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Posts Tagged ‘Nagano’

The Gathering V

It’d been a rough summer for everyone, especially when the news trickled down from the slopes of the Eiger. We’d lost one of our own, a member of our extended family who had attended the second and fourth meetings of the mountaineering minds. I knew this one would be for Michal, but where would be the best place? Back at Kamikochi, where I first had the pleasure of meeting him? Or a return to Suzuka, which turned out to be our very last encounter?

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The answer, it turned out, proved to be none-of-the-above, as Rie put forth a location in southern Nagano by the name of Jimbagatayama. The 1400-meter summit affords views of both the Minami and Chuo Alps, two places that were like a second home to our fallen hero. Rie, Miguel, Eri, Paul, Naresh, Tomomi and I settled on a date in early November and commenced with the all-important preparation.

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On Friday, November 4th, I boarded an early evening train to Nagoya to crash on Paul’s floor. Being based in Chubu would save an early morning train ride at the crack of dawn and allowed the two of us to catch up since last hiking together during Golden Week. Paul was busy preparing two pots of chili in the kitchen and I jumped right in to offer assistance. Between stirs of the simmering chili pot, Paul told me a little about his trip to Kyrgyzstan and his other recent mountaineering endeavors. He set up the computer as we accessed Michal’s Vimeo account and downloaded all of his self-shot and edited videos for use at the next day’s event.

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Rie showed up at our door at 7am the following morning. Paul shared some banana cake that the Yamaholic had sent him in thanks for the laptop he’d sent to her. Unfortunately, the Yamaholic would be unable to attend this year’s gathering, but her presence was felt with every bite of our morning meal.  We loaded the kit into the back of Rie’s car and sped off to the bakery to pick up focaccia sandwiches and other finger bites from a local bakery. Before heading to Nagano, we needed to help Rie recce the highest mountain in Kasugai city for an upcoming school excursion. Never underestimate a 400 meter mountain. What looked like a small hill from the parking lot turned out to be a lot tougher than initially thought. The trail climbs to the ridge and then follows the Tokai Shizen Hodo for a while before topping out on the summit of Mt. Miroku, which afforded hazy vistas of Ontake and Hakusan.

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Once back at the car, we drove under Enasan and into Nagano Prefecture towards Jimbagata. Due to a bit of miscommunication, we detoured slightly to Komagane to pick up Joseph, who just managed to squeeze into the back seat among all of our warm weather camping gear. Rie navigated the tight switchbacks of the forest road with ease, as we pulled into the barricaded path to the campground entrance. Miguel had warned us on an earlier message that parking would be extremely limited due to construction on part of the campground. The Hiking in Japan members sprung into action, and with everyone’s assistance we had our cache of gear hauled into camp. Shelters were set up on an attractive stretch of grass on the edge of the plateau.

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While the weather still held, I gathered up the troops for the short walk to the summit of Jimbagata, where we admired the views and gathered around the lens for a group photo. En route I ran into Ian Kerr, a fellow hiking enthusiast and fellow member of the Hiking in Japan group who happened to be on the mountain by chance. He gladly joined us on the summit and we had an opportunity to chat a bit about the mountains. With over 1700 members of the Facebook community, you’re bound to run into fellow armchair mountaineers wherever you go.

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The panoramic views coaxed us into peak-dropping, as our fingers pointed to mountains on the horizon. The entire Minami and Chuo Alps were visible from our perch, sans Hououzan and Kai-koma, which were concealed behind the broad flank of Mt. Senjo. Members eventually trickled back down to camp in order to commence meal preparations. Tomomi had yet to arrive, so we couldn’t start the campfire since we were waiting for her portable fireplace to arrive – open fires are not permitted on the plateau in order to preserve the delicate ecosystem. An emergency hut stands adjacent to the tent sites, and it would make for a great refuge in foul weather if not for the scaffolding surrounding its sturdy walls. The hut is currently undergoing renovations, and rumor has it that the new hut will be staffed and will charge for future accommodation.

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The sun began to drop behind the Chuo Alps, which sent us all into a frenzy to catch the alpenglow on the Minami Alps. Naresh broke out his camera, as Paul contemplated doing a time lapse shot, but decided that the scenery was too good to capture with just one shot. Just at the brilliant hues of crimson and ochre reached their climax, my phone vibrated with news that Tomomi and Midori had arrived. I dropped back down to the campsite and recruited a few members to help us all ferry the supplies to camp. Since the regular parking lot was closed for renovations, it was a long walk of about 8 minutes from the temporary lot to the campsite, but we all pitched in without the slightest bit of hesitation. Alastair had to regretfully head back to Lake Suwa for a soccer game the following morning, which must have been a difficult decision as the celebration was just getting started.

