This article is Part 4 of a series on my visit to Japan’s Southern Alps in the summer of 2018. Be sure to check out Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 as well.

Chapter 11: Gazing on Senjo Peak

We got our first glimpse of our destination for the next day before we even set out from North Peak Lodge. Having finished photographing the sunrise, I walked back up to the crest of the ridge to see what had been hidden behind the clouds and mist on the previous evening. Looking out across the wide valley where the headwaters of the Noro River begin their long journey to Broad Riverbed, I spotted a lone mountain raising a rocky head high above the surrounding land. I knew that this had to be Senjo Peak.

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Senjo Peak (千丈岳)

Of all the mountains in the Southern Alps, Fukuda, author of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains, liked this one the best.  He wrote:

“More than anything, she has a good form. She’s neither a simple pyramid nor a dull mass. It’s that point of being neither dull nor frivolous that I like. She has a refined quality. You wouldn’t notice at first glance, but after looking again and again you gradually come to understand her virtues. She’s that kind of mountain.”

Truth be told, I also didn’t notice anything particularly special about it when I first looked — it was just another of the many beautiful mountains. After reading Fukuda’s words again, though, I did begin to appreciate the shape of the mountain a bit more. The thing that Fukuda draws attention to specifically is fact that it has three well-formed cirques, that is spots where ancient glaciers carved out depressions in the mountain’s surface that resemble amphitheaters. Two of these are visible in the above photo. Although cirques are not unheard of in Japan, according to Fukuka, possessing so many of such quality sets it apart.

When I stood there gazing off at the mountain, though, I was more interested in that long, low ridge extending southward, as seen on the left side of the photograph. This was our route of approach, and I was rather pleased to have the rare chance to get such a clear view of it ahead of time. After passing over the Peak of the Gap later that morning, we would descend back below the treeline and into that forested ridge, where we would camp for the night. On the next morning, we would then finish our ascent to that far off peak.

senjo route.jpg
The red line marks the route.

Chapter 12: Race Against Rain

By the time we reached the summit of the Peak of the Gap, though, Senjo was no longer visible: the mist had returned and the clouds had darkened, warning of an impending storm. We knew we had to be on our way. Once below the treeline on the ridge, we would be safe no matter the weather, but between us and there was a steep and rocky descent to Three Peaks (Mibu-dake, 三峰岳), and from there and even steeper and more treacherous descent to the treeline. We set off.

At Three Peaks, the clouds pulled back somewhat, revealing gorgeous ridgelines. Sun even managed to shine through in places. I pulled out the camera to take some shots, feeling like we may have dodged the rain after all. However, as I was packing it away, I noticed that some raindrops had fallen on my lens.

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Panorama from the saddle at the base of Three Peaks
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The descent from the Peak of the Gap
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Panorama from the summit of Three Peaks

We began our descent once more, but we had hardly made it fifteen minutes when the sky opened up on us.

 

Chapter 13: Rain, Then and Again

We were wading through a thicket of creeping pines (haimatsu, 這松) when the rain arrived. These low alpine shrubs form nearly impenetrable masses of brush on high mountaintops all across Japan, and even when there are well maintained trails they tend to reach out rough tendrils to snatch at passerby. In our case, given the narrowness of the rocky ridge, they actually served to make us safer as they prevented us from tumbling down to the left or right regardless of how slippery the path was; on the downside, those spindly needled branches, similar to those on a fir tree, held tight to the rainwater. That is, until we brushed up against them. At that point, all of that water would tumble straight down our shins and into our shoes, soaking our feet. So much for water-resistant boots.

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Tianyu standing waist-deep in creeping pines

At one point we came to a spot where the trail suddenly dropped some eight or ten feet almost straight down with nothing more than a chain strapped to the pines to assist in the descent. In fact, it wouldn’t have been all that daunting in good conditions wearing just a day pack, but with the trail slick with mud and with us carrying a good four days worth of supplies, we had a tough time getting down it.

Eventually though, the rain dropped off as we entered the forest below. We both hoped that, like yesterday, this would be the end of it. However, less than an hour later it returned, only harder than before. Though we were certainly happier to be getting this rain under the shelter of the forest, we were nonetheless pretty dour at this point. We walked in silence for about two hours when the rain finally let up again.

 

Chapter 14: Thunder on the Ridge

It was a pretty gentle downhill stroll from the time we hit the treeline until we reached the lowest part of the ridge, where a spur trail down to the Noro River’s headwaters descended on the right. According to the map at the end of that path there was another mountain hut, roughly an hour’s hike. When the rain had been harder, we debated going there to stay the night and to get out of the rain, but since it had lightened up we chose to keep on to our original destination for the night, a small pond located just before the start of the main ascent to Senjo Peak.

Between us and there, however, was a pair of minor peaks. They weren’t anything high enough to even deserve a proper signboard, but they did require about a hundred meters up and another down to cross over them, so we definitely still had a bit of work ahead of us. It seemed like it would be worth it, though. Our map had marked on the summit of the second peak the characters 露頭, indicating a rocky outcrop. In other words, a good view. As I hadn’t been able to take a single shot since Three Peaks on account of the rain, I was looking forward to it.

As we were descending the far side of the first rise, though, we started to hear something faint off in the distance. It was a booming sound, like maybe a jet hitting sonic boom, or quarry dynamite. But of course, it wasn’t either of those. It was thunder.

“Shit. Tianyu, we gotta get to the pond before the storm comes. I don’t want to set the tent up in the rain.”

With that, I kicked it into high gear. I scrambled up the steep slope to the second peak, sometimes on hands and knees, clambering over rocks and grasping tree roots. Suddenly, the trees fell away and I found myself standing atop a giant rock sticking out above the branches. All around me was mist. I could see just as far as the edge of the rock and the tips of the trees peeking up, but I had no way of knowing just how far there was to fall on either side. Every ten to fifteen seconds, thunder boomed. I had expected this to be an excellent moment for a breathtaking view, but instead I found myself feeling supremely vulnerable.

Shortly after we descended from the rock, the rain came. It wasn’t as heavy as earlier that afternoon, but we were nonetheless drenched all over again in minutes. I think it was probably after another half an hour of walking that we finally came out at the pond. Or what passed for one anyway. There was a beautiful grassy meadow with a puddle in the middle. It certainly looked like it could be a pond if it filled up more, but given all the rain we had recently I had to wonder if it ever would get that far.

Tent set, we crawled inside, stripped off our wet clothes, and wrapped up in our sleeping bags to warm up. In fact, despite being the middle of summer, it was quite chilly with all of that rain coming down. I turned on my NHK news podcast to pass the time.

“Mountain disaster in Gunma Prefecture! Four dead! This morning at 8 a.m…”

I quickly shut it off. Being in mild risk of hypothermia, we weren’t at all in the mood to hear about that kind of thing. We decided to wait out the night in silence.


© Brian Heise, 2018

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