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?