Jump back to 1976, Japan, the summer when I was 16, and picture the gangly teenager with shoulder-length hair, who loved wearing bell bottoms jeans, lace up lumberjack boots, and a broad-brimmed black felt hat adorned with a Navajo bead band and bright blue, jay feather. And picture this youth ambling along shouldering a huge yellow Mt. Whitney external frame backpack, complete with giant synthetic fill sleeping bag strapped to the bottom and a guitar slung across one shoulder. Beside him trudged his best friend, dressed more conservatively in straight leg jeans and sneakers, but none the less burdened by a big external frame pack, too… orange, hip-belt too low, sleeping bag strapped on haphazardly with cotton cord. Two typical backpackers of the 1970’s.
Here we were just outside Kiso-Fukushima station, walking the road under a sweltering summer sun, seeking the way up to the peak of Kiso-Komagatake, the highest peak in the Central Alps. We’d both camped quite a lot, but had never been so high in the mountains, and knew nothing about what to expect or whether or not we were even prepared for such a venture. All we knew was that the pictures in the Japanese guidebooks looked adventuresome with their green crags and impressive, sweeping abysses and patches of summer snow.
The problem was that neither of us could read Japanese well and therefore we had little information to go on. For one, we had landed at the wrong train station and though we could see the peaks from where we had started, they were still too far way from where we needed to be. We spent the better part of the afternoon seeking a path up the mountains, wandering through little farming villages, eliciting shocked exclamations from the locals, many of whom had never seen foreigner before, especially not one wearing a big black hat and toting a guitar. Odd indeed.
Eventually we found our way back to the train station and realized our error and took the next train to Komagome, which was the proper starting point for climbing Kiso-Komagatake. Unfortunately it was getting late by then, so we looked up the local youth hostel and booked a night there. A number of mountain climbing groups were also holed up there for the night, and at dinner we sat with all of them, chatting. Two high school mountain climbing clubs, one university climbing club, and even a troop of acolyte Buddhist monks, with shaved heads and loose blue robes and who would be climbing the mountain as a kind of spiritual training, all sat together at a long table, eating dinner. It was obvious that we were the odd men out; our clothes certainly gave us away.
Photos of the mountains we hoped to climb hung all along the walls and the scenes of the crags and windswept slopes soon had us doubting our own plans, making us think we had taken on more than we could handle. The way the club people spoke, with all the talk of wind and rain and cold nights, struck fear in our unprepared hearts.
Discussing our options, we decided that attempting the summit of Kiso-Komagatake was perhaps foolhardy, so we decided to camp along river down here in the valley and try the peaks another time, when we were ready.
Now jump ahead 35 years. High school graduation, moving to the States, university, grad school, work, many mountains and long bicycle journeys later, I was back. I’d recently recovered from a month long bout of sickness and wasn’t sure I was strong enough to even climb a flight of stairs, let alone a mountain slope, so after taking the gondola up to 2,600 meters, I stood there in front of the gondola station gazing up at the peaks that I had dreamed of at 16, and felt a mix of trepidation and joy. There they were, the green, wild rocks that the guidebooks had tempted me with, the same light grey stone, the same lush vegetation, the same deep blue sky. But alive and real this time. As if no time had passed at all since I was still a boy. I watched clouds rise, sail, and fan across the sky, moving as fast as the swifts that darted across them. The gondola had carried boatloads of tourists up, but a hush had befallen all of them, so that even the noisy ones tended to speak in awed tones. One university girl in high heels, obviously seeing such magnificence for the first time, couldn’t stop exclaiming how beautiful and overwhelming it was. She snatched the camera from one of the boys and exclaimed, “I can’t believe it! I can’t believe it! It’s not real, is it?” She attempted a few shots, but soon gave up. “I can’t take a picture of it,” she said. She tossed the camera back to the boy and stood gazing up with her hands on her hips, a stern grimace on her face, as if the mountains had somehow outsmarted her and she had quite figured out if she should forgive them or not.
