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Europe: Travel Hiking Journal Pyrenées: Hiking Pyrenees: Travel Routes: Hiking Travel Walking

Listening for Pyrene’s Echo 4: Sanctuary Between the Rivers

Col d'Aran Approach
Approaching the top of Col d’Aran.

(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

Third part of the series: Listening For Pyrene’s Echo 3: Village In the Mist


(It has been ages since I posted in the blog, and many of my readers may no longer be checking up on it anymore. Forgive me for that. Those of you who still stop by, thank you! This post took me a long time to write, and in the meantime some big events happened in my life, including finding someone who has changed my life, quitting my former job, and moving south to Kobe. Still trying to regain my feet and start walking again!)

Mountains were the reason I had journeyed halfway around the world to these steep, verdant slopes of the Pyrenees. To spend the month walking. And so it was time to leave Lescun, no matter how much I had fallen in love with the place. Truth was that with the mountains looming right there outside my B & B window, apprehension reared its ugly head, and I wondered if I would be all right, both in how well my out-of-shape body could handle the rigors of the climbs, and, even more, in how I’d be able to keep myself stocked well enough with food that low blood sugar from my diabetes wouldn’t put me into mortal danger. There were some lonely stretches I would be walking through where immediate access to food wasn’t possible for several days, and they scared the hell out of me. It was different when I was younger and healthy, but diabetes changed all that.

I woke at dawn and hefted my pack stuffed to the extension collar with boxes and food cans and packages of mostly fresh food, like sausages, bread, cheese, and vegetables. I just might have brought more than I actually needed, and when the owner of the B & B saw my pack, he sniggered, asking me if I was planning on hiking to the Arctic. Certainly the pack weighed a ton, and all that preparation to go “ultralight” had seemingly come to naught; the pack was much heavier than what all those walkers of the Pyrenees I had seen online were carrying. I grunted as I lifted the pack from where it stood against the frame of the front door.

I left a note for Stewart, and stepped out onto the road. Morning sunlight cast a golden glitter across the fields and dew-covered walls and rooftops, and rose into the East with a silent shout that filled my heart with song. I whistled as I strode past the still doorways and windows, finally on my way. Finally walking!

Ah, that feeling of skirting empty fields alight with the singing of birds and the small, far off bleating of sheep! No one else was on the road, so I had the silence to myself, and I could hear my shoes scuffing the gravel underfoot, and the creak of the pack under all that weight. Off in the distance rose the shining white teeth of the high ridges, white and concrete grey in the sun. My breath puffed in white billows in front of my face, and I could feel that morning sun burn against my cheek, my forearm, and legs. It was the time of day when insects, still held in suspended animation from the night chill, slowly stirred, and awoke to the sun. I walked past their spherical eyes, reflected in their vision, and feeling the swing of my arms and legs leading me up the road, toward the trailhead.

D'Aspe Valley Foothills
Across the d’Aspe valley higher into the foothills.

After all the people at the refuge last night, this time alone left a feeling of suddenly being cast adrift. The sound of my feet scuffling the asphalt tapped against the silence as if I was walking inside a bell, and only my movement promised me that the stillness was real. When I reached the first steep proper hiking trail, my breaths and heartbeats thundered about my ears, and I broke into a sweat. The sun crept into the spaces between the branches, and slowly the day opened, with swaths of sunlight. The morning chill lifted, and soon dragonflies were skimming the meadows and crows were beating the blue air.

The overladen pack demanded heavy gulps of air and I was out of breath before I had even climbed to the ridge of the first foothill. A clinging humidity settled into the air, without a breath of wind. And as the sun rose, so did the heat. Not the soft-edged, wet heat of the mountains in Japan, but the sharp, prickly exhalation of the Pyrenean sun, burning on the nape of my neck, drawing out my colors, etching at my thoughts, sucking away the vapors and subterranean streams. I found myself gulping down the contents of one of my two 1-liter water bottles, and before I knew it, it was almost dry. I halted at the crown of a forested hill, elated at reaching a first milestone, but worried about having enough to drink.

Selfie rest stop on first foothill ridge.
Taking a rest atop the first summit between Lescun and Borce.

The trail descended into a green valley of grass and cows, stone farm houses scattered along a slow river flowing through. It followed an arbor of old beech trees, and led past an enclosed farmyard, pigs snorting and grunting. Occasionally, other long-distance hikers passed me as I paused to photograph the fields and stone walls. Everything seemed half asleep, and I felt as if I was milling about during an unannounced siesta. Across the valley the trail continued up a steep-sided mountain, rising into the blue sky, grass waving in the breezes and sunlight.

I stopped under a lone sapling, setting down in the straw, to have my lunch of saucisson, farmer’s bread, soft cheese (which had melted in the paper wrapping), and two plums. Sweat poured down my brow as I swigged from my remaining water bottle, which I had to conserve for the rest of the day. Down in the valley tiny figures of lone walkers inched across the fields, horses flicked their tails, and occasional crows beat their way from hilltop to hilltop. Few of the locals seemed about. Perhaps they were resting.

Lescun to Borce Forest Path
Lescun to Borce Forest Path
GR10 Marker
GR10 marker on the crest between Lescun and Borce
Borce Fields of Heather
Fields of heather crossing over to Borce.

Finished with lunch, I trudged up the hillside, feeling the weight of the pack with all the extra food I had brought. By the time I reached the top, I was again badly out of breath, and feeling just how out of shape I was. The trail wended through a high valley purple with heather, and a dark, rocky peak in the distance. Grasshoppers popped in different directions at the kicking of my legs, and zithered in the heat. The red and white painted trail blazers for the GR10 long-distance trail appeared at irregular intervals on tree trunks and embedded rocks, leading me across the mountain-top and down the back side, where the afternoon sun blazed against the hillsides and the air baked in the heat.

