Bear Grylls eat your heart out  

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

As recounted previously on these pages, I have been somewhat frustrated of late in my efforts to get out hiking. In particular, my urge to get out for an overnight trip. I had originally planned to do a 2 or 3 dayer to Oze Marches, but time has just run out. So instead, I thought a little trip closer to home might be a bit more practical. So with that intent I booked a couple of days off work and headed for where the WiFi can't find me. Little did I realise that my leisurely stroll through the woods would turn into something off a Bear Grylls tv show.
My plan was to return to Mt Otake, via the picturesque mountain village of Mitake. After stopping for lunch at the 1266m peak, I would swing south for a couple of kilometers and then pick up the trail which would lead me eventually to Otake campsite and an overnight stop. Then, the following day I was going to retrace my steps back to Otake, but skirt the peak and press on to Oku Tama and the train home.
Things started to come a little bit unpicked shortly after leaving Mitake. I had originally planned to tackle one of the other little peaks in the area on my way to Otake. But on hitting the train junction, I was faced by this sign.
Bear activity is not unusual this time of year, and the quieter areas around Mitake are known bear haunts. The Asian black bear is a famously bad-tempered animal at the best of times. But a female with cubs is particularly dangerous, and this time of year is when cubs and their mothers are likely to be more active. Bears will normally try to avoid human contact, but being mid-week there weren't so many people around. Travelling alone meant that I was at increased risk of a chance encounter, so I decided that sticking to one of the busier trails might be a good idea, so I continued on to Mt Otake.

I really enjoy this little mountain. Approaching from Mitake, you go around a series of rocky outcrops that get gradually more challenging as you approach the final ascent. The latter ones requiring you to grap chains set in the rock to steady yourself as you clamber over. The drop away is steep, but not sheer so it isn't trouser-filling scary in the way, say Crib Goch, is. But it certainly adds a bit of drama to an otherwise fairly routine trail. The final push to the summit is a hands and feet scramble up the rocky shoulder of the mountain. Coming down the other side is I think marginally easier, but still has a couple of points where you have to stop and think "How am I going to tackle this?"

So after what I thought was going to be the main excitement of the day, I left Otake behind and headed south on an easy woodland trail, anticipating setting up camp a couple of hours later and cooling my feet in a mountain stream whilst supping the tin of beer I had lugged along for that purpose. Things were going well until I hit the fork in the train where I was due to turn north. There, strung across my path was a rope and a sign saying "Path Closed"

Well, that was unexpected. The path was seemingly quite  popular one and I had seen nothing to indicate the closure up to that point. There was a notice posted on the Oku Tama Visitor centre website that one path was closed for maintenance, but the location given was further south. But I had a bit of a problem. To continue south would take me way off course and dump me miles away from my destination, with nowhere to go. Doubling back was an option, but difficult. The detour would take me 10km or more out of my way, and involve tackling what looked like a difficult and unfamiliar scree descent in the dark. I didn't fancy that either. There was no other way to reach my destination, so I had to make a decision: return to Mitake and abandon trip or to trust to my map reading skills and common sense and try to find a way through the closed trail. I decided to take a chance.

Trails are usually closed for either maintenance or logging operations. I figured that in either case, the actual site of the works was likely to be quite small. From the map, I could see that the path had a couple of steep-ish descents, but nothing dangerously so. I couldn't hear any machinery or chainsaws, so I reasoned that if I could navigate around the area of disruption, I'd be fine.

I walked the 250m to the first signpost indicated on the map. So far, so good. However shortly after that I began to see signs of logging and the path evaporated into a featureless clearing. The land dropped away sharply in front of me and it was clear that I was going to have to commit to a descent. It would likely be one way, as the chances of being able to scramble back up the hillside again if I screwed up were diminishing rapidly. However, I had an accurate fix on my last known position from the signpost and the map I was using was detailed and accurate. Therefore I had an accurate bearing on the next signpost marked on the trail, so I had a good idea on what direction the trail lay. I started to descend. At first, I managed to zig-zag down the slope using the log breaks left by the woodsmen. But pretty soon the slope became steeper and more treacherous, and the game started to get a bit more serious.

I used the trees as brakes, aiming from one to the other to arrest my descent. At each couple of trees I stopped and checked my bearing and looked for clues to match my location on the map. I could see that I was heading down a spur, with gullies either side of me. That matched with what I expected on the map, so I was still reasonably confident in my direction. But the going was getting harder. The soft forest floor underfoot was now interspersed with rocks, which dislodged by my slippery descent, tumbled noisily into the undergrowth below.

Then, I fell.

My footing simply disappeared and I started an uncontrolled slide in a shower of dirt, wood and rocks. I managed to dig my heels in and used my trekking pole like an ice pick to try and get control. After sliding maybe 10-15 m I managed to use a tree to bring me to a halt. After taking a few moments to compose myself and check my map and bearing again, I continued. I started to get a bit more concerned now. The chance to retrace my steps was now absolutely zero; I was well off the beaten track with no hope of discovery and the valley floor was still not in sight.

I was heading into a valley, and off in the distance I could hear water. Water flows downhill, and usually eventually leads to a road or some form of settlement. I appeared to be following the right general direction and the features I could see around me matched what the map was saying. But nevertheless, I needed to consider my options. I was well equipped. I had food and shelter. If necessary, I could survive an overnight stay quite comfortably. I felt sure of my map and compass, and I was confident I had a reasonably good idea of my location. My biggest worry was getting injured - either breaking a leg, being clumped by a falling rock or running across one of Japan's poisonous snakes in the undergrowth. In the latter case, I was quite happy that my noisy descent should alert any animal to me presence long before I arrived, so trying to avoid injury became top priority.

I slid some more - fell some more and clattered over loose, moss-covered rocks. And then - miraculously - I saw the more than 5 paces to the right of my predicted position! I'd made it to the path again. The path was clear and easy to see, and the sign post showed it was the right path. Nevertheless I double-checked the map and bearing to make sure I was where I thought I was. Everything checked out, so scratched, muddied but otherwise OK, I headed off expecting the rest of the trail to be a piece of cake - expectations that were soon to be dashed...
PART II to follow!

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