Monday, February 6, 2012

Climbing Iwate-san

This is something I wrote out several months ago, but thought it might be a good addition to this blog, since it's about Japan. This entry recounts my climbing of Mount Iwate. It's rather long.

On July 6th, I climbed Iwate-san with the first year students at my high school. It was fantastic. Here is my recounting of the experience.

Iwate-san (or, Mount Iwate) is a technically active volcano a little bit north of Morioka. It hasn’t erupted in a long time, but it still gives off a few little fumes of sulfur gas every now and then. The mountain is 2,038 meters high. A base camp is located about 663 meters up, and is reachable by bus. From there, the real climb begins.

The view from part way Mount Iwate.
For my adventure, I had to get up at an unholy 6AM in order to get to school to catch a 7:30AM bus with one of the groups of students. No one sat beside me, which wasn’t a big surprise. Wherever I go there is generally what I call the ‘’gaijin bubble’’ surrounding me. On the trains, no one will sit next to me, or stand next to me, if they can avoid it. I get tables all to myself in cafeteria-style dining areas. I’m not sure if it’s foreignness or English or what exactly that they are afraid of, but at any rate, Japanese people generally don’t come near me. In a way, that’s kind of nice, compared to the random strangers in the US who decide in an instant that you’re their new best friend and get way too close, but sometimes it also reminds me in a slightly painful fashion that I’m different and at best make them uncomfortable, and at worst not welcome.

Anyway, I rode the bus to base camp. Iwate-san came into view as we drove and I worked on convincing myself that it wasn’t that tall and was totally surmountable. I chose not to consider the possibility that it might be otherwise. We pulled into the parking lot and piled out of the bus. I chose at the last moment to leave my rain coat behind. I wondered if I might regret it, but the weather was forecast to be clear. There was a 20% chance of rain. The bundled coat felt heavy and I didn’t want to carry it, so I left it on the bus with my other stuff.

I carried up in my backpack: 1.5 L of water; a fan; food consisting of two energy bars, and bags of jerky, crackers, marshmallows, and banana chips totaling almost 2000 calories altogether; an extra pair of socks; warm gloves; a very light jacket; a bandana; a small towel; my camera, with a spare battery; my binoculars; a big floppy hat; some pre-cut sections of TP; tissues; my cell phone; NSAIDs; and my all important passport and alien registration card that prove I’m a nice gaijin (don’t leave home without it!).

As far as what I wore, I had my good hiking boots, new thick socks made for hiking, long pants for working out made of polyester for better wicking (no cotton!), a yellow tank top also with good wicking that my folks sent me, and lots of sunblock. My big hat I actually almost never used. It was cloudy most of the time, and in the wooded parts it kept getting knocked off by tree branches. I never wore the gloves. My towel I used continually. I soaked it with water at the base camp and wore it around my neck. It stayed damp the whole way so I shifted it around from time to time to bring a new, cooler portion in contact with my skin. It really helped keep me cool, but it washed off the sunblock on my neck and shoulders. I didn’t get badly burned, but the back of my neck and the tops of my shoulders did get a little toasted.

I also used the fan a lot. I’m really glad I brought it. Although sometimes there was a nice breeze and the day wasn’t unbearably hot, especially near the top of the mountain, the exertion of the climb made me really sweaty and overheated, so the fan was fantastic when I wanted my own breeze. Other things I’m really glad I brought: the extra socks (I changed socks at the top of the mountain—felt so good!), my camera and extra battery, the jerky and marshmallows, the water, and the light jacket, which I did need at the summit.

I’m really glad that my backpack had a hip belt and the chest strap; they helped distribute the weight. I’m also really glad I had hiking boots, and not tennis shoes. I almost wore lighter shoes for the trek, but I’m very glad I stuck with the tougher, aggressively soled, ankle-supporting hiking boots, because the rocks were nasty.

