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Posts Tagged ‘Kita Alps’

The hardest part about planning a trip to the Kita Alps is finding a clear weather window in Japan’s notoriously fickle summer weather. The second hardest part of trip planning is figuring out a schedule that works for a trio of participants, all of whom are in various stages of the COVID vaccination process. With the Olympics in full swing and COVID-19 infections on an upward trajectory, we set our eyes on July 30th as our target date for an ascent of Niigata’s highest peak, my final summit of what I have dubbed the ‘Japan 47’ – the highest mountain in each of Japan’s 47 Prefectures.

Paul picks me up at Shinano-Omachi station shortly before noon on Wednesday the 28th. The train journey northward takes most of the morning, involving transfers at both Nagoya and Matsumoto stations. Due to the pandemic, the trains are running at a fraction of capacity, with many business commuters curtailing their business trips in favor of online meetings and their own private transport. The mask stays on for the duration of the ride – I’ve grown so accustomed to wearing the protective fabric that even naps are a pleasant affair. In the past, I had always avoided wearing masks as it made me feel as if I was suffocating, but now I hardly notice the minor inconvenience.

After hitting a supermarket for lunchtime snacks, Paul guides his vehicle along the narrow curves of route 325 behind Kashimayari ski resort. At a broad clearing near the top of the lifts, a juvenile kamoshika serow crosses the lane in front of the car, nonplussed by our intrusion as the creature climbs the adjacent forested slopes in search of nourishment. We reach the end of the road and a wave of nostalgia hits, as this is where Fumito and I camped back in June of 2007 during our ascent of Mt Kashimayari. In fact, it is up this same Akaiwa spur route that I now show to Paul. Conditions are exactly as I remember them, with a concrete tunnel built under the dam at the start of the long route. The afternoon heat slows our progress as we ascend the incredibly steep spur towards Takachihodai. Due to our late start, it will be impossible to ascend Kashimayari this time around, but we make good work of the track and give up around after reaching an altitude of around 1700 meters, still 1000 meters shy of Niigata’s highest peak but it is the highest altitude I have climbed in 2021 so far, so every little bit helps.

The following morning dawns clear, so I walk out in front of Paul’s house to a clearing where I stare up at Mt Hakuba-norikura shining bright in the morning sun. These clear morning views are usually short-lived in the summer, with the usual fog and rain clouds moving in for the remainder of the day. After breakfast, Paul and I head up to Kurobishi-daira near the top of Happo ski resort for a quick ascent to Happo Ike before heading down to Hakuba to pick up our friend Naresh. Thick fog and light rain await us as we reach the parking lot, and after a quick assessment, the two of us decide to continue with our plan, knowing we can turn around should the rain showers worsen. Forgoing the ski lifts, Paul leads me up a gravel road through the ski fields until reaching what he has christened “the concrete slope of death”, as the road suddenly turns to paved concrete and ascends directly up the steepest part of the ski slope. We make good time by cutting our own switchbacks through the no-nonsense approach. Halfway up we cross paths with a solo hiker making an unsteady descent down the path which forces me to grimace, knowing our same fate awaits us just a couple of hours later.

At the top of the slope we enter a verdant marshland lined with nikkōkisuge lillies and other colorful wildflowers standing out through the monochromatic backdrop of thick fog. The rain has stopped, giving us hope that what remains above may be a little more promising. At the top of the final ski lift the proper hiking track begins and we run into our first sneakered day trippers of the morning. Most of them are working their way down through the mist. With several paths to choose from, we opt for the lower track, which skirts just below the main ridge past a lingering snowfield on broad wooden boardwalks helping to aid in the ascent. All of a sudden, the fog lifts, revealing a mouthwatering vista of Mt Goryu that sends our hearts racing with excitement. We push on, with the cloud eventually catching up to us as we reach the shores of the pond. Lingering for a few minutes in heightened anticipation, the views gradually open up, revealing brilliant skies of azure hovering above Hakuba-yari. While the remainder of the Hakuba sanzan lay enveloped in cloud, Paul and I are content with just getting a glimpse of the fantastic scenery awarded to those that choose to ascent the ridge leading to Mt Karamatsu. We push on a little higher, reaching an altitude of around 2100 meters – a great acclimatization exercise for the following day’s planned ascent of Mt Korenge.