I’d run out of water, and my mouth grew dry with thirst. During the descent four young French walkers passed me, and when I inquired about water sources, one of the women offered me a drink from her water bottle. “Be careful of the streams here. There are lots of cows above in the mountain fields. You never know about the water.”

First View of Borce
First view of Borce after a scorching and thirsty traverse of the foothills.

That one swig helped me make it down about halfway to the town, Borce, sitting at the bottom of a steep-sided gorge, just below where I was walking, and where I was planning to stay for the night. But the thirst returned and after a while I couldn’t take it anymore. At a splashing mountain creek choked with moss-covered boulders, taking the chance that the moss and brush and leaves in the stream would filter out the baddies in the water, I filled my bottle with the cold water, and hoped for the best. I took a long draught, and felt so good at the clear taste, that I took off my shirt and bathed my head and torso in the rushing stream. Two walkers with a labrador passed me as I shook my wet head, and the labrador joined me in the water. I laughed as the hikers whistled to the dog and continued down the trail.

Borce seemed like a footstep along the valley floor. Amidst the looming green ridges east and west, a cluster of 18th century buildings huddled along the Gave d’Aspe River, with a narrow main street running through the center of the village, and houses with stone façades lining the street side. Most of the façades were painted a dun white, so that even in the shade, the streets glowed with an inviting brightness. The streets were too narrow for cars to easily pass through, so a hush hung over the village, broken by the sound of people conversing and laughing. Ahead I heard the clinking of glass and metal, and I came upon guests dining and drinking under an awning, outside a small restaurant. I put my pack down and wandered inside into the dark interior to inquire about a camping spot and the price of dinner.

The man at the bar counter looked to be in his mid-thirties, with a scraggly ponytail of dark brown hair tied back from his thinning pate, and a kind but bored look in his eyes. He gave me a wan smile as I came up to the counter, and nodded half-heartedly when I asked if he could speak English.

“Would there be a place to camp near the village?” I asked.

He nodded again and shook his thumb behind him. “It’s out back behind the church. It’s a little difficult to find, so I’ll show you as soon as I can get away from this cash register. Why don’t you sit and wait here and have something to drink?”

I took a seat at one of the oaken tables and asked for a beer. I spied the guests outside munching on french fries, so I ordered a basket of that, too.

As I waited, I gazed around the restaurant, and glanced outside at the families under the awning. The guests represented a mixed lot, vacationing families out for a drive in the countryside, dusty walkers stopping for the night in one of the refuges or gîtes d’etapes, and villagers, stopping by for an evening quaff. Most of them were French, but I could hear a few speaking Spanish, and one couple deep in a German discussion.

I discovered that a small grocery store occupied the back part of the restaurant, with basic offerings of fresh bread, milk, eggs, canned soups, vegetables, and various cooking items and basic household paraphernalia. There was even a makeshift post office, with sheets of stamps held in folders on a shelf.

The store proprietor finally lifted the bar entrance counter and announced he was ready to take me to the campsite. A woman in spectacles took his place and smiled at me as I headed out of the bar door.

The proprietor led me behind the building and up some stairs, through an old church courtyard. The path passed behind an old stone dormitory, and along a tree-lined path into a grove that overlooked the village. He showed me a clearing with a chestnut tree in the middle where I could pitch my tent. Grass, nettle, dandelions, and clover carpeted the entire open area. Beyond the fence at the bottom of the field, lay an enclosed field with two donkeys and several sheep. Beyond that stood a row of modern wood houses, where several families sat out on the verandas eating dinner.

Borce Church Yard Camp
Camping on the first night in the rear churchyard in Borce.

“How much for the night?” I asked. The proprietor shook his head. “It’s free. The church likes to support G10 walkers!” He smiled and left me to my business.

In spite of all the grass, finding a level site without rocks underfoot took some time. The best place ended up being right at the foot of the chestnut tree, with barely enough room to extend and tauten the guylines. By the time I finished setting up camp darkness had fallen, and I was too tired to fire up the stove and cook dinner, in spite of all the food in my pack. I closed up the tent and sauntered back to the restaurant to order a dinner of two baguettes with ham and cheese, and a big, cold glass of beer.

I sat out under the awnings in the terrace, with my chair facing the street, watching evening strollers and village folk. At the table next to mine sat two Danish women who were also doing the GR10. We spoke for a while, but they seemed more interested in one another’s company, so after I downed the last of my beer, I stood to wander through the night streets of the village, taking photographs.

The street lights burned with the yellow cast of sulphur lamps, giving the houses and alleyways a dreamlike light that made the village seem half imagined. A few windows hung open and I could hear the sound of laughter and conversation from within. I stopped by the church door where a grizzled man in a baseball cap sat smoking a cigarette. The door was locked, so I couldn’t venture inside.

Night View of Borce Village
Night view of Borce village.

Back at camp I sat in the entrance to my tent and watched the moon rise over the hills behind the village. In the darkness in the field below the donkeys shifted restlessly, and one of the sheep bleated once. It took a long while for me to fall asleep.

I woke at dawn and quickly gathered my things and packed up. Dew clung to the grass and my shoes and socks got soaked as I kicked through the field headed for the edge of the village and the trace of the trail. I passed one elderly woman leaning out of her apartment window, watering her geraniums.

“Bon jour!” she called out. “Where are you headed?”

“The GR10. Up into the mountains.”

“A good day for it. Please take care!”

“Thanks!”

Chemin de la Matûre
The Chemin de la Matûre trail cut into the side of the cliffs.

The trail started under a bridge at the far side of the village, and followed some stairs down to the main road that crossed the Pyrenees from France into Spain. It led across the road into Etsaut, the next village over. From there the trail followed the asphalt road toward the cliff-hugging Chemin de la Mâture, an access way hewn out of the stone walls of the Aspe gorge, originally built for transporting timber over the mountains for use in the French navy.

