My plan was simple. Catch a train to Kamishiro arriving around dusk. Hike to the top of Goryu ski resort at night, camping somewhere near the top. Wake up at the break of dawn, climb to the top of Mt. Goryu, and descend back to Kamishiro station in time to make the 4:35pm train…..could it be done?
I arrived at Kamishiro at 7:16pm and headed for Escal Plaza. My map had a supermarket marked a short walk from the station, but was shocked to find it was only a small, family-run pharmacy/convenience store with few provisions. The first thorn in my side – nothing to eat for dinner! I remember a “Pizzakaya” named Country Road, located adjacent to Hakuba Alps Backpacker hostel. Would it be open on a Thursday evening in late May? Bingo! Dinner was served and I stuffed myself. Around 8:30pm, I left the warm confines of the friendly Izakaya and headed off into the unknown. Well, that’s not entirely true. I’d been snowboarding a few times at Goryu ski resort, so I had a fair idea of how to get to the top.
As I trampled through the bunny slopes, two options became immediately apparent. I could take the gravel road all the way to the top, which winds its way through a dark forest, or I could shoot directly up the black diamond course, straight to the top. I didn’t really fancy meeting any ferocious creatures, so wanted to steer clear of any dense foliage, especially considering that I’d forgotten my bear bell. A huge mistake, as the expert ski course was easily the steepest, most difficult thing I’ve climbed in a long time! Sure it would be easy in the daytime with a small pack, but imagine carrying 3 liters of water, a zero degree sleeping bag, and heavy tent! Plus, to top it all off, about 10 minutes up the slope a large rustle came into earshot to my immediate right. Footsteps trampling just out of my headlamp beam reach. “This is it”, I thought, wondering what the headlines might read the next day. Then, I heard the familiar “ff-ff”, “ff-ff” sound. I’d heard that sound once before, when descending Mt. Ryokami, I came face-to-face with a Kamoshika. They make this really unique thumping/hissing sound to try and scare away prey. I realized that it was a Kamoshika, peeping out from its hunting ground to inquire about my noctural invasion.
The ski field was much, much longer than I remembered, but that’s because it only takes a fraction of the time to descend on a snowboard. I finally gave up around 11pm, when I reached the bottom of the #2 & #4 ski lifts. Awating me was a nice wooden platform sheltered from the wind, with outstanding views of Hakuba below, a full moon rising above the peaks to the east, and a rather run-down but usable toilet. In addition, there was a ski office that was left unlocked! I had immediate shelter in case the weather turned foul. I even considered sleeping in the office, but figured I might as well pitch my tent since I went through so much trouble just to bring it up here. I set the alarm for 4am and crawled into my bag.
It’s funny how early you can naturally wake up when you’re in the outdoors. I rolled out of my bag at 3:30am. I wasn’t the least bit hungry, so started my preparations. I knew I was coming back to this place, so I had enough hindsight to pack an extra day pack to use for my assault on Mt. Goryu. I put my heavy pack next to the toilet, and started on my way. I made it to the top of the ski resort, where I checked a mountain hut I had spied in the winter. It’s marked as a “ski hut” on the map, and sure enough, it was firmly locked. I then knew I had make the right choice pitching tent where I did. I made it to the top of the resort just at the sun was casting pink hues on the alpine peaks above. I could only imagine what kind of sunrise the employees in all the mountain huts must’ve had.
The first few hours of hiking were fairly non-eventful, until I reached the col just below Mt. Shiro. Since it was my first time there, I wasn’t sure if I needed to hike up and over Mt. Shiro or if I could just make a bee-line directly ahead toward the hut. I couldn’t see the hut at all, but the map marked in the saddle between Goryu and Shiro. I decided to play it safe by following the footprints up towards the white peak, hoping that my predecessor knew what he/she was doing! About 50 minutes later, I was sitting on top of Mt. Shiro, patting myself on the back for not falling into any crevices or giving up. A quick descent to the hut, where I surprised the lone hut staff. He asked me if I came from Karamatsu, but almost fell off his chair when I told him I’d come from Goryu ski resort. I guess most people don’t arrive from that direction at 7:30am! He breathed a sigh or relief when I told him I’d camped in the ski resort, since the gondola wasn’t running. Anyway, I hadn’t brought any lunch with me because I knew the hut was open and had images of a hut teeming with hikers and the pleasant aroma of curry and rice. Oops! I should have known that there’d only be one staff member who solely prepares meals based on the number of people staying the night. Luckily, I was able to purchase a bowl of instant noodles – not on the top of my culinary wishes, but it would have to do. I decided to hold off on lunch until summiting as a reward to myself. I asked for climbing advice and went on my way.
The hut staff recommended I stick tightly to the ridge line, where there was absolutely no path but at least there was no snow. I did the best I could scrambling over the boulders and being careful not to trample any potentially endangered foliage. The ridge was steep and rocky, with lots of ups and downs. I even found the real path on one occasion, and followed the paint marks briefly until they disappeared into the snow. Eventually, I found myself on the final traverse to the rocky summit, and was awarded with an outstanding view of Mt. Tsurugi. The signpost has definitely seen better days, as someone had put a piece of tape marking the summit. This is in stark contrast to the concrete-embedded signposts of the Shizuoka Prefectural section of the Minami Alps!
I flew down the peak as fast as I safely could. At one point I tried to descend through the snow, but it was very steep and difficult to get traction (even with crampons on!). I took two steps and ended up on my butt, sliding at lightning speed toward most certain death. Luckily I knew how to stop myself with my ice axe and slid very, very slowly toward the nearest rock formations I could find. I had built up my confidence by sliding down Mt. Hiuchi a few weeks prior, but this terrain was much steeper and faster than anything I’d been on before. The snow was soft and somewhat slushy, but that seemed to make it faster!
Eventually, I worked my way back to the hut and feasted on Kitsune Udon. I also bought some bottled water because the hut was using melted snow and rain water as their drinking supply. If I’d brought my water filter then I could’ve opted for that, but I decided to not risk it on this trip. I’m still amazed by how many Japanese hikers willingly drink from untreated mountain streams. Anyone know the giardia stats for Japan?
I took the shortcut back, bypassing Mt. Shiro. This can only be done in the winter or spring, when snow still covers the entire col. I flew back to the ski resort, and made it back to my heavy pack a little past 1pm. I looked at the train schedule. Could I actually make the 3:36pm train? A challenge it was! This time I decided to stick to the forest road through the ski resort. My feet were killing me, but I didn’t want to risk tumbling down the black diamond course with a 20kg pack! I walked the entire way without taking a break, and made it to Kamishiro at 3:21pm. Phew! Another peak bagged, and time to plan my next alpine adventure.