Washibadake + Suishodake + Kasagadake

 Suishodake had looked so very inaccessible since Hana’s bloodied feet had forced us to abandon an attempt two weeks ago. No matter how long I looked at the map, no short route magically appeared. It was going to be a long, long day.

And that meant travelling light. No tent, just a bivvy at Kagamidaira as cjw had recommended. But not even the bivvy happened as planned, for upon arrival at Shin-Hotaka at 9 pm, the rain was falling and I could not face setting off, alone in the dark through the rain for this hideously long hike. I slept fitfully in the car, nervous about the pain that was coming.

We were off soon after 1 am. The radio I had brought for company quickly died. The gravel road to Wasabi-daira gave way to a well-marked trail, with the headlight picking out the freshly-painted white circles on the rocks. The temperature began to fall dramatically, unreasonably. Just beyond Kagamidaira, I kept imagining that I was seeing animal eyes reflecting in the forest, then I realised with horror that it was ice. A fine film of ice crystals covered the leaves. Damn. My crampons were in the car. 

By the time we reached the Sugoroku hut after 5, the snow was still only a centimetre deep, but the wind was howling and devastatingly cold. We could not take refuge in the hut, but the door to the storeroom for diesel cans was not locked, so I crept in, crawled into a lightweight 3-season bag, stuffed the dog inside, and we both shivered uncontrollably until dawn.

First light always revives the spirit, that and the sight of other tracks in the snow heading over to Washibadake. But the water had frozen in the tube of the Camelbak. I tucked the tube under my shirt, and the cold drips of water on my skin told me I could drink again.

We reached Mitsumata hut just as the few overnight stayers were setting off up the steep climb to the peak of Washiba. I huddled out of the wind against the hut wall and with shaking frozen hands started to change Hana’s destroyed socks. Above my head, the hut caretaker opened a window, “Come inside where it’s warm.” “But I have a dog,” I pointed out. He looked down and noticed Hana. “Well, bring her in too, there’s nobody here now.” (On the return journey, they fired up the kerosene heater in the upstairs dining area and invited both me and the dog to warm up properly inside – their kindness was unprompted and overwhelming.)

From the top of Washiba, the path to Suishodake was covered with a thin layer of snow, but fortunately crampons were not needed. As the early sun melted the snow and the bitter wind immediately froze it, the verglas forming on the rocks was treacherous, even for Hana with 16 claws for grip. But the mountain could not elude us now, and in little over an hour we were on its small summit, looking back at the daunting distance that lay between us and the final peak, Kasagadake (far right peak in the photograph).

Even now, I could not commit to reaching it. It was so tempting to descend the same way and directly head for the car. It would save 6 hours of tired hiking. At the junction where the decision had to be made, there was a large group of elderly hikers coming down the route that would take me to Kasagadake. They said they had been forced to come this long detour via Kasagatake as the Kagamidaira route I had come had been closed yesterday due to heavy rain. Perhaps I had not seen the sign during the night? The river crossing had involved getting wet feet which then froze.

Their lively Kansai banter spurred me to attempt the third peak of the day. Ptarmigan were in abundance, and changing into their winter coats. When three ptarmigan waddled temptingly along the path just yards in front of us, Hana showed a strong interest, but was brought back into line with a sharp twist of the rough of her neck. She didn’t react a short while later when a startled flock of ten ptarmigan flew up from the haimatsu.

The sun was losing power, but there was just one hour left to the summit of Kasagadake. I dropped my pack at the turnoff for the descent to Shin-Hotaka, took off the Goretex top and bottoms and a couple of other layers I had been wrapped up in all day, and finally could enjoy a trail run across the ridge to the top and back. Far, far behind I could see Suishodake from where we had come. Across the Hotaka vally stood the imposing peak of Okuhotaka, with the rock-field route rising clearly up to the left toward the Hotaka-Sanso hut. I could even see the patch of snow that had forced me to traverse during the night (right of center of the photograph).

 

Reunited with my pack and relieved at having completed the three, we descended rapidly in a race against the fading sun. The sky joined in the celebration with a vivid farewell display, then into the dark forest we sank, down down those steep rocks, followed by a welcome last few gentle kilometres along the forest road to stretch the aching legs.

55 kilometres later (30 hours maptime), with 6050 meters of ascent, we reached the car at 8 pm. Even the expressionless Hana seemed pleased. She had been through five pairs of socks. The day had exceeded expectations in so many ways.

 

 

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Fame. What is it good for?

The email came out of the blue. A TV company wanted to interview me and ask about Hana’s exploits. A flurry of emails was exchanged.