The cliff path started a half hour after Etsaut, first meandering through open woods, then the trail growing narrower as the rock face grew steeper, finally carved out of the sheer rock, with a rounded, tunnel-like wall on the left, and an open side to the right, dropping off into thin air above the gorge floor 200 meters below.

Again the heavy pack… Hefting it up the cliff trail at first followed the gradual walk along the paved road until this point, as the trail inclined gently along the cliff face. It began to grow steeper when the wooded verge dropped away, and the trail had to wind along the vagaries of the rock. The sun also pulled past the shadow of the cliffs and shone into the gorge, at first warming up the chill from the night, but as the morning wore on, grew stronger and stronger, until… at around ten o’clock, it had begun blazing across the length of the trail.

I hadn’t counted on the heat. While I was used to walking in the stifling summer heat of the mountains in Japan, where it was a damp, shirt-drenching kind of humidity; here the heat lacked the moisture, and seared the skin like an oven. Even with my aluminized umbrella, the heat sucked me dry of water, and I soon found myself guzzling from the two 2-liter bottles just to keep up with my need to drink. The thirst and the weight of the pack soon had me stopping for breath every hundred meters, and by noon I was beat. All the morning walkers passed me as I sat in the shade of a bush, trying to regain my strength. When I stood, I grew dizzy, and became disoriented. I thought perhaps it was low blood sugar, and tried to fix it with nuts and dried fruit, but the dizziness remained. At one trail sign I read what I thought was a warning for a trail closure ahead and that an alternate route had been put in, so I took that path, keen to get on my way up to the alpine regions. The dizziness continued, and I sat down on a log, flush with heat, and bleary-eyed, while I contemplated what route to take. Little did I know that I had read the sign wrong, and that I had taken the wrong route up a different mountain.

A family noticed my pale face and asked if I was all right. The mother offered me a swig of water and handed me a slice of carrot cake, telling me it had been specially made for her grandfather. I accepted a slice, but couldn’t eat it. It made me more nauseous. “Never mind!” the mother laughed with a big smile. “The bananas are still too young anyway.”

Shade On Col d'Aran
Arriving at the top of Col d’Aran, grateful for the shade.

They sat with me for a while as I rested. The husband suggested that maybe it was heat exhaustion, so they offered several swigs of their lemonade. I admit it did make me feel a little better. I decided to sit a little longer as the family told me it was time they moved on. The mother asked if I was okay to be on my own. When I nodded and smiled, she nodded back. “Okay. Well, you take care then. Don’t push it. We’ll stop for lunch at the top, and wait a little till we see you, all right?”

I nodded and smiled again, thanking her and the rest of the family. The son and daughter both smiled, too.

“Here is some more cake,” offered the mother. “Just in case. Even if you can’t eat it now.”

And they were off, headed up the trail.

The forest seemed to close about me after the sounds of the family had faded. The seething of the trees in the slight breeze. and the noticeable absence of birdsong, brought home the vulnerability of being alone and weak on a mountainside. I finally stood and hefted the heavy pack, ready to push on. I looked up the trail and winced when I saw the switchbacks continuing way up into the shadows of the tree trunks.

I took the slope slowly, placing one foot in front of the other, making sure to watch how I felt. The dizziness faded, but I still felt weak and disoriented. The switchbacks zig-zagged up the steep slope for what seemed like forever, and I kept wondering when the tree line would appear and the alpine path begin. But the trees never ended and the sun kept at my back, and later moved to my left, where it decidedly should’t have been. It should have been over my right shoulder, as I headed northeast. This was headed west.

The day turned blazing hot as the trail climbed, and I saw dozens of walkers hiding from the sun beneath bushes and trees. Luckily I’d brought more water this time… four liters’ worth… so I avoided yesterday’s dehydration. Still, it wasn’t enough to counter the heat. When the path leveled off and opened up onto a ridgeline meadow, I felt both the joy of having reached the top of a mountain, and the let down of facing the sun full-on. The path meandered along the rocky ups and downs, until I came to a wind-bent grove of oak trees. Other people had chosen this area, too, taking spots in the shade of the trees. Bands of walkers passed through, most of them too hot to make conversation, and pushing doggedly on.

I found a shaded clearing beside some boulders, and put my pack down. The dizziness had gone and and for a while it was joy seeing my pack lying there in the grass and the lift of the mountains on the other side of the valley from which I had climbed. From behind me came a lilting voice, calling.

“Bonjour! We meet again! It seems you are feeling better and have made it up the mountains.”

It was the mother of the family that had helped me earlier. She was waving from another shaded spot a little further up the trail. The family was getting ready to head off, but they came over to check up on me.

“Do you have enough water?”, the mother asked. “It’s really hot, isn’t it?” She offered a 2 liter pet bottle of water. The father smiled shyly, nodding.

I nodded back. “Thank you so much, but I’m okay. I think it’s the heat. It sucks you dry!”

The son and daughter laughed. The whole family laughed together. “We French love walking in the heat!”, said the son.

“Be careful,” chided the mother. “We’re headed off now, but you take it easy, okay?”

I nodded and thanked them. They picked up their packs and started down the trail. I watched them pick their way along the rocks underfoot and disappear beyond a small rise.

I sat back against my pack and closed my eyes. A breeze was blowing, and the tall grass and wild flowers whispered as they shook. I pulled out the sandwich I had bought at the bar in Borce and munched on it while gazing at the windswept forest.

White petals fluttered on the breeze under one bigger tree, drifting down to a puddle in a mud patch. Then the petals, in unison, lifted and spun together to the further side of the puddle and landed there, neatly along the edge of the water. Looking closer I realized they were butterflies, small, coin-sized, pinkish-white Adonis Blue butterflies, gathering around the water to drink. They spun and lifted and dropped with the wind, dancing.

