The horizon burned a fiery crimson when I finally hit the trail just before 5am. Breakfast consisted of a hurried bowl of warm oatmeal: the race against the rising sun was on. The maps said it would take around a hour to reach the ridge, but such time was not an option: if I had any chance of getting good shots of Mt. Fuji I would need to be sitting on the ridge now, before the first rays of the dawning day drew near. A brisk pace carried me through the sleepy stands of hardwood and conifers, which stood guard over the great heights of the rolling phoenix. The higher I climbed the brighter the horizon glowed. I knew I wasn’t going to make it but managed to get high enough to get a glimpse of color.
The scarlet clouds of a new day could only mean one thing: a low pressure system was on the move. While not always the case, a red sun in the morning is usually a warning of approaching storms, but would they hold out until I safely cleared the alpine danger zone? The final 50 meters to the junction was unbearably steep, as I spend the final efforts on all fours literally slithering my way back above the tree line. Gazing due west, the triplet peaks of Shirane sanzan glowed like the embers of a fire fit for giants. Perhaps I wasn’t too late after all.
By the time I reached the summit of my first target peak (Mt. Kanon, peak # 34) the sun had made a welcome appearance, casting strong shadows across the deep valley I had trudged up less than 24 hours earlier. In complete solitude, with a deep reverence of the wilderness spread out before me, I marched back towards the obelisk, which finally stood tall, unobscured by clouds.
The ridge undulated through an eternal array of deep folds, but with visibility so vast, I skipped daintily as if on an early morning stroll through an enormous park. After an hour or so I reached Hirogawara pass, and gazed down the long gully that took an eternity the previous day. After that I spend the rest of the day marching west, towards the rocky spires of Kai-komagatake, a peak which I had hoped to summit before nightfall.
At Miyoshino I took a well-deserved lunch break, staring out over the mighty Kita-dake and the rest of the spires of the Minami Alps. Sunrise was precise in her prediction of a change in the weather, as a layer of altocumulus clouds rolled in from the southwest. By now it was approaching 3pm, so with haste I jogged on to Asayo pass, which sat on a strategic perch nearly 2800 meters in elevation. It was here that I met my first hikers of the day, a retired couple from Saitama, just outside of Tokyo. I reached down to grab my camera, seizing the opportunity to get a self-portrait snapped as a memento for the epic hike. To my complete and utter astonishment, the camera was nowhere in sight. My best guess is that is was sitting on a rock at Miyoshino, a 20-minute walk away.
With daylight now starting to come into play and a weather system that would likely release precipitation before nightfall, I was left with a crucial decision: turn back and grab the equipment, or trudge on to the summit of Kai-koma. I had less that 500 ml of water remaining, and in the afternoon heat I knew I would need more liquids for the remainder of the climb. Explaining my predicament to the elderly couple, the wife immediately pulled out a bottle of unopened tea, explaining that they had no need of it since Asayo was as far as they were heading today. Thanking them profusely, I turned my back on my target peak and rushed back to Miyoshino, finding my camera sitting quietly on a rock.
Now that I was reunited with my gear, I retraced my steps back to Asayo and descended steeply down the other side, to Sensui pass, where a water source lie in the valley below. It was an hour round-trip, but what other choice did I have? I could have easily checked into Sensui hut and climbed Kai-koma the following day, but with the approaching weather front I knew my best window lie just before me. After filling up on liquids, I ascended back to the main ridge, reaching Sensui pass shortly before 5pm. According to the map, it was a 3-hour trudge up to the summit, followed by a 2-1/2 drop of 1000 vertical meters to the hut at Kitazawa pass. Things were starting to become interesting.
In a true race against the clock, I pushed up to the junction just below the peak in only 25 minutes. I was truly heading at a marathon runner’s pace now, but the fatigue and altitude were starting to affect my decision making. There are two route up to the summit once you hit Roppo rock: skirt up to the right and around the edge of the flank, or head straight up a near vertical rock scramble. I’m pretty sure you can guess which route I chose.
The route is marked by a dotted line on the map and for good reason. Though not technical, one slip here would send you bouncing off the boulders to an almost certain death. I held on with all my strength, following the yellow paint marks with all of my mental energy focused on my footholds. The X marks painted on the boulders showed which areas to avoid, and though the skies were dark, the low altitude clouds had held off. I can only imagine how tricky this route must be in less-than-ideal conditions.
It was after 6pm by the time I topped out. As I looked across the valley towards Mt. Senjo, I noticed the top had been swallowed by a curtain of white, with a thick layer of gray fanning out across the open sky towards my current position. I really had to get a move on if I wanted to make it off this mountain as a dry man.
I took the ‘easier’ route back down to the pass, which proved tricky in the loose scree that blankets Kai-koma’s sandy mound. The layers of stone have the look and consistency of snow when viewed from afar. Snow, however, would prove much easier to navigate than this pebbly playground.
Once back in the treeline, I rolled along the ridge to Mt. Futago, where I dropped my back and rearranged my gear. Rain would soon be falling, and I needed protection other than what the woods would provide. I stuffed a handful of mixed nuts into my mouth and finished off the remaining supplies of water, knowing that my next stop would be at the hut in the valley far below. Just before setting out I donned my rain jacked and fastened my torch securely to my forehead. I made it about 50 meters down the southern face of Futago before the skies erupted in a loud roar.
Thunder rumbled from an unseen source as I stumbled through the dark forest. Using the headlamp to guide me, I pushed on just like Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner, reaching Chouei hut around 7:30pm. The caretaker, though startled as he was, gladly showed me to my awaiting room as other guests looked on with disbelief. I had a dry place to stay, and after firing up the stove, had a full belly to boot. Things were starting to look up, but the trek was far from over.