I stood at the entrance to the train station staring out at the weather. The town dropped down into the grey swirl of low clouds and seemed to hold tight against the wash of cold rain. Streams ran along the street and what few people had left the warmth of their homes hunched their jackets against the chill, trotting along the sidewalks to reach the station and get out of the wetness. The freezing wind howled at the opening to the station and buffeted me, urging me back inside. None of the mountains in the distance allowed themselves to be seen and I was sorely tempted to just turn around and head right back into the heated compartment of the train. The prospect of even one night holed up in a drafty tarptent, alone in the dark of the night time winter woods while the rain pounded away all around me just wasn’t my idea of a good time. I kept remembering waking up in the puffy comfort of my bed before dawn and lying there shaking my head at the strange things that I do for kicks. Who in their right mind wakes up during the hours of the dead to go walking on some windblown ridge?
My pack was light, the lightest I’ve ever gotten it for a several-day winter hike with camping, lighter even than the pack I used in the summer Alps last year. I worried that maybe it was too light, that I might spend the night shivering while snow came drifting down to laugh at me. But I’d checked and re-checked everything to make sure I had gotten it right and, in my head at least, I knew that I should be fine. But as these things always go, it’s one thing to theorize about something, quite another to actually get out there and raise your glass to the elements and make a toast. Weather has an upsetting habit of not respecting theories. Or toasts, for that matter.
I spied the blond-haired adventurer deep in consultation with the local tourist information center lady. I knew he was an adventurer because he wore nothing but running shoes, a pair of navy blue training pants, a navy blue wind shirt and on his back a tiny backpack. Only adventurers challenge such winter weather with nothing by a thin film of nylon. He leaned over the tourist information center counter for an inordinately long time, so long I began to wonder if he was able to speak Japanese. The lady behind the counter seemed a bit piqued as she attempted to make head or tails of what he was saying. When they both looked stumped I stepped up and asked if they needed any help.
“Yes, that would really save me!” exclaimed the adventurer in a heavy French accent. “Hi my name is Eric!”
“I’m from Canada and this is my third day here. Three times I’ve tried to climb Mt. Fuji, but no luck.”
“Climb Mt. Fuji?” I stared at his outfit, from head to toe. “In winter?”
“Yes. It rained the first two days and I had to turn back. Yesterday I made it to 3,130 meters, but the snow got up to my chest and I couldn’t go any further. A Norwegian guy ahead of me was able to continue on. I only have a week left in Japan and I’m determined to climb Mt. Fuji before I leave.”
“Not to doubt your determination, Eric, but are you sure you are prepared for Mt. Fuji? It’s a very dangerous mountain in winter if you don’t know what you are doing or have the right equipment. Every year people die on it in the winter. It’s extremely cold up there, plus some people have to worry about altitude sickness at that elevation.”
Eric hugged his chest and shivered in the wind as raindrops dripped off his chin. “It’s really okay! I’m from Quebec, I’m used to the cold!”
Concerned, I indicated his clothes. “Are you climbing in those clothes?”
“Yes! I work for UPS! You like the pants?” He laughed. “I need to buy some boots before I try Fuji again. You know where I can buy some cheap boots?”
We spoke a while about prospects for a sports shop in this area. I used to live near here and knew of nothing that might get him better geared up. Eric’s shivering got worse, so I showed him into the heated waiting room inside the station. I always wonder what to do in a situation when I meet someone about to head into a dangerous situation, but who doesn’t really understand what they are getting themselves into. I don’t want to push my worries on them, but also don’t want them to do something they will regret. While we spoke a local elderly man came up to us and asked me where we were going. I pointed out into the rain, at where the West Tanzawa range was supposed to be looming. Eric hit his chest with a big smile, “Mt. Fuji!”
