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Archive for January, 2012

Mid-January and my final foray into Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park to knock off the last unclimbed Hyakumeizan in the Kanto region. The early morning train rolled into Chichibu station under clear skies as I changed to a bus bound for the trailhead at Hinata Ooya. The route required a change of buses a little further on, where a lone figure waited at the adjacent bus stop. “Ryokami,” I asked, not sure if the single 30-something female were out for a day hike or not. She nodded in the affirmative, and I soon found myself with an unexpected hiking companion for mountain #78.

Yoko, the name of my new hiking partner, hailed from Saitama but was on her first journey up a winter mountain, albeit without any equipment or experience under her belt. I’d feel personally responsible if anything were to happen to her, so naturally we walked in unison up the deserted trail under crystal blue skies and the slight crunch of lingering slush. The path was well trodden and pretty much impossible to get lost, as it followed a tranquil stream up a narrow valley. We soon found ourselves ascending through areas of shaded ice, inching our way along the precarious path towards the switchbacks that led to the mountain hut.

Once at the hut, we refilled the water bottles and prepared for the exhilarating climb towards the rocky ridge, through areas of chain-covered rock that Yoko skillfully maneuvered through. I quickly followed suit, offering advice on the trickier footholds. Soon we reached a rustic shrine with a magnificent red torii gate. Mt. Fuji rose up through the tree line, as the rest of the peaks of the national park looked on with envy. From here the ridge became an array of short climbs followed by steep descents over a series of false summits until we finally topped out on Ryokami’s modest peak. Time check: 12:01pm, just in time for a light meal.

While resting on the tiny boulder-lined summit, we talked about other peaks in the area that were worth climbing and somehow during that conversation we’d made a plan to climb Mt. Adatara the following month. Of course, first we had to make it off this peak alive!

The descent proved much more challenging than the approach, for while climbing on ice unaided can be done with careful precision, descending an ice-filled gully in next to impossible without a pair of crampons. Times like this call for desperate measures. “Are you right-footed or left-footed,” I asked Yoko, who was understandably feeling a bit uneasy on the impending traverse. Reaching into my pack, I threw her my right crampon while fastening the other to my left foot. We’d both descend with only one crampon. Not the best solution, but traction on one foot is better than none at all.

Together we carved our way through the frozen forest. I’d kick-step a place for her left foot while she’d do the same for my right. After about an hour of crisscrossed footwork we escaped through the danger zone unscathed. The final stroll back to the bus stop was quite relaxing, until we came face-to-face with a mountain serow grazing in the trail directly in front of us. Startled, the shy creature bolted for the neighboring forest while Yoko and I picked our jaws up off the trail. Never before had I seen a kamoshika so up close and personal. Our brush with wildlife provided that much needed adrenaline boost for the rest of the hike back to civilization. While killing time waiting for the bus, we stopped in at Ryokami Sanso for some tea and refreshments while sitting under a kotatsu that was still heated the old-fashioned way: by a bed of charcoal in the stone floor. Yoko and I made a successful ascent of Ryokami, but how would we fare on the snowy, wind-swept slopes of Mt. Adatara?

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“What am I doing here?” The question echoed through my mind as I kick-stepped up the 50 degree slope. I can’t really say I’d lost the trail since I never found it in the first place. I knew there was really only way to go, though: up.

Nine-hundred eighty, nine hundred ninety, one thousand.  The altimeter put my fears at rest. I’d surely reach the summit plateau but had no idea which direction to turn once I did. As I swam through the grassy meadows I turned full force into the wind, past the snow cornices on the deserted ridge, topping out on mountain #50 of my Kansai Hyakumeizan quest. No trace of anyone, and surely the first one up this season. I abandoned all hope of traversing the ridge for fear of getting hopelessly lost. Better to head back the way I came, even if it weren’t on a trail.

