Every summer, from roughly mid-June to the middle of July, a stationary front settles in over the western half of Japan, bringing long periods of uninterrupted rainfall. Known in Japanese as the tsuyu (plum rains), this torrential rain can often bring landslides, flooding, and treacherous hiking conditions. There’s a public holiday called Marine Day that is conveniently placed at the end of this wet spell. Mother Nature, however, doesn’t necessarily decide to move her weather front out of the archipelago on exactly the same day every year, which can leave hikers in a bit of a predicament. So started my quest to climb the highest mountain west of the Japan Alps.
The overnight bus pulled into Kanazawa station, where I searched out for the bus stop to Bettodai , the starting point for the long climb up Hakusan, whose Chinese characters translate as White Mountain. Known for its deep drifts in the winter, the peak is a straightforward climb up a steep valley filled with wonderful flowers and lingering patches of snow. As the bus raced up the valley towards the trailhead, the rivers flowed in a torrent of chocolate brown, the dams overflowing with debris amidst a thundering roar of whitewater. The rain continued to fall steadily as a looked around at the half a dozen other passengers. After disembarking, I headed to the small shelter of the bus stop, put on the rain gear, and marched steadily towards the treeline. My plan was simple: hike up to the high point and head south along the ridge, pitching camp at the flatlands of Nanryu.
A third of the way up, I ran into my first group of nylon-clad hikers. “Oh your pack is way too loose”, quipped the fearless middle-aged leader. Grabbing the load lifters, he pulled on them as tightly as they would go, unaware that I was intentionally wearing them loose to keep the weight off my shoulders and onto my hips. I let out a gentle squeal, grimaced as inconspicuously as I could, dropping the pack off my torso the minute the group started on the trail ahead of me. I intentionally gave them an extra long head start lest I bumped into them again and Mr. know-it-all tried to offer more backpacking tips. The higher up the valley I headed, the thicker the cloud cover. Soon I disappeared from view all-together, stumbling across a decrepit-looking emergency shelter in the flower fields before Murodo. Resting briefly, I munched on some chocolate to help restore the stamina. I had hardly slept on the overnight bus, and the constant frigid rain meant any breaks were life-threatening. After what seemed like an eternity, the trail I was on ran head-long into the large hut and temple complex just below the high point of Gozen-hou. The temperature was hovering around freezing, with a strong wind blowing rain every direction imaginable. I couldn’t fathom having to camp in this dreadful weather, so I did what any sensible mountaineer would have done and checked into the hut. Since I wasn’t having meals, the hut staff directed me to an adjacent building, where I joined a dozen or so other brave souls who were cooped up for the night. After warming myself with a hot cup of tea, I ventured back out into the murk to reach the summit, officially checking mountain #18 off the list.
The next day the weather fared no better, but in my stubbornness I kept with the program and headed up and over Mt. Bessan anyway. The trail dropped for an hour or so to Nanryu, where the hut and campsite lay exposed to the wicked wind and fiery rains. I had to keep moving to stay warm, so I sped past the hut and up the ridge towards the exposed rocks of my target peak’s bare figure. I only encountered one other soul, who, crouched behind a rock just shy of the top, warned me of the dangers: “strong wind, cold”. I was in my red nylon super rainsuit, but knew he must have been suffering in his plaid shirt and wrinkled cotton vest. I continued along the ridge as if in a trance, reaching the emergency hut on the other side of San-no-mine just before 3pm. Dropping my gear, I sat on the wooden sleeping platform, took a deep breath, and declared that I would walk no further that day. I had a dry and warm place to sleep, and my only other option was to descend to the valley below and camp in what must surely be a swampland. My only predicament was where to find water. Grabbing my water filter, I went around the back of the hut and started trying to pump rain water from some nearby puddles. I had only managed to get about 200ml of liquid before giving up in frustration. “There has to be a snowfield around here,” I exclaimed. With a new sense of urgency, I went into hunting mode, scanning the fog-covered horizon in search of a sign of snow. Unfortunately, snow and fog happen to be nearly the same hue of white, so my only option was to find with my feet what I couldn’t sense with my eyes. Climbing the crest of a hill behind the hut, I shot down the other side, slipping on a patch of slushy white gold. Snow! And remarkably close to the hut as well. I filled up a pot full of frozen crystals and went to work, melting enough snow for not only tonight’s dinner, but enough to see me off the mountain the following day.
No other souls presented themselves at the hut the rest of the day. I cooked, cleaned and organized, collapsing in my sleeping bag shortly after the darkness enveloped the mountain. Listening to the sounds of the steady rain ricocheting off the metal roof, I silently praised myself for my decision to overnight here. The rain continued on well into the next morning, as I kept thinking of excuses to delay my departure. Eventually the thoughts of a warm bath proved too great to refuse, and I slipped out of my warm home and down the steep spur into the forest. I stumbled across several large snakes who were probably not used to have their stomping grounds invaded. The trail looked as if it had received only a handful of visitors this year alone, but thankfully there were enough signposts to make things navigable. Once at the campground, I peered at the bus timetable only to discover that it had been discontinued! I was in the middle of nowhere and a long way from anything, but at least the rain had finally let up. No cars to hitch a ride from, and no one to ask for directions. I knew the hot spring lie at the bottom of this valley, but walking there on a sealed asphalt road in the mist was easily of the worst things I had done in my short time in Japan. It took nearly 2 hours before I reached the bathhouse, which fortunately was open. I had a relaxing bath while trying to sort out the bus, which didn’t seem to be running today. In fact, there didn’t seem to be much traffic at all. The bath owner suggested that I should try to hitch out of there, so after my cleansing I walked out to the main road and stuck out my thumb. A prefectural utility truck pulled over and ushered me in. “There’s no train, so you’ll have to take a bus”, advised the government workers. They were out clearing debris from the road and warned me of the mudslides that had hit other parts of the prefecture. At Echigo-Ono station, I boarded an empty bus bound for Fukui station, but still couldn’t understand why I couldn’t take the train.
The bus scooted along abandoned roads, following a heavily swollen river that had emptied its contents into the neighboring villages. The locals were sweeping water and mud out of their homes and storefronts. Apparently while I was braving the elements at Murodo, the river jumped the banks and flooded not only Fukui city, but most of the houses between there and Echizen-Ono. To make matters worse, the train line lie in a twisted contortion along the banks of the river, stripped of its foundations. I now knew the reason for the lack of trains, and wondered if such a rural line with only 1 track would ever get rebuilt. I considered myself extremely lucky to have been able to make it out of there at all. If the flood waters had crested only a few days later, then I surely would have been trapped.
White Mountain gave me nothing but trouble. I’ve heard it’s a lovely peak. There are even some scenic volcanic lakes dotted around the summit, but I never got to experience the beauty of the place. Perhaps a re-visit is in order, but only during the dry season.