Categories
Europe: Travel Hiking Journal Pyrenées: Hiking Travel Walking

Listening for Pyrene’s Echo 3: Village In the Mist

(Please click on the images to see them enlarged)

First part of the series: Listening For Pyrene’s Echo 1: City By The Lake

Second part of the series: Listening For Pyrene’s Echo 2: A City In Pink

Fourth part of the series: Listening For Pyrene’s Echo 4: Sanctuary Between the Rivers


The tour bus zoomed up to the grassy verge of the mountain road and deposited me and a young woman with a huge pack sprouting camping paraphernalia that flailed about her as she swung on the pack. I grabbed my pack from the storage bay at the side of the bus and watched as the door hissed closed, a heavy sigh issued from the engine, and then the bus heaved off, heading for Spain on the other side of the Pyrenees just up the road. A quiet filled the wake of its absence, very quickly filled with the zithering of grasshoppers in the grass on the verge of the road.

Oloron Train
Train heading from Toulouse to Oloron.
Village of Lescun overlooking the road climbing up from the Aspe Valley.
Village of Lescun overlooking the road climbing up from the Aspe Valley.

A single road sign stood beside a smaller road that led up into the hills. The sign said, “Pont de Lescun”, with an arrow pointing the way. The young woman spoke up in French, “Hey! Help me with this pack!” Not even a by-your-leave, just an outright command. I thought of just walking ahead and leaving her to her own devices, but since this was the first person I had come across in the Pyrenees I thought it was bad luck to start off with sour feelings.

“What do you need?” I said in as wry a manner as I could muster.

“Tie the pup tent to the top of the pack.” The Quechua folding tent in the form of a disk, that was so popular among European travelers, hung from the back of her pack like a dead spider. I obliged, hoisting it on top and securing the cords to some lashing points.

“There you go.”

No reply. She took off without looking at me and started huffing up the road.

I followed, a little surprised that I had to start walking toward the little village of Lescun, that many had described as the most beautiful village in all of the Pyrenees, so late in the day. The road was steep and the air quite humid and hot. Within a few minutes I was breathing hard and sweating.

I could see the young woman up ahead, plodding along. When a car approached from below and passed me, it stopped for her and the driver asked if she wanted a lift. She accepted and threw her pack inside. She never considered me walking further down, and the car took off without further ado. I continued climbing in the late afternoon quiet, looking out across the river valley below at every switchback in the road, and the road climbed higher and higher into the mountains.

Lescun Abiding Tree
Lone tree overlooking the Aspe Valley.

I must have been walking for about an hour when another car appeared from below and stopped for me (this never happens in Japan). I bent over to look in the window and came face to face with a beautiful blonde woman and two children, a boy, about 9 or 10, and an infant girl. The woman gave me a huge smile, and in a thoroughly relaxed and cheerful way, asked, “You headed up to Lescun? (she pronounced it “LesCewn”, so, completely different from the “Lehkun” that I had thought it was) Need a ride?” Her accent was thoroughly British, with not a hint of French in it.

“I’d love that,” I replied.

She smiled, leaned over to unlatch and throw open the door, and raked aside some toys from the seat. “Hop in! Sorry about the mess.”

I opened the hatch in the rear, tossed in my pack, and then took the front passenger seat. I waved hello to the kids.

“Out for a walk?” the woman asked.

We started cheerfully talking about ourselves, me about my trip and where I was from, and she about herself, her family, and the annual summer vacation in Lescun and surrounding areas. Her energy was infectious and reminded me of the friends my parents had as I was growing up. Her name was Anuika, and she was here with her biologist husband who was researching mountain frogs that spawned in mountain water holes at this time of year. Her father-in-law was here, too, and the whole family was having a reunion. She loved Lescun and looked forward to coming every year.

She asked if I had a place to stay, and when I said I didn’t she recommended the gîte d’etápes (B & B) where her father-in-law was staying at.

The car droned up the mountainside, until soon we were driving in cloud. Occasionally the clouds parted, to reveal green rounded valleys far below, and brilliant breaks of sun-limned blue sky above. Lescun popped into view almost like an afterthought, one moment nothing but the road and thick clouds, the next, a tiny, rock-walled village center, with a gurgling stone fountain, a circle of crooked stone houses, and bands of sweaty, hardy-looking, but exhausted walkers in heavy, muddied boots, sunglasses, and sun-copper skin. Narrow, bumpy roads branched out up and down the village slope, just barely wide enough for one car.

“Here it is!”, announced Anuika. “The center of the village. To the left there is the town general store and post office. Up ahead to the left is the refuge, Maison de la Montagne, where you can have dinner. I’d go there first and reserve a spot. Down the road behind is the village restaurant, and around the corner the village church. The gîte d’etápe I told you about is off to the right, at the edge of the village. Just look for “Etápe de Belvedere”.

I stepped out of the car and said good-bye. Anuika gunned the engine and started to drive off before I frantically waved after the car. She stopped some way up ahead and asked what I needed. “My pack,” I said, laughing.

She rolled her eyes. “Oops! Thought you were just being very enthusiastic with your good-bye!”

Lescun Water Fountains
The center of Lescun where all the stores, restaurants, post office, and other village concerns are concentrated. This was the first part of the village that I saw.

I opened the hatch and pulled out my pack. I waved as the car took off toward the other edge of town. When it disappeared behind the stone wall lining the road, the closeness and tininess of the village, perched on a valley hillside, with clouds hanging huge and low right above the rooftops, and dark mountain walls rising unseen into the mists, suddenly seemed to close around me, and the copper, windswept visages of the walkers who were setting down their heavy packs, stomping the mud out of their boots, or bending to drink from the fountain, seemed like heroes descending out of legend. I put my own pack down, to join them, and for the first time on this trip, felt like I was among my own, ready to head into the clouds.

I reserved a spot for dinner at the refuge, then headed up the road to look for the gîte d’etápe “Belvedere” that Anuika had recommended to me. The road wound through the western section of the village, twisting and turning at the corners of lopsided farm houses, bowing under stone arches, sidestepping the watering trough, and skirting around along long, rose-festooned rubble stone walls. Sheep dogs slept in the courtyards, and old men wearing the traditional Pyrenean berets, black vests, and indigo farm pants, stood beside gate posts puffing on pipes, while watching the world walk by. The further I walked the more enamored I became with this place. Flowers everywhere. A distinct silence and, though cars passed by occasionally, a lack automotive sounds that called attention to the flurry of the wind or of birds calling in the distance.

Lescun Walker's Refuge
The refuge where I ate two dinners during my stay in Lescun.

I was walking along a wire fence, looking out across a billowing field of grass in which a simple old stone church stood, when I recognized the gîte d’étape. It was a small house with a terrace and a well-manicured garden in front. Behind rose the half-obscured base of the mountains rising into the clouds. At the gate a small plaque said, “Etape du Belvedere”.

I hardly dared to believe that they might have a space free, and that I’d be able to stay at such a wonderful place at the height of tourist season. Releasing the iron latch, I stepped into the garden and called up to the family sitting under a big parasol on an elevated terrace, eating an early dinner. A Great Dane came bounding out and welcomed me with a big wet muzzle and paws on my chest, almost knocking me over. Laughter spilled down from the terrace, calling to the Great Dane to leave me alone. A woman wearing a straw sun hat and back rimmed glasses stood at the railing, smiling.

The Gîte d'Etape
The Gîte d’Etape Where I Stayed

“May I help you?”

It being still early in the trip speaking French, my own words got stuck in my mouth, or else there were no words at all. “I look for a room for sleep?” I ventured.

“Ah, yes! A room? For how many nights?”

“One or two. I’m not sure.”

“OK. I have one room. The other, bigger one is already taken. Would you like to see it?” She sounded like I might not like it, but I nodded. “Yes, please.”

She called the dog to her side and asked one of the other family members to hold him as she brought me inside. She led the way up a narrow flight of wooden stairs, passed what she called “private chambers” and the internet desk, and up to the third floor, where she opened a heavy wooden door to a small bedroom with a mansard window overlooking the church in the field I had passed earlier. A big double bed took up most of the space, along with a small desk with a chair, a tiny sink, and a closet for my clothes.

“Is this all right?” the woman asked.

I couldn’t have been happier. One look at the ancient stone village laid out beyond the rooftops, the misty mountains beyond, the geraniums growing on the window sill, and listening to the creaky wooden floor, and I had been transported to the core of my mountain dreams. I gave a sigh of relief. My first night in this village would be quiet and without worries, I had a meal waiting, and the trip was starting off well. I smiled at the woman, “It’s wonderful.”

“Well, then, why don’t you settle in? We can talk about payment in the morning. I’ll bring up a blanket later. It gets cold here at night.”

And so she left me to my evening and unpacking. Not that there was very much. My camping equipment and clothes. That’s it. I sat by the window for a while, just gazing outside at the clouds drifting past and swallows whirling about in the evening air. The days of traveling from Japan finally caught up with me and, with about four hours until dinner was ready at the refuge, I lay down, set my alarm, and fell asleep to the sound of nothing but the occasional twitter of a bird. It was one of the quietest places I’d ever visited.

Lescun Church
A small medieval church stands as the central focus of the village. The ringing bell measure the daily portions of the day, and in the evenings it houses the town’s entertainment.

Dusk had long since settled once I woke. Mist had moved in and the church stood barely visible as a shadow in the gathering gloom. A few minutes after my alarm went off the church bells broke the silence and sent sharp peals of ringing through the air. The mist dampened the sound and it seemed to come from quite far off. The evening chill had crept into the room, so I changed from my shorts into long pants and a light jacket. I took some insulin and then headed off to the refuge for dinner. A crowd stood waiting and conversing outside the door as the cook prepared the evening meal. Most of the people were walkers, all dressed in nylon pants, fleece jackets, and big hiking boots. Listening in on the conversations, I heard mostly French, some Spanish (Spain being right across the border nearby), a little German and English. The conversations were hushed, maybe partly because of the great silence poised just out of arms reach at the edge of the village, or how close everything around leaned, making it impossible to speak without feeling someone was eavesdropping. I stood in one corner of the garden, gazing up at the darkening crags above, imagining what it was like up there, imagining the clouds muffling the sounds from the village below, and a cold damp sifting by the nose with the tang of iron. I imagined the tufts of grasses huddled under boulders, collecting dew, and the isolated, furtive rustling of shrews testing the coming night for anything out of the ordinary.

Street Lamps and Church at Dusk
Night falls on the village of Lescun.

A bell clanged and everyone’s attention turned toward the front door of the refuge. The wiry armed refuge proprietor, deeply tanned from time climbing the mountains, stood in the warm glow of the doorway, a big smile on his face. “Dinner’s ready!” he called out. “Everyone come take your places!”

The crowd filed inside, into a big common room with a low ceiling, wooden beams, long wooden tables, and framed, faded photographs of past climbers and mountain scenery. Big bowls of freshly tossed salad, celery soup, mashed potatoes, steaming ravioli, and whole loaf of slow-cooked corned beef stood covering the tables. Groups divided themselves among the tables, with booming laughter and delight at the dinner fare. I was seated with an elderly Australian couple, a beautiful French woman in her 40’s, and two Dutch women who were hiking for the first time. All of them were walking the GR10 from west to east, except the French woman who was hiking solo to the east. The mutual activities and love of the mountains, and just the relaxed way that hikers tend to see and do things, had us babbling with one another within minutes. After introductions, we spent the rest of the night regaling one another with our adventures and our walking plans and route information. I could say that people traveling and sitting around a meal telling stories is the most human of activities, and perhaps something that we all miss in our daily lives.

While refilling one another’s wine glasses and piling cuts of corned beef and mashed potatoes on each other’s plates, I listened to the Australian couple tell of their hikes around Mont Blanc and in Britain, to the French woman voicing worry about the waterless and chained cliff crossing she was facing tomorrow, to the Dutch couple telling how the walk from the west till this point had proved too much at first and they had taken a break before coming back to continue the walk now. But the best part was hearing the hilarious accounts of getting lost and encountering funny walkers along the way. With our heads full of wine and the glow of the incandescent lights shining in our tipsy eyes, we laughed until tears rolled down our cheeks and it seemed the night would never end. But it did, of course, when the proprietor announced that the kitchen was closing, and that it would soon be time for lights out for the refuge guests.

Most of the crowd was staying at the refuge, so I said goodnight to everyone and stepped out into the night. The village stood quiet under the great darkness, halos of lanterns glowing on house walls and under buttresses spanning the narrow alleys. I unsteadily made my way toward the gîte d’etápe, still fuzzy with wine, softly humming to myself as I walked. A cow lowed off in the distance, and the village church stood like a silent sentinel, its deeper shadow sharp against the misty shadows of the surrounding fields. No one was awake at the d’etápe when I creaked the door open, so I carefully stumbled up the steep wooden stairs, and tiptoed into my room. The window was open in my room, with the night chill spilling in. I lay down and gazed out at the dim rooftop outside, and soon dozed off into a deep sleep.

Lescun Misty Church
The Lescun church glowing in the evening mist.

Nothing quite wakes you up like a church bell ringing right outside your open window at dawn. And so it was that the clanging shocked me from dreams to wide-eyed wakefulness. I didn’t know where I was at first, until I saw a swift dart past the window and associated childhood memories of swifts flying around a church steeple and rooftops brought back images of Germany, and “Europe” was plastered across my thoughts. Morning mist wafted in through the open window, and deep silence infiltrated the room like a silent prayer. I held myself still, letting it wash over me until I felt still myself, my eyes taking in the ribbed wooden ceiling, the soundless gyration of passing swifts, the unmoving rooftops, the distant, dark, gaseous walls of the high mountains. And for the first time in a long time, after the onslaught of fear and worry following the Great Tohoku Earthquake last year, the words stilled in my head and I felt myself putting aside the iPhone and Kindle, and just waiting, not for anything in particular, and no move to act on plans, just waiting and sitting still. I fell asleep again, unconscious of time, the heaviness of fatigue that had seeped deep into my muscles and bones releasing, my breath pooling in my veins, the clench of anticipation relaxing, and long, slow inhalations drawing in the world… this ringing old world that seemed to have everything right, that took its time to remember itself for its own sake.

I woke again at 7:00, and groggily made my way down to the ground floor, where the gîte’s one other guest, an elderly man with thinning, white hair, sat at the big dining table, eating breakfast. He greeted me with a warm smile while buttering a slice of baguette. The woman who owned the place and I’d met the day before, bustled at the kitchen counter, preparing some juice and paté. She indicated a seat for me across from the other boarder and set a wooden bread board in front of me.

Lescun Gîte Window
Window of the ground floor of the gîte, looking out into the garden.

“Did you sleep well?” she asked.

I managed an awkward, yes, but couldn’t follow up with more information. Sensing my discomfort the other boarder spoke up, “Do you speak English?” he asked with a distinct British accent.

“Yes. Yes, I do.”

“My name is Stewart Freeman. I’m also a guest here.”

“Miguel Arboleda. Nice to meet you. I take by your accent that you’re British?”

“Yes, I’m here with my son, who is researching mountain frogs here in the Pyrenees. Doing a bit of my own research, too.”

“Mr. Freeman? You must be the father-in-law of Anuika, who actually recommended this gîte to me yesterday, when she gave me a lift on the road coming up to the village.”

“Why yes, that would be my son’s wife.”

“It was really nice of her to pick me up. Saved walking all the way up from the valley.”

“It’s definitely a bit of a slog. So, what brings you to Lescun? Not exactly the hub of the tourist trail.” His smile was friendly, with a twinkle in his eye.

“It’s the starting point of my three-week walk of the ridge going south, following the GR10. Quite a few people told me Lescun was one of the most beautiful villages in the Pyrenees, and so far I really have to heartily agree.”

“Oh, Lescun is a special place. We’ve been coming here every year for the past 20 years. Magical little place.”

“Frog research?”

“Partly. But mostly for a family vacation with the kids. My son sort of half grew up here.”

