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.