Leaving the Chalet took a lot of effort on my part. But it was already 2 o’clock and we had a decent ridge to scale before we arrived at our destined campsite (or so we hoped). The clouds that were sweeping over us on the way up the mountain were now passed and on the other side, lingering behind. With full water bottles and a bit of respite we were off. Soon I found the fatigue had passed with invigoration.
At the top of this ridge line we finally reached one of the higher points on the range, and had a completely 360 degree view. It made the climb significantly more interesting and better. We also were moving more at a level pace, so the lack air seemed to have less an effect. Of course I still had no clue where we were going apart from the direction, and every time Mac pointed toward a crest or curve my eyes got lost among the grey.
By this point we were around 3,200 meters high, about two miles, with around a three hour hike left for the day. I was thankful for not having many switchbacks anymore, and really just a straightforward climb. The top had a lot more snow than what we saw coming up, but on a whole the clouds moved away to allow the sun to shine full on. Mac had been vigilant about putting on sunscreen, but I was a little less worried (but with the dry air and sun combination, I’m feeling a bit of the consequences). It didn’t seem like long before I looked back and the chalet and Mt. Yari resumed being immeasurable points in the distance.
Can you see the chalet? It’s actually a rest point for a lot of climbers and they have a significant amount throughout the range. Of course, they’re pretty expensive, which is why we were heading to a campsite. Typically they charge you to use those (as Mac will say, a ridiculous amount per person!), but since the one we were headed to was closed for the season we’d get off free.
There were still a number of peaks to hit along the way. We headed toward this place called the daikirete, something we spent some time trying to translate. I was convinced it stood for “The Great Cut” for indeed that’s what it was, a severe gash across the mountain line (a huge but brief drop in elevation). As we crawled along the ridge I kept looking for what could be such a place that it would get its own name. In the name the first kanji ‘dai‘ does stand for big, but the ‘kirete‘ is strangely in katakana.
We picked up the pace as we hit the first big peak. Don’t get it wrong, though, we were still moving as infant toddlers learn to walk. I would find myself trying to make it all in one shot, but then forced to pause for fear of my heart working so fast it’d stop. It made for a good excuse to take in the view. Behind us the clouds were looking pretty overwhelming, but we could still see in front of the valley where we’d originally started, and across to our left where the mountains sprawled out for what seemed forever. Mac started pointing them out, and it’s amazing that he’s been to so many. Japan have three peaks in particular known as the “Holy Trinity”: Mt. Fuji, Mt. Haku, and Tateyama. Mac pointed far off to the southeast (our left) where Fuji would be without the clouds, and then to the opposite direction where we could see Haku-san. He gestured behind us and said if we were on a higher point we’d also see Tateyama over the ledge behind us. When I got here and fell into the peril that stopped me from climbing Fuji, I decided I’d climb all three before I left. It was quite inspiring to see them all from one place.
But of course, at that point, all the views are inspiring.
The peak of this mountain was pretty flat, shaped almost like a bowl with the rocks throughout. We stayed up there a moment relishing in the view. It was a bit of an oasis, you’d have to climb up one side to see, and then drop down to the bowl to go up the other and see the other side. I felt like any moment I stopped looking, I’d drop back down into rocks and the view would disappear.
Which, given the amount of fog rolling in wasn’t that far from the truth. As I mentioned before, when we made our ascent the clouds were coming at the mountain–piling up but stifled on the other side. At some point before we came out of the chalet all the clouds decided to head to the other side, but their density was hard to grasp. In a breeze, though, they all drew back like a tide against the mountain. Unraveling across the ridge, the blocked out the ground below and reached higher than the sun.
It was so bizarre for a while, to be going along with one side facing a vast amount of mountain range and the other completely blanked out in white. It didn’t last, though, because soon the clouds from the east reeled in towards us. You could barely see it happen until it was upon you. They started out as large clouds in the distance, but then as they got closer dropped low and spread out. So, it wasn’t until the tendrils started curling out along the mountain that you realized what was happening.
Not to mention that off in the distance (where we came from) we could start hearing thunder. There’s nothing like being stuck on a mountain and an impending thunderstorm to get you to move a bit faster. From a stint during his conquest of the Pacific Crest Trail, Mac had become a bit anxious about thunderstorms so I was doing my best not to let my imagination get to me.
