This Mountain Sickness

September 22, 2009 | Filed Under Uncategorized 

Some call it a sickness. To swap warm beds for nights on cold granite, high above the clouds where the air is thin. A willing choice, a desire even, to leave comfort behind and instead carry your home on your back through the high places of this world. What else could account for all this, if not some tragic disease of the mind?

Mt Kita-dake shines brightly in the autumn sun, defiant against a cobalt sky. Our packs are heavy with the eight days worth of provisions for the long climb ahead, an unsupported voyage through the Minami-Alps. With each footfall we grind a little more of the mountain away. Four thousand and six hundred feet later we sit in the early afternoon sun on the Kotaro ridge, watching the clouds race up the valley. I point out the surrounding mountains to Yuka: Kai-koma, Senjo, Houou-sanzan. The cloud rises higher, blotting the peaks one by one, and finally obscuring Kita-dake too by the time we reach the hut on its northern shoulder. As we pitch the tent, we look out into the gathering darkness and resolve to make the summit before dawn the next day, hopeful of a sunrise to make up for the lost sunset of this first day. We’re halfway through dinner when suddenly the tent lights up, as though on fire.

We race out and confront the conflagration that has consumed the western skies. The cloud-wracked valley seems to seethe, an unearthly scene of orange and red, pierced through by the orb of the sun. Within minutes it transforms again, the mists around us boiling away to leave a sea of clouds below, and within that sea a dozen dark islands where the peaks of the Alps gash through. Yuka bursts into tears. “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.” she says, and we stand, arms around each other in the cold wind, watching the sun sink into the milky ocean below.

The next morning, Japan is laid out before us from the summit of Kita-dake. Fuji sits darkly to the east, and to the west we can make out the peaks of Kiso-koma where we’d spent New Year. Far to the north, Yari-ga-take’s sharp peak stands out, no doubt heavy with climbers this long holiday weekend. Reluctantly we leave the summit and climb down the ridge and along towards Mt Aino-ga-take, still making good time despite the burden on our backs. The sun creeps a little higher in the sky, cooking the left side of our bodies while the right side shivers in the wind. By the time we reach Aino, a thin haze has pulled itself across the sky, and the wind blows fiercely. We hurry off, and on the far side of the summit break for lunch, admiring the chain of peaks that march away to the south. Suddenly our journey doesn’t seem so far. Then Yuka pulls off her boot, and mutters darkly under her breath.

The small blister on her heel which we’d treated the day before has become much worse. We re-apply bandages and duct tape the inside of her boot. “I’ll be fine. It’s all downhill for the rest of today, it’ll be fine by tomorrow.” she says, but this is not a good sign.

It’s still only midday when we arrive at the Kuma-no-daira camp, but we decide to pitch the tent anyway and give Yuka’s blisters some time to heal. In the warm afternoon sun we chat to the hut owner. He recounts his days of climbing in the Himalayas, and about how he brought his American wife and 3-month old son to this hut when he started it twenty years ago. The only routes in or out are over the 10,000 foot peaks on either side; so when his son became ill, the hut owner would carry him on his back over those vertiginous summits and down to the villages below, like something from Japanese folklore. He sent them back to the States when his son became too big to do this, but will travel back to see them when the hut closes for the season in three days time.

The inky canopy of the sky is still studded with stars as we pack up the tent the next morning. Yuka’s patched her feet with whatever she can find, but still moves a little slower despite her protests that she is fine. Climbing up is noticeably painful for her, but thankfully the day starts with a long, gently undulating ridge towards Mt Shiomi to the south. The sky is cloudless and perfect, but each slope is taking its toll on Yuka and I’m starting to eye the climb up Shiomi with increasing dread. She barely slackens her pace though, and incredibly we are still running well ahead of the map time.

I know she must be in agony as we hit the steep northern flank of the mountain, yet she laughs and jokes with the climbers descending towards us. She’s properly taking a mouthful of carb-gel every twenty minutes, and knocks her feet forward in her boots every few paces to relieve her heels. Finally at the summit, she excitedly traces the path we’ve taken all the way from Aino with her finger. “We came all that way!” But then it hits her.

