Standing in the parking lot with Tony, I don't know what's in store for me. The cliffs of Tenninkyo stand above us, like parents, their heads in the sun, the river at their feet gurgling white noise among its low rocks, so many. I don't know how much the pack on my back weighs, but 31 hours from now, when I arrive at where I started, I'll know that whatever number the scale would show is bigger than I signed up for. I had to haul the pack up with two hands to get it in place -- not the typical one-armed bicep curl by which so many nonchalant high schoolers in movies throw their Jansports over their shoulders -- this is the real deal. This is Serious Shit.
At the trailhead is a sign that says,Mt. Tomuraushi Trailhead 17 km. The sign is made of wood and painted brown, the letters recessed and white, in the style of so many national parks. The ground is a little wet and the dirt gives a little bit. The trail goes straight up the southern wall of Tenninkyo Gorge. The switchbacks are tight. There are rusty fences in places where the trail gets narrow. We ascend probably some 200 meters in half an hour. When we get to the top, I loosen the strap across my chest -- it's preventing me from getting all the air I can. We trek a short way across the plateau to a lookout. Below is a long waterfall, the sounds of the river, indistinguishable from the wind in the trees. Above us is the huge Asahidake massif, the long characteristic gouge in its face pointing off to the left, the ropeway terminal minuscule in the distance. We stop here, briefly. An older couple wearing matching tabi take our picture for us. Then we head into the woods.
The trail winds through the woods for a little while, cuts up some more switchbacks to a meadow. I'm by this point good and sweaty, but I feel a lot of wetness on my lower back and ass and legs -- more than I should be sweating. I ask Tony to stop and I open up my pack. One of the two two-liter bottles of water I've brought along has sprung a leak. We wrap athletic tape around the bottle and put it in two plastic bags. It doesn't help, so we drink liberally until the water's all gone. We're not worried.
Past the meadow, in a swamp, we run into a couple from France. They had just spent four days in the mountains and were coming back this way because the guy had lost his passport. They ask, "Do you know of anywhere in Hokkaido a little less remote? Maybe with some mountain villages, very old, very authentic?" We tell them that Hokkaido is pretty well-settled, that they're going to run across a city at some point; and nothing gets more remote than the middle of the Daisetsuzan. They seem disappointed but not disheartened, wish Bon voyage, and take off. When we get to the bottom, we see their names, signed a couple of days ago in the registration book, as Bitch and Rintintin.
Eventually we come out onto the round flank of Pon-Kaun-dake. We've finished the bottle of water with the hole in it, but we're hiking on pretty level ground so the water situation is still okay. We can see for kilometers in every direction. Clouds move in along a ridgeline ahead of us but disperse as they flow over the edge. They look liquid. We descend into a saddle between Pon-Kaun-dake and Kaun-dake and overlook a great cirque below. The cliffs running along the rim of this cirque look like the cliffs from that waterfall place in Up.
Eventually we summit Kaun-dake -- a huge round heap with a large boulder on top. From a distance it looks like a giant breast, the boulder the nipple. We drink water and catch breath. This isn't the mountain we came for. We don't stop for long, descending the south side of Kaun-dake to a junction for Hisago-numa, a mountain lake down along the east flank of the saddle between Kaun-dake and Tomuraushi. The clouds have moved in so from the junction we can't see our goal. We head down to the campsite at Hisago-numa.
At this point we have two liters of water between the two of us. We have drunk six. The water has become this little nagging thing at the back of my mind. I'm purposely skipping water breaks. My mouth is sticky with mucus, but instead of spitting I swallow it.
You can see the campsite from faraway, coming down the slope over the lake. The tents are all brightly colored and mashed together like a display at an outdoors store. We traverse a snowfield to get there, then a series of old wooden stairs, or stair-like structures. It feels like a secret town or something, this cluster of people so far from anything. We pitch our tents. Tony retreats to his tent to "lie down and be quiet." I do the same.