I never used the binoculars. I never used the bandana—but if someone had gotten injured and needed a quick pressure bandage it would have been very useful. A bandana always has lots of potential uses, so that’s why I brought it, and it was so light I don’t regret carrying it. The crackers I hardly touched. Next time, I’ll bring more jerky and marshmallows, but fewer or no crackers. I think marshmallows are better than chocolate because they melt at a higher temperature, but if I could have found M&Ms I would have brought those, since they are melt-resistant. The jerky really felt sustaining. My two energy bars were also devoured with gusto.

I wish I’d brought more water. I didn’t run out to the point of distress, but 2 L instead of 1.5 L would not have gone amiss. I almost only brought 1 L, and had said my extra 0.5 L bottle was my ‘’back up’’ just in case, but I drank it up, too. Water is something always worth carrying, because you can’t do without it, and you always want more. Next time, I’d also carry my sunblock with me, and reapply at the top. Nothing really burned but the back of my neck and my shoulders, but on a sunnier day, it could have been a problem, and a reapply session would have been reassuring. I never needed my raincoat or the TP or tissues, but if I had needed them, they could have been hard to do without.

So anyway, the buses arrived at base camp and we piled out. It was a short walk to the trail head, but uphill, and everyone immediately started complaining of being tired already. The 200 or so students and a dozen teachers gathered at the trail head. The students were all ‘’volunteered’’ to carry a piece of firewood and some newspaper up to the emergency snow lodge at the Eighth Station. They stuck the firewood in their backpacks.

There are ten ‘’Stations’’ along the trail. I actually don’t know the correct Japanese translation for what they call them, but I started calling them Stations. There’s nothing at the Stations except a sign telling you how high you are, maybe pointing the right way to the trail, or something like that, but they are acknowledged markers of your position on the trail—useful if you have to call for help, I expect. And the Eighth Station actually does have something at it. Iwate-san is a ski mountain (of course—aren’t they all?) and the Eighth Station has an emergency shelter in case of snowstorms or as a refuge for anyone sick or hurt on the slopes. It’s the size of a small house, and though I didn’t go in it, I gather that it has a fireplace.

Well, fireplaces require fuel, and there’s hardly any forest at the Eighth Station level, so someone has to restock the firewood each year. Turns out that would be the students who climb the mountain. As far as I know, there’s no fee to climb, so I guess carrying a little piece of wood is not that bad as a thank you. Still, I felt a little sorry for the kids, even though the firewood pieces were not that big. No one made me carry anything, but if I’d known it was a volunteer thing, I would have schlepped a piece, too.

The first section of the trail.
So the kids each got a stick, and they took off on the trail in groups, coordinated by one of the teachers. I kept waiting for my name, but he didn’t call it, so by the time the last group was heading out, I asked when I should start. He told me I should have started a few groups ago (thanks a lot) so I took it upon myself from that point to decide on my own when and where I’d go. I hit the trail among the last group of kids, with another lady teacher: the only other female adult attempting the climb with us. The other four female teachers were staying at the base camp. The two vice principals picked up the tail of the pack.

The first stretch was through damp, deciduous woods. It was uphill and rugged, but not terrible. Despite this, like most novice hikers, the kids took off at high speed, and were soon exhausted of their first burst of energy. After that, things slowed down to a more sustainable pace. My fellow lady teacher, however, was soon breathing raggedly and unable to keep up. After making sure she was ok, we left her behind, resting on a big root to catch her breath. I felt a little winded, too, but was trying to pace myself and get into a good hiking-speed that I could sustain with occasional brief rests.

I was also watching the kids for signs of illness, injury, or exhaustion. Although the day wasn’t super-hot, I still knew it was possible to get heat exhaustion or worse, and as we climbed, I knew there was a chance of other affects of the altitude, though to be honest I didn’t know if we were going high enough to actually induce true altitude sickness. Throughout the climb I persistently asked kids I encountered how they were doing and encouraged brief rests, water, and food consumption. To the best of my ability, I also conveyed things my parents had taught me about hiking, like ‘’if you start to fall, try to sit down’’ and ‘’when rock climbing, follow the cracks, rather than trying to climb the flat expanse.’’

