3 Days in the Northern Alps (Part 2)
Continued from Part 1
In an instant the skies opened up, and heavy rain and small hail began to rain down on me hard. I knew the weather was turning, I could see it off in the distance and thought I was prepared to take out my rain gear the instant I felt some drops. But this all happened so quickly that by the time I took my pack off and removed my rain jacket from it, I was pretty wet: wet enough that after getting my jacket on, I consciously decided to not bother with the rain paints since I was already soaked through.
I am used to walking in all sorts of weather, but the ferocity of this quick burst of rain caught me off guard, and all I could think about in that moment was taking shelter. The problem was that I was on an exposed ridge with nowhere to go, and with nothing nearby that would provide some refuge from the elements. So I improvised by backing up against some rocks and unfolding my foam sleeping pad over my head to act as a sort of umbrella and at least shield me from direct hits from the hail. It wasn't an ideal solution, but it gave me an emotional lift. I have been through enough situations over the years to not panic in scenarios like this and part of me was enjoying the problem-solving aspect of being in that spot under those circumstances.
The problem was that with the sudden downpour came an equally swift drop in temperatures and now I was both wet and sitting still. All I could hope is that the rain would stop or at least the intensity of the storm would wane and I could begin moving again so that I didn't get too cold. Luckily, after about 15 minutes the skies lightened and the rains temporarily ceased, allowing me to get back on my feet and on the trail. However, I knew I wasn't in the clear just yet, and my skepticism about the current lull proved correct when just a few minutes later thunder began to crackle loudly over the nearby peaks.
Hypothermia, even in summer, is a legitimate concern in these conditions, but the one thing I feared the most was lightning and here it began while I was in the worst possible location, alone along an exposed rocky ridge - with wherever I was standing becoming the highest point around by default. Instinct says to move quickly and get out of there, but in reality moving forward towards my goal or backward towards where I came from would not get me off that ridge, and so I was forced to leave the trail and hastily descend from the ridge's apex down into thick pine brush. This would get me off the highest point and away from the rocks on the ridge's spine that could conduct electricity over a wide surface area in the event of a lightning strike. Again, I refused to panic and did what I felt was the only thing I could do, and after 15 to 20 minutes of hunkering down in the bushes without hearing any more thunder, I felt comfortable moving on.
Now that the worst was seemingly over I pressed on towards Mt. Suisho, the highest point of the day's hike at nearly 3,000m. I certainly prefer blue skies and scenic views, but there is something about thick clouds, dark skies and bad weather that enhances one's reverence for nature and the sense that you are truly small and powerless - which is what most of us are ultimately seeking when we venture out into the hills - a reinvigoration of awe and admiration for the natural world.
I quickly made it up to and over the Suisho summit and ran a good portion of the stretch that led to the mountain hut that bears the same name. Just as the hut emerged through the thick fog and light rain, I overtook a group of three older Japanese men who were staying in the hut that evening. One of them asked me where I came from and I responded with "America", but he shook his head and laughingly clarified, "no, no no - today!" I was slightly embarrassed that I had misunderstood what they were asking (almost everyone wants to know where I am from), but when I told them I had started at Ogisawa, they again said "no, TODAY". I explained that I had indeed started hiking from Ogisawa that same morning and enjoyed seeing the predictable mix of confusion and disbelief slowly splash across their faces. By this point I had been on the trail for almost exactly 13 hours, which of course is a long time, but their confusion stemmed from the fact that the standard Japanese hiking maps list the time required from Ogisawa to the Suisho hut as 26 hours. Once they realized I was serious, they jokingly told me to be careful not to violate any speeding laws and wished me luck for the last part of my hike.
Now I was only 2 hours map time away from where I would camp for the night and I was honestly ready to set up my tent, cook some ramen and get to bed as early as possible. The weather seemed to be clearing and slowly the clouds pulled away to reveal more and more of the valley around me. The last bit of trail followed a peaceful mountain stream with the trail lined on both sides by a colourful assortment of alpine flowers. I was alone, as most Japanese hikers tend to start hiking very early in the morning and reach their destinations by early afternoon. It was a beautiful way to close the day, and before I knew it I had arrived to the Mitsumata mountain hut where I would spend the night. I checked in and made my way to the tent site where I found a decent spot and set up my shelter.
I am currently training for the 2020 Trans Japan Alps Race, and part of the entry requirements state that I must spend at least 4 nights camped above 2,000m using only an emergency shelter and an emergency blanket or bivvy. To put it another way, I am not allowed to use a proper waterproof tent nor a sleeping bag. Furthermore, these 4 nights must be sandwiched between back-to-back days of 20+ hours of map time. I must also submit photographic proof, so after setting up my orange emergency shelter (for the first time), I snapped a photo showing my face, the shelter and a landmark that would allow them to confirm the location and altitude of the camping area. The next order of business was dinner, so I took my food, stove and water bottles to the benches in front of the hut and cooked and ate my meal there, but just as I was finishing the rains began again. I hurriedly refilled my water and packed up my things and ran back to my shelter.
It was 7:30 and the sun was setting, so I settled into bed, but as time passed the storm only intensified and despite being very tired, I found it nearly impossible to sleep between the constant thunder and heavy rains. My shelter is not 100% waterproof and soon I found that drops of water were soaking through the fabric and falling onto my face. I knew it would be a long night, but I turned to the side and closed my eyes again. The rain fell steadily between 7:30pm and 4:30am, but I luckily did manage to get some sleep and survive the night.
TO BE CONTINUED...