Climbing Iwaki


    To be honest, the first part of this blog post isn’t something I really enjoyed revisiting to write about. It’s an embarrassing memory that I think still affects my relationships with some of the people involved. I wouldn’t take it back necessarily, but I definitely would have done things differently. I suppose that’s a big part of why I did it all over again only a few weeks later. Hopefully, by my writing this and your reading it we can both learn something about how we approach challenges. But if all you get is some pointers about climbing Iwaki, that’s fine too. She’s a beautiful mountain.

My first ever picture of Iwaki. There would be many more.

My first days in Hirosaki were a whirlwind. Every minute of every day was committed to something: filling out piles of paperwork, settling into my apartment, being shown around the area, etc. About a week into this pattern, I was sitting on the sidewalk at the Nebuta Festival in Aomori with a bunch of other ALTs, and someone brought up the idea of climbing Mount Iwaki. It might have been me, I’m not sure… we were all drinking… but it was thanks to this drunken energy (i.e. lack of judgment) and the fact that my predecessor was soon returning to America that we managed to get a group of seven people committed to climbing Mount Iwaki the very next morning. We firmed up our plans a little after midnight, and then we made our way home. Once home, I set out my clothes and packed all my camera equipment into my backpack before collapsing in the early AM.

I’d say all in all I got a solid four hours of sleep before we all piled into my pred’s and another ALT’s cars and headed for the mountain at about 7. Being the rugged outdoorsmen that we were, we wisely stopped at a FamilyMart on the way there for supplies. FamilyMart: For All Your Mountain Climbing Needs™. I got a liter of Pocari Sweat, a bag of ice, and a yogurt cup, plenty of supplies to climb a mountain in the dog days of summer. We got back in the cars and headed for the mountain. As mentioned in one of Kate’s posts, the climb up the mountain begins at Iwakiyama-jinja, and with the exception of my predecessor, this was the first time any of us had been to that idyllic place. Naturally, we had to have a look around. I think that factoring in our uncoordinated start, drive time, and touring the shrine, we didn’t really start climbing until a little after 9. I remember looking up at the peak and saying something like, “I know that looks far away but it’s closer than you think! I’ve climbed taller mountains than this, and it wasn’t that hard.” I was trying to be encouraging and I was being honest, but I think it was perceived more as cocky. It also definitely made me look like a total clown later for reasons that will be revealed…

As we began the climb in earnest, it started with a gently sloping forest path. The beginning of this leg was leisurely, I took time to enjoy the dappled sunlight as it peeked through the branches of the majestic evergreens that lined the path. Pine boughs pushed into the soft black soil under our feet as we made our way up the gradually steepening incline. At the end of this section we came to a paved road (the last we’d see) that led to the ski resort on the mountain. The path was actually fairly steep by that point, and we were all beginning to sweat. It was at this point that two of our seven decided to turn back. Just over the course of that first leg, this hike had turned from a stroll into a workout. They agreed to go back to the car and pick us up on the other side of the trail when we were finished. Near the top, there is a ski lift that you can take partway back down to a parking lot and visitor center where you can be picked up or take a bus all the way to the base, and that was where they’d wait for us.

As we made our way up and through the base of the resort, the sun had already risen high in the sky. The parking lot and broad slopes of the resort provided little in the way of protection from the sun’s unforgiving rays. By the time we passed into another wooded section of the climb, the air temperature had already increased significantly and we really weren’t able to shed much of the heat that we’d absorbed while out in the open. It was also at this point that the grade of the climb increased significantly once again. The whole character of the route changed. We’d left behind the ancient massive trees near the base and were now surrounded by much newer growth. Bright green foliage was splattered wildly around the path, which had also taken on a more haphazard nature. Most of the progress we made was on tree roots fashioned into stairs that were each easily twice the height of a normal step on an ordinary staircase. Where there weren’t stairs, we were often scrambling up muddy drainage rills, grasping at tree branches and saplings to stay upright. I was beginning to understand that this was entirely different from the other mountains I’d hiked in Japan. There were no gently sloped switchback trails here. The path, or what passed for a path, was more or less straight up the mountain with no rest areas and certainly no vending machines. Yes, many mountain trails in Japan feature a vending machine or two.

