Never again. That’s what I thought while I limped my way down from Goose Hill Pass one year ago. Sure, on that trip I saw some spectacular views that showcased the charm of that fairyland that is the Japanese alps.
Not only that, I met for the first time my now year-long hiking friend Tianyu, who introduced Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains to me, setting me on the path that would lead me to the very story I’m about to tell you today.
But, I also endured 24 hours severe wind and rain, the fierce offspring of a typhoon that traveled the length of Japan from Kyushu all the way to that spur ridge in the mountains where I happened to be. Though I spent the night safely with my new friend in a hut at the summit of Moss Peak (霧藻ヶ峰) and thoroughly dried myself out by the side of a roaring woodstove fire, the rain returned the next morning to drench me once more, leading to severe foot damage through the gradual accumulation of thousands of steps worth of infinitesimal wear exacerbated by the roughness of wet socks on skin.
Never again, I said. From here on out, it’s only sunshine hikes for me.
Then there I was one year later, set to enter the high mountains once more, a bit older, a little wiser, and all the more desireful of sunny skies and, more importantly, dryness — because I would be carrying with me my first dSLR camera, recently purchased to bring the photos I started taking for this very blog from the amateur smartphone level to that of the pros. Putting together my desire for beautiful sunsets and sunrises, panoramic mountainscapes, and starry night skies together with the fear of ruining my new toy with an unhealthy dose of water, rain was to be avoided at all costs.
The Lay of the Land
I set my sights on the North Peak, Kita-dake (北岳). Standing at a height of 3192 meters, this lofty mountain located in central Honshu’s Southern Alps is second only to Fuji himself. Yet in spite of their similarity in height, these two mountains are of entirely different character. Fuji is a regal mountain, towering high above his nearby vassals, none of whom dare approach him, but rather cower at the edges of the basin where that king of mountains sits upon his purple throne. Kita-dake, in contrast, is a humble mountain who, though the tallest among his lot, is nonetheless merely the first among peers who share similar stature and mien.
Furthermore, Fuji is a mountain of the civilized world, surrounded on all sides by human settlement, easily accessible; Kita-dake is a wild, tribal mountain to be found deeply isolated within a large range, inaccessible, unattainable mass of mountains. Even centuries ago, reaching the summit of Fuji was easier than reaching that of the North Peak. In the old days, a visit to the crown of Fuji would begin from one of the many villages at his feet before ascending up and back down in a two-day round-trip.
In contrast, a visit to Kita-dake’s rocky summit required a trek of at least two days along the Noro River, the great waterway that carved a deep valley cutting far into the alps to the peak’s very foot. Upon reaching the point called Broad Riverbed (Hirokawara, 広河原), where the river widens from a narrow canyon into a wide and rocky channel, the path turns to the ascent proper. It was a full-day’s ascent to the top from there, followed by the two to three days it would take to return back to the nearest city. In all, it must have taken at the least four full days, if not more, to make a round trip to and from that far peak.
Today, the situation has changed: the mountain can be summitted in but a single day owing to the construction of the Noro River Forest Road (野呂川林道), built some seventy years ago. Thanks to that winding mountain road cut into the steep valley walls, and the tunnels burrowed through the mountain to avoid places where it would otherwise be impossible to lay a road, the summit of the mountain can now be reached in but a single day from Kofu City, though the round trip would still take a minimum of two. Regarding this, Fukuda wrote, “Even the North Peak, which is a deep interior mountain, has become easily climbable. Should I be happy or should I be sad? For me, it is the latter.” When I imagine what the adventure of a Kita-dake expedition must have been like in Fukuda’s youth, I have to say that I feel the same way.
Nonetheless, man of adventure that I am, the fact that I could reach the summit Kita-dake in just a day necessitated a broader goal. Given how ripe the Southern Alps are with famous peaks (there are at least ten), I set out to summit as many as I could in the four or five days that I was limited to by the amount of food my bag could hold. After consulting the maps, I set my sights on the following course.
Tianyu and I would take the bus to Wide Riverbed in the afternoon of the first day and camp near Broad Riverbed Lodge (Hirokawara Sanso, 広河原山荘). The next day we would rise early and climb to the summit before descending along the ridge a little further to Kita-dake Lodge, which lay at the lowest point in the saddle ridge between Kita-dake and our next target, Ai-no-Dake, the Peak of the Gap. We would pass over this peak on the next morning, and following that we would descend along a steep and narrow rocky ridge to Three Summits Peak before descending down to a long, low wooded ridgeline that would carry us to Senjo-ga-Take (仙丈ケ岳) on the morning of the third day. Later that afternoon, we would arrive in North Valley Pass (Kitazawa Toge, 北沢峠), where we would spend a lazy time before getting up early the next morning for a round trip to the Peak of the Colt (Koma-ga-Take, 駒ヶ岳) before taking the bus back to civilization that evening. You can see the full map here.
Plans made, the next step was to pick the dates. Since I had two weeks of vacation time in August, I was sure that I could find four days of good weather in which to place this hike. Except for one problem: as I was reading through the booklet accompanying the map, I read a disheartening sentence: “Be aware that thunderstorms form over these mountains every afternoon, so be sure to carry your rain gear!”
Every day. Every day? Now way. I immediately went to the mountain forecast to check. Sure enough, storms were predicted for every single day. Every single damned day of my two week vacation would get a thunderstorm, and for one of the days even a typhoon. Remembering my fateful hike exactly one year before and my vow never to repeat it, it goes without saying that I was somewhat unhappy about these circumstances. But did I give up? No. I’m a little too stubborn for that.
The story continues next week. Be sure to check in for the first leg of the journey.
© Brian Heise, 2018