Hakusan

It seemed an eternity ago that I had turned back from Hakusan 4 months to the day on that utterly exhausted wet morning in May.

But today was Kin’s birthday – she was at evening class and the weather forecast was good but deteriorating, so I hurriedly emailed a vacation notice to all customers and (guiltily) set off for the 5-hour drive through the mountain passes of Nagano and Gifu. Desperate for some sound to keep me awake, I pulled out a CD in the dark while driving and popped it in. My niece’s CD. The Sugababes. Nuff said.   

The mission was, in the words of not Mallory: “Because it’s there”, but Sir Edmund Hillary: “To knock the bastard off”. Another night hike, and the deed was done.

Okuhotaka – snow!

 

 

 

Snow had not been on the menu after work last night. A starlit sky, half moon, and 2000 meters of ascent I had been looking forward to, but not this massive old snow bank stretching up to the sky as far as I could see. Running shoes were less than ideal. I backtracked and followed the left edge of the ice where it met rock. And what rock!

The map states that this west route up Okuhotaka, approaching from Shin Hotaka, involves a long gareba (rock field). Indeed. It rises 1000 meters, and frequent rock slides had blotted out most of the path with painfully sharp fresh rock surfaces. Poor Hana. I knew her paws could not withstand this.

Once again, there was no one to disturb the solitude. I walked softly past the beckoning warmth of Hotaka Sanso hut, put the dog in the rucksack for the final chains and ladders, and reached the summit just before midnight. A small soft light several hundred meters below marked Karasawa hut, while city lights glimmered far beyond in most directions.

We picked our way carefully back over the interminable broken rocks, and upon reaching the gravel forest road, could finally enjoy a 5-kilometer gentle run down to the car. As I drove back through Matsumoto and along the expressway toward Yatsugadake, dawn was breaking and the dew lay thickly over velvet meadows.

 

Three weeks later, walking to Kasagadake along the ridge on the opposite side of the valley, I was surprised to see the route up Okuhotaka that I had taken during the night: 

Yarigadake

I must be getting old and soft, reluctant to leave the warmth of home and set off for a night hike. But for Yarigadake, a dramatic peak that symbolizes the grandeur of the Northern Alps, trouble was best avoided by using the privacy that the night offered.

Almost nobody in Japan hikes at night. Even setting off after noon elicits criticism. And yet everyone climbs Mt. Fuji in the dark to catch the sunrise from the top, often wearing sneakers and a 100-yen rain cape!

As I had hoped, I met no one. When crossing the boulder beds of the broad river gullies, I was grateful to whoever had left the red tape markings, for it was difficult to pick out the path. As I gained altitude, the towering black walls of the steep mountains on either side receded and the star-lit sky opened out.

Finally I reached the ridge and walked quietly past a small huddle of tents. Nothing stirred. The night was utterly silent. I crept past the main Yarigadake hut, my feet scrunching loudly on the gravel, but there was no sign of movement within, just the cosy warm glow of a single light. It was 1 am.

On principle, I leave the dog to her own devices to get up steep rocks. I try to pick what will be the easiest route for her, that will allow her to scramble or bound up. Usually she follows, and if she slips down a slab, she’ll find a detour. But the final 100 meters of Yarigadake proved too much, with near-vertical metal ladders and chains, so into the rucksack she went. I was grateful for the darkness, which hid the long, long drops that waited to claim victims of misplaced feet.

Climbing in the dark makes only a small difference to speed, but descending is painfully slow. I cannot (will not) run down a slippery rock path at night. I reached the car at dawn, just as the first hiker was setting off on this fine Saturday morning.

It had been a long 30 km hike, but rewarding. With Yari done, I can cope with the remaining mountains.

Fuji – Closure

Just the very mention of snow on Tsurugi has put the wind up me! With 17 remaining to fit in before crampons become necessary, I drove through the evening rain to the new (south) fifth station on Fuji.

Was this the start of the trail? Where were the souvenir shops, horses and general kitsch that blights the Fuji-Yoshida (north) 5th station? In the dark, this side of the mountain seemed relatively unspoilt.

I had read of the damage that the lava rock of Fuji can cause to dogs’ paws. Glass-like shards shredding paw pads and even dog booties, a problem the owner eventually solved by fitting industrial rubber caps on a papillon’s feet.  And a golden retriever owner, after reaching the summit to find the dog’s feet a bloody mess, was forced to carry his poor dog all the way down on his back.