“He’s a lucky man. The idea of doing wildlife research is a long-held dream of mine. I almost chose to study wildlife biology when I was still at university. Became an architect instead, mainly to work with green design. Are you a wildlife biologist, too?”

He looked at me with more interest this time, biting into his baguette. “Yes, I did research in Africa. Only recently retired. I’ve got a condition and a bad leg, so can’t get out much into the field anymore, but it’s nice to accompany my son into the mountains here to help him record frog mating songs. Keeps me on top of things.” He chuckled.

We got to talking about the kinds of wildlife common to this area. When I proved my familiarity with insect characteristics and species, the discussion got more passionate, and soon we were talking about mountain butterfly gliding, grasshopper leg rubbing, praying mantis wind movement, and differences in dragonfly wing patterns. It was rare for me to meet someone who could talk about insects at this level, and he was far more versed, directly, from the field, than I was, plus he had done research in the field in AFRICA! For someone whose dream it was to work like the rangers in the television show Dactari, or whose heroes were Jane Goodall and Jacques Cousteau, this was like a dream come true.

After breakfast offered to take me out for a stroll on the local hill paths, and show me a path up to the ridge overlooking the village that made for a good half-round of the village. His leg gave him trouble, so we couldn’t walk far, but we managed to get out past the village boundary and along a path that led to a overlook sitting on a steep slope below which the village lay, like a tiny hamlet in an old fairytale. The grass and wild strawberries glinted with dew in the morning chill, and mist huddled in the valley below. Still sluggish from the cold, we peered at grasshoppers and butterflies and hoverflies, remarking on their coloring and special attributes. I felt like a child again, sharing something that I love with another person who knew exactly how I felt.

Lescun Wildflowers
Wildflowers on the verge of the trail.
Lescun Grasshopper
Grasshopper poised to jump.
Lescun Ferns
Ferns at the side of the trail.

Mr. Freeman began to feel the chill in his hip, so we decided to head back to the village. He had some “algebraic calculations” to work out, so he headed back to his room, while I headed into the village center to get my provisions for the first part of my walk tomorrow.


Preparations done, and my room scattered with my gear and food on the bed and window sill, I filled a lightweight daysack with snacks, water bottle, rain jacket, and camera, and set off for the trail Mr. had pointed out to me. I walked up past the point he and I had walked to, and past it, up, up along the steep slope, up to the ridgeline woods, far above the valley. Beech dominated the woods here, with many of them blackened from a recent forest fire. Heather covered much of the open grassy areas, with whizzing doilies of tiny white bees circling the flowers. Clouds moved lazily below, through the rounded valleys, and breaking along the ragged peaks, often in slow-motion snapshots of nebulous passion. I paused under wind-carved trees to let the reaity of the place sink in, often accompanied by the far-off keen of a hawk riding the wind on the higher ridges, or the lone buzz of a bee dipping among the clovers. I followed the path up, concentrating on the weave of rocks and foliage underfoot, the way my weight balanced above an outcropping, the rough dryness of lichen under my palm, the trickle of sweat and the burn of my breath from my exertion… all here, immediate, and yet far, far away in another land not my own. It was a disconnected feeling, one of entering a travel book one has read, and coming against the hardness of a land landing.

Lescun Path Out of the Village
The path leading out of the edge of the village, heading up into the hills above.
Lescun Bluff Tree
Looking back along the path leading up from Lescun.
Lescun Path Up
Path leading up from Lescun behind.
Aspe Valley Hikers
Two day hikers strolling on a path above the Aspe Valley.

The trail wound around the spine of the ridge, taking me up where the wind blew constantly, and the undergrowth lived in a world of endless shaking, and the light varied between passages of clouds and swaths of sunlight. In the wooded patches, shafts of sunlight beamed down through the canopy and burned through the shadows of the forest floor. I climbed through this gloom and finally reached the open crown of the ridge, where I stood for a long while, unencumbered, breathing alone, and happy, and knee-high grass whipped about all around me. More than reaching the summit of some peak, this is what walking was for me, an infusion with a place with no name, just a pair of eyes, of ear, of legs, and of lungs. I didn’t want to walk to capture anything, but rather to be captured myself, and included. The wind expressed everything I wanted to say.

Lescun Beech Forest
Lescun Beech Forest
Lescun Me Walking
Climbing up onto the upper ridge with the Aspe Valley below.
Lescun Aspe Silhouette
View of the Aspe Valley through the silhouettes of the forest above.
Lescun Light In The Woods
A stray patch of sunlight on the forest floor.
Lescun Burned Tree
Gnarled oak tree that was burned during a recent lightning fire.
Lescun Verge of the Woods
Emerging from the ridgetop forest onto the the crown of the bluff.
Lescun Heather
Big tossuck of heather, buzzing with hundreds of tiny white bees.
Lescun Dew On Funnelweb
Dew collected on a funnelweb spider’s lair.
Lescun Thistles and Mountains
Thistles waving in the wind overlooking the Lescun Cirque.
Lescun Peaks Above
View of the higher peaks beyond Lescun.
Lescun Village and Cirque
View of the whole village of Lescun and Lescun Cirque.
Lescun End of Ridge Walk
Coming down off the ridge to the edge of the village.
Lescun Entering Village
Taking the path into the village from the south.

Back down in the narrow alleyways of the village, I passed the refuge where I had had dinner the night before. I reserved another spot for tonight, then headed on back to the gîte. Along the way I passed a hand-drawn sign announcing a free movie showing “Cinéma Sous les Etoiles” (Movie Under the Stars) right next to the old medieval church, and I resolved to go see it after dinner. I returned to the gîte, packed my backpack for the start of the walk tomorrow, and lay down to write people back home and wait for dinner. The evening fell upon the village again, and I listened for the pealing of the church bell as the hours passed. The gabled roof outside my window gradated from brick red, to orange, to purple, before turning black in the night. Stars winked on above, and the sky again dwarfed the village, the silence and closeness of the stars humbling the name of the town, so that in looking up, I dropped my eyes in wonder. Lescun was a place that was daily reminded of its place in the universe, and happily so. It didn’t aspire to replace the stars.

Lescun Me
Grinning from the joy of walking in sublime landscape.

I sat at the same table at the refuge as the night before. This time only two others joined me… the other tables were all occupied by two big groups of Spaniards, all loudly engrossed in their own conversations. The two at my table, Michel and Lise were from Quebec, Canada, and were the only non-native people at the tables. They turned out to be a lot of fun, a couple who both loved photography, but had never hiked before, just up here to take strolls in the hills. We hit it off immediately and ended up getting drunk and howling with laughter at one another’s jokes. Dinner was rotisserie spring chicken with lentil soup and rolled-cabbage. We were all stuffed by the time we were ready to go. They also were planning to see the free movie this evening, so we agreed to meet at the church later when it started.

Lescun Cinema Sign
Sign pointing to the free outdoor movie showing later in the evening.
Lescun Church Rose
Roses outside the entrance to the church.
Lescun Church Nave
Interior of Lescun Church. The intimate size and asymmetrical layout give it a friendly and warm atmosphere.

I drunkenly shuffled back across the village, and in the dark walked beyond the village boundary up to the point Mr. Stewart had taken me earlier in the morning, and sat on the outcropping, gazing at the village lights below and feeling the chill breeze muscle up from the dark of the valley. No one was there, so I sang quietly to myself, “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor: “Oh, I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain. I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end. I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend, but I always thought that I’d see you again.”

Lescun Street Lamps
The narrow streets of Lescun lit up by street lamps.

Though we’d separated 6 years before, thoughts of my former wife welled up. She’d have loved this place. I would have loved to have shown it to her. I didn’t know how my present partner would take this place. I couldn’t understand her; did such places move her? Did she fall in love with wild peaks, a vast bowl of stars, and untethered wind? Could she fathom why such places draw me? What did it mean that I always end up on such walks alone, and she never offered to join me?

The joy dropped out of the reverie, and I sat upon that lone outcropping, up there in dark, beyond the village bounds, weeping. Joy and sorrow mixed like a fine wine. And the dark drop beneath my dangling feet swirled with regrets and hopes.


Back in the village I strolled to the churchyard and found a free folding chair amidst the gathering crowd. Parents and children; grizzled hikers and women in sun dresses; teenagers stalking the edges of the space, conscious of one another, but uneasy; elderly people deep into a book; and my two friends, Michel and Lise, lazily joking among themselves until I sat across from them, when we continued our earlier banter and laughter.

The movie was supposed to start at 8:00, but as time went on and the crowd got restless, it never got started. The projectionist stuck his head out of the church window and announced that there were problems with the projector and they were working on it. I slouched back and tilted my head back to search the stars. A satellite raked across the star-peppered velvet and plunged into the horizon. Roving shooting stars, traveling with the Perseid pack, darted through the field of unmoving stars, and lost themselves in the darkness. Back here on earth, the periphery of my vision was lit up by candles flickering inside paper bags placed on top of walls, at the base of trees, on window sills, and along the periphery of houses, yellow stars dancing in the evening breezes. For a while I conversed with the beautiful woman sitting next to me, but my French was not good enough, and her English only basic, so we lapsed back into silence. Michel reached out to touch my shoulder, telling me they were retiring for the night. Soon only about half the audience was left.

The movie never made it to the screen, and the projectionist announced that the problem couldn’t get worked out, and apologized for making everyone wait. In typical French style people laughed and shrugged their shoulders, everyone taking it in a stride and joking about it. One by one the last of the moviegoers filed out. I strolled back along the alleyway, back to the gîte. Time to go to sleep anyway. I had an early start.

Leaving Lescun BW
Heading east from Lescun on the start of the GR10 walk.
Categories
Ultralight Backpacking: How To Wellspring

Mid-Spring Japan 3-Day 2,000 Meter Mountain Visual Gear List

I’ve been deeply involved with ultralight backpacking for fifteen years now, starting with the first explorations with Ray Jardin’s “The Pacific Crest Trail Hiker’s Handbook”, through the heydey of Backpacking Light, making my own gear, getting to know some of the more well-known UL leaders like Glen Van Peski and Japan’s Tomoyoshi Tsuchiya and Hideaki Terasawa. It’s been a long and interesting journey, of trying to lighten my load and make my use of gear more efficiently, so that hiking itself was less of an ordeal with a huge pack and exhausting weight. The community that I have been involved with spent days heatedly contesting the merits of quilts versus sleeping bags, pyramid tents versus flat tarps, boots versus running shoes, even whether silnylon was 100% waterproof or let rain spray through. It has been a great learning experience.

One of the things that has been ubiquitous with UL talk is gear lists, presenting the contents of your pack and then having people critique the set up. Curiously, in all those years I never once spent time putting up my own comprehensive gear list on the Internet, though I have hundreds of pages of gear lists agonized over on the backs of envelopes, in notebooks, on my iPhone, and over again and again in my head.

Here is a visual representation of a pack list for cold, rainy, even snowy, 3-day mid-spring hike at 2,000 meters in the mountains of Japan. The mountains at this time of year are still quite cold, with lots of snow, so the list includes a lot of thermal clothing I wouldn’t normally carry at other times of the year. I’m more of a “heavy ultralight” walker now, rather than “ultralight”, having added items for comfort or for convenience. There are weight categories for each level of going lighter, defined as:

Lightweight (LW): 4.5 kg (10 lb) ~ 9 kg (20 lb)

Ultralight (UL): 2.7 kg (5 lb) ~ 4.5 kg (10 lb)

Super-Ultralight (SUL) (but still safe for 2 seasons in alpine regions): < 2.7 kg (5 lb)

Extreme Ultralight (XUL) (this is crazy weight, and not recommended for anyone who doesn’t have extensive mountain experience): around 1.7 kg (3 lb) or less

I’ve never been able to properly do SUL without cheating. I’m also not comfortable doing it. SInce the mountains are about having fun for me and not spending time being unnecessarily uncomfortable, I’m happy with UL.


This is most definitely a work in progress and I’d never claim that I’ve gotten everything sorted out 100%. There is always more to learn, especially understanding what you are capable of and overcoming your own fears. As the famous ultralight long-distance walker Andrew Skurka, who walked solo 7,560 km (4,700 miles) around northern Alaska and the Yukon in 2010, wrote to me, “You carry your fears.”
Tell me what you think! I welcome critiques!

Everything

Visual Gear List of Everything in a Mid-Spring (cold and rainy, possibility of snow) Pack


When going ultralight everything in the pack must have a reason to be there, and if possible each item ideally serves more than one purpose. Normally a summer/ warmer weather set-up would not require so much clothing, but with the weather very changeable at this time of year in Japan, with heavy rains, strong winds, and sometimes sub-freezing nights, it is important to cover the bases when getting out there. Here is a general breakdown of the items:

1) Katabatic Gear Saskwatch 15 Quilt.
2) Gossamer Gear Mariposa 2012 Pack with Nightlight closed-cell sit pad
3) Mountain Equipment Postman Bag… waterproof camera bag
4) Small notebook, money, and documents in ziploc bag
5) Insulin pen cooling bag
6) Valuables waterproof protector
7) Whistle & mini-pocket knife w/ lanyard to wear around neck
8) Compass w/ lanyard to tuck into shoulder strap pocket
9) Snacks and emergency food bag
10) Drawing & painting kit
11) Necessities bag
12) Volvic water bottle 1½ liters
13) Food bag
14) Esbit (or alcohol) stove & 0.9 liter pot kit, with Trail Designs Caldera Cone windscreen and pot support, sponge, and E.M.I titanium folding spoon
15) Homemade reflective foam pot cozy
16) G.S.I. lidded, insulated cup
17) Ziploc lidded, insulated bowl
18) Shelter bag with Locus Gear Khufu Silnylon,
19) Exped Downmat UL 7 Short
20) Quilt attachment cords
21) Exped Schnozzle waterproof quilt stuff sack/ air pad inflator
22) Montane Short Sleeve Bionic Tee (oversized to fit over long-sleeve baselayer and for hot days when a loose shirt is needed)
23) FineTrack DoughtSensor Wool Mesh Briefs
24) FineTrack DroughtSensor mesh sock liners
25) FineTrack Storm Gorge Alpine Pants
26) MontBell Wind Blast Parka (windshirt, modified with softshell collar)
27) Neck towel, cotton, with twist tie
28) Mountain Equipment Long-Sleeve Crux Crew Shirt (lightweight merino wool/ cocona blend)
29) Outdoor Research Radar Pocket Cap (folding)
30) Outdoor Research Echo Ubertube (buff neck gaiter)
31) MontBell U/L/ Down T (oversized to fit over midlayers)
32) Turtle Fur Fleece neck gaiter
33) Mountain Hardwear Seta Strapless Running Gaiter (modified with hook and loop attachments)
34) Montane merino/ polyester blend liner gloves
35) Mountain Laurel Designs Event Rain Mitts
36) 3mm Neoprene Booties
37) MontBell Goretex knee high waterproof socks
38) MontBell Fleece Socks (for sleeping)
39) Buffalo Pertex/ Pile Mittens
40) The North Face PowerDry Balaclava
41) Montura Thermal Pro Fleece Cap
42) SmartWool Ultralight Mini Sock (extra socks)
43) Cloudveil PowerStretch midlayer zip neck shirt
44) Paramo Torres Core and Sleeves (waterproof insulted vest and sleeves)
45) Rab Stretch Neo Jacket (Neoshell waterproof jacket)
46) Paramo Cascasda Pants (waterproof and thermal overpants)
47) Kindle
48) Diabetes kit

Packing

Packing


The pack is what helps you carry all the stuff you bring with you up there among the peaks. And depending on how it fits and wears, it can either help to make the walk more enjoyable, or else make it misery. An enormous, overweight, overbuilt pack is not necessary, just the basics, with enough carrying capacity and stability to make the carrying comfortable. In my early years of UL hiking, I used what amounted to merely a sack with straps, but unless the weight was exceptionally light and devoid of anything for whiling away the hours, any extra weight quickly became very apparent, and the pack would buckle under itself on my back. These days I still go very light, but also prefer to have a frame inside to help stabilize any extra weight (especially food) that I might carry. I also prefer to have a big front pocket to store my shelter (thus allowing it to be immediately pitched when arriving in camp, and keeping other gear dry when it is raining), and two side pockets for holding a water bottle, trekking poles, umbrella, and windshirt.

