Descending from Kurobe Peak. Up here, with the whole sky above and the whole world below, you walk a fine thread between the sublime and the perilous. It is a chance to learn the limits of those quaking muscles and the borders of your sanity. You learn, over time, to cradle yourself in a tranquil determination, neither giving in to the fear of those head-spinning ledges, nor pushing beyond that veil of overconfidence, always remembering that you do not belong here, you were not designed for such rocks and thin air.
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The cloud, huge and black and shaking with fury, lowered its brows as I stepped over the finger of a ridge. It had enveloped the mountain, sending the world into a shifting grey sea of veils and doubts, daring me to pass. Arms of vapor muscled their way across the trail, now so washed out by the featureless blankets of cloud that the ground beneath me seemed to turn to gas, and only the firmness of footing reminded me of its solidity. My eyes followed the thunderhead down into the bowl of mountains where I was to spend the night, and I saw nothing but roiling soup. Lighting sang staccato within the belly of the cloud, like frenzied fireflies, and the cloud responded with a series of stentorian whiplashes, on vocal chords so heavy and pure that the mountain beneath me jumped in fright.
I hesitated. Looking back down the trail I had just climbed I could make out the thread of the stream far below, and the last of the sun’s rays pooling in the ravine. My whole body burned from the last eight hours of exertion and my knees felt about to give way. There was no going back. I turned to face the rumbling monster in the valley and started down the trail. Lightening and thunder greeted my decision, as if in exultation.
Silhouettes of larches in the gathering storm just above Kurobegoro lodge. There is always a dilemma between seeing the beauty around you and watching where you place your feet. You want to drink it all in and savor the your time with the perceptions, but when a steep, knee-cracking trail choked with boulders slick with rain and moss demands your attention, the camera must go into its bag and your eyes must concentrate on just where you are.
Tokyo lay sweltering in summer forgetfulness. Like a finger poked through tissue paper the train carried me out of the steam and deposited me gently along its bright, sleepy reaches, just at the edge of wheels and pavement. With my discount ticket that only allowed carriage by trains that walked, not ran, my arrival in the hot spring town was greeted, in the first store I stepped into for a can of coffee, by closing-time music over the speaker system. Most of the throngs of tourists had already retired to the inns and the parking lots waited, deserted.
I crossed the bridge over the roaring river, from the town, over a no-man’s-land of snow melt-off, to the wilderness waiting on the other side. It began abruptly: a wall of cedars that radiated a shell of cool air and hid its innards with tangles of lichen-bearded downfall and brush. The trail skirted the edge of the forest as if timid, only reluctantly entering the silence when the laps of the cliffs left no alternative. Within a hundred steps the forest and the mountain had me to themselves. I began to whistle, a sliver of sound declaring my own little territory.
I walked past kneeling grandfather spruces and Mother Earth breathing from openings in the ground. Flotillas of dragonflies, like angels wrapped in cellophane, circled my brow, the cranes of their legs and mandibles working the air of gnats and mayflies. Grasshoppers set up bandstands in the grass and zithered the blues to the accompaniment of jays screeching in the canopy. In the late blue sky tufts of clouds set sail for the peaks, marking mileposts for me to follow.
Cloud catching the last rays of the setting sun at Sugoroku Pass. Night falls like a dropping curtain where the rarified air cannot hold the light. You find yourself sitting still for untracked beats of time, watching for hints of movement. Clouds sailing against an unblemished sky, grass heads waving at passers-by, incremental shifts of gravel on a slope, nudged by the wind. The wind is everything up here.
The four men, clad in rock-stomper hiking boots and nylon pants, had been friends a long time. With an ease and camaraderie borne of years of mountain walks together, they trudged up the trail in single-file, grunting at the same boulders to scramble up, and breaking out in laughter at the same old jokes and recounts of past mishaps. The fabric of their packs had faded in the sun and each wore a different, worn-out baseball cap, stained with sweat and adorned with medallions from previous walks. One of them had obviously been drinking too much and when he, red in the face, but oblivious, farted loudly while hauling himself up a steep embankment, the other three politely referred to him as “Mr. Aromatherapy”. They slapped their thighs in merriment and had to stop and let me pass while they sorted out their composure.
We did a kind of relay race, those men and me. I kept up a steady, but slow, pace, stopping to take photographs or to gaze at the mountains opening around me, while they trundled on in bursts, huffing and puffing to some next vantage point, where they would stop to take breaths and smoke cigarettes. One of them, cigarette in hand, nodded to me as we stood on an overlook with the entire valley below, and mused, “Ah, mountain air! It tastes fresh as a young woman’s kiss, no?” With that he took another drag on his cigarette and blew a plume into the afternoon breeze.
My companions for much of the second day of the walk, four hikers cross a precarious ridge and head down to Sugoroku lodge and campsite. They never stopped talking once during the entire time they walked. The joy they felt rubbed off on me and dispelled the bout of loneliness that had overcome me. I tried not to carry the troubles from home with me, but such walking tends to give you a lot of time to think and reconsider.
