CAMP ZAMA, Japan (Dec. 18, 2020) – Bobby Rakes can see Mount Oyama, a 4,107-foot peak, from his office window in the U.S. Army Garrison Japan Directorate of Public Works headquarters.
Rakes needs no reminder of the mountain though. He will always remember his recent ordeal there, and he wants to share his story so others will have only pleasant memories of hiking the forested mountain. Located in Tanzawa-Oyama Quasi-National Park, it features shrines, temples, waterfalls and beautiful maple leaves in the fall.
“I would recommend hiking Mount Oyama to anyone,” Rakes said, “but plan and prepare and start a lot earlier than we did. It was just too late in the afternoon to complete it like we wanted.”
On Nov. 11, the Veteran’s Day holiday, Rakes, director of DPW, and his wife, Kim, planned to hike to the top of the mountain, about an hour’s drive from Camp Zama.
Due to an online meeting Rakes had in the morning, however, they got a late start and didn’t get off the cable car at Afuri-jinja Station, where many hikers start their climb, until 1 p.m. The Oyama Afuri Shrine Shimosha is near the stop, and there are two trailheads nearby. One goes to the right and is easier but longer, and the one to the left is steeper but shorter.
The Rakes took the trail to the right, and had a good time at first, but then began to become concerned about making it to the summit in time to descend and catch the last cable car back down. If they didn’t make it back by 4:30 p.m., they faced having to hike down in the dark.
Online, some guides say the hike from the cable car stop to the top takes about 90 minutes, but the Rakes did not find the hike that fast.
After hiking for about an hour, they met a couple who told them it was still 30 minutes to the summit. After hiking 20 minutes, they met another couple who told them they were still 30 minutes away.
“I was getting concerned—really concerned, because we had already hiked another 15 or 20 minutes and they were telling us it was the same or maybe a little bit longer,” Rakes said.
Kim said she wanted to turn back, but Bobby was concerned that at the rate they had been moving, they still wouldn’t get back in time for the last cable car.
“Our only hope was to finish this last bit and get to the summit and go down the shorter route on the other side,” Rakes said of his mindset.
In hindsight, they should have turned around at that point on the easier, known trail, he said. Presumably the hikers who passed them going down planned to make it to the cable car in time, and maybe they could have made it, as well. And even if they did miss the train, maybe someone at the station could have called for help.
“Don’t be so committed to a plan of action that you won’t consider other alternatives,” Rakes said.
Rakes, however, did not know at that point that the shorter trail he planned to take would be so steep and treacherous, especially in the dark. So they continued on.
Right before reaching the summit, Rakes remembers seeing for the first time the man who would become their guardian angel. He was stopped and adjusting his gear.
“[The man] just stood, straightened up, almost as if to say, “‘Where have you been?’ Rakes said. ‘You’re late. I’m expecting you.’ That of course is all looking back on it. At the time I didn’t think very much about it.”
Rakes said he later learned the man’s surname and cell phone number, but also learned that the man wants him to respect his privacy. Rakes calls him his guardian angel. Later, Rakes said he only half-jokingly wondered aloud to Kim if maybe the man really was an angel.
The man, who spoke limited English, stayed near as the couple reached the summit, and Rakes asked him where the trail they planned to take down the mountain was located. He pointed in the direction of the trail, confirming where Rakes thought the trail was located.
At this point, Kim was starting to suffer physically, Rakes said.
“She is starting to have stomach aches, starting to get nauseous and even though we still had food and water, she couldn’t keep any of it down, so we took one quick, relatively unhappy photo at the top of the summit,” Rakes said.
They started down the new, unknown trail and the Japanese hiker stayed with them.
“As soon as we took our step down that trail, he was right there by our side and never left us the whole way down,” Rakes said.
Rakes quickly realized they would have trouble navigating the trail.
“Immediately I’m thinking, this is harder than I anticipated,” Rakes said. “There are no carved steps. There are a lot of naturally placed rocks that kind of act like steps, but there’s a big vertical distance between where you must step. It starts to get really, really difficult.”
His left knee and right hip started to hurt, and Kim, small in stature, found the distance between the steps difficult to navigate.
Rakes said the hiker provided Kim his hiking poles, which helped give her confidence.
After a while they reached a fork in the trail, Rakes said, and the hiker gestured that one way was easier than the other, so they took that trail.
“If that was the easy route, I don’t even want to think how difficult the other route was because, especially after it got dark, it was extremely treacherous,” Rakes said. “There were spots where there was no discernable trail. The ground was covered with leaves and loose rocks which made it very slippery.”
In fact, Kim slipped and fell at one point, Rakes said, but thankfully the fall did not severely injure her.
Rakes said he is especially thankful because any misstep or fall could have resulted in serious injury or possibly death in many places along the trail.
Meanwhile, Rakes wished he had better prepared for the hike, and especially for the possibility that they would still be on the mountain after sunset. The only light they had was the flashlight app on Rakes’ cell phone. It was a moonless night.
