Mt Kinpu 金峰山

Adventure is just bad planning.
          – Roald Amundesn

 

24-26 February, 2020

Day 1

This unforgettable enterprise kicked off at around 11am, on a crisp and sunny morning, at Nobeyama Station. After unpacking my walking poles, I heaved on my backpack and was ready to go. At around 25kg, it was about as heavy a pack as I care to hike with. I’d brought enough food to last five days, and plenty of water, as well as extra stove gas to melt snow if I had to. I wasn’t expecting to be out there more than four days, but came prepared for the worst.

With outstanding views of the snow-covered ridges and peaks of Yatsugatake behind me, I walked across the train tracks that run southwest to Kobuchizawa and north to Sakudaira, and headed off into the Yamanashi countryside.

yatsugatakeYatsugatake out to the west.

The first couple of kilometres took me eastward along a main road, through generic grey winter hills and forested valleys. Here and there, a few last small patches of snow tried to remain hidden from the day’s intensifying sunlight.

The sky was a vivid blue, without a single cloud to break the monotony. Although the air was crisp, there was no breeze whatsoever and just two shirts and a shell were more than enough to keep me warm. The temperature was at the point where wearing even light mitts would have made things too hot, but without them, my fingers were a little on the chilly side. The sunlight warmed them just enough to stay comfortable though so I didn’t bother stopping to get the gloves out.

Not long after leaving the station behind, the footpath ended and I had to walk along the road shoulder. Despite it being a public holiday, or maybe because of it, there was more traffic than I’d expected on that first stretch. Twice, cars pulled over a hundred metres or so after passing me, parking on the road shoulder for a minute or so then driving away. I wasn’t that far out into the countryside, and although they probably didn’t get too many foreign hikers walking along the roadside in those parts, I didn’t think my presence was unusual enough to garner that much curiosity. Maybe people randomly pulled over a lot in those parts for other reasons.

About three kilometres out from the station, I came to a very narrow and inconspicuous road that turned off to the right and up into farmland. It looked barely more than a long driveway. That was my exit and I was glad to be heading off the main drag and onto more peaceful back roads.

The next couple of kilometres were a pleasant meander through fields. The route zigzagged this way and that, taking me by an old cabin, lots of empty fields, and a metal pole covered in loudspeakers that blasted out the Big Ben tune as I walked past. I wondered at that. There were levels of strangeness to the timing of it. It was 11:30.

farm tree

farm shack

Fifteen minutes later, the road came to an end, of sorts. That was where the google car had decided to call it quits and head back. From there, the surface turned to gravel and about two hundred metres farther on was a dilapidated metal gate that hung loosely across the track.

faerm road end

It was time to head off the grid and into the unknown. On the right, tied to a fence that separated the farmland from the nearby forest, was a scarehiker. A scarehiker is like a scarecrow, but looks like something made to deter hikers. It looked like it was made out of hikers too.

hikercrow

Over the next couple of hours, the road wound around the side of a ridge, heading generally southeast and upwards. It was nothing too steep and the walking was easy and enjoyable. Not far up, one stretch of the road had been completely destroyed by a landslide and little farther along, it was bisected by a deep gorge. Probably the work of that typhoon back in October. The rest of the road was smooth and pretty much level and made for easy walking.

It didn’t take long to reach the first patch of snow. This was on a part of the road that curved around a minor ridge and most likely didn’t receive any sunlight. The temperate dropped noticeably as I walked over the snow, before becoming warmer again at the other side.

old road snow

I passed a few more of these until after a couple of hours, the snow patches connected to form one continuous snowy surface. It was super crunchy, easy to walk on and sounded exactly like walking on potato chips. On some of the bends, the road offered great views back toward Yatsugatake and once or twice, to Mt Asama.

yatsugatake and trees

Near its highest point, anther road rose straight up from the valley on the left to intersect the one I was on. There were relatively fresh tyre tracks on these and they turned left, headed in the direction I was going. From that point, I had to be more careful. Where the tyres had flattened the snow, it had become packed and super slippery. The icy stuff was utterly unforgiving and impossible to take a single step on without sliding across it.

mizugake first viewFirst view of Mt Mizugaki from the road.

From that point, I walked mostly in between the wheel tracks, or to one side, jumping across from time to time to take the easiest path. In the mid afternoon, Mt Yokoo came and went, high up on my right. My original plan for this hike was to look for an easy-ish shortcut up the side of the ridge, at a point where the road passed closest to the summit, and bush-bash my way up to the top and stay the night. It was still quite early though, and it looked like it’d be steep and nasty business getting up there, so I decided to push on along the road.

mt yokooMt Yokoo.

Not too long after the route reached its highest point on the range and started to head down the other side, I turned a corner and came upon two vans parked on the road. On the left of the first van was a bloke dressed in camo gear and holding a big rifle. Another bloke sat in the second van. Both stared at me. I kept walking, skirting around the vans and saying hello to each. They gave casual nods. I heard duelling banjos start to strum somewhere in the less reasonable, more paranoid part of my mind.

About fifty meters down the road, another burly bloke stood, also in camos, talking quietly into a radio attached to his shoulder. The banjos began playing a little faster. He ignored me and I kept walking. A hundred or so meters farther down, an elderly bloke stood smoking a cigarette and leaning on his rifle. He had one of the radios too. He nodded and I said hi and carried on.

