Saturday, 21 September 2013

Why am I here?

Saturday 21st September 2013

MP3 track of the day: Why – Annie Lennox

 Weather: Miserable. A little bit of rain, a strong breeze and a lot of cloud reducing visibility.

Getting up at 2:45am is not my ideal way to start a bank holiday weekend. However, if I had not, I would not have been ready for a 4:30am rondevu with three of my mates (Victor, Francis and Brendan). Today we had decided to climb mount Iwate. At 2,038m (6,686ft) this would be the highest mountain I'd ever climbed in my life (Ben Nevis is only 1,344m; 4,409ft). However, at 4:30am, these daunting figures didn't even enter the thoughts within my head. At this time I was remembering all the other mountains I'd climbed; I was reminiscing about past accomplishments which included the 'Three Peaks Challenge' (climbing the highest mountain within Scotland, the highest mountain within England and the highest mountain within Wales, all within twenty-four hours) and my traveler days where I climbed two mountains, within two days, in New Zealand. Confidence was high.

I drove to our rondevu point (outside Victor's house) and waited upon the others. I'd arrived five minutes late however, Francis and Brendan arrived ten minutes later than I did. Within that ten minutes I talked to Victor as I transferred my boots and bag from my car to his. Victor has a tenancy of making things sound better than they really are, therefore when he said he had seven 'walking poles' (stored behind his car) I was overjoyed as I'd left mine in the U.K. I raced off in the direction he pointed, expecting to find seven metal walking poles with foam handles and 'anti-shock' springs; only to find seven sticks he'd found on a beach the previous day. After a few harmless jokes I chose the tallest 'pole' (which was almost as tall as I) and stood there testing just how much weight it could take. I will say now that this pole (which we had nicknamed the 'Gandalf pole' as each member of the group, without suggestion from anyone else, picked up said pole and re-enacted the same Balrog vs Gandalf scene from the Lord of the Rings) was a life saver and I thank Victor for taking the trouble to obtain it.

Once Francis and Brendan arrived we loaded up Victors car and got ready for the two hour drive to Mount Iwate. The time was 4:45am and the sun was just coming up above the tree line. As we pulled out of his drive we did what any experienced mountaineer would do before partaking on a full days climb; we each ate a doughnut for breakfast.

It would appear that there is a telepathic connection between Francis (as a passenger within a car) and the ignition key. As soon as Victor started his car Francis was asleep and this left Brendan, Victor and I to carry out a in-depth discussion into Education. Having planned for this early start two days in advance (Thursday night I went to bed late so that, on Friday night, I would be able to get to sleep by 7pm) I was in no way sleepy. I therefore added my thoughts to the 'Education discussion' whenever Brendan paused for breath (which wasn't often). Anyhow the conversation had the desired affect and time passed quickly. Soon enough we were waking Francis up to tell him that we would soon be arriving.

Earlier I said that our party consisted of four members. This is what I was lead to believe at the beginning of the day however, I was soon told that another two members would be joining us. James (a fellow English teacher) and one of his Japanese colleges would also be taking on the mountain and we therefore found ourselves with another ten minute wait within a car park lying at the base of the mountain. I spent this time changing from my trainers to walking boots before checking out the competition. As I've mentioned before, the Japanese are well paid however they work long hours. Annual leave is short therefore when they part take in a hobby, they go into it with all seriousness. As I looked around at all the Japanese performing pre-planned warming up routines, every piece of their equipment was slapped with a walking brand's name. All of their equipment looked new and of the best quality (no Berghaus though; the fools!). Even though I had my walking trousers on and my Merril boots tightly attached to my feet, I still felt under-dressed; Francis was climbing in jeans, I had just a normal long-sleeved t-shirt on and I had no idea what Brendan was wearing. The end result of this made me feel a little under-prepared. Also, as I was checking out the Japanese, I could feel shots being fired back with quick glances coming from all sides; the embarrassment was eased a little when Francis unwrapped a bag of bananas and gave us all one (I made sure that my banana was in full view for all to see). Finally James arrived wearing 'standard western mountaineering gear' (i.e. Jeans) and his JTE (Japanese teacher of English) looking like a Japanese Action Man. We had a quick look at the car park's map before setting off. James and his JTE look the lead and the rest of us followed behind.

