Rule #1 of the Hyakumeizan Revenge club: never attempt revenge on a peak you had perfect weather the first time around. Rule #2: same as rule #1. So what were Kanako and I doing here, standing at Makinoto-toge in the middle of a blizzard on Christmas day?
After a grueling 3-1/2 bus journey from Kumamoto, we dropped off all unnecessary gear at the souvenir shop, strapped on the crampons, and headed up the frozen volcanic tundra towards the ridge line. We passed by groups of properly attired hikers making their way off the cloud-covered plateau. None of us had snow pants, since we weren’t expecting Hokkaido conditions on Japan’s southernmost island. Still, the White Christmas was a welcome change to the usual concrete of an Osaka winter.
Once we reached the top of the mountain pass, a problem immediately came clear: our water was freezing! We’d brought along a liter between the two of us, plus a half a liter of hot tea and hot water, both kept in a separate thermos. It was definitely well below freezing up here, and visibility was quite poor. Still, we pushed on like two camels walking through a desolate desert in search of shade. Our shade in this case would be a place to shelter from the wind.
The snow was some of the driest powder I’d seen in some time. The sugary grains blew swiftly and easily through the gale force winds, leaving the ridge a nasty mess of frozen volcanic rock. Even with crampons it was slow going, for one false step would mean a turned ankle and no means of rescue. We reached the col below the summit of Mt. Hossho in desperate need of nourishment. My lungs felt as if someone had been sitting on them all morning, aching with each inhalation. Sitting in the middle of the trail, I reached for my thermos, realizing to my horror that the warm water I’d needed had long since turned cold. Kanako brought out her thermos, offering sips of steaming tea. The lungs began to function again.
Sitting on the col, the clouds began to break, revealing spell-binding views of Mt. Kuju’s pointy summit. The altimeter read 1660 meters. If only we could spend a few more hours out here, I thought. The lunch we’d brought froze over as well, as I forced some nuts into my wiped out body. We’d set a turnaround time of 2pm and it was already a quarter past 2. There’d be no more climbing if we had any chance of making the 4pm bus.
Bravely, we made a 180-degree turn back towards Makinoto pass. This time we were feeling the full brunt of the head winds. In addition to the fingers and toes, the knees were the next body part to lose feeling. We needed to get off this mountain and fast. A quick glance at the thermometer revealed the sense of urgency. Minus 20 degrees centigrade. Were we really on the island of Kyushu?
Despite our obvious predicament, Kanako was absolutely enjoying herself, stopping every few minutes to admire the hoarfrost and gradually improving views towards Mt. Aso. “Let’s do more snow climbing”, she demanded, immune to the arctic winds and cold air sensitivity that was impeding my cardiovascular system.
Arriving back at our starting point around 3:30pm, we slipped back into the souvenir shop, ordered a coffee, and stood in front of the kerosene heater trying to bring feeling back into our appendages. The warm interior was most comforting, especially since a fresh squall was once again dumping fresh snow on the hills. Looks like we made it off just in time.
Even though we couldn’t reach the summit, the mission wasn’t a complete failure. After all, few other people would have made it as far and as long as we did with the same resources at our disposal. Next time I’ll remember to bring the snow pants and eat my lunch before starting the hike. Kuju deserves a winter rematch and victory will be ours, rest assured.