After picking up Naresh at the station, we head off for lunch and to plan the logistics of our impending climb. With several options to choose from, we decide that sleeping at a park near Hiraiwa onsen affords our best chance of making it to Renge Onsen in time to ascend Korenge for the sunrise. This entails an early start, so after packing and resting at Paul’s house, we eat a quick dinner and head to the hot spring for a quick bath before laying our sleeping bags in the sheltered comforts of the public toilet complex at the end of a quiet road. All is calm as we close our eyes around 8pm, and with the alarm set for 12:45am, we attempt to catch some shut eye. Around 40 minutes later, a rumble in the distance grows louder as it appears that a very large lorry is headed directly for our campsite. A large spotlight shines towards us as the noise crescendos and skirts past our front door. In our rush to catch some sleep we have failed to realize that our meager accommodation sits just meters from the train tracks of the JR Oito line, and our intruder is non other than the infrequent train carriage shuttling passengers to Minami-Otari. Two more trains pass by during the evening, robbing us of a good night’s sleep but still – the show must go on.

We are on the road at 1am as Paul guides his vehicle up the deserted road under the cover of darkness. Our first signs of wildlife suddenly appear, as a wild boar ducks for cover on the grassy slopes while further along, we come face to face with a massive buck who simply stares at us from frightened eyes on the shoulder of the narrow road. Shortly before 2am we park, unload the gear, and set off on our journey towards the alpine. I take the lead, setting a gradual but steady pace past some strong sulfuric fumes wafting from somewhere above. The famed outdoor baths of Renge Onsen sit off in a clearing on our left, and while the appeal of a soothing bath is hard to pass up, we all silently agree that these things are best enjoyed after a hard day on the slopes, so we push on with anticipation.

Our route is lined with a multitude of switchbacks through a healthy forest of hardwoods, and as we reach a clearing we turn off the headlamps and enjoy the moonlit views of Mt Asahi and Mt Yukikura sitting elegantly under calm and starlit skies. Winds are calm, almost unnaturally so, teasing us into thinking that this high-pressure system is sticking around for the long haul. Sweat trickles down my brow as I focus on the rhythm of my footsteps – with such a large vertical elevation change, it’s all you can do to keep your mind off of how much further you have to go. Signposts are affixed at around every 200 vertical meters of elevation gain, and by the time we reach the Tengu’s garden just above 2000 meters in elevation, the eastern horizon hints that dawn will soon be upon us. We still have roughly 3km to go before reaching the tree line, and along the uneven boulders of the rough track, progress is slow but steady. In a race against the rising sun, the luxury of taking breaks has been shelved in favor of maintaining our steady progress. The clink of metal against the rock diverts my attention, and as I turn around I witness Naresh snap his trekking pole in two in an attempt to dislodge it between two stubborn boulders.

We with realization that our race with the sunrise is in jeopardy, I give permission for Paul to push ahead while Naresh and I hold up the rear. Paul wants to gaze at the first light of the new day from as high on the ridge as he can, while the two of us will be happy with ushering in the dawn by the shores of Hakuba-Oike pond. The track skirts the edge of a Erman’s birch forest before giving away to creeping pine and vast swaths of wildflowers carpeting both sides of the trail like a floral arrangement at a bridal fair. The red roof of Shirane-oike hut comes into view, together with the calm waters of the oval tarn. The sun remains hidden behind a thin layer of cloud on the horizon, giving us the upper hand. Naresh takes one look at me and pushes on ahead and for good reason: the higher we climb above the lake the better the vantage point of the rising sun.

It’s amazing how your body can adapt to the lack of sleep and relentless gains in altitude. We’ve been on our feet for nearly three hours and have not paused more than a few seconds to catch our breath, but I feel no fatigue nor drowsiness: it is as if sheer beauty of nature serves as my energy source. At the top of the rise, around an elevation of 2500 vertical meters, Naresh and I find what we are looking for: a small clearing of fist-sized stones which make for the perfect perch for our first break of the day. We have just minutes to spare before the first rays of light reach our face. What better way to celebrate than to break out my stash of chocolate covered coffee beans.

The temperature hovers around 15 degrees in stark contrast to the 30-degree temperatures a couple of thousand vertical meters below us. As the sun makes an appearance, we turn westward, mesmerized at the alpenglow hitting Mt Yukikura and Mt Asahi. Southwest of us, further above the undulating ridge, Mt Korenge sits in a thick swath of morning cloud. Is Paul sitting up in that cloud robbed of a view?

The path meanders past a series of large cairns and up into the true alpine zone, with a plethora of wildflowers, rock ptarmigan, and ever-expanding views to keep the mind off the sleep deprivation. Naresh takes up the rear, soaking in the scenery as I gaze skywards towards the cloud bank still clinging tightly to the summit. At the top of the rise, we reach the summit of Funakoshi-no-kashira and are awarded with our first clear vista of the Daisekkei along with the rest of the Ura-Tateyama mountain range lined up in succession. Stubborn cloud hovers around Mt Kashimayari and Mt Goryu, robbing us of a clear summit profile but our current vantage point demands our undivided attention. Naresh and I pause, taking it all in.