1) Gossamer Gear Mariposa 2012. My favorite pack now. After using it for a whole month in the Pyrenees last summer, I couldn’t be happier with a pack. I’ve modified the draw cord at the mouth of the pack, and added two, thick bungee cords at the sides to act as side compression straps. The pack is lightweight, but strong, and carries even heavier loads exceptionally well. There is a closed cell foam sit pad inserted in the back panel that I can take out to sit on at rest stops or in camp, or as part of my sleeping system as an extension to the shorter down air mattress I use.

2) Rain cover. Though I went without it for a long time, the rains in Japan are so hard, so long, and so frequent that everything gets wet unless I cover the pack up well. Also helps to keep the pack dry when hammock camping.

3) Liner bag. 90 liter garbage bag. Used to line and protect the gear inside the pack from rain and water.

Shelter

Shelter System


Over the years going ultralight I’ve gone through a whole series of different kinds of shelters, from one-pole tents to tarptents to tarps to poncho tarps. Recently I stepped back a little to get more protection and have been using pyramids for their fully-covered storm protection and lightness. My favorite shelters at the moment are the Locus Gear Khufu Silnylon when I am solo, the GoLite Shangri La 2 for when I want more space, or will go with two people, and the MSR Hubba Hubba HP for when I am traveling with a partner who wants more comfort. I prefer the solo Khufu pyramid because it has a very small footprint, which is essential on the limited site space on the very steep mountainsides in Japan. I could go even more simply, and just use, like my mountaineer friend Chris White, a waterproof bivy that I could throw between rocks and not take up any space at all, but I haven’t yet mustered up the courage to sit out mountain storms at night, rain pouring all about, with nothing over my head except a sheet of fabric centimeters from my nose. Should try it some time.

I’m torn between using shelters that include tent poles or those that require a separate support, like trekking poles. I don’t use trekking poles very much, preferring to have my hands free as I walk, or using one pole at most. My pyramid actually only requires one pole to be set up, but the two pole system allows for an “A” support that makes the pyramid more stable in side winds, and opens up the space in the middle of the shelter. I still think that tunnel tents are the most stormworthy tents available, and I’d like to get a very light design, preferably one of the upcoming commercial ones designed by Roger Caffin in Australia. Still, I like the simplicity and versatility of the pyramid system, which has a small footprint, that work well on the steep, limited-space sites of the mountains in Japan.

Floorless shelters are the way I go now. They allow pitching on more iffy site ground conditions, allow you to track mud inside, allow use of a stove inside (with the usual caveats of making sure to ventilate the space and be very, very careful that the stove doesn’t flare and light the shelter fabric on fire), can be pitched on top of snow and a hole dug down, and have no worries about spilling things. Plus they can be immediately pitched when arriving in camp in the rain, so that you can move about in leisure while still dripping wet, sorting out the rest of the gear inside the protection of your shelter. Same for when striking camp, everything can be packed under the shelter, then the shelter stuffed into the outside front pocket of the pack, still wet.

When it gets warmer I want to try out my camping hammock system, which allows camping in far more varied terrain than a ground shelter, including over rocks and water and on very steep slopes. I’ve made my own hammocks and hammock tarps, and used the Hennessey Hammock system, but was never happy with them because of the cold . Hopefully my new underquilt will eliminate the cold spots. Hammock camping opens up possibilities for walking that ground camping may limit you with.

The components of my present ground shelter system:

1) Dyneema guylines for staking out the shelter in strong winds.

2) Locus Gear Dual Pole Tip Extender (DPTE) to allow the trekking poles to be used together in an “A” configuration in the pyramid shelter.

3) ZPacks cuben fiber bathtub floor. In drier places a simple flat waterproof ground sheet would suffice, but it rains so much here, and too often I’ve camped in areas of ankle high water, that this brings great peace of mind. A bit slippery.

4) Stake sack. 4 big 9-inch Easton aluminum stakes, 4 6-inch Easton aluminum stakes, and 4 titanium skewer stakes.

5) Locus Gear Khufu Silnylon 1-man pyramid tent. An exquisitely custom-crafted shelter, with an exceptionally light silnylon that does very well in the rain. As someone who sews my own shelters, when I first saw one of these in person, I was greatly impressed by the jewel-like workmanship and beautiful form, and I had to have one. The designer, Jotaro Yoshida, is a quiet, soft-spoken friend, who loves what he is doing. It’s a joy to be using his designs.

6) Black Diamond carbon fiber telescoping trekking poles. Telescoping poles are a necessity when riding the crowded trains in Japan. There are lighter poles out there, especially the Gossamer Gear LT4 carbon fiber pole, but these are very sturdy and tuck out of the way when there are people about who might get stuck by the tips.

7) Mesh shelter bag. Mesh to allow the shelter to drain when wet.

Sleeping

Sleeping System


Many people think that because ultralighters pare away what is unneeded and go as light as possible, that they are compromising safety. Ultralighters spend a lot of time evaluating gear and discussing methods to stay warm and safe with as minimal a set of gear as is reasonable and possible. A lot of gear is used as a system, with each part working together with other gear to increase the usability of the item. For instance, many ultralighters use quilts rather than full sleeping bags to save weight where the compressed down underneath the sleeper is not being used. They also use lighter weight sleeping bags, but use other items of clothing, like a down jacket or pants worn inside the quilt to raise the temperature rating of the quilt. Likewise, when the insulating jacket is not warm enough outside the shelter, the quilt can be wrapped around the body to help keep the camper warm.

Though not strictly necessary (a closed-cell foam pad is much lighter), a thick down-filled air mattress makes sleeping on rough ground a joy and keeps the sleeper warm. With my arthritis, sleeping on a thin pad is painful, and keeps me up at night, when really I should be getting as much rest as possible. Good sleep is an important part of mountain walking, and I figure it is worth the extra weight. Since blowing up a thick air mattress by mouth can make you giddy, I use an air pump in the form of a stuff sack with a nozzle at one end. When not pumping up the air mattress, I store the quilt in it.

Many people swear by camping hammocks, and they eliminate the discomfort of the hard ground.

1) Katabatic Gear Sawatch 15ºF quilt. Beautfully made custom quilt with water resistant shell.

2) Cords for securing quilt to the sleeping pad.

3) Air pump/ quilt stuff sack

4) Exped Downmat UL 7 Short. Supremely comfortable sleeping air mattress.

Cooking and Hydration

Cooking and Hydration Kit


When hiking I try to go as light as possible with the food, and spend as little time and fuel as possible on cooking. Using Esbit fuel tabs over the last few years has proven to be effective and convenient, and very light. I’ve been looking again at more nutritious and fresh foods lately, and may go back to doing proper cooking, rather than the purely boil and eat menu I’ve been following for about 8 years now. Here is my basic setup:

1) Food bag. This tends to be the heaviest part of the pack, with more than half the weight of the entire packed backpack when going for four or more days. More than anything else trying to keep the weight of the food down, while simultaneously getting all the nutrition and calories I need (some walks take about 5,000 to 6,000 kcal’s a day), is the biggest challenge to staying ultralight. Food necessarily turns out to be mostly carbohydrates when weight and shelf life is a concern. As a diabetic, carbohydrates play havoc with blood sugar levels, which can strongly affect energy levels when walking, or, when there are not enough carbs, be downright dangerous as I dip into hypoglycemia. I’ve found that by upping fats and proteins, my hunger pangs go down, and I am able to function much longer throughout the day without having to constantly replenish carbs. The only problem is that carrying fats and proteins means a lot of fresh food, which can substantially increase the weight of the pack.

2) Ziploc lidded/ insulated bowl. (homemade closed cell foam insulation). Many ultralighters eschew using anything more than their cook pot and perhaps one cup to stay light, but I’ve found that I like having soup while drinking coffee or tea, and also don’t like eating out of freezer bags for the boiled meals. With the bowl I can let a cup of tea or coffee steep on the side while eating soup, and wait for the dehydrated meal to slow cook inside the homemade reflectix cozy.

3) H. S. I. insulated, lidded cup. Though not super light, I use the cup both for drinking coffee or tea during a meal, when I wake, or during breaks, and also to help scoop up water from shallow creeks and springs when I need to top up my water supply. The cup makes it easier to pour into the narrow mouth of my pet bottle. I therefore carry the cup on the outside of the pack, clipped to a compression strap, ready to use at a moment’s notice.

5) Evernew 0.9 liter titanium pot. This is the perfect size for me when I am solo. Mostly I use it for boiling water, and it holds just the right amount for a cup of tea, base water for hydrating a pre-packaged meal, a small bowl of soup, and a last dash of hot water to help wash the dishes after I finish eating.

6) Sea-to-Summit Ultralight Wash Basin. Often I want to properly wash dirty dishes, or at other times I want to take a good sponge bath or wash my face, especially on very hot, muggy Japanese summer days. This does a great job holding the water, but also doubling as a stuff sack for the pot and other cooking gear.

7) Homemade Esbit stove (simply the lid of a steel face cream canister) with aluminum scorch protector for when I use the stove on flammable ground.

8) Sponge with some soft scouring ability.

9) TrailDesigns Caldera Cone titanium windscreen and pot holder. The TrailDesigns Caldera Cone is probably the most efficient and stable pot stand available for alcohol and Esbit stoves today. It actually comes as a system with a specially designed alcohol stove and even an attachment to turn the cone into a wood stove, but all I’ve ever needed was the windscreen itself, a tiny steel cap to hold an Esbit tab, and a pot to fit into the pot-fitted circle of the cone top. Even in strong winds, the cone protects the flame and the pot doesn’t tip over. It also helps save a substantial amount of fuel compared to other similar stoves.

10) Homemade reflectix pot cozy. Using a foam-backed reflective aluminum foil sheet, I place a hydrated package of pre-mixed ingredients with boiling water inside, and the cozy slowly cooks the food, saving on fuel.

11) Volvic 1.5 liter pet bottle. I’ve used all kinds of water containers over the years, from Sigg aluminum bottles in the late 70’s, to Gatorade bottles, to polyethylene jugs, to Nalgene polycarbonate jars. Most of them do the job well enough when you’re at home, but out in the field they tend to be very heavy and ungainly. Discovering that, I went to the ubiquitous “Platypus” water bottle, and for a long time used nothing else. But the Platypus bottles are expensive, quickly start splitting at stress points, and have a terrible habit of losing the cap. Last summer in the Pyrenees, with temperatures sometimes reaching 44ºC, I realized that my usual 1 liter water bottle that is all I need in Japan was severely insufficient for the dry, desert0like heat of southern France and northeastern Spain. I needed to carry a lot of water . The long, narrow 1.5 liter pet water bottles you can buy in any store proved to be invaluable, carrying more water than I usually needed in a day, but providing enough when thirst settled in. Two 1.5 liter bottles helped me make it through most days, though I stopped to fill up at any safe watering area I could find along the way.

12) Fuel and kitchenware kit. Everything you need to use when you are cooking… fuel tabs, pot lifter, lighter, matches, spoon, knife, fire starter…

Necessities

Necessities Bag


There are some things that should always be included in every pack, whether you are walking for one day, or for a whole month. Some of the items above are survival essentials, for emergencies and times when life or death might be the result if these items are not on hand to get you through a freezing night or a bad fall. Other items are more important for information or connecting to the outside world, though they might not always be reliable or helpful for survival situations. Some are just necessities for everyday needs, like for the toilet, washing up, or taking important notes.

1) Heavy duty Ziploc bag for iPhone.

2) Noise cancelling fur windcutter for recorder microphones.

3) Olympus WS-803 Digital Voice Recorder. Use this to record notes when I’m too tired to write or while walking. I also use it to record sounds in the mountains, like bird calls or the wind or the sound of a river.

4) Electronics bag. Carry all the electronics for the trip. I really don’t like this extra weight that just sits in the pack all day, but if you want to be connected it’s part of today’s “needs”.

5) iPhone 5 USB cord.

6) iPhone 5 recharger

7) Sony rechargeable battery for iPhone and camera

8) Toilet kit. Toilet paper, hand gel, and titanium scoop that can double as a tent stake. Has a neck cord to hang from the neck while doing the hustle in back country bushes or less-the-stellar outhouses at the mountain huts.

9) Important documents and cards bag. Bag for money, credit cards, ID cards, keys, and other valuables.

10) Compass. Essential.

11) Swiss Army Knife Classic and loud plastic emergency whistle on lanyard. Worn around my neck at all times. I don’t really like the Classic pocket knife, but it is what I use until I find something better. I also carry a slightly bigger Opinel folding knife for cooking and for doing chores like shaving wood or cutting branches.

12) Journal. For me, essential, especially years later when I want to remember details of the trip.

13) Small notebook. For train times, mountain route names, route schedules, food lists, and information that I learn along the way.

14) Map case. To protect the map.

15) Contour Map. Essential. Getting lost in the mountains is serious business. It is essential, too, to know how to read them, and how to use a compass with them. I sometimes carry a GPS, too, but it is not a good idea to rely on them, due to batteries running out and lack of signals in the mountains. My iPhone has a good GPS, too, but I have to be careful with the batteries.

16) Insulin Pen Cooler case. Insulin must stay as cool as possible in order to remain effective. Difficult to do in hot summers!

17) Medicines and vitamins. For diabetes.

18) Emergency kit. Essential. This is the one bag that will always go into every pack I carry when I go for walks. Has an emergency bivy, firestarting kit, water purification tablets, cord, candle. Other essential emergency items are placed in other parts of the pack where they are most often accessed and used.

19) First Aid Kit. Essential. After suffering from an infection once, I’ve decided, “NEVER AGAIN!” It was one of the most painful and debilitating experiences I ever went through. Nowadays I’m serious about keeping wounds clean, having proper antibiotics, and the basics for binding wounds.

20) Toiletry kit. While I’m not obtuse about it, hygiene is still important. Many western ultralighters talk about it as if it is an affront to their manhood, but if other animals in the wild keep themselves clean, then surely it is good for us, too!

21) Travel kit. Things that make a difference in getting a night’s sleep (ear plugs), keeping eyeglasses clean (lens cleaners and wipes), keeping skin from getting sunburned or wind chapped (sun cream and lip balm).

22) Head light inside translucent sack. Essential. Getting caught at night on the mountains without a light can make the difference between staying put until dawn, or seeing what is in your pack. The translucent sack is used to pull over the head light in the shelter and diffuse the light more.

23) Repair kit. Essential. Anything from fixing the inflatable mattress to the shelter material, sewing a ripped shoulder strap, or wiring a broken trekking pole back together.

24) Pillow. Essential. I can’t sleep without it, because of the pain of arthritis.

25) Small super-absorbant towel.

26) Necessities bag.

27) Emergency food and snacks bag. Essential. With diabetes this can mean life or death. Can also help other people who might need it (and it happens a lot).

Thermal Layers (usually in pack)

Thermal and Rain Clothing (in pack)


In mid-spring in Japan the weather is still very unpredictable in the mountains. One day it could be warm and rainy, the next it could be freezing with snow. The possibly of getting cold and wet is very high. In summer months I would not carry all this warm gear, but it is still winter in some places in Japan these days. Also, the thermal layers here are part of the sleeping system, worn when the quilt is not warm enough. I carry one upper body synthetic insulation layer for the possibility of clothing getting wet, a measure of insurance, and in this case the Paramo Core Vest is waterproof and oversized, so it can be thrown over all other layers even in the rain. Down doesn’t hold up well when it gets wet, though I’ve never had a problem with that. Another thin layer of down works over (or under) the synthetic layer to add extra warmth.

