THUNDERBOLTS AND LIGHTNING

AUGUST 2008

#81 – SHIOMI-DAKE

Looking back up at Ai-no-dake and the nubbin of Mibu-dake.

Looking back up at Ai-no-dake and the nubbin of Mibu-dake.

With the sun well up and the steaminess building – even at 3000 metres – an effortless descent back towards the tree line had the sweat pouring out of me.

Every step off Ai-no-dake robbed me of the altitude I’d battled to gain the day before.  My spirits were sinking at about the same rate and I feared the barometer too, was following suit.  After seeing to the rocky nubbin of Mibu-dake, off the back of Ai-no-dake, the trail sent me rapidly down through the last of the creeping pine and into the tree line, where scatty conifer competed with tracts of snow gnarled beech.  The need to reclaim most of that lost altitude coupled with the threat of dodgy weather as I pressed on towards Shiomi-dake, cast a pensive pall over my morning march.  shiomi 2Stumbling, slack shouldered into the leafy glade that was the home of the Kuma-no-daira Hut gave me some heart.  Views up to the imposing Notori-dake were framed with summer greenery.  I dumped my pack on the hut’s spacious deck and stepped inside to see if I couldn’t rustle up an early smoko.

“Hi!” said a friendly chap relaxing inside.

“Hello there,” I replied, happy to hear a bit of English in the mountains and, assuming he was in charge, asked if he had any sports drinks on offer as I dripped sweat all over his floor.

“Sure,” he smiled and popped off through to the kitchen.  Returning, he poked his head out of the doorway and slowly revealed a sparkling, dew soaked can of Kirin Lager.

“Is this what you were after?”

Now that was my kind of sports drink.  I swear I heard the heraldic overtures of the heavenly host as my pupils dilated and that can in his hand consumed my field of vision.  Condensation formed a glistening sheen on its sides and the parched sluices at the back of my throat suddenly started to flow like mountain springs after a summer squall…

“Or, maybe this is what you want,” the contrasting sight of the blue bottle of Pocari Sweat – one of the best named drinks in all of Japan – in his other hand snapped me out of my trance.   The Sweat was the sensible choice of the two if I wanted to make it up Shiomi-dake that afternoon.  And anyway, I’d been shitfaced in the mountains before and it wasn’t pretty.

“Yeah, thanks man, but I’ll take the Pocari and a bowl of noodles to go with it, if it’s not too much trouble.”

“Sure,” he said.

We chatted as I scoffed down the noodles and the drink.  He said he lived in the States now and that his wife let him return home to Japan each year to run the Kuma-no-daira Hut for the few months it opened during the summer.  He asked me where I was heading and I told him over Shiomi-dake to the hut just beyond it.  When I asked his opinion about the weather he reckoned at the pace I was going, having already come down from Ai-no-dake that morning, I’d be at the Shiomi Hut before four that afternoon and therefore, most probably, any of the rain that was heading our way.  Reassured, I finished up and with handshakes and good lucks, hauled on my pack and strode off into a forest dotted with yellow flowers and a gradually rising trail.

shiomi 1

I walked those forests into the early afternoon.  When I made it to an open patch of ground offering views up to Shiomi, ominous looking clouds had encircled the mountain; swirling and darkening, emitting clawlike tendrils from pregnant underbellies.  The forest finally thinned out as I approached the final climb around an escarpment from which it seemed mountainside had slid away, down into cloud the filled forests to my right.

A long, steep, gravelly track ran the length of an open spur up to the summit ridge of Shiomi-dake.  According to my map there was a spring off the spur, down to the left and there I spied a group of hikers setting up camp alongside a tiny rivulet of water, on a patch of stony ground, amongst the brush pine. I watched them as I approached.  The spur steepened considerably and it felt as if I passed directly overhead.  Their little flourescent igloos contrasted brightly against the dull rocky hues and the deep pine greens.  For a second I entertained the idea of pitching my own tent down there alongside them.  But, peering up, from beneath a sweaty, furrowed brow, the slowly billowing cloud close overhead didn’t appear to be so ominous after all.  I mean, I’d walked through plenty of ‘gasu’ in my time in the mountains.  Having made it to within a couple of hours of sturdier lodgings, offering hearty meals and icy cold beverages, there was really no viable option other than to press onwards and upwards.

“What could go wrong in another hour or so of hiking, anyway?” was my reasoning.

shiomi 4Well, let me tell you what could go wrong.