Descending to a saddle, with dizzying drops on our left down to the Ukijima wetlands, we follow the undulating contours of the ridge as it chauffeurs us up and over a series of false summits. I call out Paul’s name just before the crest of each rise before realizing in a dejected sigh that there is still quite some distance to go. Pushed on by an unseen force, the drive to summit Niigata’s highest peak, I continue, footfall by steady footfall, until I glimpse the fog-tinged silhouette of a dozen hikers standing on the true summit as the realization of my impending accomplishment starts to weigh on my emotions. Twenty years has this long journey taken me, not only up the Nihon Hyakumeizan but beyond, to the corner of every prefecture in this geographically diverse archipelago as I attempt to accomplish what no other foreigner, alive or dead, has ever done. My eyes moisten at the thought, but I fight back the tears and take my final steps with a smile instead.

Upon reaching the summit, a round of applause emanates from the other hikers as Paul offers his congratulations. As we set up for celebratory photos, the clouds suddenly part for the first time that fateful morning, leading to an improvised chorus of oohs and ahhs from our mountain spectators. I break out the banner my father-in-law made for me and snap a few photos in the unexpected sunlight. My watch reveals that it is just past 6:30 in the morning, the climb having taken us around four-and-a-half hours. We rest of the summit and enjoy a snack while Paul tries to coax me to continue my hike by summiting Mt Shirouma. Naresh has never climbed that peak but I am not interested in climbing it as the summit is still covered in fog. Plus, I have done what I set out to do, and there’s no reason to risk altitude sickness or a turned ankle by overstaying my welcome. Paul passes me the car keys while I sit on the summit, watching my hiking companions as they disappear toward the enveloping cloud.

With the highest mountain in each of Japan’s 47 prefectures now successfully climbed, I can now announce my retirement from peak bagging. While chasing mountain summits has been a lot of fun, I will no longer let my hiking destinations be determined by a list of arbitrary mountains. From now on, I will make my decisions based on my own criteria, which will mainly involve climbing peaks that look interesting, that lie further off the beaten path, and have not been included on anyone’s subjective list of ‘famous’ mountains. Stay tuned as I continue my travels deeper into the unexplored innards of this amazing country.

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Fumito met me at Hakuba station early on a cool October morning. The further north the train went, the worse the weather became. Our original plan was to conquer Mt. Goryu, but as Fumito and I stood under the station shelter in the cold, pelting rain, we changed tack and looked over my list of remaining peaks. “Hmmm”, I muttered, “Mt. Yake doesn’t seem so far from here.” I jumped in Fumito’s car as we headed south, towards the sunny skies of Matsumoto. Matsumoto city sat in this unique pocket of sunshine, surrounded by heavy cloud on all sides. Fumito pointed the car west, towards Kamikochi and the dark foreboding skies. A hour or so later we rounded the switchbacks above Nakanoyu hot spring and parked at the trailhead.

Faced with exactly the same wet skies as Hakuba, we put on our wet weather gear and ducked into the forest. Our logic for choosing Yake was, at 2400 meters above sea level, the weather was less likely to turn to snow as our original destination, which sat 400 vertical meters higher. We pushed through the virgin forest like two mountain lions chasing prey, and soon we found ourselves on the slopes of the hissing volcano. Once we hit the ridge, the winds increased 5-fold and the visibility cut to less than 1 meter. Turning left through some sulfuric steam vents, we topped out sometime in the early afternoon, sticking around only long enough to snap a quick photo before seeking shelter from the wind. Fumito broke out the stove at the base of a large rock formation while I jumped around to stave off hypothermia. Though the rain had let up, the wind was ferocious, signaling that the weather front was moving through. Tomorrow was likely to be a clear day, but neither of us wanted to stick around to find out.

Once back at the parking lot, we soaked in the nearby baths for nearly an hour, trying to bring feeling back into our frozen appendages. Fumito then dropped me off at Matsumoto station, where I checked into a hotel and prayed for good weather on the next day’s visit to Mt. Norikura.

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Full details/logistics of this traverse can be found in my guidebook

 

The rain fell in waves throughout the long, cold night. I slept with every layer on, including my raingear, for the sleeping bag served no purpose other than soaking up water from the bottom of the tent like a sponge floating in the kitchen sink. Fortunately the rains gave way to unexpected sunshine, and I packed up the gear one final time and headed up past Kenzan-so hut to the ridge just below the trail to Tsurugi’s rugged facade. My original plan was to drop the pack off here and head up to the summit for the last peak in the character-building traverse. Tsurugi is no mountain to take lightly, requiring plenty of physical and mental strength to successfully navigate the near-vertical rock walls. I sat on the ridge for nearly an hour, staring up at the approaching cloud. I knew I could make it up but had no confidence on the descent, and the peak has zero margin for error. One wrong foot placement and you would easily plummet to your death.

