Early February and here I am still chipping away at the Kansai peaks. The heavy snow drifts to the north cut off access to the mountains of Shiga and Kyoto, but further east in Mie Prefecture the Suzuka mountains offer a challenging yet relatively safe foray into the powder dusted backcountry. Along for the ride were Tomomi and Baku, a cheery couple from Kobe whose thirst for adventure surpassed the average brand-bag toting, smartphone addicted youngsters huddled together in the heated comforts of the shopping malls.
We set of from Osaka at the crack of dawn, with Tomomi behind the wheel and myself providing backseat navigation. The stretch of highway that connected the shores of Lake Biwa to the sheltered hamlet of Kaneyama ground to a halt from the heavy rain bouncing off the pavement. Further up towards the mountain pass, the precipitation fell as snow, turning the cedar forests into something fit for a Bob Ross canvas. Ah, the fickle weather of a Kansai winter, where a 10% chance of snow may very well mean a blizzard.
The highway hugged the eastern edge of the Suzuka mountains as we trudged along steadily to the north. These towering peaks act as a cloud catchment of sorts, protecting the coastal cities of Nagoya and Yokkaichi from the brunt of the winter storms. Mt. Fujiwara, our destination for the day, lay on the northern cusp of this winter weather hold, and as we parked the car at a gravel parking lot at the base of the peak, golden streaks of sunlight pierced the ceiling of cloud. The storm was beginning to break up, as if on cue from a symphony conductor.
We took some time at the car sorting through gear: even a small lapse in judgement could have dire consequences once we hit the snow line, so we all tucked crampons and extra gloves in our packs in preparation for the elements. The parking lot at the trailhead was overflowing with automobiles. It seemed as if half of Nagoya itself had read the weather forecast and gambled for this weather break. In fact, Mt. Fujiwara is one of the most popular peaks in the entire Suzuka range, due to the ease of access. In less than 90 minutes you can go from sipping your latte in Nagoya to sniffing the fresh mountain air in the forests of Fujiwara.
The path was heavily eroded and incredibly easy to follow and, just like Mt. Fuji, divided into 10 stage points for ease of pacing. The first 3 stages were knocked out in no time at all, but once we hit the snow line things ground to a halt. The footsteps of the early birds had turned the mountain trail into one giant bobsled run. Baku and Tomomi had the luxury of 12-point crampons and full mountaineering boots, but I made due with my 4-pointers strapped onto my thermal rubber snow boots. I spent most of the time off trail in order to find better traction, while my companions honed their toe stepping skills.
We hit the 8th stagepoint in high spirits despite the growling of our empty stomachs. There was a large flat area that would make a great place for a break if not for the knee-deep snow. With no dry place to sit, we pushed on, convincing ourselves we could do the last fifth of the climb in no time at all. The angle steepened, and once out of the forest the howling gales forced spindrift down our throats. I closed my eyes, picking my way around the rock formations in search of a safe way to navigate. Fortunately the cloud had lifted, but any warmth that the sun would normally imbue was sucked away by the subzero temperatures. I was not having much fun at all, opting to accelerate my pace in an effort to stave off the cold.
I left Tomomi and Baku behind, summoning up my last energy reserves for the final push. I passed by one couple, admiring the views with an expensive pair of snowshoes strapped to their pack. It seemed like those things should be strapped to the bottom of their feet instead, but perhaps this duo was part of a growing trend among Japanese hikers who are simply sporting gear for the sake of fashion. How many times have you seen hikers with trekking poles strapped to their packs? I’m more of the ‘use it if you’ve brought it’ school of thought, and you can bet that I would be using snowshoes if I had bothered to bring them along.
The last hundred meters of the ascent were painfully snow, as I was running on empty and in desperate need of a break. At the top of the next rise the mountain hut came into view, and the spirits lifted once again. I pushed open the door of the day-use shelter and couldn’t believe my eyes: every available inch of seating space had been occupied by scores of elderly hikers chatting away as if on a leisure walk. Camp stoves hissed in unison from half a dozen different hiking groups, but in the far corner of the hut I spied a space in one of the tables for maybe two people max.
I unstrapped the crampons and squeezed through the thicket of bodies until I had reached the small clearing. I sipped on hot water from my thermos while waiting for Tomomi and Baku to arrive. Tomomi had made sandwiches for us, but the snickers I pulled from the inside of my fleece provided a nourishing appetizer. Twenty minutes passed before my companions stumbled in, and fortunately by that time there was adequate space at the table for us all. Tomomi looked as if she had just stepped off a transpacific flight, with dark, heavy bags under her eyes and a hunched posterior from the weight of her pack. It took us less than two minutes to devour everything she had prepared. I brewed coffee by draining my thermos while we mentally prepared ourselves to continue our ascent. Even though the mountain hut was the 10th stagepoint, the summit was still a twenty minute climb away.
I once again led the way as the path vanished into a mass of white. The cloud had once again moved in, bringing with it heavy flurries that sprinkled our gear with pellets of frozen crystals. My GPS indicated that we needed to climb to the top of a massive hill just to our right. Footsteps disappeared into the growing snow drifts as I used both trekking poles to help the fight against gravity. Eventually we did reach the high point of the mountain, with a heavily corroded signpost and not much else. We could just make out of the edge of another valley on the other side of the peak that acted as the funnel for these wind gusts. Loitering around in these Siberian temperatures was not an option, so after a quick snap of the shutter we ran down the peak and back to the hut, opting to forfeit another break at the hut for fear of losing the daylight.
On the descent, I cut the switchbacks as much as possible by making a direct beeline to the 8th stage point. I would take a few steps and invariably fall due to the lack of traction and just let my momentum carry me. During the third such slide I managed to connect directly with a large boulder concealed by five centimeters of fresh powder. My coccyx took the full brunt of the impact, sending sharp pains running up my spine and leaving me nearly in tears. Anyone who has ever bruised their tailbone can attest to the discomfort.
The pain eased thanks in large part to stuffing a fistful of ice down my pants and onto my throbbing buttcrack. We shuffled off out of the snow line again and reached the parking lot just after 4pm. The thermal baths of the nearby hot spring brought feeling back into my extremities, and the tailbone would eventually heal (though it did take several months). With Mt. Fujiwara off the list, only one more mountain remained in the Suzuka mountains, and it happened to be the tallest one of them all.