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Posts Tagged ‘Mt. Shirouma’

When I was a child, I used to stare up at the sky from the windows of our 4-door station wagon and imagine myself hopping gracefully from cloud to cloud like a hare foraging through the lush greenery of a freshly pruned golf course. On family trips to visit distant relatives, I vividly recall the exact moment of the jetliner breaking through the mist towards the upper reaches of the troposphere, revealing an endless collection of round, fluffy cumulus basking in the unobstructed ultraviolet rays. Looking out upon the floating sea of white, I often wondered if it were possible to perch myself at the edge of this wonderful abyss, to literally reach out and stroke the soft fur of the docile-looking vapor as it moved elegantly through my young fingertips. On the morning of October 14th, 2003, at 2100m above sea level on my 3rd and final day in the Hakuba section of the Japan Alps, my wish came true.

Unzipping my tent fly, I rushed out to fulfill my childhood fantasy, standing on the edge of an infinite expanse of cloud stretching out to Mt. Amakazari hovering on the milky horizon. Crouching down, I brushed my bare hands across the silvery mist, immune to the subzero temperatures that would normally turn exposed skin into a frostbitten mess. For this brief moment of time, nothing else in life mattered.

The Japanese have word for this phenomenon. It’s called 雲海 (unkai), which literally translates as ‘cloud sea’. It actually happens quite frequently at the higher elevations, but usually the clouds gather hundreds of meters below your vantage point. Rarely does one find him or herself camped on the shores of the alabaster sea.

I spent the next 3 hours taking in the scenery from the warmth of the open-air bath, as snow flurries fell gently from the stratus clouds high, high above. I’d given up all hope of traversing over to Mt. Karamatsu the moment I stepped out of the tent, opting instead for the gentle descent back to the start of the hike at Sarukura. I wanted to leisurely savor this unforgettable spectacle, doing my utmost to break down camp as painstakingly slow as possible. Occasionally the mist would sweep up over me, severing my view of the outside world like a prisoner forced into a poorly-lit cell,

only to retreat as gingerly as it rose, re-uniting me with my childhood love.

Eventually I worked up enough courage to take those first important steps in my long descent back to civilization. Just before dropping down into the fog for the remainder of the hike, I turned around for one last look at what I now refer to as Paradise Col, knowing that I’d never again be able to replicate the feelings that permeated through my adrenaline laden torso.

I’m often asked which of the Hyakumeizan is my favorite. I often prefer to answer in reference to experiences rather than specific mountains, for that’s what we tend to retain in our memory the longest. The remainder of my slog back to the parking lot is, in all honesty, a bit of a blur, but unfortunately I do remember the unfriendly hut staff who refused to give me a ride back to the station even though they knew the bus had stopped running for the season. Not wanting to end the trip on a low note, I marched on down the forest road for a few kilometers, flagging down a ride from a forest service truck on their way back into town. I further showed my disgust in front of the station by scowling at the same hut staff who’d earlier left me for dead. Instead of a confrontation, I merely stood at the edge of the busy street, thumb outstretched, and hitched all the way to Nagoya. Actions truly speak louder than words at times.

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I woke at the crack of dawn, anxious to inspect the weather and trail conditions for day 2 of my frigid traverse. The snow that fell the previous night was, thankfully, too wet to settle and I was facing the exact same conditions as day 1: a light drizzle and strong winds.

Eating a light meal, I bade farewell to my hut companions and crawled up to the summit of Mt. Shirouma in complete solitude. There was absolutely no view to speak of, sans an interesting rock formation resembling the profile of Abe Lincoln:

Cold, wet, and utterly miserable, I followed the mist covered path, skirting the side of Mt. Shakushi before ascending rather steeply to the top of Mt. Yari. I dropped my oversized pack for a quick break on the lofty summit, when I noticed a sudden break in the cloud. Raising my lens, I snapped a memento before the thick cloud swooped down for good.

I reached the trail junction for Yari-onsen, dreaming of the comfort of the hot open-air bath lying somewhere below. “I’ll just go for a quick look,” knowing quite well that if I dropped off the ridge I’d lose all motivation to climb back up. Chains in the steep bits helped on the slippery rocks, and 40 minutes later I found myself staring at a large mass of wooden planks wrapped in blue tarp. Yet another mountain hut had been dismantled for the long winter season. Directly to the left of this unsightly mass, a flash of turquoise caught my eye as I parted with my gear to investigate. Two meters below the path sat a small, deserted, stone bathtub filled with ultramarine liquid. “Perfect”, I yelped, but would the water actually be warm enough to bath in?

