Categories
Hiking Japan: Living Journal Nagano Outdoors Ultralight Backpacking

Wind and Snow

Yatsugatake Windblown Hill

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

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

Yatsugatake Underbrush
Yatsugatake Looking Back

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

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

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

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

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

“Really?” I pause. “Really???”

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

I nod.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yatsugatake Winter BPL Fans
Yatsugatake Track
Yatsugatake Krummholz

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

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

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

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

Yatsugatake Shadows
Mugikusa Heat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He nods and smiles, not knowing what to say.

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

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

Comet Over Mugikusa

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mugikusa Clan
Yatsugatake Snowshoeing

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

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

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

Yatsugatake Snowfield Trees
Yatsugatake Windswept Sasa

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

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

Winter Yatsugatake Hare Tracks and Table
Categories
Drawings Sketchbook

The Absurdity of Obsession

After you’ve been poking around the ultralight backpacking world for a while sometimes the lengths we take to get our gear as light as possible stretches to the verge of madness…

No Stakes Tarping

Loathe to carry the weight of stakes, we prostrate ourselves for the sake of a few grams.

Inside Out Camping

Enjoying the great outdoors from the comfort of your own home.

Spreading UL

Trying to convince the uninitiated about the benefits of going light!

Categories
Hiking Japan: Living Journal Shizuoka Ultralight Backpacking Walking

Pouring Rain

Takazasu Hill

I stood at the entrance to the train station staring out at the weather. The town dropped down into the grey swirl of low clouds and seemed to hold tight against the wash of cold rain. Streams ran along the street and what few people had left the warmth of their homes hunched their jackets against the chill, trotting along the sidewalks to reach the station and get out of the wetness. The freezing wind howled at the opening to the station and buffeted me, urging me back inside. None of the mountains in the distance allowed themselves to be seen and I was sorely tempted to just turn around and head right back into the heated compartment of the train. The prospect of even one night holed up in a drafty tarptent, alone in the dark of the night time winter woods while the rain pounded away all around me just wasn’t my idea of a good time. I kept remembering waking up in the puffy comfort of my bed before dawn and lying there shaking my head at the strange things that I do for kicks. Who in their right mind wakes up during the hours of the dead to go walking on some windblown ridge?

My pack was light, the lightest I’ve ever gotten it for a several-day winter hike with camping, lighter even than the pack I used in the summer Alps last year. I worried that maybe it was too light, that I might spend the night shivering while snow came drifting down to laugh at me. But I’d checked and re-checked everything to make sure I had gotten it right and, in my head at least, I knew that I should be fine. But as these things always go, it’s one thing to theorize about something, quite another to actually get out there and raise your glass to the elements and make a toast. Weather has an upsetting habit of not respecting theories. Or toasts, for that matter.

Takazasu Tree

I spied the blond-haired adventurer deep in consultation with the local tourist information center lady. I knew he was an adventurer because he wore nothing but running shoes, a pair of navy blue training pants, a navy blue wind shirt and on his back a tiny backpack. Only adventurers challenge such winter weather with nothing by a thin film of nylon. He leaned over the tourist information center counter for an inordinately long time, so long I began to wonder if he was able to speak Japanese. The lady behind the counter seemed a bit piqued as she attempted to make head or tails of what he was saying. When they both looked stumped I stepped up and asked if they needed any help.

“Yes, that would really save me!” exclaimed the adventurer in a heavy French accent. “Hi my name is Eric!”

“Miguel.”

“I’m from Canada and this is my third day here. Three times I’ve tried to climb Mt. Fuji, but no luck.”

“Climb Mt. Fuji?” I stared at his outfit, from head to toe. “In winter?”

“Yes. It rained the first two days and I had to turn back. Yesterday I made it to 3,130 meters, but the snow got up to my chest and I couldn’t go any further. A Norwegian guy ahead of me was able to continue on. I only have a week left in Japan and I’m determined to climb Mt. Fuji before I leave.”

Unidentified Sitting Moth

“Not to doubt your determination, Eric, but are you sure you are prepared for Mt. Fuji? It’s a very dangerous mountain in winter if you don’t know what you are doing or have the right equipment. Every year people die on it in the winter. It’s extremely cold up there, plus some people have to worry about altitude sickness at that elevation.”

