I’ve been eyeing Mt. Kogo’s pointy crags for a number of years, both on paper and in person, so what better way than to usher in the year of the horse than to knock off my final peak in the Soni area of Nara? I hoped to fare better off than my first hike of last year.
Paul and I arrived at Nabari station shortly before 10 on a cloudy Saturday morning. A few people milled about the station, returning from their early shrine visits and seeking the balmy comforts of their kotatsu tables still lined with half-full bottles of New Year’s sake. The bus to Soni was completely deserted, so we spread our gear and bodies on the entire back row as our driver negotiated the switchbacks up and over Shorenji dam, along the still waters of river of the same name, and onto the sleepy backroads of Soni village itself. Once off the bus, we switched on the GPS to get our bearings and followed the forest road for close to an hour to O-toge. We spent the majority of the one-hour stroll racking our brains for the name of the 2-wheeled self-balancing machine invented by entrepreneur Dean Kamen. Was it a Zenith? A Vespa? Frustrating it can be when the answer lies stubbornly on the tip of your tongue. Since neither of us own a smart phone, I finally broke the stalemate by calling a friend: the Segway!
At the mountain pass, the trail to the summit ridge towered directly above us, with no way to go but up. Whoever made the trail decidedly took the lazy approach – a series of long ropes draped down from trees on the ridge itself. We could do nothing other than hoist ourselves up through the fields of plume grass clinging wearily against the 70-degree slopes of dusty sandstone cliffs. The views opened up behind, revealing the snowy spires of the Daiko mountains sitting under a veil of dark, ferocious cloud. A weather front was on the march, looking to trample us in its path if we didn’t get a move on.
Unfortunately, traversing along the cliffs was anything but a brisk stroll. Any gains in altitude were lost just as quickly as we traversed over several humps of tree-covered rock. We hit snow on the summit of Minami-dake, the tallest point along the entire route. Our panoramic views were soon pillaged by cloud vapor, blowing horizontal snow and sleet across the ridge like a old man stoking a dying fire. We dropped off the ridge, carefully picking our way among the maze of ice and rock, using tree trunks on either side to slow the inevitable slide. We had discussed putting the crampons to use before the tempest hastened our decision to keep moving. At the top of the next rise I rummaged through my gear, handing Paul one of my 4-pointers. At least we’d both have one solid purchase for the roller coaster ride.
Two peaks later and we topped out on summit #5, otherwise known as Mt. Kogo. The trees provided a bit of shelter from the swirling squall as Paul pulled out his sparkling new Montbell 6-point snow spikes. After fiddling around with them for close to 15 minutes, we both gave up hope of getting them securely to his feet. It wasn’t that we didn’t know how to affix them, but that the straps were frozen and hard to maneuver in the frigid temperatures. Besides, the strap system is way too complicated than it needs to be. I can slip my crusty old Kajitax 6-pointers on in less than 30 seconds, but pehaps that’s because I know the loop system from memory.
By now Paul’s hands had gone numb, so I lent him my alpine winter mitts disguised as a pair of boxing gloves. The circulation came back within minutes as we descended out of the snow line and down to a soggy mountain pass. Here we cooked lunch and warm coffee, thanking our lucky stars for safely navigating that knee-knocking traverse. We skipped the ascent of an adjacent peak in favor of the hot spring baths that were literally calling our names from the valley. Between gusts of wind you could just make out the proprietor saying “Wes-san, Paul-san, oide yo.” Or at least I think that’s what I imagined her saying.
After a brief detour through the golden grasslands of Soni Kogen, we hit the forest road just in time for Paul to turn his ankle on a pine cone. Fortunately the damage was minor but we still had to slow our pace somewhat to limit the pain. The bath, though filled with lazy day-trippers out for the first bath of the new year, was incredibly soothing. I don’t know why bathing establishments even both with an indoor bath. Every time I head to a hot spring I make a bee line outside to commune with nature. Once the abolutions ceased, I lent Paul my ankle brace while we strolled through the darkening forest to the bus stop. Again we were the only two passengers for the one hour journey back to Nabari, and to add insult to injury, the return train was packed with worshipers making their way from Ise Shrine. I know passengers are supposed to give up their seats to elderly and pregnant people, but shouldn’t this custom also apply to achy-boned mountaineers?