Fastpacking in the Southern Alps (Part 2)
Updated: Oct 8, 2019
We initially set out on an ambitious 3-day blitz of the Southern Alps, but midway through a tough day 1 doubts about the viability of our plan began to worm and wriggle into each of our heads. None of us wanted to admit it, especially while we were still on the move that day, but it became apparent by our energy at camp (or lack thereof) that we were all stuck in the middle of a heated debate between the angels and devils on our shoulders. On day 1 we had covered a full 24 hours of map time in a single day, which is no small feat, but for some reason it seemed to feel harder in comparison to the many days of similar time and distance that I had spent on the trail already this summer. We had more than 20 hours of map time lined up for day 2, and more than 22 hours on the schedule for day 3. The question now was could we, or more to the point, did we want to push ourselves at that level for two more days...
Once we arrived at the hut that night, I went inside to pay for our tent sites and apologize for arriving after dark. The predominately accepted mountain culture in Japan dictates that hikers should aim to arrive at their chosen campsite before dark, usually no later than 5pm, and preferably before 3pm. This is both for the hiker's own safety and in consideration of other guests who may be woken up or otherwise disturbed by late arriving parties. I have been especially sensitive to playing by these unspoken rules lately since I am training for the Trans Japan Alps Race (TJAR), and feel a duty to do things the right way. In fact, at the TJAR training camp I attended the previous week, the leader of the camp told us of a number of recent, negative reports that he had received from hut staff throughout Japan pertaining to the inconsiderate behavior of people who were training for TJAR. Those individuals had arrived well after dark, made considerable noise, failed to pay for their camping fee, etc...
Luckily, the staff was very understanding and welcoming, and even provided us all with a pot of hot water so that we didn't have to bust out our stoves and spend the extra time to prepare our meals. That was an extremely simple kindness, yet to 3 worn out guys it seemed like the most wonderful thing that we could have been gifted. As we sat down to eat, Luiz approached me with the unfortunate news that he would be cutting his journey with us short, and heading down from camp in the morning to catch a bus and return to Tokyo.
I can't say I was terribly surprised, as our nearly 40km day with almost 4,000m of elevation gain was actually Luiz's first ever fastpacking trip. He is a very strong and capable trail runner, but he had no previous experience carrying a heavy, full overnight pack on such a long and demanding route. Not to mention, Derin and I had not only invested heavily in all the smallest and lightest gear available, but had extensive experience actually using it on days like this - while Luiz was using a hodgepodge of borrowed items that certainly weighed more than what either of us were carrying. In retrospect it was probably a bit unfair of us to throw him into the fire straight away, but impressively he was able to power through and even seemed quicker, more relaxed and more comfortable than either of us on many of the long, tough climbs.
Luiz wasn't the only one contemplating an early exit. Derin and I had also begun talking about compressing our 3-day trip into two days. This would mean that we would be unable to return all the way to our car on foot, so we would have to get creative with the route in order to put us in position to catch a bus back to our car on the evening of day 2, or the morning of day 3. The problem was that we didn't have cell phone signal, and would be unable to research the availability or timing of the buses until we high pointed atop a summit or ridge the next day. In either case, we would start out in the morning heading in the originally planned direction of travel - so we prepped for bed, said our goodbyes and each climbed into our tents, swiftly shutting the doors and then our eyes.
Our alarms went off way too early, and tired but determined we rose from our shallow slumber, flicked on our lights and began the routine of preparing for another extended day in the hills in a groggy autopilot-like state. Derin and I emerged almost simultaneously from our spartan, single-wall shelters and moved our packs and all of their contents to the benches in front of the hut for smoother packing. We were aiming to leave by 2:30am, but again were running slighty behind schedule, partially because the liquid mercury inside the thermometer nailed to the wall of the hut was struggling to reach zero, and we were working up the courage to shed our down jackets and begin another day in the cold, dark silence. Furthermore, I had slept less than 2 hours the night before, and probably only 3 or so hours that night - and was now searching for my motivation to take those first pre-dawn steps.