As soon as I passed into the cloud and stepped over that invisible line demarcating my point of no return, the heavens cracked slightly ajar and offered a warning shot of sorts.  Little spats of rain smacked on the rocks and boulders lining the path.  Sighing, but not overly concerned, I squatted down and wearily hauled the rain gear out of my pack. The buggerising around with jacket, pants,  gaiters and pack cover was an annoyance at the end of a long day – slip into this, strap this around here, zip that up and that one too.

Then, with all that rigmarole complete, the light sprinkles promptly passed.

“That’d be fuckin’ right,” I grumbled as I pushed on, ever higher, up to the main ridge.  The view across to summit was mired in a white soup.  Visibility was down to about thirty metres.  I climbed on through the heavy, claustrophobic cloud bank, passing over a minor peak at the ridge junction, before turning westward and setting my sights on Shiomi’s invisible summit.  Having dropped down to 2500 metres on the long slog from Ai-no-dake, I was now, at long last, back in the 3000 metre range.  All was silent, save for my footfalls, as I walked through that desperately humid, breathless world of white.  And then, within what must have been a mere hundred yards of the summit, the heavens decided that they could hold back no longer, and down she came.  A good billion or so gallons of pent-up precipitation let loose in a curtain of oncoming white.  The deluge  swept over me head on, sweeping in from the direction of the summit, fat droplets the size of grapes spattered deafeningly on my rain hood.  I was soon hauling myself exhaustedly up onto the summit crest and then up onto the little pile of boulders that made up the peak of Shiomi-dake.  Perched there, alongside the summit post, at 3052 metres, nothing separated me from the heavens above.  Success!  I sat and waited for the drenching to cease so I could snap off my obligatory mountain top proof shot. Proof shot number 81.

I soon noticed what appeared to be miniscule pieces of hail bouncing off the rocks around me, but amidst the huge drops of splashing rainwater, I couldn’t be sure.  Dry and unperturbed inside my rain shell, I held out my hands in an trying to catch some in an attempt to ascertain if I was about to be pelted with a barrage of hailstones.

A brilliant flash of yellow just about blinded me.  Cloud and wet rock illuminated instantly.  A squillionth of a second later, a crack that sounded like it could have split boulders the size of houses shot through me.  Instinct kicked in.  Pack hooked in the crook of my arm I slid off my perch and dove for a narrow gap between a couple of boulders beside the trail.  I squeezed up into a foetal position and pulled my pack on top of me. Flashes of light and explosive eruptions of sound crackled overhead and I bunched myself up into a ball so tight my joints ached.  The world darkened considerably.  More cataclysmic cracks.  The rain, impossibly, grew in intensity.  It was so heavy I was sure it was knocking chips out of the boulders around me.  There was no sign of it letting up.  A little stream began to flow through my hideout in the rocks.  It ran into my rain pants at the underside of my hip and down my leg, through the gaiter and out the other end, partially filling my boot. Uncomfortable it may have been, but there was no way in hell I was poking my head out from between those rocks to scout for any sort of alternative.  Like a soldier in the trenches, I just pulled my hood down over my eyes and tried not to think about the predicament I was in. I told myself it wouldn’t last, that it was just one of those wild summer squalls juiced up with more bluster than brawn.

“Ca-rack!” was the sky’s response. A sphincter loosening rebuke so close overhead my ears rung. I expected shards of rock to be showering down in its wake.  It’s echo rumbled around the high walls of the Southern Alps for an astonishing number of seconds until the sounds of the rain smacking on my hood took over again.  And then another flash and: CA-RACK!  There was some serious torment wrapped up in those clouds.  A vicious wind-swept in, strafing the summit.

The unceasing, overlapping drumroll of thunder echoed around the high valley walls.

Apparently we have a one in well over a half million chance of being struck by lightning. Perched up there on that mountain however, inside that churning mass of charged up atmosphere, liquid conductor trickling through my trousers, I felt the odds of me being frazzled to the consistency of a bacon rasher were rather more slender than that.  I thought of Reteif Goosen, the golfer, who apparently survived a lightning strike. I had an aunt who scampered off to the broom cupboard whenever storms passed over her house, having been caught out in one, alone in the bush, when she was a youngster. And I vaguely recalled the story of a chap somewhere in the Northern Territory, back home, being struck by lightning and having all his clothes blown off but otherwise remaining seemingly unaffected.  I imagined myself climbing nude, down to the Shiomi Hut, shell-shocked and shivering and subsequently attempting to explain, in my half arsed Japanese, that I’d just had all my clothes blown off by a thunderbolt and do you think it would be alright if I stayed there the night and incidentally, do you have a spare pair of pants I could squeeze into.

