Travel

The bear and the meat sack

It was a cold October night. The high mountains of the Northern Japanese Alps had already reached Winter, while not too many miles distant nor too many feet lower it was still a nice crisp Autumn. I was hooched-up in a hammock and bivy four full feet off the ground.

I had been checking mountain after mountain off my J-Peak List in whatever free time I had. And although I was running down the list logistically and geographically, I certainly had Priority Peaks I was after. This peak, Tateyama, or Mount Tate, is one of the Sanreizan: The Three Holy Mountains.

The Sanreizan includes Fujisan (Mount Fuji), Hakusan (Mount Haku), and this one. My own names for these peaks — respectfully — are “The Fooj,” “The Hak” (pronounced ‘hawk’), and “The Tat.” And the reason these three are somewhat “above all others” is that they are revered by multiple faiths, multiple denominations, and also by the perfectly nonreligious. By comparison, the Nanareizan (Seven Holy Mountains) includes these three, plus four that aren’t really especially revered by anyone outside Shinto, or the Japanese mountain religion Shugendo.

Both the San- and Nanareizan are included in what is called the Hyakumeizan, or 100 Famous Mountains. Those 100 were established by Japanese writer and mountaineer, Kyūya Fukada. Many Japanese mountaineers argue the list; I just saw it as something to accomplish. If I got time to bitch, I got time to climb.

(As an aside, I have also climbed the first mountain Fukada ever climbed — the one led him to mountaineering and poetry. I stopped counting at 100. And it’s still a fucking nutroll.)

I was honestly thinking about exactly that, when I drifted off to sleep in my Gore-Tex sack. With an absolutely crystal clear open sky above me, the light belt of our galaxy spanned my view — interrupted slightly by the leafless tress I was hanging between. The river nearby whispered it’s secrets, but I hadn’t learned Riverese at that point.

Sometime after 0100, I awoke. For some reason, I was completely awake and aware. And my inner voice was simultaneously saying. “Get the fuck out of the bag./Do not fucking move.” To my surprise, that inner dialog was cut off by what sounded like someone sawing semi-wet wood. Estimated 80 yards. Directly past my feet. Moving toward me.

Riddling over what the fuck this sound could possibly be, I went over my current situation. All my shit was in my car a full klick away. I just had me, the shit I was cocooned in, and the empty waterproof bag I carried all that shit in bungeed to my hammock. Short of being some kind of fucked up Japanese demon — which I never completely consider to be off the table — I was well within the lines of camping in the wild (no bacon strips in my pockets, etc.).

Now… I had been in-country for most of 10 years. I had seen J-bears on some of my mountain runs. Never had a problem. I had been warned for YEARS by the local constituents to mind the fucking bears. Every year, some poor fucker gets mauled to death here. But in my head, I’m thinking, “Uh… sure, pal. Asiatic brown bears. I grew up camping with black bears and mountain lions in the Ozarks; I’ll be fine.”

Chalk that shit up to one of the few times I will openly admit to being a *complete motherfucking dipshit*. I didn’t even Google to see. Until the day after this… (Spoiler alert: They are aggressive as hell; evolved in an ecosystem competing with tigers. There is at least one example of a bear rolling out of the woods, strolling down the street, and eating everyone at a bus stop. That’s honey-badger-level zero shits given. But I bet there were shits. And those shits probably had hair and clothes and human bone fragments. Beat that, honey badger.)

The sawing noise was now 10 yards out, and there was no way in shit I was gonna try to loudly zip out of my liner, bag, and bivy. So, I just literally hung out there, and looked at the sky out of my breathe hole.

My hooch was in a clearing surrounded by trees. I was tied up between two of them. I still didn’t know if it was a bear, or some shit out of The Ring. But my single course of action was to just be still and see what happens.

The sawing stopped. The sniffing started. Inner voice said very clearly, “Well, you’re fucked now, dude.”

It took me a bump on the back to realize that the reason the sniffing was muffled was because IT WAS DIRECTLY FUCKING BENEATH ME. I was exactly four feet up. It was not its head bumping me, it was that muscle cluster between its shoulders. Its head was rummaging around in my empty watertight bag.

The one that was clipped to my hammock. The one that this bear had just pulled on. 🙁

So yeah. My hammock rocked about 45 degrees to my right. There was nothing I could do. Nothing. I was absently trying to calculate whether or not bear claws and teeth could tear through Gore-Tex and all the fluffy bag between me and the outside world. I figured worst case scenario is it just mauls the bag and crushes me to death. I hoped that everything would act as kind of a softer version of that barrel rodeo clowns hide from bulls in. Either way, faced with the absurd certainty that there was nothing I could do, the one thing I *did* do at that exact moment was:

Started laughing my ass off.

Probably sounded more like an insane cackle than me laughing at the funniest joke I’d ever heard. But despite all my carefulness in life; despite the training. Despite all the crazy shit I had survived and learned from and bettered myself out of. I was going to end up dropping on this bear, scaring the shit out of it as a giant slug, and then being squished to death in the middle of the mountains in a country I had never even set out to be in, by a bear I should have known was dangerous as fuck. Great joke indeed.