The hike seemed never-ending, though, as we kept going toward the campsite. By now we had caught glimpses of the chalet by the site, but each time we reached the top of a peak it seemed farther away. Truly, it was as if the fog had created a mirage, a mythical chalet that we were striving for, but would never reach before the lightning came down and took us away for good. It was actually the curving of the ridge that made everything in front of us seem closer than it appeared. I kept on looking for the Great Rift, but Mac was certain it was ahead of us, so we knew that somehow we’d make it.
This was the last peak of the day, and by now the fog was inevitable. The hike became less of a pleasing feat, and more of a threatening challenge. The thunder didn’t get closer, but would still rumble, and there was no telling if the clouds causing it would roll in our way anytime soon. At this point we were worn out for sure, I’d been hiking off no sleep and by now we reached over ten hours into the endeavor. Drinking water and eating food wasn’t enough to save me now, I desperately wanted to stop and rest.
Out of the mist, the shape of the elusive fort formed, signalling the end of our trek. Painfully, though, we realized it wasn’t over yet. Frozen to the bone and numb in the head, we still had to set up camp–Mac’s two person tent–and replenish with dinner before we could pass out like lions.
The campsites, flat grounds spaced out by the chalet with stone built walls curving around one side, were not ideal in any way, and we couldn’t figure out where to place the tent. If the ground wasn’t partially covered in snow it was saturated with mud and it seemed we had to chose the lesser of two terrible. Instead we decided to roam around the chalet a little more, looking for maybe a flat spot that would work. I ended up sitting on the scoop of a mini tractor, idle next to a pile of rocks. I put my hand to my chin, and closed my eyes.
It must’ve been about fifteen minutes (maybe more) before I realized I dozed off. I looked over to see Mac seated cross legged next to me, looking equally defeated. Sensing my presence he looked up and said, “I guess we should just go back to that first place.”
We chose the mud, making a futile attempt with prairie grass to make some sort of mat for the footprint. It’s funny, now we were coming to a close (I wanted nothing more than to get into my sleeping bag and warm up), but the fog was rolling away, or at least lower, so the setting sun became visible. We debated not using the rain-fly, Mac firmly suggesting against it. I made the other case, and with the thunder in the back of his mind he acquiesced with the promise that if it wasn’t raining by night we’d pull it off to see the stars. To be true, my concern was less about thunder and more about heat, but I agreed because the stars were one of the main reasons to spend the night.
By now it was rounding 5:30 at night, and the sun quickly sank below the top line of the fog. I’d chomped down a seasoned chicken breast shrink wrapped from the conbini while Mac ‘marked our territory.’ When he got back we flicked on our headlamps, cranked the tunes, and cracked open the beers we brought. It was a good way to fall asleep and–with literally every piece of clothing on or in my sleeping bag–I was starting to warm up. I had a couple bruises on my collar bones from the pack, but otherwise I didn’t seem to ache either. I forget how soundly I fell asleep, but after finishing the pumpkin flavored beer it doesn’t really matter.
I woke up once to the sound of my name. It came out in a cough and I rolled over to find Mac on his stomach, with his head sticking out the entrance of the rain-fly, muttering incomprehensible words. Looking back it was a hilarious scene, as he could’ve easily been mistaken as a drunk person. Instead, I heard him hacking, and the words “so sick” come out. Of course I was baffled and had no real action but to watch. “Are you OK?” I asked, to the reply of “Yeah, just sick. Just need to throw up.”
I heard it, the loudest of the hacking, the final satisfaction that vomit brings about, and instantly myself felt sick. Could it be the conbini food? Was I going to meet the same fate off my herbed chicken? At this point I really had to take a leak, too, despite my mind trying to will my bladder into submission. I did not want to get out of the warmth of my sleeping bag. Eventually the spewing became too much for me, though, and I rushed to slip on my shoes and shiver into the night.
This was perhaps the best decision I made in the last 24 hours.
The fog was still there, as expected, but it had settled back, maybe 50 meters, to the edge of our cliff. The white clouds still reached up like columns, but this time It wasn’t impending fog saturating our path, but a gate to guard the night. There was a benign form to them and they didn’t reach as high. Instead the sapphire clearness of the sky took over the ceiling. The moon like the crescent of a thumbnail shot light all over the campsite, illuminating the sky so it shone azure in some places. I’m sure if I dared to look longer I would’ve seen a multitude of stars, but there were still enough to make me gape up for a while. It was brilliant, surreal, perfect.