Eric hugged his chest and shivered in the wind as raindrops dripped off his chin. “It’s really okay! I’m from Quebec, I’m used to the cold!”

Concerned, I indicated his clothes. “Are you climbing in those clothes?”

“Yes! I work for UPS! You like the pants?” He laughed. “I need to buy some boots before I try Fuji again. You know where I can buy some cheap boots?”

We spoke a while about prospects for a sports shop in this area. I used to live near here and knew of nothing that might get him better geared up. Eric’s shivering got worse, so I showed him into the heated waiting room inside the station. I always wonder what to do in a situation when I meet someone about to head into a dangerous situation, but who doesn’t really understand what they are getting themselves into. I don’t want to push my worries on them, but also don’t want them to do something they will regret. While we spoke a local elderly man came up to us and asked me where we were going. I pointed out into the rain, at where the West Tanzawa range was supposed to be looming. Eric hit his chest with a big smile, “Mt. Fuji!”

The man glanced out in the direction of the mountains where I was planning to go and shook his head. “All those mountains look the same after a while. Pretty boring, don’t you think?” He turned to Eric and grinned. “Fuji! Really! I used to take care of one of the mountain huts at the ninth station. Mt. Fuji, eh? In winter! You have to be careful!”

Eric hit his chest again. “Don’t worry! I’m fine! I’m from Quebec!”

“What did he say?” asked the old man.

Fuji Bright

I missed my bus while talking to the two Fuji aficionados. While they attempted to communicate with one another about Fuji conditions I went to check on the weather again. A lightness had made its way into the grey billows of the clouds and it looked as if at least the rain might let up a little. Eric had decided to head back 400 kilometers west to Osaka for the night and would attempt Mt. Fuji again the next day if the weather improved. Since he was taking the bus over the pass where I hoped to start my walk I decided to join him and talk a bit more. It was good to have company before heading out into the cold. At the very least I hoped to spark at least a bit of curiosity in Eric over my own adventure. Nothing doing; Fuji was imprinted in his Quebecois mind.

Eric had never in his life climbed a mountain before. “You said you’ve been to Montreal, yes?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“What is the highest land form you saw there?”

“Er, Mount Royal?”

“That’s right! No mountains! I never even saw a mountain before I came to Japan!” He laughed contentedly to himself, as if that was sufficient explanation for his attempting Mt. Fuji.

“We Quebecois are really tough! Much tougher than those slouches from Montreal! When we were fighting against the British it was the Montrealers who surrendered, but not us! We stuck it out to the end!” He grinned at me and snorted. “So you see, that’s why I came to Japan, the land of the samurai!” He folded his arms and laughed effortlessly.

From Takazasu

We parted at the junction between Lake Yamanaka and Kagosaka Pass. The rain had stopped and already signs of the sun had broken through the clouds. The west foothills of the Tanzawa range rose to the east, heading up into the still watery grey clouds.

“You’re a good luck charm, Eric,” I told him. “I wish you good luck on Mt. Fuji. Please do be careful and don’t take the mountain lightly.”

He waved from the bus, still smiling. “Don’t worry about me. I’m…”

“I know. You’re from Quebec!”

“That’s right! Don’t forget it!”

The bus pulled away and I was alone again with the weather. I started walking. With each step the clouds opened a bit more and by the early afternoon I had taken off my rain jacket and was sweating in spring sunshine. Lake Yamanaka dropped away behind me and the sky stepped back to welcome me into the folds of the ridges.

The One Nishi Tanzawa
Categories
Blogging Journal Ultralight Backpacking Walking

Mad World

I am in the midst of researching how to create a magazine-style blog and will be moving Laughing Knees over to a new server, possibly on new blog software (I’m using WordPress and like it, so may stay with that, but I am also looking at TextPattern, Nucleus CMS, BlogCMS, B2Evolution, and Expression Engine… If I can get the multiple blogs showcased on the front page feature of WordPress working, then WordPress will probably be where I’ll stay, mainly because I’m familiar with it and it is very well supported, but setting up my idea for the site design with one of the other platforms is in many ways much more straightforward and easier, so we’ll see. I like Expression Engine the best of all these platforms, but if I am going to move on to including a few commercial things on the site… I want to sell some published things like books, illustrations, and higher quality photographs… then Expression Engine can be quite expensive initially. But it may be worth it. I tried out TextPattern for Laughing Knees for a while, but the development is so slow that it doesn’t seem to be keeping up with what is going on. I don’t want to spend all my time coding things. I used to do that, but I just don’t have the time or will any more. Though, TextPattern is truly elegant….