The decision wasn’t really difficult to make. Head up Tsurugi, camp another night, and head back to Osaka in the morning. Throw in the towel now, and all that stood between a hot bath and warm meal was a steep descent to Murodo. As I shouldered my pack and turned my back on the peak, I felt the color return to my cheeks. As my friend John regularly reminded me over the years: “The mountains will always be there”.

With the sun directly overhead, I pushed on the nearly flat traverse to Tsurugi-gozen, turned one last time to bid farewell to a mountain I would need to climb at some point, and meandered down to the tent city of Raichozawa. From here it was a short climb and detour through the steaming sulfuric steam verts of Jigokudani, and directly into one of the huts housing a hot spring bath. It was my first bath in nearly 10 days, and I could have stayed there for an eternity, if not for the hunger pangs that reminded me of my dire need for nutrients. I headed upstairs to the dining room of Migurigaike hut, feasted like it was my first meal out of the womb, and began to figure out how to get back to Osaka. After a few inquiries, I was told of the existence of Murodo, a massive bus terminal just up the hill.

After spending 8 days in relative solitude, the swarm of daytripping tourists was a bit too much to handle. I bought a bus ticket and got out of there as quickly as I could, and vowed never to return.

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Full details/logistics of this traverse can be found in my guidebook

 

Sometime after dawn broke, I awoke to find my sleeping bag completely submerged in a puddle of water that had formed at the bottom of my tent. Though the rains had abated, I still faced a dilemma about what to do with my useless canvas bed. I ate, organized gear, and set off in complete silence, a true sign of low morale. I’m sure Goshiki-ga-hara is a spectacular place in perfect weather, but in the early morning fog the scenery looked the same as every other day on this godforsaken trek. I definitely needed something to snap me out of this bitter mood.

As the trail left the flats and climbed towards Ryuuou-dake, something miraculous happened. All of a sudden, just like an airplane climbing to cruising altitude, I broke out above the clouds and had my first views above the treeline since the summit of Mt. Yari five days earlier. Directly in front of me, Tateyama’s horse-shaped ridge towered above the Kurobe valley far below, and all those ill feelings bottled up inside vanished in the mist, the smile finally returning to my glum complexion. On the bald summit of Mt. Jodo I took my first break of the morning and admired the lingering snowfields scattered across the alpine plains like the sand traps of a massive golf course. From here the trail drops directly to the main saddle below Tateyama and meets up with the main trail coming up from Murodo.

At the beginning of the long descent I run into a foreign male, my second of the entire trip. He was on his way to Kamikochi, along the same route I had just completed. What knowledge could I possibly share about a route I had hardly even seen? The best I could conjure up was a hearty “Good Luck” before continuing on the trail. Ten meters later I tripped on a rock, flipped forward, bounced off the back of my pack, and somehow landed upright, which likely prevented me from rolling down the rest of my trail like a runaway tire. This stumble could have been avoided if I had trekking poles with me. Another lesson learned on this never-ending trek.

Once at the saddle, I ran into crowds the likes of which I had not seen since Kamikochi. Several hundred vertical meters down on my left I could make out the bus terminal at Murodo, one of the most popular entry points to the Kita Alps. The climb up to the shrine took just 15 minutes, as I passed by heaps of daytrippers gasping for breath. I had over a week to acclimatize while most of them had only just arrived from sea level. At the shrine I took a brief break before pushing on along the ridge to the official highpoint of Mt. Onanji. I took a quick snapshot before being swallowed by the advancing cloud. The rest of the ridge to Bessan was once again in that all-familiar backdrop of white. I wasted no time in dropping to Tsurugi-Gozen hut and finally down through the snow fields to the tent city of Tsurugi-sawa, where I unsuccessfully tried to dry my sleeping bag in the cold mountain mist.

This drizzle soon turned into a full rain storm, as I once again retreated to the toilet block, which was smaller and stinkier than the one at Goshiki. What did I do to deserve the wrath of Mother Nature? An hour or so into the rain storm, a man approached me and asked in clear English if I needed a helicopter rescue. Either he was out for a quick buck (copter rescues in Japan are astronomically expensive) or he somehow knew the sorry state of my gear. I politely declined and eventually crawled into my tent. Using my wet sleeping bag as a ground sheet, I rigged up my large pack to serve as a dry, albeit very uncomfortable bed.

It was going to be a long night, but the last one I would have to spend in discomfort.

