I wandered around alone atop Kumotori mountain looking at the ubiquitous Japanese signs and plaques scattered about. On a clear day the view was supposed to be spectacular. On that day I was completely surrounded by thick grey clouds and although there really wasn't much to take pictures of I snapped a couple anyway. The view, many would argue was the reason for pursuing such an endeavor in the first place. On this particular occasion I was just happy to have a picture of myself at the top (even though I had to hold the camera in front of me and take it myself). I could now tell everyone that this peak truly was a "cloud catcher".
I was starting to shiver from the cold as it was only 14 degrees at the top and I hadn't been moving for about five minutes. I sat on one of the many benches available, opened my pack and pulled out a dry shirt and shorts and changed out of the soaked ones I was wearing. The dry clothes felt nice and warmed me. I finished the water left in one of my water bottles and downed a third of the other. I could feel my legs cramping up and the coldness of the water was making me shiver. I was feeling dizzy and thought that some quick calories might help me. I ate some more dried prunes and some of the chocolates that the young man at the ramen shop had given me. I wasn't sure if it was low blood sugar or altitude but I was feeling nauseous and my legs were cramping quite badly.
I stayed for about ten minutes at the top in total. There wasn't much to see and my body temperature was starting to drop quite rapidly as even though I was wearing dry clothes now, my socks and hair were still wet. I packed everything up and started working my way down the mountain. It didn't take me long to make it to the lodge and I had already made up my mind that staying the night wasn't an option so I kept going. Most of the journey back would be downhill, but there would be some uphill climbs as well.
The sky was getting more and more dark which is always intensified by the forest. I was beginning to worry that I may not be able to make it out of the forest by dark. The fear of having to find my way through the forest in the dark with wild boars, bears, and poisonous snakes only added to my worries of not getting home in time to stop Karen from worrying. I started to hike faster and faster. I was hiking as fast as my body could handle. My quadriceps and calves were cramping quite badly that I was hobbling down the trail. I began to worry that I may not be physically able to go much further, especially when I had to start going up hill again.
I climbed as hard as I could in the dim forest, my legs quivering, sweat once again soaking my clothes. I was still nauseous and light headed but I tried hard not to think about it. When I reached the summit of the second peak I contemplated resting for a few minutes, but decided against it. If I had been determined to make the summit of Kumotori, I was exponentially more determined to get out of the forest before dark. I began to jog down the mountain, even though I knew this was dangerous in my condition. I didn't care, I didn't want to worry Karen, and I didn't want to have to sleep in the forest because I had lost my way. I darted down the trail as fast as I could without being out of control. I thought that if I just kept a good consistent pace, that I might be okay.
This is when I began to wage war with my thoughts. I mean "I" because previous to this point I had only listened as they argued back and forth vying for my favor. Now I was talking aloud in a manner I had never experienced before. I was angry. I felt as though I had put my trust in someone or something and been betrayed. Was it possible to betray oneself? "Why did I listen to you?" I shouted, upset at being fooled by what I knew was my pride. "What have I proven? Huh? What?" The argument was one sided though. My other thoughts dared not rebut.
I came across a marker and my heart sank. It said that I had ten kilometers to go to the temple where the cable car was. From my watch I knew I only had two hours to go before it was absolutely dark outside the forest, I had no idea how much longer I would have light inside the forest. I couldn't believe I had been so foolish - selfish. I continued the one-sided debate with myself as I continued to run awkwardly down the second mountain. Time had never meant so much before to me. Darkness was creeping in and I could barely see ten feet in front of me.
As I ran, legs aching, dripping with sweat with only enough light to maybe make it back halfway I made a promise. I promised myself and any gods that there may, be that I would never let pride talk me into being foolish or inconsiderate again. I promised this and asked for something in return. Get me home safe without worrying Karen too much. I meant it. I never meant anything so much in my life. Even if my wish was not to be granted I vowed that I would keep my promise, forever. One could have heard the sincerity of my promise if they were in the vicinity at the time because I repeated it over and over again out loud. My tired, weak body perched atop its faltering, cramped legs was not enough to get me back before dark and I knew it. I knew that I was now in the hands of fate. A fate brought on by pride. When that sun went down and that forest turned black, all I would have were my thoughts... would they be friend or foe?
I climbed the last mountain with everything I had. My legs were in severe pain as I kept hiking through the cramps. I kept picturing the signs I had seen posted at the start of my journey warning of bears and wild boars. I already knew about the poisonous snakes from my Japan hiking guide. The worst thing you could do to a wild animal is startle it. It's only when they feel threatened or that they have no other choice that they attack. I was worried that since it was dark and I was running that I may cause such a situation. So I just kept talking to myself as loud as I could all the way up the last mountain.
When I reached the top of the last mountain I came across a Japanese man with a large beard and messy hair at one of the old, weathered emergency cabins I had passed earlier. He was organizing an old canvas pack mounted on a wooden frame. I was immediately relieved to see someone, anyone, but wondered why he was hiking when it was getting so dark. His hair had some grey in it and I guessed he was about forty or fifty. I assumed from his appearance and from his calm demeanor in the night forest that he was a mountain man. I nodded to him and he nodded back, then I stepped up to the balcony of the cabin and lay on my back placing my legs up on the railing to try and relieve my cramps.
I asked the man in my broken Japanese how far it was to the cable car. He told me that it was already closed by now. In all this time I had forgotten to check my watch to see if the cable car was even running anymore. I was so angry with myself -- I had failed. Why had I been so foolish? How would I get home now, I wondered. By the time I reached the temple everything will be closed, and there is no way I will be able to climb down the cable car trail in the dark. I wanted to scream. I couldn't believe I had let this situation get so bad. I knew Karen was already waiting at home worried because I was already so late. Now I was going to be much later.
I had to make a decision. Was I going to spend the night in the forest or was I going to try to make it back to the temple in the dark and sleep in the village? Either way, Karen would be grief stricken. I felt so horrible that I was going to cause her so much worry and there was nothing I could do. I know how she is and she would think the worst for sure. I didn't want to put her through that. I asked the man if it was possible to make it back to the temple before it became dark. He looked at me and cocked his head to the side in such a way that told me that he wanted to tell me what I wanted to hear but couldn't. I then asked him if there was somewhere to stay close by. He looked at me grumpily and said "you can't stay with me". "Do you have a phone?" I queried. "No.", he said simply. This confirmed my suspicion; the only person I had ever encountered in Japan who did not have a cell phone, he must be a mountain man.
He looked at me with pity, I could tell he wanted to be able to do more for me but he couldn't. Whether it was because he didn't know how to help me or had made up his mind long ago to look out for himself only, he couldn't help. He told me "if you run fast, maybe you can get to the temple soon." He put on his pack and disappeared into the forest. I had now been resting for about fifteen valuable minutes. I knew that I had wasted a lot of time but I had a feeling that this man would be able to help me. I had been wishing, hoping, and praying for help out of my predicament and I thought that maybe he was it. I was disappointed. I had no more time to spare. I put my pack back on and started running as fast as I could down the mountain. It was very dark now and I could barely see the trail. I was running hard when my foot caught something protruding from the trail and I was sent airborne.
(to be continued)