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Posts Tagged ‘Mt. Tsurugi’

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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With the heat of August behind me, I descend into the depths of Shikoku Island to explore the peaks towering over secluded Iya valley. My companion this time around was Bin-chan, a strong, witty Chinese girl who’d never been hiking in her life. Could she survive the 3-day, 25km journey unscathed?

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As the bus rolled into Tokushima station, we searched for a safe place on the busy street to hitch. Four rides and 7 grueling hours later, we find ourselves standing at the Kubo bus stop, trying to make a crucial decision about where to go. “No signposts or trailheads here,” I admit. The map offered few clues, so we opted to walk along the forest road directly ahead. After some inquiry with a few locals, we realized we’d have to continue walking along the road for well over an hour. “Let’s see how far we can make it before dusk,” I suggested, as Bin nodded in agreement.

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It was pushing 7pm when we finally found the trailhead proper, but without a flat place to pitch a tent, we ventured on. The orange glow on the horizon drew darker with each advancing step, but the headlamps soon made up for the lack of natural illumination. After an hour or so of heavy slogging through a cedar forest, we reached a trail junction, and the ridge which would be our home for the next two days. “Let’s camp here,” I suggested, pointing to a flat area right in the middle of the junction. We set up camp, ate a hastily prepared meal, and settled down to dream.

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The next morning we were greeted with jaw-dropping panoramic views and a phenomenal sunrise. As we broke down camp, the early morning rays crept up directly behind our target peak, casting deep shadows in the serene valleys far below. Layer upon layer of endless peaks spread out in all directions, culminating with the towering edifice of Mt. Ishizuchi soaring above the clouds. We headed for Mt. Miune, reaching its exposed peak about 2 hours later. We were joined by a few other early risers who’d ventured up from the emergency hut nearby. While most were heading back down into the immense valley, Bin and I pushed on, for we still had a full day’s worth of slogging before reaching our home for the night. The endless array of rolling hills gradually gave way to bamboo grass so dense we had a difficult time picking up the trail. Getting lost was the last thing on my mind, however, as I was petrified of stepping on a snake in the maze of undergrowth. Fingers crossed.

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After a long, hard battle, we finally reached the emergency hut just below Mt. Shiraga. Bin collapsed from exhaustion, and I didn’t have the heart to tell her we still had another 3 hours to go before reaching camp. “Wait here, and I’ll go get us some water”, I suggested, praying I’d be able to find the water source marked on the map. A half hour of frantic searching, followed by a steep trailblaze into a hidden ravine, and we were in business. I roused Bin from her slumber and we slowly vertured on, arriving at Maruishi hut shortly before dusk. The hut was in immaculate condition and completely deserted, so we didn’t even bother putting up the tent.

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Early again we rose, blessed with yet another spectacular day. “Don’t worry,” I exclaimed, “Tsurugi is just over there”, pointing to the triangular peak on the horizon. Looks can definitely be deceiving, as we spent most of the morning on that all-too-familiar up/down monotony of ridge-walking in the hills. Our hard work eventually paid off, as we soon found ourselves on the final summit slog. The summit has definitely seen better days, and after 3 days of tough walking, both of us felt a tinge of disgust with all of the paved paths, shrines, and aesthetically-challenged structures. Quite a letdown after experiencing such pristine beauty.

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Finishing the rest of our provision, Bin and I descended to the massive parking lot and immediately hitched a ride back to civilization. My trusty companion was sore for a few days and had a nasty blister, but otherwise came out alright. Peak #15 in my seemingly endless quest to conquer the 100 mountains was conquered and with so many ranges still left to explore, I set my sights on Hakuba in hopes of scaling Mt. Shirouma before the onset of the winter snows.

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Mt. Tsurugi was the ‘make or break’ mountain in my Hyakumeizan quest. Having failed in 2 previous attempts, I changed tack and decided on a technically easier, yet much longer approach from the west.

