Forget Fuji. Climbing Japan's second tallest: Kita-dake
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Forget Fuji. Climbing Japan's second tallest: Kita-dake
"He who climbs Fuji once is wise, he who climbs it twice is a fool." So goes the old Japanese proverb and anyone who has climbed Fuji knows why. It's obvious why so many climb Fuji, Japan's highest. Towering over the plains, a sacred mountain to Shinto cults, it's just there, rising in splendid isolation. My own experience climbing Fuji is in perfect agreement with the proverb: crumbly stone of red and black ash, crowds, limited views, and no vegetation to break this monotony. Yet it remains the target for most hikers in Japan. Of those who have hiked Fuji, checked it off their list of things to do, few, but the dedicated, bother with Japan's other mountains, which are no less stunning and devoid, for the most part, of the tremendous summer crowds drawn to Fuji's crater rim. Kita-dake, Japan's second tallest mountain peak at 3192 meters, is relatively close to Fuji, and the center piece of the South, or Minami, Alps, a beautiful jumble of peaks that are worthy of their alpine designation.
The thought crossed my mind while living in Japan nine years earlier. I was planning one more hike into the mountains and it would be my last. I decided on the North, or Kita, Alps because of the spectacular scenery and easy access to the base resort at Kamikochi. Having finished that trip and returned to Pennsylvania I couldn’t help wondering what the South, or Minami, Alps would have been like. The allure of mountains is tantalizing - there's always another to climb. There was less literature on the Minami Alps compared to their northern counterparts. In the elapsed years I had casually surfed the web, libraries and bookstores and sometimes found literature on the Minami Alps which included Kita dake, Japan’s second tallest. I knew I would not return to Japan anytime soon, but finding new mountains to climb was still a favorite pastime. I had downloaded a good website on Kita dake in hardcopy and filed it away. Before I went to Japan in 1996 I browsed Paul Hunt’s Hiking in Japan, in my opinion, the definitive English language guide to hikes and treks in the Land of the Rising Sun along with Lonely Planet's book on the same topic. Hunt's book has a detailed chapter on hiking Shirane san, which is highlighted by Kita dake, the highest summit. When I heard the news from from my wife that we got orders to go to Okinawa in 2005, the possibility of climbing Kita dake started to take form. This had been almost ten years in the making, and that was sweetening the possibility. A year elapsed in Okinawa before my trip started to ferment. I got the nerve and bought tickets in July and starting preparing.
I left Naha on Monday August 21, 2006 with some trepidation. The uneventful and smooth flight aboard an ANA 747 allayed my fears and I arrived in Haneda/Tokyo just before 11 am. My goal was to hike, at least, Japan’s second highest mountain, Kita dake (3192 meters) and time, weather and energy permitting, a bit of the connecting ridge to the south. Nine years earlier my wife and I had tackled half of the Japan’s most intimidating arête in the North, or Kita, Alps. But I had read in Hunt’s guide that the Minami Alps were remote, undeveloped, and wild, without the development that characterizes the Central and North Alps. I tried to time my flight out of Naha early enough so that I could at least make camp at Hirogawara, at the base of Kita dake, by that evening, maybe even start my hike. Although I made it to Kofu shortly after two, I would soon learn that this day would be a false start. Upon arrival I found out the last bus, one of only two daily, had left at noon. With no camping or youth hostel nearby I headed back towards Tokyo and planned to stay in Yokota Airbase, which was fortunately not too far off the train route to Kofu, along the Chuo line. Up early the next morning I caught the first local train out of Fussa right before 0500 and was on my way. I reached Kofu by a series of three train rides. Metropolitan Tokyo seemed to go on with no end but as the train approached the town of Takao the high rises of suburbia quickly gave way to steep foothills. The train wound through rustic villages with temples, shrines and rice paddies. Passing through a series of tunnels the scenery was beautiful, with steep wooded mountainsides and undulating ridges on the horizon. This part reminded me of riding a train through the Ukrainian Carpathians, which I had done some years before. After about an hour a broad, populated valley opened up with Kofu somewhere therein.