This eventually morphs into a fitful, broken sleep. It's more like chronic dozing. I'm aware that the voices die off, eventually. A terrible taste blossoms in my mouth. The dull light of the afternoon gives way to darkness. A thick, thick fog rolls in off the lake. The tent smells terrible. It smells like pine and sweat and sour deodorant. All around me, old men are snoring heavily. I become acquainted with several varieties of snoring. After a number of hours I begin to hope that the snoring is the sound of someone choking on themselves. It's keeping me from sleeping. The air is wet and humid and vaguely cold. It tastes like recycled air gone bad. I roll onto my other side. My hip is starting to hurt. I roll onto my stomach. My pillow is starting to get a little wet. It still smells like my bed at home, which smell is one hundred percent out of place. I dream vividly and at length about Lorde. In my dreams she has a big, black, Brooklyn-type beard. I snap violently awake at one point, the snores and smells about me. I sit up and unzip my sleeping bag. I can't remember if Lorde has a beard in real life, but suppose it's possible that she grew one while we've been out on the mountain. I leave the tent and suck the wet air. The moon is hugely bright in the sky, corona-ed by the retreating fog. The sky is getting bright-ish in that vague way of the pre-dawn, where you can't actually tell if it's getting lighter or if it's just wishful hallucination on the part of a brain awake during the pre-dawn. I tap on Tony's tent and say, "Let's hit the summit." It's quiet and desperate, borne more of a desire to be away from my tent, which I hastily shove, wet, back into its stuff sack, than of any desire to hit the trail again. Though my legs do feel remarkably alright.
We scramble back up the snowfield and out to the junction, watch the sun come up over a sea of clouds hanging over Obihiro -- or at least, where we assume Obihiro to be. We both look worse than we feel, which is a small blessing, probably. We leave the heavy stuff at the junction -- we'll be coming back this way -- and head for Tomuraushi. There are no clouds in its direction at all. We bring one liter of water.
The trail is flat for a while. It dips into a ravine at one point, some 150 meters down and back up, but mostly stays level, crossing about 4 kilometers. At one point we traverse a field of boulders, evidently deposited there by some historic eruption of Tomuraushi. Tony says, "I think this landscape could be described as blasted." I agree. Another hour passes, two. We arrive at the foot of the summit. The book 北海道の山 says of Tomuraushi, "The summit is just a big pile of rocks." It couldn't be more true.
We climb. It's funny -- the closer you get to the top of a mountain, the less you look up. Your last steps before the slope evens out at the pinnacle are always intimate, you and your boots, slow, kicking up dust or snow. You feel like your nose is dragging on your shoelaces.
And then -- the summit. We're 17 kilometers from where we started. The marker is a tall brown pole. I lean on it. I say, "There." Tony says, "Good." We fist bump, then take off our shirts and snap pictures of each other flexing our muscles.
On the trek back to the packs, we finish the liter of water. We have one liter to cross the ten kilometers between us and Tenninkyo. We pause at the junction, considering the options. The sun's getting high -- it's about 10 in the morning and the sky is aggressively blue. I lean down to re-tie my shoelaces and when I stand up my vision swims. I haul my pack onto my shoulders, readjust, trying to find a more comfortable position. My instinct is to spit; I hock it up in my mouth, but swallow. We walk.
Along the descent conversation comes staggeringly. Morale ebbs. We debate, for a while, whether it's okay to eat the snow that we find, if we dig a little bit. We agree, as northerners both, that since as kids we ate a whole bunch of snow and didn't get sick, it would probably be okay. We pack a Nalgene full of snow. Tony carries it in his hand or under his shirt. He says, "Feels good."
The snow melts. We drink it. We'll take our chances with the runs or whatever else. We agree that next time we'll bring a stove. We polish off the last liter of water, back in the meadow. We have about four kilometers left. Tony says, "The water isn't doing you any good outside of you." I'm significantly worse off than he is. I don't know why. I feel licked.
The forest is muggy, humid, brutally warm. Any time we come to a big step, I kinda fall off it, rather than step down. I learn how cushioned the bottom of my boots are. I say, more than once, "God bless Mr. Vibram." It becomes a running joke -- the Earl of Vibram, Sir Vibram, Count of Vibram Estate, George Vibram. Tony keeps the mood light. I'm flagging, asking for breaks. When the last of the snow-water is gone -- it had already started getting warm -- I get this weird feeling of hopelessness. I can't stop for water breaks anymore. But we agree that the lookout over the waterfall is just ahead. We think it's coming up around this bend. Or the next. Or the next.
Then -- voices. We're at the lookout. Five guys, all with packs bigger than ours and spirits higher. One's off to the side, smoking. All up earlier than us, all having made the trek we just did. I ask, "Does anyone have any water left that they're not planning on drinking?" I wave off a blackfly.
One man does. I almost cry. He's maybe in his sixties, all cheekbones and elbows. His pack is as big as I am. He tells us we can finish it. Tony and I drink a liter of water in less than the time it takes Usain Bolt to run 100 meters.
When we get off the mountain, we head into the hotel and buy drinks. Unscrewing the cap of my flavored water, I drop it (the cap), but don't pick it up. I can drink as much as I want. I don't have to ration. I drink the whole bottle in one go.