I hopped on the first JR Limited Express ‘Thunderbird’ train bound for Toyama on a cloudy Sunday in mid-September. Being a national holiday weekend, the train was packed, but I was fortunate to get a seat for the 3-1/2 hour journey. Toyama station was teeming with hikers, all of which were bound for Murodo via the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine route. I, on the other hand, was headed via taxi for Banbajima, the start of the Hayatsuki ridge hike to the summit of Mt. Tsurugi. Banbajima is home to one of the nicest campgrounds I’ve seen yet, as well as one of the best examples of environmental destruction, with row upon row of unnecessary concrete dams lining both sides of the ‘island’. My plan was set: set off at 11:30am, stay at the Hayatsuki hut and attempt the summit early the next morning.

A 1500m elevation change sure looks easy on paper, but nearly 4 hours of relentless climbing just about did me in. Fortunately, the weather was decent and the scenery outstanding. Plus, the other hikers I’d met were incredibly friendly and encouraging. The hut was also quite inviting, and I checked-in shortly after arriving. Even though I didn’t have a reservation, the attendant managed to squeeze me into one of the smaller rooms on the second floor, overlooking the campground. I cooked up some pasta on the picnic tables in front of the hut, and chatted with other climbers, all of whom were in various states of intoxication. Personally, I refrain from all mind-altering substances when on the mountains, and I feel that there’d be far fewer search & rescue missions if all mountain huts in Japan refrained from serving alcohol. I get enough of a natural high just breathing in the fresh air, observing the peaceful scenery, and pondering life’s thoughts.

The clouds were being rather indecisive, and the next few hours were a playful display of nature’s brilliance: fog and sunshine dancing gleefully against an azure sky. The weather was definitely looking promising. I ducked in the hut to chat with fellow hikers, but after a few minutes retreated back outside to the dark solitude of night. The stars were brilliant, and the fog was gone. I looked up towards the summit and saw a moving beam of light. I pulled up a chair and waited. Could this be Hana of the Hanameizan fame? I’d heard that the wonder dog would be attempting Tsurugi this very weekend. The beam got closer and closer, but still seemed so far away. All of a sudden, I noticed another huge beam coming directly off the summit. This one was bright white, growing ever bigger by the second. The moon! How lucky was I to see a full moon rising directly behind the summit of Mt. Tsurugi? The cloud rolled in, swallowing the moon and the headlamp beam on the ridgeline. Eventually the beam reached the campsite, and I learned to my changrin that it was not Hana the dog, but merely 2 hikers who’d climbed part of the way towards the summit to view the sunset! Oh well, time for bed.

I set the alarm for 4am, but naturally woke up at 3:30. I grabbed my things, headed outside, and started cooking some oatmeal for breakfast. Good news: no clouds around the hut, but the surrounding peaks were socked in with thick mist. Uh-oh, I thought, another peak with no views. I hit the trail at 4:30am, using my headlamp to help navigate the way. I decided on the ‘slow but steady’ approach, and brought 3 liters of water for the 800m vertical ascent. Water was expensive at the hut, but I had no choice due to the lack of fresh liquids. Altitude sickness is my biggest enemy, so I made sure to keep my fluid intake slightly above normal, taking slow deep breaths with every advancing step. The strategy worked wonderfully, as I was soon resting at the 2600m trailmarker, admiring the spectacular scenery. The fog had miraculously lifted from the surrounding peaks, revealing an ever-expanding view above the tree line. I slogged on, hitting the 2800m mark just as the sun was casting deep shadows on the main ridgeline. I looked over and quickly started name-dropping all of the peaks I could see before me: Shirouma, Hakusan, Yakushi, Kasa, Tsurugi-gozen, Dainichi, Tateyama, Kuro, Norikura. Heavenly.

