THUNDERBOLTS AND LIGHTNING

AUGUST 2008

#81 – SHIOMI-DAKE

shiomi 5

I walked the forests below Aino-dake 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.

Well, 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.

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.”

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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