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”…


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.


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: 


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.

Torches – Let there be light!


At the start of this year, I bought a Petzl headlamp in Shinjuku. It was certainly billed as the bees-knees, with a price to match. But during the first night-hike I was disappointed by the weakness of the light, so went to the local J-mart hardware store and bought a torch for a third of the price that does a better job.


Here’s the comparison:


              Gentos Rigel      Petzl


Model            GTR-031T       TikkaPlus

Cost (Amazon)    1710                   4488

Self-weight            64g                      43g

Batteries                 24g (Tan3 x 1)     39g (Tan4 x 3)

Lumens                  26.6                     35

Beam distance        48m                    32m

(= full moon brightness)


Why do I like the cheap one? If you’ve ever hiked in mist or drizzle in the dark, you’ll know why. The Petzl headlamp casts a strong reflective glare against the water particles in front of your eyes, making it difficult to see. Furthermore, the Petzl beam is more diffuse, and in mist, is useless for picking out rocks onto which to place your feet.



The Rigel fits neatly into the palm of the hand, weighs almost the same with batteries, and with its genuine Nichia white single LED, casts a long beam. It also has a handy wrist-strap, which stops you dropping the thing. I love it and now use the Petzl only as a backup. And to escape dog-haters in the upcoming Northern Alps, it’s going to get a lot of use!


You can buy it on amazon.co.jp


Disclaimer – you do not want a handtorch if you’re going up a frozen waterfall at night with two iceaxes in your hands…