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Archive for July, 2012

Sometime after dawn broke, I awoke to find my sleeping bag completely submerged in a puddle of water that had formed at the bottom of my tent. Though the rains had abated, I still faced a dilemma about what to do with my useless canvas bed. I ate, organized gear, and set off in complete silence, a true sign of low morale. I’m sure Goshiki-ga-hara is a spectacular place in perfect weather, but in the early morning fog the scenery looked the same as every other day on this godforsaken trek. I definitely needed something to snap me out of this bitter mood.

As the trail left the flats and climbed towards Ryuuou-dake, something miraculous happened. All of a sudden, just like an airplane climbing to cruising altitude, I broke out above the clouds and had my first views above the treeline since the summit of Mt. Yari five days earlier. Directly in front of me, Tateyama’s horse-shaped ridge towered above the Kurobe valley far below, and all those ill feelings bottled up inside vanished in the mist, the smile finally returning to my glum complexion. On the bald summit of Mt. Jodo I took my first break of the morning and admired the lingering snowfields scattered across the alpine plains like the sand traps of a massive golf course. From here the trail drops directly to the main saddle below Tateyama and meets up with the main trail coming up from Murodo.

At the beginning of the long descent I run into a foreign male, my second of the entire trip. He was on his way to Kamikochi, along the same route I had just completed. What knowledge could I possibly share about a route I had hardly even seen? The best I could conjure up was a hearty “Good Luck” before continuing on the trail. Ten meters later I tripped on a rock, flipped forward, bounced off the back of my pack, and somehow landed upright, which likely prevented me from rolling down the rest of my trail like a runaway tire. This stumble could have been avoided if I had trekking poles with me. Another lesson learned on this never-ending trek.

Once at the saddle, I ran into crowds the likes of which I had not seen since Kamikochi. Several hundred vertical meters down on my left I could make out the bus terminal at Murodo, one of the most popular entry points to the Kita Alps. The climb up to the shrine took just 15 minutes, as I passed by heaps of daytrippers gasping for breath. I had over a week to acclimatize while most of them had only just arrived from sea level. At the shrine I took a brief break before pushing on along the ridge to the official highpoint of Mt. Onanji. I took a quick snapshot before being swallowed by the advancing cloud. The rest of the ridge to Bessan was once again in that all-familiar backdrop of white. I wasted no time in dropping to Tsurugi-Gozen hut and finally down through the snow fields to the tent city of Tsurugi-sawa, where I unsuccessfully tried to dry my sleeping bag in the cold mountain mist.

This drizzle soon turned into a full rain storm, as I once again retreated to the toilet block, which was smaller and stinkier than the one at Goshiki. What did I do to deserve the wrath of Mother Nature? An hour or so into the rain storm, a man approached me and asked in clear English if I needed a helicopter rescue. Either he was out for a quick buck (copter rescues in Japan are astronomically expensive) or he somehow knew the sorry state of my gear. I politely declined and eventually crawled into my tent. Using my wet sleeping bag as a ground sheet, I rigged up my large pack to serve as a dry, albeit very uncomfortable bed.

It was going to be a long night, but the last one I would have to spend in discomfort.

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From Sugo-norikoshi campsite, the peaks rise from the earth as if pulled up by Ninigi no Mikoto himself. Through the translucent rays of the rainbow and whispy clouds I could just make out the path leading up and over the horse-like contours of Mt. Ecchuzawa, which checks in at just under 2600m above sea level. This route is a breeze in favorable conditions, but those of you who have followed this saga from Day 1 will note my penchant for attracting horrendous weather.

So it was under heavy cloud that I broke down camp and started on my ascent into the unknown. Although dry, the sky looked as if it would empty its bladder at any moment. I raced up to Sugonokashira in my signature blue singlets with a rare smile on my lips. For cloudy as it was, the fog had stayed away, offering favorable views towards the south. My destination, however, was to the north, where a blanket of white cut off everything in sight. You really weren’t expecting anything less, were you?

The maps say to allow at least 6 hours from Sugonorikoshi to Goshiki-ga-hara but you can easily add an hour or two when trying to navigate the tight squeezes with an oversized pack. There were a few places where I physically had to dismount and drag my gear behind me. After a week on the trails, boulder scrambling tends to wear on your nerves a bit, and the chains were a reminder to not let the mind drift off too carelessly. Once out of harm’s way, I started the long descent towards Goshiki, where I had to make several important decisions. The hut at Goshiki has a warm bath, my first chance of washing my body since leaving the river in Kamikochi a week before. While tempting, there was also the other option of giving it all I had, pushing on another half a day and actually reaching Tateyama, where a real hot spring awaited.

While these scenarios played themselves over and over in my delirious head, nature had decided to make the decision much easier for me by dropping buckets of cold liquid across the trail. The rain that now enveloped my alpine surroundings had made the previous storms on my trip seem like drizzle. I hastily strapped on the pack cover, threw on the rain jacket and coasted down to Goshiki hut. Once inside, I ordered a hot bowl of udon, my first and only hut-cooked meal of the entire traverse. After wolfing down the noodles, I inquired at reception about being able to have a bath. “I’m sorry, baths are only for customers staying in the hut”, replied the gruff gentlemen, who’d obviously grown weary of turning away campers. My heart sank below my bowels as I sat back on the bench and consulted my finances. In my wallet lie 12,000 yen. A bath would cost a minimum of 6000 yen (the cost of staying in the hut without meals), which would leave me 6000 yen to not only get off Murodo, but catch a train back to Osaka. On the contrary, a night in my tent would set me back only 500 yen. Rationality prevailed as I put down my coin and sulked my way down to the campsite.

I set up my tent in the rain and retreated to the toilets to wait out the storm. My tent, if you could call it that, was nothing more than a glorified lean-to, with only one tent pole in the center. Both ends had to be staked down, and once inside you could do very little other than lie flat on your back and look up at the canvas ceiling. All of the other tents I’d seen on this trip had plenty of head room, where occupants could leisurely sit up, play cards with their tentmates, and wile away the time while sitting out the storm. Claustrophobic my dwelling was, so I simply sat at the edge of the foul-smelling concrete bunker and pouted. I was not a happy camper and longed for nothing more than a hot bath and a home-cooked meal. Eventually nature called for most of the campers, so I was able to pass the time by first startling them by sitting like a cold, lost soul in the toilets, and finally making small talk by inquiring about trail conditions to Tateyama.

The small talk seemed to help, for the leader of yet another wandervogel club came to the rescue and offered a 1kg bag of uncooked white rice as a kind token. I guess my lack of supplies must have gotten out to other campers, as I was presented an apple by an elderly woman a few moments later. The smile slowly returned to my ailing complexion and I chomped on the fruit and watched the torrential rain fall unabated. Eventually dusk settled in, and I hurriedly retrieved my cooking gear from my home and cooked up some of the white rice in the toilet, which turned into the consistency of porridge because I couldn’t be bothered trying to measure the proper amount of water without a light source. Belly stuffed, I left my cooking gear as is in the restroom and settled in for a long night of fitful sleep. Would this nightmare weather ever end?

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