Archive for September, 2008

The peaks of Nagano Prefecture are relatively inaccessible from the Kansai region, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve taken the first Shinkansen from Shin-Osaka station in order to reach numerous trailheads. It was early May, the weather looked favorable, and I was on a very tight schedule. Mt. Tateshina beckoned, and the challenge was on to conquer it as a day trip from Osaka!

The first Shinkansen rolls out of Osaka at 6am, and you can be in Nagano city around 10am by changing to the Chuo Line in Nagoya, but I was headed further south, towards Lake Suwa and Chino station. The train seemed to take forever, but I finally arrived in time to catch the 11:20am bus. I asked the driver how long it’d take to reach the trailhead, and he said I could start hiking at 12:57pm! Oops, so much for my early start. Mt. Tateshina was hidden in cloud, so I wasn’t in too much of a hurry to get up there, but was praying that the weather would clear. Sure enough, by the time I reached the start of the hike the sun was shining brightly.

The track initially climbed through bamboo grass, but quickly disappeared under a large mound of snow. I spent the next 1/2 km or so walking on top of the white stuff, wondering how much would be left on the summit. The path started entered a gully and followed it straight up. There were a few patches of snow here and there, but nothing to warrant putting on my crampons. Yatsu-ga-take was rising majestically out to my right, though the clouds were still hiding the high point of Aka-dake. Higher and higher I went, until finally reaching the huge boulder field just below the summit. This is where things got tricky, as snow was still covering most of the path. The biggest problem with walking on top of an unstable snow field is that occasionally you’ll break through the snow and realize there’s nothing below you! I did this a few times but was luckily able to dig myself out. Finally I realized that venturing off the trail was probably a better idea, and I resorted to rock hopping up to the crater rim.

The views were wonderful, with the center of the crater still filled with snow. There’s a small shrine in the middle of the summit area, and it was somewhere between the high point and here that I dropped my lens cap. It bounced off a rock and slid deeply underneath. Actually, if you look closely on the summit you can find all sorts of rubbish squeezed between the rocks. A sad state of affairs, but it really is hard to retrieve something if you drop it, and I’d wondered how many others had done the same thing as I.

Running short of time, I flew back down the same path I’d come up, just in time to catch the last bus back to Chino station. I didn’t arrive in Osaka until just before midnight, but hey, my mission was complete and in the process, I came up with another goal: a winter ascent of Tateshina from the trickier north face. The challenge was on!

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Mt. Tsurugi was the ‘make or break’ mountain in my Hyakumeizan quest. Having failed in 2 previous attempts, I changed tack and decided on a technically easier, yet much longer approach from the west.

I hopped on the first JR Limited Express ‘Thunderbird’ train bound for Toyama on a cloudy Sunday in mid-September. Being a national holiday weekend, the train was packed, but I was fortunate to get a seat for the 3-1/2 hour journey. Toyama station was teeming with hikers, all of which were bound for Murodo via the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine route. I, on the other hand, was headed via taxi for Banbajima, the start of the Hayatsuki ridge hike to the summit of Mt. Tsurugi. Banbajima is home to one of the nicest campgrounds I’ve seen yet, as well as one of the best examples of environmental destruction, with row upon row of unnecessary concrete dams lining both sides of the ‘island’. My plan was set: set off at 11:30am, stay at the Hayatsuki hut and attempt the summit early the next morning.

A 1500m elevation change sure looks easy on paper, but nearly 4 hours of relentless climbing just about did me in. Fortunately, the weather was decent and the scenery outstanding. Plus, the other hikers I’d met were incredibly friendly and encouraging. The hut was also quite inviting, and I checked-in shortly after arriving. Even though I didn’t have a reservation, the attendant managed to squeeze me into one of the smaller rooms on the second floor, overlooking the campground. I cooked up some pasta on the picnic tables in front of the hut, and chatted with other climbers, all of whom were in various states of intoxication. Personally, I refrain from all mind-altering substances when on the mountains, and I feel that there’d be far fewer search & rescue missions if all mountain huts in Japan refrained from serving alcohol. I get enough of a natural high just breathing in the fresh air, observing the peaceful scenery, and pondering life’s thoughts.

The clouds were being rather indecisive, and the next few hours were a playful display of nature’s brilliance: fog and sunshine dancing gleefully against an azure sky. The weather was definitely looking promising. I ducked in the hut to chat with fellow hikers, but after a few minutes retreated back outside to the dark solitude of night. The stars were brilliant, and the fog was gone. I looked up towards the summit and saw a moving beam of light. I pulled up a chair and waited. Could this be Hana of the Hanameizan fame? I’d heard that the wonder dog would be attempting Tsurugi this very weekend. The beam got closer and closer, but still seemed so far away. All of a sudden, I noticed another huge beam coming directly off the summit. This one was bright white, growing ever bigger by the second. The moon! How lucky was I to see a full moon rising directly behind the summit of Mt. Tsurugi? The cloud rolled in, swallowing the moon and the headlamp beam on the ridgeline. Eventually the beam reached the campsite, and I learned to my changrin that it was not Hana the dog, but merely 2 hikers who’d climbed part of the way towards the summit to view the sunset! Oh well, time for bed.