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Full details/logistics of this traverse can be found in my guidebook

 

From Sugo-norikoshi campsite, the peaks rise from the earth as if pulled up by Ninigi no Mikoto himself. Through the translucent rays of the rainbow and whispy clouds I could just make out the path leading up and over the horse-like contours of Mt. Ecchuzawa, which checks in at just under 2600m above sea level. This route is a breeze in favorable conditions, but those of you who have followed this saga from Day 1 will note my penchant for attracting horrendous weather.

So it was under heavy cloud that I broke down camp and started on my ascent into the unknown. Although dry, the sky looked as if it would empty its bladder at any moment. I raced up to Sugonokashira in my signature blue singlets with a rare smile on my lips. For cloudy as it was, the fog had stayed away, offering favorable views towards the south. My destination, however, was to the north, where a blanket of white cut off everything in sight. You really weren’t expecting anything less, were you?

The maps say to allow at least 6 hours from Sugonorikoshi to Goshiki-ga-hara but you can easily add an hour or two when trying to navigate the tight squeezes with an oversized pack. There were a few places where I physically had to dismount and drag my gear behind me. After a week on the trails, boulder scrambling tends to wear on your nerves a bit, and the chains were a reminder to not let the mind drift off too carelessly. Once out of harm’s way, I started the long descent towards Goshiki, where I had to make several important decisions. The hut at Goshiki has a warm bath, my first chance of washing my body since leaving the river in Kamikochi a week before. While tempting, there was also the other option of giving it all I had, pushing on another half a day and actually reaching Tateyama, where a real hot spring awaited.

While these scenarios played themselves over and over in my delirious head, nature had decided to make the decision much easier for me by dropping buckets of cold liquid across the trail. The rain that now enveloped my alpine surroundings had made the previous storms on my trip seem like drizzle. I hastily strapped on the pack cover, threw on the rain jacket and coasted down to Goshiki hut. Once inside, I ordered a hot bowl of udon, my first and only hut-cooked meal of the entire traverse. After wolfing down the noodles, I inquired at reception about being able to have a bath. “I’m sorry, baths are only for customers staying in the hut”, replied the gruff gentlemen, who’d obviously grown weary of turning away campers. My heart sank below my bowels as I sat back on the bench and consulted my finances. In my wallet lie 12,000 yen. A bath would cost a minimum of 6000 yen (the cost of staying in the hut without meals), which would leave me 6000 yen to not only get off Murodo, but catch a train back to Osaka. On the contrary, a night in my tent would set me back only 500 yen. Rationality prevailed as I put down my coin and sulked my way down to the campsite.

I set up my tent in the rain and retreated to the toilets to wait out the storm. My tent, if you could call it that, was nothing more than a glorified lean-to, with only one tent pole in the center. Both ends had to be staked down, and once inside you could do very little other than lie flat on your back and look up at the canvas ceiling. All of the other tents I’d seen on this trip had plenty of head room, where occupants could leisurely sit up, play cards with their tentmates, and wile away the time while sitting out the storm. Claustrophobic my dwelling was, so I simply sat at the edge of the foul-smelling concrete bunker and pouted. I was not a happy camper and longed for nothing more than a hot bath and a home-cooked meal. Eventually nature called for most of the campers, so I was able to pass the time by first startling them by sitting like a cold, lost soul in the toilets, and finally making small talk by inquiring about trail conditions to Tateyama.

The small talk seemed to help, for the leader of yet another wandervogel club came to the rescue and offered a 1kg bag of uncooked white rice as a kind token. I guess my lack of supplies must have gotten out to other campers, as I was presented an apple by an elderly woman a few moments later. The smile slowly returned to my ailing complexion and I chomped on the fruit and watched the torrential rain fall unabated. Eventually dusk settled in, and I hurriedly retrieved my cooking gear from my home and cooked up some of the white rice in the toilet, which turned into the consistency of porridge because I couldn’t be bothered trying to measure the proper amount of water without a light source. Belly stuffed, I left my cooking gear as is in the restroom and settled in for a long night of fitful sleep. Would this nightmare weather ever end?

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Full details/logistics of this traverse can be found in my guidebook

 

“Hi Wes”, echoed the voice through the faint darkness of the pre-dawn light. A lone female figure gently approached my alpine kitchen, presenting a handful of rice crackers as if making an offer to a deity. “Yuka”, I screamed, stunned beyond belief that I would run into one of my students here, 2400 meters above sea level and hundreds of kilometers from home. We chatted for a few minutes while the rest of her wandervogel club members broke down camp. In the summer you run into a lot of these university mountaineering circles, who usually carry enormous packs and hog most of the sacred camp space by setting up 12-man tents! A few of her fellow club members joined in the conversation before the group chugged like a freight train through the gentle meadows of Kumanodaira. I was headed in the opposite direction, back above the tree line for the rest of the day, but this chance encounter gave me the energy boost I needed and helped keep my mind off the sad state of my scab-encrusted knees.

