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Archive for May, 2012

The rain came down in a steady rhythm not long after dusk. Fortunately I had already finished cooking and brushed my teeth in the washroom of Sugoroku hut. My face rested just a few inches from the canvas on the tiny tent as condensation covered the rain fly. Below my body lay small pebbles protruding against the vinyl of the tent floor – I had abandoned the luxury of a sleeping pad in order to save pack space, which seemed like a wise choice at the time.

Early the next morning the rain subsided, but thick mist enveloped everything in sight. After gearing up, I hit the desolate trail, foregoing the ridge of Mt. Sugoroku in favor of the sheltered protection of the valley. Picking my way through the boulders and snow fields, I topped out on Mt. Mitsumata-renge, where I met the full force of the gales sweeping over the ridge. Though the rain had dissipated, the moisture in the cloud cover soaked my rain jacket thoroughly, sending shivers down my exposed legs. Just like the past 3 days of my adventure, I’d been hiking in shorts and didn’t even have rain pants among my limited gear inventory.

The next stretch down to Kurobegoro hut was comfortable, since I had descended back down to the tree line and was protected from the elements by the brush pine and deciduous tree cover. I walked as if in a trance though, thinking nothing except for the hunger pangs in my abdomen. Once I reached the hut, I had a crucial decision to make. I could carry on traversing 4 or 5 hours to Yakushi-toge, or pack it in and call it a day. The decision wasn’t really that difficult to make, since I was soaked to the bone, ravishingly parched, and short of stamina. Up until this point I had survived three very long and tough days of hiking, so it only made sense to have a bit of a break. I was the first one to set up camp, shortly before 1pm. After cooking lunch, I drifted off to sleep dreaming of sunshine and a warm breeze. All in all I had hiked less than four hours, but enjoyed my lazy day, even if most of it was spend in the cramped confines of my tent. The rain once again pushed through around 5pm, and didn’t let up until sometime after dark, when I roused myself to hastily cook up some grub before the next squall moved through. Would this low pressure system continue its stronghold on the area, or would fair skies prevail? I had no contact with the outside world: no TV weather forecasts, internet connections, or any instruments for recording barometric pressure. I’d simply have to wake up and deal with whatever mother nature had in store.

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I broke down camp sometime in the early morning of my 3rd day in the backcountry. It’s amazing how quickly you can disassemble everything after a couple of days of practice. The high pressure system once again held up, as I followed the stream through  Yarisawa until the waters petered out into the alpine. The route was well-marked with tape on the creeping pine and yellow paint marks on the rocks. I kept a pretty steady pace, stopping only to replenish my water bottles once they’d been emptied into my dried belly. I’d pretty much put the maps and my watch away, instead relying on the movements of the sun to gauge my progess. Scores of hikers filed down through the valley after catching the first rays of the sun from Yari’s speak-like point. My target peak was clearly visible on the horizon, though it took nearly 5 hours of tough slogging to reach the ridge.

Once at the hut, I dropped my gear off and raced up the chains and ladders to the summit. Luckily, only a handful of people were making their way up the summit, since most trekkers were well on their way to their waiting accommodation by the toll of the midday bells. After a quick summit shot, I backtracked to the hut and ate a lunch of instant noodles. I chatted with a group of university students who were on an excursion through their school’s wandervogel club. They gave me some good advice about the ridge between Yari and Sugoroku hut, my target for the day. “It’s long but the path is easy to follow”, encouraged the leader of the group. After posing for photos, I once again fastened my sagging pack and picked my way through the paint rocks on the main spine of the northern Alps ridge. I soon caught up with 2 men also making the trek to Sugoroku, so it was nice to actually do part of the walk with some companionship for a change. Up until this point I’d passed hundreds of other hikers, but my late starts and awkward decisions meant I’d walked in solitude most of the time. We rolled into camp sometime before 6pm, as I searched for a place to pitch the tent among the city of trekkers. A word of advice for future hikers: the best campsites are usually gone before lunch.

