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Archive for April, 2009

Exactly 2 weeks to the day after my thrilling climb of Mt. Amakazari, I sit in a tent at the beginning of a gated forest road, plotting my next move. Fumito and I are about to embark on another gargantuan hike of a mighty mountain, during the rainy season! Could I continue my lucky streak in the battle against the rain?

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4:00am. With the skies still dark and the wind calm, breakfast is cooked and served. We’ve got a long way to go on one of the toughest day hikes in the Kita Alps, so an early start was critical. After breaking down camp, I took a short stroll across the river to try to catch a glimpse of the ridge line, in hopes of assessing snow conditions. Crampons were foregone in favor of ice axes. The weight we’d save would be replaced by nutrients. The red glow of the sun on the high peaks was promising, as was the lack of cloud cover. Barometer readings were also in our favor, so we set out on the long, deserted forest road in high spirits.

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At the end of the road, we headed into the hills, along the Akaiwa spur for a 1200m+ altitude gain. Step by step we rose high above the valley, shedding layers of clothing with each advancing trot. It was hot, and oh so clear. “What happened to the rainy season?”, I asked Fumito, hoping that my question wouldn’t set mother nature off on a temper tantrum.

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About 90 minutes into our climb, nature threw up its first road block: a huge ice fall blocking the path in front of us. Beyond that, there was a steep snow field that was impassable without crampons. By sheer luck, someone had hacked out a ridiculously steep alternative route, bypassing our obstacle. Grabbing whatever lay in our path, we forced our way up and around the barrier. Fumito took the lead, while I followed a short distance behind. All of a sudden, my companion lost his balance and grip, sliding above me to my left. Acting on my reflexes, I reached out and grabbed his backpack, but the bag slipped right through my hand, cutting two fingers in the process.

Just as my worst nightmare was beginning to see the light of day, I witnessed the most impressive feat of my entire existence on this earth. Tumbling barely 5 meters, Fumito somehow managed to break his fall in the canopy of a small beech tree, thus averting a major disaster. The entire event unfolded in the blink of an eye, as the luckiest man in Japan climbed back up while I tended to my wounds. “I’ll take the lead from here,” I quipped.

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Once out of the danger zone, we found the normal path and took a break to reflect on what transpired. Fumito was completely unharmed, and I’d lost some skin on my fingers, but the bleeding had stopped so we ventured on. We arrived at Takachihodai, where our first glimpse of Kashimayari came into view directly in front of us. If we could somehow build a rope bridge over the huge valley between us and the peak, then we could cut a few hours off the slog. Unfortunately, we’d have to continue climbing parallel to the peak until reaching the ridgeline, where we’d be able to head over to the summit.

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The path became much rockier after leaving the flat area, but fortunately most of the snow was gone. Just before popping out on the ridge though, we had to traverse through a large, unstable snow field. I was petrified of breaking through the snow and tumbling down to my death, so Fumito once again took the lead. This time, he kept his footing and I managed to avoid the holes, but we wondered how we’d be able to traverse it on the descent.

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We hit the main ridge line, where Tateyama and Tsurugi were patiently waiting. Mt. Fuji even popped her head out on the horizon and the sky looked as if satsuki-bare had never left. We marched on to the mountain hut and filled up on water. Then came a gargantuan climb through an enormous snowfield to the summit of Mt. Nunobiki. Exhausted we were, but we plodded on, reaching the top of the southern peak just before noon. Mt. Kashimayari, just like Mt. Shiomi in the Minami Alps, has a twin peak a short distance away. After eating lunch, we dropped to the saddle and climbed the twin, staring down into the vertical crags on the Hachimine-kiretto. There’d be no traversing over to Mt. Goryu this time around, even though it was still on my ‘to climb’ list.

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We ran into a handful of people on the summit, but all of them had come from Ogisawa – a much longer but easier approach. After celebrating our successful ascent, we retraced out steps back to the junction, thinking about the tricky snow traverse that lie ahead. This time around I took the lead, and was extremely surprised to find that some kind soul had built steps into the snow pack, making for an easy and comfortable crossing. My guess is that the hut staff must’ve come over here with their snow shovels, or perhaps another hiker had come up behind us. Whoever it was, I can’t thank them enough.