The first half an hour of tramping was fairly easy going. Once I reached Yakushi-daira, I had my first and only mobile phone coverage of the entire trip. Nowadays with the right smart phone you can get uninterrupted coverage in most of the Japan Alps, but a decade ago your only contact with the outside world was with the mountain hut staff, who had radio contact with their main office in the towns below. I spent a few minutes clearing my inbox of messages, called my roommate to let her know I was safe, and packed up the device just before disappearing into thick cloud. There would be no breathtaking views of Yakushi’s unique landscape. Instead, I’d see that all-too-familiar white background. The ridges of the Alps looks pretty much the same when caked in fog – a repetitive mix of ankle-high brush pine, alpine flora clinging tightly to whatever soil could be grasped between the endless field of burrito-sized rocks. On the summit I met one other hiker armed with an instant camera who offered to snap a summit proof. This photo would come in handy later on the traverse when encountering other hikers inquiring about the weather conditions.

Somewhere on the ridge between Yakushi and Kita-Yakushi the skies opened up as I scrambled to put on the rain cover. The rain came down in sheets, soaking me to the bone. All I could do was to push on, hoping to drop back down to the tree line before hypothermia set in. “I thought the rainy season was over”, I repeatedly mumbled to myself. Mid-August is generally a time of stable high-pressure that tends to bring favorable climbing conditions to Japan’s loftier peaks. Someone forgot to relay this information to Toyama Prefecture. After a few hours of trance-like slogging, I arrived at Sugo-nokkoshi hut in unexpected sunshine. It was sometime in the early afternoon, and once I’d set up home and cooked a modest meal the second round of rains swept through the campsite. 20 minutes later I popped out of my shelter only to be greeted by a rainbow.

My neighbors in the campground had just completed their first day of alpine trekking. They had started in Tateyama earlier in the day, and with their unbelievably quick pace they’d likely make it to Mt. Yari by the time it would take me to arrive in Murodo. Still, it was comforting to know that my destination was only 1 day away if I really pushed myself. All of that would depend on what nature threw at me the following day. With dreams of sunshine and blue skies I drifted off to sleep, trying to rest up my sore knees for the final push to Tateyama’s sacred abode.

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Full details/logistics of this traverse can be found in my guidebook

 

The rain continued on and off throughout the chilly night, the tent fly rustling continuously in the steady winds like a flag perched high on a ship mast. Early the next morning I boiled water for oatmeal inside the tent, thinking of every possible excuse to delay my impending assault on Mt. Kurobegoro, the giant peak that loomed somewhere above the now-deserted campsite. I came up with a makeshift plan: pack up everything while still inside the tent, put on my shoes, jump out of the tent, roll it up into one large messy ball, tie it to the outside of my pack, and march off into the sunset. If only things could be so easy.

The first struggle came after breaking down camp, when I realized my waterproof pack cover wouldn’t fit over the bulging vinyl of the tent freshly strapped to the side of my pack. Even though the rain had stopped, the heavy cloud brought drizzle that could easily soak my entire kit if left exposed. In came plan B, which involved stuffing the tent in the small gap between the top of my pack and my head, forming a makeshift pillow. The only problem with this is that I physically couldn’t reach around and do it myself once I had put my pack on. Luckily, someone at the hut came to my rescue, securing my gear steadily in place. Of course this meant that I wouldn’t be able to take off my pack at all until arriving at my next destination.

So up I went, back above the tree line into the suffocating cloud. The next couple of hours involved a marching ascent through what I’ve been told is one of the most picturesque cirques in all of the Kita Alps, but all I saw was a alternating pattern of rock and snow.   Eventually I reached the junction just below the high point. Turning left I topped out on the summit of Kurobegoro, my 6th Hyakumeizan, and turned around to admire the endless array of peaks directly behind me. Even though I could only see 1 meter in front of me, I tried to imagine what I should have been viewing if mother nature had decided to reward me with some decent weather! Dejected, I pushed on in silence. An hour further down the ridge, through a steep, heavily eroded gully, I popped out of the clouds, and got my first views in 3 days. Directly in front of me, a thousand meters below, sat the pristine shores of Lake Arimine. Further east, I could follow the contours of the ridge line all the way to Tarobei hut, where I’d planned to spend the night. Beyond, the mountains rose again to a thick bank of white, obstructing my view of Mt. Yakushi, which I had in mind for the following day. The views helped brighten the mood, as I coasted along the well-worn ridge to campsite on the saddle between the hut and the long climb to Yakushi.