With the air temperature approaching 95 degrees and the path refusing to offer any reprieve, we were all sweating heavily. Personally, my clothes were soaked, and I’d made the unfortunate choice of wearing some rather stiff cargo shorts; the only thing worse would be jeans. As a result, every time I tried to ascend one of those big steps, I had to fight the fabric of my clothes. The extra 15 pounds of camera equipment in my bag wasn’t helping any either. About two hours into the hike no one was having that much fun, but I especially was suffering. I kept an eye on my heart rate and it just kept climbing until I was near my maximum heart rate even at a minimal pace. Consequently, I felt I had to take breaks to let my heart rate lower. At first, the others were happy to take these breaks with me, but eventually they (understandably) grew impatient, and as much as I wished I could just jump up and move faster I was increasingly concerned about my health. Some people went on ahead and our group as a whole stretched out quite a bit. As we got further and further up the mountain, my heart rate started to lower more slowly while resting and shot up more quickly once I started moving again. Taking longer and more frequent breaks really slowed down the group, something I’m still embarrassed about. I’ve very intentionally made a point in my life of not dragging other people down or having to rely on them, even to a fault. So, this whole situation was perhaps even more uncomfortable for me mentally than it was physically, and it was extremely physically uncomfortable. However, without any palatable alternatives, I did my best to keep up. After a couple of hours, the soil became rockier and the vegetation more sparse. Of course, the climb once again increased in steepness. For the first time since the ski resort we could see the peak, and it wasn’t as close as we’d hoped. However, looking behind us we were rewarded with a stunning view of the city and surrounding area. 

As we continued, and for much of the remainder of the climb, we were zig zagging up either side of a mountain stream and its waterfalls, often having to use our arms to pull ourselves up on tall boulders and treading carefully on precarious ledges. It was about the time that we hit this part of the climb that I had run out of water, I even drank the melted ice, but I wasn’t sweating any less. I was generously given a little water by one of the others, but no one had much left to spare so I took as little as possible. At one point fairly far into this leg, we passed another group of climbers coming down. We must have looked as bad as we felt because they gave us a concerned look and said, “[You know, there’s still a lot of climb left before you get to the top.]” That warning combined with the fact that I’d run out of water led to some rather morbid thoughts. I knew that there was eventually a clean source to the stream that we could refill our empty water bottles at, but I realized that if for some reason I had to turn around it was really unlikely I’d make it back to the bottom without collapsing from dehydration or heat exhaustion. The dirty water flowing beside me started to look rather appealing. I started to have disastrous thoughts like, “What if we’re not even halfway there yet? Is it going to be dark before we get off the mountain?”

Eventually though, we did make it to that spring, and it tasted like pure joy. It was colder than ice and unbelievably pure. I’m sure my perception was at least partially colored by my flirtation with death and all that, but it really was some excellent H2O. I must have drunk a liter of it before I filled my bottle and stopped to enjoy my yogurt on a large flat rock near the source. Finally, after four or five hours, we had broken through the really grueling part of the climb. It was less than an hour before we reached the rim of the volcano. It was about this time that even though I had felt like dying just recently, I hit a long overdue second wind and felt completely re-energized. Additionally, the views from the top were absolutely breathtaking. The wispy clouds wrapping around the dramatic mossy rock formations created an image that was positively mystical. It felt timeless, there were no streets or buildings or power lines here. I could feel a sort of communion with the countless generations of people who had climbed that same mountain, seen the same scene, and consequently must have felt the same reverence. However, we weren’t quite done yet and we couldn’t afford to spend too much time taking in the sights.

Iwaki has three peaks, and in order to get to the tallest one you have to climb one of the others. These peaks are actually the most physically demanding part of the climb, but they’re mercifully short so it’s not too bad. However, as we reached the first peak, we heard a voice from the heavens. It wasn’t kami-sama though, it was the lady at the ski lift announcing over the PA that we had something like 45 minutes to get our asses to the ski lift before it shut down for the day. As I was weighing whether I could make it to the peak or not, one of the other climbers who was clearly much more in the ‘Get me the fuck off this mountain’ camp asked me to help them get to the ski lift. Simultaneously, I had a premonition of sleeping on the mountain and decided, ‘You know what? Nah.’ So we headed down together. Two of the others decided to hoof it to the top. The walk around the rim over to the ski lift took twenty minutes on its own, so as overjoyed as we were to see our friends waiting for us at the bottom of the lift, we were equally anxious about the others who had gone on ahead to the peak. In the end, they made it with four whole minutes to spare.

We all crammed into the single rundown (i.e. shitty) kei car and bombed down the mountain, teetering around the dozens of piled up turns as we zigzagged to the bottom. There was a general sense of both exhaustion and relief, but I was pretty self-conscious and I could feel that it wasn’t totally without merit. I felt like it added a little tension to what could have otherwise been a moment of bonding for everybody. Some of us joked that we couldn’t wait to climb the mountain again, but I doubt anyone imagined that I was the most serious about it. Only a few weeks later though, I was presented with the opportunity.

