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  • Writer's picturePaul

3 Days in the Northern Alps (Part 1)

I recently came back from a tough but fantastic 3-day trek in the Northern Alps, starting and ending in Ogisawa, which is just a short 1-hour drive from Otari. I set out to spend some quality time in the mountains, but also to test my fitness and a variety of new gear. From the outset, my objective was to pack light and move fast.

I woke up early and left my apartment in the dead of night, and after driving to Ogisawa and parking my car along the road, I quickly assembled my gear and began my journey - setting off in the dark at 3:30am. The day's first objective was to reach and then climb up the giant snowfield that stretches most of the way up to the Harinoki mountain hut. The map lists this section as taking 5 hours and 20 minutes, but I was able to reach the hut in 2 hours and 26 minutes, well within my goal pace of 55% of map time. Despite firmer than expected snow conditions, I had no problem scaling the snow, and even though this can be a popular route, I had it entirely to myself.

Even though it had been a long, continuous climb of more than 1,000m to get to the hut, my plan was to now descend roughly 900m to Kurobe Lake. From there it was possible to stay high and continue traversing along the ridge line, but I had my sights set on climbing a notoriously hard-to-access peak called Mt. Aka-ushi, and that was the quickest way to get there.

The problem is, the route that descends down to Kurobe Lake is know as a "variation route", meaning that it is not just a straightforward, maintained walking path. The map described the route as being suited for "advanced hikers", stating that the upper portion features numerous river crossings, labeling the mid-section of the trail as easy to get lost, and describing the bottom section as "river walking." Knowing this, I asked the Summer Safety Patrol Staff stationed at the hut about the condition of the route, and was told in English, "OK! OK! No problem!" That reassurance from a man entrusted with the safety of hikers was all I needed to hear, and I quickly embarked alone down an instantly sketchy trail through thick brush.

I was equally committed and sure that I wouldn't be seeing any other people for a while, and so I carried on as quickly and resolutely as I could, dodging branches and pushing aside overgrown plants. Little did I know that figuratively speaking, this was a well-manicured four-lane highway compared to what was ahead. Within 30 minutes I was literally walking through a river on slippery boulders, past waterfalls - quite the opposite of "OK! OK! No problem!" conditions. Much to my surprise, it was here that I ran into a group of three people, carrying ropes and wearing harnesses and helmets, incredulous that I was there alone, with trail runners and a tiny backpack.

I laughed, nervously, and pushed forward - but for the next few hours (or at least it seemed), I was walking through a river at the center of a deep gulch, wading from one side to the other as often as I could in order to stay on the narrow banks that regularly vanished and reappeared like magic before me. While I was definitely sketched out at first, I accepted it as my reality for the time being, and rather than fighting it - I decided to go with the flow. On the plus side, the chilly waters were incredibly clear and refreshing and the novelty of trading a crowded and exposed alpine route for a half-swim, half-hike in beautiful surroundings and complete solitude had me thinking on the bright side again.

As an added bonus, In addition to the peaceful riverscape, some of the surrounding mountain scenes were like nothing I recall seeing in Japan before - exhibiting a remoteness and ruggedness that struck me as more of a European Alps style landscape.

About 2 hours after starting my aquatic adventure, I once again reach solid land in the form of a wonderful trail that hugged the edge of the beautiful Kurobe Lake. This lake was formed by the construction of Japan's most famous dam of the same name, and I had never been near its shores, though I have spied it on multiple occasions from the various mountains that surround it. For the most part the trail was incredibly pleasant and easy to make good progress on, although often interrupted briefly by complex wooden ladders constructed to bridge gaps created by erosion and landslides.

Strolling along the gentle ups and downs through the beautiful forest and along a pristine lake was extremely enjoyable, though my joy in that moment was offset by the knowledge that every step took me closer to my next objective, the start of the "Yomiuri Shindo", the infamously long and relentless path that climbs to the summit of Mt. Aka-ushi. With equal parts contentment and apprehension pushing tugging at my 20L pack, I reached the last and only bastion of humanity for a long, long time - the Oku-Kurobe mountain hut, which is the starting point for the climb to Mt. Aka-ushi. I was still comfortably less than half of listed map time, so I ordered a Cup Noodle, ate, dried my feet and relaxed in quiet isolation on the wooden bench outside the hut.

After about 30 minutes I re-organized my belongings, maxed out my water supply (3 liters) and hit the trail again. My motivation for deviating from the standard mountaineering route and ending up at this particular spot was to finally stand on the top of Mt. Aka-ushi. At 2,864m tall, it is one of Japan's 100 tallest peaks, and one of less than 15 I still needed to climb to reach my goal of summiting them all. The trail from here to Aka-ushi is not exceedingly tough, but just isolated and long, with no water or food resupply points nor shelter for nearly 11 hours of walking time according to the map. But I didn't find it nearly as tough or intimidating as I imagined. I was grateful that more than half of the trail from the hut to the peak was under the cover of forest, and even when I emerged beyond treeline and into uninterrupted direct sunlight, the stellar views kept my mind occupied as I pushed onward and upward.

Though the weather behind me was still mostly blue skies and fluffy summer clouds, the weather in my direction of travel seemed to be taking a turn for the worse, with dark clouds rolling quickly and steadily before me. I knew that with the recent warm temperatures the atmosphere was likely unstable, and that afternoon thunderstorms were a real possibility, but I hoped that I would be off the most exposed ridge section before they began in earnest. Ultimately, I made it all the way to the top of Aka-ushi in less than 3 hours, with the weather holding up long enough for my celebratory summit selfie.

But just beyond the peak, and with 3.5 hours of exposed rocky ridge still standing between me and the nearest shelter, all hell broke loose...


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