Shinetsu Mountain Madness - Day 3
The previous day of fastpacking had proven to be an unexpectedly eventful one, but little did we know that the adventure quotient on this final day would reach another level entirely.
The Long, Cold Night
It was already surprisingly cold as we crawled into our ultralight cocoons with our bodies comically wrapped in every last article of clothing we had brought with us on the hike. The night had just begun however, and the mercury was still shockingly far from bottoming out. Make no mistake, we were prepared to be slightly uncomfortable camping at 2,100 m / 6,890 ft above sea level on this clear night in late June, and some level of discomfort is the inevitable and accepted trade-off for counting grams and cutting gear to the absolute bare minimum. Yet those crucial decisions of what to bring and what to leave at home are made against the backdrop of previous experience combined with careful consideration of the anticipated conditions particular to each trip and neither had led us to expect sub-freezing temperatures. But that's what we got. On paper, the difference between 3°C / 37°F and -2°C / 28°F may seem rather insignificant, but the subtlety is understood and felt acutely by the body. This is all to say that it was a rough night with only intermittent bouts of shallow sleep, hardly enough to rest and restore the body and more than enough to strain the mind.
Mt. Hiuchi & The Sunrise That Wasn't
The one positive to be drawn from a pitifully restless night is that it makes getting up to your alarm at an ungodly early hour much more palatable. My watch was set to 1:45 a.m., and I was actually looking forward to the cacophonous tones to signal an end to the evening's frigid, failed UL sleeping experiment. With our alarms synced, we all stirred and rose at the same time and silently and swiftly began to dismantle our shelters in the soft red light of our head torches. Outside the stars above our heads were dazzling, with the majestic Milky Way brilliantly dividing the heavens into separate and distinct, but equally stunning halves. The laughably early start was meant to put us in position to enjoy the sunrise from the summit of Mt. Hiuchi. The impeccably clear skies around us tickled our imaginations with visions of a grand solar spectacle painting the horizon in a hundred fiery hues, and erasing the memories of the many misadventures of the last 24 hours in a single stroke of nature's brush.
We were on the trail just before 2:30 a.m., and soon saw the dirt path give way to snow and the cloudless skies succumb to a sudden, formless invasion of formidably thick fog. There would be no magical, nor even marginal sunrise on this morning; instead the canvas around us would remain stiflingly unadorned. We trudged onward led by the diffused glow of our lamps and reached the last stand of vegetation separating us from the fully-exposed summit. In spite of what we saw with the weather, or rather despite not being able to see anything, we held onto the slightest vestige of hope that the sun would rise victorious and conquer the occupying army of white; and so we sat down and waited in the shelter of the straggly shrubs. It only took a few minutes before we were sure that our atmospheric luck wasn't going to change, and we decided to carry on through the misty morning air to the peak of Mt. Hiuchi and onwards.
The Forbidden Trail ?
For memories' sake we took a few photos at the summit, but kept our time at the top to a minimum. Within moments of leaving the summit signboard behind, we ran into a laminated piece of paper suspended across the trail from a thin rope tied to trees on either side and printed with the words 通行止. "Trail Closed." This had to be a mistake. Prior to setting out I made sure to research trail closures and conditions online as I always do. Because of the coronavirus crisis and the "stay home" push during the recently canceled state of emergency issued by the government, there unfortunately were no recent trip reports for this next, off-the-beaten-path portion of our route - the ridge linking Mt. Hiuchi to the volcanically active Mt. Yake.
However I was aware that Mt. Yake had been closed to hikers for the last several years due to the increased likelihood of an eruption, and navigated directly to the Niigata prefectural government's website to verify that it was currently allowable and safe to climb. The page indicated that it was, but stated that a 登山届, or mountaineering plan, was required to be submitted by everyone intending to scale Mt. Yake. I submitted our detailed form, via the convenient online mountaineering plan site Compass, so we were all clear in that regard. After checking in at the hut the day before, I also enquired with the staff about the trail all the way to Amakazari and was told that there may be some sketchy patches of snow on the steep and shaded backside of Mt. Yake, but wasn't given any indication that the trail was closed. Based on all of this, we could only deduce that this sign was leftover from the period when the volcanic alert level was at a 3 (out of 5) and the mountain had been declared off limits. This made sense since it was still early in the season and the hut was operating with limited staff - they probably just hadn't had the chance to come and remove it yet. We pushed on convinced that doing so was ok.*
The Disappearing Path & the Dangerous Mistake
Once beyond the flimsy, faded warning - vegetation began to relentlessly creep across the trail eventually choking it off completely. For the time being we were on a well-defined ridge with no chance of making a wrong turn, and pushed on through the annoying, invasive overgrowth. A dark gray wall of clouds still clung persistently to the mountaintops in every direction, but its ephemeral veil seemed to be slowly lifting higher and revealing more and more of our surroundings as we proceeded. We cleared the saddle sandwiched between the two peaks and reached the base of the Yakeyama buttress. Looking down at the map, and back up at the mountain - it seemed that from this point we were staring up at 300 vertical meters / 984 feet of climbing that we'd need to cover in less than 500 meters / 1,640 feet of distance. Yikes!