The man glanced out in the direction of the mountains where I was planning to go and shook his head. “All those mountains look the same after a while. Pretty boring, don’t you think?” He turned to Eric and grinned. “Fuji! Really! I used to take care of one of the mountain huts at the ninth station. Mt. Fuji, eh? In winter! You have to be careful!”
Eric hit his chest again. “Don’t worry! I’m fine! I’m from Quebec!”
“What did he say?” asked the old man.
I missed my bus while talking to the two Fuji aficionados. While they attempted to communicate with one another about Fuji conditions I went to check on the weather again. A lightness had made its way into the grey billows of the clouds and it looked as if at least the rain might let up a little. Eric had decided to head back 400 kilometers west to Osaka for the night and would attempt Mt. Fuji again the next day if the weather improved. Since he was taking the bus over the pass where I hoped to start my walk I decided to join him and talk a bit more. It was good to have company before heading out into the cold. At the very least I hoped to spark at least a bit of curiosity in Eric over my own adventure. Nothing doing; Fuji was imprinted in his Quebecois mind.
Eric had never in his life climbed a mountain before. “You said you’ve been to Montreal, yes?” he asked.
“What is the highest land form you saw there?”
“Er, Mount Royal?”
“That’s right! No mountains! I never even saw a mountain before I came to Japan!” He laughed contentedly to himself, as if that was sufficient explanation for his attempting Mt. Fuji.
“We Quebecois are really tough! Much tougher than those slouches from Montreal! When we were fighting against the British it was the Montrealers who surrendered, but not us! We stuck it out to the end!” He grinned at me and snorted. “So you see, that’s why I came to Japan, the land of the samurai!” He folded his arms and laughed effortlessly.
We parted at the junction between Lake Yamanaka and Kagosaka Pass. The rain had stopped and already signs of the sun had broken through the clouds. The west foothills of the Tanzawa range rose to the east, heading up into the still watery grey clouds.
“You’re a good luck charm, Eric,” I told him. “I wish you good luck on Mt. Fuji. Please do be careful and don’t take the mountain lightly.”
He waved from the bus, still smiling. “Don’t worry about me. I’m…”
“I know. You’re from Quebec!”
“That’s right! Don’t forget it!”
The bus pulled away and I was alone again with the weather. I started walking. With each step the clouds opened a bit more and by the early afternoon I had taken off my rain jacket and was sweating in spring sunshine. Lake Yamanaka dropped away behind me and the sky stepped back to welcome me into the folds of the ridges.
14 replies on “Pouring Rain”
Great photos, all of them. I like the gentle way you told this story, too. Poor clueless SOB.
Here in Aotearoa we get many people like Eric, full of enthusiasm, with imaginations seemingly immune to the possibility of anything going wrong. Some do come to grief, too. It’s hard to know how to encourage a safer approach without stifling that enthusiasm, and I’m aware that my own habit of going alone into the Ruahine would be viewed by many as being similarly irresponsible (although I’ll argue strongly that for trips of just a few days it’s actually safer to go alone).
The forest looks so strange â€” here, of course, our native forest stays pretty much the same all year round; only one (? I think) of our native trees is deciduous.
That’s a great masthead for the blog, and the new layout’s wonderfully elegant. Sheer class, matching the content. I’d love to see more of your illustrations on the blog.
Ai, yes, as you know, we get those people in Oregon too. People who drive off into the mountains not even knowing that it’s possible to get stuck in places where you can’t find people and they can’t find you, people who don’t know that you ought to have a map, matches, water — we lose a few every year. Not much you can do about it. Hope your boy gets home to Quebec.
Beautiful understated pictures, and narrative. (o)
What Dave said.
I saw a guy lose his footing on Fuji during a New Year’s climb a couple of years ago – he bounced a sickening 500m down the mountain before stopping and none of us could get to him. They choppered him off the next day – miraculously he survived the bivy with two broken legs. None of us got much sleep that night.