I started climbing and immediately it was obvious that both the altitude and the exertion were going to take their toll on me. I took it really slow, stopping every hundred meters to regain my breath and clear my woozy head. People passed me every time I stopped, and at first it bothered me that I was so weak, when in the past I would have strode up such a slope, breezing by everyone, but the simple feel of the wind and the familiar act of putting one foot in front of the other on the rough randomness of a trail soon took my mind off such silly concerns, and all that mattered was losing myself in the landscape. This was a trial run after all, to see what I was capable of after so long being housebound. After the shaking up of my confidence in the aftermath of the Tohoku quake, nothing was whole anymore, it seemed. I jumped at every shiver of the earth. Elevators made my heart race. Big, thick-kneed buildings inevitably brought out a moment of hesitation before entering. And as if there were strings attached, my body followed suit, seemingly welling up with hormonal and systemic aftershocks, with inexplicable rashes, internal aches, stomach fluxes, and wild blood sugar swings that had nothing to do with what I was eating. In the middle of the summer, just before I was supposed to head out for a month-length traverse of the Japan Alps, something imploded inside, sending my brain into a tailspin every time I tried to stand up, robbing my toes of sensation, retracting my breathing so that I felt as if I was suffocating as I slept, and punching out lumps and blood spots in my eyes… The doctors had no idea what it was, just vaguely guessing that perhaps it was “a virus”. “There’s nothing wrong with you,” they said. But I knew better. My body was typing out Braille messages, with the warnings, “You are NOT exempt from the consequences.”
The aftershocks lessened after a month of lying in bed. And I emerged feeling much the same as I did coming out of the big March quake: shaky, but oddly windblown, with an aimless, compass-less sense of selflessness.
I stopped often along the first climb, trying to regain my breath. But I made progress, slowly gaining each step of the rock masses, ascending higher and higher, until the gondola station had shrunk to a tiny blip in the circle of mountains. My nose touched the underbelly of the clouds as they ripped and shredded amidst the crags, passed in front of the sun, cast galloping shadows upon the slopes. Tiny, multicolored beads of people crawled infinitesimally along the scratches of trail, all aiming for the top.
Lungs burning, it almost seemed to be happening to someone else when I gained the ridge and came face-to-face with the sweeping panorama of the col. A troupe of macaques scribbled down through a grove of white birches, plaintive ululations echoing throughout the valley, at once playful like children, but something also immensely lonely, as if they were lost and couldn’t find their way home. The wind buffeted me, giving me a shake, letting me go, then racing away laughing. I laughed, too, giddy with joy. Here I was, I really was, above tree line, alive, looking down at the whole world, up where I feel connected to grace. Because it was still raw and new, the photographs I tried to take fell flat each time. I was trying to look in too many directions at the same time. So I stashed the camera away for later when the wind felt more like it was blowing through me, rather than against me.
It’s always funny how the place that you end up standing in seems to have no relationship to the imaginary collage you had pored over for days on the map. The peaks and valleys came out in relief right where you expected them to, but there is a presence they all exude that immediately tells you that they are alive, in spite of the seeming indifference and silence. They come across as being bigger or smaller, darker or brighter than at first imagined. And when you step out on them, to trust your feet to their care, you realize that rocks are harder, the branches sharper, the drops far steeper, and the wind so big that that sense of mastery that a map can trick you into quickly gets whisked into fantasy.
Thick clouds had crowned the ridges, and so it was hard to see beyond the first hundred meters ahead. Visible was a flat saddle between two shadowy peaks lost in the shrouds of mist. The lines of people who had climbed up to this point broke off in different directions, most of them heading for the mountain hut neaby where they could sit down to take a breather and get a nice hot lunch of curry rice or egg-chicken rice bowl. Those wearing proper climbing gear or carrying the extra loads of camping equipment, and a few less mindful, or knowledgeable, of their safety, set off for the peaks. A few tourists in high heels and loafers stood at the edge of the cliffs, taking photographs of one another and laughing loudly. In the thinner air and huge, racing clouds, their voices were swept away.
The thin air made it hard for me to breathe and without stopping to rest and consult my map, I followed the crowd and veered off toward the charismatic spearhead of a peak off to my left that was Hokendake, but that I thought at the time was the peak I was aiming for, Kiso-Komagatake. Immediately the trail left the flat saddle behind and shot up into the air, in no time turning into a hand over hand scramble up a steep, tortured stone path, complete with chains and ladders. I thought it vaguely strange that the map hadn’t said anything about this, until a small group descending slowly from above stopped to talk with me and told me I was on the wrong peak. Embarrassed, I sat down on a narrow ledge and consulted my map, and sure enough, there I was heading south instead of north, right along the ferrata path that crossed the dizzying razorback col between Hokendake and Senjiyojiki. I sighed with relief and turned about, making my way gingerly back to the saddle ridge and crossed north, in my intended direction. I met the group again further down the descent and we took photographs and exchanged email addresses.
