At the Summit of Mt. Tsurugi: 10:45am
Raindrops were only ephemeral phenomenon. In short moments, they turned into flakes of snow, and as it was easy to predict, the current temperature showed 1 degree Celsius. My hands were cold.
I hurried and packed things in the backpack, this time including the Nikon. Putting away the camera took some decision-making. Even under reluctance, I had to prioritize the safety for I had noticed the dark cloud creeping in from the direction of Mt. Hakusan of Ishikawa prefecture, which is south-west from Mt. Tsurugi. And, I thought I had more than enough opportunities to take pictures on the ascent, so no regrets.
Descending is the most challenging activity in hiking. Every hiker should know it and needs to pay an extreme precaution to every aspect of the terrain including his or her own condition.
At a normal pace, heading back down to the bottom should take about 2/3 of the ascent, but in my case, I would need to face the cliff side to lower position because otherwise my large backpack would push me off the edge and fall, so completing the descent in 3/4 of the time ascent took was more reasonable. However, if the element of rain was added to this game, it could slow me down to equally or even more than the ascent, which meant I would be hiking in the dark again till I get back to my car after sunset.
Most of hikers on the summit, either by their foreordinated plan or ad-hoc decision, took the Murodo trail, which was flatter and easier and more accessible to the nearest lodge. My problem did not lie on the trail but the business appointment back in Tokyo. Therefore, I had no other choice but to descend to the car and drive back home in hasty manner.
More snow-mixed rain fell on me as I headed down into rocks and cleared Vertical Crab Walk and all other minor rocky cliffs that were supported by chained routes. I hurried as much as I could without losing my body balance, still paying an extra caution on the trail. One hour passed, and I saw a sign that indicated the half way between the peak and Hayatsuki lodge. I was already drenched in rain. Yet, my Asolo boots stuck to the granites and slates very well even in wet condition. I was thankful.
At noon, although there was no more snow, it was heavily raining. The trail loosened up a bit so that I did not have to turn around all the time to face upward to avoid the backpack pushing me away. Types of terrain moderated too, and I was coming up on less of severely steep, chained and spiked rocks.
Still, another cause for concern emerged. My right index toe started to hit the ceiling inside of the boot whenever I faced downward and noticed the weight of my body pushing my foot forward. I remembered that I had slightly larger right foot, and this pair of boots were just too snug. Even though trail was still basically rocky terrain with few spots of earth showing through, I pulled out two trekking poles and extended them longer than ascent in order to absorb the shock of descent.
Sometimes it worked and reduced the shock of hitting the toe; however other times, trekking poles slipped away from the surface of the rock, and by losing the balance I had to jump down to ground to take greater shock. Of course, this hurt much more than if I had slid down the surface instead of leaping. Eventually, my toe got damaged enough that nothing could help relieve the pain, which felt as though a sharp metal needle was poking through my toe constantly.
After two and half hours, I managed to arrive at Hayatsuki lodge, about 30 minutes later than my estimation. It was pouring at this moment, and the rain cloud shut out all goodness of the vista from being seen.
Flat ground felt great even if that was only for 45 seconds. I neared the lodge and sat down on the corner and lower the backpack. I took off the helmet and held it in my arm. It was quite a while I did so. I was frozen. I could not move even though cold rain was now directly pouring and drenching my body through soft shell shirt, which did not shed the rain.
I was exhausted and all-out already. I did not feel any fuel left in my tank. My muscles were so tense and sore because they had to move oddly and exert more labor in order to favor the right toe. I looked at the watch. It was 1:30pm already. At this rate, it would take 4.5 to 5 hours to get down to the bottom and to my car. It would be the nick of time before sunset. I was not sure how much battery was left in the head light, and spare batteries could be shorted by now in the rain.
A couple of hikers arrived maybe 10 minutes after, and when the trail flattened they trotted away and escaped inside Hayatsuki lodge. They were going to stay another night at the lodge.
Not me. I was determined to do this one-shot, and I had a business the next day in Jiyugaoka. I had to go home to Tokyo. It took me 9 hours to drive from Tokyo to the trailhead without using the highway. With it, I could do it in 6 hours. However, these 6 hours seemed like a nightmare. If I successfully descended to my car at dusk, it would still be way passed the midnight when I am opening the door to my house. And, under such tremendous physical and mental stress and exhaustion, how could I ever drive safe without falling asleep on the road? Thoughts full of concerns swept through my mind, and I was locked in the prison of my own.
Something needed to be done. I heard the nature’s call and walked to the smelly can about 30 feet away and took a leak. This meant my body had stopped sweating. Not a good sign. I had to keep an eye on the condition of my body. I walked back to the backpack and untied my boots and looked at my toe. It was all black, swollen, and almost peeling off entirely. I put the sock back on and inserted my foot and tapped the heel so that the foot is placed on the back. Then, I tied the shoe lace as tight as possible in order to prevent it from sliding forward.
