Outdoor painting nightmare on a mountain

Watercolor painting of clouds above Mt Yufudake
“Clouds gather”

Part 1: Ascent into the Mist

Monday is a free day and if the weather is fine then it’s a chance for a painting trip. It’s a really special day for me as I love outdoor painting. 

On this particular day, the weather forecast was cloudy at first but it would gradually become sunnier. But the forecast is sometimes wrong so I waited until there was a noticeable change for the better.

My destination was Mount Yufudake. I recently discovered this beautiful twin peaked mountain on one of my painting trips. 

I painted a close up of one of the peaks and enjoyed it so much that I wanted to have another attempt. After all, this was a new subject for me and still very challenging to paint.

What I didn’t know was that this was going to be a very eventful trip.

And the first event was a near accident on the way. I was driving up a narrow and winding road in Beppu city when a driver, who was coming in the opposite direction and wanted to turn right, suddenly swung over into my lane. He was totally oblivious of me until I beeped. It was a shock for both of us.

The rest of the drive was uneventful but arriving at the mountain I was disappointed to see those beautiful peaks covered in mist. A close up painting of one of the peaks no longer looked possible. 

However, always the opportunist, as you have to be when painting outdoors, I painted this misty mountain scene by walking up a small hill opposite Yufudake mountain. 

And here is the painting I did on the spot.

Watercolor painting of a misty mountain top
“Misty mountain top”

Although a spectacular scene it’s not the kind I often paint as it’s difficult to paint well. The finished painting had a nice delicacy but the scale was a little wrong, the actual scene was much bigger and much more majestic. 

I lost the immense scale by painting the figures too big. But if I’d painted them the actual size they would have been tiny. 

There will definitely be another attempt at painting this scene in the near future.

Luckily, while painting this picture the mist started to clear so it was now possible to paint one of the peaks from close up. Unlike last time, when I was in a rush, I climbed the mountain at a very leisurely pace and occasionally stopped to do sketches for future paintings.

About half way up, though, the mist suddenly returned and I seriously thought about quitting. But I didn’t. Perhaps having already climbed half the mountain it seemed better to carry on and to hope that the mist might clear. Also the thought that the mist might provide an interesting scene to paint, convinced me to carry on. 
I pictured the painting The Wanderer above the Mist by Caspar David Friedrich. In this painting, the mist creates a very atmospheric painting. And this led to a feeling of exciting possibilities and the chance to paint something new.

I arrived at the base of the peaks surprised to be in such good shape compared to last time. Although it was still misty this actually helped, as I thought it might, to create a beautiful composition. 

The mist made the top of the peaks dark, vague almost ghostly presences but lower down the features of the peaks became more defined in shape, color and texture. And at the bottom of the peak that I was going to paint was a beautiful spill of rocks which is where an intrepid climber could be placed as a focal point. Soon I was painting and feeling totally in my element.

Painting of a mist covered mountain peak
“Mist covered mountain peak”

The final painting was pleasing but next time it’ll be interesting to make the top of the peak even darker and more ominous. Also the playful spill of rocks at the bottom, which really took my fancy, is also something to have another go at. But what an exciting and captivating subject.

While painting the mist would suddenly clear only to reappear again and again. 

Sometimes I looked down the mountain. Mostly I could see a layer of thick white clouds.But sometimes, a gap appeared in the clouds. In this gap a cool blue scene would appear and I could see far below. And I could see a winding silvery line that was a river and around it the small town of Yufuin. It was spectacular. 

I could also see some weird clouds. They appeared far below me and near the ground and seemed to be rotated 90 degrees and going upwards like columns of smoke. I did a quick sketch to capture this wonderful scene as a reference for a future painting.

And here is a painting that I later did at home from this sketch. It doesn’t show those amazingly weird clouds. But it does show the gap in the clouds and the view of the silvery river.

Watercolor painting of an artist painting on top of a mountain
“Painting above the clouds”

Last time I climbed this mountain I didn’t go up the peaks. You can read about that story here. This time though I went to the top of one of the peaks. And the panoramic view was awe inspiring. In one direction, I could see an endless range of mountains. In the other direction, I could see the sea. Connected to the sea was a river that was next to my house. Despite these inspiring views it was difficult to find a good scene to paint. 

After hopping around here and there looking for a good composition I finally found something that might work. I sat on a big flat rock and began to paint. I was facing the setting sun with a view of the jagged edges of the other peak.

Watercolor painting of a mountain trail
“Mountain trail”

Yet rather than enjoying this moment so much I probably should have wondered more about why I hadn’t seen any other climbers for several hours.

