“Are you going to bring your rain gear?”, shouts Paul from the other side of the tent. Looking around at the blue skies surrounding the alpine peaks, and the paltry 20 percent chance of rain forecast for the day, I reply in the negative. After all, with clear views of our target peak all morning, and no wind to speak of, how could the weather possibly change?
And with that, the two explorers set off from camp, armed with a fresh map and a few snacks. As we turned from the road to the trail, the temperature suddenly started to drop and the sun disappeared behind clouds that were concealed above a thick forest canopy. It definitely felt like rain was on the way, but perhaps we’d be lucky enough to miss the worst of it. It was Paul’s first time to climb the only active volcano in the Kita Alps, and it was my first chance to check out the route from Kamikochi, which became steeper with each ascending footprint.
After an hour of hiking, Paul and I reached a clearing at the base of a set of cliffs. We wondered which way the trail would go, spying the rocks above for a hint. “Straight ahead,” pointed my companion. We could just make out the throngs of a long aluminum ladder, bolted to a neighboring rock formation. As we reached the vertical climb, a lone Japanese hiker started the vertigo-inducing descent. One slip here would be deadly. I knew the climb up would be a breeze, but I dreaded the inevitable – having to come down that thing later in the day.
Once past the ladder, the path entered alpine territory, with an array of colorful flowers in full bloom, and a meandering trail laden with switchbacks. It was somewhere around here that the skies started to open up, turning from drizzle to an all out downpour. Now I really was starting to regret my foolish decision to leave the rain gear in the valley below.
We rested briefly at the hut until the rain abated. From the hut the path climbed on the true ridge of the mountain range, reaching a lookout point in about 10 minutes or so. Steam from volcanic vents rose up mysteriously in the murk and from the pumice boulders strewn carelessly about. This would not be a good place to be in an eruption, so I silently prayed Yake would not decide to belch while we were visiting. From here the trail drops steeply to a saddle and starts the final, relentless climb to the summit.
This would be as far as I ventured, however, as the skies erupted in a downpour much heavier than before. The clouds hung thick to Yake’s conical figure, as the rain penetrated my thin layers instantaneously. I’d been up Yake in preciously the same conditions before, and a revenge climb doesn’t make much sense when the view is blocked by clouds. I sent Paul off to the summit alone, while I gracefully retreated back to the hut. Once there, I ducked inside and ordered some instant noodles. We had no food in our packs other than a few bags of mixed nuts, and I was starving. I waited out the rain in the luxury of the hut while chatting with another solo climber who’d just come from Nishi-hotaka hut.
An hour later, the rain once again stopped and I headed back up to the lookout point in search of Paul. Mt. Yake drifted in and out of cloud as another man stood by the rocks, searching for his hiking partners. It seems that I wasn’t the only one who gave up on the summit attempt. After 15 minutes or so, 3 figures appeared on the crest of the ridge back down to the saddle. We shouted to them and they replied by waving their arms. I couldn’t remember what color rain gear Paul had on, so I waited patiently for the group to arrive. A young couple eventually wandered up, informing me that my friend was about a half hour behind them. The group worked for one of the hotels in Kamikochi and were up for a bit of a day hike on their holiday. As with the majority of hotel staff in Kamikochi, they were from Kansai. I think the people in Osaka are smart to escape the summer heat and accept employment in a beautiful area with temperatures that barely break 30. They offered me their leftover rice balls, which I gently tucked inside my pack, waiting for Paul’s return to break them out. After bidding farewell, I stood alone on the summit, 2100 meters above sea level, and peered into the murk. A lone figure in green rain gear slowly made its way down the steep trail, meandering as if in a drunken stupor. I yelled up to the ridge line, which seemed to snap Paul out of his contemplative trance. Once we were reunited, I stuffed the rice ball into his waiting fist and asked about the summit climb. “Brutal”, he replied. “I almost gave up after getting lost among the hissing boulders”. Our map marked this trail as difficult to pick up even in good weather, so I wasn’t surprised by the navigability issues.
The rice balls seemed to give up that much needed jolt to get us moving off the mountain. We slid past the hut, down the flower field, and over to the base of that vertical section of ladder. I took a deep breath and slowly lowered myself over the abyss.
I don’t know when I became such a softie when it comes to heights, but I was downright scared when making the 10 meter drop. The trickiest part was about halfway down, when two ladders were tied together. Due to the awkward angle, you couldn’t see your footing at all, and had to trust your instincts. Eventually we both made it through the danger zone and back into the darkened forest. I still had a bit of energy in me, but Paul looked completely zapped and he could barely keep himself on the trail. We took a break at the first available flat area, stretching out our weary knees and finishing off the last of the rations.
From here the walking became much easier, and we soon found ourselves back on the forest road. It was approaching 4pm, and we’d missed our window of opportunity at the hot spring, where the baths closed at 3. To make matters worse, the skies opened up again, soaking my hiking gear that had managed to dry on the descent. The temperatures plummeted, as goose bumps covered my exposed skin. I could definitely use a jacket now, I thought, picking up the pace back to the campsite. Luckily our home had a bath that closed at 7pm, so we jumped right in and thawed out our bodies.
Mt. Yake had definitely won the battle that day, and I couldn’t really call the revenge climb successful, as I’d been robbed of a view of Yake’s elusive emerald green lake. I promised myself that I’d be back for a third round, but this time armed with some rain gear and a decent lunch.