I could hear and feel the bear stop everything. I could hear my laughter off the mountain on the other side of the river. The chances of this shit ending well were very close to zero.

Several looong seconds later, the bear snorted and hit my back with its head. This shook the hammock again, but I still did not fall off. The saw-breathing starts again. I got thumped two more times. All three thumps hurt, in retrospect. But the feeling was meaningless at the time, when faced with being part of the food chain with a bear.

After the headbutts to my back and the restart of the clearly pissy breathing, the bear stood a few feet away from me (best I could judge by the sound of the breathing). By this point, I had shimmied a hand up and over my mouth; my laughter never stopped. At least I was seeming more respectful?

Approximately a minute later — I wasn’t counting it out; I was still expecting to die — the bear stomped out of my hooch clearing and down to the river. I heard every step through the brush, but lost it in the rush of the river. Whose whispers by this time were no doubt, “You’re a lucky fucking dipshit, dude.”

Ten minutes later I was back asleep. My adrenaline crash and stomach workout from laughing so fucking hard guaranteed that if the bear came back to eat me, I’d die sleeping.

Several hours later, just before dawn, I woke up laughing. Zipped out of my meat sack and into the frozen morning. Pulled my climbing kicks out of the bottom of my bivy, and started untying everything and shoving it into the bear-sniffed bag. Paw prints were clear as a bell under where my hammock was tied.

Later that day I was on the peak. Hyper clear day. Damn near any mountain with a name on a map was in view. In one direction, I could see the Sea of Japan. In the other — across the entire fucking island — I could see Mount Fuji (one of the more insane things I’ve seen here, to be sure).

It was a damn fine climb. The fact that I was alive at all after that night made it much more easy to enjoy.

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rynobucket
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rynobucket

E P I C

Joseph Giese
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Joseph Giese

Dude, that was the coolest, funny, insane story I’ve read in a very long time. Cheers!!!

JoniS
Guest

Holy bear! That is an incredible story. I love that you laughed. Laughed at the face of death by bear. But really, what else could you do? The irony of it all. I bet that view the next morning was amazing. Not just that you survived, but that you could see far and wide. Sort of life changing moment. Survive bear, laugh in face of death, rewarded with best view ever. Check!

Mic-Mac
Member
Mic-Mac

Well, holy fuck Theo! Sorry for the “F” word, but I know you won’t be offended. Bears, regardless of the type, just scare the crap out of me. We see a lot of the black bear but left alone; they just want to find someone’s garbage and move along. You were one lucky dude. Good thing after sniffing you your scent didn’t enhance the beast’s appetite. Damn, you must have one hell of a laugh which I’m sure was heightened by the terrifying situation. Great story Theo, glad you put it in writing and shared with us. Thank you.

Miche
Member
Miche

I’m torn between re-evaluating my decision-making paradigm (I may never see my camping hammock the same again!) and wondering just what rivers and bears think about giant slugs that string themselves up between two trees. Pen across the room!!!! 🙂

clluelo
Member
clluelo

Theo , when I was stationed in the land of grizzlies , I was on the Dyea flats with my 2 dogs they were ahead of me , I found them facing down 2 , 2 year old twins just away from their mom and I had that same reaction of “ oh fuck I am gonna die “ calmness . Thankfully Ralph and Syd has different ideas ,they went all wolf and chased them off ( the twins were too young to figure out they were bigger and stronger) But even I know Japanese bears are hyper aggressive buddy.… Read more »

Mason
Member
Mason

Dumbstruck, amazing encounter. I am now set for a great weekend! How can you not feel good about life after a story like that!

Susan B
Member

I could just picture that whole thing in my head, Ody. What an awesome, insane adventure! I’m so glad you weren’t his late night or early morning snack, and what a memorable camping trip he gave you. lol Thanks for sharing.

JoyB
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JoyB

Laughing at inappropriate times is a skill not to be discounted. No smart bear wants to eat the crazy human laughing, we’re probably diseased.

GsGirl
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GsGirl

Holy Fuck, Sir!!! (So grateful that I can use that word on this website!!!) It it such a pleasure to read your stories of adventure again. You are an amazing man!!!

georgehand
Member

Theo,
if you don’t mind, I prefer to refer to the Seven Holy Mountains as the Nana, and well, you probably know what it is I call the Hyaku.

“If I got time to bitch, I got time to climb.” LOL! Pat McNamara says that same thing about fly fishing.

Solid gold story, man; totally believable. I admit I did laugh out loud through much of it… I could bearly contain myself.

geo sends

Susan B
Member

bearly, huh. lol [Can’t “like” so have to go the long way around. 🙂 ]

shooten1st
Member
shooten1st

Wow! That’s intense. Sleeping would not have happened. I’ve also heard they’re very dangerous over there but have stayed over here and had very far away encounters with feeding black bears and a grizzly too. Except the one time in Boy Scouts at Yosimite. Black bear was right outside our tent on his way to the cafeteria, err garbage dump. Respect Theo, that was an intense experience.

Mic-Mac
Member
Mic-Mac

I am testing to see if I get notifications

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