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?