I pulled out the REI waterproof bucket hat again and also Patagonia’s Gore-Tex jacket to shed the rain. I packed away the soggy soft-shell mid-layer and pulled the self-attaching rain cover from the top pocket of the backpack. I reached inside of the pocket and chugged gummy candy, 6th Yokan bar, and a shot of Honey Stinger, and drank water and energy drink. Then, I mounted up on my knees. Backpack seemed to weigh more, physically due to the moisture from rain and psychologically due to my anxiety.
“Five more darn hours to go. Yet, I am stronger than you, man. None of you desk-workers in Singapore could even try this,” I said to myself, and I took a deep breath and stepped forward.
Homeward trail looked nothing like before, and it was as if I was entering a whole new, more arduous terrain. Dampen granite rocks lost the grip by substantial rate. Now, wind-blown bushes were bulging out and swinging into the trail route, and my eyesight was considerably distracted by it.
Trail seemed steeper because basic instinct of losing the grip on my feet was nearer than that of the ascent. Wooded steps had lost the soil content on each level, exposing the sharp edge that could catch the ankle and twist it. Ropes were buried in rain-softened mud. Exposed tree roots that helped lead the trail route were now the biggest nemesis. Just one simple step on it could slip you far into the air. Indeed, I had fallen several times by it, even though I was paying attention to it. Sometimes it was covered in leaves, and other times, tree bark was blackened by, as much as I can speculate, sulfur gas and sulfur content in earth.
One hour passed, and I only got to 2,000-meter sign. From the peak, I had come down by 1,000 meters, and there were more than 1,200 meters to go. In my head, I was screaming, “that backbreaker descent for the last four hours was not even the half way!?”
My body was starting to feel null and weak. My toe hurt like nightmare. I calmed down and decided to take a rest in rain. I lowered the pack into muddy water and pulled out a small bag of almonds, which packed 600 kcal. I inhaled a hand full of almonds and complained because darn these things were not salted! Rain was coming down hard. I chewed 7th Yokan out of 10 pcs and gulped lots of electrolyte beverage.
At this point, anything you see was slippery and unstable. Your experience on how to conquer a trail must be reset and switched to merely the best guesses and creative ways to make this whole thing amusing.
For several times, I slipped on a large rock slate and slid down on my ass and laughed at myself for fun. I slowly placed my left foot on wooded ledge thinking it was solid, then I slipped and fell on my knee right into hard gravels and laughed at myself, this time sucking up the excruciating pain on my right toe. I had no resistant or power on my legs to hold it together. They were all shot and too unimaginably sore.
You have no idea how long and how many times these comic challenges came and go. I laughed it all up. In my head, some hook-lines of Weezer tunes from “Pinkerton” and The Flaming Lips’ “The Soft Bulletin” were repeating over and over as the background music. I had listened to dozens of 90’s music during my drive to the trailhead. It helped a lot, then and now. Thanks to it, was I only able to keep 30-min-to-100-meter pace during this miserable descent.
When I reached 1,400 meters of altitude, three hours had already passed in vague memory. Rain was making its full noise onto foliage and bushes all around. I stood there for a while, in brain freeze, bogged out in my own mysterious space. I heard no BGM of 90’s rock music in my head. I was experiencing sharp headache.
I was shivering, so I opened camera app on the cell phone to look at myself and said out loud, “darn, I made a mistake.” I had to do something, otherwise, I would become hypothermic. Hastily, I grounded the backpack and ripped off the rain cover and stuck my hand inside and pulled out Patagonia’s ultra-light Prima-loft jacket, which had stayed dry all the way. I unzipped the Gore-tex jacket and removed the drenched bottom layer and stowed them away. Then, I put on only the Prima-loft jacket on my bare skin to keep me warm and dry.
Another hand full of almonds were shoved inside my mouth and chowed away along 8th Yokan bar and the rest of gummy candy. There’re still 700 meters to descend, but I had to prioritize to regain my body temperature quickly. This jacket warmed me up fast, and calories in my stomach had awakened my senses also.
Speed was also crucial. I threw my legs onto rocks and bushes and extended my arms forward and locate the tips of trekking poles whenever the distance was right. I did not care what it was hitting: a rock, a tree root, soil, bush, my own foot, and whatever. If I’d fall, that was acceptable as long as I was making a few yards below where I was just before. I hit and scraped my elbows and knees several times because my muscles lost all solidity, and they were acting like someone else’s. Still, doing so was no longer physical activity it seemed, and rather, it was a psychological game to maneuver what you had left in this body.
1,200-meter sign showed up. I prevented hypothermia at the eleventh hour. “Wait, is it really the 11th hour since I began the hike?” I mumbled, but the watch showed 3pm, so it had been 12 hours already.
Two more hours to go. My quadriceps muscle was shaking and cramping. I had one of last Yokan bars at hand. I still had Hi-Chew and one Honey Stinger waffle at last resort however unreliable they were.
No song was sung. No hook-line rang. There was only my longing for her. I started to think of her, only her. Nothing else. And, I manned up by it.
