Fastpacking in the Southern Alps (Part 1)
I recently came back from a brutally tough, but rewarding fastpacking trip with friends through some of the less-traveled trails at the northern end of Japan's rugged and remote Southern Alps. We had fantastic weather and views throughout, to go along with the usual mishaps and adventures. This post will feature photos, videos and stories from another fantastic time out on the trails.
We had begun planning our trip at the end of August, and our original intentions were to do a full north-south traverse of the Southern Alps. However, we later found out that the buses running to and from the exit point at the notoriously hard-to-reach southern end of the range were scheduled to end operation for the summer hiking season just days before we were scheduled to set out. This threw a major wrench in our plans, and we quickly started looking for an alternative way to string together a challenging multi-day route with better access.
Just days before the hike, we ultimately settled on a 3-day figure-eight loop starting and ending at 奈良田温泉 (Narada Onsen) and hitting 15 of Japan's top 100 tallest peaks along the way. It looked tough, but doable... on paper.
There were a number of factors that went into the decision to go with this particular route, primarily:
1. ACCESS: Access to many of the trailheads in the Southern Alps is on gated roads closed to private cars, requiring a lengthy/costly bus or taxi ride to and from the starting and ending points of the hike. Aside from the costs involved, an even more important factor to consider is the timing of the available transport. Since we were embarking on our trip outside of the peak season, relying on public transport would mean that we would reach the trailhead no earlier than 6:30am. Because we were planning to cover nearly 24 hours of map time on day one, a pre-dawn start was imperative. Thus, we settled on a route that we could access by car, park for free, and loop back to with a minimum of backtracking along the same route. The fact that there was a beautiful onsen adjacent to the parking lot was a huge bonus.
2. FULFILLING TJAR ENTRY REQUIREMENTS: As I have discussed in several previous blog posts, I am aiming to compete in the 2020 Trans Japan Alps Race and one of the things I must do this summer in order to apply is to practice 4 "emergency bivouacs." This means spending a minimum of 4 hours, including the hour of midnight, sleeping/sheltering above 2,000m using only an emergency shelter and an emergency blanket or emergency bivvy. Furthermore, these 4 nights must be spent between consecutive days on the trail of more than 20 hours map time. Prior to this trip I had completed 3, and was looking to finish my 4th and 5th (an extra for good measure) on this trip since it is getting significantly colder in the mountains and it will soon be simply too cold to survive the night with only an emergency sheet. Spoiler: I was uncomfortably cold this time as well.
3. SCALING 6 OF JAPAN'S 100 TALLEST MOUNTAINS FOR THE FIRST TIME: I have been hiking in Japan for more than 15 years, but for the last 5 years I have been consciously working towards a personal goal of mine; to climb all of the 100 tallest mountains in Japan. Before this trip I was sitting squarely at 87/100 summits (most scaled more than once), and I carefully put together this route with my eye on knocking off 6 more of my previously un-summited peaks.
DAILY ROUTE, DISTANCE, DURATION & ELEVATION
DAY 1: 32.05km / 23 hours 57 minutes (map time) / +4,058m / -2,749m
奈良田温泉 (白根館) 〜 農鳥岳・西農鳥岳 〜 間ノ岳 〜 三峰岳 〜 大仙丈ヶ岳・仙丈ヶ岳 〜 仙水小屋
Narada Onsen (Shirane-kan) 〜 Mt. Notori/Nishi-Notori 〜 Mt. Aino 〜 Mt. Mibu 〜 Mt. Daisenjo/Senjo 〜 Senzui Mountain Hut
DAY 2: 20.59km / 20 hours 5 minutes (map time) / +2,957m / -2,848m
仙水小屋 〜 駒津峰 〜 甲斐駒ヶ岳 〜 駒津峰 〜 栗沢山 〜 アサヨ峰 〜 高嶺 〜 地蔵岳 〜 高嶺 〜 広河原 〜 白根御池小屋
Senzui Mountain Hut 〜 Komatsu-mine 〜 Mt. Kaikoma 〜 Komatsu-mine 〜 Mt. Kurisawa 〜 Asayo-mine 〜 Taka-ne 〜 Mt. Jizo 〜 Hirogawara 〜 Shirane Oike Mountain Hut
DAY 3: 26.98km / 22 hours 21 minutes (map time) / +1,945m / -3,335m
白根御池小屋 〜 小太郎山 〜 北岳 〜 間ノ岳 〜 西農鳥岳・農鳥岳 〜 広河内岳 〜 大籠岳 〜 笹山 〜 奈良田温泉 (白根館)
Shirane Oike Mountain Hut 〜 Mt. Kotaro 〜 Mt. Kita 〜 Mt. Aino 〜 Mt. Nishi-Notori/Notori 〜 Mt. Hirokouchi 〜 Mt. Okomori 〜 Mt. Hirokouchi 〜 Mt. Sasa 〜 Narada Onsen (Shirane-kan)
TOTALS: 79.62km / 66 hours 23 minutes (map time) / +8,960m / -8,832m
I left my house in northern Nagano around 4pm and drove the 3-hour stretch to Kofu Station, where I picked up my crazy companions from Tokyo, Derin & Luiz, just after 7:00. Our first priority was to find somewhere to have dinner in the Kofu city area, before we disappeared into the forests and valleys at the foot of the Southern Alps. We ended up eating at a cheap family restaurant, picked up some last minute necessities from a nearby convenience store, and drove the remaining hour and a half to the trailhead.