A flower from the mountain, columbine, I think.
The kids did pretty well, though I did come across one girl who seemed quietly distressed about something. I tried to ask her what was wrong, but she barely responded. She seemed scared or upset about something, so I stayed with her until another teacher caught up, and left her in his care. I heard later that she was escorted back down the mountain, but I still don’t know what was wrong. It’s not something to be pried into, and when I see her in class I treat her as if nothing happened. That’s one way to harmony in Japan. We all pretend it never happened.

I hiked on, following with the last of the pack, but I was cool with that. The climb was strenuous. I didn’t know if I’d make it the whole way, plus it had been a long time since my last climbing adventure, so I knew that what I had to do was go at my own pace, without turning it into a race or getting upset about being last, and if I kept it steady and controlled my breath, I might be able to make it. I also felt like I was there with the stragglers in case any of them had problems, and to keep reminding them to eat a little bit each time they rested and be careful.

Sometimes I feel like Japan has such a ‘’ganbare!’’ attitude that people disregard their own health and safety to perform as they are being urged to. I believe in working hard, but I also think it’s stupid not to take some considerations for your wellbeing. I didn’t want any kids falling down with heat exhaustion or being careless and getting hurt. So I set a good example by taking rests, drinking, and sharing my food. The marshmallows were popular.

The rocky section.
The first forest stage morphed into a scramble over open rocky hillside. I could identify old lava flows, and porous volcanic rock was everywhere. The going was tough, with uneven, shifting rocks of every size on slightly sandy ground and a steep grade. The trail was not clearly broken. Sometimes I could identify an actual trail, but other times it was a random scramble as best as you were able over the rocks until you reached the next obvious bit of trail. In the valleys, however, vegetation still grew, and the trees and bushes were full of birds.

Siberian Meadow Bunting
I heard lots of uguisu singing, and recorded some, too, as well as some new bird calls I didn’t know. I was able to video a new bird singing. I later identified it as a Siberian Meadow Bunting. Unfortunately, most of the time the birds stayed under cover, so I heard far more than I saw. One bird that I never got a good look at or recorded was a songbird-sized bird that sang a long song as it descended in flight, and stopped when it landed. I saw it fly, singing, and land twice, but never was able to record it, or get a look at any field marks. I wonder what it was. It seemed unique to me that it sang only while flying in for a landing.

The open rocky section seemed to last forever, and we were exposed under the sky, with no shelter or shade. If the day had been sunny, I imagine it could have been miserably hot.
The slope of the mountain.

After the steep, rocky section, we moved into a slightly less steep but still strenuous third section through another bit of forest. The first section of forest had sported tall trees, but now the trees were much shorter, more bush-like, and far denser. The foliage altogether sometimes didn’t rise more than a few feet above my head.  Conifers had started appearing, too, but there were still bugs, and it was still wet. I got some photos of flowers mainly in this section. The going was easier because the rocks were fewer and the trail was winding instead of ascending straight up, but the rocky section had sucked a lot of my energy.

By this point I was more than halfway up the mountain. This was the last push to the Eighth Station. Because the going was easier, by the time I and the cluster of kids who had attached themselves to me reached the Eighth Station, a lot of my wind had recovered. We were greeted by cheers and clapping from the other students who were already there eating and resting.

A sign indicating 1.7 more
kilometers to the top.
Now, the summit was within reach, and only an hour’s hike away, but not within sight. The top was cloudy, choked with fog, and the peak beyond view, but we knew it was out there. The afternoon had come, and we were informed that if we wanted to try for the summit, we had to leave all but immediately. Thus spurred into action—I’d made it to the Eighth Station, there was no way I wasn’t going to go the rest of the way—myself and five or six girls all but sprinted for the summit trail head. At first, the going was nearly flat, and we made good time. The trail was rocky, winding among dense, low, green shrubbery. After fifteen minutes of clipping along, though, we approached the base of the cone.

