Archive for April, 2012

Full details/logistics of this traverse can be found in my guidebook


I crossed Kappabashi bridge under perfect skies on the morning of August 6th, 2002, heading up the narrowing valley towards the hut at Dake-sawa. The first couple of hours to the hut weren’t bad, considering the size and weight of my pack, which contained over a week’s worth of food, a 3-season tent, and a 4-season sleeping bag. I sat on the steps of the hut, drinking cool, refreshing mountain water and studying the maps. The contour lines became tighter from here on up, so I knew I had my work cut out for me. Switchbacks galore, through the ever-thinning forest. My only consolidation was looking back at the red roof of Kamikochi Imperial Hotel to gauge my progress. Clouds rolled in ever so gracefully as I reached the top of the ridge, where I could finally see my first target peak.

By top of the ridge, I should clarify that it meant the top of the false ridge, for once at the top you still had to descend down to a cirque and up another steep incline to reach Mt. Mae-hotaka and the true start of my home for the next week. It was well past noon as I entered the final climb, passing hoards of hikers who’d just come off the highest peak in the Kita Alps. The oxygen thinned with each advancing step, and the brisk summer gales dried my sweat faster than it could accumulate. On top of Mae-hotaka, a 60-something gentleman stood out clearly against the rugged rocks of the exposed summit. Nearly two weeks prior, he’d set off from the Sea of Japan on his way to complete a full traverse of the Northern, Central, and Southern Alps, a daunting task that would take another 2 or 3 weeks to complete. It made my lowly 1-week trek seem trivial in comparison. We exchanged handshakes as a token of luck for both of our ongoing journeys.

The walk up to Oku-hotaka was a breeze compared to infinitely long climb from the valley below, but the clouds rolled in, cutting off views in all direction. I thought it’d be a short descent to Hotaka-sanso and I was right. It was short, but the fog concealed the vertical drops that would’ve killed me if I had slipped. 200 vertical meters are lost at the drop of a dime, through an area laden with metal chains and ladders. Just above the final drop to the hut lies a series of vertical ladders, which is not what the knees needed after a grueling day. I slowly lowered myself to the hut vestibule, paid the modest camping fee, and set up my lean-to tent just below the helipad. How on earth people can camp here in inclement weather is beyond me, but luckily the rain kept itself at bay in the thick mist of dusk. Would the weather hold out for day 2, the trickiest and most dangerous section of ridge?



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My day-off, if you can all it that, consisted of a 10km walk on a deserted road through farmland to reach an isolated beach on the southwestern tip of Iriomote Island. Here I found hundreds of hermit crabs, nestled together in tightly knit communities along the sandy bank of a river. The morning rain had finally let up, but thick cloud hung all around, turning the aquamarine waters of the East China sea into a dreary hue of charcoal gray. The guides back at the guesthouse later informed me that a handful of explorers each year traverse the western tip of the inaccessible island by following the sandy beaches at low tide for a couple of days before darting into the jungle along a ridge to connect with the isolated port town of Funauki. One day perhaps, I dreamed, one day.

The remainder of my rest day involved an impromptu lunch with some migrant sugarcane farmers, followed by a short hitch that left me at the terminus of the Iriomote Grand Traverse I’d cut short on the previous day. I can only imagine this to be some kind of omen. Perhaps I will be back here in the not-to-distant future to complete the traverse.

The next morning, I awoke to another day of warm sunshine and clear skies. A peak would definitely have to be scaled this afternoon, and I was torn between either Utsun or Geeda waterfalls. Both had their challenges. While the trail to Utsun was clearly marked and well-tramped, it was rumored to be infested with river leeches. Geeda, on the other hand, had no distinct trail but at least it was free from the blood-sucking worms. Deciding I’d had enough bleeding for one trip, I went for the latter, soliciting climbing advice from my trusty guide Masato before jumping on my rented bicycle for the long journey to the trailhead.

The biggest advantage to having one’s own transport is that you can stop wherever you like and explore secluded inlets. This I did with liberal indulgence, not arriving at the entrance to Geeda until just before 2pm. To my utter surprise, a well-worn path weaved through the jungle. Just when I was starting to wonder if a trail had finally been built, the path teetered out, right in the middle of the river! I was warned that this was a sawa-nobori route. As much as I love river climbing, I was completely unprepared gear-wise, but rubber sandals would have to do. I spend most of the initial climb trying to avoid slipping on the moss-covered rocks. The river banks, while providing a dry alternative, proved to be slow-going. I was better off just sticking to the middle of the river, where hidden rocks threatened to break my toes.

After 15 minutes of climbing  I saw a family of 3 approach from upstream. The father led, followed by his 8-year old son. Rounding out the group stood the young, attractive wife, all of whom were fully suited in the latest climbing gear. “No wonder they were smiling,” I shrieked. A mental note was made to buy some wetsuit booties upon my return to Osaka. Continuing upstream, I hopped from bank to bank eying for the best approach. Eventually, the roar of Geeda’s might 3-tiered beauty came into earshot. The family told me to climb the trail on the left bank of the river. After scurrying through the jungle for a few minutes, I found a piece of red tape dangling from an overhanging branch. Time to see what this river has to offer.

The route was fairly easy going to the top of the first tier. I sat on the rocks admiring the views out to sea, and thought about what life must be like to live on this island. Would I climb up here every week, or save it for once a month? Would I ever get bored of living on this island? Could a night hike to this location be possible? The scenarios replayed over and over in my head like a Talking Heads CD on repeat.

Climbing to the second tier, however, proved to be a challenge beyond belief. Climbing up to the base of cliff, the path involved climbing vertically up the roots of a small tree before grabbing a rope and pulling oneself up and over an incredibly large boulder. Once over the that boulder you can drop down to the flat place at the top of the falls, where the final tier flows down the rock face before plummeting straight below. Here the views out to sea were even more mesmerizing than before.

The path from the 2nd to the true top of Geeda waterfall turned out to be the trickiest move yet. After a short scramble, the trail abruptly vanished at the base of a near-vertical cliff face. There appeared to be a faint trace shooting straight up the damp, moss-covered rocks, but that would be impossible with my current set-up. For one, I had no rope or harness. And second, I was in sandals. If I slipped here I’d surely break a few bones or worse. Sometimes you just need to be content with the views at hand. Wisely, I stepped back away from the death trap and back down to the bottom of the first falls.

A congratulatory swim was definitely in order. I stripped, jumping head first into the frigid waters. The return trip back to the start of the hike came much easier than the approach, thanks largely to my newly formed strategy. Why try to navigate over slippery rocks when you can just swim your way back? Thus, I simply tucked my dry clothes into my back and marched through the waist deep waters. At one point I tripped over a rock, falling face first into the refreshing waters, which normally wouldn’t have caused much concern except for the camera mounted on my shoulder strap! As I pulled my camera out of the waters, I tried to think about how the guesthouse staff would react when I told them the dehumidifier would be required again?

Once back at my bicycle, I left my camera in the sun for about 10 minutes, which seemed to do the trick, for I had a functional camera once again. Tomorrow the ferry would take me back to Ishigaki island, but I knew that my newly formed relationship with Iriomote was just beginning. I still needed to see Utsun waterfall, have another crack at the Grand Traverse, and head up to Mt. Komi, the highest peak on the island. Hmmm…..

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