December is upon us, so the snow up here in Hokkaido will be here to stay for a while. After a busy summer and fall of taking people from all over the globe into mountains, the Pig’s ready for some R&R. This means doing something I’m real passionate about – a solo trip into the Hokkaido backcountry.
For me, nothing beats sitting outside the tent at night with a cup of hot sake in hand, surrounded by fresh snowy peaks and the night sky. (A close second is lying alone in my tent with a gusty storm outside trying to blow me away.)
Doing it solo is not for everyone, but knowing the clarity that goes with being alone in vast spaces brings joy to the isolation. Without traveling companions, there is no talking; just listening to the sound of nature and the thoughts and questions popping up in your head.
I catch myself answering my own questions. (Sometimes I even manage to give myself the wrong answers). These days people don’t listen enough to what’s going on around them. Too much time is spent complaining, discussing and trying to find things to talk about. Half the time what we do talk about doesn’t make sense anyway, so it’s nice just to get away from it all, even if it’s for a short time.
Hiking by yourself in the backcountry in winter is risky and, in a sense, climbing without a rope, since there is little or no room for error. You have to be more focused and conservative in nearly everything you do, but that’s what attracts me to it.
Everything I do, each decision, is my responsibility, so if something goes wrong, I have no one to blame but myself. For me doing it solo is all about safety, not taking risks, being fully prepared, having the right gear and having the experience and confidence to deal with any situation that comes your way.
If you are thinking about heading into the backcountry this winter, even if it’s only for a day, you should ask yourself the following questions. If you answer “no” to any of them, you are not ready to go at it alone.
1: Can you read a map?
2: Can you use a compass?
3: Can you use them together?
4: You may say, “Well I have a GPS.” But can you use it?
5: What happens if the GPS doesn’t work?
6: Are you prepared to spend the night, and do you have the gear for it?
7: Do you have a fire-starting kit or any way to make a fire?
8: If your shoulder harness—or anything—else breaks, can you fix it?
9: If you lose a glove, do you have a spare?
10: Can you read snow and weather?
When you head into the backcountry in winter (especially solo), you need to take a lot of gear. Here is the Bush Pig’s List of what you need to bring. If you don’t have these items, then I don’t think you are well enough prepared.
The Bush Pig’s Basic Backcountry “Must Have” List
1: Shovel (I believe this is the single most important piece of gear).
2: Well-stocked first aid kit.
3: Fire-starting kit.
4: Spare wool hat, gloves, sunglasses, wool socks and spare bootlaces.
5: Extra food and a wide-mouthed water bottle (a wide-mouth takes longer to freeze).
6: Repair kit (Can you repair anything that breaks? Look at your gear and ask yourself, “If that breaks can I fix it?”).
7: A large tin cup (can be used to boil water).
9: Survival sheet (emergency blanket) plus a large plastic garbage bag (to put your feet in if you have to spend the night outside).
10: Your cell phone.
Note: There are additional things you may also need, such as an avalanche beacon, but these are the basics.
More Tips from the Bush Pig
1: Never follow treks (tracks?) in the snow unless you are 100 percent sure you know where they are going.
2: Always leave a detailed time plan of where you are going, and leave it with someone you trust.
3: Take boiling water with you before you leave home or camp (it will take longer to freeze).
4: Keep your water bottle upside down in your pack (water freezes from the top down).
5: If camping, keep a fold-up bottle with you in your sleeping bag with a wide opening, so you don’t have to get out of that warm bag to go to the bathroom (the wide-mouth bottle is to make sure that what goes in doesn’t come out all over your sleeping bag. I have learned this lesson the hard way).
Well, that about covers it. Just remember one more thing, “Pigs don’t only love mud—this pig also digs snow!