The walk north was completely different, more of a level ridge stroll, with gradual rises and, as the clouds began to clear, views of the valleys and the distant ranges like the South Alps, Mt. Ontake, and the winding path toward the northern half of this range. My breath still came with big gulps of air and I had to stop frequently, but a spring came into my step and I almost bounced along, heady with the joy of walking on an alpine ridge again. My camera came whipping out at every new rock formation or flower or cloud, one wonder following another, though the sense of immersion still eluded me… the weakness of my body continued to stay in the foreground, punctuated by all the stops and dizzy need to get my heart to slow down. People kept passing me by and I nodded to them, trying my best to smile.
When I reached the top of Nakadake, a minor peak providing a sheltered place among boulders to take a break and view the way back down, I lowered my pack and surveyed the path ahead. I had intended to walk all the way to the top of Kiso-Komagatake and then backtrack to the campsite directly below, but knew that, in this condition, there was no way I’d be able to enjoy the walk, so I decided to just concentrate on making it down to the campsite and call it quits for the day. Arriving at the campsite in the early afternoon would allow me to grab a good camping spot among the rocks that littered the campsite, before all the other campers had returned from their climb to the top of Kiso-Komagatake.
Getting down to the campsite took a lot less time than I anticipated, and before I knew it I was picking my way among the campsite rocks, looking for a level and dry site. Already a lot of campers had set up their tents, and the bright orange and red bubbles of their canopies stood out like limpets amidst the dry grass and stones. I found a spot at the bottom of the campground, right at the edge where a rope warned people off pitching in the protected swale below. Beyond that the mountain dropped away to an unseen precipice, and beyond that was nothing but open air, wild clouds, and hazy, distant peaks.
The ground was hard as rock and getting the stakes in for the simple, open tarp I was using proved quite a challenge. Two of the stakes bent at the head and immediately became useless, while the other stakes required several tentative probes to push past the hidden rocks beneath to get a proper purchase of the ground. Even then the pitch of the tarp, though tight, kept a few wrinkles and off-center veerings that would later in the night prove to make it hard to sleep in the wind. Nonetheless, the campsite made a comfortable little space where I could relax, all my belongings set out on the groundsheet under the tarp, and the sleeping quilt laid out beside the tarp, snug in its bivy. A neat sanctuary. I lay down on the quilt and closed my eyes for a while, feeling the waning rays of the sun warm my face and hands.
Other campers steadily arrived and set up camp, until there were few places left. Latecomers had to make do with rocky sites or their tents pushed up against bushes or along the verges of the campsite where water pooled during rains. One couple traveling with a third person produced two tents that they proceeded to pitch around an old tree stump, and all three went about setting everything out with much laughter and photograph taking. Another couple had arrived earlier than I had and now sat lounging in inflatable seats, gazing at the sky while sipping coffee. Still another group, two fathers and five children around 12 years old, hollered and shrieked from the center of the campsite as if they were lounging about the privacy of their homes, but strangely the noise was comforting and familiar, and the delighted discoveries the children were making at being inside a tent or watching a stove burst into flame reached across the hush of the mountain and made me smile.
The sun dropped below the edge of the peaks, drawing for a while, a brilliant orange heat from the waiting rocks and boulders, and in its fire the moon slipped unannounced, still pale with daylight, but impatient, seemingly, to take the stage and give an equally brilliant performance across this stark landscape. For a full ten minutes the two stared in defiance at one another, until the sun backed down and sank beneath the horizon. The sky blushed indigo, and the crags darkened until their outlines raked a crenulated midnight out of the base of the skyline. Clouds swam like dim, silent whales through the dark, overhead ocean, rising, cresting, diving into the abyss.
I made dinner as all these celestial events played above me, a simple bag of curry rice with a side of cream of asparagus soup and a cup of instant cafe latte. The fuel tab stove took quite a time to heat up the water, so I waited with my arms wrapped around my knees, shivering a little in the chilling air, and looking up, looking around, looking down at the ever-so-slightly crackling stove. Goups of people huddled over their stoves here and there in the field of stones, their headlights light-sabering through the darkness, and the subdued hiss of their cannister stoves issuing soft threats like snakes. People were telling stories and laughing and sitting together pointing up at the sky, and as I watched it hit me that this was a scene our kind have played over and over again for most of our time on earth, and that it was as human and indicative of who we are as anything that we have ever done.
To the northeast an enormous anvilhead thundercloud rose up and flashed with lightning. Here and there the flash echoed itself, in lesser thunderclouds, all silent, all distant, all safe from where we sat. One flash sent out a spiderweb of lightning so bright all the tents exhibited their colors for a moment, and the faces of the tribe lit up like spectators at a fireworks event.