I set the alarm for 4am, but naturally woke up at 3:30. I grabbed my things, headed outside, and started cooking some oatmeal for breakfast. Good news: no clouds around the hut, but the surrounding peaks were socked in with thick mist. Uh-oh, I thought, another peak with no views. I hit the trail at 4:30am, using my headlamp to help navigate the way. I decided on the ‘slow but steady’ approach, and brought 3 liters of water for the 800m vertical ascent. Water was expensive at the hut, but I had no choice due to the lack of fresh liquids. Altitude sickness is my biggest enemy, so I made sure to keep my fluid intake slightly above normal, taking slow deep breaths with every advancing step. The strategy worked wonderfully, as I was soon resting at the 2600m trailmarker, admiring the spectacular scenery. The fog had miraculously lifted from the surrounding peaks, revealing an ever-expanding view above the tree line. I slogged on, hitting the 2800m mark just as the sun was casting deep shadows on the main ridgeline. I looked over and quickly started name-dropping all of the peaks I could see before me: Shirouma, Hakusan, Yakushi, Kasa, Tsurugi-gozen, Dainichi, Tateyama, Kuro, Norikura. Heavenly.

The final climb was actually quite fun, with lots of chains built for added protection. It didn’t really feel all that steep, and if you took a tumble you’d probably only break a few bones or possibly end up paralyzed, but you’d more than likely escape death. I wasn’t really keen on testing my summation however, and firmly held onto the steel links, popping out on the ridgeline exactly 2-1/2 hours after leaving the hut. The row of hikers coming from Tsurugi-sawa was endless, and I shared the summit with around 40 other mountaineers. Those of us coming up from Hayatsuki shared a special bond that the others wouldn’t understand. After all, they’d all started at 2400m above sea level. We’d climbed 2200 vertical meters from the valley far, far below. With all of my solitary pursuits, I usually don’t get a chance to get my photo taken on top of most peaks, but plenty of people were offering on this one. I spontaneously held up the “peace sign”, but it was meant to be a “#2 sign”, indicating that I had only 2 more peaks to climb before conquering the Hyakumeizan!

I remember asking countless other hikers for climbing advice when first starting my 100 mountain mission, and now I’d found the tables turned. Here I was, sitting on top of one of the most spectacular peaks in Japan, receiving tons of inquiries about the mountains I’d already climbed: “How were the river crossings at Poroshiri?” “Did you do the Taka-no-su route to Hira-ga-take?” “What’s the best approach for Mt. Goryu?” The questions poured in faster than I could answer them, but I felt elated to share my experiences with eager outdoor enthusiasts, most of whom were twice my age. It was Respect for the Aged day after all!

I didn’t want to leave the summit, but all good things must come to an end. My knees took a beating on the way down, and I wish I’d had more time to break this hike into a 3-day affair. Such is the life of a mountaineer with a full-time job and bills to pay.

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Mt. Iide was one mountain that had been on my list for quite a while, and I’d finally blocked out some time for the long, long approach. I’d prepared enough food to survive 3 days on the mountain, but managed to cram my sleeping bag, stove, food, and clothing into a 30 liter pack, opting to go without a space-eating sleeping pad. I booked the night bus to Niigata station, and all necessary train and bus schedules had been investigated. The only thing I had to worry about was the weather, for the forecast had lots of cloud marks and umbrellas!

The bus rolled into Niigata station, and I headed to a bakery to kill some time (there’s nothing like free air con!) before the first train. The train came soon enough, and I was waiting at Niitsu station in next to no time for the long, slow crawl to Yamato station. I’d managed a quick snooze before arriving around 10:15am on a national holiday in mid-July. The station was completely unmanned (why oh why did I pay the full fare?!), and the parking lot was completely deserted. So much for my plan to jump in a taxi! I searched for the phone number of the taxi company, hoping they’d be open on a national holiday. Sure enough, the dispatcher sent one my way, and before I knew it I was conversing with the driver, who sported a heavy Tohoku accent. He confessed that he’d lived in the town his whole life but had never been further than the Mt. Iide trailhead. The road leading to Kawairi was undergoing a massive widening project, and soon it would be a paved two-lane highway all the way to the start of the hike. It just goes to show how popular the Hyakumeizan are becoming. Mt. Iide used to be one of those mountains only the most hardcore hikers dare approached, but now (as evidenced by the massive trail erosion) it seems that every elderly pensioner is intent of conquering.

