Sandwiched between the Omine mountains and Odai-ga-hara, a pyramidal massif juts up towards the sky as if constructed by the ancient Egyptians. Known in English as the peak of the white beard, I had a hard time finding any information about Mt. Shirahige apart from a brief listing in an out-of-print guidebook. A quick perusal through the Japanese blogosphere revealed a path from the west in relatively good condition with a caveat about a sawtooth ridge with plenty of exposure. With old man winter rearing its ugly head, I seized one final chance to knock off another mountain before the deep snowfalls sealed off access.
Nao and Tomoko picked me up at Yamato-kamiichi station in rural Nara Prefecture on a brisk Saturday morning in mid-December. The station sits on a small incline affording views of Mt. Yoshino across the valley. The rest of the Omine range lay thick in a murky cloud as I reached into the pack for an extra layer to stave off the chilly breeze. The couple were fresh off their summer ascent of Kilimanjaro and Nao was keen to knock off another mountain on the Kinki 100 list. If successful, it would be my 94th and his 82nd peak respectively.
At a bend in the narrow forest road, a sign pointed the way towards our target peak. We parked the car on a narrow shoulder and shouldered our packs shortly after. The howling wind left little time for loitering or contemplating. The first part of the route followed a forest road that has fallen into disuse. You’ll find hundreds of such roads carving their way through 90% of Japan’s mountainous terrain. This particular one had been constructed over half a century earlier for the construction of a small water station to pump clean mountain water to the residents of Kawakami village at the foot of the mountain.
We made slow but steady progress as the road gave way to mountain path, which followed the waters upstream to the base of a 30-meter high waterfall that was little more than a trickle. The route veered south, cutting up and around this fall via a long and somewhat exposed traverse. Ropes in places reminded us to keep our footing firm, as any slip here would prove fatal. Despite the lack of foot traffic the trail was easy to find, perhaps due in large part to the dead undergrowth that likely swallows the path in the warmer months. Moving steadily through the neatly manicured strands of planted cedar and cypress, we soon rose above the valley floor, with the Omine range looking on from across the valley directly behind us. The massif was slumbered inside a baleful tempest of wintry cloud, the bottom edge of the icy trees peeking out from under the fog like a child’s foot sticking out from underneath the covers.
I pushed ahead towards the junction on the ridge while Nao stayed behind with Tomoko, who was struggling a bit with knee pain. At the crest of the ridge I faced the full force of the wind pushing in from the east and ducked behind a cedar tree for cover. I stuffed a few morsels of chocolate into my dry mouth, washing it down with a cupful of hot water from the thermos, the one piece of gear I never leave at home during these brisk days. Once the warmth returned to my extremities, I munched on a pair of Calorie Mate bars, the preferred snack of choice here for hikers. Each bar holds exactly 100 calories, and has the consistency of Scottish shortbread. If you shows signs of being under-hydrated, the dry morsels will stick to your palate, forcing you to wash them down with a big gulp of water. I really should consider buying stock in Otsuka, or at least seeing if they’ll sponsor me. The pharmaceutical giant also manufacturers Pocari Sweat sports drink, which has left more than a few visitors wondering about the identity of Mr. Pocari and his magic perspiration.
Once Nao and Tomoko caught up, I pushed ahead towards the first peak of Ko-Shirahige. The path immediately scaled a near-vertical root-infested precipice, sending me gasping for breath in the sub-arctic temperatures. Thinking that the summit lie at the top of the next rise, I pushed even harder, only to realize that it was indeed just one of half a dozen false peaks along the sabertooth ridge. The cedar trees yielded to a healthy forest of beech and other hardwoods coated with a thin layer of hoarfrost from the fog that lapped at the eastern side of the ridge. Just below the summit of Little White Beard, I encountered an elderly man dressed in orange who was making his way down from the top. He assured me that despite the state of the tree branches, the trail was free from ice and snow, which put me at ease. This would be no place to be caught without a pair of crampons. I told the man to relay a message to Nao and Tomoko who were somewhere below me. I was making a summit push, knowing that they would probably abandon their attempt due to their slower pace.
Instead of taking a break at the top of Ko-Shirahige, I pushed on, dropping down the northern face of the mountain. Through the gap in the trees I caught a glimpse of the summit plateau of Shirahige drifting in and out of the swift-moving cloud. The elderly gentleman earlier said he’d been robbed of a view earlier, but my barometer showed a steady rise in atmospheric pressure that would hopefully mean a lift in the clouds. The path dropped to a saddle no wider than a size 10 boot. Ropes draped across both sides of the knife-edge ridge as I leaped across and onto a wider section of path. The trail rose abruptly up the other side before dropping once again towards another peak along the ridge that looked more like the recent stock market fluctuations than a mountain ridge.
After another couple of false peaks, the summit pyramid came into sight. It was now free of cloud and looked like a long-lost sibling of Mt. Takazuma and Mt. Ishizuchi, two of Japan’s more prominent peaks.
I couldn’t help thinking that if Kyūya Fukada had climbed this mountain, he surely would have chosen this mountain over its close neighbor Odai-ga-hara for inclusion in the Hyakumeizan. Indeed, the Hokuriku native did not have a lot of first-hand knowledge of the mountains of Kansai. I’m sure he would have been delighted to catch sight of White Beard Mountain truly living up to its name.
Reaching the summit in an exhausted heap, I perched down on the lee side of the summit, with vistas to the north all the way to Osaka city. Ice had formed in my water bottle as a quick check of my thermometer revealed temperatures well below freezing, which would explain the rime ice. I pulled my phone out of a side pocket and tried calling Nao to let him know that I had safely reached the summit. He didn’t pick up though, which meant his photo was probably stowed away deep in his pack.
I dug into my bento lunch, sipping hot water in between bites of cold food. Even though I hardly had an appetite, I forced the food down, knowing that it would help keep me warm and it would supply vital energy on the return leg. Occasionally the wind would pick up and send an arctic gust through all three layers of clothing. After the third such gust, I shouldered the gear and started to set off back down towards Ko-Shirahige, when a flash of red caught my eye. Nao had popped out of the ridge below and reached the summit. He hugged each other and he suggested I start down ahead of him. Instead, I re-joined him on the top and used the opportunity to force more nutrients into my stomach. We took a summit shot together and then admired the vistas towards both the Omine range and Oda-ga-hara, both of which were still concealed in cloud.
After just a few minutes of rest, Nao was ready to head back down. Tomoko had retreated just below the summit of Ko-Shirahige, and we were both keen to head back as quickly as we could. The trek back to Little White Mountain had taken just as long as the ascent, as we marveled at how far we had come earlier. The vistas towards the Daiko range had now opened up, as the cloud lifted from Mt. Azami and Mt. Myojin, two peaks I’d scaled during warmer, greener times.
We reached the car at 3pm, just 5-1/2 hours after setting out. Most hikers take at least 6 hours for the climb, but the freezing weather ensured our brisk pace. The mountain truly lived up to its name and reputation, and a repeat visit is in order, but the next time around it’ll be during the warmer months when I can appreciate the mountain on my own terms instead of letting Mother Nature dictate.