The final climb was actually quite fun, with lots of chains built for added protection. It didn’t really feel all that steep, and if you took a tumble you’d probably only break a few bones or possibly end up paralyzed, but you’d more than likely escape death. I wasn’t really keen on testing my summation however, and firmly held onto the steel links, popping out on the ridgeline exactly 2-1/2 hours after leaving the hut. The row of hikers coming from Tsurugi-sawa was endless, and I shared the summit with around 40 other mountaineers. Those of us coming up from Hayatsuki shared a special bond that the others wouldn’t understand. After all, they’d all started at 2400m above sea level. We’d climbed 2200 vertical meters from the valley far, far below. With all of my solitary pursuits, I usually don’t get a chance to get my photo taken on top of most peaks, but plenty of people were offering on this one. I spontaneously held up the “peace sign”, but it was meant to be a “#2 sign”, indicating that I had only 2 more peaks to climb before conquering the Hyakumeizan!

I remember asking countless other hikers for climbing advice when first starting my 100 mountain mission, and now I’d found the tables turned. Here I was, sitting on top of one of the most spectacular peaks in Japan, receiving tons of inquiries about the mountains I’d already climbed: “How were the river crossings at Poroshiri?” “Did you do the Taka-no-su route to Hira-ga-take?” “What’s the best approach for Mt. Goryu?” The questions poured in faster than I could answer them, but I felt elated to share my experiences with eager outdoor enthusiasts, most of whom were twice my age. It was Respect for the Aged day after all!

I didn’t want to leave the summit, but all good things must come to an end. My knees took a beating on the way down, and I wish I’d had more time to break this hike into a 3-day affair. Such is the life of a mountaineer with a full-time job and bills to pay.

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Mt. Tsurugi is the only peak in Japan I’ve turned back on, so I was ready to get revenge on this monstrous peak…..or was I?

My friend Fumito lives in Nagano Pref. and is an avid hiker. We met at Shiojiri station on Friday night in mid July, and decided to drive to Ogisawa, where we’d catch the bus/cable car/gondola/bus rip-off scheme, otherwise known as the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route. The road to Ogisawa was closed for construction, and wouldn’t open for a few more hours, so we retreated to the side of the road for some shuteye. The rain was pounding down outside, so we opted for cramped comfort in the car.

We set the alarm for 5am, and proceeded to the massive parking lot at Ogisawa. “The first bus isn’t until 7:30am”, cried Fumito. Well, at least we had time for breakfast! The sky was starting to clear, but boy was the wind howling. The price to Murodo was 5700 yen one way per person, but I used my disability card to garner a half price discount for both of us! The power of being “disabled” in Japan. (more on that in another post). We had to pay some extra money because we had a “big” backpack, and we boarded the bus. 15 minutes later (it’s got to be the most expensive bus in Japan), and a short stroll across Kurobe Dam (the Hoover Dam of Japan), we were first in line for the cable car. “That’ll be 400 yen”, said the attendant. “What?”, I inquired. “Your backpack is too big”, retorted the sharp dressed woman behind the counter. “But we’ve already paid at Ogisawa!”, I protested. Those motherf*%#ers! As if they didn’t make enough money from the transport! Craig McLaughlin wrote about this in his “Hyakumeizan” book, and I’m sure he was the first and last person to pull the wool over their eyes, as they’ve now got all bases covered. If your backpacks meets one of the following criteria, then you’ve got to pay the extra fee: 1) a capacity of 50 liters or more, 2) 1 meter or more in height or 3) weighing more than 20kg. My advice? Cram everything you need into a 40 liter pack and pray it doesn’t weigh too much! I’ve got a better idea for these idiots: Why not charge people 400 yen if they’re not wearing proper walking shoes?

We arrived in Murodo after nearly 2 hours of riding, waiting, riding some more, and waiting some more. Murodo was just as I’d remembered it 6 years ago and back then I vowed to NEVER come back to this place! So, what was I doing here again? Heaps upon heaps of tourists, pushing each other for the toilets, cramming the souvenir stalls, and being generally ignorant of the stunning beauty outside. I’ve never exited a bus terminal faster than I had on that morning, because we had a lot of ground to cover.