1) Buffalo Pertex/ Pile Mittens. Pertex/ Pile was invented in Scotland where cold wet weather is part and parcel of life there. Pertex/ Pile is designed to dry extremely quickly and keep even a wet body warm. These mitts are fantastic for keeping fingers dry and warm even in the rain. I wear them over wool/ polyester liner gloves.

2) Spare merino wool socks.

3) The North Face Powerdry balaclava. For sleeping and days when it is very cold and windy.

4) MontBell Fleece socks. Sleeping socks. I never wear them in my shoes and always keep these as clean and dry as possible. Fleece works better than wool because it doesn’t retain moisture. Moisture contributes to cold feet.

5) Montura Thermal Pro fleece cap. For cold days and sleeping.

6) MontBell Goretex waterproof socks. For cold days when the mesh shoes are wet for extended periods and there is no possibility of drying out. Knee high.

7) Thermal layers drybag.

8) 3 mm neoprene booties. For when the feet are very wet and cold. (may be superfluous with the Goretex socks)

9) Outdoor Research Seta Strapless Gaiters. To keep debris and mud out of low-top shoes.

10) Turtle Fur fleece neck gaiter. For sleeping and very cold days. (may be redundant with balaclava)

11) Walking thermal wear stuff sack. Keeps all thermal items that might be needed while walking together, and keeps them dry.

12) Mountain Laurel Designs eVent Rain Mitt. Very light weight, but helps keep hands warm and dry. Sometimes all I need over my glove liners.

13) Montane merino wool/ polyester blend liner gloves. Used while walking. I tend to run hot while moving, so thicker gloves are usually overkill. These are just right most of the time until I arrive in camp.

14) Paramo Core Vest synthetic insulating top. The main thermal top. It can be treated with Nikwax waterproofing and works with the Nikwax Analogy water management system to become a waterproof insulating garment.

15) Paramo Core Sleeves synthetic insulating component. Add these to the vest above and the two become a full-covering insulating top.

16) MontBell U.L. Down T. Oversized down short-sleeved jacket. Can be worn under the main insulating jacket, or over. Very light.

17) Rab Stretch Neo Jacket. Made with the new NeoShell waterproof fabric, by far the most breathable waterproof material I’ve ever used, outside of Paramo Nikwax Analogy. It’s a bit heavy for the warmer months, so I may get one of the newer lighter versions of the fabric when a good jacket becomes available.

18) Cloudveil Powerstretch zipped neck shirt. A warm mid-layer for use while walking on cold days. Usually all I need when it is colder and I’m walking. Anything heavier and it is too hot.

19) Paramo Casacada Rain Pants. Nothing beats Paramo rain gear for breathability and pure comfort in the rain. The system is quirky and confuses a lot of people, because it doesn’t rely on a membrane to keep the user dry. Rather it works on the same principle that furred water mammals use to stay dry, with directional mechanical (not chemical) pumping of water within the fabric. On the recommendation of Chris Townsend, instead of wearing wool tights under my regular walking pants, when it gets cold I put these rain trousers over my regular pants and stay warm and dry that way. I figure it’s lighter than carrying a pair of rain shell pants plus wool tights. Plus I can wear them as regular pants, too.

20) There is no rainwear that can deal with high humidity and heat. You’ll sweat in all of them. For very heavy sustained rain when it is too cold to let myself get wet, I use a sturdy umbrella. In hot, sunny weather, I’ll use an umbrella with a reflective coating on top, as a parasol.

Worn Clothing

Worn Walking Clothing


Most of the time you don’t need a lot of clothing for walking, even when the weather gets cooler. In warmer months I never carry more than the clothing above, with an extra insulated jacket for unexpected cold weather stuffed into the pack. Even when it is raining, unless it is a deluge, my windshirt is usually all I need to keep light rain off. When it is very warm, like during Japanese summers, I will often allow myself to get wet while I walk, knowing that the heat from my moving body will dry off the rain soon enough. Of course I must be careful about hypothermia, but in that case I just don my windshirt until I am warm again. Japanese summers are extremely hot and humid, so carrying a light cotton towel around the neck helps with sweating. On very sunny days, my wool t-shirt’s lack of a collar exposes my neck to the sun’s rays, so I use a very light buff as a makeshift collar, or just rely on the towel to protect my neck. In summer I will always use zip-off long pants/ shorts, but in colder months I just use regular pants. I prefer loose-fitting clothing because I find they are warmer in the cold and cooler in the heat. Tights always make me feel the cold or else feel to hot and sweaty in the heat.

I always use mesh running shoes, even on the highest, steepest rocky trails. Light shoes make walking much easier work, plus the lack of waterproofing makes them dry out quickly as you move. You can wade through streams without taking the shoes off, and they will dry out soon afterwards, or, at the least, stay warm. The mesh allows water to escape, whereas a Goretex lining will tend to hold water in. A rock plate in the sole protects on sharp rocks, and good, sticky rubber lugs keeps you safe as you climb. It is a good idea to get the shoes a little bigger than you would normally wear on the street, so that your toes don’t jamb in the front on descents, when you can injure the tips of your toes.

1) Outdoor Research Pocket Radar Cap. My favorite cap of any hat I’ve used over the years. And I’ve used A LOT of hats!

2) Outdoor Research Echo Ubertube. Very light neck protection, head protection, headband, cap. Can be used as a water filter, too.

3) Cotton neck towel. For very hot days, to wipe away sweat, keep the head cool when dipped in water, to protect the back of the neck from the sun. Ends are left unfinished to allow for faster drying.

4) FineTrack mesh merino wool/ polyester briefs.

5) Finetrack merino/ polyester blend running socks. Very thin to allow quick drying.

6) FineTrack mesh polyester liner socks. Helps to keep the feet dry and blister free. Don’t always use them.

7) MontBell Wind Blast windedhirt, modified with softshell collar.

8) Montane Bionic T merino wool/ polyester mesh short sleeved shirt. Oversized to be loose in hot weather and to wear over the long sleeve shirt.

9) FineTrack Storm Gorge Alpine Pants. Some of the finest mountain pants I’ve ever worn. Very well-tailored, and a hard-wearing material that repels water, but is breathable enough for hard walking. FineTrack’s sizings were on the short side until recently when they finally acknowledged that there are people with longer legs. Just before I headed up to volunteer in Tohoku after the disaster, I met the delegation of Israeli rescue workers at an outdoor store in Tokyo, who loved the design so much they bought out the entire stock at the outdoor store I was visiting, due in part to my recommendation!

10) Mountain Equipment Crux Long Sleeve Zip T. Merino wool/ cocona blend long-sleeved shirt. My basic shirt at this time of the year. Just light enough for hard walking.

11) Inov8 Flyroc 310 running shoes. I loved the Inov8 Terrocs until recently, but never liked the pebble grabbing soles. This shoe ought to fix that. Before that it was the Vasque Velocity, but I prefer shoes with lower profiles now.

Photography Kit

Photo Kit


Photography is one of my oldest serious hobbies. I started when I was 10, when I saved up and bought the then popular Minolta 16 P. I’ve gone through quite an assortment of cameras since then. My favorite camera until last year (2012) had been the Pentax MX, a compact, fully manual SLR that seemed made for me. I learned more about photography during the period I carried the MX around than anytime before or since. When digital cameras started making inroads I remained skeptical for quite a long time, and wasn’t really happy with anything I bought, due either to bulk (with the DSLR’s) or slowness (with the compacts. I fell in love with the image quality and incredibly intuitive user interface of the quirky Ricoh GXR, but it, too, was far too slow, both in its focusing and in image processing, so I often missed shots that should have been easy to take. Then along came the Olympus OM-D EM5. It harkened back to the Pentax MX for compact size, but its focusing speed and range of capabilities, including a fantastic stabilization mechanism that let me take many low-light images without a proper tripod, brought back the fun in photography. The interface is not as intuitive as that of the Ricoh, but it is good enough that it usually doesn’t get in the way.

Many of my hiking trips are partly photographic excursions, sometimes forgoing walking very far at all in favor of staking out one place and immersing myself deep in the minutiae of the landscape. When photography goes right I forget all sense of time, and even begin to forget about myself, often forgetting to eat, and only remembering hours later when I rise from the reverie as if surfacing from beneath a deep body of water.

I try to keep my photographic equipment as simple and uncomplicated as possible. I don’t like fussing with lenses or spending too much time thinking about technical details. I also no longer want to be climbing steep mountain trails lugging lots of camera equipment around, so I try to stay with just one zoom lens, and perhaps a good macro lens to go along with that. That way I can concentrate on the world around me and seeing. The limitation of lenses forces me to think within a framework and to get as creative as possible within that framework. It also forces me to be more patient when trying to photograph wildlife, though I do wish I had some more powerful telephoto lenses.

The items in my kit:

1) Mountain Equipment Postman Bag. Waterproof photo bag that I wear a little below chest level, with a criss-crossed harness around my back, worn under my pack. This setup allows me instant access to the camera, but is high enough above my lifting legs that it doesn’t interfere with climbing, plus the bag won’t swing forward when leaning down. I originally attached the bag to clips on the backpack shoulder straps, but I always felt claustrophobic being clipped into the harness. I also couldn’t carry the bag separately from the backpack that way, which was inconvenient when traveling. I’ve designed a cuben fiber version of the bag that I’m planning to sew together soon, to lighten up the system, and add more slots for documents, a map pocket, and important items for traveling.

2) Rain cover. Allows me to continue shooting in the rain. I’m thinking of designing a version with padding incorporated so that I might be able to eliminate the photo bag altogether.

3) Macro lens. I love taking images of the micro world. Also great for portraiture.

4) Olympus OM-D EM5 with a homemade webbing strap that can be shorted to a carrying handle.

5) Ultrapod mini tripod. Quite versatile in where it can be set up. Lighter than the Gorilla Pod.

6) Accessory flash unit. Great for close up photography. Don’t use it very often.

7) PL filters.

8) Remote control. For time lapse and low light shots.

9) Spare batteries

10) USB cable.

11) Homemade stabilizing cord. Screw in the tripod bolt, step into the loop at the other end of the cord, and pull taut. Will keep the camera surprisingly still.

Drawing and Painting Kit

Drawing Kit


For me walking in the mountains or in the forest is more than just a sporting event outdoors. It is also a time to slow down and look around me, and forget myself. Part of that is to sometimes forget about trying to reach a destination like a peak or the end of the trail, and just wander very slowly about, pushing my nose into bushes or clumps of grass, lying back to stare at the sky, or closing my eyes to listen to the sounds of scurrying feet or distant hoots. It also means sitting very still to draw. Sometimes I’ll make very quick sketches, at other times I’ll immerse myself in the surroundings and draw the details, sometimes several hours at a go to do one drawing. Many people don’t stop to see the mountains like that anymore, and it’s a shame. By failing to move slowly or sit still, they miss a lot of what is happening around them, or that hides upon their approach. Animals, for instance, require stillness before they venture forth after human boots have thundered past.

Here are the tools I use for my drawing and painting kit:

1) Gel ball point pen. Although I much prefer traditional steel nib and an ink well, using lightfast, waterproof china ink, it is inconvenient when hiking, and tends to leak and cause a mess. Traditional nib pen and ink allows for much greater control of the lines, and is great for washing with watercolor. I use a gel pen because the ink flows very smoothly and creates a beautiful, solid black color. It’s also waterproof and I can use watercolor or a waterwash pencil over it. It also serves as the writing tool I use to take notes with.

2) Pentel plastic fiber calligraphy brush with ink reserve. This is a great tool for doing ink brush drawings, or when I want a drawing with bold, variable lines. The ink is waterproof, so no running or washing out if the paper gets wet. Have to be very careful that the cap is properly closed, or the ink gets over everything.

3) Derwent Sketching Medium Wash 4B Pencil. The lead is very soft and when mixed with water can be used as a watercolor wash, for shadows and shading. The lead smears on paper though, and easily gets smudged, so I only use it when I want a sketch with a softer touch, or want to accentuate the hard lines of a purely ink pen drawing.

4) Staedtler-Mars 780 mechanical pencil. I’ve had this for many years, since I was studying architecture at university. I use an HB grade lead in it so that I can get strong lines, but still keep a hard point to the tip that allows me to draw sharp edges, then angle it to create soft edges. I prefer these thicker-leaded mechanical pencils to the more popular very thin-leaded mechanical pencils because I can get a more varied line.

5) Winsor and Newton Artists’ Water Colour – Davy’s Gray. When I was studying watercolor at the University of Oregon under the visiting watercolor artist Rene Rickabaugh, he insisted that the students always buy the best quality paints they could afford. He said that inferior pigments couldn’t bring out the color that an artist intended, and also didn’t last. He said that if one wanted to make a piece of art, it should be something that lasted, and should retain its richness into the future. One color in particular he urged us to use was Davy’s Gray, which is a chalky gray pigment that provides a good base layer for other paints, and can help bring out edges in paint washes when the paint dries. By blotting the Davy’s Gray at various stages of drying, the colors painted on above it can be soft or bright.

6) Retracting watercolor hair paintbrush. In watercolor the brush makes all the difference in how you are able to control the paint, the lines, the water, and the nuances of the tip along the texture of the paper. A good brush ought to be able to hold a fine tip when it is wet, and soak in the water enough that it doesn’t immediately run dry, but not so deeply that the paint and water don’t mix well, or release onto the paper in a fine stream. The brush must also fit well into the hand, and that is why longer brushes tend to work better, but for hiking and economy of space, this is the brush I use. It has a good weight and the brush itself has a nice pull to it.

7) MontBell small map case, to protect the sketchbook.

8) Plastic eraser. Normally I use ink, precisely so I have no option to redraw the lines or fix anything, which forces me to be bold and trust to the lines. Sometimes though, after making a light skeletal pencil sketch, I will lay the ink drawing on top of that and erase the pencil afterwards. A plastic eraser is much easier on the paper’s surface and doesn’t rip away the fibres the way a rubber eraser does. I also like using a kneaded eraser, especially when I want something to relax myself… pulling at the strands like string cheese!

9) Mujirushi Tyvek Pencil Case. Tyvek is water resistant and strong, and very light. It’s a great material for a pencil case for hiking.

10) Watercolor tray. Again, I use Winsor and Newton Artists’ Water Colours, applied to the individual slots and allowed to dry. I used to use the commercial Winsor and Newton Cotman dry cake watercolors, but the colors were always weak and the washes ran. So I went for the higher quality paints.

11) Moleskine plain sketchbook. Moleskine is probably the most famous blank journal-making company in the world. They make nice, handy journals with decent quality cold-pressed paper, and many people I know use them. However, it is not my favorite journal brand. They are very expensive, and heavy, and the paper is not the best for any kind of watercolor work. I much prefer the “A. C. Sketch” journal sold at the Uematsu art shop in Shibuya, downtown Tokyo. The smaller journal is a little bit smaller than the classic Moleskine, but fits better in my hand. The paper is of far higher quality than the Moleskine, and the bindings of the books are beautiful. It is lighter, too, so less cumbersome to carry. I’ve been using them for over 38 years!

Final Packed Backpack

Final Pack


The final configuration, with everything packed. This is a cold-weather configuration, with enough food for three days. The sketchbook and pencil case would be stored at the the top of the pack, or in the upper side pocket to the right.

Weights:

Full pack with food, 1.5 liters of water, and full camera bag:
12.4 kg (27 lb)

Full pack without food and water, and without full camera bag:
6.2 kg (13.6 lb)

Full pack with summer weight sleeping bag, and summer insulation, without extra insulation, without food and water, and without full camera bag:
5.3 kg (11.6 lb) (I could exchange a lot of the gear, like the down mattress, the trekking poles, cup, some items in my necessities bag, for lighter alternatives and save about 1 kg more, which would bring down into the UL range. This is what I would do if I were traveling abroad and needed to go as simply and without fuss as possible.)

1) Camera bag.

2) Sketch journal and pencil case.

3) Gossamer Gear Mariposa 2012 pack.

4) Golite umbrella.

