“Itatata”. Somehow the words flowed out much easier in Japanese in the early morning darkness of my first full day in the alpine back country. Stiff as a board from the record-breaking mileage of the previous 19 hours, I slowly rose from my cozy futon on the 2nd floor of Sugoroku hut and made my way ever more slowly towards the cooking space on the ground floor. “I~ta~i“. The pain was the unmistakable result of damaged z-band filaments in the femoral region, more commonly referred to as incredibly sore thighs. The ‘hair of the dog’ approach seemed the most feasible option, so after a quick breakfast, I packed up and started burning more muscle.
The frost clung gingerly to the alpine flora as a gentle easterly breeze brought forth the good tidings of a stable high pressure system. The stars quickly gave way to the horizontal glow directly behind, revealing two options for my first ascent. I could either continue on the ridge for the short steep climb to the summit of Mt. Sugoroku, or take the easier right fork towards Mt. Mitsumata-renge. The stiffness and soreness in my lower extremities subconsciously nudged my body onto the right fork as if in a peyote-induced trance.
The faint path grew clearer with each advancing step, thanks in large part to the phenomenally clear autumn air that brought an unusually bright glow. The trail trudged down through an immense col before cutting a line towards the saddle below Mt. Washiba’s round, husky top. It took the better part of an hour on a relatively easy route to reach the main ridge line again, during which time I missed most of what was certainly an incredible light show going on in the peaks hidden behind Mitsumata-renge’s bulky flank. “Next time I’m definitely sticking to the ridge line,” I promised.
I reached the hut and campsite on the saddle, filling up on water and provisions before starting the switchbacks up to the summit. Mt. Yari’s sharp spear was clearly visible in the distance, and I soon found myself staring down into a crater lake that looked mysteriously volcanic in nature. A little research done after the fact confirmed my suspicions and I definitely witnessed a rarity among the peaks of the Kita Alps: actually getting a glimpse of that elusive lake!
The summit itself was completely deserted in the mid-morning sunshine due to the massive throngs of people who scaled the peak in time for the sunrise. Sometimes it pays to get a ‘late’ start.
I pushed on, reaching the tiny hut below the peak of Mt. Suisho around 90 minutes after leaving the summit of Washiba. These two peaks are relatively close together and offer the rare opportunity to easily scale two of the Hyakumeizan in one day. I dropped my pack off at the hut and raced towards my second peak of the day, only to be met by a totally unexpected series of chains and ladders. It was such a drastic contrast from what I’d faced up until that point, but you can’t expect every peak in the Japan Alps to be a mid-afternoon stroll, can you? Summit photos without the presence of a single cloud – a definite anomaly in the fog-prone highlands.
I retraced my steps back to the hut, where the hut owner handed me a complementary apple. “Won’t be needing these tonight, as I’m closing up shop for the winter,” explained the grey-haired caretaker. I’d completely forgotten it was late September and I was beginning to wonder if Eboshi hut, my goal for the day, would be accepting guests.”Only one way to find out,” I said, and quickly commenced the long slog.
I turned east, entering a north-south ridge running parallel to the main Kamikochi-Tateyama trekking route. Also known as ‘Ura-ginza’, the trail I was now on would take me all the way to the Sea of Japan if I felt so inclined. I have dreams of a Kamikochi to Hakuba trek in the future if my health ever improves significantly enough to warrant it. The first major peak to scale, Mt. Noguchi-goro, is actually the same height as Mt. Washiba and the intimidating path to the top took me well past lunchtime to knock off. It wasn’t that the trail was all that difficult, but more of a matter of giving my gelatinous legs a much-needed pep talk. I collapsed on the sandy summit, breaking out supplies for a long-overdue lunch break. Staring across the vast valley towards Mt. Suisho, I now found out why this peak is also goes by the name of Mt. Kuro, or ‘black peak.’
A full stomach and a half hour of rest do wonders for a battered body, and I rose with renewed vigor. A short decent landed me at Noguchi-goro hut, which was also finishing up a short summer season. “You’re in luck, Eboshi hut is still open for business”, explained the husband-and-wife team. “Help yourself to as much water as you’d like.” It was basically a downhill walk from here to Eboshi, which took around 2 hours. Or so I’m told, for I honestly have no recollection of the path, scenery, or terrain. I’d started the morning in a sleepy trance but was ending it in a drunken stupor, choking on lactic acid and fueled by the prospect of a warm place to sleep.
MIraculously, I rolled into camp in one piece and had survived yet another absurdly lengthy day on the slopes without making any costly mistakes. That was all about to change, however, on Day 3 of what was quickly becoming the ‘mother of all treks’.