Perhaps I sensed that I shouldn’t stay much longer on the top of the mountain for I didn’t fully finish the painting by adding some figures and even though the painting was still a little moist I covered it up and put it away rather than waiting for it to dry thoroughly even though it might get spoiled.

It was now beginning to get noticeably late and little by little I was beginning to feel a certain urgency to get off the mountain. 

So I started my descent down the mountain. I must admit that I descended with some reluctance because the evening scene was becoming more and more beautiful. Part of me wanted to stay and enjoy that moment.

At first all went well as I descended but it was starting to get darker much quicker than I had anticipated. I was still unaware of how much trouble I was in.

Foolishly, I even stopped to do a sketch. I was entranced by the view. I could see a blood red sun set and pale blue mountains that were bathed in white clouds. Below me the orange lights of Yufuin town appeared and seemed to shine so warmly. It was truly magical. And after doing my sketch, and feeling bathed in the beauty of this wonderful evening, I was almost gaily sauntering down the mountain. 

So very soon everything would change.

Part 2: Descent into Darkness

Watercolor painting of Mt Yufudake at dusk
“Descent into darkness 1”

The first part of descending the mountain was very easy. The route was open with only low shrubbery and just a few stunted trees. The path and the rocks were quite visible. It was getting dark very quickly though and the shapes of the rocks were slowly becoming blurry in the dimming light.

Despite being stunted, the trees started to increase in number and sometimes there would be a cluster of them by the path and it was suddenly very dark in these areas and I had to walk through them very slowly, one careful step at a time, using my easel like a blind man’s stick.

As the trees slowly increased in number and the way became much darker the realization that I was in trouble also increased. This particular mountain path was dangerous to navigate as there were many large rocks, sudden drops in the ground and places where it was easy to slip on loose stones. So after a few alarming stumbles, sudden drops and slips I started walking on bent knees close to the ground.

Watercolor painting of Mt Yufudake at dusk
“Descent into darkness 2”

My pace down the mountain was now very slow. However, this was safer than standing and it was clear that the worst scenario would be to have an injury.

At some point panic started to kick in and my mind became several people; one was clearly panicky, the other was reassuring and telling me to keep going and another was quietly watching it all.

Walking on bent knees eventually became too arduous and so I started sliding down on my bum. Although frustratingly slow this was the safest and most comfortable way. At first I made steady progress and the stones, which I had hated so much at first because they tripped you up or slowed your progress, were now a life saver telling me I was on the path.

Then suddenly I found myself stumbling through the trees. It meant that I was off the path. A feeling of panic seized me. 

Reversing carefully I searched with my fingers for the rocky and hard-packed earth of the footpath. When I found it I stopped. Then slowly and carefully, on hands and knees, I searched for the continuation of the path by moving forward and feeling for rocks and hard-packed earth. 

Again though I found myself losing the path. After several failed attempts to find the footpath another feeling of intense panic seized me. 

As hope departed, desperation kicked in and I started searching again. Eventually I found the new direction of the path. The problem was that the path was often switch-backing. 

As a result of the switch-backing, I would lose the path again and again and sometimes it took me a long time to find where it continued. Those were quite desperate moments. But I kept on going.

There was a little water left in my PET bottle but I didn’t want to drink it until I had cleared the forest and was at the grassy slope of the mountain. It would be my reward. But the path just seemed to go on forever. And the path was getting darker for I was now entering a forest area where the trees became taller and more numerous.

And some of the more densely forested areas were pitch black. It was a total descent into darkness. It was terrifying to see absolutely nothing.

After a long time of slowly moving along on my bum I came at last to a glade that I had passed so much earlier when climbing the mountain and in what now felt like another life. It was almost magical, like Galadriel’s garden but with an abandoned feeling. Even in this glade it was still dark but just visible were vague blurry shapes, such as a bench and a sign. Above was the beautiful sky. I probably should have stayed there but this glade was fairly near the end of the forest. Still, it was a little unnerving to plunge back into the darkness again but plunge I did.

Watercolor painting of a mountain glade in the starlight
“Starlit mountain glade”

Almost immediately I was walking on bent knees low to the ground like a Cossack dancer and then I was on my bum again. Several times I lost the path and had to search on all fours. It was actually easier to sense the path by being low down. 

The feeling that I would soon be out of the forest pushed me on and on, any moment I thought, perhaps another ten or twenty meters ahead of me, was the end of the forest. And yet nothing changed and time passed and the forest didn’t end, it seemed to be endless.

The uneasy feeling that I’d taken a wrong turn began to rise. Instead of coming out of the forest I seemed to be going sideways through it. On one side of me, and just visible through the trees, was a very large hill that was next to the mountain and I knew that I should be going parallel to it but I seemed to be going away from it.

