It’s been exactly one month since my mishap and life is slowly returning to normal. The left knee and hip are still a bit achy when walking, and the ribs on the right half of my body are a little tender. My fingers are still tingly and sensitive, and may continue to be for a while until the nerve endings fully rebuild themselves. All in all it could have been a lot worse. At least I am lucky enough to be able to sit here and reflect upon the incident.
The day after our ordeal, I finally made it back to my apartment and started organizing my gear. I was surprised at the amount of things that went missing. I had not only lost two pairs of gloves, but somehow left my knit hat on the peak as well. Perhaps this was done in my slide down the ravine, or perhaps it caught on one of the numerous tree branches both of us had to duck under. My guidebook only ended up losing about 15 pages of material. It turns out that the pages Ted tore out of the book happened to be about the joys of winter hiking in Kansai. How fitting.
Thanks to the police report, our story made the local newspaper. There are two noteworthy things about the article itself. First, the police got my age wrong. They copied the information from my ID card, so maybe they weren’t so good at math, or it’s likely that in my frayed state-of-mind I told them I was 39 instead of 38. Remember, the entire interrogation was done in Japanese, and I could have easily jumbled up my words under the influence of fatigue, which brings me to my next point. The initial article states that 自称米国籍 were involved in an accident. This phrase sends all of my Japanese friends into a state of laughter because of the ridiculousness of the word 自称 (jishou), which translates as so-called. You would chuckle too if you read the following headline: Two people calling themselves Americans were involved in an accident in the mountains of Shiga Prefecture. Did the cops use this word? Why would we be lying about our nationality? It really makes you wonder about things. The follow-up story dropped this terminology in favor of releasing our names. Was that really necessary?
The last month has been about educating myself to ensure that I never have to go through another survival situation unprepared again. I have purchased the bible of moutaineering safety, have finally invested in a Garmin GPS device, and have assembled an emergency firestarter kit that can compete with even the most experienced pyromaniac.
In addition, I have put together this list of essential DOs and DON’Ts when getting lost in Japan’s wilderness:
1) Don’t panic – easier said that done, but anxiety will increase your heartrate, expending precious energy you will need for getting off the mountain. One almost surefire way of staying calm in a hairy situation is to avoid hiking alone. I was able to get out of my predicament because I had a trusty hiking partner. It’s easier to be level-headed when you’ve got someone to make decisions with.
2) Backtrack, backtrack, backtrack – as soon as you veer off the trail retrace your steps. Easy to do in the snow, but can be tough in the summer if you have veered way off course. Still, the minute you realize the path doesn’t look right head back until you find the real trail again. If Ted and I had done that theｎ I wouldn’t be teaching you these lessons.
3) Don’t follow streams - I know this goes against every boy scout instruction manual, but in Japan the vast majority of streams end up turning into canyons with razor sharp walls and incredible overhangs. You can use streams as a reference point however, but you’re better off sticking to the ridges within earshot of the streams instead of blazing a trail near the river bank.
4) Climb to a ridge - If lost in a valley climb to higher ground. From there you can get a vantage point and try to get your bearings. This is important especially when you’re lost at night. Lights from houses can help guide you back to civilization. Ted and I climbed back up to the ridge TWICE after following two different rather nasty watersheds. Sure it added 600 vertical meters to an already long hike but we finally made the right decision the 3rd time around. Also, you’re much more likely to have cell phone reception on the ridges than the valleys (hence the reason we were able to call for help even though they said they couldn’t come)
5) Look for cedars - This is an “only in Japan” survival tip. Japan is covered with cedar plantations that have been planted with HUMAN HANDS. Where there are cedars, there are forest roads. If you find forests that have been thinned then even better. Humans have been there to cut. Tree harvesters are lazy people and usually don’t cut too far away from access roads. “Following the cedars” is what ultimately got Ted and I out of our predicament. I never saw a positive reason for these ghastly forests until now.
6) Don’t rely on the cops - NEVER call the cops unless there is absolutely no way you can get off the mountain under your own power. Calling the police will only add to your troubles, so it’s better to just face the fact that your are ultimately on your own when you explore Japan’s peaks.