Hosed in Hakuba – A Near-Miss in a Foreign Land
“They taste better when you’re anxious,” I say to Brad as I pass him a menthol, Japanese cigarette.
The wind tears into us from the north, or maybe the south.
We’d confused the two earlier in the day and the sting of our navigational mishap is taking its toll on the group…
Just another crew of Gaijin (white guys) lost in the Japanese Alps.
Maybe it’s the gale force winds raking their claws across the vista-less ridge, but it seems like the spirits of Hakuba are telling us to get the fuck outta there.
We’re trying, but our efforts are hampered by the bounty of the last few storms, including the payload stacking up from the one we’re currently stuck in.
Eventually, a sign reveals itself from the swirling snow on the ridge. Wind-battered and leaning to the east (or maybe the west), the app on our phone transforms the Japanese caricature from the sign into “More Ski This Way”. With no arrows to back up the cryptic info, we can only guess that the finer details have been lost in translation.
We press forward, hoping that Google Maps are more reliable than Google Translate, the former showing a blue dot moving ever-so-slowly back in the general direction of Tsugaike Ski resort.
As is often the case when a crew of skiers gets lost, the day started off with great zest and vigorous enthusiasm.
It was our third day in Hakuba and we were pumped up by the relative success of our first two days. None of us had been there before. But with favourable weather and quality beta from trusted friends, it’s possible we’d become a little too cocksure.
So on our third day, we made our way to the top of a well-travelled ridge and dropped into the wrong line entirely. The line was a safe one, if a little short. But we didn’t realize it was even a mistake until we returned to the same zone a few days later. Either way, we dropped further down into the valley hoping we’d scout our second lap on the climb back out.
Instead we found ourselves in a tranquil forested area saying things like: “this seems like an easy place to get lost.”
We were right.
Back on the ridge, the cryptic sign is a couple hours behind us and I’ve plowed through a couple more minty, anxiety-flavoured cigarettes. The fleeting glimpses we get of the terrain around us do little to convince me that we’re on the right track.
“How do you call 9-1-1 in Japanese?” I wonder to myself. Not that we’re in any real distress, but we should probably tell somebody…anybody…if we have to spend the night in a snow cave.
A huge white hare bounds through the snow in front of us, and Jefferson Airplane sticks in my head for the rest of the day.
“And if you go chasing rabbits, and you know you’re going to fall,
Tell ’em a hookah-smoking caterpillar has given you the call.”
The ridge itself, at this point anyways, is broad and barren, stripped by Hakuba’s high country winds. The trees are flagged, their growth stunted by the hostility of their environment. The good news is that it’s not avalanche terrain. But it’s a sad place, one that seems unlikely to be visited by backcountry shredders.
We have a few things going for us, cell service being one of them. The sign a few kilometres back, even though it did little to assure us at the time, is a good indicator that people do indeed frequent this area. And the glorious blue dot on Patty’s iPhone…it’s still moving in the direction of the resort.
I’m also thankful for the fact that our whole crew is sporting proper outerwear. My younger self would likely have layered up with a cotton t-shirt, a hoody, a Fashion-Over-Function™ jacket and $12 pants from the Whistler Re-Use It Centre. But of all the mistakes we’ve made on this blustery day in The Japanese Alps, outfit choice isn’t one of them.
In spite of all this, the vibe’s still uncertain, especially when the wind puffs its cheeks and blows what little confidence we have left off into the lee side of the ridge.
The crew’s being tested now, both physically and mentally. One unfamiliar high point is followed by the next, all while the unseen sun dips closer to the distant horizon.
“When the men on the chessboard get up and tell you where to go,
And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom, and your mind is moving low.”
Eventually, a wave of delusional optimism takes hold of Brad. “Up there!” he says, pointing at a summit in the distance. “That looks familiar!”
It doesn’t really. But I like where his head’s at.
30 minutes later, we’re standing on top of another unknown high point….But there’s some muthafucken tracks on it! And as everyone knows, following tracks is the number one way to navigate in the backcountry.
Just kidding, internet commenters. The direction of the tracks lines up with the one thing that’s kept us sane through this whole ordeal: The Blue Dot trending back towards the resort. Not only that, it looks like a half decent run. And it’s possible they were just auditory hallucinations, but we’re pretty sure we heard voices a few minutes ago.
The line off this mystery summit isn’t the second lap we’d originally envisioned, but it’ll do. We change over. And after about four hours of using the barren ridge as a handrail in the storm, we drop off its flanks and smash a few silky pow turns back in the general direction (we think) of the resort.
I really hope we’re right…
I’m almost outta darts.