Attempt on Mt. Yakushi (Part 1)
Updated: Mar 25, 2020
More than a month ago I was contacted by two-time Trans Japan Alps Race (TJAR) finisher Otokozawa-san, who I first became acquainted with last September when I attended the official TJAR Training Camp, and later spent more time with at the Ninja Trail Run in early November. He had in mind an ambitious (borderline-foolish) late-winter attempt at a long traverse of a rugged portion of the Northern Alps; starting at Ogisawa and continuing on all the way to Tateyama. He asked if I would be interested in joining him for the beginning portion of the hike, since it would begin not too far from my home. I was extremely honored at the invitation, and am always up for a challenge - and so I quickly agreed to join him for the entirety of the maniacally difficult 3-day trek.
The dates were fixed in advance, as the idea was to take advantage of the 3-day weekend in late March. Well before we were due to set off, I began to try and research the route online. I had actually covered a good portion of the proposed hike just this last summer, but I knew that it would be a different animal in winter - and so I was searching the interwebs for blogs, gpx files, photos or any other kind of information from someone who had done a similar route that was specific to the late-winter or early-spring season.
DOUBT CREEPS IN
Not especially surprising, I couldn't find anything either in English or Japanese, but as I began to review topographic maps and recall the terrain in my head and after hearing the reaction of several local mountain guides when I mentioned our plans - I began to feel a bit uneasy. I mailed Otokozawa-san to ask more details and he sent through a blog post written by a pair of men who had done the route on skis in 2018. Reading the blog reaffirmed by apprehensions, as the photos featured the men skiing past massive avalanche debris fields and crossing freezing rivers in very remote areas made even more risky by the presence of snow.
One particular sentence in the blog solidified my desire to save this route for another day and to look for alternative routes instead. The men, who also completed the traverse in mid-March, stated something to the effect of:
"Even after a winter of such heavy snowfall, we now realize that mid-March is probably a bit too late in the year to attempt this route, as the snowmelt has already proceeded beyond our expectations making conditions far tougher and more dangerous than we imagined."
Conversely, this winter has seen exceptionally little snowfall compared to average years, and would likely mean that snowy sections of trail regularly giving way to exposed brush and vegetation would make overland travel cumbersome and slow. Rivers that needed crossing may no longer have been covered in snow, or would appear to be - but could collapse under our weight as we attempted to cross them. And above average temperatures could be melting the snowpack from the inside raising the risk of loose wet avalanches. Unlike the two bloggers, we would be on foot, not on skis, which meant that we would be spending substantially more time in risky areas while descending.
I contacted Otokozawa-san with my reservations, and to my relief he expressed that he was also having doubts about the safety given the current conditions. He had lined up a resume-building hardcore route, and I had thought long and hard to come up with an equally ball-busting alternative to pitch to him before inspiration finally struck: I would suggest the (栂海新道) Tsugami-Shindo. This infamous route starts at 0m at the Sea of Japan and climbs continuously along rolling ridges up beyond 2,600m to the summit of Mt. Yukikura, before splitting in multiple directions. I had never heard of a winter attempt on the route, but knew that people often begin to attempt it in late April during the Golden Week holidays (although, in the opposite, descending direction). This year with the lower snowfall levels, late-March conditions would be similar to late-April conditions in an average year, and the route is entirely along a ridgeline, which would substantially reduce the avalanche risk. Otokozawa-san agreed and we penciled it in as our new plan.
We were set to start on Friday morning, but Mother Nature threw us another curveball. Heavy snowfall Monday through Wednesday blanketed the mountains with more than a meter of fresh snow, on top of a spring-like layer of icy crust. This would make the snowpack unstable and potentially very dangerous, and more to the point, would make our proposed 12 to 15 hours of trail time per day on the Tsugami-Shindo impossible to complete if we had to deal with breaking trail on top of carrying heavy full-winter packs.
We were about to give up again, especially because the weekend's weather was turning poor as well, with additional fresh snowfall and heavy winds creeping into the latest forecasts. But Otokozawa-san pitched one last idea, a considerably scaled-back attempt on a less-formidable but still challenging mountain - Mt. Yakushi. I was familiar with the mountain, but not the proposed route.
After some quick searches, I was able to find information online that made it seem doable and relatively safe, including gpx files that I downloaded then fed into a site that animated the route onto a 3D map, where I could visualize the terrain and see the actual slope angles. The recent snowfall had seriously elevated the likelihood of avalanches, so I wanted to know that we would not be taking on too much risk. Most of the terrain would be low angle, at least all the way until the first emergency hut along the way, and I felt better knowing that we could always stop there if things were sketchy.
I agreed to join Otokozawa-san on the adventure and left directly from work on Thursday night, arriving at the trailhead around 11:00 p.m., and laying down to sleep in my car upon arrival. I didn't hear when Zawa-san pulled up just after midnight, but I could hear the relentless winds and heavy snowfall beating the car roof throughout the evening and early morning hours.
