So this may just be my most memorable hike in Japan. It was late fall and I had only a few days left in Japan before I would head back home to the States for Christmas vacation. My girlfriend at the time and I wanted to do something memorable for my last weekend in Japan. She knew that I loved hiking and thought it would be a great way to end 2016 and send me off. Well, that was my first mistake.
Rule #1 – Always let the first time hiker choose the altitude of the mountain and the hike length.
Check, I had known about rule number one for quite some time now. As soon as she, my GF at the time, had mentioned that she wanted to go hiking my immediate response was,, “perfect, well, choose the mountain and the hike and I will take care of the rest.” About three question filled hours later we had made a decision, Mt. Tanzawa.
Fortunately for us, on the day of the hike, we were initially greeted with no clouds and reassuring, constant beam of sunlight that took some of the chill out of the autumn air. It was at this point in time, that my hiking partner today decided to let me know that she had sprained her ankle a few weeks prior. Lovely.
Rule #2 – Don’t attempt a hike if you’re not feeling 95%.
I would chalk up a recently sprained ankle as significantly detrimental. What’s worse, I was not naive enough to not realize, that the previously unmentioned sprained ankle would at best slow my down and at worst possibly jeopardize our ability to finish the hike unassisted.
I ever so calmly asked her, “why is this the first you’re mentioning this?” “I saw how excited you were to go hiking and didn’t want to disappoint you,” she responded, “plus, I want to try to start hiking myself,” perfectly un-equipping me of any anger I could have felt towards her “delayed notification.” “Alright well…I guess just be careful,” I told her, knowing all too well of what lay ahead of us and how impossible it would be.
We pushed off and I found myself in my element once again. She began asking me questions like, “What do you do if you start sweating a lot?” “How do you know how much longer you have to go?” “What do you do if you see a bear?” I easily answered all of them except for the last one where I simply smiled and replied “Ganbatte ne” (Best of luck to you should you ever find yourself in that terrible situation you poor soul) Loosely translated of course. The truth is, that I naively didn’t know much about bears at the time. I simply thought that they were farrrrrr away, out of reach from the casual hiker. I truly miss those days of ignorance. Hikes were much freer, more enjoyable without the constant scan for a curious bear. I know feel the same way about hiking as I do getting in the water at the beach, “I know I’m screwed if I see a shark so I damn well better not see one….”
Anywho… As we began gaining some altitude I was pleasantly surprised by how well my hiking partner was doing. She hadn’t complained once about her ankle and was actually keeping a solid pace. The crisp autumn air ran through the mostly barren trees and made a whistling noise as if the mountain were inviting us further.
We climbed a few sets of natural stairs and scaled a few boulders, and before we knew it, we were a solid two hours in to the hike. This was when I made another mistake… “You want to stop for a water break?” I asked, and as soon as we stopped, whatever magical power that had been pushing my girlfriend forward must have tumbled down the side of the mountain.
We finished our water and I looked at her with raised eyebrows and my head pointed upwards implying movement. She responded with minced eyebrows and a quick hand to the ankle. “It hurts a little..” she said. “Yeah I’m actually surprised you made it this far without mentioning it, can you go on.” “Yeah!”
We continued our upward cut through the mountain but nothing was the same. Our pace had been halved, if not quartered, and her face was full of sweat and pain. I painfully watched as Japanese grandmothers passed us on our left and right, decked out in their 1980s mountain climbing gear and ever loud, ever proud bear bells. “Hey, if you need to stop, just let me know” I reassured her.
She pushed on, and I could smell the resentment in the air. “Why the hell am I on this stupid mountain…” I just KNEW she was thinking something along those lines. The constant, engaging conversation had devolved to a mere one word answer with her frustration increasing in every response.
Fortunately for us, mostly me, we stumbled across these bunny/deer hybrids off to the side of the trail. The mama bunny/deer (bdeer) kept a watchful eye out as her offspring fed. It was rather entertaining and my hiking partner kept commenting on how cool it was. Hell, I had never seen any big wildlife on any of my Japanese hikes, this was really cool. “She’ll probably be in a better mood now because of this” I thought to myself as I thankfully watched her cheek to cheek smile materialize. A crowd quickly began to gather around us taking pictures of the bdeer and we decided it was time to move on.
I kid you not, the very first step off from watching the bdeer, I sadly watched my girlfriend’s cheek to cheek smile turn into a hatred filled frown. I rotated my palms inward and up and asked “Wh…what just happened??….” “Nothing, how much further do we have?” she ever so pleasantly (sarcasm) asked. “I really have no idea, I plan my hikes based on a relatively constant pace and…we’ve stopped a few times…” Silence…. “Maybe 90 minutes left?” I tried to reassure her….Silence….
The rest of the hike up was enjoyed by me internally, as I did not say or hear a single word. Finally, about an hour and a half later, we got to the top. The view made it all worth it of course, but even better, there were some benches to sit on. A little ramen shop stood off to the side and we ordered some Japanese curry and ramen of course.
I asked my hiking partner to show me her ankle, this being the first conversation we had since the bdeer sighting. “Whoah” I breathed with eyes wide open, “That’s pretty swollen…” “Yeah, I don’t think hiking was a good idea today…” she casually responded “sorry for getting irritated at you, it’s just pretty bothersome.” “No kidding, should we call for help?” I asked. “Let’s wait an hour and see how it feels. Knowing that without ice and an aspirin, and only an hour of rest, her ankle would feel exactly the same as it did now, I agreed and decided to fill my mind with other, less guaranteed things.
Well the hour was up and so was my jovial mood. I knew for a fact that I would not want to descend any mountain over 300m on a sprained ankle, and here we were, faced with this difficult task. I say we, but really it was her duty to fulfill, all I had to do was absorb any of the “I have a sprained ankle, what is the point of hiking, its freezing cold” attitude coming my way. Easy enough, I thought, how hard could just being quiet be?
About an hour in I casually asked, “so…really…why didn’t you say anything about this ankle beforehand, I mean, this could be pretty dangerous?” Which brings me to rule number 3.
Rule #3 – If you ever find yourself on a 1500m mountain, hiking with a first-time-hiker-girlfriend who is beyond irritated with a sprained ankle, there is never a good time for logic driven questions. Hell, there is never a good time for questions.
Fortunately for me, she wasn’t a quitter and we kept moving. We did have to take numerous stops, which I completely understood, but, as I watched the sun fall closer to the horizon, my patience for waiting was quickly turning into a rush to get off this mountain before nightfall. During our last “stop” I tried to explain how crucial it was to not be on the side of a mountain after sunset. She understood of course, but all that was reverberating through her ears was a beating ankle.
We finally arrived at the trail head and just as we stepped off the trail and onto the road, we saw three Japanese men in blue uniforms with a stretcher run past us. “That was an option?” my intrepid hiking partner jokingly asked. I started to reply “Well actually there were many options that we could have taken today…one of which including not hiking on a sprained ankle,” but….I decided that wouldn’t do anything positive. Plus, she had just done a 1567m hike at less than 95%, easily earning my respect. “Thanks for coming with me,” I said as I gave her a hug. “Yeah, it was interesting” she responded, “thanks for guiding…..I’m never going hiking again.” “Believe me I know,” I smiled.