The sun casts its afternoon light upon the base of Momisawa Peak. Everything seems brighter and more mythic in such a vertical world. In the warm afternoon lull, without wind to topple you or rain to chill you, you can stand on such a ridge and shout out your invincibility, because it really does seem as if all cares have dissipated with the rising altitude. Your endorphins… at least while you are venting your lungs… declare you exempt from gravity.
View of my home for the night of the second day of the walk, Sugoroku mountain hut and campsite. The last time I stayed here a hail storm buffeted my tent and left the sandy camp ground a sloshing mess. After a long day, however, such sights make your mouth water for food you haven’t made yet and your tired muscles yearn for horizontal respite.
The man in the neighboring tent, who must have eaten something disagreeable, punctuated the night with various demonstrations of his bodily functions, most notably a medley of wet and dry farts, from squeaky to tuba-like, combined with more ominous interruptions of a more throaty nature. When he finally decided to proclaim his virtuosity to all the world by exiting his tent and crunching back and forth across the gravel in front of my tent I decided to battle sleeplessness with a sortie into the darkness. To my astonishment and utter delight, the Milky Way had sprayed itself across the sky with particular fervor; I could almost feel the Earth swing along the outer rim of our galaxy. Aside from the debilitated musician wandering about the campsite, no one else was awake and I had the stars to myself. The air had been inhaled by the mountain and held, so that all was still, and a kind of downy heat bloomed in the valley. I snuck away to the opposite side of the campground… and came upon a scene I will never forget. Beneath a blazing full moon wooly dollops of clouds bathed in the silverly light and splashed feathers against the great bathtub of surrounding mountains. It took my breath away. I sat on a rock, beyond which the world dropped away into darkness, and lost myself in the magic of the moment. Then I broke the spell. Thinking I could capture what I saw and felt in a photograph, I ran back to the tent and retrieved my camera. When I returned the moment had passed. All the clouds had drained away into the plumbing of the forests below.
Tent pitched at the edge of Sugoroku pond, as far away from the other campers as the space would allow. This was a a so-called “ultralight” tent, a wafer of a shelter at only 855 grams, that I was bringing up into this alpine zone for the first time. In such a place the roof over your head can literally spell life or death, so when I finally lay down and closed the fabric door, it was with relief that the whole thing felt so tight and secure up here where the winds can shred your shelter like paper. Though I don’t like to inundate myself with too many thoughts of equipment and fads, you do end up spending a lot of time considering what you must bring. It is one of the things I love about climbing mountains: that immediacy of physical needs and the mind to adapt to it. There is no separation between mind and body here, and I suspect humans lived that way for most of our history.
Stars over Sugoroku. It’s amazing just how much activity goes on in the heavens. Planes, helicopters, satellites, clouds, glimmering stars, rolling firmament, pirouetting moon, comets, meteorites, the Sun… you wonder why more “Armageddon”-style disasters don’t play out more often. It’s all big out there and I just have two little eyes to see it.
Mist rising from the valley beneath Sugoroku Peak. The mountains are like the sea; they hold water and wind in the same undulating way. There are tides and waves and storms and driftwood. You can hear the breakers, too, slower and softer and more prolonged, but they have the same insistent result, grinding the rock to granules, over aeons and aeons.
Crags rising up through the clouds around Mitsumata. There are some places that people will never venture, where, just a stone’s throw away, no human foot has ever trodden. It’s comforting to know that such places still exist.
The clouds had covered the sun. So far the talk back at the camp of a typhoon surging in hadn’t materialized into winds yet, so, cheerful in the rain that sprayed the flower meadows along this lonely side trail, I meandered along with my camera, stopping every few feet to kneel down among the fronds and flower heads, legs and hands and face wet with dew, every separate, tiny life a wonder. For the moment at least, until I reached the next mountain hut only a hour’s hurried march away and could determine whether the storm’s potential was too risky for further climbing, I could linger and not worry about time for once. Everything caught my eye, everything photogenic and new. Such moments bring out fierce joy in me, a real sense of what makes me happy and knowing who I am. I often imagine what I would have been like as a prehistoric hunter. The pleasure of immersing myself in my surroundings and learning to see would have felt complete, I think, as much of what a human being can hope to make out of life as any modern aspiration for a career.
Geums (Geum pentapetalum) soaking in the rain. In autumn their flowers turn to white tufts of down that look like a scene out of “Hair”. For such delicate creatures, they are remarkably tough, far tougher than I can ever hope to be.
Climb up to Mitsumata RengÃ©. The trail took a detour around the edges of a boulder-strewn glacial cirque where it was so still I could hear the dripping of a tiny spring off the trail.
When I reached this snow field the trail suddenly disappeared. Where the trail was supposed to be, last winter’s record snows had obliterated all traces of the discolored passage of many feet and the painted red circle trail blazes. I saw nothing in front of me but a dirty white expanse of hard, icy snow that lost itself in the condensing mist. Because it was growing dark and the clouds more ominous, I had to tell myself out loud, over and over again, “Calm down. All along you saw other fresh boot prints in the trail of people ahead of you today. Just take the time to cast around and find the trail again.” Stumbling over rocks and tufts of grass I finally found a dim line of red-dyed sand that had been laid down by a trail maintenance crew across the surface of the ice field. I gingerly placed my feet on the snow and tiptoed toward the ridge above.