Iwate-san, as I said, is a volcano. We were going to climb up to the edge of the basin from which it had last exploded. Vegetation all but vanished, so that we walked among dark, volcanic rock and gravel, with the occasional whiff of sulfur reaching our noses. Then the trail headed up the side of the cone. It was easily as steep as the earlier section of rock scramble, and seemed steeper, as we struggled up among thick and shifting gravel and sand.

The gravelly ground shifted under our feet, making it easy to slip, and hard to make progress. Like climbing a sand dune at the beach, where the sand keeps falling down under your weight as you’re trying to make progress upward, the shifting, falling gravel made it take twice as much effort than if it had been a solid rock slope. It was really the final trial to separate those who can push themselves and those who can’t. It was a suitable illustration of the true spirit of “ganbare.”

Scrambling up the loose, shifting gravel.
At last, at last, the volcano rim. As I made it to the top of the gravel slope and stood on the rim, the sense of satisfaction, that I had made it, was tempered with my exhaustion. The air seemed thin to me. It was hard to catch my breath and breathing itself didn’t feel very rewarding. I felt a little dizzy, so walked carefully, since there was no railing anywhere of any kind and a misstep would send me tumbling down the side of the cone.

I also noticed my hands and arms tingling a little. It wasn’t the localized tingle of when I’ve slept the wrong way and pinched a nerve or made my arm go numb, but rather a slight but pervasive vibration throughout the whole of both arms and hands, and I wondered if I was experiencing vasoconstriction to send more blood to my legs, head, and core. After all, my arms weren’t doing much but hanging there, so they didn’t need the blood as badly as other parts did.

The trail around the crater rim.
I tried to consciously slow my heart rate and get better breaths. I’d been conscious the whole trip of how hard my heart was beating, and I’d taken breaks when I’d noticed it getting too fast. I’d wanted an elevated but sustainable heart rate, and most of the time had maintained it so. Now, though, I knew I’d done as much as I’d needed to. I’d reached the top. Maybe my body knew it, too, that now it was permissible to call the struggle done, that there would be no more pushing, and it wanted to fall down and twitch.

I kept a hold of myself and walked around the rim to the official summit. There, I got my photo with the summit sign. The students also wanted photos with me. A line of boys who wanted a photo just with me, the two of us, also formed. I try not to think too much about that. But at last, it was time to head back down. The other teachers there were chivvying us to get going, because we had to be back at base camp by a certain time. As we started to descend, however, the weather cleared. The clouds rolled away, showing us blue sky, and illuminating the cone and basin. The deep and sandy, rocky scar from the last explosion was made bare.
When the fog cleared, a look into the crater.

As I imagined the forces that had made the volcano and caused eruptions that had produced the ancient lava flows I’d walked over, I became conscious of the raw power and majesty of the Earth. The craggy landscape of sharp ridges and promontories, sometimes partly coated with clinging, rugged green shrubs, over which the clouds rolled in rivers of fog, felt alien and harsh and poignant: a foreign, unforgiving, and beautiful place. As we descended the cone, practically surfing on the flowing gravel, the distant landscape of Morioka, far below, came into view. Pale and blurry with distance, and so far away that I couldn’t pick out any buildings, looking at it, I felt as high as the falcons, among the clouds atop Iwate-san that I’ve looked up at so often.

I’m amazed I actually climbed to the top.

