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Archive for May, 2014

Kansai 100

As some of you may already know, I’ve been gradually knocking off peaks on the Kansai Hyakumeizan list. I’ve finally reached peak #80, so thought I’d create a tab at the top of this blog so you can keep track of my progress. It’ll be a long time before I’m able to do blog posts for every peak on the list, as I still haven’t finished blogging about the Hyakumeizan (and I finished those over 5 years ago!)

Anyway, feel free to check the tab from time to time as I’ll keep it updated with each passing week. My goal for 2014 is to reach peak #90.

 

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Mid-March usually means the peaks hugging the border of Gifu and Shiga Prefectures are cloaked in a massive blanket of white, but the unusually mild temperatures have caused an early receding of the snow line and a chance to knock another peak off the dwindling list of mountains on the Kansai 100. Tomomi and Baku picked me up at the crack of dawn as we sped through the sprawling havens nestled alongside the Meishin expressway to an off ramp just north of Nagahama city. Mt. Ibuki sat on the horizon, floating on a sea of cloud and looking frighteningly Fuji in her early morning shadows. To the north, our target peak soared vertically, scratching the bottom of a menacing tea field of dark cloud that sat heavy along the prefectural border. I took a barometer reading for reference, silently reminding myself to check back in a hour to determine which direction the millibars would drift.

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The car came to a halt at the terminus of a deserted forest road. From here, we had three options: a left fork would drop us into a valley where we could access the southern ridge leading directly to the top of Yokoyama’s twin-peaked massif. Straight ahead lie a constricted valley shooting straight towards a gap in the rugged summit plateau, while a third option required a bit of a detour to an adjacent ridge further east. As we discussed the options, a white flatbed truck came flying up the road from the village below, the driver jumping out with a frantic look of concern as he tapped his watch. Sensing the impending scolding, I took charge, managing to say all of the right things to prevent an argument from unfolding. Yes, I ensured him that we would in no way attempt the constricted valley ahead of us and that we would indeed stick tightly to the southern ridge. For added measure, I even showed him our route on my GPS and promised him a visit to his house on the way out to check in. “Inquiries about the current conditions trickle in weekly during this season,” our gruff caretaker admitted, “it’ll be good to hear about the snow conditions”.

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With approval from the mountain manager himself the three of us skipped along the gravel road, freshly strewn with boulders the size of bowling balls that the melting snow had lodged loose from high above. I kept my eyes peeled upward should nature decide to bowl the next frame while we were traversing through the lane. The end of the road meant the trail climbed up an impossibly steep spur to our left. Tomomi recognized this point during a failed winter ascent the previous year, remarking on how different the scenery looked in the bare season. We knocked off a couple of hundred meters in no time at all, reaching the mountain pass and start of the southern spur only thirty minutes after setting off. It was here that Tomomi had given up her pursuit 13 months ago, and frankly I was surprised she made it that far at all. Yokoyama is definitely not a mountain to be taken lightly, as groups have been known to use the pitched flanks in mid-winter for Himalayan training.

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The gradient intensified, requiring not only tricky foot placements but also creative handholds on the bent branches lining the narrow route. One slip here in the mud would send you tumbling, gashing the skin and shattering bones in the process. At the top of a long rise the angle abated, revealing the shoreline of the retreating snow fields stretched out like swards of dead grass. Tree welts formed rings the size of bathtubs that could trap your torso if caught off-guard. We sloshed through the wet, sticky mess while searching for the tape marks affixed in uneven intervals along the route. Fortunately another hiker had tramped through here mere days before, so we prayed that the trace would indeed lead us to the summit and not to a frozen corpse postholed in a neck-deep drift.

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As expected, the snow depth increased with the rise in elevation. The GPS revealed modest gains in altitude, and around the 900-vertical meter mark we hit our first of many false summits. Being the strongest and most experienced in our group, I lead the way, kick-stepping a ditch through snow the consistency of soft-serve ice cream. Occasionally I’d come across a rope half-buried and spend a few minutes dislodging it: every little bit of landmark would help in the descent, especially if the cloud swept down from above. Deer tracks intertwined with tracks of other unidentified animals. Among them, the undeniable paw prints of a mother bear and cub sent cautionary shivers down our spine. There was no telling how fresh those tracks were, and our only hope rested in the assumption that the den lie safely tucked away in the valley below. At the third false peak we finally got our first view of the summit. Well, at least our first view of the fog snacking away at the summit.

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Shortly before 1pm we topped out, just as the clouds broke and offered spendid views towards the north. Although Hakusan was away on business, her sister Nogo-Hakusan glimmered bashfully in the afternoon light. The high point revealed a storage shed covered in tin: a rickety, heavily corroded metal ladder sat awkwardly on the eastern side of the unsteady structure. We somehow managed to climb on top without having the building collapse on itself. Having a dry place to devour our lunch was a welcome surprise, as the alternative of a bench of wet snow seemed unthinkable.

