“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.