I’m not sure what you do with guys like Eric. His whole attitude is very…. disrespectful (for want of a better word). Of the mountain, of the people he involves in his wrong-headed plan, and ultimately of himself. Probably the only thing you can do is inform the police on his behalf – I doubt he had the sense to lodge a route and plan with them of his own accord?
By the way I love the photo of Fuji you posted, it captures the mountain perfectly. That forest, and the angle you got Fuji from, look familiar – the ridge up around Teppo-ki-no-atama?
Wonderfully told, Miguel. I’m glad Eric said he wasn’t from Montreal – that would be truly embarrassing! I hope he made it home all right – he sounds like he could use some common sense as well as a few more brain cells.
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Thanks everyone for the comments. Can’t wait to get out there again. I have no idea how Eric fared, but the following day it was sunny most of the morning, so, if he climbed, maybe he made it to the top. But it rained the day after, so who knows…
Dave, I’ve been through my own learning process when it comes to mountains (and am still learning a lot), so I just can’t bring myself to look down on a person like Eric. Their reasons for getting out into wild places rings true inside me and I don’t want to kill those feelings or lose respect for them. I just worry about the ignorance that takes people where they aren’t ready to go since I know my own ignorance has often gotten me into dangerous situations, too.
Pete, this forest is right at the edge of Mt. Fuji’s blast range and the hills all around the volcano are even now still recovering from the last eruption. Most of the trees are very young I think because only recently has the soil become conducive to the growth of forests. The exposed sections of the hills tend to be covered in grass, but the further you get from Mt. Fuji the more trees have grown in. In the folds between the rises of the hills red and black pines, ever the pioneers in harsh terrain, have started to fill in the spaces. The soil itself is granular like gravel, being ground down black and red tuff. The area is teaming with wild animals; there were Japanese deer tracks and raccoon-dog tracks everywhere.
Dale, I can well imagine that in Oregon people would get lost a lot. When I first got there, from the narrower confines of Japan, and saw that huge wall of wilderness east of the city of Eugene I was quite frightened by the enormousness of it. It took a few trips with friends to get me to be more comfortable with the vastness of it.
RR, thanks for the sentiments!
Chris, I’ve never had the skill or courage to climb Mt. Fuji in winter (don’t know enough about ice-axe self arrest and use of full crampons, nor rope-work and understanding snow conditions… these are things I’d really like to learn, though) so I’ve never seen for myself what it’s like up there in winter. That incident with the climber who fell sounds frightening. I used to live at the base of Mt. Fuji and every winter the local news ran stories of several people who had met their ends there. Since very few people climb Mt. Fuji in winter, just the statistics of there being a few people every year who get in trouble is enough to make one respect the mountain. The position from which I took the picture of Mt. Fuji is very close to Teppo-ki-no-Atama (interesting names around this area… Gun-tree Head), slightly north, from Takazasu-no-Atama. I walked east, along the ridge to the Nishi-Tanzawa Nature School and further east through central Tanzawa, along Hinoki-Hanamaru, Hirugatake (Leech Peak), and Yakeyama. Some really tiring climbing, since you are going up and down across the grain of the range.
Beth, I doubt that Eric is typical of Quebec! I mean, there must be a good reason why you chose to live in the area!
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Oh good, I think ‘comments’ recognizes me now! I’ve so wanted to write a few times, but all I can think to say now so belatedly is that I have been loving your posts of late (the ‘Hang’ are amazing!). This one has amazing photos and what a character you describe. I love your re-design of the blog too. Hope your weather is improving and you will be exercising your ‘laughing knees’ even more, Butuki!
By the way, every year we get several lost snowboarders and hikers in our mountains being rescued at great expense. Sometimes they have ignored danger signs and barricades, so there has been talk of making these idiots pay for the cost of rescue.
Nice new look Butuki-san! Another great writeup as well. I love the shot of Fuji-san!!!!
Great story and beautiful pictures… but now I’m curious – how did your very light bag work out for you? Was it too cold at night or reasonable? The tent in the last picture looks incredibly thin!
