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Archive for the ‘Chuo Alps hikes’ Category

The next morning, after a bowl of warm oatmeal, I set off into a torrent of gray mist and howling winds. The lower pressure system’s grip on the mountain refused to budge. I crawled up along the loose rock of the ridge, around pockets of brush pine, carefully stepping over the bellflowers and avens, serenaded by the cries of ptarmigan hopping among the dew-stained rocks. I reached the summit after laboriously picking my way along the saber-toothed ridge, resting among the wind-weathered rocks in order to catch my breath from the aerobic alpine workout. The wind drown out the sounds of civilization, while the clouds erased all traces of mankind.

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There’s something strangely soothing about sitting in the middle of a cumulus cloud. The world appears no bigger than a 3-meter bubble. Solitude sets in as if in a drug-enduced dream. Feelings and thoughts, once buried deep inside, boil to the surface like the eruption of an emotional geyser. Lost in contemplation, the minutes fly by as though carried by migratory birds as you are eventually snapped out of your sequestered trance by a group of yappy obachan. And so it was, in a dazed stumble that I dropped off the eastern ridge briefly to a modest hut perched just a few steps beyond the haze. Late risers milled about, preparing for the short jaunt to the high point before turning their attention to other peaks along the treeless ridge. I continued the descent, passing by an smaller unmanned hut before dropping out of the cloud and back into the deciduous forest alive with kaleidoscopic foliage of burnt umber and aureate golds.

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Meandering like the banks of the Tenryu river, the route skirted back and forth between herculean rock towers, with narrow wooden footpaths awkwardly anchored to the vertical faces. Signage stresses the importance of careful footwork, as every season a few unfortunate hikers end their careers in the craggy depths below. The mountain gods were favorable in this outing, allowing safe passage through the trickier bits as the angle eased a bit before dropping sharply again towards the idyllic tourist enclave of Komagane. At the bottom of the valley, just as the start of the big climb I had just put behind me, a brave husband-and-wife team were just setting off on their climb. The wife, stunningly beautiful despite her advanced age, put forth a proposal in impeccable Enlish: “You should marry my daughter.” Not used to such bold requests, I politely came up with a valid excuse. In hindsight maybe I should have at least asked her to show me a photo!

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The trail eventually tossed me out into a snowless ski field which led me to the shores of a modest lake and the completely deserted youth hostel, which happily took me in even though I was the only guest. I spent a relaxing evening watching the constellations by the side of the lake before tramping up the pavement in the morning to Komagane expressway interchange. After waiting about 10 minutes, I caught a ride with a basashi (raw horse) salesman who spend most of the ride to Nagoya on his cell phone making sales calls. He dropped me off at Ichinomiya rest area, where I was able to thumb a ride with a Korean guy all the way to Osaka. He had lived in LA for 4 years and spoke flawless English. His father owned a kimchee factory in Tsuruhashi and he was on his way back from a meeting with one of the distributors. The two Hyakumeizan in the Chuo Alps were now off the list. With only 2 months remaining in the year I hoped to conquer a couple of more peaks before the snow drifts became too deep.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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