After scaring a pheasant out of its wintering hole, I chased two white-tailed deer through the rugged forest back into town. Luckily, a hot spring awaited my return like a docile pet awaiting the return of its master. As I sat in the bath, I reflected over the last couple of years of peak chasing the hills of Kansai, patted myself on the back, and threw in the towel.

I’ve now climbed just about every peak within a 100km radius of Osaka city. The remaining 50 are so far away that I’d spend more time getting there than I would on the mountains themselves. Is it really worth it? I’m pretty content with reaching the halfway point, and without my own transport I wouldn’t reach the magical 100 until I became too frail to move. I’ve got some books to write, sleep to catch up on, and friends to spend time with. I will, however, continue climbing interesting peaks throughout the Kansai area, but this time on my terms.

 

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Peak #40 loomed on the horizon as Andrew and I changed to the Limited Express Shinano train at Nagoya. The sun shone brightly for the 7:00am departure, a stark contrast to the cold rain of the previous day. Fumito was waiting at Nakatsugawa station with a car full of fuel and a big smile on his face, a mere 45-minute train ride from Chubu’s biggest city.

A few wrong turns on back roads had us retracing our path until we found the correct route to Misaka Pass. The narrow, windy road meandered through a large cedar forest, where we passed by a procession of yamabushi (mountain priests) marching their way to a sacred ritual. Arriving at the trailhead, our eyes nearly popped out of our head when we set foot into a layer of fresh snow, the season’s first deposit of wintry gold. “Oh, boy”, I gasped, “here we go.”

The initial climb through a few centimeters of powder wasn’t too challenging, with ever expanding views of the Minami and Chuo Alps under a crisp blue sky. We soon found ourselves enveloped in a blanket of thick cloud, however, which not only dampened our spirits, but also dampened our clothing with frozen mist. Still, the three stubborn climber pushed on. After all, we’d made so much effort just to get to the start of the hike that it’d be silly to turn back so soon. After descending to a smaller plateau, the path snaked along the ridge in a chorus of ups-and-downs, each one progressively more difficult than the last.

The snow depth was directly proportional to our gradual rise in altitude, where the lack of crampons and gaiters grounded our progress to a crawl. Somewhere around the 1900m mark, my two companions gave up. “Go ahead,” explained Fumito. “You’ve got a mountain to climb.” Alone, I forced my way up the ever steepening path, kick-stepping and grabbing onto whatever plant-life supported my weight. I’d been in such predicaments before, but never so early in the season. Alas, I reached the top of the pass and the true ridge line of Ena’s horse-like figure. Just another few meters.

The few meters of climbing morphed into what seemed like an eternity on the stunningly picturesque spine. I soon reached an emergency hut, followed quickly by the tree covered summit of Mt. Ena. After a quick proof shot, I sought shelter in the hut and forced some peanuts and water into my dry mouth. Shivers reverberated through my body as the sweat of the climb caught up to me. I was losing body heat faster than I could retain, which only meant one thing: keep moving!

Ill-equipped for the conditions at hand, I retraced my steps back to the pass and slid rather awkwardly back towards the trailhead. After 45 minutes of rushed scurrying I once again caught up with Fumito and Andrew, who were edging their way past one of the many precarious traverses. “We were beginning to worry,” confessed Andrew, who had a belly full of warm noodles thanks in part to Fumito’s brilliant decision to abandon the summit attempt. Sometimes it’s best to just count your losses, but such things never occur to stone-headed peakbaggers.

In the late afternoon light, the trail gradually became a mud field, as we were beginning to descend below the freezing point and out of the clouds. By the time we reached the car, most of the snow had either evaporated or made its way into our shoes, socks, and pant legs. Fumito fired up the stove beside the car as Andrew and I pilfered through our gear searching for something dry to change into. The three of us, having safely descended, made a vow to never be caught off-guard in October again. Promises that were surely made to be broken.