It was an exciting thought. Footage of the dog bounding across the mountainside. Heart-warming images of one man and his dog.

But between filming and the screen, strange things happen. The media thrive on mankind’s lowest common denominator, and the production company holds all the cards. They can twist a story viciously.

Edited footage of a gaijin flagrantly violating the manners of “waga-guni” and his dog destroying the fine ecological balance of the country. Joking aside, a sizeable proportion of viewers, for whatever reason, might become rather angry at seeing images of a dog in the mountains. Some would surely make complaints. And in the worst case, a legal ban on dogs, and even legal action against myself, could result. Other dog owners would not be pleased. And all for what?

I wrote an exceedingly polite, reasoned rejection. The TV company did not even have the courtesy to respond.

As I near the end of my own personal challenge, the soothing words of Desiderata seem particularly relevant:

“Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant, they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.”

Kitadake + Ainodake – another night raid

With the perfect forecast and home territory, this was going to be fun.

The Hirogawara valley, like Kamikochi, is off-limits to private cars, but the swing gates that shut at night at both ends of the 15km road have a walkaround for hikers. And that means a bicycle can be squeezed past, although of course bikes are also illegal on this road. Dame, dame, dame.

At Yasajin-toge at 2.30 am, there was no one to see me wheel the bike around the gate, with Hana strapped to my back and peering over my shoulder, and cycle off into the night, through the long black tunnel toward the Southern Alps.

Literally breathing down my neck, Hana enjoyed the smells of the noctural animals. A magnificent stag stood motionless by the guardrail, its immense antlers caught in my headlamp. In one tunnel, a pair of amber circles grew larger and larger, and suddenly a weasel-like animal raced past in the opposite direction, sending the dog into ecstasy.

Far up the valley, near the Eight-Toothed Col, a solitary headlight zigzagged upward. Dawn came and bathed the Buttress in rich reds.

We received a warm welcome from hikers at the summit who had come up from the nearby huts, then we headed off for a quick up and down Ainodake.

The dog’s paw injuries were still visible, so I had brought dog socks. I never thought I would ever put socks on a dog of mine, but they worked. She shredded two sets during the hike, but showed no signs of limping by the end. The worst part was enduring the continual cries from female hikers of “Oh how cuuuute – the dog’s wearing pretty socks!”

We were back at the bike 6.5 hours later, the same time as for Tsurugi, and like on Tsurugi had drunk barely a liter of water between us. I still haven’t learned to drink.

Tsurugi

I had printed off Wes’ detailed description of this attractive Hayatsuki route for Tsurugi, which encouraged me to set off at 2 am despite the alarming weather forecast for torrential rain, landslides, and lightning during the night, plus Wes’ warning “Do not attempt this hike in rainy weather”.

But the climb was a reward for most of last year spent on the stairmaster. Some 2200 meters of ascent, much of it on a nice steep set of sandbags and tree roots. The comforting light of the hut came into view far up ahead, then receded into the distance below as the climb broke out of the forest and changed to a rock scramble. As dawn came and the sky started to lighten, the clouds above looked menacingly oppressive. And as the chains appeared, so too did the rain, and the rock turned black and slippery.

But I really didn’t mind. I’d far rather deal with this than officials on Tateyama transport. Although looking a little scared, the dog gamely managed to scramble up all of the rocky sections except for a couple. Holding the dog under one arm and the chains in the other, I could take my time to be safe. The crowded route on the other side of Tsurugi would not have been pleasant.

In the forest on the way up, the pool of light of my torch had landed on a bee, a large yellow suzumebachi. It had caught my attention, for it was strange to see a bee moving at night. On the descent, the bastard stung me. It’s been a while since I’ve felt such pain, and I did not need any caffeinated chewing gum to keep me awake on the 5-hour drive back home.

Tateyama terror

This is not a mountain that strikes terror into the heart of most climbers. But then most climbers are grateful to take the cablecar followed by bus up to 2400 meters, without having to conceal a dog.

Of all the hyakumeizan involving public transport, I had been most nervous about Tateyama. Having long ago decided I would not traverse across from Tsurugi because of the logjam of hikers on its heavily chained walls, and the concomitant risk of causing an accident should a hiker have a fear of dogs, Murodo was the only feasible access.

I was not fearful of being told off by the bus or cablecar attendants, but the resulting 14 hours of additional hiking that would result, which might mean being unable to do both Tateyama and Tsurugi the same weekend. And that would mean another long, long drive to return here. I simply had to avoid detection.