It will be good to get the blog settled in one place with a server that I like and to finally start moving on with the other ideas ideas I’ve always had for the site, like fictional stories, essays, photos, illustrations and cartoons, tutorials, a few concentrations on some of my hobbies, like ultralight backpacking, bicycle travel, photography, books, ecological housing and communities, and wildlife, all of which I’d like to write up more static, permanent pages for. I’d even like to record many of the songs I’ve written and sung so that people can listen to them. All of it takes time, of course. But I’m slowly getting there.

Mariposa Plus

I will continue the photo series of my Europe trip soon. I just finished a long stint with tests and class preparations recently so I’ve not had much time outside of school beyond stumbling back home, heating up some soup, and falling into bed. Tomorrow I, finally, get to leave the area and go on a two-day hike, to celebrate my birthday (Nov. 26, 1960… erm, no I am NOT crying out for attention!!!), and try out my new and long-awaited Mariposa Plus backpack.
After years of spending and wasting money on lots of other more expensive, heavier, and ultimately unsatisfactory packs, the one that originally caught my eye, but which I shunned for the fancier stuff, finally came home. Trying it out three weeks ago and packing it on and off with different loads for different seasons and different climates and terrain, I think I’ve finally found the pack that does exactly what I want a pack to do, basically meaning that it holds my light selection of gear and disappears on my back without calling attention to itself. I think I’ve gotten most of my other gear pretty much worked out, including switching, for most walks, over to a tiny, woodburning stove that will eliminate the need for carrying gas cannisters and allow me to learn more about making fires while at the same time being environmentally safe, a pair of sturdy, but light hiking shoes with more thickness in the insole than the shoes I used in the Alps this summer, which caused quite a lot of swelling and pain on the rocky descents, and reverting, from the miserably cold and wet film of plastic of my expensive Montane Superfly to the heavier, but more protective and reliable Paramo Cascada jacket. Sometimes lighter isn’t always better. And sometimes it’s nice to just wrap up inside something warm and dry, no matter how heavy it is. And I guess I’m just tired of spending so much time thinking about gear all the time rather than being out there actually walking and losing myself in the woods. After all, I didn’t start going for those long walks all those years ago so that I could get wrapped up in what I was walking in; I went out there because I forgot all that. There were times when I’d emerge from the woods and stand there blinking in surprise, wondering where I had stepped out into.

Of course, a lot of what all this concentration on going lighter has to do with is being able to go encumbered, and that is thanks to the evolution of my gear selection and hiking and camping techniques, along with a quantum shift in how I approach being outdoors, ever since I read Ray Jardin’s “The Pacific Crest Trail Hiker’s Handbook” and later, his “Beyond Backpacking” and after that discovered the Backpacking Light site and community in its early days of its refreshingly new ideas and a number of other sites, like the now dormant Joe’s Ultralight Backpacking”. Walking with camping gear is actually fun now, no longer a burden and source of agony. The only thing that keeps me from truly enjoying the climbs and descents is being out of shape. If I work on that, well, there are a lot of mountain trails I want to explore!

From this point bushcraft seems like the likely step for my evolution, learning to go even simpler and discovering further what it means to live close to the elements. Of course, I want to balance this with a healthy understanding that with all our billions on the planet it is no longer responsible to go around chopping down trees and killing animals for sport. But there is something about knowing exactly where your food comes from and why animals behave the way they do in different environments and that you will be all right if your lightweight pack actually does fall off the side of the cliff (something that actually happened while I sat eating lunch with a friend… one moment we were sharing a tangerine, the next, his pack had disappeared in the clouds below) that calls to me and seems to remind me of what it means to be alive and why we have these brains in our heads and noses on our faces and hands on our arms. Whenever I see videos of the Inuit going hunting or the Saan discovering a buried gourd for drinking water, I just have to think how ignorant the rest of us are about basic needs.

