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Escaping Winter’s Venom in Snake Valley

From 10 meters above, atop a steep, ice-covered ravine, I could hear my hiking partner’s voice calling down to me. “Yes, I’m OK,” I answered. “But I’m bleeding, and I’ve lost my gloves.” Things were about to get a lot heavier.

Our saga had started nine hours earlier in Hata, a tiny rustic village nestled in a constricted valley at the base of Buna-ga-take in western Shiga Prefecture. It was the third day of the Year of the Snake and, to christen the New Year, Ted Taylor and I had our eyes set on Jatani-ga-mine, which appropriately translates to “Snake Valley.”

We made incredibly good time on the ascent, reaching the 900-meter summit shortly after 2 p.m. and leaving enough daylight to retrace our steps back to the car. The clouds had just lifted, revealing unobstructed views of the flatlands surrounding Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest freshwater lake.

To the north, however, the crests of the Takashima Long Trail were enveloped in a menacing wall of white; a low-pressure system was encroaching from the Sea of Japan, threatening to swallow us up in its path.

After a short glissade to save time, we followed our path back to the meandering ridge until reaching a small creek neither of us remembered on the climb. We had veered off the path, and a snap decision was made to follow the watershed, knowing it would lead to a village where we could simply backtrack to our car.

The farther we descended, the narrower the valley grew, until it entered a gorge lined with steep cliffs. Anticipating the danger that lay ahead, we quickly abandoned this route in favor of burrowing a trail up toward the ridgeline on our right, which we hoped would help us regain our bearings.

When this failed, we used a compass reading to drop to the west, entering another watershed just as daylight faded and the blizzard began. With headlamps fastened, we eventually reached a point where the gorge narrowed so tightly, we could not continue. We made the decision to abandon the canyon and ascend back to the ridge, but not before I took my costly tumble.

Barehanded, I was somehow able to climb up the icy walls of the ravine and make it back to Ted, who surveyed the damage. The bleeding had stopped and there were no broken bones. I foraged through my gear, pulling out two kairo heat packs, clutching one in each hand before burying them inside my down jacket sleeves. I topped it off by winching my outer layer tightly around the end of my balled-up fists.

The two of us struggled back up to the ridge, abandoned our fire-making attempts and called the police. After they told us to wait until the morning, we ignored their commands and searched for a way out. Neither of us would survive the morning if we waited on the ridge all night, as the snow wasn’t deep enough to make a cave.

Suddenly, the clouds lifted, and directly below we saw lights. Acting on instinct, we blazed a trail through a cedar plantation to the village, which happened to be where our car was parked. It was already after midnight, but we were forced to fill out paperwork at the police station before collapsing into our futons in Kyoto at daybreak. We had survived, although not without a few scrapes, bruises and some minor frostbite on our fingers.   

Several mistakes got us into trouble that day, but a few good choices ultimately saved our lives. Here are some tips to keep in mind when you’re out in the hills this winter.

  1. Be prepared. In addition to warm clothing, bring an emergency shelter or sleeping bag, and a dozen or so kairo heat packs.
  2. Know your terrain. Never attempt a mountain you haven’t climbed before in winter. Knowing the terrain and routes during the dry season will help you make better informed decisions about the winter options and may keep you from getting lost.
  3. Backtrack. Although this is a no-brainer, it’s always good to keep this one at the front of your thoughts, especially in winter. If you veer off course, double back until the terrain starts to look familiar again. Our failure to follow this simple rule could have cost us our lives.
  4. Don’t follow streams. In summer a stream or river can lead you safely to civilization, but in winter you are likely to find yourself trapped in a steep canyon with no escape routes. Instead, try following cedar trees. Conifer plantations will almost always lead to a forest road, which nine times out of 10 will take you to a hamlet.
  5. Don’t expect help. If you do get lost, don’t sit around waiting for search-and-rescue to find you. Either hunker down in a snow cave until the weather clears or head down toward civilization.

Wes Lang is freelance writer and hiking enthusiast based in Osaka. In addition to climbing all of the Hyakumeizan (Japan’s 100 famous mountains), he is the author of Hiking in Japan, a blog that provides comprehensive English trail descriptions for Japan’s major hiking areas.

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