Before much longer, I was almost down to the main road that ran north-south from Shinano-Kawakami to Mizugaki Sanou, where I was headed. I’d wanted to take a break before continuing southward on that road, as I’d only had a couple of quick breaks since leaving Nobeyama Station over five hours earlier. I began unloading my pack. Just as I started rummaging for energy goop, I noticed movement a couple of hundred meters up the road I’d just walked down. The elderly bloke with the cigarette had walked around the corner and was standing at the top of the road, looking down. It was probably nothing. But just in case it was something, I decided that rather than risk becoming target practise, a break could wait. I packed up, turned south onto the bitumen road and kept walking.

mirror and roadThe road to Mizugaki Sansou.

The next stretch was nearly all downhill, along a very bendy but well-maintained road. Through the forest, there were some great views of Mt Mizugaki looking dramatic in the afternoon light, and behind it, Mt Kinpu. I was surprised at how much rubbish there was on the slopes below the road along this bit. There was everything from a filing cabinet, to car fenders, bottles and even a refrigerator. Where I’m from, seeing that sort of thing out in the countryside wouldn’t be too much of a surprise, but I’d never seen it before in Japan.

There was some light traffic going either way on the road but it was wide enough to not have to worry about getting mown down on a blind corner. The afternoon light made for a pleasant atmosphere as the road made its way down into the valley below.

lane and fluffly grassA picturesque side road.

At 5pm, I rounded a bend to find myself standing at the top of a big open area. Every tree within the several hectare space had been cut down, and in the late afternoon winter light, the place had a desolate, dramatic look about it. In the distance, Mt Mizugaki was becoming equally dramatic as the sun dropped lower in the sky.

barren town

I reached an intersection and turned left, toward the mountain. Within another five minutes I was surrounded by trees again. The road wound past a couple of small cabins  and as I passed, a bloke in camos walked out of one, into the carpark. He gave a wave and I waved back. Hunting season must have been in full swing.

road late afternoon

It wasn’t long before the sun disappeared, and the temperature began to drop. I’d wanted to get as far as possible on the first day, so that on the second I’d be able to spend more time on Mt Kinpu and less time making my way toward it. With darkness less than an hour away, though, I had to start considering stopping for the night.

I took a short break in a quiet little spot by the Kamase River, to top up my water and have a quick snack. Then it was off on the last push. Just before 6pm, I came to a fork in the road. Here, there’s a detailed signboard that shows a network of roads, streams and trails going every which way. I took the right fork toward Misugaki Sanosu.

mizugake signboard

About half a kilometre past the fork, I reached some sort of forest lodge. Among other things, were the words “Mt Mizugaki camping site” on one of the signs out front. The place looked closed though, and besides, I preferred to sleep surrounded by nature where possible. I kicked on.

From there, the road steepened a little. I was starting to feel pretty shagged and every step was becoming a chore, so I decided to call it a day. I made it about halfway up a long straight section of road, about half a kilometre past the lodge, and walked about 70 metres out into the forest. There, I found a nice little spot that was clear enough of roots and rocks to pitch the tent. There was just enough light left to set up camp without needing the torch. By seven, I was snug and fed and ready to crash. I’d covered just over 20 kilometres on what was an enjoyable day of walking.

campsite day 1About to set up camp. The road is in the background.

The night wasn’t overly cold and I lay for a while listening to the sound of a stream that was somewhere on the other side of the road.

At around ten, I woke to loud footsteps crunching through the leaves. They came closer and closer and stopped just a few metres away from the tent. I grabbed my torch and switched it on. Before I could open the tent door, a shrill cry rang out, scaring the bejesus out of me and resonating through the forest. It was followed instantly by the sound of hooves galloping loudly away. A deer. The animal must have been as startled by me as I was by it, and ran off about a hundred metres or so into the trees, where it stayed for a while, letting out all sorts of strange sounds. Its cries went from loud, to soft, from surprised and angry, to resigned and confused, as though it was having a drawn-out argument with itself.

“Damn, did you see that thing? Frigging big yellow ghost, all glowy.”
“Come on stupid, there’s no such things as ghosts. It’s just one of those weird two legged creatures.”
“No. You didn’t see what I saw. It was a big freaky glowy triangle don’t call me stupid I know what I saw.”
“Here we go again, you and your triangles.”
“I told you, there’s bad spirits in these here hills.”
“I knew I shouldn’t have let you eat those mushrooms.”
And so on, for about an hour.

A little while after that one gave up and went away, some other creature came scurrying toward the tent. It ran in fast, short bursts and sounded sneaky and agile. It made me think of a large goanna, racing along and almost hovering above the leaf litter as it wriggled from side to side with legs going all over the place. This visitor sounded fairly benign compared to the heavily-stomping previous one, though. I figured that whatever it was, if it was determined enough to claw its way into the tent, I’d be obliged to reward its efforts with a mouthful of Axe Ice Chill.

It either sat out there all night or slinked quietly away. By eleven, I fell asleep, looking forward to getting onto the mountain the following day.

 

Day 2

5:30am. A still, chilly morning. I’d reset my alarm twice: once at 3:30, then again at 4:30. I’d wanted to make an early start and get as much time on the mountain as possible, but I lacked the willpower to drag myself out into the cold while it was still dark. By 5:30, there was a hint of murky grey permeating the tent and I finally managed to get motivated.