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Descending took no time at all, and the high pressure system stuck around for the duration of our hike. Walking back on the deserted forest road, Fumito and I chatted about our previous adventures and wondered if we’d be able to get together again this year for more hikes. I hung up the hat after this one, deciding not to tempt fate again until after the rainy season, where mountain #83 was quietly awaiting.

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Coming soon….

I’ll post more information as the date gets closer, but those of you in Osaka mark your calendars for the month of June

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In two weeks time, the rainy season would be here……or would it? Hiking in June is always a bit of a gamble, so when fair weather presents itself, I usually stop whatever I’m doing and head to the hills. So goes my attempt at mountain #81 – a peak whose Chinese characters translate as ‘covered in rain,’

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The train rolled into Minami-otari station shortly after 11pm. The station was deserted as I fiddled through my pack for the phone number of the taxi company. Fortunately, someone answered the phone and sent a taxi my way, saving me the long, monotonous stroll up to Otari-onsen. “The road’s closed beyond this point – you’ll have to walk from here”, remarked the driver upon dropping me off at a large barrier put across the road. I walked in silence for over an hour on the desolate forest road, hoping no creatures would come out in the night to size me up. Arriving at the trailhead around 1am, I scoped out a place to sleep
for the night. As luck would have it, there was an unlocked rest house with a wooden table and a clean concrete floor at the end of the parking lot. I settled in for a cozy nap.

My alarm rang much too quickly for my liking, but my eyes perked up while peeping outside for a look at the weather. Although it was still too early to tell, the calmness of the air suggested that the weather gods would be kind to me. Breakfast was leisurely devoured while poring over the map: an 800m elevation change over around 5km of hiking. Much easier than my epic ascent of Mt. Takazuma a few weeks earlier. The sound of voices broke my silent planning, as I looked up to find several minivans disgorging day hikers. “What?”, I screamed. Where they came from I had no idea, but I wasn’t about to share the trail with an enormous group of retirees, so I stuffed the map and breakfast into my sack and quickly escaped into uncharted territory.

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The trail quickly dropped into a vast marshland, with endless rows of mizubasho in full bloom. Here I was, completely alone, traversing through an area of pristine beauty that gives Oze a run for its money. Seriously, if you’re turned off by the crowds in Oze, I highly recommend coming here during on any morning in early June. This was definitely bear territory, as I lauded my decision to rest at the trailhead instead of attempting a night assault. The marshlands eventually gave way to a spectacular virgin forest of fir and beech trees, with a floor still buried under a deep layer of snow. Amakazari becomes a human traffic jam in the autumn, as hikers shove elbows for a glance at the vibrant foliage, but on this sunny Sunday in early June it was mine, all mine.

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Even though I had the entire mountain to myself, I kept a steady pace, constantly reminding myself that I had a very large group ascending somewhere behind me. Arriving at Arasugesawa, I caught a glimpse of the rocky summit rising high above me, to my left. All I had to do was descend down into the gully, up the other side, and climb up the massive shoulder to the ridge.

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Traversing through the gully proved more challenging than expected, as each step loosened the snow enough to send trees popping out of the snow beneath me. The first tree that popped up nearly gave me a black eye, so I did my best not to set off any more ‘land mines’. I wasn’t exactly sure where the trail went, but I was pretty sure it didn’t climb directly up the cirque. Sure enough, the trail continued straight on and I was climbing up towards the summit on a snow-free ridge after a steep, nasty slog. I passed by a pair of trail junctions but still didn’t run into anyone else. It looked like I’d be the first one to summit that day.

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Once on top, I said a quick hello to Mt. Asahi rising up in the distance across the valley. Mt Shirouma was slyly hiding under a gentle blanket of cloud, while Mt. Hiuchi looked on with envy. I could finally rest on the small summit and finish the breakfast I had started a few hours prior. I spent well over an hour soaking up the rays and observing nature’s gifts, while trying to make a crucial decision. Should I retrace my steps all the way back to Otari-onsen, or should I dive off down the north face of the mountain to Amakazari-onsen? Either way, I had a hot bath awaiting me.

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As I retreated from the summit towards the trail junction that would decide my fate, a figure appeared in the distance. A solo hiker in his early 50s, on his way to the peak I’d just escaped from. “Which way did you come from?”, I inquired, with fingers crossed for a favorable answer. “Amakazari-onsen”, replied the man. Here was my chance, as I gathered information about trail conditions, the hot spring, and……access. “No, I don’t think there’s a bus, but I can give you a ride to Toyama station if you can wait for me to summit”, as I internally rejoiced for lucking out yet again.