I often wonder if the simple test of having to find food for the day, of having to concentrate on survival rather than how to screw your neighbor, brings people together more than other way of life possibly can, simply because we cannot survive alone. Maybe that is why I love the mountains so much; up there you are definitely not in charge. You have to give way and watch yourself, you have to make sure your partners are all right, you have to rein in your ego and do your best to get companions to share and cooperate. Coming back from a difficult mountain trip always humbles me, and all the crap of jockeying for recognition in a company, of people scrabbling to tell other people what to do, of accumulating too many belongings, of constantly being sullen or apathetic or lazy or inconsiderate all come across as alarmingly anti-life. I don’t know how close I can get to living with less and learning to get along better with people, but I want to at least try. It’s part of what will help us survive in the mess we’ve created.

Categories
Europe: Travel Hiking Journal Mont Blanc: Travel Travel

Alpine Journey 8: Glacial Creep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Europe: Travel Hiking Journal Mont Blanc: Travel Travel Ultralight Backpacking Walking

Alpine Journey 7: Memories of People I Love

Arrived in Champex this evening tuckered out from a harder climb than I had anticipated. Most of the early part of the walk wound through little hamlets with mazes of streets and crooked, weathered chalets that looked as if they had been standing there for several hundred years. Until now it was probably the most beautiful and cultural immersed portion of the walk, giving me a real sense of what the old Alps must once have been like. I wish I could see it in winter.

Don’t have time to write a lot right now, but during the last climb of the day I came upon a valley that so looked like what my grandfather used to take me walking to when I was a boy that all sorts of memories of my childhood in Germany, of relatives who died, like my grandparents and last year my aunt, from diabetic complications, that upon arriving in Champex and the still lake there with its tourist boats and little pensions, I almost broke down crying in the restaurant. I guess loneliness of the walk is getting to me… though I’ve met a lot of wonderful people, nothing really longer than a few hours, then I’m on my own again. In the restaurant a group of other walkers sat together relating the day’s experiences and it was hard just sitting there looking out at the lake with all those memories coming unasked. I closed my eyes for a while after drinking my coffee and wished each of my loved ones well, hoping everyone was peaceful and happy and not lonely anywhere.

The fight to keep your composure and make it through these trying moments is part of such a walk, of course. I hope I can make the walk something really worthwhile.

Wishing you all good night.

Categories
Europe: Travel Hiking Journal Mont Blanc: Travel Travel Ultralight Backpacking Walking

Alpine Journey 1: Tentative Alps Gear List

Too Heavy

This probably won’t make much sense to those who don’t do backpacking, particularly ultralight backpacking, but for anyone who does, you might have some idea just how passionate (or perhaps obsessive?) people can get about their gear. For those who do “ultralight backpacking”, weight in particular plays a heavy role in helping one decide what to bring. Ultralight backpacking aims to pare everything down to the bare essentials, ideally leaving everything out that is not absolutely necessary to bring, sometimes even down to the surplus edges of maps or the unused portion of the bottom of a sleeping bag. The idea is that all the extras add up, making for tiring weight that you have to lug up and down the mountains. Lighter materials are used, running shoes instead of boots, tarps instead of tents, alternative and new ways of combining clothes so that you retain the necessary measure of safety, but eliminate what comes to dead weight. I’ve brought my pack down to a base weight (not including food, water, and fuel, which also add up) of about 5 kg. Just compare that to my base pack weight of about 15 kg in years gone by. Even the pack is smaller, a frameless sack of a thing with simple shoulder straps that looks like a large daypack when I’m on the trail. Those on the trail who see me and who haven’t heard of UL always gawk at me when I tell them I’m on a five-day hike or so. It’s taken years to learn about and gather the gear for this (I taught myself to sew and have made a few tarps, tents, hammocks, and packs) and to learn the methods for how to use it, but it is so much fun! I’m hoping the trip in the Alps will teach me more about how to get out there as simply and unencumbered as possible.