As usual, without coffee to pull me out of my morning semi-coma, packing up was slow. It took an hour of rolling, scrunching, sorting through the things I’d need that day and trying to get them as close to the top of the pack as possible, and staring blankly out into space, before I was finally ready to get going. At 6:30, I trudged back out to the road and turned left.

A sign at the fork in the road I’d stopped at the previous evening had pronounced Mizugaki Sansou to be 3.5 kilometres away. I’d walked about one kilometre before stopping for the night, and reckoned I had a 40 minute walk to get there. Either the sign wasn’t completely accurate or I’d misread it, because within about 20 minutes I found myself at the roadside café. There was nobody around. Even the drinks machines were switched off. I’d had a look at the place on google streetview during my hike planning and hoped that I might be able to buy a bottle or two of water here, to top up before heading up the mountain. I’d just have to stop at a stream somewhere along the way instead.

mizugaki sansouMizugaki Sansou.

I had a bit of a look around, and saw two cars in the big car park. Either early risers or people were camping nearby, or somewhere on the mountain. A small sign marked the trail head, and just beyond it, one of those yellow signs warning of bears was nailed to a tree. I decided I might as well just get going, and followed the path upward.

mizugake sign

Only a few minutes along, I heard the gentle trickle of water. Down to my left, a tiny stream ran over rocks and I wasn’t going to let the chance to fill up slip by. I heaved off the backpack, took out my two water bottles and made my way carefully down the leaf-covered slope to it. The water was cold and pure and I drank as much as I could. With two full bottles I climbed back up to the path.

With the extra two litres or so in the pack, the weight was back up to nearly 25kg again. I procrastinated for a bit, taking a few photos, sucking down some energy goop and taking in the quiet morning ambience of the forest. At around 7:30, I got going again.

I plodded slowly, not trying to get anywhere in a hurry but instead trying to fall into a rhythm that I could maintain. About half an hour after leaving Mizugaki Sansou, a solo female hiker passed me. Then, as things became a bit steeper, a bloke overtook me, also hiking alone.

The path crossed an old road and not long later, came up to meet the top of the first ridge. This was a really nice moment. Mt Mizugaki, painted with early morning sunlight, appeared directly in front of the path. It looked dramatic, yet serene. The stillness of the morning only added to its stateliness. The bloke who had passed me was there, taking a break. We chatted for a bit then he continued on and up the ridge.

mizugaki first viewMt Mizugaki.

The next stretch was a very pleasant and easy walk up to a mountain café – Fujimidaira-goya. Two girls packed up tents as I passed. With the slow plodding, I wasn’t feeling as knackered as I thought I might be lugging that silly amount of weight, and I kept going.

kinou restaurantFujimidaira-goya. It looks like it must be a happening place during the summer.

Not far beyond the Fujimidaira-goya, snow began appearing on the path. There was no ice though, and the going wasn’t steep, so I stuck with my hiking shoes. I didn’t want to put on the snow boots unless or until it was absolutely necessary. The plodding becomes much more ploddy with those on, especially with crampons strapped to them, and I wanted to only have to resort to them when it became too difficult to keep going in shoes.

At 9:45, I came to a small hut. This one is located a little way down a steep slope. It was closed up and I didn’t bother going down to check it out. There’s a sign here that points the way to Dainichi Boulder. I think it says 30 minutes. I plodded on.

From here up to the boulder, the track became a lot steeper. There was also a lot of clear ice on it from this point up, and the going slowed right down. With careful steps and using the tops of rocks that poked up through the ice, it was still easy enough, just slow. In one or two steep spots there were nice views to be had out to the west. The path passed right below the Dainichi Boulder on its way up to the next flat area. There were one or two very rough minor paths which people must have been using to try and scramble up and around the boulders, but it didn’t really look like there was much up there to see. I gave it a miss and followed the path around.

It was about 11 when I reached the small clearing near the boulder. I took a 10-minute break here, had a look at the big rock, took some photos and downed more energy goop. I went all-out on the energy and calorie goop on this hike and didn’t hold back on using it. Normally, I take a bit of the stuff to compliment other snacks, but for lugging that weight around for days, I’d bought three or four times more goop than usual.

dainichi rockDainichi Boulder.

Then came the next leg. The girl who’d overtaken me on the way up passed me on this stretch, headed down. We chatted for a while about this and some other hikes. I couldn’t believe how quickly she’d made it up and back. I couldn’t have run that fast. She only had ice cleats on her boots too, and though she said it was a bit dangerous higher up because there were no trees, the fact that she wasn’t wearing crampons made me think conditions couldn’t have been too nasty.

Just after 1pm, the path connected to yet another ridge. This one was open and narrower, and offered views both up toward the top of the mountain and back toward the west, and Mt Mizugaki. The sky and landscape all around were grey and while still impressive, weren’t as spectacular as they would have been on a clear day.

mizugaki from ridge 2

There was a lot more snow higher up, and the contrast of dark rocks and white snow cover made for a dramatic view up toward the summit. It was hard to tell if the snow was soft and deep or packed and slippery, but just in case it was the latter, I decided to stop and put on the heavy boots and crampons. At least the boots would keep my feet warm even if I didn’t really need them. Then it was off on the last push to the top.

summit ridge

This last section was dramatic and pretty exhilarating. A strong wind blew in from the south, and in the exposed saddles that linked each of the three or four rocky bumps that protruded from the ridge, sheets of snow raced across from right to left and swirled wildly. The snow on the ground was mostly only ankle deep, and with a steady plod I made my way up.

summit viewClear views up to the summit.