The hiker was better prepared, and tried as hard as he could to give them some light with a headlamp he was wearing, but Rakes became concerned because their guide was putting himself at risk.
“A couple of times when he turned around to try to give us some light, he tripped,” Rakes said. “He never fell, but he stumbled several times, and I was growing increasingly concerned that he might get injured. If any of us had been seriously injured, I don’t know how we would have made it down the mountain that night.”
The trio continued on, and Kim tried to eat a quarter of an apple slice, but could not keep it down, Rakes said.
After a while they saw what Rakes believes was the intermediate cable car stop, and the route had some lighting on it.
Then, however, after they had been hiking down from the summit for about two and a half hours, Kim sat down and said she could not go any farther. Rakes looked down the trail and saw that an upcoming portion would be very difficult.
“I was looking at this next portion of the trail that we had to negotiate, and I was thinking, ‘There’s no way,’” Rakes said. “‘There’s no way in the condition that we’re in now that we’re going to safely get down this really difficult, treacherous looking portion of the trail.’”
The hiker said the word “rescue” and indicated he could call for help. Rakes deferred to his wife, and she asked for assistance.
The man called an emergency rescue team, and was on the phone for 15 minutes, which seemed like a long time for a rescue call, but as soon as he got off the phone, Rakes saw flashing lights at a distance.
“It seemed like it was almost instantaneous,” Rakes said. “A little later we started hearing the sirens and it probably took, from the time he hung up the phone and we saw the flashing lights, about 30 minutes. There was apparently a road that was unknown to us that was not too much farther down and off in one direction to our right.”
Members of the Isehara City Fire Department West Branch responded to the call, and about six rescuers arrived at the scene. One of the rescuers spoke English well and he asked Rakes and his wife several questions.
At that point, the rescuers put Kim on a canvas, strapped a helmet on her head and attached her to the back of one of the rescuers, Rakes said. Two or three other rescuers attached themselves to straps on the harness around Kim and they started down the mountain. Later, Kim told Rakes the rescuers ran down the mountain.
“I tried to keep up for as long as I could, which wasn’t very long at all because of how difficult the trail was,” Rakes said, but the rescuers waited for him at the ambulance so he could ride in the back with her to the hospital.
Meanwhile, the rescuer who spoke English hiked down with Rakes and gave him his hiking poles, Rakes said.
Rakes tried to get their guardian angel’s name and phone number, partially because he had loaned Kim a nice pair of hiking pants and a hooded jacket, and Rakes wanted to know how to return them. But the man declined.
“What I was getting from what he was trying to tell me is, ‘No, I’m a hiker. I don’t want any thanks,’” Rakes said. “That was how I interpreted it, like there was a code among hikers.”
The rescuers brought Kim to the ambulance and Rakes got in the back with her and they went to Isehara Kyodo Hospital. Medical personnel ran tests and took X-rays, and thankfully there was nothing seriously wrong with her.
The Rakes made it back to Camp Zama a little after 11 p.m., weary but glad their ordeal hadn’t been worse.
“We were so thankful to be safely back home and uninjured … we had so many people to be grateful for, and so much wonderful help from the Japanese fire department, the hospital medical staff, the police department, and then not to mention our guardian angel, the Japanese hiker,” Rakes said.
Kim spent the next few days in bed, and Rakes experienced considerable pain going up and down the stairs at home. Rakes had left his contact information at the hospital so he could pay his bill, and he was afraid it was going to be thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars.
In the end, however, it cost less than $500, and when the Rakes went to pay it in person, they also stopped by the Isehara City Fire Department West Branch with many snacks and drinks to say thank you. The hiker had contacted the fire department about the clothing Kim borrowed, so they also dropped off the clothing, as well as a brand-new set of the same clothing to say thank you. He had also given them a new space blanket, and they gave him a new one as well.
“We put a handwritten thank you card, translated into Japanese, and a business card in the gift bag, hoping that he might contact us, but we haven’t heard anything from him, so I assume that he genuinely values his privacy and just felt like he was doing what any hiker should do,” Rakes said.
Rakes, who has had extensive survival training in the military, including U.S. Army Ranger School and a couple of years with Special Forces, regrets that he was not better prepared—especially because his wife was with him.
“I didn’t have any tools, any equipment, any gear, any clothing,” Rakes said. “We just had the minimum food and water. Fortunately my wife dressed warmly in layers and didn’t start to get really cold until the sun had been down for several of hours when she stopped moving, then she began to shiver.”
Rakes said he advises hikers, at a minimum, to include food, water, clothing, a space blanket, a fire starter, a multi-tool, a signal flare and something that could double as a blanket and a lean-to shelter.
Looking back, Rakes wishes he had started earlier or postponed the hike for another day. He also has other recommendations.
“Be sure you do your homework and research very thoroughly so that you have some idea of where you are, how much farther you have to go, and by all means, don’t attempt it in the afternoon,” Rakes said. “Don’t start a hike like that after noon.”