So I took the Montbell dog rucksack and a roll of cloth tape, but I need not have bothered. She was just fine. After several hundred km of trail running last year and 83 mountains this year, Hana’s paw pads seem to be industrial strength.

It was the most perfect of nights. There was scarcely a breath of wind. Up above, the stars filled the sky except where the hulk of the mountain blotted them out. And below, city lights rolled out like a diamond-studded carpet down the Izu peninsula.

The mountain had officially closed for the winter yesterday, but there were still several dozen hikers, mostly students. At the top, I caught up with an Argentinian, a pilot based in Hong Kong who had come to Japan for 4 days to climb Fuji. With not a word of Japanese, here he was walking alone near midnight around the rim of Japan’s highest peak. When I explained why there were few hikers, he erupted in laughter: “What do you mean, the mountain’s closed?”

Goryu – The gondola police

Like the rest of the hiking population in Japan, weekend plans were washed away by Friday evening, as were many houses across the country. But come early Sunday morning, a rain-free window of opportunity had opened up toward the Japan Sea coast.

But Goryu-dake meant a cable car. I got the dog into the gondola without problem, hidden in her carrycase and buried beneath a daypack and jacket. But no sooner than I stepped off the upper station, hidden the carrycase and started off up the hiking path than I was accosted by two staff.

“No dogs allowed. You know that, don’t you?” they accused.

They moved to block me, but I ignored them and carried on up. I glanced back to check they were not running after me, and saw one of them on his walkie-talkie. What was he going to do, call in the Special Forces in a chopper? Please, just leave me alone.

Five hours later, nerves soothed and soul refreshed from the rugged peak, I bundled one exhausted animal into her carrycase barely without breaking step, slung the case over my shoulder and under a  jacket, and rushed toward the open gondola doors. But I had been spotted.

A young man appeared, somewhat out of breath, and asked, in English:
“Have you got a dog?”
“Er,” I paused for a millisecond, with Hana in her case just 2 feet away from him. “No.”
“Oh I am sorry.”

Out swung the gondola into the open air and away from officialdom. Overall, it had been a good day.

Takatsuma + Kusatsushirane + Azumaya

Upon arriving at Takatsuma yesterday afternoon, I suddenly recalled cjw’s warning “the path to the trailhead leads through a ranch – better be careful on that one”. Too late! I had forgotten to bring the soft carrycase. And the ranch had a checkpoint hut staffed by a forthright woman who looked as if she would stand no nonsense. So this was what I had seen in my dreams a few months ago! No doubt about it. The hut and her, with a commanding view of the trail. And not only that, but a ranger had set up his “advice station”, a tent by the trail a few hundred yards further up. Another early-morning assault would be needed.

In fine weather, the Togakushi Eastern campsite would have been a very pleasant place to spend the afternoon. But no sooner than I had set off to the onsen to wash away the grime from Myoko and Hiuchi than a rainstorm started. When I returned to the tent, first the car became stuck in the deep mud, and even my light 4WD had to be towed out. And then I found I had left both inner and outer tent flaps open, and a half-inch of water filled the floor and my down sleeping bag. Damn. Ever a slow learner, I will admit this is not the first time it has happened.

By dawn, I was tired from more than just yesterday’s hiking. And the gentle stream was now flowing fast. Another soaking! I assume the trail must usually be dry, but today some sections had become a river. Once your feet are a foot deep in water, thereafter it doesn’t matter how many “crossings” there are, and indeed, the water was cool and refreshing.

High up on the final ridge to the summit, once again the dog became highly agitated, but this time it was only monkeys, which screeched their protest at being disturbed.

On the descent, I met a steady flow of hikers, one of whom immediately exclaimed “Ryogami-san!” Yes, late one afternoon back in April, he had arrived back at his car just as I was setting off . It seemed an eternity and many peaks ago. We both still have the Northern Alps to tackle, and perhaps we’ll be lucky enough to meet there.  

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Kusatsushirane was the sort of place I have come to dread. An enormous carpark, filled with cars, coaches, souvenir shops, the smell of unidentified marine creatures frying on skewers. The noisiest of places is where the noisiest officials will be. I chose a detour via the hidden hinterland of the carpark that brought me onto the trail well out of sight, and made quick work of this short hyakumeizan.

As is clear from the GPS track and map, the final 100 meters to the true summit is closed due to poisonous gases. Having read of the death of a hiker last year due to such gases, I respected the warning sign.