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By now our small camp was thriving with activity. Guacamole was being prepared by Bjorn and company, while Rie cooked savory garlic ajillo over the campstove. Paul stirred the chili while Miguel got started on the campfire. Tomomi and Baku mixed the greek salad as Midori broke out the bottles of Nagano wine for all of us to sample. The drop of the sun behind the horizon sent the temperatures plummeting, which in turn sent us all scrambling for extra layers of clothing and jostling for a smoke-free space around the campfire. The wind kept changing directions, so we all had our bouts of smoke inhalation. When the fiery coals built up enough, Tomomi stuck the dutch oven on the fire while Paul set up the laptop. We streamed Michal’s videos and reflected on the inspiration he provided to us all. I had brought a framed photo of Michal that Paul set up in an empty chair. It still felt like a dream to us, like Michal was just out on a holiday and would be back any day now. Three months is still too early to get over the loss of a loved one, but we knew that Michal would still want us to carry on, to live life to the fullest and to spend quality time with like-minded outdoor enthusiasts. When I first set up the Hiking in Japan community on Facebook, I truly thought it would just be a way to promote my website. Little did I know that it would take on a life of its own and would serve as a catalyst to bring a core group of hikers together to share their experiences and create everlasting memories.

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After an hour or so, Tomomi took the dutch oven off the fire and opened the lid to reveal baked chicken, potatoes, onions that were cooked to perfection. Just as in the previous four gatherings, we had way more food than could possibly be finished by us all, but it’s much better to be over-prepared than to come up short-handed. We barely had room for Smores, but a few token sandwiches were made with Naresh’s jumbo-sized marshmallows. Viviana made a guest appearance via Skype while we passed the phone around. With bellies threatening to burst, several of us left the comfort of the campfire to re-climb the summit of Jimbagata in search of meteors. The Leonids were just beginning their annual celestial display, and with the sunken crescent moon, the stargazing conditions were prime. We craned our necks and managed to see a dozen or so of the shooting stars over the course of 90 minutes or so. Paul was particularly apt at finding the streaking light as I always seemed to be looking in the wrong part of the sky. Still, we had fun trying to play with the camera settings to capture the night spectacle.

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Sometime after midnight, we all retreated to the warmths of our sleeping bags. I collapsed almost immediately, and the next morning I was one of the last to rise. The sleeping bag was much too warm to squirm out of to enjoy the sunrise, so I laid under the tarp while the early risers prepared breakfast and stoked the fire back to life. Joseph set up a coffee bar in the corner of the sheltered cooking area while Miguel and Rie made hot panini sandwiches. Bjorn worked the griddle magic and passed fresh pancakes around to all. Eri cooked scrambled eggs over the campfire. Everyone was pitching in to cook something except me. I was selfishly wondering around in a bit of a daze, too exhausted and clumsy to be able to lend anyone a hand, something for which I regret. Naresh made fresh chai for everyone until being interrupted by an urgent telephone call. He had a serious, troubled look on his face. I sensed that he had just been the recipient of some bad news.  It turns out he had a family emergency and needed to get back to Tokyo as early as possible. We rearranged for Bjorn and family to ride with Midori while I helped Naresh gather his belongings and saw him off as he sped back to Tokyo.

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The first rays of warm sunshine filtered through the campsite, which put us all in a bit of a lazy trance. We were all having way too much fun and didn’t want it to end. The cleanup began slowly at first, as we all put off the inevitable. We managed to break down camp shortly before noon and posed for one last group photo before disbanding. Paul, Rie, and I headed back to Nagoya but not before stopping on the banks of the Tenryu river for one final glimpse of the Chuo Alps. Miguel and Rie also stopped by, as Paul brought back our juvenile spirit by showing us the best way to roll down a grass embankment.

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All in all it was another successful event, that never would have been possible without everyone’s assistance and support. I tend to put off making a decision about the annual gathering until the last minute, too distracted and sidetracked by other things going on in my life. In an effort to amend this, Paul suggest we make a decision about the 2017 gathering while we had the momentum.  With the Banff Mountain Film Festival making its tour of Japan in September, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to tether our annual gathering to this unique collection of film shorts. And since Hakuba hosts the festival in a rare open-air theater, it seemed like our next gathering was just destined to stay in Nagano. And so it goes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Are you going to bring your rain gear?”, shouts Paul from the other side of the tent. Looking around at the blue skies surrounding the alpine peaks, and the paltry 20 percent chance of rain forecast for the day, I reply in the negative. After all, with clear views of our target peak all morning, and no wind to speak of, how could the weather possibly change?

And with that, the two explorers set off from camp, armed with a fresh map and a few snacks. As we turned from the road to the trail, the temperature suddenly started to drop and the sun disappeared behind clouds that were concealed above a thick forest canopy. It definitely felt like rain was on the way, but perhaps we’d be lucky enough to miss the worst of it. It was Paul’s first time to climb the only active volcano in the Kita Alps, and it was my first chance to check out the route from Kamikochi, which became steeper with each ascending footprint.

