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Happy New Year

Happy Year of the Rooster to everyone out there. Since the Chinese characters for this year are the same as bird (鳥), I leave you with a photo of a mountain that will likely see a surge in climbers this year. Can anyone guess the peak?

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Looking out across the valley towards Mt. Asama, Fumito and I dig into our lunchboxes. We’d made good time summiting Mt. Azumaya, my 49th peak. It was the 4th of June, and the rainy season was just around the corner. “I wonder if I’ll be able to reach the magic #50 before it comes” I ponder, as we run through a list of peaks still left to conquer. Suddenly, both of us remembered our botched winter attempt on Mt. Kusatsushirane, realizing that it was within earshot from the peak we were standing on. Fumito offered a humble suggestion: “we could always climb it today on our way back to Nagano.” Hmmm…..

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“Yeah, let’s do it,” I enthusiastically responded. Frantically, we packed up our half-eaten lunches and hurriedly descended down to Sugadaira farm, feasting on fresh ice cream as a reward for our rapid descent. Time check: 2:45pm. Fumito set the car navigation, as I checked the hiking maps. The race was on.

On the deserted approach to Manza hot spring, the car weaved back and forth through a thick layer of fog and mist. We were both starting to have second thoughts about our initial idea, and figured mother nature was punishing us for trying to bite off more than we could chew. Miraculously, just like a powerful jet airliner, we broke through the massive layer of cloud and soared above it all in the late afternoon sunshine. Perhaps our idea wasn’t so bad after all.

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Hastily parking the car, we grabbed our gear and started our initial approach by jogging on the paved path. My supply of energy seemed endless: after all, I was about to reach the halfway point on my 100 mountain mission. Fumito, on the other hand, was just along for the ride, so it didn’t surprise me when he shelled out the money for the chair lift! We agreed to meet on the ridgeline in 10 minutes, as I started my quick trot through a remaining snow field.

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I quickly caught up with my companion as we traversed one of the many ancient craters that house the remnants of the mighty volcano. We soon hit a trail junction, realizing that the high point lay directly opposite. The afternoon sun shone majestically, casting deep shadows on the adjacent ridge as we kept up our athletic pace. 5pm as we reached the official high point for Hyakumeizan baggers. The true summit stood a few hundred meters further north, through an area of deep undergrowth and toxic volcanic gases. Despite the ease of access and popularity of the route, we found ourselves completely alone on this spectacular Sunday afternoon. Who says getting a late start is such a bad idea?

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We retraced our steps to the parking lot, rewarding ourselves with a quick stroll to the impressive Yugama crater lake, a definite must-see for anyone with a budding interest in volcanic phenomena. Mt. Kusatsushirane may have eluded us back in February, but revenge was definitely ours as I set my sights on the remaining 50.

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I still remember the eruption of Sept. 2004 clearly. At that time, I’d never even heard about the peak, and didn’t even know there were active volcanoes in Nagano prefecture! When I finally made up my mind to climb all of the Hyakumeizan, I’d finally learned to my horror that Asama was on the list. How long would it take for the mountain to calm down enough to approach?

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The closest I’d ever got was in Febuary 2006, when Fumito and I stopped at an overlook at the base of the peak. We were returning from a botched attempt at a snow climb of Mt. Kusatsu-shirane, and the smouldering monster stood out directly in front of us. “Looks like this will have to be the final Hyakumeizan”, I pondered, looking up toward the never-ending pillar of steam and volcanic gases. 2006, however, was a good year for the peak, as gas levels finally subsided enough for the trail to become re-opened to the top of Mt. Maekake, the official peak for Hyakumeizan baggers. December 23rd was the chosen date, as Fumito loaded our gear (and santa hats!) into the car.

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The weather was phenomenal, with hardly a cloud in the sky and not a single trace of snow at the trailhead. That soon changed, however, as we hit shaded areas covered with patches of ice and crusty snow. We held off on our crampons for the time being, as the morning sun was starting to soften the crunchy layer beneath us. Upward and onward we continued, through grassy fields bleached yellow by the frigid winds and strong sunlight. The scenery was surprisingly reminiscent of the Rocky mountains of Colorado. It must’ve been the combination of jagged snow-capped peaks, pristine meadows, and the plethora of mountain goats sheltering under nearby boulders. Yep, we’d reached Kamoshika-daira, the plateau of the Japanese serow. Unfortunately, no matter how hard we looked, we couldn’t seem to locate any of the elusive creatures. It proves my theory that if you’re consciously on the lookout for wildlife you’ll never find them, but if you’re just hiking along, enjoying the surroundings, then they’ll surprise you.

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Just above the plateau, the mountain hut came into view. The kind owner invited us in for tea, and we talked about the active volcano towering directly behind. Apparently, Mt. Asama is becoming more popular for winter climbers, as the snowfall in recent years has tapered off significantly. We were hoping that the weather would hold out and that we’d have enough time to make it back before dark. With that in mind, we said a quick “Ittekimasu” and strapped on our crampons. We soon reached a vast plateau, sandwiched between Mt. Kurofu and Mt. Maekake. Ignoring the trail junctions to Kurofu and J-band, we found ourselves standing at the edge of the tree line, staring the behemoth right in the eye. Asama, just like Mt. Fuji, is an optical illusion. The summit looks so close but yet takes an eternity to reach. We were now officially in the danger zone – one sneeze from the smoldering monster and we’d be gone.

The emergency hut looked like a war zone, with the twisted and contorted metal frame providing hardly the faintest hint of protection. The carnage was from the 2004 eruption and was a good testament to the power of volcanoes. Fumito and I continued kick-stepping along the windswept ridge, occasionally dropping to our knees to avoid being blown off the peak. We finally reached our goal, took a few photos, and flew back down to an area sheltered from the gusts. We ate our lunch quickly, for an active volcano is not a place that one should loiter unnecessarily. Time check: 2:30pm. Despite it being a beautiful Sunday in December, we had the peak to ourselves, but were really starting to wonder if we could make it off the peak before dark. Hmmm…

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Hastily we descended, back to the tree cover. Not accustomed to running in 12-point crampons, I tripped and fell several times, gashing a few holes in my snow pants but luckily avoiding my precious flesh. We gave a quick “tadaima” to the hut owner to let him know of our accomplishment and safe return, and continued down to look for some more mountain serow. Once again the wonderful creatures remained in their hiding places, giving us another excuse to come back to this magical wonderland. The last rays hovered just above the ridge as we approached the frozen waterfall on the optional spur trail. We made it out just in time, as all that awaited us was a flat walk on a service road. 2km to paradise.

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Paradise, in our case, was a hot bath awaiting us at Asama-sansou, the perfect way to end an exhilarating climb of a truly respectable volcano.

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