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  • Writer's picturePaul

3 Days in the Northern Alps (Part 4)

Continued from Part 3

After thoroughly enjoying my full course meal for dinner, I continued my winning streak by hitting the sack early, sinking into my top bunk futon around 8pm. I slept like a dream, but woke up purposefully around 3:30am to enjoy the starry night sky. For sure one of the greatest joys of being in the mountains is the chance to experience the 3S's: sunset, stars & sunrise. I spent some time alone in the dark in front of the hut contemplating the vastness of interstellar space, then quietly retreated back inside and began to pack my things. I wasn't in a particular hurry to hit the trail, but breakfast was at 5:00am and before that I was determined to check the third and final S-box by watching the sunrise.

I quietly got my things together before heading outside at 4:30am. The pre-dawn sky was already a soft orange hue and the world around me was silent and still. I spent the next 30 minutes watching the sky erupt in colorful bursts before settling into its familiar shade of blue.

Today I would be wrapping up my 3-day adventure and returning to my car in Ogisawa. The map times stipulated that I had 9 hours and 15 minutes of walking ahead, though I knew with three proper meals and one fabulous night of sleep behind me, that I should be amply refreshed and able to move quickly. So when I sat down for the hut's traditional Japanese breakfast served at 5am, I took my time, ate slowly and said my goodbyes to the wonderful people I had met. Particularly, the hut staff really went above and beyond as hosts. It turns out that the family who runs the mountain hut also owns one of the lodges in the Tsugaike Kogen area where I work and we formed a great connection as a result. I would highly recommend the Funakubo mountain hut to anyone hiking through the area, and will definitely be bringing customers there in the future.

I finally began hiking at 6:15am, an unfathomably late start for me on an average day, but I was confident that I would make quick work of the trail before me. The weather this day as well was incredible, and the views from the ridge did not disappoint. The vibrant contrast of the deep green mountains agains the cobalt blue sky spiced with the occasional alpine flowers kept my mind engaged and spirts high as I climbed the first two peaks of the day, Mt. Nanakura and Mt. Kitakuzu, and steadily progressed along the steep, technical climb toward the third and final one - Mt. Renge.

Mt. Renge, at 2,799m in height, is one of the 100 tallest mountains of Japan, and the 5th that I would summit during the course of my 3-day hike. If I had taken a few short side trips I could have more than doubled that tally to 11 of the 100 tallest peaks. However, I had done just that a few years prior and was more concerned with completing a long traverse than hunting summits this time around.

I reached the summit of Mt. Renge at 8:30, after only 2 hours and 15 minutes into my day - a very quick pace. I wasted no time and took advantage of the gently undulating ridge that traversed and finally descend to the Harinoki mountain hut by running nearly the entire distance. Trail running in Japan has rapidly grown in popularity over recent years, but it is still unusual to see people running on the higher alpine trails - and I got quite a few surprised looks as I swiftly passed numerous other hikers. Yet, I am always very careful to slow down when overtaking people on the trail, and to give them the right of way in situations where it seems appropriate. I think it is super important for people to see that trail runners are respectful of mountain manners and etiquette, and to avoid any kind of "us vs. them" feelings.

I pulled into the Harinoki hut, perched on the saddle below the summit of the mountain that shares the same name, at 8:55am. I stepped inside to order a "cold" drink and consulted my map as I tried to decide between extending my hike by climbing Mt. Harinoki and continuing along the ridge to summit 4 more major peaks before descending to my car (an additional 10.5 hours of map time), or to call it a day and head down directly from the hut via the snow route through the valley I came up two days before (3.25 hours of map time). My dilemma was due to the fact that I had not packed crampons, and since I arrived to the hut so quickly - the snow this time of day would likely still be hard-packed, making it difficult and maybe unsafe to descend the steep snow valley. The hut offered 4-point crampon rentals, but one look at the ancient equipment and the dullness of the teeth made me realize that I couldn't expect much benefit from using them. I decided to go down the snow route anyway, trusting my balance and experience on snow to get me down safely.

Just as I was leaving I ran into the mountain patrol officer that had steered me down the sketchy river route two days prior by swearing that the conditions were "Ok, Ok! No problem" when I inquired if it was safe. With the same level of excitement he let out, "Ohhh, you came back!", again in English. My first thought was, "no thanks to you." I also sensed a hint of surprise in his comment, but was unsure if it meant that: (1) he had purposeful tried to send me to my death by recommending that route and thought that was the last he or anyone else would see of me, or (2) he was surprised to see that I had completed my proposed route in such a short time. Either way, its hard to hate someone that smiles so genuinely, so I smiled back, made small talk and then began the last leg of my journey down the snowy valley.

Despite my reservations, the snow was soft enough for me to make good time and to feel under control even without crampons, and I found myself passing almost everyone in front of me who were using them. As I made my way down I was surprised to see that in just the short few days that I had been in the mountains, several massive holes had opened up in the snow... or maybe I had just missed them when I climbed in the dark alone on my way up. I arrived back at my car at 10:43am, again making great time.

It was a great adventure, and I was able to check another of the 100 tallest Japanese mountains off my list, explore some new trails, meet some amazing people and just enjoy the time in nature. People often ask why I hike. Yes, it can be physically and mentally demanding, but the mountains have so much to offer beyond just the scenery; they give us the chance to learn things about ourselves, to overcome our perceived limits. They endow us with everything from reverence and healthy fear for nature to to self-confidence and new levels of knowledge and understanding about the world around us. Nature is the greatest teacher, and I enjoy every minute I can spend in the classroom.

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