Here’s my tentative gear list, for those interested:

Pack:

  • GoLite Jam2 or possibly the newly acquired Backpacking Light Arctic Pack
  • Home-made silnylon pack liner

Shelter and Sleeping:

  • Gossamer Gear SpinnShelter (a feathery light tarp with doors at the ends, made of spinnaker sailcloth) or possibly the Hilleberg Akto, if I just don’t have the confidence in my abilities to take such a light shelter up into the alpine regions.
  • Titanium Goat Adjustable Hiking Poles (carbon fibre, extremely lightweight hiking poles). Will of course also use one of these for walking (I don’t like walking with poles very much, though they have often done a lot to help me when my bad knees start hurting)
  • Bozeman Mountain Works Vapr Bivy (a featherweight, very breathable bivy bag that will add a great measure of safety and protection to the tarp setup)
  • Artiach Light Plus Closed Cell Ground Mat, 3/4 length (only 75 g!!!)
  • 12 titanium skewer stakes (4 for the bivy)
  • MontBell UL Superstretch Alpine Downhugger #3 Sleeping Bag (wanted to get a Nunatak quilt, but don’t have the money)
  • Isuka Comfortable Pillow (an inflatable, insulated pillow, which is slightly heavier than the MontBell UL System Pillow, but so much more comfortable and warm. I’ll use it on the plane, too)
  • MontBell Fisherman’s Thermawrap Jacket (will act as part of the sleeping system, and also my warm jacket for camp and breaks along the trail)
  • Extra pair of socks to keep my feet warm on cold nights and to change every other day after washing the pair I walked in that day.

Clothing, worn:

  • Patagonia Trim Brim Hat (wide brim sun… and rain… hat)
  • MontBell Superfine Merino Wool Short Sleeve Undershirt
  • Lightweight polyester running shorts
  • Mammut Courmayeur Pants (will usually roll them up to the knees to act as breeches)
  • Bridgedale shortie crosscountry running socks
  • GoLite Spike Tail trail running shoes
  • Simple, solar powered analog watch
  • MontBell Quickdry Towel (will use to wipe sweat while walking, as a regular towel for washing, but also to act as a collar for my crewneck undershirt)

Clothing, carried:

  • Aforementioned MontBell Fisherman’s Thermawrap Jacket
  • Finetrack Breezewrap Jacket (windbreaker, one of my most important pieces of gear, to give extra warmth while moving, to block wind, to stop rain to a certain extent, to act as a second layer shirt, to add warmth to my sleep system if necessary)
  • Finetrack Floodrush Tights (very water resistant and light, these add extra warmth to the legs, both while walking and while sleeping)
  • Paramo Cascada Jacket (I’m still debating whether to take this rather heavy, but very versatile, supple rain jacket or my much lighter Montane Superfly Jacket… they both have advantages and disadvantages. Another advantage of the Paramo jacket is that I can wear it in the city and not look too much like a mountain climber, plus, because it has a thin liner inside, and is more like a shirt with waterproof properties, it can worn most of the time, including as part of the sleeping system, and have the sleeves rolled up for ventilation)
  • Turtle Fur fleece tuke
  • Patagonia Bunting Fingerless gloves (I do a lot of photography and sketching and I need my fingertips to be free to manipulate the equipment. These are twenty years old. Have never found anything like them since)
  • Extra pair of socks
  • Underpants (for traveling)
  • Light cotton/ polyester trousers (for traveling)
  • Bandana

Cooking and Water

  • Snowpeak Gigapower Stove (inside pot)
  • Snowpeak gas cannister (to be bought once I reach Zurich)
  • Foil and plastic cardboard windscreen
  • Evernew .9 liter titanium pot, with stuff sack (I use the lid/ bowl that comes with it. Others may like the lightness of an aluminum foil lid, but when I eat I prefer to have my food all at once in several containers rather than digging in my pot all the time)
  • Light plastic cup (many people think this item unnecessary, but I like to drink my tea while the water for the meal is boiling. I can also eat soup while keeping my main dish in the pot)
  • Bamboo spoon (very lightweight and strong. Stronger and stiffer than a lexan spoon, and lighter than a titanium spoon. Also the feel of the material and the knowledge that it is a natural and recyclable item adds to its beauty)
  • Bamboo chopsticks (so many things can be done with this item while cooking and eating)
  • Bic lighter and film cannister with matches
  • Sponge with small bottle of Brunner’s Soap (the Brunner’s Soap can be used for cleaning dishes, brushing teeth, washing out mouth and hands, taking a hand towel bath, etc)
  • Stuff sack for food (enough for five days worth of food. A little tougher than my other stuff sacks because of the sharp edges of plastic containers and the weight of the food)

