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Archive for February, 2013

Another setback part 2

The distress call was put out at 5:23pm, but it took the ambulance nearly 10 minutes to come. As I sat there, spitting my insides into the plastic bag, I wondered about the cause of my internal bleeding, and if I’d even be able to see my wonderful wife again. She was in route but it would take her over an hour to arrive, so I would tell the ambulance driver to relay the hospital information to her so we could meet up later. When the ambulance staff entered my apartment, they seemed taken aback by the pond of tomato-sauce colored fluids floating on top of my garbage pile. They escorted me to the awaiting car, took my vital signs, and started searching for a hospital that would accept me. In most countries, trained paramedics take care of patients while ambulance drivers whisk victims to the nearest hospital in a matter of minutes. Not so in Japan.

The staff started by calling all of the hospitals I had “membership” cards for: hospitals that I have visited in the past that have my information on record. I’m the unofficial king of ambulance rides, having been taken to hospital at least a dozen times over the last 6 years, so I know the procedure. Fortunately my bleeding had stopped but I was still coughing up a lot of phlegm. Since Feb. 11th was a National Holiday, a lot of doctors were not on staff, limiting my choices of available care. I needed to see a respiratory specialist, but every hospital in Osaka city turned us away, since they had no one on staff. While searching for a place to take me, I was texting Kanako, who finally arrived back at our place and joined me in the ambulance. A hospital in Takatsuki (a 30-minute drive from Osaka) agreed to accept me, but the ambulance drivers weren’t enthusiastic about taking me all the way up there. They decided to first take me to the Osaka Central Emergency Medical Clinic, an off-hours alternative to hospitals located a few blocks from where I lived. I’d get to see a throat specialist first to make sure the bleeding was coming from my lungs and not from my throat.

The ambulance staff wheeled me into the clinic, which was filled to the rafters with influenza-stricken children. There were more germs floating around here than in a scientific laboratory. They handed me off to the nursing staff, where we waited our turn to see the doctor. About 45 minutes later, I finally got a chance to see the specialist, who shoved a camera into my nose and down my throat. “It’s all clean”, he said, which confirmed my initial suspicions that my lungs were the culprit. He sent me across the hall to Internal Medicine, where I waited another half-an-hour before seeing the overworked physician. He ordered an x-ray and sent me to the other side of the clinic to the X-ray technician. I’m not sure if it was the deep breaths, the radiation exposure, or just incredibly strange timing, but as soon as the images were taken I started throwing up blood again. The technician let out a gasp and sent me back across the hall to the doctor, through the lobby of awaiting patients.

Kanako’s look of horror intensified as she saw how much blood I was spitting up. The nurses grabbed me and thrust me in front of the doctor, who ushered me into a private room away from the other patients, who by now were staring in shocked disbelief. The nurses came over and provided towels while my physician got on the phone, trying to find a hospital that would accept me. It was round 2 of our ridiculous debacle. The initial ambulance drivers had definitely weaseled their way out of the situation by abandoning me at this godforsaken clinic. The bleeding stopped again but erupted once more about 20 minutes later. This time  I soaked the bed sheets and even had blood coming out of my nose because I was coughing so violently. Kanako and I started yelling at the nurses, and the doctor abandoned all of his other patients to assist. He got back on the phone, this time calling some of his personal physician friends for advice. They hooked me up to an IV to help stop the bleeding, and we finally connected with a hospital in Kishiwada city (a 30-minute drive south of Osaka) that would accept me. The doctors told me that if they couldn’t find a hospital for me then they would have no other choice than to send me home. I wanted to go to ANY hospital in Kansai, but the system doesn’t work that way. Osaka ambulance drivers are not allowed to cross prefectural borders. Even if there was a hospital in Kobe or Kyoto that would accept me, I would have no way of getting there unless I jumped on a train, crossed into the prefecture, and then called the ambulance.

The ambulance came and rescued me from the clinic at 11:30pm, preciously 6 hours after I had initially called for assistance. Japan’s emergency network works wonderfully if you follow two very important rules:  1) Don’t get sick on a weekend. 2) Don’t get sick from something that needs a specialists care. Broken bone? The Flu? No problem. A heart attack or cerebral hemorrhaging? Call the priest.

I arrived in Kishiwada and was immediately taken to my room, where the tests commenced. I had a CT scan to determine the cause of the bleeding, and a short time later a doctor came in to meet with me. He basically told me the main doctor wouldn’t be in until Tuesday, and that I could remain her for the remainder of the weekend in case my condition deteriorated. Phew, it looks like I would live through this one, at least for the time being.

(To be continued)

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Another setback part 1

I’m really starting to think I should rename this blog the QQ Tales after the Japanese word for emergency, 救急 (kyuukyuu). After my brush with death at the beginning of January, I thought I could focus my energy on overcoming my newly-found fear of winter mountaineering and plan some rewarding hikes for the upcoming spring. Alas it was not to be.

