“Don’t climb here!”, gruffed the man in charge. “There will be avalanches”, seconded his supporting officer. Fumito and I were truly busted by the ski patrol this time, climbing out-of-bounds on a 40-degree slope in mid-February. Despite our best intentions of avoiding the crowds, we were being forced back onto the ski slopes and into the path of reckless skiers and wobbly boarders. Thus was our introduction to Kiri-ga-mine, one of the easiest yet trickiest Hyakumeizan to date.
Fumito and I unloaded gear in the parking lot of Kuramayama ski resort shortly before 10am on a cool and cloudy Saturday afternoon. We had spent most of the morning in route from Shirojiri city further north, and had plans to knock off our target peak while the hungry skiers filled the lodges for their mid-day beer fest. We kick-stepped parallel paths just to the left of the westernmost boundary of the ski resort, knowing that we were far more likely to be run over by an out-of-control skier than by an improbable snow slide. I’m sure the ski patrol meant well. Who knows? Perhaps they did save us from a frozen tomb of caked ice by huddling us onto the groomed slopes, but neither of us were thrilled at our impending obstacle course.
“1, 2, 3 GO!”, I screamed, dashing across the open slopes in a well-timed rhythm in the narrow gaps between the meandering skiers. Fumito followed next, narrowly avoiding a shoulder clip from a goofy-footed boarder in an uncontrolled frontside tailspin. “Phew, that was close”, exhaled my companion. Too bad the ski patrol didn’t stick around to see why we were avoiding the open slopes. Fumito and I burrowed a path through a small family of birch trees between two of the busier runs, which provided just enough of a buffer from the surrounding madness. Nearing the top of the ridge, we cut toward the north, crossing another open run Frogger-style before ducking under the lifts for the final hundred meters to the highest point of the resort. From here, we slipped under the rope and into the welcomed solitude of Kiri-ga-mine’s overdeveloped summit. Dropping our gear, we fired up the stove and enjoyed the serenity that a fog-capped summit affords. The arctic gales drowned out the J-pop infused drones of the ski lifts, and if it weren’t for the gargantuan meteorological tower towering directly above us it could have easily passed for the alpine meadows of a European plateau.
While Fumito was boiling water, I jumped around incessantly, trying to fend off the chills and keep the circulation flowing. It was easily 10 below zero without the bone-piercing gales, so the minute the water reached a boil both of us sprinted back down to the ski lift and enjoyed our lunch in the sheltered confines of a storage shed, which provided just enough warmth to make things tolerable. Refreshed and refurbished, we headed back into the elements, dropping out of the thick cloud cover around 100 meters into our smooth glissade. With gravity on our side, we had no fears of being bowled over by our standing competitors. We made incredible time sliding, hopping, and running down the slippery contours of the gentle peak and by the time we reached the car the sun had made a welcome appearance. Mt. Tateshina glowed brilliantly in the afternoon light and beckoned us to investigate. Fumito and I vowed to each other to attempt the peak in March, a promise we later made good on. For now, however, the warm baths of Shirakaba hot springs would suffice.