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After the ferocious winds of Kuju, Kanako and I were ready for a break. The town of Yufuin willfully obliged, offering organic smoke-free cafes, creatively designed art museums, and cobalt blue thermal baths. Just what we needed to rejuvenate the mind and body for the impending second bout with Mt. Yufu. Would the weather finally clear?

Early on the morning of the 27th, we awoke to a rare sight in northern Kyushu: a cloudless sky. Even our target peak remained suspiciously free of white mist. Our climbing window had just opened, but for how long we knew not. The bus shuttled us to the trailhead at the reasonable start time of 9am. We weren’t taking Yufu lightly this time around.

The golden meadows at the start of the hike glowed sweetly in the early morning light, framed nicely by the white-capped rocks of Yufu’s impressive edifice. We steadily weaved through the forest, enjoying the quiet sounds of nature away from the crowds. Once we hit the trail junction, the 42 switchbacks began, but Kanako and I marched triumphantly towards the treeline. Good weather makes everything better.

The crater rim was reached shortly before 11am, and we faced our biggest challenge: snow-covered rock faces. I laid the question on Kanako quite frankly: “Which peak do you want to climb first, the easy one or the intimidating one?”. The reply came as swiftly as our advancing climb: “The intimidating one, of course”.

By now a few other hikers had made their way to the junction, but only one other brave soul followed our pursuit of the west peak. Luck was definitely on our side, as the warm temperatures had melted the ice on the tricky footholds, making the ascent a little less deadly. It was still just as intimidating as the first time around, with the added hurdle of actually being able to see the vertical drops on either side of the jagged ridge.

Once out of the chain-laden vertigo zone, the final coast to the high point was absolutely breathtaking, with uninterrupted panoramic views in all directions. We took a quick summit snap before retreating back to the junction for our lunch break. For, as beautiful as the summit was, there was no place to sit without being enveloped in snow and mud.

Yufu’s smaller twin, the east peak, towered mightily above as we navigated the frozen switchbacks of the northern face with great caution. Even though our first peak was more technically challenging, we had our own work cut out for us kick-stepping safe footholds in the ice. Once on the ridge, the sun aided us in the traverse, thawing the remaining patches of frozen rocks just below the peak. Again, we took a quick summit shot before strapping on the crampons for the harrowing descent through the ice field. Others had started edging their way up the frozen path without the added assistance of climbing irons. Kanako and I made a rule of carrying our crampons on any hike between the months of October and May. Lessons learned from being caught off-guard too many times in the past.

Once safely returned to the junction, we flew back down to the treeline, passing a group of 14 rather attractive young females led by an elderly guide. Perhaps the hiking boom among the 20-something crowd isn’t such a bad thing after all.

Our next goal for the day was the conical summit of Iimorigajou, which was knocked off after a short 20-minute climb. We tried resting on the summit but the winds had picked up considerably, dropping temperatures down to the freezing point. “Hot spring?”, I suggested. Kanako rose with renewed vigor upon this suggestion and literally flew off into the golden fields towards Takemoto.

This section of trail had seen much better maintenance than my initial trip there, with new signposts and a welcome trimming of the grass. Yufu’s twin peaks stared down at us as if to yelp out a friendly greeting, yet they seemed so daunting. Had we really been up both peaks earlier in the day?

Once we entered the forest, the lure of the hot springs became too much to bear, as both of us picked up the pace. We hit the town around 4pm, grabbed a quick bowl of udon, and dropped by for a soothing soak on the way back to the hostel. Mt. Yufu truly showed her gentle side on our successful mission, and we both knew how lucky we were to visit on such a rare occasion. Now, if we can just convince our nemesis Mt. Kuju to be just as cooperative…

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Mt. Yufu soars majestically from its base at the scenic hot spring town of Yufuin, rightfully earning the nickname of Bungo Fuji by pre-Meiji era pundits. Cloud clung tightly to the twin peaks on the summit as I munched down on chicken tempura in a eatery next to the bus terminal. I boarded the 1pm bus for the trailhead and hoped for the best.