Even in those exposed bits with the snow blowing every which way, it wasn’t overly cold. It looked as though it should have been bone-chilling, but the temperature was surprisingly mild. I still had my light mitts on and had no problem with my hands staying warm.

As I ascended, there were a few steep bits that required some careful steps. Most of those were where the path wound around behind the bumps then had to climb back up on the far sides. It was difficult to tell exactly how far off the summit was. For the most part, it stayed concealed within clouds and the lack of detail made it look much farther away than what it was. Occasionally the grey ceiling would lift and I’d catch a peak of the snow and rocks. I figured about three quarters of an hour at most, depending on photo and general gawking stops.

About halfway up the ridge, I passed the bloke I’d met earlier in the day. He reckoned it wasn’t as cold as it looked up on top and wished me well.

Throughout that section, I could also see, about half a kilometre out to my left on another ridge, a big rock shaped like a hiking boot. It looked like a fairytale house with the snow cover. Next to it sat a small hut, which I guessed was Kinpu-goya. I hadn’t decided whether or not I’d head across to it after making the summit. The time I’d lose heading down and then back up might be better spent continuing eastward along the ridge.

shoe rock and signThe big boot and top of Kinpu-goya just to the right of it.

At just after 2pm, I plodded up through knee-deep snow, to the deserted summit area of Mt Kinpu. I’d seen pictures of it, and the big rock at the top had looked impressive. In person, it’s even more so. In fact, I was kind of blown away by the thing. It’s a big monolith, probably around 10 metres high, sculptured into vertical slabs and terraces by countless millennia of wind, rain and snow. The thing almost looked like Stonehenge had been disassembled and the pieces stacked back together into a not-quite-random big pile. There was something very other-worldly about it, as though there’d been some intelligent design behind its placement and shape. Lovecraft’s Olde Ones came to mind, and ancient rituals and rites of long-forgotten beings come down from the stars. The torii gate placed dead centre in front of it only added to the look of strange purpose and design.

Wind blew snow across the ground, creating an atmosphere of desolation and remoteness. There wasn’t much of a view to see. In every direction, the edge of the mountain rolled away into a uniform greyness. I felt like a was a million miles away from civilisation, or on some other planet altogether. After a few photos and a bit of wandering about, I headed up to a collection of boulders not far from the monolith, that marks the summit proper. Here, there’s a tiny natural shelter where a hollow in the rocks forms a small tunnel. I crawled into it to rest, have a bite to eat and decide what to do next.

summit markerSummit marker.

Just out of sight behind the boulders, my route continued eastward. It was only 2:30, so there was plenty of time to get a few more kilometres. I stayed on the summit for about half an hour, then packed up and got ready for the next plod. While sitting under the rocks, my fingers had become chilly, so I swapped the light mitts for my heavier ones. Despite the place looking like the Arctic, I was surprised that it wasn’t cold enough that I needed to put on the snow gloves. By 3pm, I was on my way again.

The next stretch began with a slow clamber around the summit boulders. The snow was deep here, and in between the rocks it had collected to form thigh-deep sinkholes. There was no trace of any sort of path and it took about ten minutes to get onto a flatter area on the other side of the rocks. If the summit had looked like the Arctic, what lay on the far side was Antarctica. It was a scene of pure desolation. The summit boulders were like the Mt Kinpu version of the wardrobe to Narnia. With a few steps, I’d entered another world. There was nothing out there except snow, rocks and some stunted bushes. In the distance I could see a broad, low bump on the ridge, and some way behind it, another. Then greyness. Snow raced over the plateau from right to left in furious gusts. It didn’t look inviting.

past kinpu summit

From this point, to say the going was a plod, wouldn’t quite do it justice. It was ploddier than any plod. With a snow depth variating randomly from step to step, generally between ankle and waist, the going became a pure slog. No, not even a slog – it was both a plod and a slog. A plog. Ever so slowly, with every step requiring pulling nearly 2kg of snow boot and crampon up out of holes, I embarked on what would become the plog to end all plogs.

 

We took risks. We knew we took them. Things have come out against us. We have no cause for complaint.
          – Robert Falcon Scott

 

While planning the hike, I had little idea what the way would be like after leaving the Mt Kinpu summit. I had the route in my GPS and had written down the names of all the major peaks and points of interest all along the trail to Nishizawa Sansou, but they were just that – names. I knew that there were plenty of ups and downs, a few more peaks, a mountain road pass that was one of the highest in Japan, a gorge and one or two other points of interest along the way. But that was about it. What I hadn’t counted on, was that three mountains, pretty much right next to each other, would have weather as different from one another as the weather in Singapore and Siberia.

The first part of the plog took me northeast, over the two exposed wide bumps. From the Kinpu summit, the second of these had looked like it was a couple of kilometres away. It turned out to be much closer. Despite taking nearly 40 minutes to reach, the farther of the two plateaus was less than half a kilometre’s plog. A rope had appeared about half way along, running lengthwise over the top of the wide ridge, marking the way and making navigation one less thing to have to think about. The snow depth lessened for a while too, reducing the second half of the plog to just a regular plod. From the Mt Kinpu summit, clouds and blowing snow had obscured details, making the distance look a lot greater than what it actually was.