As I ate, one of the men from a neighboring campsite made his way over and asked if that was a tarp I was sleeping under. He’d seen them in the magazines, but had never seen one in person, and hadn’t expected to see one way up here at 2,600 meters. We talked. His nickname was Chilli and he was here with his wife Junka and their close friend, Yuri, the couple and the third person I had noticed earlier. We got to talking about ultralight backpacking and how to use gear to do double duty and get your pack weight down. He’d already started learning about it, even mentioning some of the relevent stores in Tokyo where UL enthusiasts could buy a lot of the specialized gear and exchange ideas. It was still quite a new movement here.
Chilli invited me over to their tent to talk and get out of the cold. We sat hunched up in the small space, sleeping bags draped over our legs, and getting to know one another and telling jokes and stories of past mountain adventures and mishaps. I loved their cheer and the enthusiastic embrace of being outdoors, in spite of the inconveniences and hardships that sometimes characterized getting out here. As I listened to them I was once again reminded about what I take to mean loving life and feeling alive. It had nothing to do with sitting at home watching endless TV reruns or spending the weekend going shopping at the mall.
When people began yawning, it was time to head back out to my tarp and dive into my quilt. I put on my down jacket, pulled on a layer of windpants over my regular pants, placed my water sack near the head of the quilt, slipped into the quilt, and lay back to go to watch the stars. Already they had spilled across the northern sky opposite the moon and I could see the outline of the mountains where the stars were blocked out. The moon cast a hard blue light across the field of tents, bright enough to read a book under. The white tarp canopy glowed in this blue light, and when I swiveled my head I could see all around, the openness of the tarp keeping me in touch with accumulating stars, the sailing moon, and the silent tents one by one winking out as the inhabitants switched off their lights and went to sleep. I pulled out my camera and took some time lapse photographs of the heavens and tents, finally feeling immersed in the mountains and in the moment, feeling that wonderful sense of being tiny and insignificant with big eyes for the sky and the wind.
I drifted off to sleep and dreamed of wandering aimless trails. My sleep pulled me down into the earth, further and further from the thin film of my tarp and into the well of my deepest shores. I felt safe, enough to dream. Then the wind hit. I shot awake. A hard, series of punches that snapped at my tarp and set off the telltale crackle that I had been warned about concerning spinnaker cloth shelters. Since I hadn’t been able to get a drum-tight pitch the tarp shook incessantly, whipping all about my ears, and snapping me awake with every gust of wind. I tried a number of solutions… adding more stakes to the side, tightening the guylines, trussing the trekking poles-cum-tent-poles up a little higher, but to no avail. Finally, at about 1 in morning I gave up and I sat out on a rock, gazing at the sea of clouds to the east.
At about that time one of the men in the tent next to mine set off on a snoring campaign from hell, so loud and distinct that I couldn’t believe no one else didn’t wake up. But the campsite remained still, most likely individuals here and there lying awake in the dark, waiting for morning.
I did manage to finally get back into my quilt, stuff ear plugs in my ears, and get about two hours of sleep. The sun had already poked under my tarp by the time I woke.
And what a morning! A storm-tossed blue ocean of clouds below us, a fan of sun beams illuminating the heavens, and a chipper accentor calling from up the slope, telling us to make breakfast and start the day.
While chatting with the three friends from the night before, I heated up some muesli with egg soup and chai, and packed up. The shortness of breath of the day before seemed to have disappeared, and though I had hardly slept and felt sleepy, I felt as bright as the sun. I left my full pack by the mountain hut, took my windbreaker, some snacks, and my camera, and headed up to the peak of Kiso-Komagatake, about a half hour scramble. The wind blew so strong that when my feet balanced on sharp rocks or I swung around on a switchback it sometimes knocked me off balance.
I reached the summit of Kiso-Komagatake 35 years after I had started out. When I saw the weathered wooden sign, creaking in the wind, I let out a whoop of pure joy and found myself watching that boy of 16 run the last 10 meters up the slope to reach out and touch the sign. And I heard myself shout out, “You finally did it, Miguel! You finally made it here! I knew you’d make it here one day! Good job!”
It wasn’t the tallest mountain I’d ever climbed, and certainly not the hardest. But there was something about dredging up that past and placing it in front of me again, tying up old loose ends, that felt more satisfying than a lot of other summits I’d reached. Maybe I won’t fulfill all the dreams I’ve ever had, but it sure does feel good to put my arm around that shy 16-year old, and slowly head back down the mountain, this time together.