“I can’t go on, can I? This is so frustrating. My legs are fine, I could keep doing this for days… but these blisters…. such a small thing. But this isn’t failure. I’ve done three huge mountains, and it’s been fantastic. Just walk me down to the trailhead tomorrow and I’ll go home – you should carry on.” she says. I tell her I’ll think about it. The thought of abandoning the journey tears at me, but so does the thought of going on without Yuka. We don’t talk much as we climb down Shiomi’s sharp western edge and to the busy camp at Sanpuku-mine, with its explosion of multi-coloured tents gleaming under the bright sun.

From the tent, we watch the peaks above us throw longer shadows across the valleys. I’m mentally reorganising the gear I’ll need and my itinerary, when Yuka rolls towards me and says “let’s go home together”. I can’t think of anything to say, so I lie there staring at the ceiling before climbing back up the ridge to take some half-hearted photographs of the sunset. We eat without speaking much, and the next morning I still can’t think of anything to say. Yuka breaks the silence,

“I don’t want to go home either. I keep thinking I might be able to go on, but we both know that’s a stupid idea. But these four days have been amazing, I’ll never forget them. I climbed three mountains, and I made it half way, I carried all my own gear, and if it wasn’t for these blisters I could easily have made it. I don’t want to go home without you. Let’s come back together next year. We’ll start here and we can climb the rest of the route. It’ll be easy!”. She punches me on the arm, and I can’t help laughing. Suddenly we have fun again as we climb down into the Iina valley below and head towards home.

The first thing I saw this morning when I woke up was a map of Japan spread across the end of the bed. Yuka’s sitting next to it, thumbing through my guidebook to the Hundred Famous Mountains of Japan. “Y’know, a lot of these are pretty easy. Day climbs. Huh! I was looking at the calendar, we’ve got a few long weekends coming up. We could go to Kyushu again and climb the south of the island. And Gunma as well. Yakushima, maybe? Come on, get up, let’s sort out the gear and decide what we should take next time!”, she gushes.

Some call it a sickness.

Personally, I think it might be the cure.

Comments

28 Responses to “This Mountain Sickness”

  1. George on September 22nd, 2009 2:18 pm

    I told my wife a few minutes ago about your trip, and she shot me a quick glance and said “Yasashii dannna-san dane! Kimi dattara, “Kusuri nonde, aruke!” tte yu.

    I think she was joking. I hope so…

    The most frustrating ailment I’ve had up to now was a knee that swelled up while climbing Kita-Hodaka many years ago in the fall. The sunset and sunrise were spectacular, but the climb down the next day was horrible. The slowest obachan would pass us left and right. Map time for the hike down to Yoko is about 4 hours, but it took me 10 hours that day. Whew. I can emphasize with Yuka’s blister-pain definitely.

    Sometimes things just happen. But in a way those are the trips that stick in your mind more.

  2. wes on September 22nd, 2009 8:06 pm

    To say your photos are incredible would be an understatement.

    I see too that you were stricken by the curse of Mt. Shiomi. I can’t tell you how many people (including myself) have aborted the mission at Sanpuku. It’s a long, long way to Warusawa-dake, so I think you made the right decision.

    Sounds like Yuka has been stricken with the Hyakumeizan bug. It’ll tear at your soul and control your every thought.

  3. Martin Rye on September 22nd, 2009 9:16 pm

    The mountains are addictive. That is maybe your sickness ?. We fall under their spell. Call it love. We love the challenge, the changing views, the way we just find ourself up high among them? When we are with the ones we love among the mountains and hills, the views seem even better I think. As always a joy to read and well done to Yuka for getting that far with the pain she was in.

  4. Harvey on September 23rd, 2009 4:10 am

    I love this blog!

  5. Mikael on September 23rd, 2009 6:38 am

    True that some people see it as a sickness. I’d rather see it as a symptom, or a cure as you said. Blisters happen, knees happen, weather happens and plans change. That’s the way of the mountains. It always sucks to turn around and go home, and always feels good to come back later.

    Sounds like an interesting hike, and the terrain looks beautiful (of course everything does in you photos). Got to read up a bit more on it.

  6. Project Hyakumeizan on September 23rd, 2009 3:45 pm

    Beware that Hyakumeizan bug that Wes mentions – far more insidious and hard-to-cure than blisters ….

