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Archive for June, 2012

“Hi Wes”, echoed the voice through the faint darkness of the pre-dawn light. A lone female figure gently approached my alpine kitchen, presenting a handful of rice crackers as if making an offer to a deity. “Yuka”, I screamed, stunned beyond belief that I would run into one of my students here, 2400 meters above sea level and hundreds of kilometers from home. We chatted for a few minutes while the rest of her wandervogel club members broke down camp. In the summer you run into a lot of these university mountaineering circles, who usually carry enormous packs and hog most of the sacred camp space by setting up 12-man tents! A few of her fellow club members joined in the conversation before the group chugged like a freight train through the gentle meadows of Kumanodaira. I was headed in the opposite direction, back above the tree line for the rest of the day, but this chance encounter gave me the energy boost I needed and helped keep my mind off the sad state of my scab-encrusted knees.

The first half an hour of tramping was fairly easy going. Once I reached Yakushi-daira, I had my first and only mobile phone coverage of the entire trip. Nowadays with the right smart phone you can get uninterrupted coverage in most of the Japan Alps, but a decade ago your only contact with the outside world was with the mountain hut staff, who had radio contact with their main office in the towns below. I spent a few minutes clearing my inbox of messages, called my roommate to let her know I was safe, and packed up the device just before disappearing into thick cloud. There would be no breathtaking views of Yakushi’s unique landscape. Instead, I’d see that all-too-familiar white background. The ridges of the Alps looks pretty much the same when caked in fog – a repetitive mix of ankle-high brush pine, alpine flora clinging tightly to whatever soil could be grasped between the endless field of burrito-sized rocks. On the summit I met one other hiker armed with an instant camera who offered to snap a summit proof. This photo would come in handy later on the traverse when encountering other hikers inquiring about the weather conditions.

Somewhere on the ridge between Yakushi and Kita-Yakushi the skies opened up as I scrambled to put on the rain cover. The rain came down in sheets, soaking me to the bone. All I could do was to push on, hoping to drop back down to the tree line before hypothermia set in. “I thought the rainy season was over”, I repeatedly mumbled to myself. Mid-August is generally a time of stable high-pressure that tends to bring favorable climbing conditions to Japan’s loftier peaks. Someone forgot to relay this information to Toyama Prefecture. After a few hours of trance-like slogging, I arrived at Sugo-nokkoshi hut in unexpected sunshine. It was sometime in the early afternoon, and once I’d set up home and cooked a modest meal the second round of rains swept through the campsite. 20 minutes later I popped out of my shelter only to be greeted by a rainbow.

My neighbors in the campground had just completed their first day of alpine trekking. They had started in Tateyama earlier in the day, and with their unbelievably quick pace they’d likely make it to Mt. Yari by the time it would take me to arrive in Murodo. Still, it was comforting to know that my destination was only 1 day away if I really pushed myself. All of that would depend on what nature threw at me the following day. With dreams of sunshine and blue skies I drifted off to sleep, trying to rest up my sore knees for the final push to Tateyama’s sacred abode.

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The rain continued on and off throughout the chilly night, the tent fly rustling continuously in the steady winds like a flag perched high on a ship mast. Early the next morning I boiled water for oatmeal inside the tent, thinking of every possible excuse to delay my impending assault on Mt. Kurobegoro, the giant peak that loomed somewhere above the now-deserted campsite. I came up with a makeshift plan: pack up everything while still inside the tent, put on my shoes, jump out of the tent, roll it up into one large messy ball, tie it to the outside of my pack, and march off into the sunset. If only things could be so easy.

The first struggle came after breaking down camp, when I realized my waterproof pack cover wouldn’t fit over the bulging vinyl of the tent freshly strapped to the side of my pack. Even though the rain had stopped, the heavy cloud brought drizzle that could easily soak my entire kit if left exposed. In came plan B, which involved stuffing the tent in the small gap between the top of my pack and my head, forming a makeshift pillow. The only problem with this is that I physically couldn’t reach around and do it myself once I had put my pack on. Luckily, someone at the hut came to my rescue, securing my gear steadily in place. Of course this meant that I wouldn’t be able to take off my pack at all until arriving at my next destination.

So up I went, back above the tree line into the suffocating cloud. The next couple of hours involved a marching ascent through what I’ve been told is one of the most picturesque cirques in all of the Kita Alps, but all I saw was a alternating pattern of rock and snow.   Eventually I reached the junction just below the high point. Turning left I topped out on the summit of Kurobegoro, my 6th Hyakumeizan, and turned around to admire the endless array of peaks directly behind me. Even though I could only see 1 meter in front of me, I tried to imagine what I should have been viewing if mother nature had decided to reward me with some decent weather! Dejected, I pushed on in silence. An hour further down the ridge, through a steep, heavily eroded gully, I popped out of the clouds, and got my first views in 3 days. Directly in front of me, a thousand meters below, sat the pristine shores of Lake Arimine. Further east, I could follow the contours of the ridge line all the way to Tarobei hut, where I’d planned to spend the night. Beyond, the mountains rose again to a thick bank of white, obstructing my view of Mt. Yakushi, which I had in mind for the following day. The views helped brighten the mood, as I coasted along the well-worn ridge to campsite on the saddle between the hut and the long climb to Yakushi.

After paying the caretaker of the campground, I scurried through the rock-filled area, searching for the perfect place to pitch my tent. Alas, on the other side of the clearing sat a perfect place to call home for the night, and in my excited haste I neglected to check my footing. Suddenly, as if pushed by a supernatural force, my left ankle caught the guy-wire holding up a massive 10-man tent. Instantly I was sent airborne, landing on my belly with the full force of my heavy pack sandwiching me on the rocks. My knees absorbed most of the impact, sending shockwaves through my body and contorting my face into a grimaced caricature. Instantly the tent occupants rushed outside to my assistance as the screams of pain echoed through the valley. Two guys unstrapped my gear as another two helped me to my feet and escorted me back up the hill to the medical clinic inside Tarobei hut.

“Just some surface wounds”, replied the medic, who patched me up and sent me on my way after a speedy 15-minute examination. Even though the medical service is free, they do request a 2000 yen “donation” to help cover costs. Still, getting a wound properly treated in the alpine is much better than risking an infection. The rest of the afternoon I lazed away at the tent village, chatting with other hikers about the long traverse to Tateyama that lay before me. I was at the halfway point in traverse, both in terms of distance and time, and could only hope that my newly-battered knees would mend in time to complete the man-powered voyage.

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