Back in 2004, Osaka residents were still afforded the luxury of the overnight train running nightly from Osaka to Matsumoto. Though more expensive than the bus option, the train offered the additional comforts of being able to lay across a row of seats in the fetal position. An eye mask and earplugs were all that was necessary to enjoy a few hours of deep sleep before the 4am arrival in Matsumoto. Alas, those days are long gone, with JR West cutting all train services that weren’t turning a big enough profit. On this particular occasion, I disembarked at Shiojiri station, jumping on a local train to Okaya before turning further south to Komagane station, the gateway to the Central Alps. From there a bus whisked me to Shirabi-daira, the most popular entryway to the higher peaks above. A ropeway station occupied one side of the behemoth parking lot, and already a long queue snaked around the corner. My plan was to save time and energy by allowing modern technology to taxi me up to 2400 meters, but I hadn’t planned on the autumn crowds. I bought a ticket and reserved my place in line for the several hour bottleneck. By the time I had made my way to the front of the line it was approaching high noon, which didn’t leave much time for lunch or loitering about.
At Senjojiki, staff were prohibiting people from starting the traverse over to Utsugi-dake. The maps said to allow for 7 hours for the journey, and the powers that be were trying to avoid an accident like the one that would plague the mountain nearly a decade later. Sometimes a little white lie is the best course of action: “No sir, I’m not headed to Utsugi,” I stealthily declared. “Camping up near Naka-dake”. Sure, I was planning on climbing Naka-dake but had no intention of staying there.
The top of the gondola is anchored by a luxury hotel whose clientele are more interested in the hot baths and mountain views than the alpine peaks hovering close at hand. The lodge opens up to a vast meadow of high-altitude flora that rises to the vertical cliff faces of Mt. Hoken, Japan’s very own miniature version of the Dufourspitze. Hoken claims a few lives every year from unfortunate victims who lose their footing on the chain-draped precipice walls. Scanning the horizon further right, the contours ease to a col strewn with boulders the size of luxury liners. A gap in these igneous monsters marks the route for passage to the summit plateau of Mt. Kiso-Koma, the highest peak in the entire Central Alps range.
It was this narrow passageway that I reached, just 30 minutes from the concrete of the hotel. The wind and cloud met me there and accompanied me all the way to the top. I stopped on Naka-dake, dropping my gear at the junction to Mt. Hoken before dropping to a long saddle with nothing on my back except for my rain jacket. Precipitation from above, perspiration from below made for a damp combination, but I stood on Kiso-koma’s broad rise just after 1pm to the disbelief of those hikers who had started in the early morning hours. I didn’t loiter long, for I still had a considerable amount of ground to cover before dusk.
Grabbing my gear, I crossed under the rope draped across the entrance to Hoken’s crags. There were warning signs everywhere that the peak was not for beginners, but up and over was the only way that I could save precious time on the traverse over to Utsugi. Visibility was poor, the footing even poorer, but I used the chains to propel me through the sketchy bits of wet, exposed face. The cloud hid the life-taking drops, making the route appear less treacherous than it may have been under clear skies. Down the other side, the path flattened out and I picked up speed lest being spotted by the officials a short ways off to the left by the hotel entrance. I heard a loud “Oi” but ignored it and disappeared into the mist. I knew they wouldn’t follow, especially since I had momentum and gravity on my side.
I honestly don’t remember much about the ridge. In the heavy cloud cover I really could have been anywhere. The scenery looked just as it had during my earlier voyage through the Northern Alps, and if I closed my eyes and reopened them, I could mentally transform myself anywhere around the globe. This virtual time traveling worked wonders, and I soon found myself on the summit of Mt. Hinokio, faced with an important dilemma. A few minutes down to my left lie a free emergency hut, but if I pushed on further, I could have the comfort and warmth of a soft futon. Time check: 4pm. I still had at least an hour of daylight and had done well to make it this far.
I opted to push on, through another area of long climbs and even longer descents, the longest of which dropped to a narrow saddle just before the knife-edged contours of Utsugi’s pyramidal form. Here I found my home for the night, a cozy mountain hut with a jovial owner and fresh water a short trot towards the valley. The last rays of the sun peeked out from behind their curtain before dropping behind Hakusan and the rest of the mountains of Ishikawa Prefecture. Perhaps this was an omen that tomorrow would bring better tidings and more cooperative weather.