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I lazed about, observing the wildflowers and dreaming of the hot spring waters. My savior returned, and off we ventured to the junction. The no nonsense trail dropped straight down off the back side of the peak, through what can only be described as a ‘massive’ snowfield. I’m sure there are switchbacks during the summer hiking season, but before the rainy season it became a tricky game of kick-stepping, sliding and in some cases tumbling down the quickly rotting snow. A few hundred meters into our descent, we ran into an elderly gentleman with sweat pouring down his face. With his head wrapped in a bandanna and his body draped in flannel, he gave off a vibe of someone who’s known in the Nagano circuit. Sure enough, shortly after saying farewell to the energetic elder statesman, my hiking companion gave an explanation: “That man we just met is a very famous mountaineer. In fact, he was the one who built the trail from the Sea of Japan to Mt. Shirouma in the Kita Alps.” If only I could have remembered his name!

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We spent over an hour descending through the snow until picking up the trail about 3/4 of the way down the ridge. A short time later, we were soaking in the therapeutic waters, with its mixed outdoor bath located in front of the hut about 50 meters from the indoor baths. We totally caught a few clothed visitors off guard by trampling through the courtyard with only a short towel around our waists! Mt. Amakazari treated me very well, but I soon knew the summer rains would come to wash the snows away. Could I knock off another peak before it happened? The challenge was on!

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Now that the 100 mountains are behind me, I can turn my attention to lesser-known peaks a little closer to home before the summer climbing season kicks in. I’d heard of Ryouzen from a few Kansai hikers, and had stared at it twice during my 2 ascents of neighboring Mt. Ibuki, so I took advantage of the low pollen counts on a Sunday in late March to investigate.

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As the train rolled into Samegai station, I noticed the white tinge on the horizon. “Looks like winter has returned,” wondering if I would need my crampons that I’d conveniently left at home. I strolled up the paved road towards the trout farm, turning at all of the signposts before entering a cedar forest. I quickly slipped on the protective eye wear and face mask, lest any pollen fall from the trees overhead. You see, I’m severely allergic to cedar pollen and wanted to concentrate on the hike ahead instead of emptying the contents of my sinus cavity.

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The trail ran straight through a dry, rocky riverbed for the first half an hour or so, before meeting up with a true mountain stream. I’d printed a map off the internet, which wasn’t very detailed, but I used my good sense of direction and kanji skills to guide me. I’ve done enough hiking in Japan to realize that most trails will run parallel to mountain streams until finding a gully gentle enough to ascend.

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Up through the tranquil valley I rose, without meeting another single soul. I reached Urushi waterfall, climbing up the the base to take in the scenery. Breathtaking.

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The snow got deeper on the sheltered north ridge, but the warm temperatures soon turned the path into a sloppy, muddy mess. Someone had tied ropes into the hillside, saving me from sliding down the steep valley below. The dale became rockier and steeper, but the higher elevation meant less mud and more ice. I soon stumbled across a frozen deer carcass, who must’ve fallen from the ridge high above me. The power of the elements.

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A little after 11am, I popped out on the ridgeline, where the virgin foliage quickly gave way to bamboo grass. The views opened up, revealing Mt. Ibuki’s edifice rising grandly across the valley. Ondake and Norikura looked on from a safe distance. Although 300m lower than it’s more famous neighbor to the north, Ryouzen has been spared the shocking level of development that has plagued Mt. Ibuki. Everything has been pretty much untouched, sans a small emergency hut tucked away just out of sight. The wide, muddy path suggests that it has become a mecca for Kansai hikers disillusioned with the defacing of Mt. Ibuki. Indeed, once on the ridgeline, I converged with groups of climbers who’d approached from all directions. Dozens upon dozens of spectators, most of whom complained about the frigid winds. I can only imagine how the crowds must grow 10 fold when the alpine flowers are actually in bloom!

I promised myself to return during the harsh winter months, where I’d most likely have the place to myself. After all, that’s the true purpose of a reconnaissance mission in my book – scope out a peak worthy of a visit out of season. See you next January mighty Ryouzen.

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