It turned out that the severe angle of the slope was a tiny snapshot of the challenges that lay ahead. Yes, the "trail" to this point was an annoyingly thick tangle of weeds, but in retrospect it had been the path of least resistance. Now standing at the base of the big climb, our eyes scanned the terrain in search of the way to the summit, but found an ominous geography with no discernible route and a long, steep snowfield sitting squarely in the middle of the mountainside where the trail would presumably have been located. This was unsettling. We were already mentally worn out from the stress of tackling all of the snowfields on the previous day with only our measly chain spikes. The one before us was the longest and steepest yet, and frankly seemed unsafe. Our heads were on a swivel, darting back and forth hoping to find an alternative. We opted to avoid the snow by climbing the steep slope off-trail parallel to the snow. It was nerve-racking from the get-go, with slippery dried reeds layering the slope below our feet and stable handholds few and far between. With hearts beating faster from the climb and the stress, we slowly made our way up, eventually crossing over to an area dominated with fresh, low-growth spring vegetation. These living plants gave us a little better grip, but were still too delicate to fully trust. At a point that slightly leveled-off mid-way up, we took a break to talk things over.
I have had a lot of experience over the years route-finding and traveling through sketchy terrain during my extended overseas treks. When you're completely alone and multiple days into a weeks-long hike through isolated mountains in unpopulated areas and you encounter a swollen river crossing or intimidating scramble standing between you and your destination - the only option is to face your fears and press forward. Over time as I confronted and successfully overcame more and more of these extreme situations, my tolerance for dealing with tense circumstances grew and my mental and emotional comfort zone recalibrated to a new, elevated normal. At the same time, each successive obstacle conquered along the way provided a boost of confidence that further reinforced my self-belief. So clinging to the flora there on the steep cliffside, I was inwardly calm and confident, but I knew my companions were neither of the two - and that became my chief concern.
As we sat down to breathe deep, calm the nerves and evaluate our current circumstances as well as the plan going forward - I again took it upon myself to climb up a little higher and check route options and conditions. I could tell the guys were out of their element and fighting a battle between the ears from the serious and somber expressions on their faces, posture and stunned silence - and I was looking for any good news I could use to reassure and motivate them. From what I saw, I honestly believed that we had gone through the worst of it and were out of harm's way - but we would need to rejoin the snowfield for another several hundred meter stretch. Luckily it would not be as steep as the part we went off trail to avoid, and snaked up the slope rather than being a straight chute, so we could stick to the sides and eliminate the risk of a lengthy uncontrolled slide even if we did slip. Realistically, quitting was not an option and continuing on was the only play as it would have been a whole new level of treacherous to try and descend the same terrain. We understood all that and the guys admirably mustered up the determination to battle on.
We reached the top of the snowfield and crested over and onto the summit plateau around 7:00 a.m., an hour and a half after starting our ill-fated ascent up Mt. Yake. For the first time in a while the muscles in our faces relaxed into half-smiles of incredulity and relief. We took some time on the top to enjoy the spectacular scenery that had been understandably low on the priority list during the last 90 minutes. It was a gorgeous morning and from our panoramic perch we were rewarded with clear views of the the sea of Japan, the snow-speckled Northern Alps, Mt. Hiuchi & Myoko behind us and the magnificent ridge spreading before us. We all wanted to believe that the worst was behind us and tackle the trail ahead with the joy that is the trail runner's ethos, but the events of the previous 26 hours had us cautiously guarded.
The Ridge of Broken Promise
We knew from the map and from our conversation with the hut staff the night before that the backside (west) of Yake was just as steep as the front (east). In fact, an exclamation mark encircled in yellow, the symbol used to signify potentially dangerous terrain, was printed conspicuously on the west site descent only. If there was snow here, we would surely have problems, but we were thrilled to find no such obstacles. Instead we carefully and uneventfully climbed down through boulders and loose volcanic rock towards the attractive ridge line joining us to the broad, rounded summit of Mt. Kane and the distant, Machu Picchu-esque spire of Mt. Amakazari. We could see most of the central spine that our route would follow, and it looked promising. There were of course a few big climbs remaining on the day, but there looked to be a lot of rolling, runnable terrain in between.