About 70% of Japan is uninhabitable due to it's many mountain ranges. This statistic on it's own is an interesting fact however here, at the foot of Japan's 92nd highest mountain (remember; it's higher than the UK's tallest mountain by a long way), you really start to understand why Japan's mountain ranges are considered uninhabitable. Unlike most mountains within the UK, the mountains within Japan go straight up. There are no large flat footpaths between accents; there is no mixed ascending and descending as you scramble your way to the top. When you are ascending, you are ascending and when you are descending, you are descending. Where I live, you can see the flat land move inland from the sea before hitting a natural wall (which in Japan is known as a mountain). I have never seen mountains quite like the ones here in Japan.

If I may, I would like to split mount Iwate into four parts:

  • Part one: This is a hike through a large forest with huge boulders where you have to scramble up some of them.
  • Part two: Once out of the tree line you are face with terrain consisting of large boulders. The mountainside is completely open to the elements and, because of this, the ground is also covered with billions of loose pebbles. The gradient is very steep.
  • Part three: This is another forested area however the boulders are not so big.
  • Part four: By now you are almost at the top of the mountain. Due to this the boulders have been grounded down by the elements and, where there should be pebbles, lies a thick layer of finely granulated rock dust.

Each part seemed to have a pole indicating it's start and finish points. As we trekked our way through 'stage one' confidence was wavering a little but still high. Action Man (who had also become our guide) led from the front only breaking silence on one or two occasions to inform James of something interesting or which path to take. The rest of us shared jokes and chatted … until the climbing got serious. Without having to say a word our party fell silent as all of our energy was focused on the task in hand. Within the first thirty minutes many small breaks were implemented with some members of the group shedding weight by pouring away water (even though there was a spring at the top of the mountain, I still felt that this was a mistake and kept all the water I had). I have always preferred ascending over descending and, even though I was at the front of the group with James and his JTE, I was still struggling.

After thirty minutes we made it to the first rest area. Francis, Brendan and Victor had fallen back slightly and so James, his JTE and I waited. Having only done 10% of the mountain I started to realise just what I'd got myself into. It mattered not; just like every other stubborn Brit I push on thinking that the British Empire was not built without hardships.

After the first hour things started to get easier. I was still feeling fresh, my body had adjusted to 'today's goal' and the trees had thinned allowing fresh air to circulate. I also had some chocolate which I nibbled at every ten minutes or so giving me an additional boost. Like I said earlier, I prefer ascending to descending and so the climb up wasn't too much of an issue. The party broke into two even groups consisting of James, his JTE and I at the front with Victor, Brendan and Francis in the rear.

Soon we had finished 'part 1' and found ourselves looking upon 'part 2'. Devoid of life, James' JTE said that there were many paths through this alien world of rock and pebbles however, he pointed out a pole, far into the distance, which turned out to be the end of 'part 2'. By this time the clouds had moved in preventing the sun from beaming through; the day was still hot but there was little chance of getting sun burnt. For brief periods there were holes within the clouds allowing us to look down into the valley below. James' JTE pointed out towns and cities however, I was far more interested in the clouds themselves. Call me a geek but, up here, you could really see geography at work; the mount was pushing the clouds upwards where the clouds were being forced together and, as they merged, the colour changed from white to grey. We proceeded onwards, with each of our steps sliding slightly due to the loose rock.

Once out of 'part 2' the whole group met up again briefly before James, James' JTE and I started off again. We made good time through 'part 3' with little incident. As we emerged from 'part 3's' woods we were confronted by the first piece of flat land I'd seen since back at the base of the mountain. Standing defiant within this oasis stood a large wooden cabin where toilets and accommodation could be found. As we'd climbed up we'd seen many large groups of Japanese climbers equipped for a night or two at the top. To me it seemed quite exciting to be doing what they were doing however, after seeing the size of their backpacks, I did not begrudge them. Next to the wooden cabin was a small man-made pool with spring water running into it. Around this spring were many wooden benches and it was here where we decided to eat lunch. I don't really eat a lot whilst climbing and so I'd packed light. I'd purchased three onigiri (cooked rice formed into a triangle with fish inside – I had gone for salmon – and seaweed around the sides), an apple and a packed of crisps from my local supermarket. I ate the apple, the crisps and one onigiri before I felt full. Action Man had brought along a small stove, a pan, a small bottle of water and a instant ramen pack (the equivalent of a large pot noodle). At first I laughed a little however, on reflection, I bet it was lighter than my lunch box and a warm meal would have been fantastic at this point during the walk; we were now situated between parts 3 and 4 and the wind had picked up and I'd remained stationary for quite sometime therefore I was cold even with my coat, woolly hat and gloves on.