After paying the caretaker of the campground, I scurried through the rock-filled area, searching for the perfect place to pitch my tent. Alas, on the other side of the clearing sat a perfect place to call home for the night, and in my excited haste I neglected to check my footing. Suddenly, as if pushed by a supernatural force, my left ankle caught the guy-wire holding up a massive 10-man tent. Instantly I was sent airborne, landing on my belly with the full force of my heavy pack sandwiching me on the rocks. My knees absorbed most of the impact, sending shockwaves through my body and contorting my face into a grimaced caricature. Instantly the tent occupants rushed outside to my assistance as the screams of pain echoed through the valley. Two guys unstrapped my gear as another two helped me to my feet and escorted me back up the hill to the medical clinic inside Tarobei hut.

“Just some surface wounds”, replied the medic, who patched me up and sent me on my way after a speedy 15-minute examination. Even though the medical service is free, they do request a 2000 yen “donation” to help cover costs. Still, getting a wound properly treated in the alpine is much better than risking an infection. The rest of the afternoon I lazed away at the tent village, chatting with other hikers about the long traverse to Tateyama that lay before me. I was at the halfway point in traverse, both in terms of distance and time, and could only hope that my newly-battered knees would mend in time to complete the man-powered voyage.

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Full details/logistics of this traverse can be found in my guidebook

 

The rain came down in a steady rhythm not long after dusk. Fortunately I had already finished cooking and brushed my teeth in the washroom of Sugoroku hut. My face rested just a few inches from the canvas on the tiny tent as condensation covered the rain fly. Below my body lay small pebbles protruding against the vinyl of the tent floor – I had abandoned the luxury of a sleeping pad in order to save pack space, which seemed like a wise choice at the time.

Early the next morning the rain subsided, but thick mist enveloped everything in sight. After gearing up, I hit the desolate trail, foregoing the ridge of Mt. Sugoroku in favor of the sheltered protection of the valley. Picking my way through the boulders and snow fields, I topped out on Mt. Mitsumata-renge, where I met the full force of the gales sweeping over the ridge. Though the rain had dissipated, the moisture in the cloud cover soaked my rain jacket thoroughly, sending shivers down my exposed legs. Just like the past 3 days of my adventure, I’d been hiking in shorts and didn’t even have rain pants among my limited gear inventory.

The next stretch down to Kurobegoro hut was comfortable, since I had descended back down to the tree line and was protected from the elements by the brush pine and deciduous tree cover. I walked as if in a trance though, thinking nothing except for the hunger pangs in my abdomen. Once I reached the hut, I had a crucial decision to make. I could carry on traversing 4 or 5 hours to Yakushi-toge, or pack it in and call it a day. The decision wasn’t really that difficult to make, since I was soaked to the bone, ravishingly parched, and short of stamina. Up until this point I had survived three very long and tough days of hiking, so it only made sense to have a bit of a break. I was the first one to set up camp, shortly before 1pm. After cooking lunch, I drifted off to sleep dreaming of sunshine and a warm breeze. All in all I had hiked less than four hours, but enjoyed my lazy day, even if most of it was spend in the cramped confines of my tent. The rain once again pushed through around 5pm, and didn’t let up until sometime after dark, when I roused myself to hastily cook up some grub before the next squall moved through. Would this low pressure system continue its stronghold on the area, or would fair skies prevail? I had no contact with the outside world: no TV weather forecasts, internet connections, or any instruments for recording barometric pressure. I’d simply have to wake up and deal with whatever mother nature had in store.

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Full details/logistics of this traverse can be found in my guidebook

 

I broke down camp sometime in the early morning of my 3rd day in the backcountry. It’s amazing how quickly you can disassemble everything after a couple of days of practice. The high pressure system once again held up, as I followed the stream through  Yarisawa until the waters petered out into the alpine. The route was well-marked with tape on the creeping pine and yellow paint marks on the rocks. I kept a pretty steady pace, stopping only to replenish my water bottles once they’d been emptied into my dried belly. I’d pretty much put the maps and my watch away, instead relying on the movements of the sun to gauge my progess. Scores of hikers filed down through the valley after catching the first rays of the sun from Yari’s speak-like point. My target peak was clearly visible on the horizon, though it took nearly 5 hours of tough slogging to reach the ridge.

