Back in Ôdarumi Pass
As we rested our tired bodies by the warmth of a gas heater in the hut on Ôdarumi Pass, we were well aware even before discussing it that we would probably fail to reach Kinpu Mountain. After a hard fight with deep snow drifts and downed trees on our way up to the summit of Kita-Oku Senjô, we were about two hours behind schedule. It was 1:30 then, and though under good conditions it wouldn’t take more than four hours to hike the ridge over Asahi-dake to our destination, but given that the trail was still covered in several inches of melting snow creating a treacherously slippery muddy mess, we expected it to make much longer than that. Also, that snow and mud would make it difficult to find a suitable place to set camp if we got stuck somewhere in the middle, and we also didn’t feel comfortable walking it out in the dark. Certainly, we’d have to stay here for the night and possibly make a go for it the next morning, but that would be cutting it close time-wise.
For Tianyu, it was over. A grad student at the University of Tokyo, he couldn’t spare another night when submission deadlines were knocking at his door. He would go down that afternoon. For Dylan and I, it didn’t look much better. If we couldn’t make it to Kinpu tonight, we would end up cutting our return to Tokyo the next day uncomfortably close to the departure time of our bus to Osaka. It seemed unwise to take that risk, so, we thought, we would probably stay here for the night and then follow Tianyu down the road north into Nagano Prefecture, and from there take the long train ride around the west end of the ridge to get back to Tokyo.
So we decided to give up. For the second time, I had failed to reach Mount Kinpu. For the second time I had underestimated the hindrance snow would prove for me. For the second time I would take that winding forest road down to Kawahage Village. There was no question that I felt some disappointment about this.
But we weren’t walking away empty handed. Over the course of the last two days of hiking, we had seen some of the most beautiful views I’ve yet come across all of my hiking experience. We saw the clear green waters of Nishizawa Gorge.
We saw the long ridgeline of Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park extending from east to west as far as the eye could see.
We watched the sun set behind Kita-Oku Senjo Peak from the rocky summit of Black Gold Mountain.
And we saw Fuji in the distance, hoisting her hems high up towards her snowy veil while a wreath of wispy clouds surrounded her crest.
For sure, we had more than enough beautiful scenery to make up for turning back before reaching Kinpu.
Dylan and I walked with Tianyu to the beginning of the forest road where we exchanged promises for the next vacation in August: we would be here again. As the two of us watched Tianyu’s descent towards the first bend in the road, where he then disappeared from our view, I noticed a trail of discolored patches in the remaining snow — the vestiges of my own footprints and those of my silent companion, calling back memories of the hours we had traveled together on those frigid days back in December.
The Troubles After White Birch
We had finally made it to White Birch Flat by around 11 a.m earlier that morning. It seemed like ages ago that we had held hope of making it this far by the first night, but actually it was not even a day ago that we abandoned that goal. Yet here we sat resting on a bed of yellow grass by the weathered asphalt of the forest road, watching the silent flow of a small, clear stream. True to the name, white birches stood left and right.
Given the time, we were feeling pretty hopeful. Yes, we were about half a day behind our original plans, but we were now just about 200 meters below the highest point on the trip: Kita-Oku-Senjo. Once we reached that, it would be a quick drop down to Ôdarumi Pass and from there only a few more hours to Kinpu. Surely we could make it before sundown, we thought. We were eager to get on our way.
Sadly, it was not to be. Shortly after resuming our hike we found a trail utterly blocked by fallen trees so thick that getting past them with our large packs proved exceedingly difficult, and often we were forced to stray far off from the trail to get around them.
But that was only the start. As the trees gave way the patches of remaining snow that had dotted the trail before now became deep drifts riding up like waves. Their surface was frozen solid enough to walk on some of the time, but only just enough to lure us into a false sense of security before dropping us knee or even hip deep into the cold.
What made it all the more difficult was that there weren’t even any other footprints to follow that could at least forecast to us the weak places: we were the first people to come this way since the last big snow. Consequently, our progress slowed almost to a halt.
Needless to say we were in low spirits through much of this section. But, just as even a small snack to a starving man is more precious than gold, for us suffering through the thick trees and deep snow, finally arriving at the top of Kita-Oku Senjô provided us with a feast for our eyes that was more then enough to sate our hunger. We took in the view, gazing off at the far-off mountains of Nagano, one ridge closer than they were last night. And, for the first time, we got a clear view of Kinpu, tantalizingly close. It felt like we could catch it with a stone if we threw one.
But of course, you already know that we never got to set foot on that golden peak.
© Brian Heise, 2018