Adonis Blue Butterfly Trekking Pole
Male Adonis Blue butterfly (Polyommatus bellargus) on trekking pole.

I finished the sandwich and stood up to continue down the mountain. By now, consulting the map, it was clear that I had climbed the mountain northwest of where I had intended to go, Mt. Aran. The trail made a loop back to where I had started in the morning, so I decided to return to Borce.

The early afternoon heat grew to its most intense, and soon I was feeling weak and dizzy again. I slowly made it down the trail, taking care to drink my water regularly, and stop to eat small bites of the bread and sausage. But the pack was still too heavy, and the air so dry it whipped away any vestige of moisture on my skin. In the early afternoon the last leg of the trail stretched out along a quiet country road looking out over pastures along the Aspe River. I overtook a very slowly limping, very overweight woman who had turned bright red in the sunshine, and stared doggedly at the road surface, determined to keep going.

I called out a hello and she cheerfully greeted me back.

“It’s hot, isn’t it?”, she observed. “Maybe not the best day for a walk.”

“Are you all right?”, I asked. “You seem to be having trouble walking.”

“Oh, I’m fine. Just need to catch up to my husband and son.”

They were no where to be seen. “Are they up ahead?”, I asked.

“I dunno. Haven’t see them since lunch time. They’re much fitter than I am.”

“Do you have enough water?”

“Yes, I’m good. Just need a bit more exercise.”

I didn’t want to bother her too much, so I was about to march on ahead, when she continued talking.

“My husband is a good man. He takes care of the family and works hard. He also loves mountain climbing and comes up here to the Pyrenees as often as he can. He doesn’t look at all like me. He’s in great shape!” She said this with a shake of her head and a voice of defeat, followed by a self-effacing laugh. Her hand gestured toward her body. “I’m an old blimp. Can barely walk!”

We walked together silently for a time. The road led gently down the hill. The sun baked the asphalt and heat waves slow-danced in the haze. Grasshoppers zithered in the dry grass.

“I think I will take a break and sit in the shade of this tree. The tree was but a sapling, barely casting a shadow on the ground. I watched her red-facedly hunch down onto the stone at the base of the tree and offer me a great big smile.

“Thanks for taking the time to walk with me. You head on down the trail and enjoy the rest of the walk.”

I waved goodbye and continued walking. She waved at me when I turned around a hundred meters on. Then I was alone again in the heat and silence.

Day Hiking Col d'Aran
Families day hiking Col d’Aran.

___________

I arrived back in Borce in the mid-afternoon, at the hottest time of the day. The dizziness and nausea had returned bad enough that setting up camp took twice as long as usual. I I didn’t feel up to cooking, and the interior of the tent was an oven, so I sauntered down to the bar, where I ordered two baguettes with cheese and ham, some celery soup, and a bottle of white beer. I sat eating and, using the bar’s dicey WiFi connection, writing on Facebook about the mistaken trail and my physical condition. Within ten minutes I got a private message from one of my online ultralight hiking group friends, Thierry, who was French and asked if I was all right.

“What happened?”, he asked. “Are you hurt?”

“No, I’m fine. Got quite sick on the trail and couldn’t push hard enough.”

“Where are you?”

“In a village named Borce, on the GR10.”

There was a brief pause. “You won’t believe this, but I’m quite near you, in the town of Oloron-Saint-Marie. Why don’t I come pick you up tomorrow morning?”

“Oh, that isn’t necessary! I’ll be fine.”

“It’s really no problem. Rest up and you can start again the following day. You can eat some real French home-cooking, too! How’s that sound?”

“Sounds great! What a surprise!”

“We ultralighters have to stick together, right?”

After he hung up I weighed my options, whether to buck up and stay on the trail, or take Thierry up on his offer. The idea of a bath and some company sounded great, and would be a welcome change to share talk with a fellow backpacker.

I returned to my tent and sat in the doorway, listening to the night. Animals moved in the darkness, and crickets chirped in the undergrowth. For a while I could hear some French pop music emanating from a window in one of the houses in the village, then it was hushed.
_______________

“Miguel?”

A grizzled man with a scraggly beard and wire-rimmed glasses stood stood in the doorway of the restaurant, the morning sunshine alight around him. I stood to greet him and we shook hands.

“Thierry.”

Thierry In Borce
Thierry In Borce

He was older than I had imagined, more my age, and a little overweight. I thought he would be athletically super fit and forthrightly confident. Instead a shy man with a hesitant smile and thoughtful gaze greeted me.

We sat at one of the rickety tables and ordered French-style big cup coffee. “Did you eat breakfast?” Thierry asked. When I replied I hadn’t, Thierry ordered a ham baguette for himself. I ordered the tomato and cheese baguette.

“Is it okay that we speak in French? Sorry my English is not so good,” Thierry apologized. “I should have studied harder in school!” We laughed.

“I was so surprised when I realized you were hiking the GR-10. And passing right near where I live!”

“Imagine my surprise when you said you live in Oloron!”

“Are you hiking the entire trail?”

“No, though I wish I was. I’m just doing the western third, to Gavarnie.”

“That’s a nice stretch! I’ve not walked up in the peaks. I’m more a lowland, long-distance walker. I especially like the Camino de Santiago.”

“You’ve done the Camino?” My eyes lit up.

He smiled. “A number of times. It’s one of my main reasons for living in Oloron.”

“I dream of walking the Camino.”

“It’s a special trail. You should definitely try it.”

“And I take it you do it UL (ultralight style backpacking)?”

We both nodded enthusiastically. “Of course!”, we said in unison.

Thierry indicated my backpack. “I’ve always wanted to see one of the new Gossamer Gear Mariposas. Nice-looking pack! May I take a look at it?”

“Of course.”

