When I opened my eyes the next morning I could clearly see despite it being not long after 4 a.m. That, I think, is one of the things that those who live in more domesticated circumstances rarely experience: the fact morning comes so long before the sun. Departing my sleeping bag and hastily putting on my warmer clothes, I walked back to the rocky outcropping on the north face of Black Gold Mountain and looked out at the dim landscape washed blue in the moonlight.
The world looks different in the early morning. The colors are changed. Pale blue stands out while reds, yellows, and all other bright colors fade to a bear semblance of their daytime vigor. The light has been stripped bare.
But then it changes — the first rays of sunshine, mixing with that pale blue light of the moon, but not enough to overpower it. Life. The bright pinks and reds of morning sun meet the blue to produce a pallet of colors unknown at any other time of day, even at sunset. What’s more, the colors are all the more vivid when standing in contrast to the recent darkness.
This is the best time to photograph mountains, this first light of morning. This perfect moment possesses just the right level of light where all parts of the landscape become visible, where the brightness of the sun doesn’t obscure the valleys in shadow, nor does it wash away the details of the clouds. It is the single, perfect light and yet a light that so few people ever see.
At some point I noticed that Tianyu and Dylan had joined me on the rocks, looking out at the ridge. Below us the path for the day stretched out, steadily lower until once more rising high to Kokushi-ga-Take. Beyond that far mountain we saw even further in the distance, so small in appearance and yet massive in reality, the far off snow-capped peaks of Nagano, which had been rendered invisible by haze and bright sunlight the previous evening. We looked on with a certain hunger, and with dreams of summer.
The Ridge from Black Gold Mountain
We set out before six.
It was a steep path down from Black Gold, but soon the trail leveled and we found ourselves on a sparsely wooded ridge, mostly level, and covered in an expanse of mountain grass, still pale tan having not yet recovered for the harsh winter. Mount Fuji lay plainly visible to our left.
Soon, we learned more clearly what that park ranger had warned us about regarding the path. As we entered into the mountain grass, the trail vanished. Or, to say more directly, the manmade path became indistinguishable from the countless deer trails crisscrossing the ridge, and much of the time we found ourselves simply wandering forward knowing only that we must stay on the ridge rather than go down. Rarely, we were able to spot faded ribbons tied to skeletal trees, old trail markers letting us know that he hadn’t strayed too far from the intended course.
This became a lesser concern, however, as the difficulty in following the path became superseded by the trouble of even making any forward progress at all, for we came to an area where the trees has nearly all been felled, but by what force we weren’t sure. Certainly it wasn’t a tornado, because the trees did not have the characteristic tornado damage in which they get broken off at the trunk a meter or two off the ground. No, these trees were simply knocked right over roots and all. Perhaps, we thought, a typhoon had done this work.
Resting at the Fork
Eventually the mountain grass gave way to a thick and mossy forest of evergreen trees, and not long after we arrived at a fork in the road in the middle of a small clearing. We stopped to rest and check the map, whereupon we found that we were likely at a place called Kodomeki, only a short distance from White Birch Flat (白樺平). It was difficult to tell for sure, however, because there was no fork in the trail marked despite the fact that we could clearly see one before our eyes. With our target plainly visible to the north, however, we knew for sure which way to go.
Once we reached White Birch, it would be a few hundred meters of steep climbing up to the highest point in the park, a collection of two peaks within a stone’s throw from each other, but separated by big enough dip in elevation to each receive their own names: Kokushi-ga-Take (国師ヶ岳) and Kita-Oku-Senjô-Dake (北奥千丈岳).
Of those two peaks, long-time readers will already be familiar with Kokushi, the Peak of the Country Master, which I visited on my frigid winter trip earlier in December. Our path, however, would not take us there but to its sister peak Kita-Oku-Senjô, the highest point in all of Chichibu-Tama-Kai Park, standing at 2,598 meters above sea level.
Judging from the auspicious name of the mountain, I suppose the people to christened this mountain knew that it was the tallest on the range. The trunk of the name, Senjo (千丈), means 1000 Jô, a jô being an old unit of measurement that roughly corresponds to 3.03 meters. I suppose, then, that we could call it “3,000 Meter Peak.” Sadly, it seems that the christeners were off in their estimate, however, as the mountain actually stands about 400 meters shy of that mark. As for the prefix of the name, kita-oku means “North-Inner” and probably was meant to distinguish the mountain from the other, more famous, Senjô-ga-Take (仙丈ケ岳), which lies to the southwest and actually does surpass 3,000 meters in height.
Onward Once More
Our bellies satisfied with sausage and peanuts, we set out again in high spirits, for we were certain that we would reach the summit of Senjô by noon, leaving us with six hours to make it the rest of the way to Kinpu, our main goal. It looked like we were going to make it. However, in addition to those earlier problems, the trails hidden in the mountain grass and obstructed by fallen trees, we had yet one more challenge ahead of us on that final ascent to the ridge: snow.
© Brian Heise, 2018