5) Black Diamond trekking poles.

6) Volvic 1.5 liter water pet bottle.

7) Shelter bag.

8) Windshirt

9) Rain cover

10) Cup

11) Emergency tools (compass, whistle, knife, firestarter, bandana.

12) Snacks, walking food.

Categories
Hiking Japan: Living Journal Routes: Hiking Walking

The Lost Peak of ’76

Kiso Couple Clouds

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.

Kiso Komagatake Feet Me

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.

Kiso Komagatake Kamiigusa
Kiso Komagatake First Range

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.

Kiso Komagatake Kiso Cloud Puff

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.

Kiso Komagatake Col

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.

Kiso Red Leaves

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.

Kiso Komagatake Couple Clouds
Kiso Komagatake Asian Peak

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.

Kiso Komagatake Dawn Rocks

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.”

Kiso Sweep Down
Kiso Nakadake Sign

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.

Kiso Morning Peak
Kiso Komagatake Kiso Grass

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.

Kiso Komagatake Gorilla 1

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.

Kiso Precipice

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.

Kiso Komagatake Rock Mound BW

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.

Kiso Komagatake Hutte Wide

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.

Kiso Komagatake Campground Above

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.

Kiso Komagatake Clouds Rising
Kiso Dawn Cirrus
Kiso Komagatake Morning Cloudsea
Kiso Komagatake Three Clouds
Kiso Komagatake Thunderheads BW
Kiso Komagatake Wild Clouds BW

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.

Kiso Komagatake Shrine Roof BW

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.

Kiso Komagatake Campsite
Kiso Komagatake Campsite Me

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.

Kiso Cupo Coffee
Kiso Komagatake Me Coffee

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.

Kiso Komagatake Mist BW
Kiso Komagatake Moonrise Rocks BW

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.

Kiso Komagatake Bowl Silhouette
Kiso Komagatake Night Wacthmen

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.

Kiso Komagatake Night Spinnshelter

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.

Kiso Komagatake Chili Tent Stars
Kiso Komagatake Chili Yuri Junka
Kiso Komagatake Shadow Puppets

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.

Kiso Komagatake Star Door

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.

Kiso Komagatake Apex Stars

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.

Kiso Komagatake Spinnshelter Door
Kiso Komagatake Spinnshelter Dawn

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.

Kiso Komagatake Kiso Me Smile BW
Kiso Komagatake Chili Yuri Tents

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.

Kiso Komagatake Dawn Tent
Kiso Komagatake Wide Cloudsea

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.

Kiso Jizo
Kiso Little Shrine
Kiso Komagatake Torii BW

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!”

Kiso Komagatake Me
Kiso Komagatake Top Me

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.

Kiso Sun Shrine 2 BW
Categories
Hiking Japan: Living Journal Nagano Outdoors Ultralight Backpacking

Wind and Snow

Yatsugatake Windblown Hill

Her words still ring in my ears as I step off the ropeway onto the freezing, windswept plateau of the Pilatus terminal at the northern end of the Yatsugatake range. “I LOVE YOU, Miguel!” It is a confirmation of all I had been looking for and waiting for over the last few months, a statement that stills my stormy heart and promises to wait for me when I descend back to the world of trains and schedules and meetings and sullen students. We have overcome the woes of distance and newly immersed intimacy, at last announcing that we are truly together.

I lower my pack and survey the trails. Skiers up from the ropeway wait in line for head of the trail, to fly down the artificially-made snow to the snowless plain below. Though the thermometer reads -15ºC and it is early January, hardly any snow covers these alpine heights. The snowpack is so hard that walking in my running shoes is as easy as jogging along a beach. I remove my mittens from my pack, but leave the overboots inside and the snowshoes lashed to the front. I glance up at the balding white pate of the hill overlooking the plateau. A sharp, icy blue wind sweeps down from heights and fingers my collar. I laugh. Those old feisty fingers, ready to strip me bare and rush away with my shelter and food!

Yatsugatake Underbrush
Yatsugatake Looking Back

A voice calls out from behind me, naming me. “Miguel? Miguel from BPL?”

I shoot my head around, completely not expecting that. Two Japanese walkers, donned in ultra-lightweight gear stand there grinning. I have no idea who they are.

“You don’t know us, but we know you from the Backpacking Light site. Miguel, right?”

I nod in confusion. “How do you know me?”

“You’re famous in Japan! Everyone who does ultralight hiking in Japan knows you.”

“Really?” I pause. “Really???”

We introduce ourselves (sorry, guys, I didn’t catch your names and though I’ve looked I can’t find it on the Japanese UL sites. If you’re there please contact me!…ごめんなさい。ピラタスで話した時ちゃんと名前を聞き取らなかったのです。もしこのサイトに訪ねたらぜひ名前をもう一度教えてください!かんべん、かんべん!) and talk about Mr. Terasawa and Mr. Tsuchiya, two people all three of us know who have done a lot to introduce ultralight concepts to Japan. They laugh and point at my pack, a specialized harness with waterproof drysack, instead of a traditional backpack: “Is that the BPL Arctic Pack?”

I nod.

One of them shakes his head and approaches with his camera. “May I take a picture of it? I’ve never seen one in person before.”

I laugh in turn. “We UL enthusiasts really are crazy about lightweight gear, aren’t we!” I spy his own pack and laugh again. “Just as I thought. How did you sleep last night? Tent or tarp? Or bivy?”

“We used a tarp coupled with a bivy. It went down to about -20 last night and I was worried that our lightweight gear wouldn’t be enough, but I was surprised that by using my clothing system with the layered bedding system I was actually very warm.” He eyes my pack again, “What about you? How are you camping?”

I shake my head in embarrassment, “I’m not camping. I’m staying at a mountain hut.”

Both their eyes pop. “You’re kidding!”

“I know, I know. Now my reputation in Japan is shot.”

“No, not that bad. At least you’re wearing running shoes!” They point at my light hikers. “No one but an ultralighter would do that on a winter mountain!” They laugh and nod to each other.

We shake hands, take a group shot, and promise to contact one another and get a whole band of UL people together in Tokyo some time, perhaps to go for a camp out here or in Okutama, west Tokyo. They head north towards Futago Ike (Twin Ponds) and I watch their silhouettes climb the through the rock garden and disappear at the crest.

The sun is already lowering toward the west and day walkers and skiers have begun to thin out. I have about three hours until sundown.

Yatsugatake Winter BPL Fans
Yatsugatake Track
Yatsugatake Krummholz

Only a few hundred meters out of earshot of the ropeway the forest settles into a deep hush. My shoes creak through the dry snow and my breath sounds loud amidst the snow laden fronds of the larches that line the path. Footprints from walkers who had passed all day break through the snow along the trail and tell stories of where they were going or how they were feeling. One set of snowshoe tracks breaks away from the main trail and wanders for a bit amidst the dark trunks of the larch forest before being forced back to the main trail by the thickness of the brush. Crisscrossing the human tracks I can make out hare tracks, ermine tracks, Japanese marten tracks, and another one that I can’t identify. Nothing seems to be happening as I plow through the landscape, but the tracks tell a different story. Life goes on all around and beings live out their family stories.

The light begins to fail and the shadows clench me in the gathering cold. With the light going so flees my daytime euphoria and the concerns about reaching the hut take over. My thoughts return to Y. and all the trials we’ve been through over the last few months. While it is true that she had told me that our relationship was sound, she had said the same thing only three weeks earlier, before her bout of silence. Just the fact that she cannot join me on this walk, like on almost every endeavor we talked to doing together, ensures that doubts begin to creep in again. I stop in a clearing and watch the fiery orange alpenglow touch the last brow of peak to the east, while standing down here in this blue forgetfulness. I feel small and vulnerable, totally alien to this snowy world. And Y., far away, doing holiday part-time work and not getting enough sleep, and feeling cold and frustrated as the wind blows through the station where she works, and losing confidence in her ability to keep a relationship going… Why was I not there, beside her, keeping her warm? Why all this distance? Why the vagaries of chance, that we would fall in love, only to encounter a minefield of responsibilities and lingering effects of past relationships?

I long to call her, hear her voice, counterbalance the silence and cold of these woods, but there is no reception. And I begin to wonder what that, “I love you” meant. It sounds like an echo, a sublime way of saying good bye.

The trail takes me up a ridge and drops into a bowl of rocks where it seems the shortened trees gather for a motionless conference. When I enter the space I almost feel like an intruder and a vague anxiety stirs somewhere in the center. I don my snowshoes when the trail begins to get icy so as to get the traction of the snowshoe crampons. Halfway down the descent the straps of the old snowshoes snap and render them useless. The light continues to fall and I scramble through the rises and falls, trying to keep from taking a spill on every descent and rise. It is not a long way, thank goodness, and I finally make it to the access road that heads up to the hut. I abandon the trail and huff it through the gloom until the familiar pointed roof comes into view above the treetops.

Yatsugatake Shadows
Mugikusa Heat

The owner of the hut, a soft-voiced man in his forties, stokes the stove for me and offers me a cup of hot barley tea. I gratefully accept and cup it in my palms. He hangs my gear on the rack over the stove and puts my broken snowshoes into the corner. He pulls up a stool and sits across the table from me, sipping his own cup of tea.

“Is this your first time here?” he asks.

“No, I’ve been here many times, even in winter, but this is my first time to stay.”

“It’s a good place. Quiet and friendly. That’s why I stayed,” he said. “You just missed the crowds, though. Yesterday there were more than fifty people here and it was full of music and laughter. I think there will only be eight of you tonight, though.”

I sip my tea, pensive. Then after I while I say, “The mountains are so beautiful, but without people you really can’t live here, can you?”

He shakes his head. “We have to work together to survive here. The high mountains can be really hard if you’re not careful.”

“Like relationships,” I murmur. He raises his eyebrows, confused. I shake my head. “I’ve recently gotten involved with someone and it is rocky and often so easy to lose our way. Here I am with someone and supposed to feel like I belong and full of hope for the future, but instead I feel lonely most of the time. When I try harder to reach out, she draws away, unwilling to set the path together. The harder I try to get closer the further away she seems to draw. I don’t know what to do.”

He nods and smiles, not knowing what to say.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “Shouldn’t be talking about things like that. We’ve never even met before.”

He leans forward and points at my cup. “Another cup of tea?” He gets up and bustles about in the kitchen. He returns with big kettle and sets it down on the table. “Don’t think,” he says. “Have another cup of tea.” He pours more tea into my cup and smiles. “The fire is warm, no?” He nods and smiles again.

Comet Over Mugikusa

I wake from a deep sleep to the sound of laughter outside in the subzero night. Foggy-brained, I sit up and remember that three of the lodgers had decided to get up at four in the morning to look for a comet that only comes up on January 3rd. I pull back the curtain, but the window pane is covered in a thick layer of ice. I can make put a blurry wisp of light waving in the blackness of the window. Laughter again. And the sound of a door rolling shut.

I lie in the darkness of the room for a long time, debating whether to face the freeze of the room or stay here under the blankets, warm. I reason that life is about getting up and getting out there, but that it is also about lying a bit longer under the covers and getting some proper sleep. But then I figure that comets don’t come about very often and I really should get up and see one. So I haul the blanket off me and throw on my down jacket and march out of my room, down the dark hallway, and down to the warm glow of the stove room. I pull on my running shoes and, making the same racket with the door as the person earlier, I step out into the night.

First the cold. Hard and bitter and right down from the stars. I have forgotten my gloves so I stick my hands deep into my down jacket pockets. The air, when I look up, seems gelid, like a still lake, and beyond it shine the stars. Thousands of them. All spilt across the velvet dress, so distant and impersonal that the cold seems perfectly suited to their needs. Below them, on the dark hillside, stands an almost insignificant little group of people, pointing their pinprick of a flashlight up at the heavens and remarking on the constellations. I shuffle through the snow and climb up to their lookout. Their flashlight swings down to identify me then back up at the stars. I see shadowy arms reach up and point. Voices murmur at close hand, punctuated by bursts of quiet laughter.

They never find the comet. We stand looking up until the cold finally penetrates our defenses and we all decide to head back to the stove room to warm up. We position ourselves around the fire, putting our hands out to flames to receive the benediction of heat. The hut owner brings out a tray of coffee and biscuits and we sit around for hours, until dawn, discussing Japanese youth, the effects of the recession, how to make a firebrand, even the way to read a star map. At one point, not having an answer to a question, one of the hut helpers takes out her cell phone and connects it to a specialized antenna, where she consults the internet. I ask if I might use the antenna to check for any messages I have gotten. They say sure.

I connect my cell phone and let the feelers scan the invisible voiceways for word from Y. Nothing. The receptacle remains empty. Feeling like the man on the moon, I write a short message and send it out to her, casting it into the dawn darkness, “I love you.” Letting it resound like an echo where no sound reverberates.

“I love you,” the message says. The words that draws together the strings of the universe and can make a measured difference in the strength of even the tiniest beating heart, if only it is heard.

Mugikusa Clan
Yatsugatake Snowshoeing

The comet group stays awake until breakfast is ready and, still bleary-eyed, but full of laughter, we sit over our bowls of miso soup and diced cabbage and omelette and continue our lively discussion on all topics from the four corners of the world. We get onto the topic of children, since one of the women there has only just recently started getting outdoors and the other members wonder how she manages to take care of her children while she’s out here. “Well, they’re older now and can more or less take care of themselves,” she says. “But, I figure it’s time my husband stay home sometimes and give me the chance to do some of the things I love doing. I’ve always wanted to go hiking in the mountains. I don’t want to get old and feel I haven’t done anything I wanted to do.” She beams. “Who would have thought I’d get up at 4:00 in the morning in the mountains to go outside to look for comets!”

I ask about children and if she thinks that when they are young it is impossible to do all these things together. She thinks a moment and shakes her head. “In fact, I think their lives are richer for the experiences and the chance to learn what the world is about. Learning how to mentally deal with climbing a mountain or riding a bicycle long-distance or even put up a tent and survive a storm all helps make you stronger and more confident. My family did a lot of that when the kids were younger and I think the kids grew up with an appreciation for what their abilities are. Not all of them like being outdoors, but none of them is afraid of being out there.”

The dishes are quickly cleared off the table and with a whisk of a towel the crumbs are wiped away and the company disperses. Five minutes after the room was filled with the banter of people whose eyes were bright with stars, the room returns to being empty. I stumble upstairs to the bedroom to pack and get ready for the walk out of the mountains.

Yatsugatake Snowfield Trees
Yatsugatake Windswept Sasa

While jogging along the trail in the late morning sun, the heat reflecting off the snow, my cell phone suddenly vibrates in my shoulder strap pocket. I stop and pull it out. I press the open button and check the message. One. From Y.

“If you have time, meet me at Kofu station around 1:50. Can’t wait to see you. I love you.”

Winter Yatsugatake Hare Tracks and Table
Categories
Europe: Travel Hiking Journal Mont Blanc: Travel Travel

Alpine Journey 8: Glacial Creep

Yesterday evening I set foot back in Chamonix and ended the eleven day walk. The actual walking time was nine days, which is one day shorter than the usual routine. Upon seeing Chamonix from high up on the col overlooking the valley I knew that I had come full circle and that soon I’d be back in the “real” world. The thing is that it doesn’t feel like a real world at all, but like unnecessary complications and undue worries and too many choices and an unhealthy concentration on things that are unimportant. During the last two weeks I was able to filter out those things which occupy too much of one’s time and about which we all worry too much about, and concentrate on things like how good something you eat tastes, the wholesomeness of simply talking to another person, laughing with them, sharing worries and information about what you need to continue on, and revelling in their presence, immersing yourself in the logic of placing one footstep after the the next and moving forward within a landscape, exactly as we were designed. For the entire route I never once picked up my book and read anything. Nights were for sleeping and resting, days were to waking and using your body and to take moments to look around you. Of course, there is more needed to survive, but I really wonder if we’ve loaded ourselves down with way too much gear, trudging through our lives with nothing but thoughts of how to add more gear to the pack and how to make money to purchase more of this heavy gear. It’s insane. And to allow oursleves to be subjected to others who seem to assume that they have a right to place themselves above us and order us to live according to their values, who think of nothing but possessions and assume that all of us must dedicate our lives to that. Exactly what is wrong with us?