From that second bump, the path became a lot harder to discern. A couple of pink ribbons tied to branches down at the tree line showed that the route made a sudden turn to the southeast, and down into forest. I was looking forward to getting back down into trees and out of the wind and sleet, and wasted no time plogging slowly down toward them.

pink ribbon

Right at the tree line, a pair of snowshoe prints appeared out of nowhere. They were heading down. The prints were pretty crisp, maybe only a day old, and I’d hoped that by stepping in the small indents they’d made in the snow, the sinking might be a tad less severe and the going just a little easier. It wasn’t. If anything, the snow became deeper and the plogging slower, the farther into the forest I went. Every step became a chore. About one in every five steps, my boot didn’t sink through, but it was too random and unexpected to be able to capitalise on and walk faster. I fell into a sort of step-pause-step rhythm, which was the only way to keep going without burning out my calf muscles and having to stop every couple of minutes. It was extremely slow going.

footprints in forest

Without the shoe prints there, just following the path would have been difficult. The only way to tell where it went was that the trees it ran through were very slightly farther apart from each other than the others in the surrounding forest were. There didn’t look to be any other way for the footprints to be leading other than where I wanted to go, but I stopped every 15 minutes to check my GPS and make sure I was going the right way. It would have been a bad place to start wandering around lost. The whole time, tiny hard sleet crystals blew horizontally through the air, from right to left. The trees didn’t seem to do anything to mitigate the amount of it blowing in.

An hour passed, then another. Nothing changed. The path continued along the side of the ridge and the going was excruciatingly slow. As I plogged, I found myself doing the math on distances, times, days, food, water, stove gas and fatigue. If the rest of the hike was like this, I might be out there for up to five days if I wanted to reach Nishizawa Sansou. I had enough food. I could melt snow with the stove and eat snow on the move to supplement my water supply, as I had been doing. It would be possible, work and responsibilities not withstanding. But the main problem was willpower. The thought of plogging like that for up to three more days was an horrendous one.

Then my thoughts turned to more immediate issues. Night was only an hour off and I was in the middle of nowhere, going nowhere fast. There weren’t many flat spots around and even if there were, it would be a nasty cold night camped in the deep snow. I plogged on.

I made it my next goal to get up to the top of Mt Asahi – the next major point along the ridge – by dark. I didn’t know what to expect there, but if there was a steep climb involved, I’d rather be doing it using daylight over a torchlight. In the back of my mind I knew that sooner or later the snowshoe prints would disappear if it continued snowing the way it was. If that happened, the going would become slower still, as I’d have to keep checking the GPS. I had my phone switched off to save the battery for emergencies, and the GPS battery would last a lot longer if I didn’t have the thing navigating constantly. I’d also been sticking a fresh glove warmer to the back of the phone each day to keep the battery as charged up as possible. But while the prints were visible, I decided to keep going, well into the night if need be, to make the most of them.

Ever so slowly, the path reached its lowest point, dragged along for a while, then began to head upward. Every couple of minutes I’d step into a particularly deep patch of snow and fall in up to my thighs. These took every bit of strength to pull myself out of and always ended with me having to wait out burning leg muscles before continuing. I considered taking off the crampons, but the tiny bit of extra surface area they gave the boots might have been making the going ever so slightly easier, so I kept them on.

Gradually, the way became steeper and steeper as the forest became darker. Just before dark, I found myself climbing up an extremely steep slope. Because of the sleet blowing across from the right, I could only make my way up by digging in with the toe spikes and by edging up sideways, facing to the left. The instant I turned into the wind, the sleet became blinding. It was painfully slow going. Toward the top of that bit, the way became wide and exposed, with nothing to stop a slide. One failure of a crampon to bite and it would have been a very fast slide and crash back down into trees about forty meters below. I think at its worst the slope angle was about 60 degrees.

During one pause, I found myself looking down into the near darkness, wondering how a fall would go. It would end in one of two ways: headfirst into a tree and instant blackness, or lots of broken limbs, followed by hours or days of lying bleeding and moaning and fending off ravenous squirrels and the occasional bear and tripping balls and talking to people who weren’t there and drinking my own pee and then either finally scaring the bejesus out of some unsuspecting hiker who happened along and getting rescued, or succumbing to the elements and/or squirrels. I turned back to face the slope and plogged on and up, wondering what I’d do if there was a section like this going down the other side of the mountain.

At a point where the gradient finally eased, I stopped, unloaded and put on my headlamp. Despite the wind and sleet, it still wasn’t all that cold and it was only after handling cold objects such as the lamp, water bottle and snacks that my fingers started to freeze. I kicked on.

It was almost harder to see with the torch than without it. A blur of ice crystals raced in front of my eyes and in the light, the air appeared to be filled with ten times as many of them as before. The plogging continued.

For a while, the path levelled out. The snow was a lot deeper up on top though, and constant snow drifts across the track took the level of difficulty of it all up a notch. A lot of them were armpit deep and took huge amounts of energy to get across. Progress slowed down to half of what it had been for most of the afternoon.

Somewhere along that stretch, I made a decision: this madness was going to end at the road pass. There was no way I could plog for another three days. I’d continue on and down to the Oodarumi pass and at whatever time I made it, I made it, whether that was eight, nine, ten, midnight or dawn. It was the next waypoint and to get to it, I only had to get off the peak I was currently on. The GPS showed the distance to the pass to be another couple of kilometres. That meant anywhere up to four more hours. Or more. I didn’t care. The pressure was off. I’d make it down to the pass, find somewhere to pitch the tent or hitch a ride back to civilisation. The end was in sight.