The path was also different. Before it had been easier to sense because there were trees on either side of it. But now the trees were more spaced out and the ground more open. There were also fewer or no stones. Despite being an obstacle, the stones had been a sign that I was on the path. 

The panicky thought that I was no longer on the path and had strayed off completely rose within me. Luckily, though, I would now and again dimly see a rope or a sign which would reassure me that I was still on the path.

Then suddenly, the path ended. I tried one way and almost fell down a steep slope. Another way looked like it was going up and I didn’t want to climb any more mountains. And another led into dense undergrowth.

Watercolor painting of a mountain forest at night
“Night time walk through a mountain forest”

It was here that I stopped and drank the last of my water. It was a sign that I’d given up. I lay down and relaxed – or at least tried to. My body really ached and I felt exhausted. I decided to stay here for the night and hoped that a search party might come. Although I also worried that I might have to pay for it if it did come and I was worried about my wife worrying about me. 

My predicament was not so desperate in reality. I had a good sense of my location and I knew where the road was and could even hear cars passing along it somewhere below me. And it was next to that road that my car was parked.

As I thought these thoughts a strong temptation to just crash through the forest in that direction seized me but the fearful thought of getting lost in the forest and the increased difficulty for a search party to find me stopped me.

After lying on the floor and getting a very cold back I emptied my backpack and used it, and my painting pad, as a bed. It was not so cold but my body was shivering and so I got out a bin bag, put a hole in it, and put it over my head like a jumper. I lay down and tried to sleep. But I just turned around a lot trying to get comfortable and failing. Sometimes I’d sit up and try to sleep in that position.

Alone in the dark, in a forest on the side of a mountain feeling hungry and thirsty is bad enough. But then the imagination kicks in and you start to worry about things such as wild boars that will charge you if they see you. Then there were snakes or those virus carrying blood ticks which had killed 14 people in recent years and for which there is no cure. I even wondered if the lions or tigers at the African Safari park, that was not so far away, ever escaped – such is the wonderful nature of the imagination.

Watercolor painting portrait of an artist at night
“Alone at night on the mountain”

It was a little spooky too. Sometimes lights seemed to come towards me. And sometimes I thought I could hear the sound of an animal’s footfalls coming down the path. Every so often there were other sounds in the forest. They were probably just twigs falling off trees. But these sudden sounds kept me sitting up and looking around.

At one point, a dog suddenly started barking and I wondered whether it was a sniffer dog, so I shouted “help me” in Japanese. It happened twice and then it ended. Throughout the night there was the whistle-like sound of a bird of prey flying above that I had previously heard on the mountain top. 

But after several hours I wondered if that sound was a whistle and a search party was looking for me. Sometimes the sides of the mountain were briefly lit up and I wondered if this was a big search light. Rationality disappears quickly when you get rattled. I shouted, even whistled, but nobody came. Eventually, I gave up.

It was a cloudy night and the biggest real worry was rain. The trees would offer some protection but how much and if I did get wet how cold would it make me. 

I was also hungry. Lunch had been so spartan, just some bread and two tomatoes. And even though I sometimes felt like vomiting there was nothing to bring up. And I was thirsty. At one point, I even contemplated drinking the water in the bottle that I use for painting. I sometimes wash my brushes in this bottle. I’m glad to say that I didn’t drink this water.

Despite these worries and discomfort, the forest was actually very peaceful with the soft, almost lulling, sound of insects.

At some later point in the night, the urge to get out of the forest assailed me. Perhaps the urge came from the almost insufferable feeling of having to wait for the daylight and my discomfort. And perhaps also from the occasional sound of a car or noisy motorbike on the road below. The sounds reminded me just how close that road was.

Whatever the cause, I stood up, packed my bag, and put on my boots. I was ready to go. But when I looked ahead into the darkness, worrying thoughts once again assailed me. The worries overcame my urge to get off the mountain. Instead, I found a large stone, sat on it, and tried to sleep off the remainder of the night.

The night seemed forever and the hardest thing was this endless waiting in discomfort without any distractions except for dark thoughts.

A Magical Moment

Watercolor painting of a beautiful mountain slope
“Beautiful mountain slope”

It took a long, long time. But at some point during that night when I looked up I thought that I could see a little more than before of the things around me. At first I thought that this might be a trick of my imagination. But extremely gradually it became clear that things around me were becoming fractionally more definable. My spirits rose.