The forest in your pictures looks very similar to the Hakone area. I went there once for a day hike in autumn and the little, bent over trees were blazing in fall colors. It’s a very beautiful area for hiking…
Marja-Leena, great to see that you were able to make it into the maelstrom okay. I’ve been having really bad registration spam for the past few months and I need a way to stop it. I turned off the sign in for now, but already the spam has returned so I’m going to have to find something that works. I really have to wonder why it is that all the spam comes from Russia and no where else…. Yes, isn’t the hang amazing? So simple and yet there is something magical about it.
Zen, I’m still not sure if this will be the final design. I’m working hard on moving the site over to a new host, but I’ve been having problems with getting my content into my new WordPress installation. I’m also trying to find the time to do scanning of drawings and re-writes of some stories and essays that I’d like to get up on more permanent, static pages. All of it takes time and I’ve got work and health to take care of, so it’s not my number one priority at the moment. But I would definitely like to finally get the site more complete, as soon as possible.
Thomas, Thanks for the kind words. Actually that night I slept a little cold and so woke up quite often in the middle of the night, but nothing dangerous. Part of it is that I need time for my body to acclimate. After a few days sleeping in the cold I always manage to develop more resistance to the changing temperatures. The single-wall aspect of my tent was calculated as part of the set up. It is made of spinnaker cloth (the same used in racing yachts) and the entire tent weighs 500 grams… I use a very lightweight, very thin bivy bag to complement the sleeping quilt I use (I don’t use a sleeping bag, in part to cut down on weight, in part to deal with overheating when it’s warmer. Also my quilt can be opened and by sticking my head through a slit in the middle, can be worn as a serape… it therefore does triple duty as a sleeping quilt, a warm layer for when sitting around camp, and also, when I use a hammock, as an underquilt to keep the bottom of the hammock warm. Pretty useful!) and bring the temperature of the sleep system up about 10 degrees Celsius, and also to act as an “inner tent” for mist and any windblown rain that might get in the tent. Some ultralightweight hikers I know use the quilt/ bivy system with a very small tarp, sometimes for walks of six months or more. I still don’t have the confidence in my ability to weather storms yet to go that far.
The trail I walked on this trip was very close to Hakone, about thirty kilometers north. The terrain is slightly different (Hakone is much more forested and the forest floor has developed a lot more loam), but geologically the substrata is almost the same. Hakone is geothermally a lot more active. This area has a spooky, gnarled feeling to it, whereas Hakone has a more friendly, lush feeling to it. You should see the forest north-west of Fuji, Aokigahara. That is a spooky place!
Hey, I just wanted to let you know that Iâ€™ve listed you on Japan in Motionâ€™s new â€œBlogs on Japanâ€ site. This is a new project weâ€™re trying out in the hopes of directing attention to Japan-oriented blogs that we especially like, written from a foreign perspective. Theyâ€™ll include both well-known blogs and some that are flying under radar. If there are any Japan-based blogs youâ€™ve enjoyed, or read regularly, maybe you could leave a comment and let us know. Thanks, and keep up the good work!
Hello, Miguel, from 1979 when we were at the University of Oregon. Actually, our last contact was about about 6 years ago, when I asked if you still had the beautiful dark green Toei. I remember the first time I saw it when you slid it out from under your dorm-room bed — a secure bicycle hiding spot! — and I was delighted at the sight. I can also recall the primer-grey top tube replacement after you found that guardrail in a spill on a fast downhill in the Japanese Alps; a close one, for sure. We had some nice campus-area rides together, back in the day. I just found your blog today, so it was nice to “catch-up” on how you’re doing. Your photography and illustrations are a wonderful outgrowth and maturation of the work I knew and admired so long ago and admire even more today. Best of luck on the considered move to the Vancouver area. I’m delighted to hear from you anytime, and especially if you make it back to Oregon. With all best regards, Dan.