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Archive for January, 2009

I have to admit – my first impression of Utsukushi-ga-hara wasn’t good. A mere stopover on the way back from climbing Yatsu-ga-take, just to tick another famous mountain off the list. Fumito didn’t even bother getting out of the car. The experience was so writhing that we both came up with a fitting nickname for the area: “utsukushikunai-hara”! So, some of you may be wondering why anyone would bother coming back a second, and dare I say it, a third time? To discover the reason why Mr. Fukada included it on his Hyakumeizan list and we quickly found the answer to the riddle: winter!

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Gone are the heel-wearing, parasol-wielding tour groups. School kids? Nope. Even the cows are herded down to lower altitudes and browner pastures. Scenic. Serene. Refreshing. The behemoth collection of communication antenna are still there, but don’t see nearly as daunting when caked in a layer of ice and crystalline powder.

Our first winter excursion gave Fumito and I a chance to try out the snowshoes we’d rented in hopes of conquering Kusatsushirane in the snow. Utsukushi-ga-hara proved to be a respectable warm-up, and gave us the added challenge of white-out conditions and fierce winds. Not surprisingly, we had the entire plateau at our disposal, with not another living creature in sight. The snow drifts covered the tops of the wooden fences, making landmarks impossible to identify. Good thing we had a GPS, for we’d definitely go down in mountaineering history by succumbing to the elements on such an easy stroll.

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We beat a hasty retreat in order to make our scheduled appointment with Mt. Kusatsu, but we vowed to come back to experience the jaw-dropping panoramic views of the Japan Alps, and the plateau did not disappoint! The second trip exactly one-year later was a warm-up for our winter ascent of Mt. Tateshina, and again there wasn’t a soul in sight. The tourist hotel on the summit is actually open all-year round, but even the staff aren’t used to seeing too many folks in the slow season.

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Fumito and I must’ve stayed on the summit of Ougahana for close to an hour, tracing the outline of the Alps with our frozen gloves, name-dropping as we went. “Hotaka.” “Jonen.” “Yari.” “Harinoki.” “Kashimayari.” “Goryu.” The list went on and on, as each peak has a unique story forever etched in my mind. Across the valley, the peaks of the massive Mt. Myoko caldera showed off their wintry features, while Mt. Asama looked on with an eager eye.

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We left the plateau with a heightened awareness that even in the most unsightly of places, true beauty can be found. You just have to nail the timing.

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There’s something about a snow hike that brings out the child in me. Perhaps it’s a subconscious desire to relive the innocent, halcyon days of yesteryear when my hometown actually got a sizable amount of annual wintry precipitation. So when the chance arose to summit a respectable peak in Fukushima Prefecture in mid-February, I enthusiastically rose to the challenge.

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A night bus, local train, local bus and short taxi ride later, my friend Yoko and I arrived at Adatara Snow Resort, ready to start our mission. Unaware of the snow conditions, I opted for a pair of 12-point crampons as well as a pair of Japanese snowshoes called wakan. I started with the crampons, but was ready to change if the show became too deep.

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The trail followed the ski slopes for a short way before descending to a snow-covered road and entering a beautiful forest. The sun was beating down majestically in our secluded valley, and we had no idea that this would be our last sunlight of the weekend. As we climbed higher above the trees on the exposed ridge, the clouds seemed to move in like an audience at a planetarium, not noticing how crowded it is until the show’s about to start. It was right about here when we lost the track completely and the snow started coming down. Luckily, the wind stayed our of the tranquil valley we found ourselves in. Completely alone, but nowhere near being scared, for there was only one logical choice: stay on the ridge line until coming across a prominent geographical feature.

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Sure enough, the landmark turned out to be Kurogane Hut, our home for the night. The luxurious hut, complete with its own hot spring bath, is one of the few huts in Japan that is open all year round. We quickly checked in and plotted our course for the afternoon. It would’ve been a waste to spend all afternoon in the hut when there was a spendid volcano towering above, so we did what any idiot would naturally do and set off for the summit! The hut owner warned us of the 2+ meters of snow on the long traverse, so it was time to break out the wakan.

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Tough is not a word to describe our next 90 minutes on the mountain. Perhaps foolish would be more appropriate. Visibility was about 10 meters, but every time a gust came along it was quickly reduced to less than 100cm, but still we trudged on. The only thing saving us from a most untimely death were the huge bamboo poles the saints at the hut had installed to mark the path. Otherwise we’d have surely fallen into the smoldering crater on the north side of the mountain. Step by step, pole by pole, we advanced, powered by our own selfish drive to reach another Hyakumeizan peak. “Why couldn’t this wait until tomorrow?”, I muttered for what seemed like the twentieth time in as many mountains. Alas. our target was in sight.

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Climbing the final rock formation to the summit shrine proved to be utterly agonizing with a pair of wakan on, so off they went for some free climbing on an icy face. Good thing the boulder is only 2 meters high! Snapping a quick photo, we began our sheepish retreat back to the warm hut. Dreams of retracing our footsteps proved to be just that, as the wind diligently erased all proof of our existence on the mountain. Now I know why winter climbing can be so dangerous! Most people consider avalanches to be the main risk, but I’d put my money on foul weather any day as the major cause of wintry mishaps. Fate was on our side, however, as the bamboo poles stayed in place long enough to warrant a safe return to the hut.

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The next day, visibility was only slightly better, but the clouds and snow hung tight to the frigid summit. We did end up climbing back up to the summit again in order to complete the loop back to the ski resort, but sharing the peak with 30 other noisy climbers just wasn’t the same. Just as in the days of my youth, I finally realized what made frolicking in the snow so special: a chance to escape from the confines of banality and truly let loose.

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