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Archive for January, 2010

As we dropped off the northern reaches of Tou-no-dake’s bald flank, the path turned to crusty snow and ice. We held off on crampons for the time being, sticking slowly and firmly to the exposed edges of the wooden steps. Kanako seemed to enjoy her first true descent on the unbroken traverse.

Once out of the trouble zone, we cruised on the heavily-eroded sun baked ridge towards the summit of Mt. Tanzawa. We thought about abandoning our goal of Mt. Hiru in favor of staying at Miyama hut, but my internal voice told me to keep moving. It was 2:30pm when we reached the signpost.

Kanako seemed to be possessed by some unnamed spirit, for even though she was starting to show signs of fatigue, she never complained about it. Fueled by the power of the anniversary of her birth, I once again let her take the lead on the windy path, hoping she’d settle in on a steady pace.

We hit our next roadblock at a place called Oni-ga-Iwa (The Devil’s Rock). The loss of daylight was now clearly noticeable on the pink tinted hills, as the path turned into a tricky rock scramble. Kanako, none too confident on the steep terrain, froze with unease. Patches of ice made the descent downright treacherous, but it was too late to put on the crampons. Acting as her guide, I talked her through the area step-by-step like a choreographer working through a particularly complex dance routine. Reaching the final saddle before our target, I looked back on the towering inferno.

My wife’s energy was zapped, as her pace turned to a crawl. I raced ahead to drop off my pack on the summit, only to find my wife gazing blissfully at a pack of wild deer upon my return. “Just a few more meters” I quipped, well aware that she’d be quite content with her current position. “I’ve got a present awaiting.”

I led my wife by the hand, pulling her the last few steps towards Mt. Hiru’s impressive vantage point. Directly in front of us, the glowing ball of the Solar System’s brightest star sank rapidly behind Japan’s highest peak.

We gazed silently in disbelief,

as dusk fell on the sprawling metropolis a thousand meters below.

“This is the best birthday present ever,” proclaimed Kanako, who suddenly realized that the best gifts in life are those which cannot be bought. We slowly retreated to the warm hut, startling the caretaker with our ‘late’ arrival (even if it was only 5:30pm). I had another gift planned for the following morning and was praying that the high pressure system would honor my request.

Part 3

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We both woke before dawn, anxious to flee the capital city before the onslaught of the morning commute. Leaving the warm confines of Madoka’s cozy apartment, Kanako and I head southwest to Shibusawa, home to the Tanzawa mountains and our playground for the next two days of celebrating my wife’s 28th birthday. Things just had to go smoothly.

From the bus stop at Okura, we flew up the forest road under picture perfect skies, chatting gingerly about life in the mountains. I knew we had a tough 1400m ascent staring us straight in the face, but refrained from spoiling the birthday girl’s chipper mood by keeping this information to myself. Entering the forest, we started our relentless climb up the spine of the mountain range that runs through the heart of Kanagawa Prefecture on the outskirts of Tokyo. The path snaked past a couple of teahouses before entering an area of golden grasslands.

“Turn around”, I said, after letting Kanako set the pace for our morning goal of Tou-no-dake. “Woah”, replied the newly-turned 28 year-old beauty, whose cries of joy turned to wails of delight upon discovering the towering cone in the distance was indeed Mt. Fuji.

The smiles continued unabated as we reached the knob that housed Sonbutsu hut. It was just past noon as we took a quick lunch break and observed our surroundings. “When do we check-in”, asked my wonderful wife, as I gently led her to a clearing overlooking the peaks to the north. “As soon as we reach that hut”, I proclaimed, pointing to a point way off in the distance. Most hikers do not attempt to make it to Hiru-ga-take in one day from Ogura, but I knew exactly what I was doing…..or did I?

Part 2

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When I was a child, I used to stare up at the sky from the windows of our 4-door station wagon and imagine myself hopping gracefully from cloud to cloud like a hare foraging through the lush greenery of a freshly pruned golf course. On family trips to visit distant relatives, I vividly recall the exact moment of the jetliner breaking through the mist towards the upper reaches of the troposphere, revealing an endless collection of round, fluffy cumulus basking in the unobstructed ultraviolet rays. Looking out upon the floating sea of white, I often wondered if it were possible to perch myself at the edge of this wonderful abyss, to literally reach out and stroke the soft fur of the docile-looking vapor as it moved elegantly through my young fingertips. On the morning of October 14th, 2003, at 2100m above sea level on my 3rd and final day in the Hakuba section of the Japan Alps, my wish came true.

Unzipping my tent fly, I rushed out to fulfill my childhood fantasy, standing on the edge of an infinite expanse of cloud stretching out to Mt. Amakazari hovering on the milky horizon. Crouching down, I brushed my bare hands across the silvery mist, immune to the subzero temperatures that would normally turn exposed skin into a frostbitten mess. For this brief moment of time, nothing else in life mattered.

The Japanese have word for this phenomenon. It’s called 雲海 (unkai), which literally translates as ‘cloud sea’. It actually happens quite frequently at the higher elevations, but usually the clouds gather hundreds of meters below your vantage point. Rarely does one find him or herself camped on the shores of the alabaster sea.