Once settled in, the skies lit up in brilliant colors before the fog rolled in for good. Little did I know how shy these alpine ridges can be in the summer. The cloud usually comes in shortly after sunrise, hangs around most of the day, lifts a little before sunset, and settles back in most of the night before lowering itself to the valley floor before sunrise, only to repeat itself the next day. Of course, that’s the pattern during a period of high pressure, but once the storm systems start to move in, it’s an entirely different story as I was soon about to find out.

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The sound of sizzling vegetables reverberated through the thin walls of Fumito’s family home, as the smells of a pre-dawn morning wafted towards my blocked nose. Slowly I rose, folding up the futon while stuffing my pack full of essentials for the long day ahead. Once in the kitchen, we feasted on grilled rice balls and strong cups of coffee before hitting the road to Tsuchigoya, the starting point for western Japan’s highest peak.

I know what you’re thinking. Haven’t you been here twice already? When a trusty hiking companion opens his home to you, you have little choice but to willfully oblige. Even if it weren’t for the companionship, the chance of finally scaling Ishizuchi on a cloudless day would be too much to pass up. Climbing, however, was not the only task at hand, for Fumito’s father Kiyofumi had a very important task to attend to: spreading the ashes of a close friend and fellow climber who’d perished the year before. How could I refuse?

After a 3-hour drive to the starting point, we unloaded the gear and set off a little past 8 in the morning. This was definitely the earliest start I’d had in quite some time, and I’d simply have to put my fatigue aside. Fumito and I kept a leisurely pace, but we were soon overtaken by Kiyofumi, who must surely have been powered by the spirit of his dear friend whose bones rested beneath his bright blue pack. We only caught up with him at the main junction just below the final push to the peak. Despite the deep blue sky, the horizon was tinged with haze, obstructing the views out to the Inland Sea. Apparently on a clear day you can see Mt. Aso in Kyushu, but we had visibility of less than 20km. Beggars can’t be choosers now, can they?

Kiyofumi set off up the metal stairs towards Misen, while Fumito and I battled the huge crowds for space on the thick metal chains that make Ishizuchi so famous. It was literally elbow-to-elbow traffic up the near vertical rock faces, and both of us prayed no one above would lose their grip, which would surely set off a domino effect that would be the mother of all mountain disasters. At one point we snuck over to a neighboring crevice that did not have any chains, and thankfully there were no other people to maneuver around. Japanese people are renowned for their polite style of queuing, but it literally became a free-for-all in the narrow space around the cliffs. Once reaching the top of the first set of chains, Fumito and I both collapsed from exhaustion, opting to forgo the final set of chains in favor of the metal stairs.

Once on the summit, we literally had to fight for space among the hundred or so people on top, who somehow had all converged at the 11am hour. The wait to climb Mt. Tengu was nearly 30 minutes for all I could tell, though there was no one keeping track and no one in charge of letting people through. Overuse is becoming a monumental problem in Japan’s mountains, especially with the recent hiking boom among the 20 and 30-something crowd. Perhaps the locals could initiate a climbing permit system to give the ecosystem a breather. Somehow I don’t think the mountain huts would allow it though, for they would surely lose money selling their 500 yen bottles of water and overpriced meals.

The wind blew in strong but inconsistent gusts as we struggled to light the fire. The temperature was at least 10 degrees cooler up here, but Fumito knew just what we needed: a dish called zosui that Fumito referred to as Japanese-style risotto. Out of his pack, the budding chef produced 2 ziplock bags of cooked rice, 3 medium strips of kelp, a bag of cut vegetables, a half a kilo of cut chicken, and 4 raw eggs! Before my eyes I witnessed the magic of Japanese cuisine, which easily put any mountain meal I’ve ever cooked to shame. Kiyofumi grabbed a beer from the adjacent mountain hut while I struggled to breathe in the crisp, thin mountain air. My lungs were starting to feel the change from sea level to nearly 2000 meters in less than 6 hours. The zosui was devoured in a third of the time it took to cook, and slowly my stamina returned to my ailing body.

After lunch, Fumito and his father had originally planned to spread the ashes on the summit of Tengu, but because of the intense crowds, they changed tack and headed for a secluded spot on the northern face of Misen. Respecting their privacy, I stayed behind while they paid their respects at the shrine before performing a short ceremony to release the ashes back to nature. Sitting on the summit, I felt deeply moved by the actions of the Hirao family, and I could only hope that someone would do the same thing for me when I cease to become a functioning carbon-based lifeform.