He picked the pack up and grimaced. “What in the world do you have in here?! It weighs a ton!”

I laughed. “Not at all UL, is it? Now I’ve lost the respect of my peers!” We laughed together. “I was worried about food,” I explained. “Most of the weight is food.”

He examined the pack and nooded quietly to himself. After putting it back down on the floor, he pursed his lips and declared, “I’m going to have to get one, too.”

We finished our sandwiches and coffee, then headed out to the edge of the village where his car was parked. The sun was already bright and strong, and the sky blue and free of clouds. We drove along the Aspe Valley road, moving smoothly along the rises and curves, with few other cars to slow things down. Thierry asked about my travels and talked a little about his own long walk across Romania the year before. He’d done some serious walking.

Then he asked about the year before, 2011, and the disasters in Japan. It was an unexpected question, and purely innocent, just curiosity and concern, but it stopped me short, and words caught in my throat. I sat very still for a long while, then tried to brush it all away with a light summary. “Oh, what a year it was. I’ll never forget it.”

Thierry glanced over at me from his driving. “I hope no one you know was hurt.”

How could I explain to him the weight and grief that still very much lodged in my chest, and how enormous the sense of loss and horror stood towering over me, and everyone I knew who had been through it? How could I describe the devastation up north, or encounters I had had with those who had lost everything, or the absurdity of upturned houses and cars thrown atop apartment buildings or fishing boats suspended in treetops? Or the utter emptiness of coming upon a ruined house and in what was once a little girl’s bedroom, finding, out in the rain and snow, a floor still neatly laid out in a circle with photographs of the little girl and her friends, that she must have been looking at when the tsunami hit? Or the terror of standing in your home as the earth rocked the concrete walls and dust drifted down from the corners while a woman screamed next door? Or months of daily big, following earthquakes that had me so tense everyday that I slept with my clothes on and kept emergency supplies right next to my bed? I couldn’t get it across, of course. Not really. Not with any sense of authenticity or recognition. And so I sat there in the car, devoid of words, and suddenly realizing how the weight of last year still very much haunted me, and all the holding inside of all the emotions and fear and loss, and not having had anyone to express or share any of this avalanche of loss with, not even my family back in the States, had taken over every fiber of who I am. The car drove through the pretty French countryside, white clouds drifted overhead, the median lines slid under the car, and a man I had only just met had quietly asked me how the disasters had been.

I broke down sobbing. And sobbing. And sobbing. I couldn’t stop. It flooded out. Everything I had kept inside during the worst of it, everything I had wanted to let out to my faraway family, all the grief at what I had seen around me, the vast devastation, the surging of the second tsunami in the dark below, the terror during the second biggest earthquake, a major earthquake in itself, bigger than what had destroyed Kobe in 1995, and the shaking of my 75 year old volunteer friend as we sat though it, clinging to each other, the wailing mothers and fathers and husbands and wives and friends at lost loved ones, the silence in the rain amidst the ruins, and back home, the distancing and indifference and suicide attempt of my partner, who railed against me when we both most needed one another. It all came out. And Thierry could do nothing, but sit there, silently driving, and perhaps getting a true view of the enormous toll the disasters actually had, instead of the abstract, sterile screen clips that had portrayed everything as a kind of miniature moving diorama.

Thierry looked over and apologized. I shook my head. “It was terrible. It’s not something you should keep inside.”
_____________

Center of Oloron Sainte-Marie
The centre of Oloron Sainte Marie, at the confluence of the Gave d’Aspe and the Gave d’Ossau

Thierry’s apartment sat on a curving side street that he described as the “poorer part of town where the Roma live”. It reminded me of the stone façade apartment buildings of my hometown Hannover in Germany. The main door opened into a narrow stairwell and a courtyard out back, where we took some stairs to the second floor. Thierry’s apartment was small, but inviting and comfortable, with a sofa on one side of the living room, a large bookshelf, and a round dining table and chairs looking out into a courtyard filled with trees and potted plants. Thierry cleared a space next to the sofa and indicated that I put my pack down there.

“Would you like to take a shower?”

After the hot, sweaty hiking in the mountains, the word “shower” felt like ice cream on the tongue. Suddenly I felt grimy and unkempt, and the smell of my clothes overpowering. As if reading my mind, Thierry swept his arm behind him, indicating the bathroom. “If you like, please wash your clothes, too. Please don’t feel self-conscious, I’ve been dusty and unwashed, too, in my travels.”

I took out my shorts and extra t-shirt from my pack, then went into the bathroom to change and take that lovely shower.
_____________

Passing through Oloron a few days before, on my way from Toulouse to Lescun, had only given me a glimpse of the town, as I had boarded the highway bus at the station and the bus skirted the edge of the city. This time Thierry took me on a walking tour of his beloved town, as we followed an imaginary circuit through each of the town’s sections, each with its own historical and social characteristics. Thierry was a history buff, and was passionate about long-distance walking primarily for the chances it brings for him to interact on a personal level with the landscapes in which the events and facts he had read about took place. He even explained that, unlike most other ultralight hikers, he climbed mountains only because they happened to stand along the path of his historical walking tours. He’d much rather stay lowland and flat, than diverge from civilization.

Interior of Oloron Cathedral
Interior of Oloron Cathedral.

Once he started talking about the background of the town, he was on a roll, and for about 5 hours I listened to a steady stream of French that normally I would have barely kept up with, but for some reason I understood nearly everything he said, and he managed to impart a goodly understanding of the town.

Thierry was a surveyor and cartographer, and historical cartography was his passion. He worked for the city doing boring urban maps, but longed to work for a museum and spend his time mapping the past. He’d spent a lot of time studying the history of the Oloron area, and all the areas that had something to do with the Camino de Santiago.