Once at the hut, I dropped my gear off and raced up the chains and ladders to the summit. Luckily, only a handful of people were making their way up the summit, since most trekkers were well on their way to their waiting accommodation by the toll of the midday bells. After a quick summit shot, I backtracked to the hut and ate a lunch of instant noodles. I chatted with a group of university students who were on an excursion through their school’s wandervogel club. They gave me some good advice about the ridge between Yari and Sugoroku hut, my target for the day. “It’s long but the path is easy to follow”, encouraged the leader of the group. After posing for photos, I once again fastened my sagging pack and picked my way through the paint rocks on the main spine of the northern Alps ridge. I soon caught up with 2 men also making the trek to Sugoroku, so it was nice to actually do part of the walk with some companionship for a change. Up until this point I’d passed hundreds of other hikers, but my late starts and awkward decisions meant I’d walked in solitude most of the time. We rolled into camp sometime before 6pm, as I searched for a place to pitch the tent among the city of trekkers. A word of advice for future hikers: the best campsites are usually gone before lunch.

Once settled in, the skies lit up in brilliant colors before the fog rolled in for good. Little did I know how shy these alpine ridges can be in the summer. The cloud usually comes in shortly after sunrise, hangs around most of the day, lifts a little before sunset, and settles back in most of the night before lowering itself to the valley floor before sunrise, only to repeat itself the next day. Of course, that’s the pattern during a period of high pressure, but once the storm systems start to move in, it’s an entirely different story as I was soon about to find out.

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Full details/logistics of this traverse can be found in my guidebook

Day 2 dawned clear, but my late start meant I had the first climb completely to myself. You see, the sun rises shortly after 4am in summer, but my body screamed for extra rest after the epic climb from Kamikochi the previous day. I opted for the leisurely alarm time of 7am, and awoke to find the campground deserted and hikers well on their way to wherever they were headed. After cooking breakfast and breaking down camp, I started the short climb to the summit of Mt. Karasawa. Cumulus clouds floated strikingly close to the ridge line, but luckily skies to the south were still clear. Mt. Fuji stood out like a thimble on the infinite horizon as I lazily admired the views. From the top of Mt. Karasawa, the trail strangely vanished. I searched all around the summit for the paint marks that would take me down the other side, but they were nowhere in sight. Perhaps I needed to retrace my steps back to the hut? Or maybe….

I heard a faint sound coming from the north ridge. Suddenly, as if appearing from the subterranean depths of hell, rose a bare hand, quickly followed by the torso of a middle-aged woman. She collapsed on the summit next to me, chanting taihen like it were some kind of Buddhist mantra. The rest of her climbing party eventually followed suit. I peered over the edge of the peak in the direction they’d just climbed, only to find a metal chain descending vertically into the depths below. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I screamed, wondering how on earth I was going to lower both myself, and my hefty gear down the precipice. I took 3 deep breaths, turned 180 degrees, and slowly lowered myself, using not only the chains, but also the rock edges for stability. I felt the footholds but could not see them, repeating this painstaking procedure meter by meter until reaching the first landing point. About halfway down, one of my water bottles dislodged itself, plummeting down the abyss into a painless death. Fortunately it did not hit any of the hikers below me waiting to ascend or my hiking days would surely be done.

The ridge continued in this fashion for around 30 minutes before flattening out a little and skirting around more rock formations. The clouds once again swept in, blotting out the death zones just below me. Here, out of the depths came a foreigner from the opposite direction. He had started in Tateyama, and was making his way up the route I’d traversed yesterday. We chatted about 20 minutes, sharing course information and advice. “Watch out in the Daikiretto”, he added ” especially if the cloud is in.” The words could not have been more discouraging. With the clouds came the mist, the damp rocks gradually reaching the color and consistency of a river bed. An hour or so later I arrived at Mt Kita-hotaka and sat on the deck of Kitahotaka-goya, pondering my predicament. Just below my feet lay the entrance to the Daikiretto, a serrated edge of crumbly rock and near-vertical cliff face. Every year a handful of hikers either fall to their death or are critically injured. The crawl from Karasawa-dake to here had completely zapped my confidence, which is exactly what you do not need when faced with a mentally exhausting climb. I came up with an alternative plan. Instead of continuing along the ridge, why not drop back down to the valley and climb Mt. Yari from Yari-sawa? Sure it might add an extra day to the traverse, but surely it’d be safer than tempting fate on the chains and ladders in the daikiretto? And with that I descended, 800 vertical meters to the massive tent city of Karasawa.

From Karasawa, I continued the long descent through Yokoo valley to Yokoo-sanso, where I turned north past Yarisawa Lodge and up to the campsite of the ruins of Yarisawa hut, at 1900 meters above sea level. After pitching the tent and cooking dinner, I drifted off to sleep with the sounds of thunder high on the ridge above. A thunderstorm was ravaging the alpine, but here in the valley everything remained dry. If I’d stayed on the ridge I’d surely be fighting for my life. Sometimes you just need to follow your instincts, and never be afraid to back down from precarious situations. After the drama of the last 2 days, what would day 3 have in store, as I would ascend back to the ridge and up to Mt. Yari?

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