Fumito and I started on the paved trail towards Raicho-daira, filling up on plenty of water before setting out. It was foggy, cool, and very windy. Plus, part of the track was still buried under a meter of snow! It took about an hour to reach the campground, where we crossed the river and started the long, nasty slog towards Tsurugi-gozen hut. It was basically just one huge snowfield, which took forever to get through. It was already noon by the time we reached the ridge line. We’d have to abandon our goal of climbing Tsurugi that afternoon. For one, we couldn’t even see it! In addition, the winds were way too strong. We dropped down to Tsurugi-sawa, where we set up camp. The entire campground was still buried under the snow, but we found one small patch of bare land behind a huge boulder, which sheltered us from the wind. The person in charge of collecting money for the campsites didn’t even bother to charge us the 500 yen. “The campground doesn’t open until next weekend”, he admitted. He sported a very dark goggle tan on his face: evidence that he’d probably taken a few ski runs during the slow month of the rainy season.

We’d just set up camp and were preparing to cook when I had a dizzy spell. This has happened to me before, so I knew exactly what to do. I just closed my eyes, sat very still, and imagined that the ground wasn’t moving. Sure enough, it went away after a few minutes, but I still felt horrible. A slight headache, dry cough, and no appetite. I forced some food into my stomach and laid down. I’d had altitude sickness before when I climbed Mt. Shasta in California, and I had to come to grips with my current situation. Having gone from sea level to 2500m in less that 24 hours was taking its toll, and I knew right then and there that I wasn’t going to make it up Tsurugi this time. Imagine if I’d had a dizzy spell on one of the many chains and ladders!

The weather cleared up and we could actually see the summit around dusk. Bedtime came early, as Fumito would have to get an early start to make it to the top. I didn’t sleep well at all. I think it was a combination of lots of things. The sunrise was beautiful, but the top of Tsurugi was shrouded in cloud. Fumito set off while I stayed behind. I had an alternative plan of climbing Mt. Dainichi. If I couldn’t climb one of the 100 famous mountains, I’d settle for climbing one of the 200. That way, I’d never have to come back to Murodo again. I packed up and climbed back up to the ridge. The weather was stunning, and Dainichi was shining wonderfully in the morning sun. My body was well acclimatized, and I felt much better than I had the day before. However, I was in the mood for a more leisurely stroll without the risk of death, and Dainichi filled that niche perfectly. Plus, there were hardly any people on the trail. Quite a contrast from the mayhem of Murodo below. I raced up to the summit, leaving my heavy pack at the Raicho-daira trail junction. I had the pleasure of seeing 3 different families of Ptarmigan, each with recently hatched chicks. Spectacular alpine scenery, clean air, peace – three things I really needed to cure my fragile body. I retraced my steps back to the junction, using the remaining snowfields to show off my glissading skills. At one point I got a standing ovation from a group of elderly hikers taking a break nearby. I must’ve impressed them with my speed and agility. Or perhaps they were applauding my utter stupidity for sliding on such bumpy, slushy snow!

Anyway, I flew down to Raicho-daira and started the slow, boring climb back to Murodo. The absolute number one reason why I hate this place SO MUCH is because of the people. When you’re hiking on the ridge line everyone is so friendly, but the closer you get to the bus terminal, the unfriendlier they get. No ‘konnichiwa’ greetings, people carelessly eating bento with disposable chopsticks, women in heels and blue jeans stopping to pose with photos of meaningless signboards. I showed my utter disgust by kick-stepping through a snowfield, showering countless tourists with snow shavings. I didn’t even look back. In retrospect, it was probably a horrible thing to do, as tourists probably walked away with a negative image of dirty, smelly gaijin hikers, but it sure made my day. Farewell evil Murodo. May an avalanche come and take back what you have stolen from Mother Nature.

My next attempt at Tsurugi will be in the autumn from the other side of the mountain, via the Hayatsuki ridge line (早月尾根).

Chapter 2

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