Sunday the 10th of February started off like most Sundays. A late lie-in followed by a simple breakfast before heading to one of my usual haunts for a leisurely lunch. Afterwards, I settled down to work, chipping away at a few writing projects and programming my new GPS device for a Monday hike into the Rokko mountain range. Like most lazy weekends, I headed to bed shortly after 5pm for a quick power nap to give me a boost of energy for cooking a hearty stew for the next day’s hike. Immediately after lying down, I started to cough. This is a regular routine, as I usually cough when heading to sleep. Sometimes the cough is gentle, while other times I heave violently for a short time before the muscles relax and I drift off to sleep. My chronic cough is dry, unproductive, and the result of years of battling allergies and asthma.

Several strong spasms swelled from deep within my diaphragm, which somehow set off a bizarre chain-reaction of events. In the blink of an eye, my dry cough quickly became wet, as I could feel the liquid move smoothly across my entire chest cavity. I haven’t had a smooth cough like this since I was a child, as the ease of movement of phlegm felt so relieving after years of not being able to eject much sputnum. While still on my back, I grabbed a tissue from a tissue box I handily keep by the side of my bed and spit out a large amount of warm phlegm that had collected in my oral cavity. The tissue turned bright red, as if I had just placed it on a gaping wound.

I jumped up from bed, ran over to the sink, and vomited a cupful of fresh hemoglobin into the sink while continuing to cough violently. Running back to the bedroom, I grabbed my cell phone, called my wife, and quickly and efficiently explained the situation. If I passed out before making the emergency call, at least my wife would know the reason. I headed into the dining room, pulled a trash bag close to my seated torso, and dialed 119, somehow managing to logically convey my vital information despite my lethal expulsion of plasma. With the ambulance in route, I clumsily gathered my belongings and sat at the entrance of my apartment, door propped, in case I should lose consciousness before help arrived.

part 2

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“Don’t climb here!”, gruffed the man in charge. “There will be avalanches”, seconded his supporting officer. Fumito and I were truly busted by the ski patrol this time, climbing out-of-bounds on a 40-degree slope in mid-February. Despite our best intentions of avoiding the crowds, we were being forced back onto the ski slopes and into the path of reckless skiers and wobbly boarders. Thus was our introduction to Kiri-ga-mine, one of the easiest yet trickiest Hyakumeizan to date.

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Fumito and I unloaded gear in the parking lot of Kuramayama ski resort shortly before 10am on a cool and cloudy Saturday afternoon. We had spent most of the morning in route from Shirojiri city further north, and had plans to knock off our target peak while the hungry skiers filled the lodges for their mid-day beer fest. We kick-stepped parallel paths just to the left of the westernmost boundary of the ski resort, knowing that we were far more likely to be run over by an out-of-control skier than by an improbable snow slide. I’m sure the ski patrol meant well. Who knows? Perhaps they did save us from a frozen tomb of caked ice by huddling us onto the groomed slopes, but neither of us were thrilled at our impending obstacle course.

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“1, 2, 3 GO!”, I screamed, dashing across the open slopes in a well-timed rhythm in the narrow gaps between the meandering skiers. Fumito followed next, narrowly avoiding a shoulder clip from a goofy-footed boarder in an uncontrolled frontside tailspin. “Phew, that was close”, exhaled my companion. Too bad the ski patrol didn’t stick around to see why we were avoiding the open slopes. Fumito and I burrowed a path through a small family of birch trees between two of the busier runs, which provided just enough of a buffer from the surrounding madness. Nearing the top of the ridge, we cut toward the north, crossing another open run Frogger-style before ducking under the lifts for the final hundred meters to the highest point of the resort. From here, we slipped under the rope and into the welcomed solitude of Kiri-ga-mine’s overdeveloped summit. Dropping our gear, we fired up the stove and enjoyed the serenity that a fog-capped summit affords. The arctic gales drowned out the J-pop infused drones of the ski lifts, and if it weren’t for the gargantuan meteorological tower towering directly above us it could have easily passed for the alpine meadows of a European plateau.

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While Fumito was boiling water, I jumped around incessantly, trying to fend off the chills and keep the circulation flowing. It was easily 10 below zero without the bone-piercing gales, so the minute the water reached a boil both of us sprinted back down to the ski lift and enjoyed our lunch in the sheltered confines of a storage shed, which provided just enough warmth to make things tolerable. Refreshed and refurbished, we headed back into the elements, dropping out of the thick cloud cover around 100 meters into our smooth glissade. With gravity on our side, we had no fears of being bowled over by our standing competitors. We made incredible time sliding, hopping, and running down the slippery contours of the gentle peak and by the time we reached the car the sun had made a welcome appearance. Mt. Tateshina glowed brilliantly in the afternoon light and beckoned us to investigate. Fumito and I vowed to  each other to attempt the peak in March, a promise we later made good on. For now, however, the warm baths of Shirakaba hot springs would suffice.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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