This time I had reached Kofu in time and caught the 0930 bus to Hirogawara. I was the first in line that morning and it quickly queued with fellow Japanese hikers, mostly seniors. Well at least I had come to the right place. The bus ride took more the two hours and most of the time seemed to be eaten up in the maze of traffic that crawls out of Kofu and through small towns. The road up into the mountains was narrow and it didn’t take long before we were winding above steep valleys, crawling up the side of a mountain. Paul Hunt’s descriptions were right on the mark. Parts of the road dropped down into infinity with a flimsy crash guard that wouldn’t have made much difference in the event of an accident. Finally we reached Hirogawara (1524 meters) and I didn’t waste time. I was on the trail in no time and set out for Shirane Oika, a camp/hut at 2230 meters. The going was extremely steep and not that clearly marked. It didn’t matter that I could not read kanji that well. I had climbed enough mountains and studied the map long enough. I think my map was slightly inaccurate though. I shadowed many of the hikers who were on the bus and finally played it safe by committing myself to a friendly group of senior hikers. We reached Shirane Oika at 1545 hours and the group went into the hut while I pitched my tent alongside others (see photo above). A fellow camped beside me, from Tokyo, tried to climb Mount Whitney in June but said it was snowed in. He told me he was heading back to California next month for a second attempt.
I had worried about the weather for some time before my trip: trying to plan a vacation from Okinawa in August can be similar to trying to predict the stock market with certainty, mostly because of the typhoons that patrol the East Pacific this time of year. With the exception of a morning shower, it had not rained but it was mostly overcast. I had beaten a few typhoons that fizzled out over southern Japan the previous week and it looked like the weather would be good enough. I had read that it wasn’t uncommon for the road into Hirogawara to wash out, so I was happy to have gotten there. About an hour after pitching my tent it started raining heavily and lastly for about and hour. Again around 2200 hrs it started again, but it died out quickly. I was surprised that my flimsy Vietnamese-made tent, which we had used nine years previous in the North Alps, did a remarkable job of keeping the water out. A few drops here and there but overall it kept me dry. The next morning I saw my neighbor sponging boatloads of water out of his tent with a towel.
Since I didn’t sleep much that night it wasn’t a problem getting up. I was excited because this day I would tackle Japan’s second highest. After taking a few photos I set out just after 0530 hrs., again shadowing many of the hikers from the previous day. Most were curious where I was from and all very friendly. Hiking for the Japanese, like most leisure activities, is socially oriented. And many of the hikers are seniors. What’s amazing is that these people can hold a slow, but steady, pace up steep mountains. It’s not uncommon for one to run into groups of old ladies laughing and chattering as they make their way up the side of a mountain. Along the way one group gave me onigiri, pears and cucumbers. These foods were a welcome relief to my bland energy bars. Shortly after 0730 hrs I made it to the ridgeline and was rewarded with incredible views to the north and west. I hadn’t seen mountains like this since, well, I was in the Kita Alps nine years earlier. One thing missing was the classic view of Fuji to the east – that’s where the clouds were rolling in from. At least I had caught a glimpse of it from the plane.
