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
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
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 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.