I am naturally a cold sleeper, yet was using only a minimalist foam sleeping bag, the SOL Escape Lite Bivvy and the clothes on my back to get me through the night. I knew ahead of time that I would be cold with my chosen kit, but I was hoping to expedite the process of getting used to this sleeping set-up. That and the fact that I was also trying to complete my 4th and final "ビバーク練習" (emergency bivouac) as required per the Trans Japan Alps Race entry requirements - so I was literally not allowed to use a sleeping bag. Anyway, a little self-imposed suffering is good for character building, but the resulting fatigue can make it hard to get a good, clean start on time.
Our stalemate ended at 2:47am as we left camp and began the climb up to Senzui pass and onward to the summit of Mt. Kaikoma, where we hoped to be in place for the 5:30am sunrise. We plodded forward through the narrow tunnels of light thrown in front of us by our Black Diamond headlamps, and slowly chipped away at the day's distance and elevation, step by step. As we scrambled higher and higher, we were the only ones on the trail, and as the darkness gave way to light, I found myself fantasizing that nature was painting the sky in the increasingly sublime shades of orange and red as a reward for OUR efforts. The higher we climbed, the more complete the canvas grew, until we stood in solitaire on the summit privileged to experience a private viewing of the finished masterpiece.
We had another full day ahead, and knew we needed every minute of daylight to get from point A to B, but we still couldn't pull ourselves away from the spectacular sunrise - and we didn't feel guilty about the downtime for a second. Those short 30 minutes atop that mountain were an investment that will surely keep paying dividends into our memory banks for the rest of our lives. It truly was a magnificent moment in time, and went a long way towards renewing my weary mind, body and soul. We both knew when it was time to move on, and we got back on the trail still basking in the morning glory. First we needed to retrace our steps all the way back to the pass just above our campsite, then head in the opposite direction (South) along the same ridge in the direction of Mt. Kurisawa, Mt. Asayo and the three peaks of Houou.
There was a nice stretch of runnable descent on the sandy slopes of Kaikoma that we took advantage of before climbing back up to Komatsu-mine and then navigating some technical terrain back to the Senzui pass. By the time we reached the pass it was getting hot and we took a moment to shed layers and lather up the sunscreen. From there the trail entered the forest and began the steep climb up to Mt. Kurisawa. From the peak we had epic views back towards Mt. Kaikoma, a clear look at most of our previous day's route, a perfect vantage point of the entire ridge we would now ride all the way to the distant Houou peaks and a who's who collection of all the major mountains and mountain ranges in central Japan, including of course - Mt. Fuji. We had talked the previous day about how 20+ hour efforts in the mountains with a full pack are rewarding but cannot, in good conscience, be called "fun". But on this day, our first 5 hours on the trail had actually been fun. I think we both realized that wouldn't last...
We were able to get cell signal, checked bus times and officially decided to cut our 3-day hike a day short. We slightly modified our route for the day to get us over 20 hours of map time AND drop us down to Hirogawara, from where we would be able to catch a bus back to our car at Narada Onsen. This meant that from Kurisawa onwards, we would remain high along the roller coaster-like Hayakawa ridge, rising and falling continuously for the next 10km to the summit of Mt. Kanon where we would then double back some 4km along the same trail, and eventually turn off the ridge and descend steeply to Hirogawara. By "roller-coaster-like", I mean to say that we were currently at 2,714m and would need to climb to 2,799m (Mt. Asayo), descend all the way to 2,344m (Hirogawara pass), work our way back to 2,841m (Mt. Kannon), head down again to 2,381m (Houou mountain hut), gain a lot of elevation (400m) over a very short distance (1km) to 2,764m (Mt. Jizo), then bounce up and down on the ridge back from where we came, eventually ending up in Hirogawara at 1,525m.
Overall our conversation slowed in step with our pace, but we surprised ourselves from time to time with quick bursts up several of the tougher climbs. I've learned over the years to take what the mountain and your body gives you on any given day; to move quickly where you can, and not to worry too much when you seem to be swimming against the current. We stumbled along in the direction of our goal, sometimes slowly, at other times swiftly - until we reached the summit of Mt. Kannon around 1:45pm. This was the southernmost point we would reach on this particular day, and now we we would start heading back, but first we needed to drop down to the Houou mountain hut to refill water and hopefully buy a much-needed hot meal (that we had been talking about for hours).