We walked from his apartment in the Notre Dame district, the old artisan district, where a lot of the Roma (the Gypsies) now lived, and therefore made it, by association with the Roma, the poor side of town. This had at one time been the commercial center of the town and had housed the artisans, and brought money in trade with surrounding towns, including right across the border with Spain. It was the newest part of the town.

Oloron Sainte-Marie was divided by the three rivers that flowed through the town, two of which started in the Pyrenees, the Ossou and the Aspe, which formed the tributaries for the bigger Garonne River.

We walked from one district to the next, second into the Saint-Marie district, also known as the episcopal district and the oldest part of town, and later into the Saint-Croix district, the viscounty, where the nobles at one time lived. Along the way we walked up the town’s central hill to visit the town’s first cathedral at the top, Cathedral Saint-Marie, a beautiful Romanesque building that still retained some of its original interior façade painting. Thierry explained that many cathedrals and churches, if they could afford it, decorated the interiors with bright colors and elaborate imaging that had been lost over the years due to decay, so that today people had the impression that cathedrals are dark and drab. The Cathedral Saint-Marie was unusual in that the paint had remained largely intact and a visitor could get a feel for the rich blue and gold imagery that had brightened up the nave. Thierry and I wandered from one section of the cathedral to another, taking photographs of the walls and columns.

Following that we made our way down the hill south to the Church of Saint Croix, a plainer Romanesque church that had fewer, smaller windows and was much darker inside. Stepping inside, Gregorian chants playing over speakers, haunted the dim air and reverberated throughout the structure, moving within my chest and stilling the earlier grief. Both Thierry and I didn’t say much, and even desisted from taking photographs. I mentioned to him about atheist friends pooh-poohing the effect that cathedrals had on people, and how churches of all kinds should be eliminated. Thierry, an atheist himself, snorted, said, “But this is France!”, as if that answered everything.

From the Church of Saint Croix, we once again climbed a hill, up to the highest point of the town. At the top we skirted an old equestrian circle surrounded by plane trees, and leaves scattered in the wind that blew across the open space. Clouds had rolled in and rain pattered on the dusty ground, stirring up the smell of autumn and wet afternoons.

Fork In Oloron
In hills above the town of Oloron Sainte-Marie.

Thierry led me through streets of row houses where families sat on the steps outside their front doors and laughed, conversed, and watched the world go by. I waved at two mothers who smiled at me from a curb while their children played on the cobblestone street. Old walled gardens and timber-framed houses stood slanted along the street-sides and lanes, and pots brightened with geraniums and roses hung from balconies and eves.

We happened to pass a the open door of a small, history museum, the Maison de Patrimoine, which Thierry had never seen before. On a whim, we entered and found a creaky medieval house filled with historical exhibits from Roman times to the present. They had models of Roman baths and medieval butter churns and photos from the French concentration camps for Spanish refugees escaping across the Pyrenees from Fascist Spain. Until then I had had no idea that concentration camps existed in Europe before the Nazis, and that they were as bad as what the Germans had done. Thierry walked me through the history displayed, talking about a shameful aspect of French history that few people admitted to.

Oloron Gypsy Families
Gypsy (Roma) families hanging out in front of their apartments.

I was getting hypoglycemic from all the walking, and pretty sleepy after a long day, so Thierry stopped at a small restaurant where I ordered a sandwich and Orangina, and we took a break. We headed back to his apartment after that.

His girlfriend Corinne soon returned after we got home, and we sat in the living area, eating carrot cole slaw, fresh baguettes, white cheese, rotisserie chicken, red wine, and peaches. Corinne, too, loved long walks along the Camino de Santiago, and was taking a month off in September to walk alone. Both Thierry and Corrine had been divorced and had grown children, and they were starting life anew together. I loved watching them together, the easy way they interacted and seemed to accept each other. It struck me, going through my own divorce, how so much we took for granted and so seriously when we were younger, either held more preciousness, or else no longer mattered now.

It was difficult communicating when my French wasn’t good enough to get to detailed in the conversation, or their English only rudimentary so they couldn’t express what they wanted to share with me, but the interaction was rich enough for all of us to get a good idea about who we were and what we had experienced. Thierry was excited about showing me photos of his long walk through Romania the year before, so we sat at his computer poring through the photos, squinting at GPS waypointed maps, and talked about his ultralight equipment. The trip through Romania intrigued me, because Thierry simply followed the lay of the land and walked north, through some pretty dry and remote country. I had never thought about or been exposed to images of Romania, so it came as a surprise that it was a big, flat, dusty plain, much like the American desert West. That he had taken off across that, alone, without even assurance that he could find water, gave me new insight into a man I’d only known online. Here was a real, modern-day adventurer with an old spirit.

Thierry At The Bar
Thierry ordering a sip for himself and an Orangina for the hypoglycaemic me.

__________________

Dawn crept through the wooden lattice window shade after a long night fighting the slowly collapsing air mattress that Thierry and Corinne had set out for me on their study floor. It was 4:30 and only an hour left before Thierry would drive me to the nearby city of Pau, where I would catch the train to Lourdes, and from there take the bus to Gavarnie in the Park National de Pyrenees. I’d be skipping over a long stretch of the GR10 trail and do the last leg of my original hiking plan. I felt a mix of shame and relief, surer this time of my ability to handle the rigors of the walk. The apartment was still dark when I tiptoed into the living room and got my pack ready.

Thierry and Corinne soon blearily stumbled into the living room, and we sat at the dining table to drink coffee and eat rolls with jam and honey laced white cheese. We spoke of heading off on a new trail, and of meeting again. Then Thierry and I were off, throwing my pack into the back of the car and zooming along the deserted streets as the sun threw golden bars of light across the fields and roads. Mist still hung over the groves, and the road stretched straight ahead, like the hope I first had in imagining this journey.

