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.