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It had been a long, 60km weekend, but upon reaching Azumaya at 3 in the afternoon, I knew this one would not be difficult. A straight up and down, no time-consuming undulations, less than 800 meters of altitude gain. A carpark flunky of the Azumaya Onsen hotel at the trailhead kindly suggested I was mad to go up now – surely it would take at least 5 hours.

Toward the top, the mountain is gently rounded, with open expanses of rocky outcrops interspersed with rich green heather-like plants. Just like Stiperstones, Shropshire,  

where us four kids had been taken every summer to pick bilberries, which Mum would then turn into magical bilberry pies. And here was the Japanese equivalent, mountain blueberries! A perfect way to finish the day, alone in the warm evening sunshine, picking berries and reliving a happy childhood.

Myoko + Hiuchi – A rare encounter

After driving over from Amakazariyama last night, I had had just 3 hours of attempted sleep while the rain threatened to drill holes in the roof of the car. In the half light, the air hung heavy with exhaustion after the frenzied rain fight of the night. Although there were many cars around for this popular mountain, there was no sign of stirring yet, so I got onto the track quickly and started up this double hill.

Myoko and Hiuchi come as a pair, forming a triangular route instead of the usual piston, with two huts perfectly spaced whichever direction you choose to do the loop. Most people spend at least one night, but the total maptime is less than 15 hours. I chose to knock off Myoko first as the descent from Hiuchi when tired would be easier.

Hana sensed something was up long before I could smell it. Ears pricked up, head forward, a sudden tautness of the body, and visible agitation. I scanned the surrounding forest on both sides, but the sasa grass was tall and impenetrably thick. Crash! Something was moving fast just ten metres ahead, blurred movement, blackness, and then a large bear lumbered out onto the trail in front and smashed back into the undergrowth. What a privilege to see such wildlife in Japan! For a while thereafter, I kept calling out to alert it to my presence, but it seemed just as keen to avoid further confrontation.

Amakazariyama

Three-quarters of the way through the 100, even after going up innumerable mountain roads from Yakeshima in the far south to Rishiri in the far north, I still do not feel at ease driving up hairpin bends in the dark to an unknown route on an unknown peak. What possesses men and women to scale near-vertical ice faces at night in a quest for new routes and their souls?

But the dark means no face-off with a ranger or obstructive warden. With nobody about, I can prepare at leisure, and feed the dog to make her complete her ablutions now, rather than having to collect and carry her feces back down the hike. And once on the trail, the altitude ticks by steadily, 15 minutes, 200m, 15 minutes, 150m, a surreptitious glance at the altimeter after 10 minutes. Darn – that section must have been flat! With only the dog to talk to, I play the usual mind games.

Approximately half way up, I could feel the chilly air descending before I saw the cause and stepped onto a steep snowfield. From under the snout, a river was pouring forth. I followed a skinny overgrown track up the left side, but it petered out and the GPS showed I was taking an impossible, direct route to the summit! In the dark, without the GPS, it would have been tough to backtrack and find the necessary river crossing.

Petzl headlamps have a great reputation, but why? More on torches that work another time.

Relieved to be back on track and ascending comfortably, I was soon on the ridge, brushing through the long sasa grass which deposited its silvery coat of night dew on my legs, which ran down and quickly filled my shoes. Oh for those rocky, dry ridges of the Southern Alps!

At the summit, there was a box for donations to help maintain the route, the first I have seen at any summit. A rattle of the box suggested no one had been to collect for quite a while (nor cut back that sasa).

Rishiridake

With the enticement of the hotel’s viking breakfast and the ferry booked for 8:40 am, I set off up the pitch-black trail soon after 2 in the morning. There are no bears on the island of Rishiri, so I had finally dispensed with the bear bell and could enjoy the enveloping quietness of the forest. On the ferry over here yesterday afternoon, the summit had been shrouded by a lenticular cloud, which the hotel manager said was a sure sign of changeable weather on the mountain, in spite of the shepherd’s delight of a red sunset. His words proved correct: by the time the tunnel of haimatsu pine opened out onto the ridge, the wind and rain were punishing us for the early start. And in shorts, it was cold.

But the dog was happy. At the start of the hike, she had panted heavily and struggled to keep up, then went on strike when I put the lead on to stop her dropping behind. I released the lead and used food treats to encourage her. Yet as the path got steeper, the temperature lower, and the rain harder, the happier she became! The panting stopped, she kept by my heels, and at the top, was not shivering as I was. I scuttled back down to food and warmth, relieved to have finished the 9 peaks in Hokkaido. Time for a rest for all of us.