Down here in Tokyo a summer storm might cause people to grumble about sopping pants hems and forgotten umbrellas, but rarely does it make for more than passing banter. Up in the alpine regions of the mountains, though, a storm can stop you in your tracks to reconsider all your plans.
On my first solo climb of the Japan Alps back when I was 24, the third morning of the traverse of the ridges found me crossing an open col, blissfully unaware of what the mountains were brewing up for me. One moment I was sauntering along, gazing at the 2,000 meter drop on both sides of the trail, the next I found myself staring at this gargantuan black cloud, rising up from the valley like Godzilla. Ten minutes later Godzilla was angry and started to blast the ridge with winds so strong that I soon found myself crawling on hands and knees to keep from being blown off the mountain.
Needless-to-say, I was utterly terrified. I hadn’t a clue as to what I should do. I crawled as far as my courage would take me, but each stretch from protected boulder to protected boulder was like jumping into a wind tunnel with your eyes closed. Twice I witnessed ptarmigans, those tough, surefooted mountain veteran fowl, blown across the ground like paper bags. I ended up behind one venerable outcropping, wet as a rat and whimpering. I must have huddled there for about an hour and I thought surely I would die there.
To my wonder and luck, three old Japanese men appeared out of the maelstrom, like prophets out of the wilderness. They were strung together by a lifeline and trudging slowly along the windward side of the ridge. When the leader came upon me he stopped and looked down. He must have thought he was seeing things, to have this skinny foreigner hunched in a ball, crying. He furrowed his brow and cocked his head, and seemed to take a while to find the right words to say. Nothing wise or momentous came out, just “And just what are you doing there?”
I must have babbled, because all three men glanced at each other, then began to laugh. The second in line patting me on the shoulder. “It’s not safe to stay here,” he said. The leader lifted me up and told me to join them, adding me to the trailing end of their lifeline. “Follow us and do what we do.”
We kept to the windward side of the ridge, making our way just over the final peak of the range, before taking a break amidst the creeping pine on the leeward side of the mountain. Here the wind stopped dead. We sat eating manderins and commenting on the tiger lilies that stood motionless in a sloping meadow at our feet. We could hear warbers burbling in the undergrowth and the steady drip, drip, drip of water falling off our wet hats and the dewey fronds of the creeping pine.
We got out of the storm after that, taking the path that led down the east side of the mountains, the bulk of the mountain blocking the worst of the storm. The three men hardly spoke a word the entire descent, just short, gruff murmurs of encouragement.
At the base of the trail they invited me to join them in the local hot spring, an old place with wooden bathtubs. We sat in the steam and sloshing water, rubbing our aching feet and sighing away the fear in our muscles. It was one of the best baths I have ever taken.
To this day I am forever grateful to those men for saving my life and for their generosity and discretion. They never made me feel ashamed. That’s what the mountains bring out in you. Why I love the mountains so much.