#93 – OKU-HOTAKA-DAKE
‘Someone’s out there,’ was all Patrick had time to say before I looked up and the flicker of light hit the tent. 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.
His name was Hiro-san. A bloke in his mid-fifties probably. He’d departed Tokyo late, which messed up all his connecting trains and buses into Kamikochi, but he’d backed himself to get up and over Oku-hotaka to the hut bolted into the rock just below the crown of the summit. He’d stumbled into our makeshift camp in virtual darkness as we lay there, stuffed into our sleeping bags like Christmas presents in their stockings.
Patrick had been lying there, runny nose, beanie pulled down hard, eyes shut, thinking of his girlfriend getting ready to party the night away on her birthday, in the heat of downtown Saigon. And I thought about the hikers in the hut on the other side of Oku-hotaka, warm and cozy, tucking into their bowls of steaming rice and miso soup, and probably a lump of dead fish, some mountain vegetables, hot sake, and later, warm futons. I’d been coming to my senses, the mountain fever had slowly released its grip allowing for some clarity. We were in the tent, a three season tent set up in fourth season conditions. We were on a hairy section of trail but between a couple of nice sized protrusions of rock. I imagined they should provide cover from some of the wind should it get up in the night. I had a Thermarest mattress I gave to Patrick and I emptied my pack and lay on that, guessing its thick backing would shield my core at least from most of the cold ground. I expected we wouldn’t sleep much, but at least that would allow us to keep checking on each other. We had plenty of snacks – didn’t they say eating keeps you warm? We kept our water in our sleeping bags with us to stop it from freezing. It was all pretty much instinct but I felt we’d be fine.
There wasn’t much time to dwell on things though, because there we were, somewhere around 3000 metres in altitude, all rugged up and set for a twelve or thirteen hour ordeal before daylight returned, when Hiro-san came a calling. We bundled him inside and wondered what to do next. At least three warm bodies in the tent were going to be better than two.
‘Do you have a sleeping bag?’ I asked.
‘Do you have any more clothes?’
‘Shit,’ Patrick smiled at him.
There wasn’t much to insulate Hiro-san from the ground, we jammed what ever we could salvage beneath him and Patrick shared a bit of the mattress and we opened our sleeping bags, wrapped them around him as much as we could and, well, cuddled up together. As Patrick had so elegantly put it, mere days before on the ridge above Nishiho, something like a kilometre from where we lay, we’d come to that point where every man has to reach down and get a grip on his ball sack. I just hoped and prayed, cuddled up there with those two fellas, that we’d all be reaching down and grabbing a hold of the right ones.
We all achieved snippets of sleep throughout that cold night. Hiro-san just lay there silently and when he’d break into shivering fits that shook his body, alerting us to his predicament, I’d flick on my headlamp and we’d rub him down, sit him up, force feed him chocolate almonds and just a little water and re-wrap the sleeping bags around him.
‘Daijobu, Hiro-san?’ we’d ask at times, checking on him in the dark.
‘Daijobu,’ he’d reply stoically, lying there, unmoving except for the shivering, staring straight up at the roof of the tent. He had that grim, unadorned Japanese ability to silently endure, I thought, watching his unwavering expression in my lamp light.
Before dawn broke, the coldest part of the day, we lay in absolute silence. I think we all slept. I did and then, when I opened my eyes, I noticed the faint glow on my side of the tent heralding imminent sunrise. We’d made it. Hiro-san, Patrick and I, three fools in a tent on the wrong side of a mountain had made it through the coldest night of our lives. I unzipped my side of the tent just enough for a peek. A golden glow shone on the horizon, cloud stretched out below us and skies dotted with a last star or two told me it was going to turn into a gorgeous day.
‘Hiro-san! Good morning!’ I said.
‘Goodo mor-ningu,’ he replied smiling, relief emblazoned across his sun tanned face.
Patrick let out a whoop of joy and soberly added, ‘That was undoubtedly the single most miserable experience I’ve ever lived through.’
Dawn broke completely and the morning skies turned a glowing orange, a wind gathered strength blowing crystals of snow off the mountainside that glimmered as they sailed into the air. Beyond the lesser crags of the mountain, Fuji-san rose out of a cloud sea. We helped Hiro-san pack up his gear and took a photo I promised to send him. With handshakes and heartfelt thank-yous all round he was off, I imagine heading for a hot breakfast at the hut about an hour’s climb away. The last thing he said to us, ‘I no find you, I die.’
Patrick and I slowly put all our gear together, I’d had time in the night to sort out my glove malfunction and with the sun sailing to higher elevations overhead, it was time for us to do the same, only this time, following Hiro-san’s footsteps in the snow.