After the evening the other day when the doldrums hit me and I wrote about being sad, I returned to the campsite and encountered two British rock climbers who invited me into their tent for a beer. We eneded up talking most of the evening and their sense of humor really cheered me up (I love the way the British counter hardship or adversity with laughter). We got together the next day, too, and sat in a pub talking for hours about problems with young British kids, about equipment for walking, about global warming, movies, good places to travel, environmental education, the best kinds of cheese, and again about outdoor equipment. I left Champex with a feeling a contentment and completion that belied the loneliness I had felt earlier.

Tuesday turned out to be a miserable day in terms of weather. The climb up to Le Bovine Pass just kept getting colder and colder and by the time I arrived at the tiny mountain hut at the top my fingers were numb and everything was wet and freezing. So when I opened the mountain hut door and found a glowing atmosphere of walkers sitting around a wood stove and eating the wonderful food the proprietor was cooking for everyone it was like, as a fellow walker claimed later that day, “Opening a present.” We all sat in there cupping our mugs of hot chocolate between our palms and praising the warmth. For lunch I ordered a “roesti”, a Swiss mountain specialty of pan-fried potatoes mixed with cheese, onions, tomatoes, and egg. none of us wanted to head out into the cold again.

Everything was wet again, of course, within an hour of heading down the other side of the mountain. Because the trail passed through several mountain ranches the trail had been trampled into a sea of mud through which I had to trudge. I had forgotten to take my afternoon insulin while in the hut, so my legs started cramping up and walking became really painful. I finally reached the campsite in Le Peuty, near Trient, at about seven in the evening, and there no one there, just a wet, lonely field of drenched grass with a small shelter under which to eat. I thought I’d have to spend a cold night alone here, when I discovered the fireplace in the shelter and the proprietor of the campsite drove by just then, offering dry wood for the fireplace. I fairly danced for joy at the prospect of being able to sit in front of a roaring fire, eating dinner. Just then two women… actually the same women who had camped above my site at Champex and who had arrived earlier in the day at the mountain hut at Bovine just as I was leaving… arrived on the scene, also dripping wet and worried about the idea of a cold wet night. We teamed up and outfitted the shelter so that it was protected from the wind and rain, hung up our belongings to dry, set up the wooden table in the middle for a nice dinner of couscous and chili con carne, and lit a warm, dancing fire. We spent half the evening praising the fire and voicing our joy at its warmth. After a filling and delicious dinner (it was just chili con carne and couscous, but it tasted like the best meal you could buy at an expensive restaurant) we sat back sipping tea and talking about our dreams and traveling in distant lands. WE all agreed that this eveing would be one that we’d remember for the rest of our lives.

Yesterday was glorious. The sun broke through and after climbing the long and steep trail up to Col de la Balme, I crested the last high point of this journey and came face-to-face with Mont Blanc again in all its glory, floating on the sunlit morning clouds. Walkers from all over sat with their backs against the Col de la Balme mountain hut, soaking in the sunshine and basking in the wonder of the distant mountains. The two women sat next to me and we cut slices from the bread we had brought with us and sat laughing at the difference between last night and today.

Then it was time to saw good bye. They headed on further toward the place I had started the journey, while I headed down to the valley, to Le Tour, and beyond to Chamonix. The end of the walk. And a mixed bag of sadness and relief. Soon I’d have to return to Japan and to my miserable little apartment and the oppressive job I had gotten myself mixed up in. But it had been a wonderful walk, one that would remain one of the best memories of my life, in spite of hardships. But that is what makes such journeys so memorable and special. I got to know a new place, made some great new friends, and revived an old ghost inside me that I’ve needed to talk to for a long time. I’m ready to go home, for now.

I’ll be in Europe for another week, visiting Interlakken and Zermatt. I’d love to go to Italy, but I just don’t have the money to travel around a lot any more. Besides, Italy needs its own proper stretch of time in order to appreciate the right way. Three or four days is just not enough.

I’m happy with what I got and found. And that’s all you can really ask from a good journey.

Categories
Hiking Journal Mont Blanc: Travel Travel Walking

Alpine Journey 6: Mountain Galleries

Just arrived in the village of La Fouly in Switzerland. Of all the places I’ve passed through until now it is the most quintessentially “Swiss alpine”. Sweeping green hillsides ringing with cowbells, chalets standing on stilts, stupendous peaks rising in the background, it is what I’ve always imagined the Alps to be like. They’re much more varied of course, but I guess most people travel with some predetermined image in their heads of what they expect to see. Much of that has been permanently damaged, and I will never quite see these places the same way again.

I was supposed to walk until Champex today, but when I arrived here and found that there were still four hours to go, I decided to call it a day. It’s a nice enough little place, perfect for holiday travelers, and would be great if I had a lot more money and someone to share a room with! I heartily recommend it to anyone who wants a quiet place to hole up for a few days and go for great walks.

I’m loving the mountains, but I’m getting a little tired of the constant, just hand’s-breadth away, stand-offishness of the bigger mountains on this walk. The Tour de Mont Blanc is like a stroll through an enormous art gallery, the path skirting the grandness of the mountains, but never quite touching them, with the walker leaning in from along the edges, making out the gigantic forms, but never feeling their solidity underfoot. It is so different from the walks in the Alps in Japan, where you always get right into the grit of the climbs and feel the vastness of the mountains underneath you. Of course, these mountains are colder and higher and so you don’t have the same freedom as a casual walker to simply go up to the high ridges without specialized knowldege.

Entering Italy was an experience in high blood sugars as every meal seems to come with two courses and then a before dessert morsel, followed by a dessert. Last night in the mountain refuge that I stayed out I discovered the Italians at their most cheerful sitting around eating, drinking, and talking. Out on the trails, however, I found them unusually reticent, especially the men, very rarely looking directly at you and saying hello. Forget the smiles. So different from the French who readily sang out their greetings and often stopped to engage me in little chats about where I came from and where I was going. This was completely unexpected. I’d always heard of Italians being so open and friendly, and the French closed-mouthed. Maybe the Italians were all still recovering from the festivities of the night before.

Had an absolutely horrific night at the hotel in Courmayeur the second day. A contingent of Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) walkers had overtaken the little room I was in. An elderly woman slept in the bed next to mine and once the lights went out she proceeded to snore like a locomotive. After several hours of lying awake, unable to sleep and hearing others in the room shifting as they also attempted to sleep, I finally took it upon myself to nudge the woman’s bed each time she began her aria in an attempt to curb the noise. After the third nudge she sat up and snarled something at me in Italian. When I answered in English she returned, “Two people can’t sleep. Do you have a problem with that?” I told her that, much as I didn’t want to wake her, her snoring was so loud that it was impossible to sleep. She didn’t apologize or even acknowledge that perhaps she was making everyone else unhappy, but instead called to her sleeping husband and asked to exchange beds with him. That solved nothing, of course, and when her snoring started up again, I got so miffed that I packed up my backpack and headed out to the front of the hotel to sleep on the lawn chairs there. It was freezing but I got a rather good doze in while gazing up at the stars.

Last night was my first night sleeping in the tent. The refuge I was hoping to stay at, Rifugio Elena, told me that there were no places left and the only place available was the open field out back. It was a ruinous place where every other step had you stepping into cow patties and it smelled like a dirty barn, and the wind coming off the col above was glacial, but inside the tent it was warm enough. I slept very well.

Tomorrow I’m off north across the northern portion of the Tour. Four more nights to go.

Categories
Hiking Japan: Living Journal Okutama Walking

Summer Walks Part 2- The Lungs of the Mountain God

Kurobe descent
Descending from Kurobe Peak. Up here, with the whole sky above and the whole world below, you walk a fine thread between the sublime and the perilous. It is a chance to learn the limits of those quaking muscles and the borders of your sanity. You learn, over time, to cradle yourself in a tranquil determination, neither giving in to the fear of those head-spinning ledges, nor pushing beyond that veil of overconfidence, always remembering that you do not belong here, you were not designed for such rocks and thin air.

Click on the images to have them open as bigger images as your read.

The cloud, huge and black and shaking with fury, lowered its brows as I stepped over the finger of a ridge. It had enveloped the mountain, sending the world into a shifting grey sea of veils and doubts, daring me to pass. Arms of vapor muscled their way across the trail, now so washed out by the featureless blankets of cloud that the ground beneath me seemed to turn to gas, and only the firmness of footing reminded me of its solidity. My eyes followed the thunderhead down into the bowl of mountains where I was to spend the night, and I saw nothing but roiling soup. Lighting sang staccato within the belly of the cloud, like frenzied fireflies, and the cloud responded with a series of stentorian whiplashes, on vocal chords so heavy and pure that the mountain beneath me jumped in fright.

I hesitated. Looking back down the trail I had just climbed I could make out the thread of the stream far below, and the last of the sun’s rays pooling in the ravine. My whole body burned from the last eight hours of exertion and my knees felt about to give way. There was no going back. I turned to face the rumbling monster in the valley and started down the trail. Lightening and thunder greeted my decision, as if in exultation.

Kurobegoro Forest
Silhouettes of larches in the gathering storm just above Kurobegoro lodge. There is always a dilemma between seeing the beauty around you and watching where you place your feet. You want to drink it all in and savor the your time with the perceptions, but when a steep, knee-cracking trail choked with boulders slick with rain and moss demands your attention, the camera must go into its bag and your eyes must concentrate on just where you are.

Tokyo lay sweltering in summer forgetfulness. Like a finger poked through tissue paper the train carried me out of the steam and deposited me gently along its bright, sleepy reaches, just at the edge of wheels and pavement. With my discount ticket that only allowed carriage by trains that walked, not ran, my arrival in the hot spring town was greeted, in the first store I stepped into for a can of coffee, by closing-time music over the speaker system. Most of the throngs of tourists had already retired to the inns and the parking lots waited, deserted.

I crossed the bridge over the roaring river, from the town, over a no-man’s-land of snow melt-off, to the wilderness waiting on the other side. It began abruptly: a wall of cedars that radiated a shell of cool air and hid its innards with tangles of lichen-bearded downfall and brush. The trail skirted the edge of the forest as if timid, only reluctantly entering the silence when the laps of the cliffs left no alternative. Within a hundred steps the forest and the mountain had me to themselves. I began to whistle, a sliver of sound declaring my own little territory.

I walked past kneeling grandfather spruces and Mother Earth breathing from openings in the ground. Flotillas of dragonflies, like angels wrapped in cellophane, circled my brow, the cranes of their legs and mandibles working the air of gnats and mayflies. Grasshoppers set up bandstands in the grass and zithered the blues to the accompaniment of jays screeching in the canopy. In the late blue sky tufts of clouds set sail for the peaks, marking mileposts for me to follow.

Sugoroku Cloud
Cloud catching the last rays of the setting sun at Sugoroku Pass. Night falls like a dropping curtain where the rarified air cannot hold the light. You find yourself sitting still for untracked beats of time, watching for hints of movement. Clouds sailing against an unblemished sky, grass heads waving at passers-by, incremental shifts of gravel on a slope, nudged by the wind. The wind is everything up here.

The four men, clad in rock-stomper hiking boots and nylon pants, had been friends a long time. With an ease and camaraderie borne of years of mountain walks together, they trudged up the trail in single-file, grunting at the same boulders to scramble up, and breaking out in laughter at the same old jokes and recounts of past mishaps. The fabric of their packs had faded in the sun and each wore a different, worn-out baseball cap, stained with sweat and adorned with medallions from previous walks. One of them had obviously been drinking too much and when he, red in the face, but oblivious, farted loudly while hauling himself up a steep embankment, the other three politely referred to him as “Mr. Aromatherapy”. They slapped their thighs in merriment and had to stop and let me pass while they sorted out their composure.

We did a kind of relay race, those men and me. I kept up a steady, but slow, pace, stopping to take photographs or to gaze at the mountains opening around me, while they trundled on in bursts, huffing and puffing to some next vantage point, where they would stop to take breaths and smoke cigarettes. One of them, cigarette in hand, nodded to me as we stood on an overlook with the entire valley below, and mused, “Ah, mountain air! It tastes fresh as a young woman’s kiss, no?” With that he took another drag on his cigarette and blew a plume into the afternoon breeze.

Four Hikers for Sugoroku
My companions for much of the second day of the walk, four hikers cross a precarious ridge and head down to Sugoroku lodge and campsite. They never stopped talking once during the entire time they walked. The joy they felt rubbed off on me and dispelled the bout of loneliness that had overcome me. I tried not to carry the troubles from home with me, but such walking tends to give you a lot of time to think and reconsider.

Sugoroku shadows
The sun casts its afternoon light upon the base of Momisawa Peak. Everything seems brighter and more mythic in such a vertical world. In the warm afternoon lull, without wind to topple you or rain to chill you, you can stand on such a ridge and shout out your invincibility, because it really does seem as if all cares have dissipated with the rising altitude. Your endorphins… at least while you are venting your lungs… declare you exempt from gravity.

Sugoroku camp
View of my home for the night of the second day of the walk, Sugoroku mountain hut and campsite. The last time I stayed here a hail storm buffeted my tent and left the sandy camp ground a sloshing mess. After a long day, however, such sights make your mouth water for food you haven’t made yet and your tired muscles yearn for horizontal respite.

The man in the neighboring tent, who must have eaten something disagreeable, punctuated the night with various demonstrations of his bodily functions, most notably a medley of wet and dry farts, from squeaky to tuba-like, combined with more ominous interruptions of a more throaty nature. When he finally decided to proclaim his virtuosity to all the world by exiting his tent and crunching back and forth across the gravel in front of my tent I decided to battle sleeplessness with a sortie into the darkness. To my astonishment and utter delight, the Milky Way had sprayed itself across the sky with particular fervor; I could almost feel the Earth swing along the outer rim of our galaxy. Aside from the debilitated musician wandering about the campsite, no one else was awake and I had the stars to myself. The air had been inhaled by the mountain and held, so that all was still, and a kind of downy heat bloomed in the valley. I snuck away to the opposite side of the campground… and came upon a scene I will never forget. Beneath a blazing full moon wooly dollops of clouds bathed in the silverly light and splashed feathers against the great bathtub of surrounding mountains. It took my breath away. I sat on a rock, beyond which the world dropped away into darkness, and lost myself in the magic of the moment. Then I broke the spell. Thinking I could capture what I saw and felt in a photograph, I ran back to the tent and retrieved my camera. When I returned the moment had passed. All the clouds had drained away into the plumbing of the forests below.

Rainbow Sugoroku
Tent pitched at the edge of Sugoroku pond, as far away from the other campers as the space would allow. This was a a so-called “ultralight” tent, a wafer of a shelter at only 855 grams, that I was bringing up into this alpine zone for the first time. In such a place the roof over your head can literally spell life or death, so when I finally lay down and closed the fabric door, it was with relief that the whole thing felt so tight and secure up here where the winds can shred your shelter like paper. Though I don’t like to inundate myself with too many thoughts of equipment and fads, you do end up spending a lot of time considering what you must bring. It is one of the things I love about climbing mountains: that immediacy of physical needs and the mind to adapt to it. There is no separation between mind and body here, and I suspect humans lived that way for most of our history.

Sugoroku stars
Stars over Sugoroku. It’s amazing just how much activity goes on in the heavens. Planes, helicopters, satellites, clouds, glimmering stars, rolling firmament, pirouetting moon, comets, meteorites, the Sun… you wonder why more “Armageddon”-style disasters don’t play out more often. It’s all big out there and I just have two little eyes to see it.

Kurobe mist
Mist rising from the valley beneath Sugoroku Peak. The mountains are like the sea; they hold water and wind in the same undulating way. There are tides and waves and storms and driftwood. You can hear the breakers, too, slower and softer and more prolonged, but they have the same insistent result, grinding the rock to granules, over aeons and aeons.

