Just as I was discussing our situation with Ted, I received a final message from Mike. “No help coming. Build a snow cave or keep moving.” Ted and I wandered back and forth on the ridge, but the clouds had moved back in, limiting our visibility. We’d follow the trail for a short time before losing it in the whiteout conditions. We had been on the move for nearly 7 hours without taking a break. Soon the adrenaline would start to wear off and fatigue would overtake us. In the dark, sub-arctic conditions there was no awareness of time. In fact, I felt no emotion at all: no sadness, no panic, and most importantly, no pain. It was as if the amygdala cells in my brain had taken a holiday to Bermuda. I still knew who I was and had some indication of where I was (i.e. lost on a mountain in Shiga), but felt generally at peace with myself. Perhaps it was because I was putting off all thoughts of dying up here, since I knew it would require too much energy.
Ted and I reached an area of cedar trees. Some had been cut, while others were wrapped in large swaths of blue masking tape. I wasn’t sure if the tape was used to tell the loggers which trees to cut or which trees to spare. Regardless, we knew that someone had been up here, and they weren’t hikers. My gut instinct told me that there must be a forest road nearby, but it would require us leaving the ridge a third time. We both knew what happened the first two times we veered off the trail and neither of us were too thrilled at the prospects of repeating that ill-informed decision. While discussing the pros and cons of following these cut trees, I spotted something in the valley. “Quick Ted, turn off your headlamp.” Through the trees, we could see lights directly below us. There were houses there, and they felt close. The clouds had lifted just long enough to give us a much-needed confidence boost. I once again took the lead, chasing the cut cedars down the valley until we reached yet another watershed. This one felt different, however. It lacked the steepness and depth of the two previous streams we had followed. Plus, it was lined with cedar trees on both sides. Our biggest challenge was clambering through the thick maze of downed trees. You see, the trees that had been cut in this area were left to die a slow death. This is common practice in Japan, when loggers come in to thin the forest. Cedar lumber is hardly a commodity item nowadays with Japan’s heavy reliance on concrete. Logging is not necessary except for creating work for the logging companies. More pork-barrel politics at work, but perhaps this deforestation would actually lead to our survival.
Ted took the slow and steady approach, as I opted to thrash my way through the maze. At one point I slipped on a snow-covered trunk and bashed my ribs into a rather large log. I was already bruised and bloody from head to toe so figured a few added scratches for good measure could never hurt. The stream started flattening out and was not growing in size. To our right, on the ridge about 1o meters above us, appeared to be some sort of trail. Ted climbed up to investigate while I continued flopping about like a fish out of water. I heard Ted shout something. He was just out of ear range but he sounded excited. I started climbing the steep bank to meet him. “I’ve found a trail”, exclaimed my partner. He sounded as if he had just discovered Captain Kidd’s buried loot. Reaching Ted, I too noticed the deep erosion marks in the gully and the lack of undergrowth. This was definitely a trail, and downward we sped towards what we hoped was civilization. The path paralleled the stream and it was much easier on the feet than the log maze of the frozen waters. After several minutes of rapid sailing we meet a paved forest road lined by a 3-meter high chain-linked fence. It was the same fence we had seen earlier in the hike! A signpost pointed the way toward Yokotani-touge. I gave Ted a big hug and felt my first sense of relief for the first time that night. Ted opened the gate in the fence while I selfishly pushed ahead. It didn’t dawn on me that he might have trouble fastening the bolt back in place. He gave up after several minutes and joined me as the trail meandered through snow-covered rice fields and past darkened thatched houses until we reached a hard-surfaced road. There was water flowing down the road as if there was a flash flood. This is intentionally done to keep snow and ice from sticking to the roads, which would make it impossible to drive on. Both of us continued descending through the sleepy hamlet until reaching the bus stop and our awaiting car. Yep, we certainly had done that loop hike we were envisioning earlier in the day. It just didn’t turn out as smoothly as we had imagined. Even though we had reached the car, our troubles were far from over.