Shortly after conquering the Hyakumeizan, I was given the guidebooks for the 200 famous mountains. “Oh boy”, I sighed, “here we go again.” While I haven’t fully committed to undertaking this formidable challenge, I have accepted the mission of exploring a few that have sparked my interest. Thus, my recent foray deep into Ishikawa Prefecture, to scale a peak that Mr. Fukada himself never got the chance to summit: Mt. Oizuru.
Mt. Oizuru (笈ヶ岳) is quite possibly the only peak in Japan that can not be climbed year round. On the contrary, the only time the summit is approachable is when snow flanks its steep slopes, from December to early May. I set off from Osaka, making the necessary transfers until arriving at Tsurugi station on the soon-to-be-abolished Ishikawa line of the Hokuriku railroad. Walking out to route 157, I stuck my thumb out, hoping for the best.
A few minutes later, a Hummer comes screeching to a halt, and I jump in. A father and son headed into the mountains for camping, with plenty of gear in the back. I glance at the guidebook, which tells me that Chugu-Onsen Ski Resort is the best entry point. I wave goodbye to the kind driver and head into the hot spring to gather information. “I’m not sure where the trailhead is, but if you go to the wooden cabin across the street, he’ll be able to tell you,” retorted the elderly caretaker of the public bath. I march across the street into a beautiful cabin, and sat down with the owner. “This is the winter approach, which is now inaccessible. You’ve got to start from this point here”, gesturing to a point on the map a good 10km away, on the road I’d just hitched from. “Most people nowadays use this newer trail except in the dead of winter.” Great. The first thorn in my side.
I retreat back to the road and stick out the thumb again. This time, a husband and wife team in their late 70s came to my assistance, dropping me off at the prescribed location. Sure enough, I find a large parking lot and two prominent signposts: “Warning, Mt. Oizuru has no trail”. “Warning, there are a lot of accidents on Mt. Oizuru. Experienced climbers only.” I take a deep breath and hope for the best.
The first 1.5km or so is along an abandoned railway that was used to haul timber from the mountains. The path ends at the “wild monkey park”, an area where monkeys descend from the surrounding forests to feast on handouts. No sign of the elusive creatures on the particular excursion, though. Time check: 12:45pm. A 1300m elevation change staring me right in the face. A good 3 to 4 hours before reaching camp.
Steep. Treacherous. Intimidating. Only 5 minutes into my ascent and I can see why people lose their lives here every year. If it weren’t for the generous amount of rope tied to the trees, I’d have given up long ago. Still though, I run into quite a few people on their way down. “Are you heading up now?”, they inquire. “I hope you have a tent.” Indeed, Oizuru is one of the only peaks in Japan without a single mountain hut or official trail. The spur I’m on is only marked with red tape placed on the trees, as well as the footprints of my predecessors. In one particularly rocky section, my pack scrapes against a protruding boulder, dislodging one of my nalgene bottles and sending it bouncing to the valley far below. The second thorn in my side.
Down one liter of water, I climb to a safe area and try to secure my other bottle. If that one goes, then surely I’ll be needing the helicopter, as I am still 1000 vertical meters below the snow line, without a single water source in sight. Fortunately, the cool May breeze and my slow pace keeps the bodily fluids in check. Out of the valley I rise, wondering if I’ll ever make it to the ridge before nightfall. Better yet, I’m wondering when this spur will start to flatten out!
3:15pm. I finally pass the worst of the steep bits, and start the up and down traverse over to the main ridge line. Patches of snow lie out and about, but the crampons stay in their resting place for the time being. Passing by a few more hikers, I get the sense that very few foreigners had ever set foot on this peak. “How did you find out about this mountain?”, inquired one curious hiker. After explaining about my recent conquering of the Hyakumeizan, he got the picture: “I finished them myself 2 years ago. I’m after the 200 now.” That’s when it dawned on me. Probably every single person on this mountain had already finished climbing the famous 100, and were now out to prove something more – to join an elite group of mountaineers who’d conquered Japan’s 300 famous mountains. Did I really want to follow in their footsteps? After all, climbing the Hyakumeizan is enough to keep most people content for life.
Rotting snow. Not the best conditions in which to sleep, but what else could I do? I roll into camp around 4:30pm. By camp, I mean the only flat area in which pitching a tent is feasible. Remember on this peak there is nothing. No trails, no signposts. Just a peak. One other tent in sight, so I pitch nearby. Safety in numbers in case the lingering snow decides to release itself from the steep ridge towering above. I settle into camp, melting snow for the following day and dreaming of the steep climb that lie before me. What other thorns will be thrust into my side.