They stood frozen, staring suspiciously at me as I tried to stand motionless on the trail. My chest and shoulders expanded and contracted rapidly from the rapid ascent. No sooner had they stopped to check whether I was friend or foe, the two deer bounded up the mountainside with a grace and power that causes one to instantly recognize their physical superiority. I watched intently as their lean, muscular hind legs thrust them effortlessly up into a covering of brush and out of sight.
I had seen animals in the wild many times before, bears, elk, moose, beaver, and many, many deer. This sighting seemed a lot more special though. I guess, once again, I was caught up in the thrill of seeing such things so far from home. I also knew there were probably few visitors to Japan who were fortunate enough to experience the things I had just encountered.
My heart was racing even faster now because of the start these magnificent animals had given me. I once again started churning my legs forward along the path that led to the clouds. The hike was not challenging from a technical standpoint, just your basic well worn trail, meandering, rising and falling through the forest. There was never any need for rope or even my hands to climb, just determination to keep going. I moved at the pace I knew I must keep if I was to make the peak and back before the last cable car left.
I knew from my book that the hike required you to summit three peaks, the third being Kumotori. What I didn't know was how far I would have to descend after climbing these peaks before climbing the next one. As I climbed to the top of the first peak, my lungs were feeling good. I was sweating pretty heavily but my legs still felt good and I was making good time. I wasted no time at the top and started to descend. Hiking downhill is dangerous for many reasons, one being the ease with which you can twist an ankle and the other being the false sense of relief it gives you during the journey. I had a long way to go ahead of me and the last thing I needed was to feel relaxed after a half hour of walking down hill.
I started to get a bit discouraged when I realized that the descent led me almost as low as when I first started. The second peak was higher than the first which meant that I was probably in for a real leg burn before I was finished.
Along the way there were plenty of markers indicating directions since there were other trails on the mountain, and distance so one could judge when to turn back or keep going I supposed. There were also some shelters, but they seemed to be closed. They were quite nicely made, but seemed quite old. I wondered if they were used anymore. Maybe they were for emergency only or only open during certain seasons. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to stop to look at them in detail. My mind was on the task, so I just kept my legs moving. If I had to drink, I took my pack off and drank from my bottle while I hiked. I didn't stop. I couldn't stop. Even going downhill, I kept the pace quick. I focused hard on the ground before me as I moved making sure I didn't step on anything painful, like rocks, or snakes.
The journey down the backside of this first peak was a nice break but it used up valuable time I needed in order to get to the summit and return in order to make the last cable car. All together it must have taken me over three and a half hours to get to this point from where the final bus dropped me off. I realized now that I had spent much too long taking pictures of temples and fraternizing with the locals when I should have been moving my feet. I was disappointed in myself for having made such a thoughtless error as it denied me the luxury of enjoying the hike, rather than having to sprint through it.
I convinced myself that I was hiking at a good pace and that I was more than capable of making the journey in the time I had originally allotted. At the beginning of the hike, I was convinced of this but now, as I reached the first low of many I would reach that day my confidence was waning. I was now at the point where I was more determined to do it than sure that I could. I had told so many people that I was going to stand atop the mighty cloud catching mountain today and they all told me it couldn't be done or at least shouldn't. I didn't want for them be right. I wasn't going to be the foolish foreigner who had no idea what he was doing. It didn't matter what everyone else thought -- I was going to climb to the top of Kumotori whether it was possible or not.
(to be continued)