I arrived at Kawairi, filled up my water bottle, and quickly started on my way. It was 11am, and soon enough I’d gotten those familiar ‘kore kara’ comments from descending hikers. The map said it’d take 7-1/2 hours to reach the first hut of the day, but I knew that I’d easily be able to make it in half that time. Sure enough, I was sitting at Mikuni hut shortly before 2pm! The slog was long, and the humidity and insects just about did me in, but I had reason to celebrate. You see, the clouds were breaking up and fair weather was on its way. It was way too early to call it a day, so I continued over toward the next hut on the traverse, Kiriai koya. There was a lot of up and down, and the ridge would’ve been quite treacherous in foul weather, but I was blessed with warm sunshine and ever-improving views! I rolled into Kiriai a little past 3pm, and was shocked to see a rather large crowd gathered out front. At least 30 people were basking in the sunshine, chattering loudly about the next day’s plans. I took a quick respite and replenished my dehydrated body with much-needed water. I still had 4 hours of sunlight left, and I would’ve been a fool to shack up with all those noisy elderly hikers, so I clambered on. I heard the echoes of ‘kore kara’ fading behind me, but I powered through the massive snow fields without even looking back! I was half their age and probably had 4 times the amount of hiking experience. Plus, the weather was incredible. The climb up to Mt. Iide was long and relentless, but I was awarded with a wonderful hut with only 3 guests! I checked in, cooked some lunch, and took in the scenery. The clouds were just starting to lift off of Mt. Dainichi, the highest point of the mountain range. The sunset was setting itself up nicely, and I wasn’t about to sit in the hut drinking alcohol with the other guests. I took off for the summit of Mt. Iide, armed with my camera and a bottle of water. It only took 10 minutes from the hut to reach the top, and I’d made it just in time. Phenomenal was an understatement, and the sight re-confirmed my belief that the mountains of Tohoku are the best in Japan.

That night, I was victim to a drunken cacophony of the most grating kind – snorers! I’d thought I’d be safe with only 3 other guests in the hut, but all 3 of them must’ve been finalists in the national snoring competition. I’ve got to bring my earplugs next time, or at least some pebbles to throw at the offenders! I still can’t believe how much booze Japanese people drink in the mountains. I wonder how many mountain accidents are caused by alcohol? The guy sleeping near me drank 3 cans of beer, a cup of sake, and some whisky, but absolutely no water. Hmmm……..

The next day I woke up early to catch the sunrise and to find solitude. The weather was bizarre – a thick layer of cloud behind the hut, but crystal clear directly in front. I spent the next hour or so on the gentle ridgeline, alternating between warm, refreshing sunshine and a thick blanket of fog. By the time I got over to Mt. Dainichi the cloud had settled for good. Oh well, at least I had views the previous evening. I dropped my pack off at Onishi-goya for the 90 minute round-trip assault to the top of Iide’s highest point. Upon returning to the hut, I checked over the map. It was 9am and I had a good 4 hours or so to Kairagi hut.

The ridgeline was still buried under a meter of snow (was this really mid-July?). It wasn’t too treacherous, but really difficult to see which direction to go in the mist. I followed others footprints, hoping they knew the way. Occasionally the trail would pop out of the white stuff and climb past some alpine lakes. About an hour into the traverse I came across 2 volunteers in charge of trail maintenance. They’d set up folding chairs in the middle of the trail and were drinking beer at 10 in the morning! I can’t quite figure out what exactly they were supposed to do – it’s not like there was any bamboo grass to clear or anything. I pressed on, pretty much without stopping, and arrived at Kairagi shortly just before noon. The hut has a great natural spring, so I had my fill of refreshing water and got my bearings. A trail descended directly in front of the hut, down a massive cirque. This is one of the most popular access points for experienced climbers, and it makes the Daisekkei in Hakuba look like a bunny slope. I’d love to come back here to try this route someday. I noticed that the next hut was only 90 minutes away, so after a quick lunch I dashed off to the top of Mt. Kitamata. The clouds were starting to break up, and I wondered if I’d be treated to another spectacular sunset. The final hut of the traverse, Monnai, was staffed by 2 of the friendliest people on the entire mountain range. I get the feeling that most people bypass their hut in favor of Kairagi, which is a shame because I really feel that the hut staff make all the difference in the world when it comes to accommodation. I can even put up with snoring if the hut has a good vibe with friendly owners! They gave me advice about the trail down to Iide Hot Spring and shoved 2 ripe plums in my hands. I was overjoyed to say the least. I had 2 choices – I could check into the hut, stay the night, and hope for fair weather or I could descend down to the trailhead and enjoy the hot spring!

Needless to say, the bath option won out, and I set off around 2pm for the knee knocking 1400 vertical meter descent! My legs took a beating, and by the time I arrived at Iide-sanso I had 3 decent-sized blisters on my feet. But, hey, I did it! A tough, 35km traverse in just 30 hours! I checked into the hut, telling the manager that I just wanted a place to sleep on the floor – I had my own sleeping gear and food. He led me towards the back of the hut and showed me to my room. It was some kind of meeting room, with a large carpet and tables folded against the wall. It was easily twice the size of my apartment and I had it completely to myself. Plus, there was a kitchen upstairs with propane burners. I can’t believe I paid 2000 yen to stay at the emergency hut on Iide, but here I was staying at a proper hut with a kitchen and hot spring for 300 yen less! Anyway, it rained hard most of the night, and I knew I’d made the right decision. The next day, I took the bus and train all the way to Osaka, having marked another mountain off the list.

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