I woke before dawn, boiling water for oatmeal in the early morning mist that enveloped the vestibule of Takayama hut. I needed every calorie at my disposal for the mammoth climb that lie ahead. Shortly after leaving the warm confines of my accommodation, I found a stream flowing past the trail, gushing clean, crystal-clear mountain water down into the valley below. Make no mistake about it: reliable water sources are in fresh abundance in the Minami Alps, a stark contrast to the huts of the Kita Alps, which sell rain runoff for exorbitant prices. I carried an extra liter in the rucksack, which I hoped would last until the next stream up and over the rocky spires of Mt. Warusawa.
The crawl up to Mae-dake, the first of the triple peaks of Warusawa, took what seemed like an eternity. Fortunately, the light mist gradually evaporated, revealing clear blue skies and hints of a sunny day ahead. The problem lie in the fact that I was heading up the western face of the peak, away from the warm rays that would make the wet, rocky col much easier to navigate. At least I wasn’t descending this route, I thought, as I picked my way through the boulder fields. Alas the ridge grew near, and one last sweaty push later, I sat on the cusp of my target peak, surveying Mt. Akaishi shimmering blissfully in the soft golden sunlight.
I turned left, dropping my gear at the emergency hut at Naka-dake before dropping to the saddle far below. Here a family of ptarmigan crossed the path, oblivious to my close presence. Warusawa’s eastern spire towered menacingly above, swirling in and out of the rapidly flowing clouds. Taking a deep breath, I marched in silence, hoping for an unobstructed view before the mist swallowed the peak for good. I got a quick summit shot off before white enveloped everything around me. Using the paint marks to guide me, I carefully retraced my steps back to my waiting pack, and marked another Hyakumeizan off the list. “Only one more to go today”, I quietly thought, knowing I’d have a huge drop and ascent before reaching it.
A few hundred vertical meters later, I popped out of the clouds and into warm sunshine. Groups of climbers made their way past me, towards the lofty peak I’d just climbed. For once I was happy I wasn’t joining them. Arakawa hut soon came into view, and I found myself sitting on the picnic tables absorbing morsels of vitamin D, when the hut manager came out for a chat. “Here, Japanese sweets”, offered the elderly caretaker. I grabbed a mochi-filled manju and talked about life in the mountains. “Yes, you can see Mt. Fuji from here, but not today”, explained my informative guide. A thick layer of cloud lie between us and Japan’s signature peak. He wished me luck for my rather intimidating afternoon climb. “You’re lucky. Winds are calm today, but a typhoon is on the way.” It’d been a while since I’d seen a weather forecast, but September in the mountains is always a gamble.
Soon enough I rose back into the cloud, counting my steps until even that became a bore. I tried singing my favorite tunes, but nothing could shake this feeling of regret. Sure I was out in nature, but wasn’t this the same scenery I’d seen time and time and time again? A multitude of mountains in the fog, yet all with the same alpine blur. As I was pondering these thoughts, I’d reached the crest of a hill and realized I was sitting on top of Ko-Akaishi, which was nearly a stones throw away from the summit. Dropping my things, I double checked the map times, and my watch. “Hmm, 2 hours from Arakawa”, read the suggested pace, but here I was 70 minutes after my mochi break. I’d definitely had no trouble acclimatizing to the altitude. My doldrums suddenly vanished as quickly as they appeared and I pushed on with renewed vigor.
After reaching the top, I coasted along the ridge down to Hyakkenbora Yama-no-ie, my home for the night. This time around I’d booked a place with two hot meals. After the incredibly long day, I needed the extra protein to see me through the rest of the traverse.
The majority of climbers take at least 2 days to cover the same distance I’d managed in 1. All in all about a dozen people shared the floor space that night, with all eyes glued on the post-dinner weather report. The prognosis was not good, as the Minami Alps lie directly in the path of the advancing typhoon. What could we do but hope, pray, and wait?