After plogging along for an hour or so across the top section of Mt Asahi, the path began to descend. The downhill section was the easiest part of the hike by far. The snow was still deep, but the downhill momentum made it easier to just sort of fall through it. I thought it would be all downhill from the summit, or nearly all, but much of the way was level. There were even a lot of small uphill sections.

Hours passed and time became irrelevant. My entire world had become snow, trees and blowing sleet. By then, the shoe prints had disappeared beneath the fresh snow, but for the most part, there was only one way to go anyway. Getting across the endless snow drifts became all-consuming and as I became more and more shagged by the efforts, I found myself stopping every few minutes and staring out at nothing, sometimes wondering how every decision I’d ever made had brought me to that moment, stuck in thigh-deep snow, at night, in some forest, on some mountain, in driving sleet, headed toward a pass that might or might not offer a way out.

Another hour of plogging passed. It was going on forever. The glinting of sleet crystals in my torch light was becoming hypnotic and I started to see car headlights flashing down through the trees where there weren’t any. Then I had another realisation: unless the path suddenly lost a massive amount of altitude over the final kilometre, the snow would still be at least knee deep at the pass. That would mean not only no cars, but no cars tomorrow, the next day or the day after that. And not just that. I’d have to plog through deep snow for god knows how long to get to wherever the road lead to. But that would have to be tomorrow’s problem. Plogging resumed.

After numerous more downs, ups, acrosses, stoppings and staring into spaces, I saw a reflective sign glint out in the darkness. Finally – something that wasn’t trees, sleet and snow. I made the last push through the forest and out toward a big open area that was the Oodarumi pass. The torch beam couldn’t penetrate more than about 20 metres though the sleet, making it difficult to see what, if anything, was out there. It was 9:30pm.

Just before I left the trees behind, I saw what looked like a small cabin or toilet block about twenty metres off on the left. Maybe I could pitch the tent in the lee of that thing if there were no other options. On my right, the ground dropped away into greyness. But strangely, a few metres away, I could see the roof line on a two story building. There was also a window. But there was no wall. It was all just hovering in the air. Below it, dark sky disappeared off into the distance. I couldn’t tell where the ground ended and the sky began. I tried to follow the snowy slope down to the base of a wall with my eyes, but the ground just bled off into a distant grey nothingness. None of it made any sense.

I decided to continue on out into the huge open space of the pass area. As I left the trees behind and plogged it out into the big clearing, the driving sleet took on a new intensity. There was nothing there. No cars, no shelters, no anything. It was a desolate, wind-blasted, grey desert. A Snowpocalypse. I stood in the middle of it, getting pummelled by sleet, and again wondered what slip up in the course of making a million life decisions had led to that moment.

I looked back up in the direction I’d plogged down from, and thought about the weather forecast: several days of sunshine before my hike, 7cm of snowfall on the day of the climb up Mt Kinpu, followed by several more days of sunshine. What was happening here? Had I confused this Mt Kinpu with some other Mt Kinpu? Had I shared a mushroom with that deer back near Mizugaki Sansou and was actually still lying there, on the leaves, having some sort of horrible fever dream about being lost on Planet Snow? What the heck was going on?

On the far side of the clearing, I could just make out a colourful sign through the sleet. I plogged over to it. It showed the mountains, the pass, some paths, and a road or river or trail leading down out of the mountains to the south. That was my way out. I couldn’t see where it went exactly, but whatever it lead to was where I was going. But that was tomorrow. I had to find somewhere to sleep. The sign also showed a toilet block just down the road, and a cluster of structures a little way up in the forest. There was also the small structure I’d seen off through the trees, from on the path. I went back to check that out first. Only…it wasn’t there. Just trees and more trees. I came to one tree that had fallen and was lying horizontally, suspended in the air by other trees a couple of meters off the ground. That must have been what I thought was the outline of a hut. I walked back to the open area to check out the building with the window.

Again, I saw the floating roof edge and the distant empty sky beneath it. I took a couple of steps closer this time, and realised what was going on. An enormous snow drift had built up to such a point that it went all the way up the side of the wall to the roof, covering the entire wall. The smooth curve and greyness of it had made it look like empty sky. I walked around to the open side of the building, hoping to find a driveway or something that might allow me to get right up to it. With luck, there might be an overhanging eave under which I could put up the tent. But there was no luck and no driveway. Just a fence. I plogged back over to the sign for another look.

I couldn’t tell if the cluster of structures were houses or something else. It was a strange place for houses to be. I decided to go up for a look. A couple of hundred metres off the road, I came to a mountain hut of sorts. As I approached, I saw the snowshoe prints reappear, also heading up to the hut. Surely there wasn’t another lunatic wandering around. Who on earth would be so bonkers?

I followed them up around the side of the main hut, while looking for any sheltered or semi-sheltered spot I might be able to put up the tent, but the deep snow was everywhere. Around the back, the footprints headed off and up into the forest. It must have been the trail continuing up to Mt Kokushidake. I had slightly less than zero interest in that sort of madness and decided instead to have a look in between the main hut and a small shed sticking off the back of it.

