HAPPY NEW YEAR

JANUARY 2008

#76 – OMINE-SAN

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I awoke cloaked in a cold sweat after a night of fitful sleep.

4 AM.

It was a mountain day. After thirty nine days of booze, birds and bedlam since walking off Arashima it was decidedly difficult to rise at such an hour and throw myself headlong into the mid winter elements.  Christ, 4 AM?  I should’ve been propping up the bar at Captain Kangaroo but no, it was the annual New Year break from work and, with days to spare, and 25 more mountains to climb, some semblance momentum had to be maintained. in the face of stumbling back down the slippery slope of stagnation, I labouriously extricated myself from the warm, cozy nest of bed linen.

A run of all-nighters, hooking up with old colleagues and new, in the bars of Osaka had taken its toll over the weeks upon my ‘return’.  I had my old job back.  Teaching kiddies English, out in the ‘burbs, halfway between Osaka and Kyoto at a little classroom above a real estate agency.  The blonde Russian who, for years had to pretend she was a Californian, native English speaking, beach babe was off to start a family.  In her place, I was hastily reinserted into my old life…

There was no time for self-pity that morning, I had a bag to stuff full of winter gear and a first southbound train to catch.  It whisked me through Osaka and out into the Nara countryside.  A slow bus ride into the foothills of the Omine Range ensued.  A few patches of snow sat at the roadside as the bus entered the last tunnel leading the mountain hamlet of Tenkawa.  As we popped out into subdued daylight at the other end, snow cloaked the township and I wondered whether or not a climb to the top of one of Kansai’s highest peaks in mid-winter was feasible for the likes of me.

Left alone at the bus stop, I pulled out my map and headed for the trailhead, then began the slow methodical march into the hills.  Although I’d been over a month away from the hills I still had my mountain legs under me.  I was soon ankle deep in white but the trail remained navigable, a set of bootprints leading the way on me gave me hope.  Ice soon coated everything.  Beneath heavy cloud, I wandered through a wintry world and soft snow crept up to my knees.omine2

The hours dragged on as I followed the prints on the trail higher into the mountains.  Despite all the snow around me I stingily saved my water, barely drinking.  Half dehydrated, I struggled on through knee deep snow, across deep drifts above steep drops, falling away through the trees.  Arriving at a tiny stream I instinctively grabbed my water bottle from the side pocket of my pack and plunged my gloved hands into the water.  It was one of those ‘Oh fuck!’ type of moments.  Gloves suddenly soaked in zero degree temps.  For some unknown reason even in my rush to get out of the flat that morning and head for the train, I’d thrown a second pair of gloves into the pack.  I was lucky.  That night I’d need them and every other piece of extra clothing I’d grabbed on my way out the door.

I made it to a tiny unmanned shelter by a gorgeous stream a couple of hours below the highest point of the Omine Range, Hakkyo-ga-take.  My wet gloves had iced over and every tree I’d brushed against sent snow down the back of my neck on the final approach to the hut.  It was a two storied affair.  When I poked my head in the door two blokes greeted me, seated around their gas stove on the first floor.  I climbed up the ladder to the sleeping bay above them and set up my bed for the night.  My merino wool under layers were sweat and ice sodden from the snow that had gone down the back of my neck.  I quickly changed out of them and into some dry underlayers before diving into my sleeping bag and settling in to endure the long dark night ahead.  I had a lunch box chocked with Mum’s Christmas cake sent from Australia and a supply of trusty chocolate almonds to get me through the night.  I shoved my water bottles into my sleeping bag with me to keep them from turning to ice.  It was the coldest night I’ve ever endured.  I slept in brief spells between being awoken by tremendous bouts of shivering.   Every time I awoke, I swallowed a mouthful of water and ate;  rock hard chocolate almonds and another slice of that heavy, fruity, nutty Christmas cake.  It was the last Christmas cake my mum would ever bake.

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The next morning the gloves and underlayers I’d hung on the wires overhead my sleeping bag were as stiff as boards.  The sweat and melted ice had refrozen once off my warm frame.  Another lesson learned.  I stuffed more chocolates and cake into my gut and resumed the climb, leaving all unnecessary gear at the hut.  The first goal was to get to the summit of Misen-san and then from there it was a twenty minute traverse to the high point of Hakkyo.

Steps were built into the mountain.  Snow covered though they were they allowed good purchase on the climb from the hut.  At the top of Misen-san the trail of footprints in the snow trailed through a small torii gate surrounded by slender, towering ice encrusted trees and stopped at a complex of huts that had been abandoned for the winter. Exhausted from the 90 minute trudge through shin deep snow from the hut below I found an open door and inside, having a spell on a wooden seat, I gulped down a couple of mouthfuls of my water in which small slivers of ice had begun to form.   As my eyes adjusted to the gloom in that small room I noticed a chest high pile of futons and blankets laying in wait for anyone who came this way during the winter months.  I cursed my bad luck, but in the same breath was sure I wouldn’t have made it to the top of Misen the day before.

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Hakkyo-ga-take was less than half an hour away according to the map. Exiting the hut I found the sign pointing the way half buried in the snow, no fooprints to follow from Misen, I had to rely on insignificant pieces of frosted over pink tape to get me across, through the cloud, to the peak. Somewhat concerned I marched on through the trees and plunged down into the snow choked saddle and found myself thigh deep in the stuff.

‘Always, always, always, I am slapped in the face on these God-damned mountains as soon as I think the hard work is done,’ – this time it was by the deepest snow I’d ever found myself in, and without anything resembling a significant trail to follow.  I continued down further into the saddle where at times, ankle deep in snow would suddenly soften and send me up to my balls in the stuff.  I spied some animal tracks heading in the same direction as I.  They could have been heading anywhere but gave me a little burst of confidence.  Then a row of wooden poles strung together with rope apperared out of the snow and continued for a hundred yards or so and then I passed through two wire gates – I presumed to keep deer at bay – and then the lay of the land finally started to rise. I was so close to the top then I wasn’t going to stop unless I completely scared myself witless.  As the slope got steeper the snow remained deep and I egged myself onward toward each tree or rock ahead.  The mountain mist hung low, the top could have been mere metres away.  Turning back at that point would have been madness. A strengthening wind blew snow off the surrounding vegetation into my eyes and mouth.  The animal tracks vanished along with the occasional strip of pink tape tied to snow encrusted branches. All I could really bank on was doing the logical thing and head up and hope that the summit marker would be tall enough to stand above the snow so I wouldn’t continue on further than necessary.

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Soon, from beneath the snow, small boulders appeared, along with a few lumbered logs and metal trail reinforcements.  My confidence soared again, the snow finally shallowed out.  A cliffside dropped off to my left.  I stayed way right.  Up ahead, from out of the white, a metal stafflike object appeared speared into the ground and I spied the large white summit sign just beyond it.  I’d made it.  It had been the toughest climb in a while and I perched my gore-texed arse down on a protruding rock and exhausted, emotionlessly went through in my mind what to do next. Sit for a bit. Keep your gloves on. Take off your bag. Open it. Have some water. Take off the gloves and get the pen, write 76 on your hand. Get the camera and take the proof shot. Repack, reglove and go. There was no happiness here.  Just ice laced relief.  A cold, emotionless, sense of subdued satisfaction.

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