We woke up independently at 5:00 a.m. as had been discussed over email, and briefly stepped outside our idle steel boxes to greet each other before quickly hopping back in to repack our bags, gulp down some breakfast and change into our hiking gear. We were supposed to depart at 5:30 a.m., but as often is the case with these things, we missed our target and were on the trail just after 6:00 a.m. instead. I brought both a pair of 3-season hiking boots and my winter mountaineering boots with me, and was struggling to decide which to wear. Conditions very much called for the winter boots, but they had been causing me painful blisters the last several short hikes I had been on, and this outing was scheduled to be much longer and much harder. I came prepared with disposable heated insoles to slip into my 3-season boots and compensate for their lack of insulation, but eventually made the decision to go with the gear most appropriate to the season and conditions and tied on the heavy, bulky, painful boots.
The actual hiking trail began at a tunnel 7km up the road from our cars, but that road is unplowed and gated off in winter - meaning we had to hoof it for 2 hours just to get to the official starting point. It was snowing when we set out, as it had been the entire time we were bunked in our cars overnight, and there was now between 10 and 15cm of fresh snow at the start. Despite this we set out with our snowshoes still strapped to our backpacks. We didn't make it far however, and soon stopped to remove layers and make better use of our snowshoes by taking them off our packs and putting them on our feet. The world around us was silent and white, and the rush of adrenaline and anticipation that accompanies the start of every adventure had us in good spirits.
It took a full two hours of breaking trail through fresh snow to reach the Kita-no-Mata trailhead, and because of our later than planned start and slower than expected progress we were already behind schedule. But we still had 10 hours of daylight to reach our goal, the Taro-Daira mountain hut, which was less than 7 hours away according to map time. Easy!
The trail climbs steeply and sharply from the road, and between the loose, deep snow and our bulky snowshoes and packs, it was a struggle right off the bat. We took turns breaking the trail, and stopped frequently early on to route find since the heavy falling snow limited our visibility. We made a few minor wrong turns at the beginning, but were able to correct each quickly and not suffer much setback in terms of time. But each time we checked our current position, it became evident that we were moving far slower than we had expected. The meter plus of snow earlier in the week and the 15cm+ overnight were unforgiving. Even with snowshoes, we sank at least 20cm with each step, and much more in spots.
We were still in good spirits, enjoying each other's company, sharing stories of mountains past, and plugging away towards our destination... we were just doing it slowly. We took turns breaking trail and continued onwards and upwards. Around the midway point between the road and the Yakushi ridge, we were greeted by an eerie sign. Quite often as we traveled along, deep unnerving thuds accompanied a sudden sinking into the snow. Our weight was triggering a localized collapse of a persistent weak layer in the snowpack around us. This is the exact mechanism that sets off slab avalanches on steep slopes, and the type of conditions I was wary about going into the hike because of the previous week's weather. I thought I recognized it when it happened the first time, but then thought maybe I was imagining things when Zawa-san didn't seem to react. Once it happened again, I asked, "Did you hear that?" To which he responded, "Thunder?" But we both knew it wasn't thunder.
Luckily, the slopes we were walking were such low angle that there was no chance of a slide. Despite the foreboding sound and literal sinking feeling occurring somewhat regularly, we continued at no risk to our lives. Our slow pace now combined with this new warning sign from the snowpack did begin to cause real doubts about whether we could, or should, continue past the emergency hut and onto the steep climb up to the summit ridge and Mt. Yakushi. At this point, we determined to finish day 1 at the emergency hut, sleep, and reevaluate the following morning after seeing what the weather and snow conditions were like.
The trail breaking had worn my trusty partner out, and I was tasked with leading us over the last several hours to the hut. It wasn't easy, but my legs felt much better than I could have hoped for and we pushed on along the final stretch with almost no breaks. In the end, it took us 10 hours to reach the emergency hut, almost twice the time we had anticipated. Zawa-san was feeling the effects of the day and layed down for a nap, while I went outside to gather snow and begin to melt enough for our drinking and cooking water for the next day. After cooking and testing out a new tasty meal of spicy flavored instant rice and wonton soup, and washing it down with a naturally-chilled can of beer - I was ready for bed around 8pm.
I wanted to try something different, and instead of bringing my usual 0F/-18C winter sleeping bag, I brought and stacked a 32F/0C 3-season bag and a 50F/10C bag. Also, instead of my full-length down-lined inflatable winter sleeping pad, I brought a 90cm inflatable summer pad and an ultra-thin foam pad to stack below me. Before I laid down for bed, I stepped outside to the most amazing starry night sky, and after thoroughly enjoying the moment, my mind quickly segued to the realization that those clear skies heralded the beginning of a long, cold night for me and my ultralight experiment.