    Thanks for the epic sunset, though. Why do they always seem to be more spectacular in the Southern Alps than in the Northern Alps? One for the savants, perhaps….

  7. Joe on September 23rd, 2009 5:30 pm

    I need to get a regular fix of the mountains and your blog Chris. Expletive inducing images once again.

  8. Tom on September 23rd, 2009 8:50 pm

    WONDERFUL.
    The orange in the second image just wraps round you and nice to see those wonderful autumn colours encroaching – Japan is so special for that and you’ve captured it perfectly!

  9. Hendrik M on September 24th, 2009 5:38 am

    I’m wondering if I should throw my camera out of the window or move to Japan. Taking these kind of stunning photos seems impossible here in Finland. Magnificent!

  10. hanameizan on September 24th, 2009 7:53 am

    Your having to turn back and Yuka’s blisters are a small price to pay if it means she is now hooked on the hyaku and you get to hike more mountains together.

    8 days worth of provisions must have ensured a good workout for you – did you weigh your pack before leaving home?

  11. David on September 24th, 2009 8:57 am

    Another call to move to Japan! Your pictures are really moving Chris. What about the book project?

  12. Damian on September 24th, 2009 3:12 pm

    Meh. Quitters.

    Peeing on your feet toughens the skin against blisters. There is little excuse as it is free, plentiful and [possibly] easily administered as part of your daily routine in the weeks leading up to a hike. But nothing beats breaking in a new pair of boots for blister avoidance.

    ;)

    (The pee thing is true. I used to do it for want of formaldehyde).

  13. YL on September 25th, 2009 4:03 am

    That’s so cool that you managed to get Yuka hooked…
    I’m still trying to convince my wife on the merits of even 2 day hikes

  14. CJW on September 28th, 2009 11:03 am

    Hi George – I’m sure you’re wife was joking! But you’re right, it’s the trips you have to fight for that are the most memorable. It certainly didn’t diminish Yuka’s enthusiasm..

    Wes – ah, the Shiomi curse. Actually, coming off there did give me the chance to check out winter access along that road, so it wasn’t all bad :-)

    Martin – perfectly put, as ever. As addictions go, mountains are one of the better ones.

    Harvey – thanks! Always a pleasure to hear that.

    Mikael – very true. The mountains mercilessly find our weak spots, and sometimes tell us to come back another day when we’ve made ourselves stronger. Good lessons, those.

    Project Hyakumeizan – your comment got me thinking. It might be my imagination, but it seems to me that the Kita-Alps sunrises are better than the Minami-Alps, and vice-versa for sunsets. Maybe the warmer, damper air across the center of the island is to blame?

    Joe – you’re very kind. Another post to follow shortly…

    Tom – I have to say, that sunset was probably the best I’ve ever seen up there. And all the more thrilling for the fact that we’d all but given up on seeing anything for the thick cloud that was hanging around. For a few minutes, the sky was completely on fire.

    Hendrik – I think it just comes down to just taking a lot of photos – the eight above were the only ones I liked out of about 500 that I took in total. A 1.5% yield…. I just realised that I didn’t have your blog on my RSS reader for some reason. I have remedied that!

    Hanameizan – that’s a good point. Actually, she is expressing a strong preference for multi-day trips from now on! With a couple of liters of water and my camera, I was carrying around 20kg. Secretly, this got a little heavier over the four days as items were surreptitiously moved out of Yuka’s bag. Never let it be said I’m not a gentleman…

    David – pleased you liked the post. I have ideas for the book project, just need the time to enact them!

    Damian – heh, I prefer “tactical withdrawal” ;-) I mentioned the pee thing to Yuka, but got one of those piercing “you have to be joking” looks in return… She broke her boots in for about a month beforehand, but I’m wondering if it was the socks that were the problem – a little too thick, a little too warm.

    YL – great weather and grand vistas will get anyone hooked. Of course, the acid test is when it rains for three days solid, your boots don’t dry out and the stove won’t light. We’ll see…

  15. Damian on September 28th, 2009 1:10 pm

    Hi Chris – probably not the place, but my take on socks is thick = good. Even in summer I’m in almost the thickest winter wool socks. They are smooth and soft on the skin. Heat is managed by walking as the motion ‘pumps’ warmth out of the top of the boot as the sock compresses a little. The benefit of the thick sock for me is far less boot-to-skin friction with only a small layer in between offering very little protection. Thin sock for skiing, thick sock for walking.

