The Disaster on Kobushi Peak
“The earliest mountain disaster that I know of is that of Kobushi Peak.” Fukuda’s words lift off the page as I read them, causing me to shiver slightly. I lowered the book and glanced around the train, but the other passengers were oblivious to my discomfort.
The disaster occurred roughly a century ago, before hiking had become the national pastime that it is today. A group of five intrepid young freshman from Tokyo University, then Tokyo Imperial University, set off to climb Kobushi-ga-Take. In those days, it was an isolated place, located far up in the mountains outside of Tokyo. There were no buses deep into the valley like the one that Tianyu and I would take, let alone paved roads for them to drive on. It was a different era, but even in those days young boys still felt the drive to seek adventure. They weren’t unlike me.
From the village where they started, a round trip to Kobushi would take several days on rough trails without signs that the locals made for their own use. Maps, if they existed, would have been crude by today’s standards. Nonetheless, the boys probably would have been fine if it weren’t for the torrential rain came, causing them to lose the path. According to Fukuda, all but one died of exposure — hypothermia, I would imagine.
The thing that brought me pause was less the fact that I was about to hike Kobushi in just over two weeks but rather my last trip to that same mountain range. I thought about my own torrential downpour and my knowledge if things had gone differently, I very well might have not come back down myself.
Despite how unsettled I was on that day on the train, those thoughts were pretty far out of my mind on the first day of the trip — quite in spite of the fact that hypothermia was a much more serious risk this time around. At this point, though, I was much too distracted by the fact that I had just discovered that the bus that I had planned to ride home at the end of the trip wasn’t running this time of year. Searching for an alternative, I scanned the map I had laid out on my lap for another stop near Mount Mizugaki that might still have buses running. There was only one road going to that spot, so my best hope was that maybe only the last stop or two were closed but the rest of the line was open. I traced the road with my finger and found another stop, and another, and another, but I checked them one by one on google and none of them had buses stopping there this time of year. Apparently the whole line was closed.
Searching around more on the map, I found a stop far down the mountain on the north side. It would require backtracking from Mizugaki back to Mount Kinpu to get to, but it was better than nothing. I checked online and sure enough, buses were still stopping there. Next I checked the time markers on the map, but to my disappointed I realized it was unlikely that I’d be able to go to Mizugaki and then get all the way back Kinpu and back down on the original timetable I had set — I’d have to tack on another day, but I wasn’t sure I had enough food for that.
I sighed. It was clear that I’d just have to go straight down from Kinpu and leave Mizugaki off this trip. The hike hadn’t even started and already one of the three famous mountains on Fukuda’s list was scratched off. On the bright side, though, at least I’d have an excuse to come back here again, and in better weaher. So, I guess it wasn’t a total loss after all. I explained my plan to Tianyu.
“Oh, that’s interesting. That’ll take you down into Nagano. It’s a lot longer trip back from that side.”
“How much longer?”
“I don’t know. I think it takes something like six hours from there to Tokyo.”
“I was actually thinking about hiking down into Nagano from Kobushi myself. I don’t think I’ll have time though. I need to get back for some work at my university.”
The bus finally pulled up to our destination: the michi no eki (i.e. road stop) in Nishizawa. This time of year, the place is completely shut down. The most you can expect is a soda out of the machine (more expensive than down in the valley) and flush toilets (happily free). We both made sure to make our acquaintance with our last chance at the latter for the next few days before moving onward.
The path to Karisaka Tôge from the michi no eki for the first hour or so is a roughly paved forest road that runs steeply (much steeper than I remembered) up into the mountain before terminating suddenly immediately after crossing a small brook. Looking at the spot the second time around, I couldn’t help but wonder why on Earth anyone had built this road to nowhere. Probably a waste of taxpayer money, and one that ruined an hour’s worth of hiking to boot.
Although we were fairly warm as we hiked up due to the energy we were exerting on the moderate incline, many sections of the roadway were covered in a rough coating of ice — somewhat foreboding given that we were still about one vertical kilometer short of the height of the ridgeline.
We stopped to eat a snack before hitting the trail proper.
“So you said you have something you need to do at the university the day after tomorrow, right?” I asked.
“That’s right,” Tianyu replied.
I frowned, thinking. “So…you need to arrive back home by tomorrow night?”
“When was it that the last bus was leaving?” I suppose I neglected to mention earlier, but Tianyu would be hiking right back down to the same bus stop that we just got off at, making a big two-day circle route.
“Let me check.” Tianyu took out his phone, but there was no signal.
“Well,” I said, “We can estimate based on the picture I took of the timetable down at the train station.” The last bus arriving at the station was around 4:30, and I already knew it took about an hour by bus to get from the gorge all the way back down, meaning that the last bus probably would leave around 3:30 or so tomorrow. Again I pulled out the map and checked the time estimates for the trail and found that it would take approximately three hours to go from the top of Kobushi directly back to Nishizawa Gorge Trailhead (西沢渓谷入口). “Ok then. We need to arrive at the top no later than twelve tomorrow. We better get moving!”