We reached the car park around 10pm and decided to lay our sleeping bags on the benches under the covered entrance of the nearby bus stop toilet. This would eliminate the need to setup and tear down our tents, and provide us with some basic privacy (assuming no one came to use the restroom during the night). We prepped for bed, and must have laid down before 11pm, but all of us had a hard time falling asleep and the sounds of each other's constant tossing and turning only made it harder for any of us to cross the threshold over into dreamland. I finally fell asleep around 12:30, only to wake up just before my 2am alarm. It was a rough night, and not ideal before the tough day we had planned.
After rising from our sleeping bags like sad zombies, we each had our breakfasts, re-packed our bags and set our watches. We had hoped to depart by 3am, but were running a little late - eventually starting out in the darkness at 11 minutes after 3:00.
The trail started out following the main paved road leading north for the first 2km, before turning west onto a gravel forest road for another 2km, ultimately bringing us to the 大門沢登山口 (Daimon-zawa Trailhead). Here we joined the official hiking trail, though following the faint path through the forest in total darkness proved quite difficult. We took turns in the lead, and each of us managed to lose the path on multiple occasions. We had our GPS devices so we never veered too far off, but our frequent wrong turns caused us to either retrace our footsteps and search again for the proper route, or continue going off-trail on occasionally loose and steep slopes in order to rejoin the trail later on when we knew where it should be. We lost a lot of time and likely a bit of energy this way, but for the most part these sorts of things only up the adventure quotient, and therefore the fun.
After 12km and nearly 5 hours of climbing, we finally broke tree line and reached the ridge at nearly 2,800m of elevation. From there we continued our slow ascent up the spine of the ridge for another few hundred meters until we reached 農鳥岳 (Mt. Notori) and then nearby 西農鳥岳 (Mt. Nishi-Notori). These two mountains are among the handful of peaks in the Southern Alps that rise above 3,000m - with Nishi-Notori capping out at 3,051m, making in the 15th tallest point in the country. This portion of the rocky ridge is spectacular and the views of Mt. Fuji and the other major summits of the Southern Alps make the unbroken 2,200m+ climb to get there (at an average gradient of 18%) well worth it.
I think all of us were feeling the weights of our packs pressing on our shoulders as well as the first signs of fatigue in our legs by this point, but we had still only covered about 1/3 of the day's distance, and just more than 1/2 of the total scheduled elevation. We had a long, long way to go and were looking forward to a chance to rest and restock our water at the upcoming Notori mountain hut, which we could now see far below on the saddle between us and our next big challenge, the climb up to Japan's 4th tallest mountain - 間ノ岳 (Mt. Aino). The traverse and descent down to the hut (though steep) was some of the first runnable terrain of the day, and we made good time getting there.
The Notori hut is a sprawling (cluttered) complex composed of a surprising number of (slightly run-down) buildings, but even more unusual is that the entire operation is staffed by a single individual who happens to be quite infamous amongst the Japanese hiking community. I had heard stories for years from friends and acquaintances about the grouchy old man of Notori criticizing their gear, questioning their hiking plans and dispensing a myriad of other harsh and unasked for advice. I myself had a close brush with papa Notori years ago as I was passing through late in the afternoon, and was expecting to be scolded for my hiking plan that would see my arrive at my intended camping site quite late (just before dark). However, it turned out that he was perched atop one of the large drum cans in front of the hut, napping in the warm afternoon sun - and I was able to squeak by undetected.
