfway down the size there was a tiny breach in the thin plastic wall, just barely big enough to let one small drop out at a time. I sighed. On top of having lost who knows how much of my limited water supply, my next smallest bottle was two liters — much too big to fit in my coat. If I transferred my water there, it’d be frozen solid in an hour or two; if I kept it in the small bottle in my pocket, it would stay liquid, but with the consequence of continuing to lose it drop by drop. After some thought, I decided to let it freeze in the big bottle, knowing I could at least try to thaw it with my alcohol stove.

A view from the edge of a cliff somewhere between Kobushi and Kokushi.

The Long Lonely Night

As the light began to fade, I had to face the fact that there was no way I was getting to Ôdarumi tonight. According to the map, I had barely crawled halfway down the ridge, making worse time than even my lowest estimates. Mostly, this was due to the ever deepening snow making each step harder than the last.

I dropped my pack in a shallow saddle covered thickly with evergreens, brushed back the snow (a noticeably harder task than the previous night), set up my tent, and then began gathering firewood, venturing into virgin snow off the trail to find mostly rotted wood, which I knew would burn quickly, so I had to gather more than normal.

I could hear the wind blowing faintly, but the sound seemed muffled as though it were far off; where I was searching for wood, I couldn’t feel the slightest stirring in the air. The loudest sound was my footsteps, and neither the sound of bird nor beast disturbed the quiet. In that moment, I suddenly became aware of the complete solitude of this place. To break the silence, I began to sing, but the song that came to my lips, unbidden, was the song Father and Son by Cat Stevens. I haven’t heard the song in years, so I haven’t a clue why that was the one that came to mind.

I started hiking alone more out of a lack of good hiking buddies than for any more calculated reason, but over the years I’ve come to appreciate the psychological benefits of it. They aren’t pleasant. Basically, what I’ve found is that in our daily lives we’re surrounded by so many distractions that we’re able to bury our heads from the things in our lives that we’d rather not think about, and the result is that we generally feel better in the moment, but we never really come to terms with anything.

When you’re completely alone in the mountains, though, there’s no place to hide. No cell signal to call someone, no internet connection, no TV, no Youtube — not even a book in a place like this where it’s too cold to even hold one in your hands for more than a couple minutes at a time. You’re left with nothing but your own thoughts.

And, invariably, given enough time your thoughts will start to trend towards those problems you’d rather avoid, and eventually you’ll have no choice but to face them. That fight you had with a friend who’s no longer a friend? The ex-girlfriend you still miss? The times you’ve embarrassed yourself? The times you feel like you were wronged? That all comes up and you have to face it. But, in much the same way that letting spiders crawl over you eventually reduces your fear of spiders, letting painful thoughts wash over you in time reduces their ability to hurt you. It’s a kind of therapy.

But in that moment as I stood their singing the words to Father and Son, I felt a profound and deeply uncomfortable sense of loneliness not like anything I’d ever felt before. It wasn’t attached to any memory from the past, but just a complete and utter awareness of how alone I was in that moment and how little there was I could do about it. It made me think about what a person trapped on a mountain like this might feel as hypothermia began to set in and the realization comes that loneliness might be the last thing that they’ll ever feel before the end.

I quit the song and lit the fire. After all, I had some water I had to melt.

© 2018 Brian Heise

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