Kurobe heights
Crags rising up through the clouds around Mitsumata. There are some places that people will never venture, where, just a stone’s throw away, no human foot has ever trodden. It’s comforting to know that such places still exist.

The clouds had covered the sun. So far the talk back at the camp of a typhoon surging in hadn’t materialized into winds yet, so, cheerful in the rain that sprayed the flower meadows along this lonely side trail, I meandered along with my camera, stopping every few feet to kneel down among the fronds and flower heads, legs and hands and face wet with dew, every separate, tiny life a wonder. For the moment at least, until I reached the next mountain hut only a hour’s hurried march away and could determine whether the storm’s potential was too risky for further climbing, I could linger and not worry about time for once. Everything caught my eye, everything photogenic and new. Such moments bring out fierce joy in me, a real sense of what makes me happy and knowing who I am. I often imagine what I would have been like as a prehistoric hunter. The pleasure of immersing myself in my surroundings and learning to see would have felt complete, I think, as much of what a human being can hope to make out of life as any modern aspiration for a career.

Chinguruma up
Geums (Geum pentapetalum) soaking in the rain. In autumn their flowers turn to white tufts of down that look like a scene out of “Hair”. For such delicate creatures, they are remarkably tough, far tougher than I can ever hope to be.

To Mitsumata
Climb up to Mitsumata Renge. The trail took a detour around the edges of a boulder-strewn glacial cirque where it was so still I could hear the dripping of a tiny spring off the trail.

Kurobe suncups
When I reached this snow field the trail suddenly disappeared. Where the trail was supposed to be, last winter’s record snows had obliterated all traces of the discolored passage of many feet and the painted red circle trail blazes. I saw nothing in front of me but a dirty white expanse of hard, icy snow that lost itself in the condensing mist. Because it was growing dark and the clouds more ominous, I had to tell myself out loud, over and over again, “Calm down. All along you saw other fresh boot prints in the trail of people ahead of you today. Just take the time to cast around and find the trail again.” Stumbling over rocks and tufts of grass I finally found a dim line of red-dyed sand that had been laid down by a trail maintenance crew across the surface of the ice field. I gingerly placed my feet on the snow and tiptoed toward the ridge above.

Mitsumata Shrew-Mole
A dead Lesser Japanese Shrew-Mole ( Urotrichus pilirostris ), endemic to Japan and found only up at higher altitudes in the mountains. I’ve rarely had a chance to get such a close look at an animal most people don’t even know exists.

This brings the story back to the beginning when the thunderclouds rolled in. The day’s walk had taken four hours longer than planned and I arrived in camp in a pouring deluge. Everything got wet and the campsite was a quagmire of running mud. To my dismay I discovered that the tent leaked like a sieve and to stay warm and dry I resorted to covering my sleeping bag with my rain gear. Most of the night was spent sponging up pooling water and wiping down the tent walls. In the middle of the night, with the thunder clapping right over the campsite, I felt as if I were trapped in some B-rated horror movie using Chinese water torture by dripping the water onto my head from the soaked seams. It wasn’t a matter of fearing for my life, but more of enduring the misery of nightlong discomfort and sleep deprivation. I dozed off just as the rain let up near dawn. The camp began to wake up then, everyone else well-rested from holing up in their snug, dry shelters.

The highlight of the morning was greeting Englishman Sam Short, who had arrived the same time as I the evening before. We both had a good laugh at the events of the night. Later on the trail, even though I had left two hours before him, Sam locomotivated right past me, churning up the trail like a mountain goat and leaving behind a trail of dazed hikers who down the trail later marveled to me at his speed. “Do all you foreigners have such wonderfully long legs?” an elderly woman remarked to me. “If you ask me,” grumbled a middle-aged man who had fallen far behind his wife waiting for him at the summit, “I don’t come to these mountains to go speeding along the trails like some race car driver.” Sam must have covered twice as much distance as I did that day.

Kurobegoro Vale
One of my favorite places in all of Japan, the hanging valley of Kurobegoro. It was inspiration for the imaginary world of a children’s book I am writing, “Letters from the Isle of Wake”. At the base of that lump you see there in the middle of the picture sits the house of Akyakya Monee, who knits sweaters made from mist and dew. Further up the ridge wanders crazy Saury Greapes, whose beard is so long he wraps it around his head. And, out of sight in the picture, the cliff with the long proboscis is the head of sleeping Subuumbe, whose giant body makes up the whole valley and island. One day I have to go to Kurebegoro and just sit there for two or three whole days, with no plans but to simply listen and look.

Kurobe frog
I wish I knew more about amphibians, or at least had a field guide to the species here in Japan. I haven’t a clue what this thumb-joint-sized fellow is called.

Kurobegoro slab
Elfinwood atop a boulder in Kurobegoro. The feathery streaks of clouds foretell the coming of rain in six to eight hours, but the rain never showed up. The sun burned all that bright blue day and everywhere along the tail other hikers I met were smiling. One party of about 25 elderly walkers who, led by a fit, sunburned young man, were hiking for the first time in their lives, and they asked me to pose with all of them while the leader snapped our photo. The day was like a quiet celebration of I know not what… perhaps simply being alive?

Kurobe rockart
Arrangement of stones on the trail up to Kurobe Peak. The trail was so steep at one point that my hands were shaking. I spied this image right at the point where my vertigo kicked in, but stupidly I pulled out my camera and took the time to compose the picture. I had to yell at myself to stop looking for photographs and take the drop below me seriously!

I was walking along a level section of the trail when I recognized an outcropping upon which, seven years earlier, my wife and I had eaten lunch. We had laughed that whole day, even along the hardest stretches of the trail. Today the sight of that outcropping drove the feelings for my wife back up to the surface and churned in the pit of my stomach. I kept walking, each step slower than the last, until I passed into an area alight with flowers. I gazed around me, looking at nothing in particular, when all of a sudden, out of nowhere it seemed, I burst out sobbing. It came on in waves, so hard that I fell to my knees amidst the flowers. I couldn’t stop, in spite of being half conscious of the possibility of other walkers appearing along the trail. When I finally managed to pull myself to my feet I stumbled along the trail still heaving sobs, clearing some invisible clot that had lodged itself in my chest. I don’t know how long it was, perhaps fifteen minutes, when as suddenly as it had come, like clouds opening, the crying vanished. The pull of the end of the trail lost its relevance, and instead I let my feet take their own baby steps through this indifferent wilderness. And I found comfort in not worrying about the end. All I needed right now I had with me right here. It was simple, a pack, a shelter, some clothes on my back, something to eat when I got hungry, and two pairs of still-serviceable legs. I was free to go where I wanted. It wasn’t as bad as I had imagined.

Creeping pine Kurobe
Creeping Pine on Kitanomata Peak thrive in the violent winds of the alpine peaks, so much so that their trunks grow horizontally across the rocky soil and create shoulder-high forests that, if you hunker down, look and smell like miniature pine woods. All sorts of wildlife owe their lives to the shelter the creeping pine provide. And were I ever to lose my shelter and get caught in a storm I, too, would seek a quiet spot out of the wind amidst their protective branches.

Crying meadow
The field of flowers where I broke down crying near the end of the walk. Some places have that effect, to call to you when you least expect.

Kurobe krummholz

Categories
Hiking Japan: Living Journal Nagano Walking

Summer Walks Part 1

Karasawa watercolors

(Click on the photos for a new, interesting effect!)

With a whole summer exempt from work, shades of childhood summer vacation crept back into my daily routine, all of four months with more time on my hands than I’ve had in over ten years. Of course, with bills to pay and food to eat and other people to think of, it wasn’t as if each day came on a silver platter. But it did leave me some time to set out on some walks that I’ve been meaning to do here in Japan for quite some time. In July and August I decided to pack my beloved backpack and take the time to walk in the North and South Japan Alps, to Karasawa, the Kurobegoro Route, and along Houou Three Peaks. I’d been to both Kurobegoro and Houou before, but the Kurobegoro vale being one of my favorite alpine areas in Japan, it would be like visiting an old and lovely friend.

Part of these walks was to see if my knees could handle the high ridges still and get up to the heights that I loved so much when I was younger. For the last seven years I’ve slowly adopted the techniques of ultralight backpacking (see here, too. This is where I spend a lot of time discussing and learning about refining my pack weight, gear, and walking techniques) and my pack weight has more than halved since my 18 kilograms pack weight from back in the nineties. This brings mountain walking so much more pleasure and I find myself actually slowling down more to take photographs and sometimes to just stand there drinking it all in. Still, the trails continue to be steep and the weather unpredictable. The two tents I was using hadn’t yet proved their viability in above treeline conditions so I headed into these walks with some trepidation.

The first series of photos here hail from my first walk from Kamikochi up to Karasawa, a two-day, easy climb.

Azusa River
This area was first made popular in Japan in 1880 by the British alpinist Walter Weston and traveller William Gowland, who named the peaks of central Honshu, “the Japan Alps”. Here the walk alongside the Azusa River is more like an afternoon stroll, with thousands of tourists visiting every year from all over the world.

Karasawa River rocks
The water runs almost turquoise through a subalpine valley of larch, beech, and birch. I couldn’t stop pausing to watch pristine water gurgling by; it is such an unusual sight in Japan.

Karasawa crag
The climb began in earnest as the crags began to close in. Though cooler than Tokyo, the sun seared my skin like a furnace. Japanese climbers always carry towels around their necks to stave off the sun from their napes and to wipe off the continuous stream of sweat from the high humidity. I always love the great variety of creative responses to using the towels; some wrapped around people’s necks, some wrapped around their heads, some hanging like Arab kofias, some even draped around like wedding veils…

Karasawa lily
It is little details like this that make climbing through the forests, when views to the mountains remain limited to peeks through the canopy, bearable. The only problem is that Japanese hiking parties often tend to mob up to fifty or a hundred strong, so stopping to admire anything in relative peace challenges your sense of “getting away from it all”.

Karasawa snowcap
Last winter brought record-breaking snowfall to Japan, making it, as one of my friends joyfully exclaimed to me, “The best ice-climbing conditions in a hundred years!” It also meant lots of leftover snowfields wherever the sun couldn’t quite make it.

Yumi Karasawa
The final approach to Karasawa lodge and campground was completely blanketed in snowfields. Not having brought my usual instep crampons for such occasions, kicking steps into the hard snow proved to be somewhat of a challenge with my trail runners. Nevertheless, even while huffing and puffing up the steep slope, the whole valley rang out with the sound of a Tyrolean horn. There was something haunting and magical in the sound, something welcoming and noble at the same time. Normally I’m not a fan of people causing a racket in the mountains, but this was something that fit right in. It gave me the imagined heroism I needed to finish the last leg of the climb.

Karasawa clouds
To be greeted by the gods of the clouds was a fitting end to the day. Even when you’re beat from pushing your body all day, you feel small and humble enough to look up and pay reverence to the source of all that heavenly light.

Karasawa campsite
Some kinds of mattresses, no matter how much you try to adapt to the surface, will never make good beds. Karasawa campground, while set in an sublime location and in spite of nearly an hour of fiddling with tent placement and guylines, was quite possibly the most uncomfortable camp I’ve ever slept in. All night someone’s skull kept pushing up into the small of my back.

Karasawa superboy
Nearly everyone who came across this little boy on the way down from Karasawa stopped to gawk at him and exclaim amazement at his pack. The pack was actually his grandfather’s, and so big the hip belt wouldn’t close around his waist. While taking a snack break along the side of the trail I overheard the boy stoically announce to his grandfather that he would walk by himself, while carrying his grandfather’s pack, the entire fifteen kilometers back to the Kamikochi bus terminal, and that is exactly what he did. Ten kilometers on, while I was taking another break, he promptly walked right past me, looking no worse for wear. I have to say I was green with jealously at the determination and strength of such a young boy. I wished I had been like that, and exposed to such expeditions, when I was his age. I mean, he’s done so much walking already at his age that his boots are falling apart, the soles about done in!

I’d been wanting to visit Karasawa for years, but had always been dissuaded by the stories of the enormous crowds. The crowds were definitely there, but there is a tranquility and intimacy about the whole valley that mutes the human presence. I came home from this walk with a lingering affinity for all those other people who made the climb with me. There are some pilgrimages that defy your preconceptions.

Categories
Japan: Living Journal Life In Nature Ultralight Backpacking Walking

Walking In The Plum Rain 2

Blue iris
Iris failing in the evening light

The rainy season has opened its wings and descended upon the islands. Most people would gripe about the steamy air, constant overcast days, inability to hang clothes out to dry, and the blooming of white mold all over leather goods, but I’ve always loved this season. The air is cool enough to sleep and, perhaps because of the dampening effect of the sound of rain, somehow people seem more subdued and sleeping comes easier among these crowded apartment buildings. I also love the movement of the sky and the veiling of distances. In the mountains the next bend in the trail loses itself in the mists and trees emerge out of the grayness like watery shadow puppets. Mountain tops hide away in the clouds and only reveal themselves after the proper ablutions, and even then only reluctantly. This is the Plum Rain, when hydrangea bloom and the tree swallows fly low over the fields.

Next week the buses that take walkers to the mountains will finally start running again and the high peaks will call me. I’ve been doing my best to get in shape for this, but insomnia and work getting in the way, I’m not as well-conditioned as I had hoped. So I will have to take it slow and set my sights on the bigger peaks at the second half of the summer. Still, just knowing that the snow has largely passed and I can set foot on my favorite ridges makes the heart beat. All winter I have been preparing my pack for much lighter walks and now I get to try it out and see if I can walk without the pain in my knees over the last few years.

For anyone who doesn’t do much hiking the obsession with getting the weight of a pack down may seem a little kooky, but when you’ve schlepped huge bundles loaded down with every latest gadget up half vertical slopes for ten or eleven hours a day, when the ascent forces you to gasp and the descent brings the weight of the mountain crunching down upon your knees, there comes a time when you have to ask yourself what the whole point of the walk is. I’ve seen young men carry packs almost as tall as they are and their whole walk consisting of placing one foot in front of the other without ever looking up. Once one guy pulled out an entire watermelon and complained of its weight! Another time a father carried the entire selection of equipment for a family of five; while he labored under the load his wife and children loudly complained about how slow he was walking, the wife going so far as to accuse him of bringing them all on this uneventful waste of time…

If only he, and me, earlier, had known of ultralight walking. A craze among backpackers the world over now, when I started out only a few people knew of the exploits and philosophy of Ray Jardin, who is largely credited for starting the whole movement. Basically he suggested ways that people might reevaluate more severely what they put into their packs. He and his wife managed to hike the three most important long-distance trails of America, the Appalachian, the Continental Divide, and the Pacific Crest… known together as the Triple Crown… bearing packs of only 8 pounds each, minus food, water, and fuel. Instead of heavy tents they used tarps. Instead of sleeping bags, they used quilts. Instead of the new-fangled internal frame packs so popular among walkers around the world today, he used a simple, frameless sack. And with weight so reduced he walked in running shoes rather than boots.

Other people have taken his ideas further and even managed to get their base pack weights down to 2.5 kilos (5 pounds), which admittedly is on the fringe of comfort and safety. I haven’t been able to get close to this, but I am still working on it. The freedom of wandering the peaks carrying what you need for safety, but without being bogged down by unneeded equipment is an allure that keeps me giving all my belongings a critical eye.

One thing that trying new methods demands is equipment that perhaps no one has made before. Quite a few ultralight backpackers design and make their own equipment. I’ve taught myself to use the sewing machine and have made a number of tents, tarps, hammocks, bags, and rain gear. My next project will be a lightweight backpack and perhaps a new kind of backpacking umbrella. There is satisfaction in making something yourself and then getting out into the mountain conditions and seeing it actually work. What surprised me was just how simply most commercial products are made and how little technical knowledge you need to produce most products yourself. It’s hard for me now to look at a lot of the clothing made by Patagonia (though I’ve come to appreciate much more the ability to come up with all their ideas) and justify the absurd prices they ask.

