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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.