MAY, 2007

‘From the sofa to the slopes.’

It sounded rather dramatic.  Could it be done?  Was it possible to turn my back on an existence defined by work, television and chocolate almonds?  It had to be.  Two thirds of that equation were fast becoming the ruination of me.  But then, with the mental scars from Ibuki still fresh, I knew there was the potential for the mountains to do the same.

A bushie at heart, raised on the land in Australia, I’d gotten my fair share of dirt under the nails, but five years in genteel Japan had transformed me into a bit of a softie.  Sofa catalogues had become the new porn, I was considering badminton and eyeing off green tea and tofu at the supermarket instead of the girls at the checkout.  I wasn’t really much of a hard man to begin with, mind you.  If there was a fight brewing at school I’d wilt.  In my one and only football – okay, soccer – match I was given the responsibility of bench warmer.  If there was a mad cow in the cattle yards I’d be over the nearest fence rail like I was on trial for the Olympic high jump team.  Cricket balls scared me and rugby was entirely out of the question.  In the Hyakumeizan the perfect challenge had been unearthed.  Coaches, captains and cows be damned, it would be entirely down to me to bench myself or suck it up and push my sorry carcass over the tops of the mountains.  As May meandered towards June it was too late to turn back anyway, officially retired as an English teacher, my replacement handily trained in the black art of controlling three year olds, I was, for better or worse, headed for the hills.

My pack, weighing a back breaking 20 kilos, was stuffed to the brim with camping gear, thermals, crampons, a super duper Jetboil cooker.  You name it, I had it.  All the bells and whistles…well, alright, actually one whistle (to alert potential rescuers should ill fate befall me) and one bell (to advertise the nearest source of food to all starving bears in the vicinity).

Experience?  Pfft, don’t ask.  I’d camped in the wilds of my primary school playground along with the rest of my Grade 2 Class as recently as 1982 and a few years following that, overnighted on the farm a couple of hundred yards from the house.  Later, during the twilight of my high school days, some mates and I trekked up an abandoned railway line a-la ‘Stand By Me’.  In the middle of winter, tentless and riddled with cobbler’s pegs we just about froze our balls off over the course of two God-awful, frigid nights.  Excellent credentials to be sure but I soon came to realise, even with that tremendous wealth of experience, I’d never actually pitched a tent in my life.  So when my little ‘bombproof’ green number, ordered via Amazon, arrived in the mail, I set about pitching it in my living room on a rugged patch of tatami, pedestal fan turned on full bore for some extra ‘out in the wilds’ authenticity.  I even came home pissed as a fart one night and flaked out in it, waking up in the morning with a start and wondering where the hell I was.

What else?  Well, I knew which end of a sleeping bag to crawl into and lighting fires had never been much trouble (even without twenty litres of diesel).  Map reading was a cinch; I’d been a taxi driver back home for three months.  I’d even boned up on hitchhiking courtesy of Will Ferguson’s handy guide and, so long as none of my drivers boned up on me, I was confident that I could get in and out of some of the more remote nooks and crannies of Japan without any dramas.

I would run an eye over my maps most nights after dinner, sprawled on my beloved sofa, beer in hand, CNN blaring plague and pestilence at me in the background.  All the mountains in question located and potential routes eyed off, my focus narrowed down to two peaks of particular concern (neither of which had anything to do with the lass preening and pouting all over the International News Desk).

Daisen and Asama-yama.  The names struck up a good dose of fear whenever they crossed my mind.  Those two were ‘cold sweats in the night’ kind of mountains.  My success would eventually hinge on getting to the tops of those two peaks.  The former, an earthquake ravaged volcano crumbling away into the folds of its own gaping ravines on the Japan Sea Coast, the latter, an active volcano up Nagano way that was constantly consumed in the swirling clouds of its own noxious gases and fixing to blow at any tick of the clock.  Both summits, although scalable, were officially off limits to hikers and to attempt them was to, purportedly, dice with death.  I tried not to think about either of them but that was easier said than done.  Daisen in particular would creep into my thoughts late at night, bewitching me from afar with its fearsome reputation.  I would hear the gravel and rocks scattering into the bottomless ravines and imagine a cold, ghostly wind sweeping up from their gaping maws.  That mountain had me psyched out before I even had the chance to set foot anywhere near it.

Compass, GPS, and emergency beacon were vetoed from the gear list purely on the grounds of safety.  Not being a hundred percent positive about how to use any of the damn things, I assumed I’d find myself in more strife with them than without.  Sole reliance on my stash of kanji riddled Japanese maps and my naturally ingrained bush instinct was going to have to do the trick out there.

“It was Japan for goodness sake!” I chided myself at times.  If I got lost, all I had to do was keep walking and sooner rather than later I’d meet someone, hit a chain of power lines or stumble out of the bamboo onto a road overrun with convenience stores.  It wasn’t as if I was turning up at Everest base camp with an ice cream pot on my head and a pair of spiked cricket shoes proclaiming the summit to be mine by sundown!  This was the Hyakumeizan.  One hundred user friendly, hikeable mountains, in a modern, developed, safety conscious nation that sports more luxuries and conveniences than one can poke a disposable chopstick at. It’s the land of computerised toilets that don’t turn into electric chairs if you piss all over them when you’re shitfaced, beer vending machines that’ll sell your six year old kid a can of booze he’d struggle to lug home even if he was seven and electric massage armchairs with more whiz-bang controls than the bloody space shuttle… …and then I thought about Daisen and Asama again.

Sometimes I thought about training too.  A lot more often than I did any.  Common sense dictated that I shouldn’t overdo it beforehand.  You know a lot of these modern day adventurers you read about abandon logic and common sense and replace it with meticulous planning and physical preparation.

Complete bollocks if you ask me.

The journey to Hokkaido loomed.

Quality sofa time was in order.

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