We hurried back to the Eighth Station. Another reason I was glad to have my hiking boots and not tennis shoes: while surfing down the gravel, the high tops of my boots kept sand and gravel out of my shoes. At the Eighth Station again, I wolfed down another energy bar and hit the restrooms. They are nice restrooms, with actual flush toilets, not outhouses, and they’re made of cedar. They may be the best smelling restrooms I’ve ever been in. Afterwards I changed my socks, which felt fabulous. Each class was photoed and then released to begin the trek down the mountain.
Preparing to descend down from the summit.

On the way up, people had straggled widely, but on the way down, it was tightly controlled and the classes kept together with a teacher at each end. That may be because slipping and falling is actually easier to do going down a steep slope than going up. I followed class 1-4 down. We took the forest route the whole way, skipping the rocky section. I can understand why. There would have been too many slips and falls on the unsteady rocks descending.

In the forest, there were branches to hang onto as we descended—which really helped when stepping down big drops—and the trail was hemmed in by trees so it kept everyone in line. We took regular rest breaks. I should mention that many of the teachers were in radio contact with each other. Additional teachers and the vice principals had been left behind at various Stations along the trail. As we reached them, they radioed down to base camp, reporting our progress, and joined the descent. As we got lower, we did start to straggle a little. I think some of the students were really running out of gas, while a few were still energized and able to rush ahead, so we started to spread again.

As we reached the original first section of forest, 1-4 was lagging except for a few students who dashed ahead with amazing vigor, and I pushed ahead on my own after them. My feet were starting to become painful, particularly the toes and balls of the feet. My legs weren’t painful, but had started trembling. I wanted to get back as quickly as I could, and since I had my wind, I didn’t stop to rest, but pushed on instead, walking the last section alone.

A view looking down at Morioka.
I also confess to running a bit. I wouldn’t have done it on the loose rock, and it wasn’t all that pleasant, but when the forest floor slanted down, it wasn’t too difficult to get myself into a jog and cover ground rapidly. I think it was easier and less painful overall than walking, though at that point, everything was getting painful. The ground was a bit damp, and in some places I could see that people had slipped, but though I was concerned, I never actually slipped on any mud myself.

At last, at long last, I returned to the base camp. My pack was light because I’d drank all my water and eaten a lot of my food. I was sweaty and exhausted. I went straight to the big water fountain and dunked my head. The girls and women in the area looked at me like I was insane. Hair is a big deal for a lot of Japanese females, and must always be in exactly correct alignment. For me, however, the cold water felt shocking and fantastic. I also soaked my towel again and drenched my shoulders, back, and chest

I realized a few moments later that I’d soon be getting on a bus, so maybe getting soaking wet was not the best choice, but wow it felt good. I also chugged some fresh, cold water. There’s nothing like an eight hour climb to make you appreciate cold, clean water. My other focus was getting some more food in me, and taking some NSAID. My feet hurt enough to warrant it, and I figured it would be a precautionary measure to keep my muscles from getting extra-extra-inflamed.

The lady teachers who had stayed in base camp congratulated me on making it to the top with little sign of jealousy, shame, or surprise. I think, after witnessing me do something as bizarre as dunk my head under the water fountain, they realized again that I am really weird, incomparable to anything they’re familiar with, and just downright undefineable. I think I like it that way.

I headed to the bus, mostly dried by the sun, and took my seat. The ride back was about 80% quieter than the ride there. In fact, I’d say more than half the bus was asleep. The kids really wore themselves out. I’d gotten to chat with a lot of the kids along the hike. We chanted “we can do it” together and then I taught them “I did it” for the descent. We laughed and joked as best as we were able, in a mix of Japanese and English. They’re really fantastic kids, and they did a great job on the mountain.

Now, a couple days later—my legs are sooo unhappy with me. I ask myself, do I ever want to do it again? Actually, I probably do. I’m a little surprised I did it. I’m very proud I did. It was really hard. It was so hard that it was hard to enjoy it, sometimes. But still, I think I did enjoy it, and I’d probably do it again. It was certainly exhilarating and breathtaking—in more ways than one.

Thank you, Iwate-san.

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