Thierry and I said our good-byes at the train station gate in the offhand, slightly embarrassed way men tend to do, but with a genuine affection of a newfound friendship. I could see the envy in Thierry’s eyes as I hefted my pack and waved back. He pulled a hand out of his pocket and waved back.

“Thank you,” I called out. He smiled and called back, “Bon chance!” He turned on his heel and was off to work.

Sunlight bathed the platform so that the ground and sky seemed insubstantial. Time seemed to vanish and it was no one but me and silent doves winging through the shining mist. I closed my eyes and felt the warmth of the sun on my face. When I opened my eyes the train had pulled in and waited like some breathing beast, champing at the bit and snorting. There was nothing for it, but to jump on and let the beast take me away, riding on a great, mountain swathed whim.

Leaving Lescun
Leaving the valley overlooking Lescun.
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
Exercise Health Journal

The Strength Within

Ever since high school where many of the all-male students used to test each other’s maleness by beating up the weaker students and competing in he-man sports like wrestling and basketball (the most popular and highly funded sports in the school) to bolster up an image of glory and dominance, I’ve disliked, even hated, sports that emphasized one person’s preeminence over another. I’ve steered away from gyms where the odor of male sweat and the sight of men sizing up one another both intimidated me and made me feel scornful. And, after, the bench-warming days of the high-school soccer team, where winning the matches played a more important role in the existence of the team than the enjoyment and participation of the sport that every team member had signed up for, I have rarely gone to mass spectator games or found much interest in the super-hero athletes that so many boys get all starry-eyed over. All of it was annoying and pointless, with too much weighted toward crooning over men who spend their lives kicking or throwing a ball, rather than giving equal respect and praise toward those who might prefer to use their minds. I have nothing against people who do amazing things with their bodies and take care of their health in a balanced way; I just have little patience for people who spend too much time thinking about winning and losing.

I guess these are some reasons why, ever since I can remember, the equally physically demanding sports like hiking and mountain climbing, bicycle touring, and kayak touring have always held such great appeal to me. They don’t require that you compete against anyone but yourself, and they rarely come with rewards other than the accomplishment of reaching a peak or simply being immersed in the elements, feeling alive. I still have high school classmates who snicker when I tell them I love backpacking, thinking that what I do is somehow not cool or that it is wimpy. But that’s the thing about such activities: I have nothing to prove to anyone. And so their comments slide off, sounding silly and ignorant. I doubt most of those former classmates could keep up with me on the hills.

Over the last few years I’ve let my body run down, though, and for the first time in my life I’ve gained weight. This is due mainly to the amount of insulin I have to take, which causes me to gain weight even on modest amounts of food. With my desk job and distance from the mountains (the nearest mountains are two and a half hours away by express train and those are not even the real mountains I love walking in… it takes me at least four hours to go to the bases of the nearest higher peaks and about six or seven hours to the places I’m most interested in… all of which makes it hard to get out to where I want to be on the weekends, especially since I’ve still got to climb those slopes!) it is harder now to get the mountain training I need, but I’ve also slacked off from sheer laziness. Depression had me lying about too much, getting soft.

Back in January, though, I, and some of my university colleagues, got together to learn and train with Crossfit, a training regimen that focuses on all-around fitness by concentrating on intense, short workouts that vary day-to-day, and are scaled according to one’s level of fitness and abilities. It is quite demanding and never easy, but the results have been astonishing. My muscles have grown and the strength of my twenties is slowly returning (though recovery is taking considerably longer). I surprised myself the other day by being able to do 53 pull ups without overly straining myself. And last Sunday I did a 10 kilometer run during which the old rolling, smooth glide over the ground, where my legs feel as if I am flying without gravity, something that I hadn’t felt since 1997 when I used to run every day, returned. The fat has yet to really come off, but that is only a matter of time. When I visited my diabetes doctor last month she announced that my blood hemoglobin (the measure of the severity of the diabetes, with 6 being normal and 10 to 12, which I had been at for over seven years, being close to dangerous) was better than it had been in seven years. At this rate I will be able to scale the more difficult peaks this summer, something I had almost given up on in the last few years.

The funny thing is, I enjoy heading to the gym now. Having those young, annoyingly fit judo fighters and gymnasts from the university pumping weights alongside me no longer bothers me. For the first time I see their world a little bit more from their point of view, and it isn’t so different from mine. Maybe it’s just Crossfit, which discourages too much competitive comparison with others, or maybe it’s because I feel stronger and competent enough to challenge those youngsters should I desire to.

Whatever the reason, it’s just good to be in shape and feeling good about my body. If only they had taught this back in high school!

Categories
Hiking Journal Outdoors Trip Reports: Hiking

Leafy Days

Aizukoma Beech
Beech tree on Aizu-Komagatake making the first nod towards winter.

It wasn’t all rain over the last two months. A few intermissions did manage to part the curtain of rain. Two days walking in the Aizu region north of Tokyo that I have rarely visited surrounded me with the kind of glowing green and yellow screens of leaves that I’ve been longing for all summer. It was quite a surprising area actually, a locale covered with a kind of corrugated blanket of hillocks and flat-bottomed vales which kept the scale of development down by the sheer privacy of separated valleys, sort of like an overturned egg carton. The train snaked through these valleys as if entering from room to room, and each room seemed more isolated than the one before, until, when I arrived at Aizu-Kougen station, I felt as if I had time-warped into a Japan of thirty years ago: a station built of wood, a station master standing by the ticket gate waiting to greet each passenger individually with a big, gold-toothed smile, and a bus stop out front that seemed to dissipate into a rice paddy.

The bus took another two hours to carry me beyond the reach of the trains into an unspoiled rural farming community that seems to have been largely lost throughout most of the rest of Japan. Just the evidence of the old trees preserved along the roadsides and the hand-made way people hung bright orange persimmons to dry under the great eaves of their houses or stacked rice stalks and rushes in cylindrical bales in the fields brought back images of organic connection rural people used to live by in older Japan. The rivers and streams rushing by along the sides of the roads, frothing with whitewater after all the rains, held a kind of icy blue light that could only come from pristine mountain sources.

