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Archive for February, 2009

4:30am. Yuuki and I crawl out of the warm futon, and venture out onto the frozen lake. Kanako stays clinged to her bedding, enveloped in her ensuing dream. Our plan? Watch the sunrise and assess snow conditions for our target peak of the day.

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Peaceful, tranquil, magical. All alone, one crunchy step at a time, we traverse. The morning fog hanging on the horizon like a partially extinguished cigarette. Hiuchi rises gracefully from the edge of the lake, still wrapped in a blanket of cloud. We set out a plan of attack. Yuuki will climb ahead of us, laying an easy track to follow to the first peak of Manaitagura, where he’ll wait for us to arrive. Then, we’ll attack the adjacent peak of Shibayasugura, the official high point. 1-2-3 go!

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Breakfast was demolished in record time, and off we trekked through the lonely forest. Even though it was Golden Week, we found ourselves completely alone, on an unparalleled traverse to Tohoku’s highest summit. Yuuki moved along skillfully in the distance, while Kanako and I took a more leisurely approach. Gradually the views opened up, until we found ourselves staring straight down into the iced-filled bogs of Oze. Soon the place would be overrun with thousands of elderly folks rubbing elbows to capture the Mizu-basho in full bloom. The flower, unluckily named skunk cabbage in English, is what makes this marshland so well-known throughout Japan. Heck, there’s even a song about it!

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Our first target peak for the day slowly came into view – a pyramidal collection of strata dominating the horizon for miles around. A perfect lump of white mass, sans three large rock projections poking their heads above the snow drifts, as if to take their first fresh breath of spring. Kanako and I soon caught up with Yuuki on the summit of the first peak. He’d had over an hour’s worth of peaceful rest, and was rearing to have a go at Shibayasugura. I willingly obliged. By now the crowd on the summit had grown tenfold, thanks in part to the mass of hikers who took the easier approach from Mi-ike.

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Yuuki and I quickly descended to the saddle. Kanako was left with camera duties on the ‘safe’ peak. Slipping, sliding, and occasionally breaking through the snow down to our thighs, we arrived at the foot of the behemoth monster. One brave solo hiker saw what we were up to and quickly caught up with us. “Umm, which way should we go?”, I hesitantly inquired, not willing to admit that I was just the slightest bit apprehensive about our impending climb. I’ve climbed my fair share of treacherous peaks before, but I have to admit I was downright intimidated. The only footsteps led directly up the mass of ice, a near vertical ascent. Easy on a cool day with the right equipment, but here we were, without ice axes or full crampons, trying to decide our next move. The other solo hiker couldn’t wait for our indecisiveness, and quickly laid out a trickly traverse towards the right. Not knowing his experience level, we opted not to follow (there’s nothing worse than someone falling on you) and chose the vertical ascent.

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Since I had 6-point crampons, I was designated lead climber and quickly started kick-stepping a stable path. Yuuki only had 2-point crampons, so I made sure to dig my feet firmly into position before taking the next step. Miraculously, we were both able to successfully navigate the dense walls, popping out on the ridge just ahead of the other climber. On we raced to the summit of my 88th peak. Standing on the rocks, I waved enthusiastically back across the saddle to my waiting wife and the large crowd now gathered. The mass of onlookers were cheering us on, guzzling beer and quizzing my wife about my background.

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On the decent, we opted for the path our lone hiker had carved, since it was much gentler and more navigable that our ascending route. Once out of the danger zone, Yuuki and I glissaded back down to the saddle and raced back to my waiting wife. A chorus of cheers and hi-fives ensued, followed by offers of alcoholic refreshments, which we politely refused. Yuuki, on a tight schedule, descended ahead of us, intending to make it all the way over to Oshimizu in time to catch the last bus. Kanako and I had already booked another night in the hut, so we set a more manageable pace for ourselves. The bath at the hut was most welcome, as we even bought matching ‘quick dry’ souvenir shirts to celebrate our success.

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Reality set in the next morning, when we had to descend down to Oshimizu and back to the urban confines of Osaka. The rush of knocking off another famous mountain kept me saturated for the rest of May, but with another dozen left on the list, the hunger remained.

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Early April and with spring in full bloom, the feet start to itch. 6 months post-op and time to give the new ticker its first true test. Destination? Hyonosen, the tallest mountain in Hyogo Prefecture and one of the 200 famous mountains of Japan.

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Lunch, check. Map, roger. Crampons? Hmm…just in case. The two-hour train journey went by in a flash, and with the bus connection conveniently timed, the first glimpses of my goal came into view. “Oh boy,” I marveled, “this one’s going to be a doozy”, for the monstrosity that lie ahead showed but the faintest sign of freeing itself from the tight grip of winter. Across the valley, skiers and boarders could be seen carving the last few runs of another evaporating ski season. After a bit of a struggle trying to find the actual trailhead, I arrived at the signpost shortly before noon. A 3-1/2 slog in the dry season, but add another hour or two in the current conditions and you can see my predicament.

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With my crampons firmly attached, I set out into the unknown. A lone set of footprints to follow on the otherwise indistinguishable path, I climbed at a steady pace, paying special care not to let my heart rate rise too quickly. Whomever laid the tracks before me either had a GPS device or knew the trail from memory, for there wasn’t the slightest smidgen of geographical landmark in sight. Thank you, whoever you are!