This time however, an encounter would most likely be unavoidable, and so I began to relay some of the stories I had heard to my friends, in order to prepare them for the old man's wrath. I finished relaying the largely negative hearsay just as we arrived to the hut, and spotted the old man working outside. We needed to refill our water bottles, so I sheepishly approached to ask. To my surprise, he wasn't overwhelmingly friendly or welcoming, nor was he the unpleasant miser I had been told to expect. He seemed to be relatively normal.
We purchased a few bottled drinks from him without incident, and then asked about refilling our own bottles. He told us that stored rainwater was available for ¥100 per liter. We each lined up to give him our money and refill our bottles, but after receiving the first ¥100, he wouldn't take any more of our money, and told us to fill the rest of our bottles on the house. What's more is that he seemed to enjoy talking to us... in English, and did a surprisingly good job at it. He asked us about our plan for the rest of the day, and didn't seem to be concerned at all when we told him how much further we were planning on going. The only odd part of the interaction was that despite the amazing weather, he informed us that heavy rains were in the forecast for the evening and that we should "go quick and be careful." He specifically mentioned "cats and dogs". It did look like we might get an afternoon thunderstorm for a while, but it never happened, and the weather at night was perfectly clear, so I am not too sure what that was all about.
Rain or not, the old man was right; we needed to move fast to make it to our intended destination and so we set out on the steep, boulder-strewn path climbing towards 3,190m tall Mt. Aino. The map suggests that the peak can be reached in 1.5 hours from the Notori hut, but our eyes were relaying conflicting messages to our brain. The massive scale of the rounded peak rising up before us did not seem to suggest it would be so easily conquered. But with fog now rolling in around us, we were able to focus on each individual footstep forward instead of the daunting overall distance we had yet to cover, and within an hour we were above the clouds and smiling for photos on the summit.
From here we would leave the main exposed ridge that continued north to Mt. Kita, and instead would traverse west to Mt. Mibu, from where we would descend and join the parallel, forested ridge extending on to Mt. Senjo - the "Queen of the Southern Alps." This ridge is aptly named the "Sen-Shio" ridge, as it stretches unbroken for 20km between the 3,000m+ massifs of Mt. Senjo and Mt. Shiomi. Going in our direction of travel, we would first need to descend nearly 900m in only 4.5km, before climbing some 700m over the next 7km to reach the top of Mt. Senjo. This sounds pretty straightforward, but the ridge is riddled with spirit-breaking ups and downs throughout which can prevent your from getting into any real rhythm. But it is both beautiful, and a shining example of one of the main differences between the Northern and Southern Alps. The tree line in the Southern Alps is generally several hundred meters above that of the Northern Alps, which means that on extended treks or long traverses here, one will inevitably drop down into and spend comparatively more time in the forest.
By this point we were well behind our estimated time schedule, first because of the time we lost straight out of the gate by playing hike-and-seek with the trail in the morning darkness, partly from being a bit too liberal with the number and duration of breaks we took, and definitely because we were starting to tire mentally and physically. We were beginning to realize that we may not finish in daylight, but that wasn't necessary a problem since we were equipped with headlamps and warm clothing. We steadily followed the ridge northwards and upwards, eventually breaking out above the forest around 2:30pm and reaching the top of Mt. Senjo around 4:00pm. The air was surprisingly cold and the summit was shrouded in clouds, obscuring the views around us, but we had seen enough and were now focused solely on completing the final stretch to our intended campsite.
We made a brief detour to the Senjo mountain hut to resupply our water, then did our best to move quickly on the descent down towards the Choei hut, before a final brief climb up to the Senzui hut where we would pitch our shelters and spend the night. Our spirits seemed to rise inversely and proportionately to the meters we descended, until talk of our exhaustion inevitably turned to talk of how we could probably go a few more hours. Despite our foolish bravado, none of us would have actually considered taking even a single step more once we arrived at our destination, sometime around 6:40pm. We had been on the trail for 15 and a half hours, and we were DONE. We cooked our dinners, ate them ravenously, pitched our tents and quietly closed the first chapter of our adventure.
TO BE CONTINUED...