Between the two buildings was a low roof and a small room filled with tools and contraptions. It was cold and not particularly pleasant, but it wasn’t snowing in there. With all the stuff scattered around, there wasn’t room for the tent, but the mat and sleeping bag would just fit. Then I noticed the door. It was ajar, opened very slightly outward. Surely not. I gave it a slight pull. The lower half of the door was warped outward, as though by extreme heat, or someone throwing themselves at it from the inside, making it a bit tricky to budge. I lifted and pulled and it scraped open. I poked my head inside. A big empty room, with a central concrete path and two big tatami matt areas on each side. It was dead still and dark. I pulled the door open some more and stepped in.

It looked like other mountain huts I’d seen, but with one big, shared sleeping area. It felt a bit strange being inside the place when it was closed for the winter. I wondered about the door, and why it wasn’t locked. And more so, about the shape of it. Had someone tried to get in, or get out? Why would the caretakers leave it like that when they closed up? Why was it bent outward? If someone had forcefully broken in, surely it would have been warped inward. Like the rest of the day, it didn’t make a lot of sense. But the room was free from snow and I was done. I unpacked in one corner close to the door and put down my mat and sleeping bag. There were a few blankets and pillows on shelves, but out of the wind and off the snow, I just used what I had, despite it being oddly colder inside the room than it was out in the wind.

hut inside

I leaned my backpack up against the gap in the door to try and stop a bit of the breeze that was coming through it, had just enough food stop from going hungry, then crawled into my sleeping bag. I lay there for a while, watching my breath steam up in the torchlight, and eventually, fell asleep.

 

Day 3

7:00am. I didn’t want to get out of the sleeping bag. Partly because of the cold and partly because I didn’t want to face the next insane plog. I switched on my phone. The glove warmers had done their job and the battery was still at around 90%. I pulled up google maps. It took a while, but finally loaded the area. The road I was on headed south, as I thought. But it was a long way to anywhere. And google didn’t even show it reaching anything. It just stopped in the middle of nowhere, about 20km to the south. If that was right, I’d have to follow a river through a forest for a kilometre or two, then hopefully come to another mountain road somewhere behind Mt Konara. That didn’t look right and I suspected the map wasn’t loading properly. I opened the Suunto app, which was also vague, then Yamap, which had the same issue. It didn’t really matter. I was following that road to wherever it went.

hut inside morning

It took a long time to pack up. My legs ached like mad and I moved around like an arthritic old man. It took some melted snow with the stove and a cup of hot green tea to finally me going. At around 8:30, I was finally ready. I swept up some snow that my boots had dragged in the night before and heaved on the pack. Thankfully, it had become noticeably lighter. I’m not sure how much a hut like that usually charges, but I placed two thousand yen on a shelf near the door, scraped the door closed behind me and headed back into the snow.

The stillness outside was like a hammer blow. Solid, heavy silence. It couldn’t have been more different from the night before. Thick fog hung over the trees and ground like a lazy grey cat hangs over the edge of a couch. The heaviness of it was palpable. My tracks had been almost completely covered with fresh snow, the top of which was now slightly above my knees. I crunched my way slowly through it and back out to the road.

hut tracks

It was almost perfectly still out there too. A grey and white wasteland: dead quiet. Too quiet. It was the sort of quiet that a house has when kids, who have been throwing a wild party while their parents are away, get a call saying that mum and dad have decided to return a day early and will be home in an hour, then frantically shove everybody out the door and race to clean up, throwing that last empty beer can out the window in the nick of time and stand smiling nervously when the folks step through the front door. It was unnaturally serene to the point where it didn’t feel quite right.

I turned slowly, taking in the desolate scene. As much as I wanted to get away from the place, I couldn’t help but appreciate how beautiful it was. There was barely any colour to it: only grey and greyer. I plogged around taking a few photos, then trudged downward.

morning fogOodarumi.

At the bottom of the car park area is a toilet block. I was surprised to find it open, and had a look at myself in the mirror inside, to confirm that I did indeed look like I’d just crawled out of a car wreck that had involved no less than twenty rolls and half a dozen end-over-end flips. Then began insane plog number two.

toilet buildingA very picturesque toilet block.

The road leading south had just over a foot of snow on it, give or take ten centimetres with each step. As on the previous day, nearly every step was a chore. I didn’t have the crampons on though, which at least made the lifting part of plogging a little easier. Once again, I fell into a step-pause-step rhythm.

trees and mountains

It was slow but there was no other way. I took heart knowing that the farther down the mountain I got, the easier the going would become, even if that was still a long way off. The way the road wound around the sides of the mountain, though, it looked like it was going to be a really long way off. At least, in plog time.

road snow tracksLooking back up the road.