I had just finished my meal when the other three joined us. They ate quickly and soon we were off. By now we were twenty to thirty minutes off the summit; the cloud had drawn in, so much so that visibility had been reduced to twenty or thirty meters. Soon after we'd started walking we stopped again as the group had broken a part; I took this opportunity to put on my waterproof trousers. Action Man told us that, from now on, we needed to stay together. The winds were very fierce and so we would only spend minutes at the top before heading back to this point. We all nodded our heads in agreement and off we went.

Iwate is a dormant volcano and so the last leg of the hike was to walk around the perimeter of it's crater. With the winds pushing us towards the craters edge I was completely focused on my footing.

Finally we made it to the top and it was such a relief. There were other groups there and so we waited our turn to have a group photo with the 'Mount Iwate' sign in the background. Once done we headed back down the mountain; at this point James' JTE took us a different way back and a path, consisting of a thick layer of dust, lay before us. A nightmare to climb this path felt as though it had been designed for descending; I decided not to fight the dusts intentions as I slid down the mountain using my 'Gandalf stick' as a steering pole. Little did I know but this would be the only time, throughout the entire decent, where I would have a bit of fun.

Soon we were back at the wooden hut. The climb to the top had gone so quickly that I was left wondering if I'd actually been to the top at all. We briefly stopped before we started the decent.

Unlike the climb up, the group fragmented as we descended back down. I was told that Action Man stayed at the front of the group until halfway down; he then told James that he had to go as he had other arrangements. Apparently he then threw himself off the mountain and deployed his Action Man parachute; I cannot verify this as I was miles behind. After that It would appear that James took the lead for a lot of the descent before being over-taken by Francis (who I'd seen run past me). I was descending alone with Victor and Brendan bringing up the rear.

With 'part four' complete I moved into 'part 3'. Honesty I cannot remember 'part 3' that well as my mind was totally fixed on 'part 2'. 'Part 2' consisted of a world of loose stones on a steep gradient and, having now climbed for over six hours, I was not looking forward to it.

Soon the trees of 'part 3' thinned revealing the horrors of 'part 2'. I paused for a moment, zipped up my coat and displayed a fierce look of determination.

It was hell; being on my own meant that I had to make my own way down which, I am sure, resulted in a longer and more dangerous route than the one I'd used when ascending. As I took a step down I was not sure if the ground beneath my foot would support the weight I'd planned to put on it. Many times the ground slid slightly from beneath my foot putting my whole body into a state of shock and locking up my knees. This loose gravel, the locking of my knees and the body shocks went on and on and on and on. It was hell on Earth.

The only saving grace came after about thirty minutes when I could see a pole in the distance. My heart leapt as I was sure it marked the end of this nightmare. My pace quickened and my confidence in the ground grew however, as I got to the pole I looked downwards and saw another large area of loose rocks and huge boulders. As my spirit tried to recover from the huge blow it had just taken, the weather decided to throw rain down upon the mountain. I had no choice; I had to go on.

By now many choice words were being said. I was glad that I was on my own as my mannerisms mirrored a child of three. I kicked stones, I pushed stones into one other and I even shouted at stones as I inched down this mountain. It felt as though someone was taking land I'd previously climbed down, and placing it below me; everything looked the same.