About half an hour into the ordeal as lightning bolts shot unceasingly overhead, I began to feel like a little tin duck perched up in God’s shooting gallery. Then, uncontrollable shivers began rippling through my body.  At no point did I feel panicked or especially cold but the bursts of convulsions wouldn’t cease.  Temperatures, I knew, were going to drop as the light faded and I started formulating a plan if worst came to worst and I had to hide out up there amongst the rocks and thunderbolts overnight.  I went over a plan in my head: drag out tent and slither inside it, use it as a makeshift oversized sleeping bag, wrap it around me for insulation and to prevent it from flapping about in any nightime gale.

The storm gave out before the light did. The wind ceased and the ceiling of grey rose slightly.  I peeled back my hood and poked my head out from between the rocks. Raggedy tufts of cloud drifted in the valleys below Shiomi-dake. A light rain persisted in its wake, but the storm had moved on.  A cracking rumble would echo up the valley occasionally, but I felt they were far enough off to make a dash for it.  I threw on my pack and quickly sloshed off across the narrow summit, mountain 81 would remain proof shotless.  I slipped and skidded down a perilously steep section of rocky track awash with rivulets of rainwater, sloppy gravel and loosened stones which made for untrustworthy footholds.   Yellow daubs of paint on rockface guided me down what seemed like and endless series of soft, washed out switchbacks. A crack and rumble here and there would redouble my efforts, just when I thought I was faltering.  Though the air was moisture laden, my throat was parched.  A nausea rose in my stomach but I didn’t dare stop for a gulp of water.  A scramble up over a minor rocky promintory tested my will.  I was in no mood to climb anything hinting at an incline on an afternoon when the gods were taking potshots off their back porches.

The nausea welled to bursting point on the final push towards the Shiomi Hut, down off the summit crags, I collapsed onto a rock amongst dripping greenery.  I kept my pack on and let it’s weight push me forward until I rested my elbows on my knees and willed myself to vomit. A pathetic little gagging cough was all I could muster. I sat there and gave my gut a bit longer just in case those early lunchtime noodles decided to return the way they’d gone.  Another grumbling reverberation from the heavens echoed around the mountains.  I put the hurling on hold and got on my way.

I staggered into camp hounded by a second wave of sinking cloud.  Offering up my best impersonation of a half drowned cat to a three-man, shochu swilling audience of old boys from Nagoya, red-faced, and clasping tin cups, as they perched on a wooden bench beneath the hut’s makeshift plastic awning, I slid out of my pack and propped it up on the rocks in front of them.

“Herro!” they heartily greeted me, smiling, probably thinking the Japanese equivalent of, “Look what the cat dragged in.”

I excused myself and slumped onto the bench beside them, managing a feeble konnichiwa in return.

“Kyo doko kara des ka?”

In my state, nothing registered.

“Where do you hike from today?”  Another asked, assessing the state I was in.

“Do you speak Japanese?”

“Where are you from, gaijin-san?”

They were eager for a conversation. I was eager for some fluids.  When I finally managed to tell them I made it there from the Kita Dake Hut they gasped in admiration.

“Waa! Subarashiii!”

“Fantastic,” they nodded together.

I told them of the storm I’d just endured up on the mountain and they oohed and ahhed enthusiastically, commenting on my bravery and general all round manliness.

I wasn’t so sure.  I felt like a wet sack of shit myself but their praise helped lift my spirits.  A pretty university student aged lass popped her head out of the window behind us that served as the check-in counter.

“Konnichiwa,” she smiled and my spirits lifted a little more.

Wearily I hauled myself to my feet and requesting bed and board.  The rains hit hard once more as I filled out the registration form and the chaps guzzling on their grog squeezed back on their bench as it splashed over our feet. I paid up and asked for a Pocari Sweat or something like that and a Coke.  For dinner I advised her a bowl of instant noodles would suffice, as my stomach wasn’t up for anything else.  All I really needed was for her to show me to a little space on her hut’s floor and I could be off with the fairies in no time.  Alas she had other plans.

“Toilet lecture,” one of the gents beside me piped up.  I had no idea.  My head still spinning.  Something about learning how to use the crappers.  As the ablution block was down the hill a touch and the rain was as pelting us as hard as ever, I would have to wait. I felt like telling her that there was really no need for the lecture, as I’d shit myself half a dozen times up on her mountain, but she seemed pretty adamant about the whole thing so I just bit my lip and agreed and let her get my refreshments.