Essential Items

  • Classic Swiss Army Knife (a tiny knife with only a knife blade, a pair of scissors, a toothpick… rather useless most of the time… and a pair of tweezers… which have never really worked for me. I may remove the tweezers and toothpick and possibly the red plastic cover to the knife)
  • 15m length of EVC spectra core cord (not the absolute lightest, but has good grip and is very strong)
  • Whistle (part of the sternum strap buckles)
  • National BF-198B LED Headlight (tiny Japanese 3 LED light that uses a single CR2 lithium battery. Simple, uncomplicated, and lasts forever. Doesn’t have the longest throw of beam, but is good enough for the walking that I do. I will most likely use it mostly for reading in the tent at night and occasionally for dawn or evening walking. It is designed to be adjustable so that you can hang it from your neck and you gain the advantge of light cast from below your eye level, much better for distinguishing shadows on the ground)
  • First aid kit (small, with just basic essentials like bandages, antibiotic cream, ibuprofin, superglue… for closing wounds, which is what superglue was originally designed for…I could use African soldier ants, but I have a feeling they’re somewhat uncommon in the Alps…, sleeping pills… for when the ground seems hard and uncomfortable… earplugs, for those awful times when I have to sleep in a room with snorers. Still have to research other items necessary)
  • Repair kit (duct tape, tiny sewing kit, vulcanizing glue and fabric patches for slippery silnylon fabric)
  • Toiletry kit (shaving oil with small razor, Dr. Bronners Castile Soap… for brushing teeth, washing up, cleaning dishes, washing hands, etc… child’s toothbrush, toothbrush with the handle cut off to act as a fingernail brush, credit-card-sized, very light mirror… can perhaps also be used as a signalling mirror in an emergency, roll of toilet paper with spool removed, wide titanium stake that can also be used for digging when going to the toilet)
  • Diabetes kit (perhaps the item I am most concerned about and which I must protect at all costs. Insulin, needles, blood glucose meter, blood strips, log book, copy of diabetes identity card, emergency glucose)
  • Documents (passport, health insurance card, money, credit cards, diabetes identity card, plane tickets, youth hostel card)
  • Maps (the trails are too long and too many to carry all the maps available. Will buy a general overview map of the Mont Blanc and Matterhorn area and get more detailed maps along the way)

Miscellaneous

  • Camera* (I will be spending a lot of time taking photographs and I want the best control I can have with them, so I am taking my heavy Nikon D70s with Nikon 18-200 VR lens. The VR lens allows me to do away with a tripod in most situations and keep the kit relatively light by only having a lens that covers a good range of angles)
  • Extra lithium batteries and (perhaps) charger
  • 2 x 2 gigabyte CF cards for the great number of photos I will take
  • (possibly) 30 GB iPod Video, partly to download and store my photos, partly for listening to music, partly to upload and store podcasts for listening to at night in the tent. Not really sure yet on this one. I haven’t bought it and it is expensive.
  • Sketchbook* (very important. I write entries every night and do a lot of sketches and cartoons to go along with the writing. I value this even more than my camera)
  • Watercolor set* (small traveling kit with palette, paints, brush, pencil, and pen)
  • Book* (those hours on the plane can be very long, as well the hours in hotels and airports. One book will just not be enough for a month, though. I am thinking of bringing Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire”, one of my favorite books, to read once again. Any suggestions, anyeone? Just can’t be too big. I have to carry it and I’m trying to keep the weight way down)
  • (possibly) Pocket Mail device (so I can stay in touch with family and friends. Again costs money and adds more weight. It also would probably distract me from my journal. On the other hand it would allow me to write post entries here on my blog)
  • Snufkin figurine (Snufkin, my hero since I was a boy, from Tove Jansson’s “Moomintroll” books series, represents part of how I view and would like to live my life. One of my favorite fictional characters)

The camera and lens, book, notebook, sketchbook, watercolor set, and Snufkin figurine are not included in the base pack weight.
______________________

I’m sure there’s more, but it’s late and I’m tired. If there any changes I’ll add them later. It seems like a lot of stuff, but most of them are very small or very light. My pack should be no more than about 40 liters without food, 50 liters with food, except that in the Alps I may only need to carry about one or two days worth of food every day.