Unfortunately, we were soon reminded of the reality that we were on a minor route early in the season, early enough in fact to beat the local guides who volunteer their time and effort each summer to come and cut the spring vegetation from the trail. With the thicker weeds came the onset of a slower pace, but it was still a great day to be out on the trail with friends exploring an area that was new for all of us. Even with a few short bushwhacking detours to avoid more patchy snowfields, we got to the top of Kanayama by 9:30. Just on the back side of the summit we had a decent view of the last remaining ridge section on the way to Mt. Amakazari, and we could just make out several big snow patches on the final portion of the climb. By this point we were all a bit weary of tackling any more steep snow with our flimsy chain spikes, and if we thought the distant white stuff would pose a problem, the trail leading down to the forest road via Mt. Tenguhara would be our last escape option. To get a better idea I shimmied up a small pine tree for a clearer view and came down reasonably assured that we could safely continue on our intended course to Mt. Amakazari, and so we did just that.
There would be plenty more bushwhacking along the way on the constantly undulating ridge, but our pace quickened as we neared the goal, even as the afternoon temperatures started to make things uncomfortable. The map showed a water source just before the penultimate climb to the "Sasadaira" plateau just below Amakazari's peak, but where there should have been a stream, we found only a gully packed with snow. The situation wasn't dire, but for optimal hydration in the worsening heat we definitely needed to drink more than what we had remaining. I spotted a small hole around the base of a lone tree growing from the middle of the stream bed and went in for closer inspection. After stomping on the snow to create more of an opening, I could see there was a tiny trickle of water circulating underfoot but that it would be hard to fill a water bottle at that angle and with suck weak flow. I noticed further inside the cavern-like snow shelf a slow but consistent coming drip from the underside of the "ceiling" and running down to the ground. It was too far to reach by hand, but I was able to improvise by placing a bottle between my feet and extending my legs all the way to the source. The cold, clear snowmelt water was well worth the time and trouble, and gave us just the little extra fluid we needed to finish the day.
Hugging Signposts and Chugging Celebratory Colas
An hour later we crested the ridge spilling out onto the plateau at the foot of Amakazari. Our final high point was now beautifully and tantalizingly close. We jumped at the chance to once more drop our packs and made the short out-and-back dash to the summit in unfettered comfort. The yellow post marking the peak was a glorious sight after all the obstacles and adversity we overcame to get there, and even though Derin and Luiz arrived to the top several minutes apart, I watched as each of them coincidentally commemorated the moment in the exact same way - with a long, instinctive embrace of the summit marker. Relief. The rest of the trail I knew well, and had been on just days before, so I tried to reassure the guys that the worst really, truly was over. The trail would be steep and technical at times, but well-maintained and without snow (mostly) or surprises.
We began the descent worn out but focused and slowly worked our way down to the campground located at the trailhead in around two hours. The generic drink offerings in the vending machine would not have been too appealing on any other day, but I found myself salivating on cue as I looked over the options. The off-brand cola was exactly what we needed in that moment, and we sat on the grass sipping magic from cans and deconstructing our last two days. This should have been a celebration, but the reality was that 3 kilometers of asphalt still stood between us and the car. I was tired, but I still had the energy and desire to finish strong and suggested we run the remaining downhill road portion. I could tell the guys were not interested and jokingly followed up by asking if they'd like me to run to the car and drive back to pick them up. The answer was a simple and unexpected, "Yes, please." So I did just that. It was an anticlimactic end to an otherwise action-packed adventure. The ups and downs and unexpected challenges often made things tense in the moment, but hardship is fleeting and those heightened emotions always translate to uniquely vivid and valuable memories after the fact. This time was no exception, and as I write these closing remarks and go through the pictures once more, I can feel the reminiscent smile waxing across my face and the desire for the next adventure taking root in my soul.
The path from Hiuchi to Yakeyama was in fact officially closed. I researched the route online after returning home and this time found information stating that because Mt. Yake was closed to hikers from March 2016 to November 2018, trail maintenance was also suspended and as a result "hiker safety could not be guaranteed." It was an honest misunderstanding and not our intent to knowingly violate this rule, and based on our experience on that stretch of trail - I certainly don't recommend traveling through the area until it officially reopens.