Alas, the chill was superior and I hustled to make my way back into the sleeping bag. I checked on Tyler who also took a moment to get outside, but came back to his bag with an OK and a theory about dehydration. This whole trip he’d been making sure that I was drinking plenty of water but I didn’t take him serious until now.
I’d estimate that passage happened around 9 or 11, and later into the night I started to lose sleep. I had a problem where eventually the arm of the side I was laying on would fall asleep, so I’d have to transition to the other. I made it to a point early in the morning when it was still dark out, but I knew the sun would be coming up soon. I was tempted to go out, and I probably could’ve convinced Mac to join me, I bet he was sleeping as well as me, but my comfortable complacency won over.
In the end we still woke up within half an hour of sunrise. Our tent was caked with ice from our condensation. I pulled out a pint of orange juice and my final onigiri for breakfast as well as chomping down a power bar. I made sure to put on all my clothes (including jacket) before leaving the warmth of the sleeping bag, and then it didn’t take long to pack up the rest (since I was already wearing most of my luggage) and exit the tent.
I was baffled to find the landscape that morning. The wall of fog disappeared to reveal the barren mountainside clear to Mt. Haku. At first I had mistaken the lower clouds for a lake in the distance and it all seemed majestic. I did a bit of exploring and found the sun bright in the side on the other part of our cliff. It took me a bit, but after doing some math in my head I recognized the flat topped silhouette in the greatest distance as Mt. Fuji.
I found it baffling. Such a change in the landscape from the previous day and night in just a couple of hours. What before seemed wild turned to tranquility. It was supreme and isolating. I had no way of knowing if we weren’t the only ones in the world at that moment. The only form of wildlife we’d seen was the rare raichou (known in Japan as the Thunderbird and in the US as the Snow Chicken…), and even that seemed like it should’ve perished overnight.
But of course, now we ran into the obvious problem of how we would get down. Originally we thought about making a longer more difficult trek across the spine above, making it to a lift and then taking the commercialized way down. With Mac’s health and my lack of gloves in the mix, we decided to make a quicker time and head back to the main trail, somehow. We really were in new ground, though, because it was a path that Mac hadn’t been on and that we would later find out, had been detoured due to a few rock-slides.
It really was a winding path, and we actually descended alongside the mountain, only to be diverted back up another ridge. We spent a lot of this time in the shade and it was all filled with tentative steps. The narrow trail, the ice under snow, and frost on the rocks made everything unreliable. By the time we got down the peak we started on but back to the spine of another ridge we already gassed a lot of our energy.
The sun at least came onto our side, and we stripped off the jackets (of course, Mac was still in shorts all this time.)
From this point it was a long and dismal way down as the rock turned back into forest switchbacks. It was a swash of snow and mud and leaves and rocks at a sever downhill. Even when the mountainside became less steep, my knees found it unbearable. They started trembling and I started taking breaks. It’s funny as the way up we went at a similar pace, only stopping for different reasons. The way was absurd and Mac even commented that he’d never go this way again.
I can’t not describe how relieved I was to get to the bottom. Even just the rounding out toward the base when the ground finally flattened out. I just about jogged the remainder so I could stop killing my legs. We came out at exactly the same spot we’d eaten lunch the day before. It was oddly content to complete the circle like that. Yesterday we had gone the completely opposite way, so it was a testament to how much effort we actually gave.
That was until Mac reminded me we still had three hours to get to the beginning.
The trek down certainly seemed easier than yesterday, and I tried to lead us at a good pace. It still took a while and we didn’t have the added incentive of getting to the top of a mountain. Alas, the valley was just as beautiful, and we were chipper with the idea of onsen and rest.
We made it back to the car completely satiated. I downed the remnants of my food and chugged some water while massaging the aches from the backpack straps. We took a trip to the nearby onsen, brushed our teeth, and cleaned off the grime. I actually didn’t feel too dirty, and I think it was just too cold and dry climbing to really work up a sweat. It was only my second time in an onsen, and I’d forgotten how incredibly hot they were. We got a great view of the mountain as we dipped in to our shoulders. With a four hour car ride ahead of us we didn’t linger too long. This time, though, the ride was even better, as I could really take in the mountains and surroundings of the prefecture. We made it back Sunday night by sunset. A weekend completely fulfilled, and even with the aches I’d have for the next couple of days, the suntan and scrapes, it was all well worth it.