How I Almost Died on Mount Asahi in Japan
Mount Asahi (Asahi-dake)
But the Ranajay of 2017 was above such boring advice. Not only did I show up at Mount Asahi alone (having attempted and failed to book a tour-group the day before), I also showed up wearing only a down jacket and a pair of cheap boots I had purchased the week before from Asahikawa. I had worn this down jacket to Matterhorn, Switzerland a few years ago and had found no reason to let go of it because it was so damn comfortable. My friends liked to call it the Kim Jong-il jacket because it apparently made me look like the late dictator.
The resemblance is striking
The Way Up
So, up I went without any snow poles or special snow shoes on a mountain that was covered in snow. I relied solely on the mercy of the trail because other hikers had used the same trail and it had a slightly higher probability of not ending in a deep dark hole through some snow covered trees with frozen bodies of hikers at the bottom. At this point, I feel like a disclaimer is necessary:
Please, do not attempt any of the things I did on Mount Asahi. If in doubt, please read the title of this post once again.
This was some time in early February when the snow season is at its peak in Hokkaido, so the snow on Mount Asahi was powdery and pristine. I have never seen snow like that before or since! There were hardly any clouds in the stark blue sky and the sun was shining down on me. Honestly, I was having a great time!
The trail was a bit difficult to walk in portions, when my feet would suddenly sink into the snow, all the way up to my knees (did I mention I wasn’t wearing any waterproof pants?), but it wasn’t too bad. Even though the temperature was -10°C, I was sweating profusely and had to take my scarf off from time to time and open the front of my jacket to cool myself. There was crystalline snow below and blue sky above. I was in heaven.
I felt jubilant, exhilarated, ecstatic! It was my first time hiking an active stratovolcano and I hadn’t expected to get this close to an actual volcanic vent. I hummed one of the songs from Skyrim which is aptly titled – Far Horizons and remembered what the Greybeards used to tell me all the time in the game- “Sky above, voice within”.
Vertical videos strike again!
The Way Down
Tired and satisfied, I decided to make my way back to the cable car station. Now, something very interesting about mountains is that the weather can change drastically in the span of a few minutes; one minute you might be frolicking beneath clear blue skies, taunting Michael Yamashita and the next minute you might find yourself wearing a Kim Jong-il jacket in the middle of a mild snow storm. Another interesting thing about this particular mountain was that the volcanic vents were rather popular, so there were several tracks that led to this place. And I couldn’t distinguish the one I had taken from the rest because they were all crisscrossing each other, knitting themselves in an intricate tapestry of confusion.
I had to think fast because the snow had started to get heavier and I was in no way equipped to weather an actual storm; hell, I was just wearing a pair of Uniqlo Heattech leggings underneath my jeans!
I picked one of the trails that seemed to be going back the same direction I had come from and began my descent. Snow kept falling on me and the clouds descended on the mountain. As I hurried down the trail, my feet sank deeper and deeper into the snow. The snow came all the way up to my thighs. I literally had to keep moving faster in order to not sink deeper into the snow. My jeans were nice and wet by now and all the sweat I had accumulated on the way up had begun to chill my body. I added on to the old batch of sweat with a brand new one as I half-ran, half-stumbled down the mountain.
The trail wasn’t a straight though. It twisted and wound in places. Things were starting to disappear around me fast in the falling snow. Tracks were being covered in layers of fresh snow, groups that were far away but previously in my line of sight were now gone. About 15 minutes later, the trail in front of me disappeared as well.
“Always follow the trail, otherwise you might fall through the snow”, I remembered my friend’s words of wisdom. But what do you do when the trail ends in the middle of nowhere? I strained my eyes to see through the sea of white. If there was a group nearby, maybe I could shout to them, although I would only do so as a last resort because if there’s anything I had learnt from watching cartoons is that shouting on a mountain might trigger an avalanche (this might actually be a myth though).
But there was no group in sight. In fact, I could hardly see anything in the blinding white of the mountain coupled with the relentless onslaught of the snow storm. Even though I was wearing sunglasses, I was experiencing the beginning stages of snow-blindness (snow can reflect more than 80% of the UV rays that fall on it). It was hard to keep my eyes open and I had a headache from doing so. As I scanned my surroundings between short breaks of closing my eyes, I spotted what looked like another trail. But I would have to traverse through several meters of fresh powdery snow without any snow shoes on to reach it. The risk of falling through the snow was considerably high.
I looked to the skies above, but I couldn’t see a thing. There was no sun to guide me. Waves of snow pelted my numb face. My legs were cold and tired and my chest was sore from breathing the cold winter air. I could hardly keep my eyes open. In that moment I realized that I might actually die here alone on this mountain.
The voice inside me told me to walk towards the trail. I closed my eyes and summoned all the strength within me. I had chosen to follow my voice.
Without further hesitation, I took my first step into the fresh snow. My foot went straight in, all the way to my crotch. But it stopped there. I picked my other foot up and plunged it into the snow as well. Waist deep in snow, I began my march.
The Long Way Home
With each step, I had to lift my foot as high as I could so that I could gain a bit of ground before my foot sank into the snow again. If I didn’t do that, I would keep sinking further and further into the snowy depths of Mount Asahi. It was slow and tiring work. Each step carried with it a risk of breaking through some hidden treeline and plunging me deep enough to not be able to get out. But standing still carried a greater risk of being buried in the snow storm. Little by little, I made my way forward, not stopping for anything. My throat was parched from all the cold air and the falling snowflakes I was swallowing. I didn’t even stop for a sip of water.
By the time I reached the new trail, the storm had started to subside. I looked at the fresh trail behind me that I had just ploughed into the snow over the last half hour and wondered if any of these trails were made by people like me, who had no idea where they were going or what they were walking on top of. Visibility was still very low and I had no idea where I was. I looked around me and all I could see were clouds of white and the omnipresent, headache-inducing bright glare of the snow. I thought about all the hikers who got lost in the mountains, their well preserved bodies found the next spring. One unlucky step and I could fall through the snow and join their ranks.
The trail in front of me was a shallow one but seemed to have been walked recently. Beads of sweat had frozen onto my face and my lips had lost all sensation. I cupped my hands around my mouth and blew into them to warm myself. Having made it this far, I decided to take a break and make a short video before I went further ahead. If I did die, maybe someone might find the video in spring, on my well preserved corpse.
The video looks a bit grey, but in reality it was really bright and I could hardly see anything
I had made it. A huge wave of relief washed over me and I began to laugh. I wish I had recorded that laugh, but I don’t think you need an introduction to it. You’ve probably experienced that laugh too, one time or the other in your life. It’s the laugh of victory, of you thanking yourself for sticking it through, of you celebrating your sheer good luck. It’s the laugh that says, “I can’t believe I made it!”
Back in the warmth of the cable car station, I bought myself a hot can of coffee from the vending machine (isn’t Japan amazing?). I dusted the snow off my Kim Jong-il jacket and warmed my cold and wet legs next to one of the radiators. I was alive. Before I took the cable car down, I took one last look at the beautiful Mount Asahi.
Clouds of endless steam rose from within its heart, into the endless grey sky above.
If you’re interested in hiking, here’s a great article I found on REI’s website with regards to snowshoeing – Do I Have to Stay on the Trail While Snowshoeing?
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Sky Above, Voice Within
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