The following are my favorite photos from my 2018 summer trip to Japan’s Southern Alps. Click the photos to enlarge them, and look below for links to the original articles in which they were featured. As always, please like, share, and leave a comment below! Which photo did you like the best?
This post is Part 5 in a multi-part series on my trip to Japan’s Southern Alps in the summer of 2018. Be sure to check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 as well. And, of course, be sure to leave a comment below and let me know what you think!
Chapter 15: Sighting the Colt
The first time I was struck by the view of Tomuraushi was from Tokachi-dake. When you look north from the summit of Biei Fuji beyond the long-ridged Oputateshike there is a dynamic mountain, conspicuously tall, raising up a rough rocky peak like a bull’s horn. It was Tomuraushi, and she captured my heart firmly. I have to climb her. I resolved to do it.
Fukuda Kyûya, “Tomuraushi” In Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains
Time and again Fukuda tells similar experiences of sighting a far off peak and becoming instantly infatuated, of feeling that insubstantial pull at the heart that draws a lover of mountains onward to the summit. I’ve climbed many mountains across Japan and Korea, but the first time I truly understood this emotion was the day I laid eyes on the Peak of the Colt in the old state of Kai (Kai Koma-ga-Take, 甲斐駒ヶ岳).
Tianyu and I had risen relatively late on the third morning of our trip in the Southern Alps, not being particularly keen to put on our wet clothes in the cool morning air. After a day of more rain than not on our long trek from North Peak Lodge to our present location on the lower slopes of Senjo Peak, the last thing we wanted was to feel the touch of wet, rough clothing on our skin once more. But, we were nonetheless coaxed out of our reticence by bright morning light: the clouds and rain had cleared during the night, allowing yellow rays to filter through the branches to land on our tent. Quickly we packed and set off on our way once more.
The trees were still dense around us as we gradually moved upward, but we occasionally got glimpses of the mountains as we went. We saw far off Saltview Peak (Shiome-dake, 塩見岳) to the south, another of the 100 Famous Mountains. Closer, to the east were the North Peak and the Peak of the Gap, which we had passed over on the two previous days. They were beautiful, to be sure, but none of them surpassed the sweeping mountains-capes of the previous day. That is, until we saw the Peak of the Colt.
I might have missed the sight, intent as I was on photographing those mountains to the south and east. As we moved up the slopes, however, the trees open up like a window towards the northeast, letting in a stream of yellow morning light so bright I had to blink several times. There, right in the center of that window lay perfectly framed a great rocky dome of a peak raised resolutely against a blue sky laced with white wisps. It seemed formidable, impenetrable, and yet as elegant as a well-preserved French castle. Fukuda had said that Senjo needed time to appreciate its beauty, but this captured me instantly. I knew that I had to climb it.
From then on, I began to see the Peak of the Colt in Kai as my ultimate goal for the trip.
Chapter 16: Senjô
My footsteps quickened somewhat, urged on by the desire to pass the treeline to get a better view of the Colt. But, as we climbed higher mist began to roll in, and by the time we reached the level of the shrubby creeping pines, who crawled low enough to the ground that they didn’t block our view, the far off mountains were once more completely obscured.
And then it began to rain. It was light at first, like the spray of mist from a waterfall. But as we went upward, as the trail became rockier, steeper, and more treacherous, so too the storm intensified. Gusts of wind threatened to push us off the mountain. Finally, we reached the summit, but we lingered hardly five minutes before moving on. We were wet, we were tired, and we were disappointed, but only a hundred or so meters down the mountain lay Senjô Hut (仙丈小屋), and we were keen to get inside to dry off and warm up. I resolved to wait out the storm and then hike back up to the summit. Tianyu said he would wait for me here.
We both waited there for probably two hours, maybe three, but the rain never stilled and the clouds never cleared. Tianyu was spent.
“The pass down below has a bus stop. I want to catch the last one and go home. I think I’m done. It’s not the rain, it’s not the hard work…but I just don’t think I can take being so dirty another day.” Nonetheless, he was grinning as he spoke.
I had already given up hope that the storm would pass, so I agreed to go with as far as the bus stop. However, I didn’t have any intention of heading home with him, because tomorrow I would attempt stand on the Peak of the Colt.
Chapter 17: Old Friends and New Friends
It took a few more hours to finally reach the valley floor in Northvale Pass (Kitazawa Tôge, 北沢峠). There were two main routes down, a scenic ridge route and another that snaked downward along the side in the shelter of the trees; needless to say, we took the latter and were none the worse for it for the rain never cleared the whole way.
At the bottom we met a fairly well maintained gravel road with a large shelter filled with benches that served for a bus stop. Tianyu entered directly, dropped his bag, and sat down with a look of relief on his face. I, feeling rather chilled by the hours spent in the cold wind and rain, opted to go into the nearby Komorebi Lodge to get a cup of coffee and warm up. Tianyu decided to stay at the stop. Before I left he turned to me with a smile and said, “I had fun. Let’s do this again.” And that was the last I saw of him for more than month.
I tramped up to the lodge and stepped inside. It was dimly lit, but it was so dark outside that my eyes didn’t have to adjust at all. I found a spot to drop my bag, already beginning to mentally prepare myself for being more or less alone for the next 36 hours or so. Or so I thought.
While ordering a coffee the woman at the counter was so surprised that I could speak Japanese that she immediately leaped into a series of questions about what I was doing in Japan and where I was from. I started talking about my hiking projects, about trying to climb the 100 Famous Mountains and hiking the Fureai Trail. Soon she called over the rest of the staff and for some 30 minutes we all talked together, more like old friends than people who were meeting for the first time.
I was reminded about the night when I first met Tianyu and how we instantly became friends upon meeting. There truly is something about lovers of mountains that connects across culture and language. No matter the background, no matter the difference in age or income, we understand each other clearly. At that moment in Komorebi Lodge, I really felt for one of the few times in my life that I was in a place where I truly belonged.
“Hey look, the rain stopped!” someone pointed out. I looked out the window and, sure enough, bright sunlight was shining. We all went outside to look, and took a group photo.
With that I departed, but promised to return the next day. As much as I was enjoying myself, it was time to go set up my tent and prepare for my ascent to the top of the Peak of the Colt.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.