A dead Lesser Japanese Shrew-Mole ( Urotrichus pilirostris ), endemic to Japan and found only up at higher altitudes in the mountains. I’ve rarely had a chance to get such a close look at an animal most people don’t even know exists.
This brings the story back to the beginning when the thunderclouds rolled in. The day’s walk had taken four hours longer than planned and I arrived in camp in a pouring deluge. Everything got wet and the campsite was a quagmire of running mud. To my dismay I discovered that the tent leaked like a sieve and to stay warm and dry I resorted to covering my sleeping bag with my rain gear. Most of the night was spent sponging up pooling water and wiping down the tent walls. In the middle of the night, with the thunder clapping right over the campsite, I felt as if I were trapped in some B-rated horror movie using Chinese water torture by dripping the water onto my head from the soaked seams. It wasn’t a matter of fearing for my life, but more of enduring the misery of nightlong discomfort and sleep deprivation. I dozed off just as the rain let up near dawn. The camp began to wake up then, everyone else well-rested from holing up in their snug, dry shelters.
The highlight of the morning was greeting Englishman Sam Short, who had arrived the same time as I the evening before. We both had a good laugh at the events of the night. Later on the trail, even though I had left two hours before him, Sam locomotivated right past me, churning up the trail like a mountain goat and leaving behind a trail of dazed hikers who down the trail later marveled to me at his speed. “Do all you foreigners have such wonderfully long legs?” an elderly woman remarked to me. “If you ask me,” grumbled a middle-aged man who had fallen far behind his wife waiting for him at the summit, “I don’t come to these mountains to go speeding along the trails like some race car driver.” Sam must have covered twice as much distance as I did that day.
One of my favorite places in all of Japan, the hanging valley of Kurobegoro. It was inspiration for the imaginary world of a children’s book I am writing, “Letters from the Isle of Wake”. At the base of that lump you see there in the middle of the picture sits the house of Akyakya Monee, who knits sweaters made from mist and dew. Further up the ridge wanders crazy Saury Greapes, whose beard is so long he wraps it around his head. And, out of sight in the picture, the cliff with the long proboscis is the head of sleeping Subuumbe, whose giant body makes up the whole valley and island. One day I have to go to Kurebegoro and just sit there for two or three whole days, with no plans but to simply listen and look.
I wish I knew more about amphibians, or at least had a field guide to the species here in Japan. I haven’t a clue what this thumb-joint-sized fellow is called.
Elfinwood atop a boulder in Kurobegoro. The feathery streaks of clouds foretell the coming of rain in six to eight hours, but the rain never showed up. The sun burned all that bright blue day and everywhere along the tail other hikers I met were smiling. One party of about 25 elderly walkers who, led by a fit, sunburned young man, were hiking for the first time in their lives, and they asked me to pose with all of them while the leader snapped our photo. The day was like a quiet celebration of I know not what… perhaps simply being alive?
Arrangement of stones on the trail up to Kurobe Peak. The trail was so steep at one point that my hands were shaking. I spied this image right at the point where my vertigo kicked in, but stupidly I pulled out my camera and took the time to compose the picture. I had to yell at myself to stop looking for photographs and take the drop below me seriously!
I was walking along a level section of the trail when I recognized an outcropping upon which, seven years earlier, my wife and I had eaten lunch. We had laughed that whole day, even along the hardest stretches of the trail. Today the sight of that outcropping drove the feelings for my wife back up to the surface and churned in the pit of my stomach. I kept walking, each step slower than the last, until I passed into an area alight with flowers. I gazed around me, looking at nothing in particular, when all of a sudden, out of nowhere it seemed, I burst out sobbing. It came on in waves, so hard that I fell to my knees amidst the flowers. I couldn’t stop, in spite of being half conscious of the possibility of other walkers appearing along the trail. When I finally managed to pull myself to my feet I stumbled along the trail still heaving sobs, clearing some invisible clot that had lodged itself in my chest. I don’t know how long it was, perhaps fifteen minutes, when as suddenly as it had come, like clouds opening, the crying vanished. The pull of the end of the trail lost its relevance, and instead I let my feet take their own baby steps through this indifferent wilderness. And I found comfort in not worrying about the end. All I needed right now I had with me right here. It was simple, a pack, a shelter, some clothes on my back, something to eat when I got hungry, and two pairs of still-serviceable legs. I was free to go where I wanted. It wasn’t as bad as I had imagined.
Creeping Pine on Kitanomata Peak thrive in the violent winds of the alpine peaks, so much so that their trunks grow horizontally across the rocky soil and create shoulder-high forests that, if you hunker down, look and smell like miniature pine woods. All sorts of wildlife owe their lives to the shelter the creeping pine provide. And were I ever to lose my shelter and get caught in a storm I, too, would seek a quiet spot out of the wind amidst their protective branches.
The field of flowers where I broke down crying near the end of the walk. Some places have that effect, to call to you when you least expect.