There are certain things that I refuse to give up in order to lighten the load. I love photography and drawing and so require a proper camera for control over the kind of photos I want and always carry a sketchbook and art supplies. But I no longer carry a fat novel (though I will bring along a thinner book for longer trips) or a white gas stove or heavy gore-tex rain gear. My tent is a filmy tarp that can configured into a storm-proof shelter and my sleeping bag stuffs down to the size of a small loaf of bread (augmented by my fibrefill jacket when it gets cold). It just feels wonderful when I lift the pack now, everything inside pared down to the essentials.

Going ultralight has affected other aspects of my life. Recently I’ve begun to whittle away all the non-nessential belongings in the apartment. If I can apply the same logic to my lifestyle I figure that I will edge myself closer to what really matters in life, and to come harder up against the real world using more of my wits and ingenuity rather than tools of convenience. The simplicity of the traditional Japanese lifestyle.

And with so much cleared away an unobstructed view out of the window at the Plum Rain, falling amidst the green proliferation and the settled pool in my mind.

Categories
Journal Walking

Birch Bark and Moonlight

 

Sketch Houousanzan
(Houousanzan a small ridge of mountains at the northern edge of the South Japan Alps with surrealistic rock outcroppings and a direct panorama of some of the highest mountains in Japan, including the highest peak, Mt. Fuji, and the second highest peak, Kita-dake. I’ve done the walk three times, and it is relatively easy, with easier access than most of the mountains in the South Japan Alps, but still the wild, weathered, more remote characteristic of the South Japan Alps)

 

This is the twenty-second installment of the ongoing place-based essay series at Ecotone. This week’s topic is Sound of Place. Please feel free to drop by and read what others have written, and if you’d like, to contribute your own essay. (Note: Ecotone has since disbanded and the site is no longer available, though many of the writers still keep popular blogs and stay in touch on Facebook. Many of us have become close friends.)

I wrote this essay quite a number of years ago, about a two day hiking trip I took with some very close friends in New Hampshire, U.S.A., in the autumn of 1989. The sound I heard up in the mountains has haunted me ever since.

(a note: my experience and style of mountain walking have changed considerably since this trip. I now walk with a full pack weight of about 4 to 9 kilos (10 to 20 lbs)…. much lighter than previously, and much safer and more comfortable)


I can’t say why wild places draw me. The call originates somewhere out there where four walls end and the horizon catches the last light of the sun. It is something old and frightening, sets my heart drumming, and comes upon me when I am least guarded. I seek it again and again, as if expecting an answer to a question that was asked before I was born.

The call was with me again one gray day in the middle of autumn, when I had a weekend free and asked some of my friends to join me for a two day camping trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. My friends Steve and Julie, my brother Teja and his girlfriend Barb and I all hopped into Steve and Teja’s cars and off we drove. It was the height of the leaf-peeping season, with families out to view the Foliage. We crept along with them until we were able to break free of the crowds up by Franconia Notch and escape to the quieter northern area of the White Mountains. We sang songs in the car, dredging up old favorites, and making up new songs on the spur of the moment. The night before, consulting the map for possible places to camp, I had found a secluded route going up to Mt. Hale and Zealand Falls which would allow us a two day circuitous walk.

Up here the foliage fire was already waning. The gray bodies of the beech and maple trees showed through the threadbare layer of leaves and the darker blight of winter encroached upon the lingering greens and reds and yellows. The forest floor was carpeted in leaves turning brown.

After we parked the car and hefted our packs onto our backs, we started up the steep trail into the woods, our boots crackling among the dry leaves. If any birds or mammals lurked in the surroundings, our noise warned them of our presence long before we arrived, and the woods were silent.

We were a ragtag bunch. Most of our equipment was picked out of the shadows of our closets after years of disuse. We hung and strapped and stuffed the utensils and gear onto or into our various bags and sacks, tying them off and hoping the whole conglomeration would hold together until the following day. Steve trudged under an old canvas Boy Scout backpack, loaded down beneath by an enormous, rolled, navy blue sleeping bag that was nearly as big as he was. He wore a new pair of leather mountaineering boots which thudded over the loamy soil as his muscular legs forced their way up the hill by pure, dogged determination. Julie, the most fashionable in her azure, Gore-tex jacket, bright yellow day pack, and lightweight hiking boots, lagged behind under the extra weight of those things that were strung from all sides of the daypack. We had relieved her of most of the heavy equipment, but still her slender legs, not having encountered such steep trails in a long time, did not have the strength to keep the pace we started with. Teja labored under an old external frame backpack I had given him. He carried most of the canned goods and refused to delegate the weight to the rest of us. He strode easily up the trail and deflected our attention from his heavy pack with a constant flow of jokes and witty remarks. Listening to him we could almost forget that the walk was a strain. And Barb, on her first camping trip, wearing sneakers and a jury-rigged shoulder bag-turned-backpack, led the way with the stubborn silence of hers which seemed to be directed at the men in the group. I carried my trusty old navy blue internal frame pack and my camera fanny pack, and wore my ten-year-old leather hiking boots. I lagged behind to accompany Julie so she would not have to walk alone and so I could also snap photographs of the group and linger with my camera in the stillness of the forest in our wake.

We soon left the trail head far behind and the hush was disturbed only by the murmur of our voices and boots kicking leaves, or during the moments when we halted in our tracks to listen, the creaking of a tree trunk rubbing against another tree trunk or the whisper of the breeze among the remaining leaves in the forest canopy. We encountered only three people—— a young couple bouncing noisily from rock to rock, and a lone young man who offered no smile.

This time of the season allowed views between the tree trunks to the surrounding hills. We could make out their purplish-blue forms and occasionally catch glimpses of hawks or crows beating their way over the tree tops.

The sunlight was beginning to slant through the trees after two hours of steady trudging uphill. We were all soaked with perspiration. Julie, though she said nothing, was lagging further and further behind and obviously having trouble. I suggested we stop alongside the trail in a little clearing. The clearing lay at the same steep angle as the trail and four big outcroppings protruding from the mossy soil offered no level surfaces to sit on. Slipping off our packs we squatted amidst the leaves or up against the sharp surfaces of the rocks, but none of us could find a comfortable position in which we could stretch our legs and relax. Steve’s face was apple red and Barb massaged her shoulders where the narrow straps of her makeshift backpack had dug in. My own shoulders were aching from the weight of my pack. Teja sat back and closed his eyes, seemed to fall asleep. It had been years since we had camped together and gazing at him now, both of us older, with years of separate lives between us, it was as if no time had passed at all. Yet Teja was a man now and I could see the air of self containment and worry in his face.

We shared swigs of water from Steve’s water bottle, then decided to push on. The clouds began to clear and a weak sun shone like a pale bulb through the chilled air. Our aim had been to climb to the top of Mt. Hale and find a campsite nearby, but the sun was beginning to get low and we wanted to set up camp while it was still light. We also needed to find a source of water that would be accessible from the campsite.

The hillsides angled down everywhere we looked, providing no level pitch for our three tents, and when we did glimpse level ground it was grown over with impenetrable tangles of thorn bushes or boggy from water settled in the kettles. The sun sank further and further among the trees, until the shadows stretched long and parallel across the forest floor. A stone-littered stream joined the trail for a way, then dropped away far below, and its rushing gurgle became a whisper rising from the unseen depths of the ravine.

Steve and I began to worry about whether we’d find a campsite before dark. The trail entered a shadowy area surrounded by steep outcroppings that allowed no space for camping at all. Here we found the stream again, splashing down between the dark, moss-covered rocks, right across the path. Imprints of lugged boot soles from earlier hikers marked the bare mud along the trail at both edges of the stream. The trail beyond the stream made an abrupt upswing along a much steeper rise. When Barb saw the steps of natural rock leading up into the dark crown of the mountain, she groaned. Julie stood panting and pale, unwilling to admit how tired she was. Steve complained that he had developed a bad blister on his right heel and couldn’t walk much farther.

Barb left her pack on a rock and clambered up the trail to get a look at what lay ahead. I conferred with Steve and Teja while she was gone and we decided that we had to find a place near here, where we could have access to the water from the stream. When Barb returned, with news that the trail continued on at the same steep angle beyond where she had gone, we headed back down the trail to the place where we had been able to hear the stream at the bottom of the ravine. I left my pack among the leaves on the ground and bushwhacked up the embankment along the rise. I struggled for a hundred feet or so through thick underbrush, out of sight of the group. There I found the ground leveling off, and finally, amidst a stand of white birches whose trunks seemed to shimmer beneath a canopy of glowing gold and orange leaves, discovered a series of small, terraced, leaf-strewn clearings that looked out over the valley to the mountains in the east.

I stood transfixed by the tranquility and autumn color and light. A lone birch branch oscillated amidst the stillness, catching some slight stirring in the air, and giving the impression that the tree was waving at me. A warbler that I couldn’t name, like a brown leaf, twitched and darted amidst the shrubs, alarmed at my unexpected presence. He shot away when Steve’s voice punctuated the short reverie, asking if I had found something.

I showed him the clearings and he nodded. We both went back to retrieve our packs and lead the others back.

Setting up camp required removing pebbles from the ground beneath where the tents would lie and in my case, tying back some of the thorny bushes to open space for my tent. All three tents were pitched in about twenty minutes, We laid our sleeping bags and packs in the tents, then prepared for dinner.

There is something nostalgic and comforting about a campfire and we would have loved to have built one, but the woods are no longer our homes. We lit our two white gas stoves instead. I thought of the heat of former campfires in my face and chest and knees, and of the cold of the night and forest at my back, and remembered that balance between the familiarity of our tiny dome of light and the immensity of the darkness around. The pressing inward of all that non-humanity urged my companions and I to talk, tell stories, and stave off the great silence. A writer once suggested that the hissing of the escaping gas of the stove could be used as an alternative to the firelight, that the sound was an auditory shield against the silence that rushed in when the stove was turned off, but it just was not the same.

Still, our company spoke through the hissing and settled back among the cushioning piles of leaves and between the tree roots, to savor the taste of canned chili con carne, curry rice, lentil soup, steamed rice, and cranberry juice. The warmth of the food coursed through our insides and loosed the tension of concentrating on our climb. Teja started a round of puns that set us all off, groaning and laughing and eager to up the others. Barb hummed a tune that was on her mind and we all fell silent to listen as her trained soprano voice rang through the woods. Julie sat back with her cat-like self-possession, curled into a ball, and wrapped up in all her layers, until nothing was visible but her half-lidded eyes. Steve busied himself, as always, with the cooking. There was something almost maternal in his attentions, as his fingers gently prodded a can open or stirred a bowl of soup, and one could see the pride in his eyes as the mechanics of throwing ingredients together and the possession of the tools that worked the ingredients coalesced into a finished arrangement of texture and flavor. I sat helping him, but mostly absorbing it all, watching these friends sharing with me these rare moments of a past time that went deeper than most activities I had joined them so often in in the city.

As we heated up a pot of water for hot chocolate. a sudden movement in the darkness outside the circle of our electric lantern and candles, caught all of our attention at the same time. We peered up at a branch dipping and swaying and caught a glimpse of a large, dark shape balancing amidst the darker canopy. Without thinking, I pulled out my flashlight and shone the beam up at the figure. The light caught two enormous yellow eyes staring back down at us. It was a short eared owl, swiveling its round head. It glared at us with an outraged flare of its wings, then leaped into the darkness behind. The branch that had dipped under its weight swung back up to its original position and nodded up and down in the light.

“What was it?” came Barb’s whisper in the ensuing silence, in which the hissing of the stove seemed to fill the woods.

“An owl,” said Teja.

“Did you see those eyes?” whispered Julie.

“I didn’t know that owls were so big,” said Barb.

We all sat silent for a few moments more, each of us hoping the owl would return or call out of the woods.

Steve asked if anybody needed the stoves any more. When we replied no, he turned them both off. The sudden silence held us still. We listened to the leaves rustling in the wind, to bark creaking against bark, to occasional twigs and branches dropping to the forest floor. Steve leaned forward to start cleaning the pots; Teja bent to help him. I heard an immense sound, like the roar of a freight train, sweep across the distant dark mass of the mountain opposite ours up from the river below. I listened as if I were hearing the hunter of my soul calling me; a strange, disturbing sound. It came again and I wondered what it was. I looked at the others and noticed that none of them seemed to have heard the sound, and I felt a chill run up my spine. The mountain called again, a deep booming roar, and at that moment the full moon’s shining edge peeked above the horizon. All of us stopped what we were doing and stared. The light seemed to pierce the fabric of the night and changed everything. We watched spellbound as the full disc rose, becoming larger and larger, slowly defining the serrated, tree-lined outline of the distant dome of yet another mountain, and stealing the shadows from among the tree trunks around us.

We scrubbed the pots and plates with silent haste, as if we were afraid we might lose something precious if we didn’t get back to the serendipity in those moments. After the light of the moon, the grease and mess of the pots on our hands, the cold shock of the water, even the abrupt banging and clanking of the metal jarred with the emotions we felt. As if to mask his disconcerted reaction, Teja played with oozing food remains, joking about how it would probably grow eyes and legs and chase unwary travelers through the hills. We laughed, our voices somehow too loud. We stacked up the washed pots and put away the stoves and extra food.

“Nature’s calling,” said Barbara. I didn’t understand what she meant the first second, then understood. “Will you come with me, Julie?”

The two stalked off into the darkness among the trees, their footsteps snapping and crackling among the leaves until the spot of their light winked out behind the rise of the hill and we could no longer hear them.

While Teja and Steve went to busy themselves in their tents, I climbed up to the rise behind my tent from where the valley below was clearly visible and settled back against the base of a large birch tree. The moon had lifted above the distant mountain and hung in the blue darkness like a silver bubble. Its luminescence seemed to cascade over the entire forest. As the light penetrated the shadows beneath the heaviest canopies, infiltrating at an angle nearly horizontal to the ground, it lit up the white bark of the birch trees until the birches shone with a silvery radiance. My eyes could feel the glow like a soft breath upon my retinas. I was so moved by what I saw that my chest ballooned with emotion and tears spilled from my eyes. Just then that enormous roaring sound swept across the opposite mountain again and I realized it was the combined rustling of thousands, a whole mountainside, of trees in the wind.

I heard a snap beside me and Steve joined me. He crouched down without a word and sat gazing at the view. I watched the glint of moonlight on his glasses and wondered what he was thinking and feeling. Just a year before, both of us, at the same time, had spent a month traveling alone by bicycle in Europe, he through Ireland and I through Denmark and Germany. Often during my trip I had wondered where he was and what he was doing. Upon return we put together a joint multi-media show, with separate slides of our separate journeys coordinated to music and visual effects, as a big presentation in an auditorium where Steve worked. We often conversed about the incessant rain that had hit both Ireland and Denmark that September and our loneliness and fatigue showed in our pictures. As we crouched there beneath the big birch tree, watching the moon, we both seemed to understand without words what the other was seeing. This night brought to rest, for an instant, the searching unrest that our trips had exacted from us. No words were needed.

Teja moved into the scene a moment later. He glanced back at us and I caught the look of seriousness on his face that always came as a surprise on his usually animated features. He hunched down upon an embankment beneath a beech. More snapping and crackling followed and Barb and Julie appeared. They sat down beside Teja.

We watched the moon climb above the hill and high into the sky. Time seemed to lose the momentum of its march. The long shadows of the trees wound upon the ground like the cast umbra of a sundial. I didn’t even notice when my left calf fell asleep. As the light spread out, the shadows withdrew until the contrast between brilliance and darkness quelled clarity of texture and form and the surroundings lost their preternatural secrecy. The forest became just a forest again. The others stood and retired to their tents. Steve patted me on the shoulder as he stepped past me. I sat for a long while after they left, waiting for the roar of the mountain, but it never came.