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Once the rice balls and coffee settled, we leapt off the roof and carefully worked our way down the slushy slopes. The barometer remained steady despite the air force of stratocumulus raiding from the north. Rain looked like an imminent possibility until I realized that my sunglasses had intensified the gray tones. Once back on dry land I packed away the eye protection for good and ambled though the serene forest back to the mountain pass and eventually on to the parking lot.

As promised, on the way out of town we dropped in to see our caretaker, and he presented us with homemade umeboshi and fukinoto picked from the slopes of Yokoyama itself. With peak #74 successfully under my belt, I looked forward to reaching the magic #75 before the onset of spring.

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“The road’s closed, so you’ll have to walk from here,” explained my white-gloved cabbie in a gentle tone that made the 2500 yen bill seem like nothing more than a small donation to a struggling musician. I was still several hours short of the trailhead, a lone, secluded walk on a crumbling forest road that would be anything but a gentle stroll. I shored up the trekking pole, pulled my pack straps securely around my thin torso, and got two steps into my traverse when a red sedan screeched to a halt directly behind. A middle-aged man rolled down the window, inquiring about the rope draped across the road in front of us. I sensed an opportunity, offering myself up for bait in our attempt to make it to the summit of Mt. Daru-ga-mine, peak #69 of the Kansai 100.

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I sat shotgun, serenaded by the sounds of Amazing Grace, Kumbaya, and other sacred hymns buzzing from the tape deck (!) of the outdated automobile. After lowering the rope, we cruised on a road that was 7 parts rock and 1 part concrete. Every several meters I jumped out and fulfilled my contractual duty by removing knee-high boulders out of the line of fire. We inched along the course like a family of carpenter ants in a sandbox. Wide-eyed hikers stood at the roadside and gasped at the spectacle of two rule-breaking comrades locked in a vengeful mission of greed. We passed by the first trailhead at Sugitani, opting to tempt fate by navigating the entire forest road to the terminus at Sencho-toge a few minutes south on the rolling ridge. Road conditions deteriorated in direct proportion to our altitude gains, until we picked our way through a maze of sharp rocks that threatened to put an end to our mission once and for all. I had my GPS on the entire time and instructed my driver to pull over and park at our current position. We were directly below the summit, a steep forest of beech and pine between us and victory.

“Just follow me”, I instructed, forging a path in a dry gully lined with granite boulders floating in a dense sea of lime-green moss. The grade easily reached 60 degrees in spots, forcing you onto all fours in a sweaty battle with gravity. One unsteady foothold would send you sliding on your belly across the green oil-slick. There had to be a better way through the precarious maze, and fifty meters to my right I spied a patch of bamboo grass lining the edge of a spur off the main ridge.

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I signaled below and kicked a route into the softer ground. Progress was much smoother on the muscles but harder on the eyes, as each step forward would startle a snake out of its hiding ground, sending the pulse rate skyrocketing. At one point I nearly stepped on a gigantic black snake nearly two-meters long until I changed tack and tested the brush with my trekking pole first. This gave the reptiles a chance to slither away out of sight before I approached. After thirty minutes of this the angle finally eased a bit, bamboo undergrowth giving way to rhododendron and wild grass: we had gained the ridge and a bit further on, the trail itself.

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The two of us marched up the final rise to the exposed perch of Daru’s bald scalp. October winds blew in from the north, a reminder that autumn was advancing her march across the archipelago. I collapsed in a heap of sweat and exaustion, a heavy feeling forcing my body to the ground like a lead-filled wetsuit. I chose a fitting peak to match my darui state.

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A ridge of open grasslands stretched out before me. I’d be a fool not to do the full traverse, so I fueled up for the exhilarating stroll along the unobstructed meadows. Despite feel under the weather, I pressed on, reaching that trance-like state once your body reaches its full equilibrium. Before I knew it I was already 10 kilometers into my journey, perched on the final peak before the path dropped steeply along the edge of a golf course and down to the bus stop. I braced myself, tightening the laces on my boots and descended awkwardly like a sailor in a drunken stupor. I was so spent of energy I couldn’t even lift my thumb to hitch a ride back to the station.

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I reached the bus stop only to find that there was a two-hour wait until the next bus. It would be dark by then, so after downing yet another chocolate bar I braved the toxic fumes by stumbling through a two-kilometer long tunnel as quickly as I could before reaching the train station in a saturated, sloppy heap.

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Back in Osaka my lethargy led to a slight fever and extreme exhaustion. A couple of days later I stopped by a hospital and ended up being admitted with pulmonary tuberculosis, a disease that I had apparently been carrying for well over a year. And to think of the sheer number of peaks I had scaled with a stubborn bacteria slowly feasting on my lung tissue. 2013 started with a near-death experience and was ending with another fight with mortality. In the words of the mighty John Darnielle: “I’m gonna make it through this year, if it kills me”.

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