And so our race to Kobushi started.
Return to Goose Hill
The trail to Karisaka Pass rises gradually along the stream flowing down Kudozawa Valley (久渡沢), a narrow offshoot of Nishizawa, before ascending a steep set of switchbacks up to the pass itself. Aside from the fact that the lush trees were now devoid of greenery and that the waterfalls were all covered in a layer of ice, the trail was much the same as it had been back in August. One point that I had been a bit worried about, which we came to quite quickly, was a point where the trail crossed directly over a steep rock face down which a tributary to the main stream was flowing. As I had expected, this had almost completely frozen over, creating an ice slick that threatened to send us shooting down to the bottom of the valley should we take the wrong step. Luckily, I was ready: reaching into my pack, I produced two sets of shoe spikes, which I had bought years ago in preparation for a winter climb of Halla-san, the tallest mountain in south Korea. Unfortunately I never got to use them since the day before the hike a huge blizzard came, leading to an indefinite closure of the mountain. We put them on and effortlessly crossed the ice.
About two hours after we got off the bus, the trail finally diverged from the stream to start the final ascent up to the pass. The trail here makes a series of switchbacks as it goes up the incredibly steep slope. At this point, though, the trees finally started to thin out to reveal the valley below and Mt. Fuji in the distance, a major contrast to the mist-shrouded hilltop that I had visited back in the summer.
The wind was brutal up there, whipping our clothes as we took in the view. It was a tough climb, so we took a moment to rest, but without the constant exercise, the windchill factor started to get to us a bit. I put on my vest and sock hat.
Checking the clock, I saw that it was already just after one. We were almost two hours behind schedule. At this point I knew full well that we likely wouldn’t be able to make it to the shelter by nightfall and that we’d have to put down the tent after all. That in and of itself grants its own problems though in that we’d likely lose another whole hour of hiking from the next day due to the logistics of camping on this kind of mountain range. Given that the sun would be fully set by 4:30 and the fact that in the narrow, rocky ridges of this range would prevent us from just throwing a tent down anywhere, I estimated that we’d have to set camp at the first spot we found after 3:00 pm, leaving us a full hour and a half of daylight to find the spot, set camp, and gather firewood for the long night. At this rate, tomorrow was looking like it would be a tough day if we were going to make it to the summit of Kobushi by noon. We had to move on, and fast.
From Goose Hill to Somewhere
The route from Karisaka Pass to Kobushi Peak is rough and treacherous. The path follows along a narrow ridgeline steeply dropping hundreds of feet downward on either side and rising and falling abruptly by about 200 meters between each of the peaks along the way, Karisaka-rei (雁坂嶺, “Goose-hill Ridge”) and Happu-san (破風山, “Mt. Ripping-wind”). According to the map, it should take just under three hours to get to the shelter, which lay in the saddle between Happu and Kobushi. Given that it was about 1:30 when we left the pass, it seemed like we might barely have a shot at arriving there before sundown.
The first part of the path, up to Karisaka Ridge, was deceptively easy — although the path was ascending, it was certainly gradual by the standards of way up to the pass. We made decent time as we walked.
Following Karisaka Ridge, the trail descended sharply by more than 200 meters. By the time we reached the bottom, it was a little after three. As expected, the trail before that point left us no options for pitching a tent, but in the saddle the ground was mostly flat, a lot wider, and also had plenty of firewood laying about. I weighed the options with Tianyu: get out our flashlights and try to push out the rest of the way to the shelter, or just stay here where we know we’ll have a hot fire for the night. We both agreed that the place with a guaranteed supply of firewood was best, so we dropped our bags and set camp.
Things got cold (colder really) fast after the sun went down, but we got a big fire burning really quickly. Time to warm up! Tianyu and I spent the next few hours stuffing our faces and chatting about this and that, the highlight being of course the hot ramen that I cooked over my handmade alcohol stove. Nothing gets you warm like a pot of spicy ramen delivered straight to the gullet. About an hour before bedtime, which we set as 9 p.m., I broke out the whiskey bottle and we (mostly I) had a few drinks.
Easily the best part of winter hiking is evenings by the fire, huddling close and truly appreciating with perfect context what it means to be warm. Possibly the worst part is putting out the fire knowing you’ll have to spend a long, cold night waiting for sunrise. I luckily slept soundly through most of the night, due to the combination of waking up at 4 a.m. coupled with the strenuous exercise. Tianyu wasn’t so lucky as the dual assault on his ears of the whistling wind on top of my own snoring ensured that he spent many a long hour awake while waiting for the sun.
This post is part of an ongoing series my 2017 winter hiking trip in Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park. Be sure to check out the other posts in the series as they become available.
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