Trail still haunted me with steep downhill slopes and uneven rock formations and random curves and slippery roots. Mud sections changed their surface character and shapes too, even though I could not have seen it directly on the way up here in the dark at night. However, some sections of the trail showed up as almost flat, where my legs were tossing around like totally unfamiliar limbs.
I kept thinking of her, and every time I had to take the pain in muscle and toe, I stopped in agony and panted for a while. Then. I would look at the mobile, hoping to receive some signal from her. I had taken some selfie with a smile and sent her way by then, pretending as if nothing was wrong. But, in my heart, I craved for the moment I were just steps away from the trailhead, then the car, warm food, the highway, the airport, then her place in Bangkok. I dreamt of it.
Dropping down and stopping with face twisted, taking few steps forward and feeling hunger, dropping down again from tree roots steps and lumping up the pain and fatigue, all of which kept circling on my agenda for the next two hours, non-stop. I was limping on the ground. There had been many moments when I thought I saw the end of the trail but in vein. This sight was merely an illusion. 1,000-meter sign deceived me like that, and I was furious.
All I was doing was to try to retrieve some memory bits from the ascent trail of limited vision in order to guess what was to come and for how long. Big trees appeared and I remembered it, their roots fashioning steps facing north side appeared and I remembered it, and pieces of sawed-off stubs making footsteps on top of flooded floor appeared and I remembered it. The end is near, I thought. It started to darken up, which was darker than just merely heavily forested environment. I took wider strides to make haste to the trailhead.
But, it did not end right there. Another 150-meter descent was the never-ending, incredibly steep wooden steps, where I got the wind knocked out of myself due to sudden and sharp climb in the first hour. It seemed so long ago. And, I had to admire myself for shooting up this devilish steps, heavily wooded rugged terrain, rocky trails, chained cliffs, and doing it over again in rain. Just remembering all the things I went through helped kill some time and made me forget what I was facing.
Finally, the trailhead sign 50 feet below jumped into my sight. I felt a huge relief. It was obvious even from the above that the beginning of the trail was steep.
Taking the last step onto the bottom felt special. I made it. Single hike from the trailhead to the summit of Mt. Tsurugi in a day, without stopping, carrying 15kg burden. It might have seemed a reckless deed, but I needed to regain my confidence, after my misfortune from last year and recent couple of months of failure to seize occupations of my desire. I can assuredly say it was their loss.
In pouring rain, however much warmer, I walked to the “Challenge and Aspiration” monument once again and stood there gazing at it. Then, I turned around and approached the expostulation phrases from 1975 and read it again.
– Mt. Tsurugi is the edifice of rock and snow. Come, hardened man of body and soul.
– Weather is severe and swingy. Stay calm and act accordingly.
– Codes are strict. With might and courage, face the hardship.
– Nature vitalizes the life through everlasting purity. (Elan Vitale and Tabula Rasa)
– Lean the body of soul to the mountain. Mt.Tsurugi nurtures hardiness and fullness.
This made a lot more sense to me somehow. The challenge of my life has only started, and there will be a lot more to come, but I will not surrender. I shall overcome, however and whatever it takes, like I was able to muster up and conquer this mountain.
I limped to my car and opened the rear door and threw trekking poles and dropped the backpack and took off the boots and bent over and entered the flattened back. I made streaks of rain water wherever I moved to and touched. Just doing this fogged the windows. Taking it into my advantage, I took off my entire clothes and wiped off all the moisture from my body and put on change of clothes immediately. I opened the cooler box and bit on the pieces of bread and ripen banana and took a big gulp of Dr. Pepper.
It was still light outside. Mobile showed the time as 5:10pm. Battery was 10% left. My legs were hardened and swollen from long hours of overexertion. I picked up the boots and threw them in the back. Then, I crawled to the front seat and started the engine and plugged in iPhone and Huawei. Dry air coming out of the vent felt good.
As the foggy windows defrosted, I noticed there was no soul. Only few cars were parked around the empty lot, whose owners were most likely staying at Hayatsuki lodge at 2,200 meters of altitude.
I backed up and drove away from the site. Under the dusk light, surrounding landscape looked magnificent but dreadful. Rained river was abundant, wide, and fierce. There were huge exposed rocks continuously being struck by fast and powerful riptides. Roads were funky and full of hastily build repairs, which seemed to break off any moment if the rain and fast flood kept coming down for a while.
Narrow passage was surrounded by monstrous cedar forests, forests so thick and tall that you felt you were going through a tunnel even though you were out in open. When I looked up, what I thought as dark walls of night’s curtain were bodies of high mountain ranges.
Everything was enormous. I would have been so scared if I saw this before the trail began, as it had always been feared and venerated by mankind. Definitely, this land is ancient.
I drove to Uozu city and ate a large order of Beef Bowl and fueled up some gas and drove back to Tokyo through mountains, winding countryside roads, valleys, tunnels, and city lights. My eye lids were very heavy, but I, half in ecstasy and half in dreamlike slumber, safely managed home by half an hour passed midnight on Sept. 21st.