It was too late to climb the first day so I found a roadside campground and set up my tarp way back among a stand of willows, beside a vagetable garden of lettuce, tomatoes, daikon radishes, and eggplants that the camp proprietor kept for his family. Darkness descended like a hammer; no sooner had I turned off the stove and sat back to sip my tea, than I could no longer make out the forest starting at the edge of the camp. The mountains surrounding the valley loomed into the sky like the black backs of huge, sleeping beasts. I sat a long time at the entrance to the tarp, looking up at the sky. Stars began to appear, with intermittent hands of clouds passing in front of them, leaving patches of blindness in the vast expanse. Sirius shone like a bright eye for a while, looking down at me and unblinking until the clouds won over and the sky ducked behind the gases.

Rain began pattering the tarp during the night, waking me from dreams of the baking red rocks of Australia. I lay in the dark listening to the tapping until it lulled me back into my dreams.

Dawn was a veil of mist that entered the confines of my tarp and hung over the slowly breathing earth like a poised egret, its grey net almost indistinguishable from the grey shield of my tarp. I sat up, brushing my head against the dew-laden under-surface of the tarp, and the chill of the water droplets shocked me to full waking. I rolled up my sleeping bag, stuffed away the unused clothes, and set a pot of water to boil. Breakfast consisted of the ubiquitous cold granola, its sweetness cloying in the watery green tea of morning. I promised myself to find a new meal to start the days with, something more akin to the chlorophyll and meat of the mountains.

By the time the tarp was rolled up and stuffed away and my pack hoisted on my back fat missiles of rain again sent the world into a repeat of the white noise of rainfall that had been overwhelming most of the last three months. I strode along the road to the trailhead and started up along the flank of Aizu-Komagatake, whose summit was lost in the clouds up above.

Two weeks of course made little difference in the state of my body and the going, like my last trip, was tough, despite a lighter pack. First I felt the drag on my muscles up the steep climb, and soon after could feel the peculiar heaviness in my bones, clutching of my brain, and derailing blurriness in my eyes that signal the onslaught of low blood sugar from my diabetes. It was a surprise because I had eaten my usual dose of heavy granola and the granola, with its relatively low glycemic burnout, usually kept me going for hours. Instead I collapsed on a log and chewed on an energy bar until my eyesight cleared and my muscles could spring up again. Several other hikers passed by, all offering much too cheerful greetings for my current state and I could only feebly wave back at them. One Japanese man, speaking in uncharacteristically well-pronounced English, boomed. “Hey, you going up or coming down?”

“Not sure yet,” I replied.

“Well, it’s a good place to think about it,” he said and kept on.

The sun suddenly broke through the canopy and inundated the whole world in green and autumn yellow brilliance. All my discomfort evaporated. I sat up and gazed around and felt the backboards of my eyes burn with new heat. That sense of being cloaked by your surroundings bloomed along the hairs of my skin, what the Japanese call shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing”, and from that moment the old terminus of my love for the natural world kicked in; I forgot myself and instead ran on the heat in my eyes, all at once feeling the world with all my senses as if they were one beating sense and I were just an organ acting to give these senses expression.

Invigorated and filled with renewed joy I started up the trail again and took my time to climb while at the same time stopping now and then to just absorb it all. The huge beeches had begun to turn cadmium yellow while around them Japanese maple, rowan, and lacquer vines blushed bright red. The higher I climbed the brighter the world seemed to grow. When the forest finally broke and the first view out across the mountains caught me by surprise, I was ready to run and jump and click my heels.

The mountains breathed clouds like hirsute gentlemen walruses lounging in a huge steaming pile, smoking pipes and puffing smoke. All around the clouds rose from the ravines and valleys, climbing with a gentle unconcern toward the sky. Ravens flapped through them, and called across the treetops. I couldn’t stop taking photographs. Every other step had me halting to peer into a bush or fingering some tree bark or nosing up close to a mushroom. I tried to capture the glow of sunlight through the translucency of a yellow leaf, but the camera couldn’t capture the ineffability of touch and ephemerality. In frustration I lingered longer and longer at each investigation, until the sun had climbed quite high in the sky. How to express the expansion in my lungs or the intuitiveness of spreading my fingers and discovering in them the completeness of the stillness of a tree’s life as it spread in glory above me? How to rein in time so that I could exist out here without being a stranger or an intruder? How to step so lightly that my passage is the the brush of the wind or the trajectory of a falling leaf? How to come home and so sink in that I am indistinguishable from the mountain and the forest?

So much time I spent lingering that the halfway point at which I had to turn back came and went. I missed my chance to gain the mountain’s summit. I could see the summit just fifteen minutes away. But that would mean a half hour round trip and if I took it I would miss the bus going home. Warring emotions had me wasting more time until I forced myself to turn away and head back down. I passed all the spots I had stopped at along the way up, sometimes seeing them in the different light of the opposite direction. The intensity of the light also reversed as I descended. Like coming down from the roof. Step by step the rocks and roots slipped behind me until I reached the base of the mountain again and stood on the road, all semblance to joy replaced by asphalt and passing cars and signs. The asphalt always felt too still and level, and that nagging self began to speak again, telling me that I needed to make something of myself, finish projects, redefine the me that stood separate from the world it lives in. It was safe and warm and nourishing here, but I always forget who I am here. My body seems to lose justification for why it is formed the way it is, eyes and legs seemingly irrelevant now.

I headed home on the bus, then the train. WIth another mountain slumbering and unassaulted behind, speaking alone to the oncoming skirt of winter. When next I come this way white might be the color of choice.