To this day, I still don’t know why that climb was so much more a struggle for me than the others. I was being truthful when I said I’d climbed bigger mountains with less difficulty, and honestly, I was probably less fit at those times. Maybe there’s no simple answer, more likely it was a combination of my restrictive clothing, the extra weight in my bag, not eating enough, not sleeping enough, and not bringing enough water. Whatever the reasons were, I knew that I had to do it again and get it right, or it would never stop bothering me. So, I started running almost daily and being more conscientious about my eating habits. I lost ten pounds and improved my cardiovascular health as much as I could, but I still felt I had a long way to go. However, the last departing ALT from Hirosaki was finally leaving, and he expressed a desire to climb the mountain.

At first, we had several interested parties. Two others from the first climb and several other new ALTs who had arrived after that were initially committed. However, people began to slowly back out. I think the others from the first time just decided they didn’t want to put themselves through that again, and the new arrivals were probably a little intimidated by our horror stories. Finally, a few more dropped out since it rained the day before the climb. In the end, it was just Kate, the departing ALT, and I that decided to go for it. I was determined to be much more prepared. I bought supplies beforehand, and this time, since I was serious, we went to Lawson. Lawson: Only For the Most Serious Climbers™. I packed 4 liters of water, 2 of which I froze beforehand. I also ate breakfast beforehand, brought several bananas, and Kate made some nice bento for us to eat for lunch. I left the heavy camera equipment at home, and I wore some nice stretchy athletic shorts.

We started from the shrine at about the same time, but we moved much more quickly. On top of the facts that I was a bit more in shape, I was better prepared, and I knew what to expect, it was also far less hot this time. I don’t remember for sure but I think the high for this day was no higher than 80 degrees. We made fantastic progress, and when we stopped, it was more to take in our surroundings than because we really needed to. About one third of the way up, we stopped at a place called ‘[The Crows’ Landing]’ and ate the bananas. Kate smashed a mosquito on my arm that left a blood splat the size of a quarter, so that was pretty rad. At roughly the halfway point, we checked out a small building on the side of the path. The first time I was too exhausted to look at it very closely, and from the outside it looked abandoned. However, upon closer inspection it was apparently being taken care of by somebody. Seeing as there was a fire pit in the middle of the floor, I’m guessing that it’s supposed to serve as a shelter for people during the winter. As we headed out to climb again, we noticed graffiti written and carved all over the back of wooden door’s planks. We didn’t leave a mark of our own out of respect (i.e. we didn’t bring a pen/knife), but it was kind of cool to see all the different nations represented there. In general, we were having fun and laughing the entire climb. I started to feel bad that I might have discouraged some of the other new people from coming, because while it was definitely still a rigorous workout, it was far from the dire affair I’d experienced the first time. 

We made it to the top in under three hours, less than half the time it had taken me on the first attempt. The very top was actually quite cold and windy. The iced bottle in my bag and my wet shirt made it really uncomfortable, so I didn’t linger up there for too long. I probably should have been more cautious on my way back down toward the lift, but I was exhausted and ready to be done so I rushed it a bit. By a stroke of luck though, the bus was departing shortly after we got to the bottom of the ski lift. Unfortunately, it actually took two fairly expensive bus rides to get back to the shrine, but we did get to see a hawk snatch a snake off the road so that was pretty neat.

In the end, I’m proud of myself for being able to overcome a challenge after failing the first time, but I also would like to avoid that initial failure if I can. In reality, I couldn’t have prepared properly for the first climb because there was simply never going to be much time, my predecessor was leaving right afterward. Of course, there were things I could have done better, but I couldn’t magically have gotten into better shape overnight. So, aside from the obvious point that I should have been more thoughtful in my initial preparation, I think there may be another takeaway to reflect on.

You never know how an opportunity is going to present itself. I think that we tend to see our lives as having a coherent narrative structure, a series of big events that are gradually built towards (graduating from college, getting married, buying a house, etc.) We think that all of these things will start off as distant objects on the horizon that we can anticipate and keep our eye on as they approach. We might even see how far off the next thing is and allow ourselves to relax a little too much. But the truth is that something can sneak up behind you in the meantime, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t be ready for that too. So, I’m trying harder to maintain a certain level of readiness (physically, mentally… financially) moving forward. Prepare for the opportunity you don’t know is coming.

My everyday view from work