  16. Jason on September 29th, 2009 2:24 pm

    Well told story of how something so small can derail such big ambitions. I like how the hut owner had an American wife and used to hike in the Himalayas.

    Any chance of putting up a post with a photo of all the things one has to carry on an 8-day hike? 70L pack at least for that kind of trek?

  17. Rockie on September 30th, 2009 9:22 am

    I recently got into hiking, mostly around Tanzawa (as I live in the Yokohama area) this season so during my research and I landed on this blog, luckily, somehow. I have to say, and as a fellow passionate amateur photographer (Nikon D60 with nowhere near the talent you display) I am totally blow away by the quality of this blog. Bravo for sharing with us. Bravo. I have to salute your amazing talents. Thank you so so much.

  18. Miguel on September 30th, 2009 11:34 am

    Chris, you always have a way of conveying that “other” thing about the mountains that goes beyond pretty sunsets and awe. Perhaps it’s a sense of devotion and love. And pure joy. Not many people who write about the walks they do can do that. You capture exactly what it is that draws me to the mountains.

    Unfortunately I have to bear with Mika’s contentment with the likes of Takao-zan. She’s climbed Senjo, but seemed singularly unimpressed. She tells me, “You should be able to find adventure and beauty anywhere.” Well, yeah, of course, but…but…BUT…! Something is always missing. I can’t get that across.

  19. CJW on October 1st, 2009 9:27 am

    Damian – that’s interesting – I tend to be a thin-sock guy in summer. I’ll give the thick-sock technique a go next year..

    Jason – yes, we were worried about so many other aspects, but the one that derailed us was so minor. Actually, I’ve been thinking about starting a separate blog for gear, so I might well post something on there. I had a 70L pack, Yuka had a 40L. Pretty standard stuff, though – tent, sleeping bag, mat, food.

    Rockie – welcome! And thank you for the comment. Tanzawa’s a good mountain – if you can get up that, you can get up pretty much anything. Some others that might be close for you are Mitsu-toge near Fuji, and Amagi on the Izu penninsula..

    Miguel – great to hear from you! You’re right about it being pure joy up there, as well you know. It’s funny how different people react, and with different sorts of trips, to the mountains. Yuka really doesn’t care for one-day trips, but loves multi-day hikes now – which is exactly the opposite of what I thought would happen. You never know what random development might spark Mika-san’s interest…

  20. Miguel on October 1st, 2009 1:19 pm

    Among ultralight enthusiasts boots have become outdated, unless you climb really high peaks like the Himalaya and Andes. Part of the reason that people get blisters in boots is the stiffness of the material. With running shoes (well, more properly trail running shoes), if the shoes fit properly, you very rarely get blisters. And there is no break in time. People who haven’t tried them pooh pooh going with anything without “support”, but numerous serious expeditions, like the Great Western Loop walk, by Andy Skurka ( http://www.andrewskurka.com/ ), the Yo-yo of the Continental Divide by Francis Tapon (who climbed Mt. Blanc in August in running shoes) ( http://www.francistapon.com/ ), and more recently the 4,000 mile walk by Erin and Hig McKittrick along the coast of Alaska, including winter ( http://www.groundtruthtrekking.org/ ), have shown that not only is it possible, but it’s a lot more comfortable and there are a lot less foot problems. Even in winter you can walk with running shoes, as long as you keep your feet warm enough, and this is critical, “loose” enough that the blood flows freely. I don’t use boots any more, though I used to all the time. I have never had any problems with ankles turning, as long as I got shoes that had a low center of gravity. I’ve climbed all the big mountain ranges in Japan in runners. In winter you might want to try something like this: http://www.kahtoola.com/flight-boot.html
    Sami people in northern Sweden reject modern winter boots in favor of lightweight moccasin type shoes covered in straw leggings. I’m not sure they would work in the mountains, but the same kind of thinking definitely keeps your feet drier and warmer than any boot system.

    I don’t know, it’s not for everyone, but give it a try. Yuka might get even more enthusiastic!