I scrambled down to the shore, stuck in my hand to test the temperature, and immediately stripped naked. There’d be no more hiking today, I resigned, as I pitched the tent right underneath the basin.

I spent the remainder of the day and night alternating between the arctic environs of my tent and the subtropical comfort of the hot spring bath. Tomorrow I’d have to make the difficult choice between continuing on to Karamatsu or accepting defeat by retreating to Sarukura, a decision based solely on weather conditions.

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The forecast wasn’t looking good. Rain and cloud marks on the horizon for the next several days, but some unseen force seemed to propel me onto that overnight train bound for Hakuba in early October. The assignment? A 3-day traverse up to Mt. Shirouma and along the ridge to Mt. Karamatsu before descending via Happo-One ski resort.

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The peaks were engulfed in thick cloud as I boarded the bus for Sarukura, the starting point for one of the more popular routes up to the summit. The bus was only about a quarter-full, thanks no doubt to the foul weather and lateness of the season. After stretching my muscles and exhuming the winter coat inadvertently buried at the very bottom of my oversized pack, I headed up the trail just to the left of the large mountain hut. The path, much to my surprise, turned into a long, gravel forest road which carved its way past concrete waterfalls, dams, and other man-made atrocities. The rain was calm but steady, and I was thankful for buying the new pack cover the previous day. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally reached the end of the road and onto the trailhead proper. First stop: Hakuba-jiri hut.

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The rest area inside the hut was warm and absolutely inviting as I drank warm cocoa and studied the maps. I knew that soon I’d be entering the Dai-sekkei, a enormous year-round snow field requiring crampons for safe passage. Anyone who lived in Japan in 2003 will remember the difficulty of finding winter hiking equipment, as I had to visit 3 different outdoor shops to find what I needed: a sturdy pair of 6-pointers that would become the single most important piece of equipment in my kit during the coming years. At the hut I couldn’t help noticing that every single rafter and floorboard were numbered and seemed to fit together like an intricate jigsaw puzzle. “We dismantle the hut every year to prevent avalanches from wiping it out,” confessed one of the hut employees upon my polite inquiry. “We’re to start dismantling as soon as the weather clears.”

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I worked my way to the start of the snow field, anxious to try out the new crampons. The snow had formed an gargantuan melt-freeze layer several meters thick, and my new equipment sure made things easier. The Lonely Planet guys are nuts when they said crampons weren’t necessary. Obviously they’d never done the hike this late in the season.

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Up and up through the eternal valley of snow I marched, impressed with the majestic interplay of the rocks, snow, autumn foliage and cloud cover. The rain eased enough to allow me to capture a few snaps of the misty scene surrounding me.

Eventually the path disappeared into thick cloud cover, but the scuff-marks in the snow were easy enough to make out. Hitting the upper reaches of the crumbling snow wall, I found the real path marked with yellow circles diligently painted on the slippery rocks. It was now well past noon, and scores of other hikers had made their way off the mighty peak. “There’s no view today,” remarked a dejected outdoorsman. “The wind’s really strong on the ridge,” added his flannel-clad partner. Unabashed, I pushed on relentlessly up the incredibly steep valley, finally reaching the junction for the ridge walk.

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I turned right, immediately passing the deserted campground in favor of the warm confines of the largest hut I’d ever seen. Even though I’d brought my tent, there was no sense in ‘roughing it’ in gail-force winds with temperatures hovering around the freezing mark. I checked-in, changed, and hung my wet, dirty gear in the large drying room.

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26. In a hut that sleeps over 1500 people, the 26 guests that were lucky enough to stay on the final night of season for Hakuba-sanso were in for a treat. The staff treated us like royalty and the laid-back atmosphere of the common room is probably a rarity in the summer hiking frenzy. “Ever played Shogi?”, asked a friendly guy in his late-20s. “No,” I sheepishly replied, “but I’ve played chess before.” The next 45-minutes were some of the finest I’ve spent in any mountain hut in Japan, as the two dozen other guests gathered around to watch an impromptu reenactment of the Fischer-Spassky duel. Needless to say, my opponent pummeled me in near-record time. The only reason the match lasted as long as it did was due to the explanation of the rules, which I must’ve broken more times than followed. Still, it was a cultural experience I’m unlikely to forget (or repeat) anytime soon.

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Only a 10-minute stroll away, I psyched myself into going for a late afternoon scramble up to the official high point of Mt. Shirouma, but quickly abandoned the idea after sliding open the front door and discovering that the rain had turned into snow! This trip was just about to become much more interesting.

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