Week 105

Climbing Asahidake

or, another time I felt a whole bunch of pain

The top of Asahidake is wide and flat. There’s a wooden post on which is written the name of the mountain and the altitude. There is a short line leading up to the sign, people waiting to take their pictures with it. Generous people sitting nearby offer, every couple of minutes, to take a group picture of some larger team that can’t fit everyone into the selfie from arm’s length. There are maybe forty people up here with us. Some of them are sitting out on small tarpaulins. One guy has a camp stove with him; he’s heating up water. The hiss of the stove has always sounded like the roar of a small, very dangerous animal to me. On the other side of the summit a group of college-age boys is shouting some kind of chant among themselves.

This isn’t like the other summits I’ve been at. They’ve always been quiet, introspective affairs. When you get to the summit of a mountain, you throw your pack off your back, sit down on something vaguely level, put your elbows on your knees, and exhale. You stretch. You look around. You say, “There.” And when you say, “There,” your voice is the only thing you hear. Maybe you hear the clink of bear bells somewhere in the distance—a sound that I know some people really hate, but to me sounds so like the metallic rustle of armor that I can’t help but like it. Armored knights against nature—but just as medieval knights stood against dragons, both are caught up in the bigger legend of the thing. Such are we.

The summit of Asahidake seems like a park. I know that everyone here has paid their two hours in sweat and calories to be here. But it seems more like the four hundred yen you drop in a box for a guided tour of some minor temple than an actual toll paid to the mountain.

Admittedly the highest mountain in Hokkaido is a tourist trap. A ropeway takes you halfway up. Ladies in high-heeled shoes wobble across the wooden pathway laid between the waist-high evergreen brush outside the top end of the ropeway station. They wear skirts; their hair is permed. I’m indignant, in boots and with a pack on. Still traumatized from our water crisis on Tomuraushi, I have brought way too much water. My affront seems petty and small. It’s not up to me, how these people experience the mountain. A man with a DSLR standing next to me snaps a picture of the small pond called Sugatami. The shooting mode is set to AUTO. I feel like a Disney villain, looking down on the scrappy protagonist. My metaphorical nose is way up in the air. I feel ridiculous.

But that’s what I come to the mountains for. Not for the physical exertion, because that feels terrible and I don’t know that I’m actually increasing my VO2 max or anything. I don’t know that I’m getting any better at getting to the tops of mountains. But I come here because it helps me be with myself, helps me, what, take a step back. How do I say this without sounding cliched?

I am on the side of Asahidake, walking upwards. There is a line of people up ahead of me. There is a line of people following. I am passing an old lady wearing a sort of babushka-esque head wrap. Her wrinkles look like the Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians. But I barely acknowledge her, except as an obstacle to move around with deference and to which I say, “Konnichiwa,” except I’m out of breath some it comes out as “Chwaaaa,” said raggedly, like Batman. My foot digs into some soft scree. My other foot balances on a rock deeply en-earthed. I press down, straighten out my leg, stand up. I feel the cords of my tendons and muscle fibers stretch, stiffen, loosen up as I bring my other leg forward. My boots are thick, their soles are padded, their uppers tough and rigid; but I can feel the small stones beneath my feet, something like rough gravel. My foot sinks into it, I press up. Stand again. My back is bent in half. When I take a step up, my hips form complex creases of sweat and underwear lint. The tendon connecting the top of my kneecap with bottom of my quads on my left leg really hurts when I take this step. I shimmy my knee as I bring it forward again; the pain doesn’t bloom this time. There’s been a deep, sharp pain in my big toe joint, again on the left, since we left Sugatami. I tried to shimmy it but it wouldn’t go away, so I’m just walking through it.

I swing my hands across my body, using their momentum to twist my body at the waist, counterpoising my torso against the movement of my legs. I inhale deeply on right steps, and exhale on left. Mike Delue, behind me, says, “Boy,” and then says, “You really have to force air in, eh?” and then Tony says, “Yeah.” I want to say something about this, but I don’t have air enough, or presence of mind enough. I think, all at once, three things: 1) breathe in more deeply than usual; 2) regular breathing doesn’t inhale as much as you can 3) air feels nice. I briefly try to arrange these three things into a sentence but I can’t, I can’t yield the effort.

I am beginning to get a little self-conscious about how the other two are continuing to talk while we climb. I’m out of breath and if I talk I have to jam all the words up against each other, because an exhale lasts the length of one step, so I either have to keep what I have to say short or speak in like two-word bursts while my voice groans like Batman to get all the air out at once so I can fill it back up again as quickly as I can. The other two are just going at it, verbally, which is making me think that their bodies are more efficient at processing oxygen than mine is, which I guess is embarrassing or bad or something.

My hand lands on a rock, its sharpness, moves again, elsewhere. I press down on my knee, which helps, biomechanically, somehow. My foot slips, I lose balance, land again. No one tells you that the further you climb, the worse your balance gets. The end of a hike is always like a drunken walk down the white shoulder line of a nighttime road, trying to prove something to your friends. I feel my heartbeat in my ears. My hands are swollen from swinging. When we stop I can feel the blood in my teeth. I clench my jaw. I know that my whole body would rather be in any position than it is now.

But we reach the top, by and by, we reach the crowds and the chanting college students and the one guy, alone, boiling water on his camp stove. I pull out a beer, which foams wildly when I pop the tab, and which is almost lukewarm by now, but which is really, really nice.

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