But I waited until I could clearly see the continuation of the path. And at first, I started along it very cautiously as it was still very dark. But as I followed the path it got lighter and the outline of the path clearer and my spirits in parallel rose higher and higher. It was actually a nice path in the light, a scenic walking route through the forest. It would have been impossible though to navigate in the dark. And there were some nasty looking wooden fences with spikes at the top that would have been dangerous to clamber over even in daylight.

The route was a winding dirt track covered in leaves and was at times a little difficult to navigate even in the growing light. But it was getting easier and easier. After about 15 minutes I was delighted to see the end of the forest. And at that moment, I suddenly saw a man with a torch coming into the forest. I shouted “konnichiwa” which means “hello” in Japanese. The torch flashed in my direction and then was gone. He seemed to be going in another direction. At first, I was confused because I thought this was somebody looking for me, such as a rescue worker. But then I realized that he was just an early morning trekker.

Watercolor painting of a trekker going up Yufudake mountain
“Early morning trekker”

Then I was out of the forest and walking down the long grassy mountain slope. The sun was rising to the left of me and suddenly I saw a baby deer. It was such a beautiful sight to see that deer on the mountain side in the early morning with the sun rising behind it. The scene before my eyes had the feeling of some perfect picture being completed. 

Then it started to prance away up the hill. When it stopped I was surprised to see it next to a herd of deer all staring in my direction. It was almost as though I had gone from life, into death and back into a magical moment of life again.

I enjoyed that sight for a while and then I continued down the hill. As I neared my car, I could see three policemen. One of them was walking around my car and looking through the windows. I shouted in order to get their attention and soon the three policemen were approaching me. 

At that moment I became a little worried as I wondered if I was about to be scolded. Yet, when we met, they were very pleasant. One of them gave me some candy. It wasn’t what I had expected; I was thinking of an ambulance, water or an isotonic drink and so on.

Watercolor painting of Yufudake mountain
“Walking down a mountain trail”

But it was also a relief that I hadn’t caused too much trouble. I apologized and they were very considerate about my well-being, asking if I had any injuries and so on. One of them let me talk to my wife on his cell phone because at that time I had no cell phone. I could hear my wife sobbing on the phone. That was a hard moment.

It turns out that my wife had fallen asleep about 9 in the evening and only realized my absence about 4 in the morning. About an hour later she called the police. They told her that she had to fill in a form and bring a photo of me before the police would do any search and rescue mission. 

And yes, I would have had to pay for it and it wasn’t cheap. One of my biggest worries when I was stuck on the mountain besides dying was that I would have had to pay for a rescue mission. The last thing you need when in dire straits is the worry about the cost of being rescued and my fears were justified. “Luckily”, it isn’t so easy to get rescued!

The police let me drive home. I couldn’t believe that I’d come through this unscathed. Although I had slightly bent one of my easel legs and considerably scuffed one of the corners of my watercolor pad.

I drove slowly, windows down, enjoying the cool morning air. It started to rain gently. I stopped at a convenience store and bought an isotonic drink called ‘Pocari Sweat’ and some yogurt with fruit in it. 

My hands were filthy, so I washed them in a tiny sink in the shop. Yet no matter how vigorously I washed them and used soap I couldn’t get all the dirt off them. 

I got in the car and tore the top off the yogurt. I was so hungry. I eagerly got a spoonful of yogurt with a big piece of fruit in it. Then I put this sweet and creamy concoction in my mouth. To my surprise, I experienced instant, excruciating pain. The top of my mouth was red raw. It almost brought tears to my eyes. So I very carefully took small sips of the drink and then tried just a little yogurt. The second time, it was still painful but a little less so.

When I got home it was such a joy to see my wife and 2 year old daughter (who was telling mummy that everything was okay and patting her arm). Then I took a hot shower, put on my pyjamas and went to sleep for a short while. Later I took my wife and daughter to an Indonesian restaurant as a way of saying sorry. It was a lovely evening. 

The following day the sides of my body were really painful.

I’m a fool, I’ll admit it. I did learn though that in mountain trekking, even when climbing a small mountain like I did, you have to be prepared. So next time, I’ll have a torch, a warm coat, some energy bars, an extra bottle of water and a waterproof coat. 

Well, at least a torch.



I originally wrote this story in October of 2014, I am editing it in May of 2022. This story needed very little editing. 

I didn’t climb up this mountain again until the autumn of 2022. This time I climbed the other peak. The other peak was a bit scary to climb. 

And this time I took my drone. On the way down the mountain slope I got some amazing photos. Here is one of the paintings I did from these photos.

Also, I should add, that this misadventure forced me into getting a cellphone which has been a very mixed blessing.

Watercolor painting of a beautiful sunset over Mt Yufudake
“Beautiful sunset over Mt Yufudake”