I spent the next 3 hours taking in the scenery from the warmth of the open-air bath, as snow flurries fell gently from the stratus clouds high, high above. I’d given up all hope of traversing over to Mt. Karamatsu the moment I stepped out of the tent, opting instead for the gentle descent back to the start of the hike at Sarukura. I wanted to leisurely savor this unforgettable spectacle, doing my utmost to break down camp as painstakingly slow as possible. Occasionally the mist would sweep up over me, severing my view of the outside world like a prisoner forced into a poorly-lit cell,

only to retreat as gingerly as it rose, re-uniting me with my childhood love.

Eventually I worked up enough courage to take those first important steps in my long descent back to civilization. Just before dropping down into the fog for the remainder of the hike, I turned around for one last look at what I now refer to as Paradise Col, knowing that I’d never again be able to replicate the feelings that permeated through my adrenaline laden torso.

I’m often asked which of the Hyakumeizan is my favorite. I often prefer to answer in reference to experiences rather than specific mountains, for that’s what we tend to retain in our memory the longest. The remainder of my slog back to the parking lot is, in all honesty, a bit of a blur, but unfortunately I do remember the unfriendly hut staff who refused to give me a ride back to the station even though they knew the bus had stopped running for the season. Not wanting to end the trip on a low note, I marched on down the forest road for a few kilometers, flagging down a ride from a forest service truck on their way back into town. I further showed my disgust in front of the station by scowling at the same hut staff who’d earlier left me for dead. Instead of a confrontation, I merely stood at the edge of the busy street, thumb outstretched, and hitched all the way to Nagoya. Actions truly speak louder than words at times.

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3:30am seemed like a perfect time to start my approach to the towering volcanic edifice of Mt. Iwate. For starters, I was illegally camped in a park. I was also faced with a 20km round-trip monster of a hike: my first true test in my epoch-making Tohoku conquest.

After convincing myself that the trailhead must lie in the forest directly behind the green confines of the park, I meandered through desolate gravel roads for nearly an hour before retreating back to my campsite, re-orienting myself in relation to my highly inaccurate map, and turning due west until finding the true start of the hike. This was already turning into a headache and I’d barely even started.

The first part of the trail was pretty straightforward, as the increasing light of a dawning day made navigation without a torch entirely possible. If only it weren’t for the abnormally large amount of frogs attempting to commit suicide by intentionally hopping directly into my rapidly approaching footfalls. I reached Nana waterfall after an hour or so, only to find a rope strung across the trail. Apparently someone did not want me to climb Mt. Iwate from this side of the peak. I had 2 choices. Either turn back and spend the better part of the morning and afternoon trying to hitch to the other side of the volcano, or continue on a stealth mission into the unknown. I think you all know me well enough by now to know which option I chose.

Slipping underneath the rope, I continued through the dense conifer forest, as monstrous rock formations slowly came into view to my immediate right. Gradually the pine needles gave way to sulfur-stained mud and pumice, as I suddenly found myself ascending directly into an active thermal vent. “So, that’s why this trail is closed!”, I gasped, maneuvering through a gnarly collection of hot spring runoff and hissing hells with the speed and agility of a running back in motion. One false step and I’d be tonight’s headline, if anyone bothered to venture into this literal no-man’s land.

Eventually I reached a junction, slipped under the rope in front of me (I was now officially hiking legally once again) and turned left towards the saddle below the crater rim. The dew of the previous night made its way down the overgrown foliage and into my shirt, pants, socks and shoes. Here I was soaked from head to toe on a trail that had definitely seen better days. Future hikers should note that 99% of climbers approach via the Yakibashiri and Yanagisawa trails to the southwest and northeast.

After meandering through some heavily overgrown marshlands, the path followed a dry river bed to the plateau directly below the enormous crater rim. It was here that I met my first hiker of the day, and my first true break in the relentless ascent. Devouring every carbohydrate in my path, I regained my strength and inched my way up to the crater rim. When I say inched, I truly mean it, as one step forward resulted in 2 steps of lost altitude, thanks in large part to the ankle-deep screee. I was literally on my hands and knees for the better part of an hour, struggling to reach the rim of the active volcanic monster. Once on top it became an easy stroll to the high point, where the most incredible panoramic view awaited. I thought I’d had good views on Mt. Iwaki, but nothing compared to what lie before me. Not only could I see the last 3 peaks I’d climbed, but I could also see my remaining targets for the next 6 days: Mt. Hayachine, nearly a stones throw away, followed by Mt. Chokai to the southwest, with Gassan and Mt. Asahi lined up perfectly to the south of Tohoku’s highest peak. I raised my arms in triumph, as I new I’d beaten a peak notorious for lenticular cloud cover, horizontal rain, and gale force winds.

The only downside to my successful day was that I’d left my backpack and tent back in the park at the campsite, meaning I’d have to retrace my steps 11km all the way back to where I started. I set off with no time to spare, resoaking my clothes on the overgrown foliage, and literally jumping through the active thermal vents that caused so discomfort on the ascent. Back at the trailhead around 2pm, I grabbed my belongings and boarded a bus for Morioka. It was time to plan tomorrow’s climb of Mt. Hayachine, a peak that offered no easy route when relying on public transport.

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