Snufkin carried a day pack everywhere. I always wondered how he got his big teepee style tent in there…

Snufkin Walking
Categories
Japan: Living Journal Life In Nature Ultralight Backpacking Walking

Walking In The Plum Rain 2

Blue iris
Iris failing in the evening light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Hiking Journal Outdoors Trip Reports: Hiking Ultralight Backpacking

Autumn Rains

Komorebi Kinpu
Rising mist an hour after a huge rain storm hit my campsite near the summit of Mt. Kinpu during the night.

For more than three months it’s been pouring rain nearly every day throughout Japan. What I had promised myself would be a summer of copious walking along ridges, turned into days in my tent waiting out downpours and a summer washed away with thundering rivers and mountain sides giving way. During my climb of Mt. Kinpu in Chichibu, west of Tokyo, with a precious two-weeks of vacation lined up, I thought perhaps that surely the gods were frowning upon me, seeing that every single weekend since the first green blush of spring brought me up square against a wall of rain. It was as if someone was trying to tell me that there were things left unfinished back home and I had better sort them out before taking the leisure to go traipsing around in the hills.

The Kinpu walk was the first venture out of doors since my big design project ended, and being out of shape from too much computer worship gravity played havoc with my knees and wind. I ended up thirty minutes from the summit in a small clearing of larches and huge, rounded boulders. Most of the larches had been blown clean of their lives so that when darkness fell and no one disturbed the spooky stillness, the skeletons of the trees seemed to close in around me like goblins. I was using my homemade camping hammock set up with a tarp, and though the system worked as I had hoped, personally I just didn’t seem to fit in very well with the cloth wrapped around me like a taco. I ended up lowering everything to the ground and sleeping with my eye cocked up at the voluminous sail of the tarp breathing over me.

Just when I was beginning to relax with the tiny noises, like dripping leaves and creaking branches, and to drift off into slumber, the tarp flexed, then stretched as a wind barreled into camp, followed by a volley of raindrops. Within fifteen minutes the storm was howling overhead among the fingers of the dead trees and the naked rocks outside the copse of trees. Luckily I had picked a good site, with only tendrils of the storm swirling among the tree trunks and a brace of rhododendrons blocking the brunt of the wind. I dragged myself out of the sleeping bag, switched on the white arm of my headlight, and found myself staring into a soup of fog.

The roar of the storm and the ominous swaying of the trees kept me awake the rest of the night. I lay reading Tim Cahill’s “A Wolverine Is Eating My Leg” and stopping to ponder the mentality of those who willfully venture out into such predicaments as the one I was presently engaged in. I mean, there I was, the storm and the dark forest beating down on my courage like a hammer, loneliness enveloping my earlier smirking at the self-sufficiency of my backpack, and worries about the exposed ledges I had to scramble past in the morning nagging at my confidence, and I had to ask myself, “Exactly what pleasure am I getting out of packets of freeze-dried food, a flimsy skin of nylon between me and the gods, and shoes sopping with dew?” As the dawn gradually enlightened me to the true nature of the storm, I huddled in my rain jacket on the log beside my tarp, brewing cafe latte and spooning through cold granola with milk. When a warbler flickered onto a rhododendron branch right beside the tarp, looking for all the world as if I had plundered his backyard, I raised my spoon in greeting, only to be cold-shouldered by a warber’s equivalent of a huff, with which he flitted off into the fog.

I had five days ahead of me, but the storm didn’t let up, rain was pelting down, and the wind was engaged in a wrestling match with the boulders. I broke camp and started heading toward the summit of Mt. Kinpu, but halted in my tracks. I must have stood there for fifteen minutes, undecided, occasionally peering ahead and then glancing back. I took in the grey trees, the ankle deep mud in the path, the tips of the trees bending in the wind, and something inside me drooped. Not today, I told myself. Not while I had doubts.