So the dog carrycase was wrapped in a rucksack rain cover and almost indistinguishable from a 70-liter pack slung over my shoulder. But inside, Hana was panting heavily. I waited till the last minute, then rushed up to the ticket gate, past the guard, into the cablecar, stuffed the carrycase under the seat, covered it with my jacket, then spread out a map. Stage 1 – All clear.

There followed a nerve-racking 10 minute changeover to the bus. While everyone waited in line, an exceedingly fat woman waddled past us: “All big packs, come this way!” she barked. There was no way Hana could escape detection if her bag was hoisted onto the weighing scales, and even if she did, I would not let her go in the luggage compartment of the bus. One dog-owner who took a night bus to Kamikochi arrived to find his dog had died from the heat.

The case was pulsating as Hana panted, so I pretended to do stretching exercises, anything to keep the case moving. It worked, and we were able to board that wretched bus.

I kept her in that case for the first 10 minutes hike from the horrendous place that is the Murodo tourist trap. Finally, out of sight, I could release the dog. She had been cooped up for 7 hours.

But the risk was not over. After being stopped at the temple entrance just short of the summit of Gassan, the same was likely to happen on this religious mountain. So when the temple hut came into sight after an hour of hiking, back in the case for the dog, on with the cover. I had to get past that hut. As I slapped down the required 500-yen coin on the counter, the priest pulled out his wand to give me a blessing. I couldn’t risk Hana sneezing with the incense, so I made a sign of the cross, pretended to be horrified at being blessed under a different religion and scuttled away.

Thus we made it up Tateyama, bringing the greatest sense of elation of all the peaks. After this, I knew I could get up Tsurugi tomorrow.

Kurobegoro – agony afoot

 

The high cirrus clouds yesterday evening had been a warning, so with equal reluctance, we crawled out of our shared toasty-warm down bag at 1 in the morning and set off for Kurobegoro. There was only the sound of snoring from the other tents.

I picked my way past the guy ropes, turned around to check on Hana, and felt sick. The dog’s back legs were wobbling. A little stiff from almost 30km yesterday, perhaps? The sharp light of the headtorch showed a couple of small flecks of blood on the two hind paws. Mmm. See how she goes. Within a few minutes, the stiffness had gone and she was keeping pace right behind me. Subsequent checks showed no fresh blood, and she did not flinch when I touched the pads.

The original plan had been to do the full loop – Yakushi – Kurobgoro – Washiba – Suisho – and back to the Yakushi campsite. But the hiking map time was 21 hours or so. From the top of Kurobegoro, the sullen red sky of the morning was a shepherd’s warning, perhaps for his dog?

The lure of two more peaks was strong, but it would be a major commitment. If Hana’s feet started to show problems, I could be 20km from the tent.

Muttering aloud “I don’t do risk”, I turned around and headed back. By the time I got back to the tent, I was miserable not because of the steady rain, but because Hana was struggling. I used some cloth tape to bind the raw red pad. She did not complain. She gamely kept up as best she could, hobbling on three legs. I tried picking her up, but she preferred to walk herself. We moved slowly, and I kept stopping to encourage her, feed her, check her. Those last 7 kilometers of descent were not easy.

According to the breed guidebook, “Border Terriers must be able to follow a horse … have gameness … will not show or admit to pain”. These sound like ideal characteristics for a working dog, but make it difficult to judge the degree of any injury and pain.

I had hoped to bump into cjw today around Washiba, followed by Wes on Tsurugi tomorrow. The timing would have been perfect, but further hiking was inconceivable.

At the trailhead, there was a boot-cleaning block, so I gently hosed down the dog, cleaned up and dried her wounds, fed her to make her sleep in the car, and drove the long way back, past a solid line of cars heading for Kamikochi on this Saturday morning. I went straight to the vet, an unflappable gentleman. He gave her two injections of anti-inflammatories and painkillers, and in his understated way, said “Rather inflamed and painful. Rest for quite a while. When’s your next mountain?”

Hana doesn’t care about 2008, doesn’t know the name Fukada Kyuya. I hope she’ll be bouncing around and game in a couple of weeks, but perhaps we’ll have to finish the last ten in 2009. All the self-inflicted pressure of the last 6 months has evaporated. So, signing off for “a while”…

Yakushi

The ash-white rocks of Yakushi should have rung alarm bells, but I was too entranced by the shifting colours of the evening light. It had been a long day, and the effects of running down Hakusan in the early hours of the morning had been clear while climbing up Yakushi this afternoon.

While registering at the hut, I had hidden the dog around the back, then carried her discreetly past the throngs of hut-stayers who were drinking beer on the benches outside in the dying rays of the sun. We walked the few hundred meters to the campsite, which is perfectly equipped with flush toilets and running water, and fell into a deep sleep at 6 pm.