Dinner time arrived before the rain departed so we all moved inside the tiny hut and squeezed cross-legged on the tatami floor around a couple of tables and slurped and guzzled down our meals. They, the Nagoya crew, shovelled away at rice, mountain veges and a couple of unappetising looking things that I suspected were either fish cakes or deep-fried bear turds, and I, well, I had my plain unglamourous instant noodles. A pair of middle-aged women joined us but just drank tea and engaged in their own softly spoken conversation.

After dinner with the rain still driving down I stood under the plastic awning in rubber slippers half the size of my feet waiting for the call to toilet class.  The fellas were there again, booze in hand.

“Do you like Japanese alcohol?” One of the chaps from Nagoya stood up from his spot on the bench and slipped a warm, metal cup of shochu into my hands. “It’s sweet potato wine.”   The other two blokes remained on the bench, one quietly sucking on a cigarette, the other listed from left to right like a ship on the high seas, his face glowing redder than a ripe tomato.

When the rains eased and I attended toilet class by torch-light.  The sight of a western style toilet seat rather than the miserable local squat variety was well received as the young lass opened the door to one of the two little cubicles before us.  She lifted the lid and peering inside the bowl I saw just that – a bowl.  There was no hole for one’s business to disappear down into. No gaping long drop, smeared with shit spatter and crawling with bugs.  It dawned on me that the area around the toilet block was blessedly, yet strangely, especially for high season in the Japanese Alps, devoid of stench.  And so I was introduced to the poo bag.  A supermarket sized plastic bag, that fitted over the toilet seat and was lined with super absorbent padding that would sop up your slops.  With a flick and a twist she deftly showed me how to tie up the bag afterwards, warning me to take care and avoid squeezing the air out of the bag overly aggressively for reasons patently clear.  Once bagged and tied, I was to take the plastic encased payload across to a large metal dumpster and sling it inside, where it would stay and be helicoptered out of the hills at some later date.  Solids dealt with – she must have loved that job – she gave me the liquids lecture:  Don’t wantonly piss in the bushes like some dirty mongrel with a bladder infection was the gist of her stern-faced message, instead I was to follow a rocky path to a point where an open air porcelain spout poking out of a clifftop was to be found.  Into this, when the need arose, I was to relieve myself whereby it would shoot my pee wantonly out its other end and into a predetermined part of the scrub.

“Wakarimashita,” I said understanding, while making a mental not to drink from any mountain streams flowing from that side of Shiomi on my way onwards the following morning.

The main hut was full, but I was shoehorned into one of the over sized plywood boxes with pointy canvas roofs outside.  I shared my quarters with the two quiet women from dinner and a crusty old man.  It was cosy and warm and I finally got out of my damp clothes and into some dry ones.  After lights out but before sleep came, I lay staring into the pitch black and resolved not to push on for the next handful of days to Tekari-dake at the far end of the Southern Alps.  I’d spent the previous year racing the clock as I climbed the Hyakumeizan and it didn’t work out.  There was no fixed schedule to adhere to anymore.  I decided to bail out and head back to Osaka.

'Summit Photo'

‘Summit Photo’

The next morning I took my time heading out after breakfast.  I had considered heading back up Shiomi to get that eighty-first summit shot, but spying a photo of the summit hanging on the wall, I came up with a much more agreeable solution.

Proof shot of sorts completed, I left the Shiomi Hut and walked out of the Alps via a place called Sanpuku Pass.  A couple of hours hike down from the pass a mountain bus whisked hikers into and out of the Alps.  I made it to the pick up point with a couple of hours to spare before the bus arrived and a couple of minutes before the next onslaught from the heavens.  Torrential summer rains belted down through the trees drenching me and the other couple of dozen hikers waiting there.  At least the conditions provided some solace at having called things quits.  Lightning illuminated the forest, coupled with searing claps of thunder.  This time, thankfully the action was a long way overhead rather than flashing around my ears.  With the only shelter at that bus stop being a quartet of reeking portaloos full of Japanese piss and shit, I resolutely sat on a rock in the rain and dreamed about the delights of summertime in big city Osaka.

A last glimpse up to Shiomi-dake

A last glimpse up to Shiomi-dake

 

 

2 thoughts on “THUNDERBOLTS AND LIGHTNING

  1. Wow, what a close call! I’m convinced that Shiomi must be cursed, as we had a near disaster in the rain and howling winds and also cut short our traverse at Sanpuku.

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