As we worked our way towards the hut, I did some mental math and realized that we needed to hurry. We I wasn't certain, but I was afraid that if the hut served lunch, the odds were that they would stop serving it at 3pm. And if they stopped serving lunch at 3pm, they would likely, in typical Japanese fashion, stop taking orders for lunch at 2:30pm. We were famished, and the thought of showing up 2 minutes too late and missing out on a glorious plate of curry and rice after all we had been through was an earth-shaking fear. The only option was to suck it up and run down the steep and narrow path leading to the hut in order to arrive before 2:30. I took Derin's order, and with the help of my stomach convincing my legs to move, ran ahead - pulling into the hut like a hero at 2:20.
I had an extra bounce in my step as I headed to the register, a possible psychosomatic response to the hot plate of food I was already devouring in my mind. With an expectant but subdued smile I asked the staff what they served for lunch. Honestly, I'm not sure what she said exactly, but my brain locked on quickly to "I'm sorry", and it was easy to infer the rest. They didn't serve lunch. This was within the realm of possibility, and luckily we had a (much less sexy) fallback plan - Cup Noodle. Nearly every mountain hut in Japan sells basic snacks and food, chief among them being the Cup Noodle variety of instant ramen. There is nothing fancy about them, but they are an efficient "just add water" tool to help fix your cravings in the short span of 3 minutes. So I took out my money and asked for two. Once again I cannot relay the full details of her response, but I remember choking down the foul-tasting words "sold out", before they sunk slowly down my esophagus and settled in an aching pit of despair deep inside my stomach, alongside my hunger.
I left the hut and found a spot on the bench outside to sulk. I also used the opportunity to pull out a portion of my dinner for that evening and began to tear into it without any thought of the consequences. Not long after, Derin showed up and I had to share the bad news. He took it in stride but was obviously disappointed as well. We had things to eat. Both of us were carrying enough to be completely self-sufficient for three full days, amounting to approximately 1kg of food for each day. But gels and energy chews, cookies and chocolate can only go so far. They are a utilitarian means to inject enough of a caloric boost to fuel you forward, but after a while they fail to provide any of the soul-stirring joy that food so often provides. We weren't there for the calories, we were there for a shot of gastronomic glee to propel us to and across the finish line. So we settled for calories, slamming back more of the same junk food we had been munching on since the day before.
We had reached the home stretch, and the last major climb of the day - the steep slog up to the "summit" of Mt. Jizo. We left the hut and began gaining elevation right away, first through the forest, and later on the sandy, slippery slopes that lie directly between the rocky peak. Sliding backwards with every step it seemed as if our progress was painfully slow, but we reached the statue-studded summit area in less than half of the standard map time. Now we had one final up-down traverse standing between us and the path leading down to Hirogawara, and we were eager to get it over with. Thankfully the now cloudy skies meant cooler temperatures, and cooler temps meant it felt comparatively easier to maintain the same level of effort.
We ultimately reached the junction （白鳳峠）for our descending trail at 4:35pm, and had dreams of running all the way down from there. We could see from the contour lines on our maps that the second half would be significantly steeper than the first, but what we couldn't tell ahead of time was that the first half was a lot of slow descending through technical boulder fields. We still expected to be down before dark and made a ridiculous promise to each other that we would not use our headlamps at all. It was slow moving at times, and the second half was even steeper than we were prepared for. It was almost a relief to arrive at the sections of ladders bolted into the rocks, as it gave us a chance to rest our weary knees. Occasionally as we descended, we could hear deer crying in the distance and even joked that they too were complaining about how steep the trail was.
In the end I think we were just tired and ready to be done. It was a long, hard two days, and though it wasn't always "fun", it was beautiful, challenging, inspiring, limit-pushing, growth-inducing and all the other things that help us forget the pain and remember only the pleasure so soon after we finish such endeavors. We reached the road, wobbled awkwardly along it to the large suspension bridge spanning the river, and crossed over to the Hirogawara mountain lodge, arriving in the last light of day (just before 6pm) and without using our headlamps. Mission accomplished. We were too late for dinner, but this time the shelves were stocked with copious amounts of Cup Noodle, and the kegs loaded with cold beer. We practically begged them to take our money for both, enjoyed our simple dinner and pitched our tents once again. We arose the next morning to catch the 7am bus, and said goodbye in gratitude to the epic setting of our latest adventure.