The mountains were clearly metamorphic with schist probably the predominating rock type. The rock type reminded me of the Green Mountains in Vermont, but the Minami Alps were much steeper and still being forced upward by the violent collision of continental plates off Japan’s Pacific side. The deep green velvet forests on the slopes reminded me of northern Colorado. It was clear these peaks received abundant moisture to sustain forests like that. Some of the slopes dropped a steep mile into the ravines below. The views of neighboring mountains were just spectacular. Excitedly I riffled off some pictures and started heading up the ridge towards Kata-no-Koya, the hut just below the north face of Kita dake. I reached it at about 0815 hrs and could see little figures moving up and down the final summit ridge. Clouds were moving in from the east and I was impatient to set out. After numerous false summits I finally saw the summit cairns and hikers from the final false summit. The last stretch from Kata-no-Koya was tough although it only amounted to about 600 vertical feet. It seemed never ending. I was weighed down by a relatively heavy backpack although I had left my tent, ground mat and a few other things at Shirane Oika. Now I realized, stupidly, that I had lugged wet laundry from the previous day for nothing and perhaps this would weigh on my decision not to press farther down the ridgeline. I made the summitby 0913 hr. and met a hiker who bought me a cup of sake at the hut the previous evening. As he explained the night before this was his eleventh time summiting Kita dake! I took a few photos from the top and 13 minutes later I was heading down the opposite ridge, already weary from the last four hours. It was clouding up and I could not see the summit of Aino dake, my next goal, but the ridge looked craggy and intimidating for the tired and weary. Twenty minutes later I had to make a decision: head back down to Shirane Oika or south towards Aino, Japan’s fourth tallest peak at 3,189 meters. My pack wasn’t getting any lighter so I decided it would be back to my tent. I didn’t regret the decision because the route was straight down into moisture-laden clouds. Even if I hiked Aino, I would have to come back this way eventually. After descending a series of ladders I came to the snow-filled ravine from the previous day and with much effort I painstakingly tried to keep my balance. Much of the trail was over slippery rocks and gravel. The moisture made it muddy and treacherous. After much cursing I got to the junction which led to Shirane Oika, marked by a toilet that is fueled by kerosene and could be heard upslope. It was damp and I was soaked with sweat and very tired by the time I made it back to my tent. I swore this would be my resting place for the night. The next and last bus from Hirogawara was at 1600 hrs and there was no way I was going to descend an extremely steep and wet path with a 45 lb pack to make that connection. Well I made a spontaneous decision after asking my camping neighbor if he were headed down. He said he was going down to catch the 1600 hr bus along with a few others that I had recognized from the camp. I thought quickly: it was not even one o’clock and I did not feel like staying until tomorrow only to get down and wait around for the 1225 hr return bus to Kofu. Too much time on my hands. Impulsively, I asked him if I could go with him, and I quickly packed and was ready. We were on the way down by 1254 hrs. I knew I would regret this but I motivated myself by thinking about a comfortable, clean bed and a shower in the Kanto Lodge at Yokota Airbase that night.
The way down was tortuously steep and exhaustion was hitting me full force. I was already rating this as one of the most exhaustive mountains I had climbed. I don’t know if it was the combination of my load, dehydration, lack of proper foods and perhaps lack of sleep over the last three nights. I was mad because I carefully planned my pack before leaving as I always have a tendency to over pack. Maybe age was just catching up with me. Anyway I knew it was only 2 hours or so to the base and I had to do it. It didn’t take long for my partner to abandon me. That was okay, I knew the way and there were enough people heading up; what worried me was the exhaustion setting in. Dehydrated, I hesitated to get a drink because I would have to take my pack off and put it back on. That would consume valuable energy that I did not have. Well, at least I wasn’t hallucinating yet, and no signs of dizziness either. It becomes a mind game at this point. I was getting closer though, my konichiwas were getting fainter and I started to draw more looks from the people heading up as they saw sweat dripping off my head like a rainstorm against my saturated shirt. But I could hear the river to my right getting louder and when I put my glasses back on the talus slope near the base was much closer than I thought. That was good. Another five minutes and I could see the footbridge and I was praying for this hike to end, now. Shortly after three I made the footbridge and by 1517 hrs I was at the bus stand not knowing if I would collapse from exhaustion and thirst. My hiking mate told me he made it five minutes before I did. I got in the queue, bought my ticket, fidgeted with my sack and just tried to sit and rest. I had half a liter of water left and I drank that down. I forced myself to eat a snack bar and chewed slowly. My throat was scratchy and it hurt to swallow. My next goal would be getting back to Yokota AB but for now I was happy to sit and rest. I made it into Yokota Airbase around 2130 hrs, after a series of train rides, showered, and immediately went to sleep. As my mind drifted into dream sleep the next project climb I hoped to undertake filled the void. Taiwan’s second highest, Hseuh shan (Snow Mt.), and Japan’s mountain-in-the-sea, Yakushima, easily erased the day’s memories of toil and thirst on the slopes of Kita dake.
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