It took about two hours to walk the first kilometre. Every time the road steepened a little, usually on a sharp turn, the snow became more packed and I was able to walk at nearly half the pace of a regular old plod, but for the most part it ran nearly flat and straight, and made for slow plogging. The road zigzagged torturously around the contours of the mountain, and even with clouds making it impossible to see just how high up I was, it looked like it was going to take a long time to lose altitude and get out of the deep snow.

mirror hand up

After another half hour, footsteps suddenly appeared in the middle of the road. They came out of nowhere and for a few seconds I was confused about how they got there. Then it became clear that someone had hiked up from…somewhere, given up and turned back. That gave me hope that I was also headed somewhere, as opposed to going nowhere, or worse, headed back up into some other mountains.

road new footprints

From that point, I trod in the deep prints, which made the going a little easier. At times I could even walk at almost half the speed of a normal plod. This went on for what seemed like a few years. Eventually, the snow became more shallow and packed, after I’d plogged, then slogged, and finally plodded, about five kilometres. Then tyre tracks appeared, in which the snow was packed but not icy. I could finally walk at close to a normal pace.

snowy road

There were more animal tracks on this stretch of road than anywhere I’ve ever been before. It started with a lone hare. Then a couple more. Then there were deer, and shortly after, antelope. Then came more hares, lots of deer and even some sort of cat. They were all headed downhill, as though there was a huge animal convention going on somewhere lower down on the mountain. Within meters of the cat tracks appearing, bear prints appeared. These went every which way, but like all the other prints, were roughly headed downward too.

bear printsScratchy.

Then the first bit of bitumen showed through. Just a tiny patch of black. The snow began to thin out a little. Then a little more and a little more of the dark road surface. Not long afterward, the road entered the clouds and the whole place took on an incredibly beautiful atmosphere.

road in fog

At around 1pm, I heard a droney noise, and a minute later a little grey van came tearing around the corner. It pulled up beside me and a steamed-up window dropped down. There was a spritely bloke in camo gear behind the wheel. We said hellos, he asked what sort of madman I was, I told him the sort that had hiked over from Mt Kinpu, and we each continued on our ways. Around half an hour later he came racing back down and pulled up beside me again. He asked if I wanted a lift. I wasn’t sure exactly where I was going, but a lift out of there was a lift out of there and I said yes please. He had to take a rifle out of the passenger seat and move it into the back to make room. I threw my stuff in next to it, climbed into the front and we were on our way.

As we raced around corners over bitumen and snow, he told me he was up there looking for deer. He showed me a photo of a bear he’d caught once too and to my surprise, reckoned it was one of the most delicious things he’d ever eaten. He asked where I wanted to go and I said the first bus stop we came to would be fine. He was a top bloke though and offered to drop me off at a station if I wanted, as he’d be passing not far from Enzan Station anyway. It was an offer too good to refuse.

It felt like it took a long time to get out of the mountains, even in the van. It was about twenty minutes’ drive to get down to the first main road. As we passed out of the end of a tunnel, I realised we’d come to an intersection I’d walked to from Enzan Station when I’d done the Mt Konara hike. My hiking universes were colliding. From there, it was another fifteen minutes down to Enzan Station. All up, he’d saved me a plod of about 17km.

At around 2pm, we pulled into Enzan Station. With aching legs, I climbed slowly out of the van and thanked the bloke again for the immense amount of kindness he’d shown, and then he tooted and took off.

I sat down on a bench near the station’s taxi rank and contemplated things for a bit, while a couple of curious taxi drivers contemplated me. I felt a tad shell-shocked. I couldn’t believe that I was out of the snow. It had been all-consuming, for what had felt like half my lifetime. Plogging through it had been my entire world, and just a few hours earlier, I’d been expecting to have to spend at least one more night in it. I couldn’t tell which had fatigued me more – the physical slog, or the not knowing if there was a way out of the mountains and the prospect of being out there for god knows how many more days. But here I was, suddenly sitting on a bench, at a station, being stared at by taxi drivers. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw footprints in snow. But that was a small price to pay for freedom.

 

 It’s over. It’s done.
          – Frodo Baggins

 

_____________________________________________

Grandeur: 3
General Beauty: 9
Peacefulness: 10
Difficulty: 8
Hikeography Rating – 7/10

_____________________________________________

 

map day one

map day two and three

 

Photos of some of my other outdoor adventures:
https://www.instagram.com/gregsoutdoorstuff/

My other Japan blog:
https://wordpress.com/view/undiscoveredtokyo.wordpress.com

6 Comments

  1. “I decided that rather than risk becoming target practise, a break could wait.” Love it! With anecdotes like this it’s hard to believe blogging is on the death bed. Nice idea starting out from Nobeyama Station especially given the bus isn’t running and a taxi to the Mizugaki Lodge would be prohibitively expensive. Under ideal conditions 4 days would be about right but given the snow depth and your pack weight you did well making it to Odarumi Pass. A couple of years back a friend of mine started in the opposite direction i.e. from the Nishizawa Gorge and also called it quits at the high pass. In his case he headed down the north-side towards Kawahake where you can pick up a bus back to Shinano-Kawakami Station and I was interested to know why you didn’t do the same as walking to Enzan Station has got to be at least three times as far?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hadn’t done much research on the pass, as I hadn’t been expecting to be there for long. I didn’t know where the road went to the north, but I knew that eventually I’d reach the burbs and city if I headed south. In the snow it didn’t even seem like there was a road continuing north. It just looked like it petered out into forest and even deeper snow. It’s funny though. Sitting at Enzan Station I swore I was done with hiking for good. But even now, I’m thinking hmm, if I had a pair of those snowshoes…

      Like

    1. That’s probably a good idea Pat. If you have snowshoes and are prepared for a slog, you could do it now, and probably have the mountains all to yourself too. But June would definitely be a whole lot easier.

      Like

      1. I opted for a shorter trek near Tanzawa. I thought of you a couple times because there was a fair amount of snow in spots and I chuckled when I mused that I was plogging. But then I thought that walking through the snow on a crystal clear warm spring day wasn’t exactly the same as your plog was.

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