The forecast wasn’t looking good. Rain and cloud marks on the horizon for the next several days, but some unseen force seemed to propel me onto that overnight train bound for Hakuba in early October. The assignment? A 3-day traverse up to Mt. Shirouma and along the ridge to Mt. Karamatsu before descending via Happo-One ski resort.
The peaks were engulfed in thick cloud as I boarded the bus for Sarukura, the starting point for one of the more popular routes up to the summit. The bus was only about a quarter-full, thanks no doubt to the foul weather and lateness of the season. After stretching my muscles and exhuming the winter coat inadvertently buried at the very bottom of my oversized pack, I headed up the trail just to the left of the large mountain hut. The path, much to my surprise, turned into a long, gravel forest road which carved its way past concrete waterfalls, dams, and other man-made atrocities. The rain was calm but steady, and I was thankful for buying the new pack cover the previous day. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally reached the end of the road and onto the trailhead proper. First stop: Hakuba-jiri hut.
The rest area inside the hut was warm and absolutely inviting as I drank warm cocoa and studied the maps. I knew that soon I’d be entering the Dai-sekkei, a enormous year-round snow field requiring crampons for safe passage. Anyone who lived in Japan in 2003 will remember the difficulty of finding winter hiking equipment, as I had to visit 3 different outdoor shops to find what I needed: a sturdy pair of 6-pointers that would become the single most important piece of equipment in my kit during the coming years. At the hut I couldn’t help noticing that every single rafter and floorboard were numbered and seemed to fit together like an intricate jigsaw puzzle. “We dismantle the hut every year to prevent avalanches from wiping it out,” confessed one of the hut employees upon my polite inquiry. “We’re to start dismantling as soon as the weather clears.”
I worked my way to the start of the snow field, anxious to try out the new crampons. The snow had formed an gargantuan melt-freeze layer several meters thick, and my new equipment sure made things easier. The Lonely Planet guys are nuts when they said crampons weren’t necessary. Obviously they’d never done the hike this late in the season.
Up and up through the eternal valley of snow I marched, impressed with the majestic interplay of the rocks, snow, autumn foliage and cloud cover. The rain eased enough to allow me to capture a few snaps of the misty scene surrounding me.
Eventually the path disappeared into thick cloud cover, but the scuff-marks in the snow were easy enough to make out. Hitting the upper reaches of the crumbling snow wall, I found the real path marked with yellow circles diligently painted on the slippery rocks. It was now well past noon, and scores of other hikers had made their way off the mighty peak. “There’s no view today,” remarked a dejected outdoorsman. “The wind’s really strong on the ridge,” added his flannel-clad partner. Unabashed, I pushed on relentlessly up the incredibly steep valley, finally reaching the junction for the ridge walk.
I turned right, immediately passing the deserted campground in favor of the warm confines of the largest hut I’d ever seen. Even though I’d brought my tent, there was no sense in ‘roughing it’ in gail-force winds with temperatures hovering around the freezing mark. I checked-in, changed, and hung my wet, dirty gear in the large drying room.
26. In a hut that sleeps over 1500 people, the 26 guests that were lucky enough to stay on the final night of season for Hakuba-sanso were in for a treat. The staff treated us like royalty and the laid-back atmosphere of the common room is probably a rarity in the summer hiking frenzy. “Ever played Shogi?”, asked a friendly guy in his late-20s. “No,” I sheepishly replied, “but I’ve played chess before.” The next 45-minutes were some of the finest I’ve spent in any mountain hut in Japan, as the two dozen other guests gathered around to watch an impromptu reenactment of the Fischer-Spassky duel. Needless to say, my opponent pummeled me in near-record time. The only reason the match lasted as long as it did was due to the explanation of the rules, which I must’ve broken more times than followed. Still, it was a cultural experience I’m unlikely to forget (or repeat) anytime soon.
Only a 10-minute stroll away, I psyched myself into going for a late afternoon scramble up to the official high point of Mt. Shirouma, but quickly abandoned the idea after sliding open the front door and discovering that the rain had turned into snow! This trip was just about to become much more interesting.