3 Days in the Northern Alps (Part 3)
Continued from Part 2
My first night practicing an emergency bivy was an eventful one with heavy rains pounding my non-waterproof shelter for the entire evening. I wasn't thrilled at the time, but in reality it gave me perfect data on what it's like to spend the night in less than ideal conditions and valuable insight into the challenges I would face in an actual emergency under similar circumstances - like staying warm and dry. I was hoping to get back on the trail well before the sun came up, but the constant downpours outside proved too intimidating and so I remained tucked inside my SOL Escape Lite Bivy until the storm finally subsided just before 4:30am, then sprung into action to tear down my camp, repack my bag, refill my water, munch on an energy bar and hit the road in the space of 20 minutes.
I was schedule for another very long day on the trail, and by virtue of my later than expected start it seemed that I may not make it to my intended campsite until after dark. But despite the long, dark night full of terrors, the morning skies were clear and bursting with color as the sun rose and it felt good to be outside.
I was heading back in the direction of Ogisawa where I had come from the previous day, but instead of returning via the same lakeside path I had taken to get to Mitsumata, today I would be following the high ridge trail that rises and falls mercilessly as it skirts or scales a number of lofty summits (Mt. Washiba, Mt. Masago, Mt. Noguchigoro, Mt. Mitsu, Mt. Eboshi, Mt. Minami-Sawa, Mt. Fudo and Mt. Funakubo).
First up was the quick climb up to the summit of Mt. Washiba from the Mitsumata campground. I had previously climbed Washiba once before, but had summited in total darkness, so I was excited to take in the double dose of panoramic views and the beautiful sunrise as I steadily gained elevation. I reached the summit and caught sight of the magnificent ridge unfolding endlessly before me, populated with all the distant peaks that I was due to conquer in the coming hours. It all looked so inviting, bathed in the soft orange glow of first light, but I had traversed this same route years ago and knew that the reality would be much harsher.
I made good time skipping along the rocky spine of trail while temperatures were still relatively cool, and I felt incredibly lucky to be in the mountains on such a lovely day. It was getting steadily warmer, and I knew before too long it would be unbearably hot, but the excellent views and occasionally technical trail kept me blissfully distracted all the way to the Noguchigoro mountain hut, which I reached just after 8am. I stopped in briefly to refill my water bottles and kept pushing forward as quickly as I could to beat the worsening heat.
The trail leading away from Noguchigoro and onwards to the Eboshi mountain hut was wonderfully runnable and lined with hundreds and hundreds of beautiful pink wildflowers known as "Komakusa" in Japanese - so I nicknamed it the "Komakusa Highway" as I sped on by.
I arrived at the Eboshi mountain hut around 9:30 dying for something cold to drink. All mountain huts in Japan have a variety of bottled drinks for sale at inflated prices (usually around ¥500 for a 500ml bottle), but when you are walking for 14+ hours and drinking up to 6 liters of room temperature water per day, the 330% markup is definitely not a deal-breaker. Additionally, I stopped into this particular hut because I remembered from a previous visit that unlike most of the other mountain huts where the chilled drinks are only slightly cooler than lukewarm - the drinks at Eboshi are ICE COLD.
As I ordered, the friendly staff member behind the counter looked at my 20L backpack and asked where I had started hiking and where I was headed. When I told him my ambitious schedule, he asked if I was training for the Trans Japan Alps Race. I told him that I in fact was training for Trans Japan, and as soon as I repeated those words a younger staff member burst out of another room and eagerly joined the conversation. Within seconds, he looked at me and asked,
"Did you participate in the Bunsuirei Mountain Ultra?"
I answered that I had, and he quickly followed up by asking,
"Is your name Paul?"
I told him that it was, and without hesitation he came over to me, put his arm around my shoulder and excitedly exclaimed to the staff that I was "super fast." He continued by telling his coworkers that he was the fifth place finisher of the Bunsuirei Mountain Ultra, that I was the first place finisher, and that I had beat him by more than 4 hours. Haha. He just kept repeating over and over again how fast I was, shook my hand and congratulated me on a great race. He was incredibly gracious and friendly and I was truly humbled. I do remember seeing him at the start line and thinking that of all the people there he looked like a real contender, and so it wasn't surprising to hear that he took fifth. It was very cool to see him again in that setting and I was even more excited to hear that he, too is training for next year's Trans Japan Alps Race. Good luck Shigenobu-san!
I still had a long way to go, so after enjoying my ridiculously cold lemon soda and talking mountains with the staff, I set off again. The next stretch of trail was simply breathtaking and very different from the barren rocky ridges that had brought me there, passing through an alpine oasis of lush forest and foliage, past fields of wildflowers and small ponds. I had been on this trail years before, but again had passed through in the pre-dawn hours so it was the first time I had actually been able to take in the beauty of the area. I kept thinking about how I would love to lead trips to this area in the future.
By now it was after 10:00am and already unbearably hot, especially considering that most of the trail is on the ridge, either on the apex in direct sunlight or on the leeward side which means there is no breeze to cool things off. I knew that it would be like this, so while at the last hut I topped off my water and left with nearly 3 liters which I figured would suffice for the 4-hour stretch until the next hut/water source. But it didn't. After only about 2 and a half hours I had managed to consume the entire 3 liters. I had to dramatically slow my pace, and every time I did reach an area where the breeze was blowing, I would stop to cool down. This particular part of the trail is also extremely tough with a lot of ups and downs, steep climbs, ropes, ladders and unstable surfaces.
It was pretty miserable and I decided then and there that instead of pushing on to my intended destination and spending another night in my emergency shelter, I would stop at the next mountain hut and sleep there. I found a spot along the trail where I had a faint cell signal and called the upcoming hut to check availability, and was relieved to hear that they could squeeze me in. Now all I could think about was water, and a proper meal - and those two carrots dangling before me gave me just the push I needed.
I arrived at the Funakubo mountain hut right around 2pm, and as I was still several hundred meters away, the famously hospitable staff was waiting out front for me, and rang the customary bell they use to welcome approaching customers as soon as I came into view. The moment I arrived I was handed a cup of Japanese tea as well. I am not a fan of warm drinks, but after spending the last hour and a half with no liquid of any kind, I was thrilled to be drinking something. It was a tough but great day on a beautiful trail and, and though I was disappointed in myself for losing the will to continue on, I was thrilled to be able to take it easy for a change. I ordered curry and rice and a coke, inhaled both at record speeds, ate my remaining snacks that I had packed for the day, ordered a lemon soda, drank more tea, and topped it all off with a beer - all in the span of 30 minutes. I had packed all of my own food, but decided to treat myself and opted for the plan that included dinner and breakfast.
I have been hiking in Japan since 2003, but can count on one had the number of times I have stayed in mountain huts. They are convenient, but they are not cheap - costing the same as a hotel in most cases. I also like to be self-sufficient in the mountains, so on principle I prefer to stay in my tent. But not tonight, tonight I was going all in - and I did not regret it. Dinner was served outside, with perfect weather, delicious food and splendid sunset views. We were able to have seconds of both rice and beef stew, and I literally ate until I couldn't anymore.
Staying at the hut also gave me the chance to meet and chat with a lot of wonderful people, and to bond over our shared love of the mountains. I even had the chance to talk to a finisher of the 2018 Trans Japan Alps Race, Otsubo Hotaka, who definitely inspired me with his stories from his training and from the race itself. I was reminded that plans are important, but so too is flexibility. I had not accomplished my original goal for the day, but I had gained so much more.
TO BE CONTINUED...