So I turned back and started down the mountain. The first part had me bracing against the punches of the storm, leaning on my trekking pole as I negotiated the slippery boulders and tangle of tree roots. My rain jacket and windshirt were off by the time I reached the lap of the mountain where I could relax a bit and make a steady descent. I stopped beside a hoary old larch to pack away the rainwear when, like opening a package, sunlight sliced through the clouds and inundated the forest with the first bright light in days. It was like steaming gold. I stood transfixed, as if a tight shirt had popped open, before I could gather my wits and fumble my camera out of its bag. Streams of sunlight cast through the branches. And I was breathing with each breach in the clouds.

Five hours later I was walking along a logging road sweating from the sun, the sleeves of my t-shirt rolled up, and late summer insects singing beside the road. I looked back and saw Mt. Kinpu lazing away among the summer clouds. Maybe the mountain god, like me, just needed some relief. Whatever the reason, even a short walk like this would prove to remain with me a long, long time.

Categories
Journal Ultralight Backpacking: How To Wellspring

Jettison

Sandpipers San Elijo
Sandpipers feeding along the shore of San Elijo Beach, La Jolla, California, USA. 1984

Lately I’ve been contemplating the need for lightening my load. This is meant in all aspects of my life. The idea first took root three years ago when, upon returning from a five day walk in the North Alps, my knees ached so badly from the enormous weight of my backpack that for nearly six months the nerve at the side of my left knee remained numb. I carried all the “right” equipment: all the stuff that the outdoor magazines had insisted were necessary for a safe and successful spell out in the “dangers” of nature. I was protected out there and instead of relying more on my brain for coping with emergencies and circumstances, I limned myself with all manner of gadgets that would make my time in the wild less stressful.

The funny thing is that in the early days of backpacking, without money to buy unnecessary equipment, I managed just fine to enjoy many of the same places I now enjoy. I spent much less time on my equipment and much more time simply immersing myself in the moments that I had come to experience.

My knee injury got me thinking seriously about what I was carrying and about what I was going out into mountains for in the first place. I came across a book called “The Pacific Crest Trail Hiker’s Handbook”, by Ray Jardine (later rewritten as “Beyond Backpacking”). This book, as it did for a very quickly growing number of other backpackers around the world, literally overnight changed my approach to backpacking, and even to attitudes about how I ought to be living my life daily. The concept behind the book was to create a way to safely and comfortably complete the Pacific Crest Trail, at more than 2,500 miles long one of the longest continuous trails in the world, with the absolute minimum equipment. Ray Jardine and his wife Jenny complete the trail in a record-breaking 4 1/2 months and then again in 3 months 3 weeks, each carrying a backpack not much larger than a day pack, and weighing around 6 to 7 kilos each. Using conventional hiking equipment the average thru-hiker takes six months carrying huge packs that often weigh up to 30 kilos, so these times were impressive.

As suggested in the book and later on a number of websites, I ruthlessly began to go through every inch of my conventional backpacking equipment, cutting out any superfluous item, changing items that were needlessly overweight or large, and trying to come up with ways to make as many items serve dual purposes, such as a hiking pole used as a tent pole at night, or a tarp used as a poncho in the rain while walking, or even getting rid of a redundant down jacket to be replaced by a sleeping bag that I draped over myself when it got really cold.

Such thinking allowed me to reduce my backpacking weight to about 8 or 9 kilos and to carry a pack that barely left me out of breath at the end of the day. Breaking records is not my goal while getting out into the mountains, but walking without the struggle of exhausting weight meant that I could spend time experiencing my surroundings fully.

Recently this philosophy has translated into daily living, too. Over the years while living in Tokyo, and having more money than just after college, the belongs have accumulated in my apartment until now books and outdoor equipment and computer gadgets occupy every corner of the tiny place. I have to step over neat stacks of books around my writing desk in my study. And it’s just getting too much. Trying to keep track of where things are has become a process of digging through piles of notes and files and boxes. Just stuff! Piles and piles of stuff. And what for? It all costs money to accumulate and drags at the carefree trains of thought that allow me to operate with little encumbrance.

My backpack is little more than a loose sack carrying bare essentials now. It is time to apply this thinking to the place I live and to what I plan to do with my life. We are nomads after all.