  21. butuki on October 4th, 2009 5:18 am

    Hmm, a few days ago I wrote quite a long comment on hiking in trail running shoes to take care of Yuka’s blisters, but it seems never to have shown up. I wonder if the spam filters got it?

  22. CJW on October 4th, 2009 7:37 am

    Hi Butuki – you were right, the spam filter had caught your comment – anything with more than a couple of links tends to get trapped. But thank you for taking the time to write your thoughts down, much appreciated.

    I hear what you’re saying on shoes versus boots. I did Myogi once and also my most recent trip in a pair of Aku Stone XCRs. There were a couple of points where I’d have liked to have been in boots, and a couple of points where I was glad I was wearing something more flexible, so the experiment was pretty much a draw for me. I can see, though, that for day climbs I’ll be erring towards the XCRs rather than the boots from now on though. I did have some issues with gravel getting in them, even with the built-in gaiters on my Hagloff trousers. Not a show-stopper, though.

    For flattish winter routes at sub 2000m, I might also give them a go. But for the big stuff, I think I’ll still be in my boots :-)

  23. butuki on October 4th, 2009 2:45 pm

    For gaiters with trail runners, try these

    MontBell also makes a Schoeller type that I use. Outdoor Research makes a taller (but lighter than the usual goretex type) version that you can use with runners.

  24. Peter Skov on October 7th, 2009 3:46 am

    What can I say but I loved the end of this story, or rather, the suggestion of a new beginning. Yuka is one cool chick. I have always liked her in your posts and now I like her even more. It reminds me when my wife suddenly says, “I really want to go camping. Let’s go to Kamikochi.” I know she doesn’t think about climbing. After having our son she has totally focused her energy on him. It will be some years before I get her back on the trails to the summits. But still I appreciate her interest in getting outdoors again.

    The sudden eruption of light from the clouds at sunset is something I have experienced maybe two or three times, and each time I had given up on the sunset views and went inside the lodge or tent to eat and relax. I know better now. So that long weekend, when it was cloudy and rainy all day I went up to the summit of Sugorokudake just incase there was a sudden break. But there was not. You were very fortunate to get such a grand display. Such moments are what mountain photographers pray for.

  25. Peter Skov on October 7th, 2009 9:28 am

    By the way, it looks like you made the trek from Kita to Shiomi. That’s something I would love to do sometime. In fact, if I had the time, I would want to go all the way to Hijiri or Kamikochidake. I think a solid week would be enough provided that the weather didn’t turn too nasty. Did you see the article about the South Alps this summer in Yama-to-Keikoku?

    Maybe next Silver Week I’ll try to hit the South Alps for a bit. Your photos make me want to go back. Great pics as always!

  26. CJW on October 7th, 2009 11:06 am

    Peter – Yuka sure is a cool chick! As we speak, she’s researching places to bivy out on Kirishima-dake later on this month… To misquote General Yamamoto, I fear I may have awakened a dragon.

    Our plan was to do the whole trek from Kita-dake to Hijiri. I think you could do it in 5 days (the Kita-dake to Kuma-no-daira is do-able in a long day if you got the 7am bus). Without her blisters, I’m pretty sure Yuka would have made the whole thing. The problem you’ll find is at the Hijiri end of things – the Shizuoka bus has stopped running, and you’re dependent on the Tokai Forestry buses. Either that, or you’ve a 12 hour walk-out… I missed the Yama-to-Keikoku article, but I’ll try to get hold of a copy.

    Looks like you got some great views during your trip, certainly much nicer than the gloom I endured up around Washiba last year!

  27. Peter Skov on October 8th, 2009 12:34 pm

    Well, one day of good views is better than none. I should have taken the day off on Saturday. Then I could have gone up in the clouds and enjoyed two days up there in sunshine.

    Yeah, last year I did the Arakawadake/Akaishidake circuit and found the bus from Shizuoka was not running because of a recent heavy rain that had washed out part of the road. I hastily arranged for a rental car but it seemed like a waste of money to drive four hours, leave the car for four days and then drive four hours back out, and I had to take the service bus from the dam up and back anyway. I’ll be sure to check with the lodge below about transportation before going again if I decide to attempt the traverse.

    I’m glad the dragon you may have awakened is on your side. Think if she was against you! I am certain a woman of that power would have you defeated.

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