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The trail flattened out after an hour or so, passing by a decrepit-looking shack that doubled as a mountain shrine. The forest sprang to life here, rising up abruptly from the deep tree wells growing larger with each passing day. Soon the snow will start to break up, making traversal quite treacherous, but for now, conditions were stable. After the brief saddle, I crossed what appeared to be a stream (have to come back in summer to verify that) and climbed steeply up a spur towards the ridgeline. The summit finally came into view, but boy did it look distant. Daylight stay with me!

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I reached the first emergency hut at approximately 2:45pm. A cozy hut nestled snugly on the ridge. The snow depth was considerably larger on the exposed spine of the peak. With each advancing step I sunk down to my knees. “Why didn’t I bring the snowshoes?”, I cursed to myself, obviously not expecting these conditions in April!

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Dropping to a saddle, I mentally prepared myself for the tough slog to the summit. Directly in front of me lie a large rock formation, and the only way past was up and over. As soon as I kicked my first step into the icy rock, a faint rumbling sound came into ear shot. The higher I climbed, the louder it got. Reaching the top of the crag, I found the source of the mysterious noise. Hovering directly overhead, not more than 10 meters above me, was a rescue helicopter! Apparently, one of the locals was concerned with my late start and sent in the troops. I smiled at the crew, giving them a thumbs-up sign to let them know I was ok, and off they went back to base. “Thanks, but no thanks”, I shouted, realizing I was less than 100 meters from the top!

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I rested in front of the hut on the summit for less than 10 minutes, stuffing my face with leftover pasta and other carbo-laced delicacies. 4:30pm and with no time to spare, I literally ran down the steep, steep spur on the other side of the peak. Taking a left at the next emergency hut, I jumped and skated my way down to the ski fields, descending in a record-breaking 15 minutes. The time that you lose on a snow ascent you can easily make up on the downward glissade.

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Back at the bus stop at half 5, I reflected on my herculean effort. “Not bad for cardio-rehab”, I gloated, knowing that things were looking good for the forthcoming attack on Mt. Hiuchi.

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Late November and the thirst for adventure never fully quenched. I plotted the course carefully, seizing yet another opportunity to knock off a few peaks on a holiday weekend.

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The taxi ride from Nirasaki station to the trailhead couldn’t have been more pleasant. The autumn colors boasted their fiery brilliance, the first snows of Yatsu-ga-take clung steadily to the rocky landscape, and a chatty taxi driver who doubled as a knowledgeable tour-guide for the 1 hour journey. “That’s Kaya-ga-take, where Kyuya Fukada himself parted this earth near the summit”. I made a mental note to remember this peak, deciding to come back and pay my respects at Mr. Fukada’s momument after completing the Hyakumeizan. My 2-night, 3-day, 30km traverse from Mizygaki-sansou to Nishizawa gorge was about to begin and the weather was looking promising as I paid the wallet-draining taxi fare.

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I kept a moderate but steady pace, reaching the junction for Mizugaki in roughly half the time the maps said it’d take. Off came the heavy pack, and up I went towards the rocky summit. The trail basically shot straight up to the summit, with hardly a switchback in sight. It’s a good thing there wasn’t any snow or ice on the peak, or I definitely wouldn’t have made it. The top was deserted, and gave me ample opportunity to inspect the snowy hump of neighboring Mt. Kinpu, my second target for the day. The Minami Alps floated above the clouds across the valley, bringing images of the Himalayas to mind.

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Back at the junction, I checked the watch and map: 11:45am – 4 hours and 700 vertical meters to go. The hut at Dainichi was absolutely deserted, but the water was flowing, so I had my fill. I knew the climb was only beginning, so I put it off as long as I could until the chill of the autumn wind got me back on my feet. Left, right. Left, right. The first signs of snow. “I’d hold off on the crampons for now”, I retorted, not wanting to waste precious daylight or energy for the dexterous task. Left, right, left, right and then, pow! A slip on the ice and a tumble of a meter or so. “That’s it”, I resigned, “time for the crampons!” Things became more bearable after that, until reaching the jagged ridgeline, where I kept popping through the snow and sinking down to my waist. It’s wasn’t that the snow was that deep. On the contrary, the snow concealed the pockets of air below and wasn’t quite packed enough to hold my own weight. And, to top it all off, the clouds rolled in out of nowhere, fortfeiting my chance of catching the vista of Fuji.

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The summit was a desolate place. Maybe it was the fact that I was completely alone, enshrouded in a thick, white mist. The world below seemed so small, so distant. What was I doing climbing all of these mountains alone? Could I really complete all of the Hyakumeizan? Then, the reality set in. Why all the negative thoughts? This was mountain #75 after all! 3/4 the way through the 100 mountains and only 2 hours away from civilization. I threw the pack on and flew down the trail towards Oodarumi-toge.

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It’s amazing how quickly you can descent in the snow, without the worry of tripping up on loose rocks. Therapeutic on the feet I’d even say. The hut at the mountain pass was open, but I had other plans. It would’ve been a shame to bring the tent all this way without using it, so I went to the hut to check-in. “Pitch it anywhere you’d like”, the owner exclaimed, not bothering to charge me the regular camping fee. “Feel free to join us for dinner around the stove”, he added. You’d never seen a faster pitch than the one I managed in the fading light of the day, as I literally threw up the tent, grabbed my campstove, and headed inside. The other guests were planning an early morning climb of Mt. Kinpu, so I traded trail information in exchange for hot sake.

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I settled into camp shortly before midnight, dreaming of tomorrow’s long walk over to Mt. Kobushi, mountain #76. Would weather be my helpful companion or heart-breaking nemesis?

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