The first part of the trail tramped through a vast meadow of lush green hay, with views of Yufu’s mighty figure directly ahead. If it weren’t for the clouds the peak would look even taller than it currently stood, hovering over the meadows like a volcanic version of godzilla. Intimidating it was in the afternoon breeze.

After the meadows the trail slipped into the forest, past an old toilet block and into a thick canopy of deciduous trees, which sheltered me from the rain that began to fall from the sky. Here I was without any rain gear and faced with a dilemma: turn around now and have a second go at Yufu the following day, or tough it out and see where it takes me. I’m always a fan of spontaneity so it was obvious which option I chose.

The rain let up a bit after reaching the junction at Gouyagoshi, where half a dozen Self-Defense Force soldiers were looking over a map. “Be careful up there,” explained the leader, “the summit rocks are slippery.” Apparently they were speaking from first-hand experience, as I later found out that the peak is a popular training ground for the unit stationed at the nearby military base.

Up through a maze of switchbacks I scurried, looking for the safest way up to the summit, which was fairly easy since there was only one way to the top. As I reached the treeline, the precipitation halted completely and the sun poked its head through the clouds. I knew then that I’d made the right choice, with ever expanding views revealing themselves with each advancing step.

Just before the crater rim I disappeared into the clouds, resting at the junction just below the twin peaks. I had two choices: either the straightforward climb on my right to the top of the east peak (Higashi-mine), or the no-nonsense scramble on my left to the official high point of the west peak (Nishi-mine). When in doubt always head west my dear.

I soon found myself standing at the bottom of a long series of metal chains. “So this is what those military guys were on about,” I cursed, gripping the slippery silver links with my left hand. The path was quite slippery and here I was all alone in a tempest of white cloud and strong winds. After the first challenging climb, the path dropped to another set of boulders, where a tricky horizontal traverse awaited. I’ve done my fair share of frightening climbs in the Alps but I must say that this one really made the hairs stand on on my legs. Heart pumping, hands shaking, I grabbed the links, spinning 45-degrees up and over a sheer vertical drop before finding my footing on the other side. One slip here and I would most definitely need to be airlifted out.

Yufu relented a bit after that challenging scramble and I soon found myself sitting on the high point of the volcano. I snapped a quick photo before retracing my steps back through the labyrinth of chains, which were even scarier on the descent. I collapsed back at the junction in a heap of sweat and adrenaline. On the way back down the mountain I started counting the switchbacks, only to be met by a Japanese couple on their way up to the peak. It turns out the husband-and-wife team were also counting the switchbacks, but their numbers were surely off. I think they were counting a 360-degree change of direction as one complete switchback instead of the usual 180-degree turn. Anyone want to shed light on which on is correct? I counted at least 40 different changes of direction in my 20-minute jog back down to the base of the peak.

Once back at the junction where I’d met the Self-Defense men, I tried my luck at climbing the grassy cone of Iimorigajou, a short but incredibly steep climb just south of the restpoint. As I stood among the fresh greenery, admiring the bird’s eye views of Yufuin in the valley below, I raised my hands in sheer joy: it doesn’t get much better than this.

On my map, I spied a trail back into town which did not require the assistance of a bus, so westward I continued on the aptly named western trail, which weaved through the stunning grasslands as trails in Scotland are apt to do. I truly felt as if I were suddenly transported to a different climate, snaking smoothly through the overgrown pastures like a shepherd searching for its lost flock.

By the time I reached the forest it was nearly 5pm, so I quickened the pace, arriving in town a short time later. After a quick bath at the thatched-roof waters of Shitanyu on the shores of Kirinko, I strolled through town back to the train station, just in time to meet the hostel proprietor, who drove me to my waiting accommodation. Mt. Yufu was incredibly impressive, but I knew that I must return to see the summit views unobstructed by cloud formations. I knew winter afforded my best chance for that opportunity.

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