The next morning, after a bit of a sleep-in (7am wake-up instead of the usual Japanese start of 4am), we packed our gear and contemplated our next move. The rain had moved in with a vengeance, and any thought of scaling Mt. Hiuchi in this natural shower seemed crazy, but here I was faced with a mountain so close that it would be a huge setback not to reach the summit on this outing. We reached a compromise: I’d head out alone, bringing only a water bottle and a bag of peanuts. Kanako would wait in the warm, dry hut for my return, at which time both of us would head down to the trailhead at Sasa-ga-mine. “See you in 1 hour”, I affirmed with a look of disbelief from the other hikers and hut staff. “There’s no way he’ll be back in an hour”, retorted the hut owner, proclaiming that Kanako wouldn’t see her husband until at least early afternoon. The map times alloted 2-1/2 hours just to reach the summit of Hiuchi from here, and that’s without the return time. A challenge was on and I was more than ready for it.
With a dash I set off into the downpour, wearing only my rain suit. I pushed up and over Mt. Chausu and down to the junction at Kouya-ike in only 15 minutes. From there, the marshlands in front of the hut resembled one giant lake, partially covered with yet another thick patch of slippery snow. Relentless I was in my pursuit, flying past the buried wooden walkways of the Tengu’s garden before reaching the ridge for the final push towards Hiuchi. The clouds had lifted a little, revealing the peak in all its verdant green beauty. Breathtaking though it was, I didn’t loiter around too long, marching up the final set of wooden steps to the high point. Time check: 40 minutes from Kurosawa hut. Not bad for a guy with a leaky heart valve.
The snowfields catalyzed my ascent, and I would have easily made it back within the hour if not for a brief stop at Kouya-ike hut. “Excuse me”, I asked the staff, “do you know the bus schedule from Sasa-ga-mine to the station?” The reply bounced back as if returned by a professional table tennis player: “There is no bus”, explained the hut manager Masa, “but I’m heading down later today and can give you a ride.” With this extremely good piece of news, I once again set off for Kurosawa, arriving exactly 1 hour and 15 minutes after leaving Kanako behind.
“You made it to the summit?”, quizzed the hut staff, still spellbound by my Jamaican speed runner pace. Rest breaks are pretty pointless when you’ve got no view and you’re soaked to the bone. I was ashamed to admit that I was pretty spent after that insane burst of energy. We ordered some hot noodles as reward for knocking off Hiuchi. I alternated mouthfuls of buckwheat with morsels of trail mix and chocolate, trying to up my calorie intake to compensate for the increased exertion. We finally hit the trail together just before noon, keeping a brisk pace in case the hut owner should beat us to the bottom. We didn’t want to inconvenience anyone by making them wait unnecessarily for us, so we skipped steadily ahead until reaching Fujimi-daira, where the trail from Kouya-hut met the main trail from Kurosawa. We rested leisurely here among the cover of the forest canopy, knowing that even if the hut staff caught us we could walk together in relative ease.
Reaching the parking lot around 3pm, we searched for any signs of our saviors, but no one was in sight. We waited in the small shelter marking the entrance to the trail, hoping that we hadn’t somehow missed them. About half an hour later, the group of 4 from the hut strolled in, and we were whisked to Myoko Kougen station to catch our train. As a way of thanking the kind hut staff, we offered to treat him and his girlfriend to a later afternoon snack, so we headed to a noodle shop and listened to some pretty insane stories from our driver. “You see this scar?’, buzzed Masa, pointing to a gash just below his lower lip, “I fell off a cornice while skiing and my upper teeth went right through my lip.” This was a man that truly lived on the edge, and enjoyed every minute of his life.
Overall, despite the foul weather and treacherous conditions, the mission was a resounding success. I was now up to 52 mountains under my belt, but had a long summer and autumn ahead of me if I wanted to reach the magic number 70 before the end of the year.