As a brutally wet August comes to a close, I venture off into the hinterlands to knock off 2 of my remaining 5 peaks. It won’t be easy though, with torrential rain on the horizon and nearly 3000 meters of vertical elevation gain awaiting. Successfully scale these peaks and all that lay between myself and the completion of the Hyakumeizan are three backbreaking ascents in the Japan Alps. It’s going to be a tough autumn.
The taxi ride from Urasa to the trailhead was short but enjoyable, thanks in part to the cheerful commentary from my helpful taxi driver. “Look over the the right and you’ll see the remains of the forest road, washed out just two weeks prior,” boasted the middle aged gentlemen. Let’s hope history doesn’t repeat itself on this journey, I prayed.
The water source at the deserted campground had a notice that H2O should be boiled before drinking, but in order to save time I opted for my water filter. “3 liters should be enough,” I surmised, as the thick air hung heavy all around. I took off down the gravel forest road and immediately broke into a sweat. It was as if the rainy season had never departed, and I was beginning to wonder how a 1700m vertical climb would feel in such sticky conditions.
After a 4km stroll on the desolate, pockmarked road, I arrived at the trail head. A small, wooden sign confirmed my initial suspicions about the distance. I stretched the legs, said a quick mantra, and started the long, relentless ascent.
The higher I climbed, the steeper the path seemed to become. I was heading up the mountain via the traditional pilgrimage route that connects all 3 peaks of the ‘Echigo Sanzan’. Most people completing the circuit start across the valley at Mt. Hakkai, traverse the knife-edge ridge connecting it to Naka-dake (the ‘middle’ peak), and then follow the ridge to Komagatake, descending via my current path.
On this majestic Friday morning, I met only one other soul, a middle-aged woman who was on her way down from completing the 3-peak circuit. “The views are outstanding from the top”, boasted the pilgrim. I’d fallen into a bit of a trance climbing up the steep spur and had forgotten to look up. Sure enough, the sky was clearing, and Mt. Hakkai rose serenely due south of my position. “Looks like I can put away the raincoat.”
Indeed the higher I climbed, the more beautiful the weather became, until I popped out on a unnamed peak filled with bamboo grass. Luckily someone was kind enough to cut back the overgrown flora, making navigation a cinch. I collapsed in a heap of sweat and took in the views. Although the sun was shining brightly in the brilliant blue sky, my nemesis otherwise known as fog was rising quickly out of the west. I knew I’d soon be swallowed by the thickening inferno, but was content with at least getting a view up this far.
I pushed on another 20 minutes until reaching the main ridge. I turned left, following the contours to the summit of Komagatake, my 96th peak. I sat in the thick mist, barely able to move after such an exhilarating ascent. No views to speak of, but there was still one more chance the following morning.
The path down to the emergency hut was short but steep, and I quickly dropped off my stuff and checked-in. The first thing I noticed was the abnormally heavy weight of my hiking slacks. I’d completely forgotten to take out my wallet before starting the climb and it became a wrinkled, sweat-filled reservior. I changed into some dry clothes and draped everything on the benches outside to dry. I laid out all of my money separately, placing stones neatly on top of each. The caretaker just laughed and gladly waited before accepting the modest accomodation fee.
Clouds swirled all around, providing some unexpectedly picturesque scenery in the late afternoon wind. A storm was definitely brewing, but when or how long it would last would be unknown. The caretaker kept a close watch behind his binoculars, searching for other approaching hikers. Fortunately no one else showed up, so I was given free reign of the entire place.
That night nature put on one spectacular light show, as I raced up and down the stairs in order to catch a glimpse of the electrical storm. The hut kept me well-insulated from the elements as the rain fell down in great sheets. Imagine if I were stuck in a tent on the exposed summit. Sometimes emergency huts can be a mixed blessing in disguise, even if they leave an unsightly blight on the landscape.
I slept soundly as the hard rain continued until the morning. Breakfast was leisurely consumed as I casually plotted out my plan for the day, which involved a steep descent into narrow valley that offered a warm bath as bait. The thoughts of the silky waters drove me to my feet, and the unexpected letup of the rain was as added bonus. I grabbed the caretaker and we headed back up to the summit together.
Never give up on a mountain just because the weather is cloudy. It just may surprise you.
The sight of a thousand peaks floating above the drenched valleys is indescribably mystical. I flew down the mountain in an elevated mood. The skies remained dark but dry all the way down to the base of the peak, as I once again blessed the low pressure system on her impeccable timing.
One more peak to go on this epic weekend. Would my lucky streak continue or would I finally receive my long overdue punishment? Only Hira-ga-take would be able to answer that.