THREESOME – PART 1

OCTOBER 2009

#93 – OKU-HOTAKA-DAKE

Willie on the rocks of Nishi-hotaka-dake, image: Patrick Sharbaugh

Willie on the rocks of Nishi-hotaka-dake, image: Patrick Sharbaugh

Sometimes you just get lucky.

If I hadn’t quit the job when I had.  If the boss hadn’t squeezed an extra week of work out of me like she had.  If she hadn’t told me I’d never get hold of another job in Japan if I walked away when I was entitled to, and if I hadn’t listened, hadn’t considered the apple cart, or the strings that I had an inkling could be pulled; strings stretching up out of our little school, through corporate ladders into the worlds of cult and politics…

If I hadn’t climbed when I had.  If I hadn’t climbed Utsugi and Kisokoma and Haku-san when I had.  Indeed, had I not failed in climbing all hundred mountains 2007 as I had.  If the snows hadn’t fallen back then as they had and I’d continued around those high ridges stretching from Kasa-ga-take, to Yari and ultimately the Hotaka massif…

If the rains of the previous week hadn’t fallen when they had and where they had and for the duration they had.  Rains that sent me fleeing back to Osaka and stretched my patience to breaking point as I scoured forecasts and radars for fair to middling weather windows…

Patrick on the rocks of Nishi-hotaka

Patrick on the rocks of Nishi-hotaka

If Patrick hadn’t foregone his girlfriend’s birthday.  If he hadn’t flown the length of the South China Sea to join me on my final assault of the country’s most beloved mountains when he had, leaving his signature trail of dirty underwear, used coffee spoons and mugs and fishy fry pans stretching the length and breadth of my apartment as he had…as he always had…

If Typhoon Number 18 hadn’t formed way out in the Pacific Ocean and arced its way into the archipelago the way it had, in spite of Patrick’s assurances that typhoons never follow their forecast paths, that he’d grown up in hurricane country and never, ‘NEVER!’ witnessed a hurricane fulfill its projected destiny.  If that typhoon hadn’t set a bead on the Alps as it had, at the very time Patrick and I found ourselves negotiating the grey, monotone, Lego bricked ridge stretching between Nishi-hotaka and Oku-hotaka as we had, and had I not suggested that time and typhoon were once more set against us, and had he not conceded as he had, after having suggested that there comes a time in life when every man has to reach down and get a grip on his ball sack and press on…

Typhoon #18 on it's path to the Japanese Alps, the blue dot in the centre of Japan.

Typhoon #18 on its path to the Japanese Alps, the blue dot in the centre of Japan.

Yake-dake from Nishi-hotaka-dake

Yake-dake from Nishi-hotaka-dake

If we hadn’t left the mountains and Matsumoto, if we hadn’t returned to Osaka and waited out the typhoon and then returned, via Takayama, stopping by the Autumn Festival as we had.  Where the floats are hauled through the streets, and the town swells to three times its size or some such obscene amount, and the smells of barbecued fish on sticks and hot sake sail on the night air as the lanterns glow and the sea lions dance…

If we hadn’t deferred to a simpler route up Oku-ho than the week before, bussing into Japan’s ‘mountain central’ at Kamikochi and climbing up through Dake-sawa, where we craned our necks and peered restlessly into increasingly nasty looking cloud skewered onto the pinnacles of the Hotakas, like the dark hull of an overladen ship, tossing and turning, thrusting and thrashing…

If I hadn’t had a gut full of all the what ifs and when ifs and where ifs and if I hadn’t – well, I wouldn’t compare it to reaching down and grabbing a pair – no, it was nothing of the sort, rather it was the demons of past failures, the mounting count of capitulations, that gripped me so and had they not loosed an all-consuming fever into my veins on the steep climb out of Dake-sawa, so powerful that it swamped all reason and common sense, a fever I had no hope of reining in as I walked up into a blizzard on one of the most fearsome peaks in the land, ignoring retreating climbers as pellets of ice began to shower down through the leafless limbs in the last of the treeline, rattling on my rain jacket and stinging my upturned face as a cold wind flattened the brown grasses in the boulder fields beyond, as I walked, back and forth up exposed switchbacks towards Mae-hotaka, a peak invisible, lost in the mists overhead as my fingers began to freeze…

And if my gloves, oh those useless gloves, with their stubborn clumps of inner linings that refused to slip seamlessly into their outers so I ended up just ramming my fingers into them and twisting my hands into spasticesque poses, if those gloves hadn’t added fuel to the fire of my delusion – because there was no fucking way I was walking off that mountain because of those whore-mongered motherfuckers of gloves – if they hadn’t caused me to spit fire and hell fury as I incessantly tore them off and belted them on rock and ice and reefed them back on again as spit froze to my chin, all the while barely noticing the increasing snow coating the trail…

And if Patrick marvelling, astounded, at this fevered display hadn’t followed agape, hypnotised by the Jekyll and Hyde transformation he was witnessing in me, albeit a few steps further back than usual, then, if all of this, if all of this in its entirety hadn’t happened, a man would have frozen to death on Oku-hotaka that night.  A man would have frozen as solid as the rocks on which he sat.  That’s how they would’ve found him, hard as a rock, staring out blankly, lifelessly from under his beanie, through glassy eyes behind frosted over spectacles.

But no, the mountain fever and dumb, stupid luck that swept us up into the southern maw of the Hotaka massif saved him.  A pair of fools out of their depth, trail lost under snow and walking in circles on the wrong side of the third highest mountain in the land, circles that laid down a set of boot tracks that a man, caught up in his own inescapable alpine delusions, would come to, barely visible as the snow, light and temperature fell in eerie silent concert at the end of the day…

Hunkered down in the tent, a tent, free-standing, weighed down with us and our gear and four bowling ball sized rocks from the mountainside jammed into each corner, on a path three foot wide edging a drop into space, swaddled in our sleeping bags and all our spare clothes, it was Patrick who noticed the light first. An hour or so after we’d been there. A light in the near ink black darkness that hit the tent broadside meaning, that like us, he’d come cross country and hit the trail too.

‘Someone’s out there,’ was all Patrick had time to say before I looked up and the light hit the tent again, and we heard the distinctive crunch and squeak of feet on snow approaching us.  Patrick unzipped his side of the tent and greeted the startled soul with a booming ‘Hello!’ A man stood there muttering something about the hut, but all I could see were his legs clad in winter gear as snow drifted in through the opening.  He wanted to get to the hut.  Recovered from my delirium, I recognised that madness.

‘Get in,’ I ordered and Patrick dragged the bloke inside with us.

Yep, sometimes you just get lucky.

Things didn't look that bad early on...

Things didn’t look that bad early on…

Typhoon path image: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Typhoon_Melor_%282009%29#/media/File:Melor_2009_track.png

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