On the way back down the mountain, we were all in good spirits, for the weather had held out and the peaks lay spread out before us. Passing by heaps of other late starters, we offered encouraging greetings and a few high-fives to the kids making their first mountain summit. Fatigued our bodies were, but rejuvenated our spirits became, on a truly successful mission. Perhaps I need to take the old adage ‘Third time’s the charm’ to heart a little more often, though if I truly climbed all of the Hyakumeizan 3 times then someone should surely have me checked out for mental insanity.

 

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Day 2 dawned clear, but my late start meant I had the first climb completely to myself. You see, the sun rises shortly after 4am in summer, but my body screamed for extra rest after the epic climb from Kamikochi the previous day. I opted for the leisurely alarm time of 7am, and awoke to find the campground deserted and hikers well on their way to wherever they were headed. After cooking breakfast and breaking down camp, I started the short climb to the summit of Mt. Karasawa. Cumulus clouds floated strikingly close to the ridge line, but luckily skies to the south were still clear. Mt. Fuji stood out like a thimble on the infinite horizon as I lazily admired the views. From the top of Mt. Karasawa, the trail strangely vanished. I searched all around the summit for the paint marks that would take me down the other side, but they were nowhere in sight. Perhaps I needed to retrace my steps back to the hut? Or maybe….

I heard a faint sound coming from the north ridge. Suddenly, as if appearing from the subterranean depths of hell, rose a bare hand, quickly followed by the torso of a middle-aged woman. She collapsed on the summit next to me, chanting taihen like it were some kind of Buddhist mantra. The rest of her climbing party eventually followed suit. I peered over the edge of the peak in the direction they’d just climbed, only to find a metal chain descending vertically into the depths below. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I screamed, wondering how on earth I was going to lower both myself, and my hefty gear down the precipice. I took 3 deep breaths, turned 180 degrees, and slowly lowered myself, using not only the chains, but also the rock edges for stability. I felt the footholds but could not see them, repeating this painstaking procedure meter by meter until reaching the first landing point. About halfway down, one of my water bottles dislodged itself, plummeting down the abyss into a painless death. Fortunately it did not hit any of the hikers below me waiting to ascend or my hiking days would surely be done.

The ridge continued in this fashion for around 30 minutes before flattening out a little and skirting around more rock formations. The clouds once again swept in, blotting out the death zones just below me. Here, out of the depths came a foreigner from the opposite direction. He had started in Tateyama, and was making his way up the route I’d traversed yesterday. We chatted about 20 minutes, sharing course information and advice. “Watch out in the Daikiretto”, he added ” especially if the cloud is in.” The words could not have been more discouraging. With the clouds came the mist, the damp rocks gradually reaching the color and consistency of a river bed. An hour or so later I arrived at Mt Kita-hotaka and sat on the deck of Kitahotaka-goya, pondering my predicament. Just below my feet lay the entrance to the Daikiretto, a serrated edge of crumbly rock and near-vertical cliff face. Every year a handful of hikers either fall to their death or are critically injured. The crawl from Karasawa-dake to here had completely zapped my confidence, which is exactly what you do not need when faced with a mentally exhausting climb. I came up with an alternative plan. Instead of continuing along the ridge, why not drop back down to the valley and climb Mt. Yari from Yari-sawa? Sure it might add an extra day to the traverse, but surely it’d be safer than tempting fate on the chains and ladders in the daikiretto? And with that I descended, 800 vertical meters to the massive tent city of Karasawa.

From Karasawa, I continued the long descent through Yokoo valley to Yokoo-sanso, where I turned north past Yarisawa Lodge and up to the campsite of the ruins of Yarisawa hut, at 1900 meters above sea level. After pitching the tent and cooking dinner, I drifted off to sleep with the sounds of thunder high on the ridge above. A thunderstorm was ravaging the alpine, but here in the valley everything remained dry. If I’d stayed on the ridge I’d surely be fighting for my life. Sometimes you just need to follow your instincts, and never be afraid to back down from precarious situations. After the drama of the last 2 days, what would day 3 have in store, as I would ascend back to the ridge and up to Mt. Yari?

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