After an hour of hiking, Paul and I reached a clearing at the base of a set of cliffs. We wondered which way the trail would go, spying the rocks above for a hint. “Straight ahead,” pointed my companion. We could just make out the throngs of a long aluminum ladder, bolted to a neighboring rock formation. As we reached the vertical climb, a lone Japanese hiker started the vertigo-inducing descent. One slip here would be deadly. I knew the climb up would be a breeze, but I dreaded the inevitable – having to come down that thing later in the day.

Once past the ladder, the path entered alpine territory, with an array of colorful flowers in full bloom, and a meandering trail laden with switchbacks. It was somewhere around here that the skies started to open up, turning from drizzle to an all out downpour. Now I really was starting to regret my foolish decision to leave the rain gear in the valley below.

We rested briefly at the hut until the rain abated. From the hut the path climbed on the true ridge of the mountain range, reaching a lookout point in about 10 minutes or so. Steam from volcanic vents rose up mysteriously in the murk and from the pumice boulders strewn carelessly about. This would not be a good place to be in an eruption, so I silently prayed Yake would not decide to belch while we were visiting. From here the trail drops steeply to a saddle and starts the final, relentless climb to the summit.

This would be as far as I ventured, however, as the skies erupted in a downpour much heavier than before. The clouds hung thick to Yake’s conical figure, as the rain penetrated my thin layers instantaneously. I’d been up Yake in preciously the same conditions before, and a revenge climb doesn’t make much sense when the view is blocked by clouds. I sent Paul off to the summit alone, while I gracefully retreated back to the hut. Once there, I ducked inside and ordered some instant noodles. We had no food in our packs other than a few bags of mixed nuts, and I was starving. I waited out the rain in the luxury of the hut while chatting with another solo climber who’d just come from Nishi-hotaka hut.

An hour later, the rain once again stopped and I headed back up to the lookout point in search of Paul. Mt. Yake drifted in and out of cloud as another man stood by the rocks, searching for his hiking partners. It seems that I wasn’t the only one who gave up on the summit attempt. After 15 minutes or so, 3 figures appeared on the crest of the ridge back down to the saddle. We shouted to them and they replied by waving their arms. I couldn’t remember what color rain gear Paul had on, so I waited patiently for the group to arrive. A young couple eventually wandered up, informing me that my friend was about a half hour behind them. The group worked for one of the hotels in Kamikochi and were up for a bit of a day hike on their holiday. As with the majority of hotel staff in Kamikochi, they were from Kansai. I think the people in Osaka are smart to escape the summer heat and accept employment in a beautiful area with temperatures that barely break 30. They offered me their leftover rice balls, which I gently tucked inside my pack, waiting for Paul’s return to break them out. After bidding farewell, I stood alone on the summit, 2100 meters above sea level, and peered into the murk. A lone figure in green rain gear slowly made its way down the steep trail, meandering as if in a drunken stupor. I yelled up to the ridge line, which seemed to snap Paul out of his contemplative trance. Once we were reunited, I stuffed the rice ball into his waiting fist and asked about the summit climb. “Brutal”, he replied. “I almost gave up after getting lost among the hissing boulders”. Our map marked this trail as difficult to pick up even in good weather, so I wasn’t surprised by the navigability issues.

The rice balls seemed to give up that much needed jolt to get us moving off the mountain. We slid past the hut, down the flower field, and over to the base of that vertical section of ladder. I took a deep breath and slowly lowered myself over the abyss.

I don’t know when I became such a softie when it comes to heights, but I was downright scared when making the 10 meter drop. The trickiest part was about halfway down, when two ladders were tied together. Due to the awkward angle, you couldn’t see your footing at all, and had to trust your instincts. Eventually we both made it through the danger zone and back into the darkened forest. I still had a bit of energy in me, but Paul looked completely zapped and he could barely keep himself on the trail. We took a break at the first available flat area, stretching out our weary knees and finishing off the last of the rations.

From here the walking became much easier, and we soon found ourselves back on the forest road. It was approaching 4pm, and we’d missed our window of opportunity at the hot spring, where the baths closed at 3. To make matters worse, the skies opened up again, soaking my hiking gear that had managed to dry on the descent. The temperatures plummeted, as goose bumps covered my exposed skin. I could definitely use a jacket now, I thought, picking up the pace back to the campsite. Luckily our home had a bath that closed at 7pm, so we jumped right in and thawed out our bodies.

Mt. Yake had definitely won the battle that day, and I couldn’t really call the revenge climb successful, as I’d been robbed of a view of Yake’s elusive emerald green lake. I promised myself that I’d be back for a third round, but this time armed with some rain gear and a decent lunch.

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