Finally, heroically, I'd made it to the actual pole which marked the end of 'part 2'. Now came the woods and, due to ascending through this 'part' with relative ease earlier, I though the worst was over. By now I was shattered; I cannot remember ever feeling so tired. I swayed a little as I stood there looking into the forest whilst drinking a bit more water and eating a bit more chocolate. As I went into the forest I realised just how long this section was, just how humid this section was and just how hard this section was. The steps were huge and my screaming knees were being pounded with each step. It was soon after starting 'part 1' that my will finally broke. I sat down in despair as I realised that my spirit had been crushed. I looked around me and found a tree branch to my left; with my right-hand I shook it and congratulated Mount Iwate on a crushing victory. This was no longer a proud march back after climbing to the top of a mountain; this was a slow slog home after being routed. I therefore slid down parts of the path and slowly walked down other parts; I forced my legs onwards giving them meaningless logical reasons on why they should obey my commands. A fly landed on my neck and I was too tired to flick it away; I therefore let it take what it wanted before it flew off. I also made a pact with the devil and God at the same time; I said whoever could get me off this mountain the quickest will earn my favours. I will surrender my soul to the devil or become a catholic monk; at this point I didn't care which. I also thought to myself 'where had it all gone wrong?' I had completed the 'Three Peaks Challenge', I had climbed endless mountains and hills when I went traveling. I wasn't sure if my age had something to do with it, however I was pretty sure 'Mr Donuts' had. All alone with my thoughts, I proceeded forever onwards dragging my 'Gandalf stick' further into the forest. I realised then just how fit I must have been when I was traveling.

Finally, about nine hours after I'd started, I saw a house with a red roof. At first my brain couldn't grasp the significance of this sighting however, a few seconds later, my brain managed to attach the two facts:

  • the house towered over me and,
  • Japan's mountain's are uninhabitable

resulting in me finally realising that I was off mount Iwate. I gave a loud cry and went around a corner to see James and Francis waiting in a small wooden shelter with benches. I staggered over, hugged the shelter and collapsed onto one of the benches. We then shared stories of our hardships with each other as other Japanese climbers staggered by; Brendan and Victor were still on the mountain and so we had to wait. As we waited it was starting to get darker and darker; I checked my feet and ate the last of my snacks; I hoped that they would make me feel more human (they didn't).

We had waited for at least twenty minutes and still Victor and Brendan had not appeared. We knew that they were fine as we had called them however, by now, we were getting cold; we therefore staggered to James' car where he turned the engine on and pumped up the heat. At this point I no longer had my 'Gandalf stick'; I'd left it at the wooden shelter for someone else to use.

Finally Victor and Brendan appeared out of the darkness and we all drove to a local pizza place recommended by James and Francis. The chef had gone to New York to learn how to make pizza and you could really tell. Once full we said good bye to James as Victor drove Francis, Brendan and I back home. Francis, once again, fell asleep, however I stayed up to accompany Victor. Surprisingly Brendan, Victor and I chatted all the way home and therefore, the trip didn't seem that long. Once back at Victor's I put my stuff into my car, said goodbye to the others and headed home.

Once home I hobbled around my apartment unpacking whilst a beautiful hot bath was being poured. I slipped into the bath, almost instantly realising that this had been the best idea of the day. I lay in their for a good half an hour before getting out and straight into bed. Normally, after I return from a holiday or an event, I look at my watch and wonder what I was doing 12 hours ago, a day ago or a week ago etc with a sad look slapped upon my face because said holiday or event was over. I looked at my watch (which now read 11pm) and I did indeed wonder where, on that cursed mountain, I was 12 hours ago however, instead of a sad look being displayed upon my face, I had a huge smile as I lay there, in my bed, all warm and cosy. I knew tomorrow would be plagued by pain however, at that moment, I didn't care.

Toodle Pip!


  1. Sounds like a lot of hard work, I usually go up for the view, looks like there was not much of a view up there.

    Do you know that the French have no word for "Rendezvous" :)

  2. And to think, I've been complaining about doing Stanadge Edge today! Great write up, really had me laughing at stages, and glad you followed the fine tradition of leaving your stick for others, although sad that 'Gandalf' will probably have to go up and down that mountain many more times!

  3. Cheers guys. The view wasn't great however, watching geography at work was very interesting.


    At one point I did think that Saurman was trying to bring down the mountain. I tried a few counter-spells but they didn't work.

  4. Personally, I think sounds more appropriate as track of the day ;-)

  5. Good song however, I choose 'why' because, halfway down, I was asking myself 'why I was here' quite often :)