I know it. I am a bad planner. Well, maybe not so much a bad planner as a bad preparer. Since last year I had it in mind to climb Chogatake (蝶ヶ岳 – The Butterfly Mountain) in April in order to get photographs of the Hotakas in white. But as the date for my planned climb drew nearer I never seemed to have free space in my head to think about the trip. The day before I just grabbed the usual stuff off the supermarket shelves and packed the usual gear plus extra clothes for the cold nights. I had in mind to review the trail information, check the weather, and see if the road to the parking lot was closed for winter, but I didn’t. I just threw stuff in the car the night before and in the morning I left.
As I came over the pass at Asamayama I saw the long white serrated crest of the peaks of the Kita Alps. The weather looked good and I was enjoying the prospect of the first climb since October. As I made my way from Matsumoto up to the route to the trailhead I finally started to feel the excitement of the coming adventure, even as the clouds started covering Jonendake (常念岳).
Of the things I had thought to check before going – the weather and the road closure – both conditions became clear around the same time. The road was closed and the clouds were swallowing the mountain ridge. I was not to be deterred however. I decided to hike up to the trailhead and see how things went. If I couldn’t get up Saturday I would try on Sunday. I began walking up the road, noting all the boulders that had fallen on the asphalt during the winter. The first few drops began to fall after about an hour but they stopped again soon and my shadow weakly appeared walking at my side. Drops started again and my shadow appeared again. The clouds seemed to be a mediator, allowing neither the sun nor the rain to determine the fate of the day’s weather. At last, however, the sky opened and rain began falling light but steady. I had been walking an hour and a half and I wasn’t sure how much of the ten km to the trailhead I had covered. I decided to throw down the tent for now and keep my gear dry while I inspected the route ahead. If the weather improved I would pack up and move along, if not I would stay the night on the road side.
About 15 minutes up the road I found the parking lot and a gazebo on a slope above the parking. A dry spot sure looked appealing and I went back to move camp to the gazebo. Because of a large table I couldn’t fit my tent all the way under but 3/4s under was good enough. The rain got worse and I sat on the bench, warm and dry, having lunch and enjoying the fresh air. Across the stream below the parking there was still snow amidst the trees. I began to feel sleepy, not having had enough sleep the two nights before and after getting up early and driving for five hours. I took a nap and woke up for dinner, then went to bed again. I hoped for better weather in the morning.
I heard the rain continue most of the night. Sometimes only the pat-pat of drops from the gazebo roof could be heard dropping to the wet ground and on the exposed side of my tent, other times the trees whispered with rain drops. In the morning I woke up early but decided there was no rush to get up. In all honesty, I was feeling really relaxed and lazy. At last I got up and went out to explore. The forest was filled with fog. I followed the gravel road up to the trailhead. It was only another ten minutes away from my camp. Here the snow was still covering the ground. I looked at the trail through the fog with the snow all around and wondered if it would be wise to try climbing up a route I didn’t know in those conditions. Would the weather improve? I had to decide what to do. I had come to climb but with the weather being as it was I wasn’t sure if it would be worth it to climb all the way up. I had come to take photographs and I knew that when conditions such as these began clearing there was the potential for really exciting photography. But what if I climbed up and sat in the fog for the whole time? I wished I had checked the weather.
With time passing and me still vacillating the decision was soon made for me. I went back to my tent and took out the cameras for a few misty forest shots and then packed up and went down. I accepted my decision to quit the climb but it began nagging at me. For months I had been dreaming about climbs in Japan and hoping to go back to Canada someday and climb lots of mountains. I wanted to climb in winter and spring too. I was going to slowly become a real mountain photographer. Now I was turning away from the first challenge of the year. Were all my dreams in vain? Maybe I didn’t really have what it takes to be a mountain photographer. As the sun began coming out in patches I kept glancing at my watch and thinking how far up the trail I would have been had I started climbing at 6 like I had first planned.
Since I had come for photographs I decided to head down to the Takase River and roam about the morass of rocks and driftwood, looking for views with the Ushiro Tateyama Range in the background. All the main peaks were out except Cho and Jonen, which still had their heads in the clouds. Exploring the river was fun and it took me back to the days when I shot landscapes more than mountainscapes. The challenge was to get photographs without the powerlines, houses, and highway traffic in the background. For evening views I went up Takagari Yama (鷹狩山) by car to an observation point. By late afternoon all the mountains had shaken off their clouds except Kashima Yarigatake which had donned a new mantle of atmospheric fluff. Sunset was anticlimactic as haze filled the sky. I could see Tsubakurodake and Otenshodake (sometimes Daitenjodake) and I could just make out the summit spire of Yarigatake above the ridge between Tsubakuro and Otensho.
For the last day I was still determined to set foot on a mountain. I began considering a night climb up Chogatake but decided to head for Gifu and use the Shin Hotaka cable car to get up below Nishi Hotaka and climb up to the summit and back in one day if possible. I drove the winding route to Gifu and arrived at 10PM. A quick inspection of the cable car schedule told me once again that preparation in advance includes checking information as well as packing. The cable car was closed for maintenance until the 18th. I was not impressed but I was not to be beaten either. I found a spot where I had a good view of Kasagatake (笠ヶ岳 the Bamboo Hat Mountain) and stayed in the car overnight.
The final morning I awoke to capture the first light on Kasa and then I went down to the mountaineers’ parking lot and prepared my camera bag for a short morning hike.
I didn’t expect to go far as I set out on the trail that leads up to Kagami Daira. The snow was crisp and solid. I carried my snowshoes for the first two hours until I reached a bridge. The few other footprints in the snow went across the bridge, but I turned left and began heading up the slope, over an avalanche that had since been covered with new snow.
I felt good. I was outside and moving. I was climbing. I was myself again. Deciding to say heck with the time, I just started going up and decided that I could go until 1 o’clock. By one I would rest, shoot, and head back. I crossed the massive avalanche snows of Chichibu Sawa. Here the snow rose up in steep ridges and dropped again. I climbed and slid. There were no trees sticking out of the snow here, only large clusters and chunks of snow, some the size of cars. I felt like I was really in the domain of ice and snow, the same feeling I got when I flew over the Fox Glacier in New Zealand many years ago. This was the kind of nature where life exists only under very strict conditions and where the conditions can be updated suddenly and with little warning, with a whump and a thundering rumble that makes your blood freeze in your veins. I was glad I wasn’t there when all this came down. Hissing to my left made me turn my head with a start and I saw snow sliding down with tumbling balls on the steeper side of the mountain – small avalanches that did not threaten me.
The sun was hot and the radiation glaring back at me from all sides thanks to the snow. I realized I had left my sunscreen in the car. I felt my face turning red, my skin aching. I suddenly had a vision of drinking an ice-cold 7-Up out of a dripping green bottle. I haven’t had the drink for over ten years but at that moment the image was clearer in my mind than the white glare attempting to burn through my sunglasses. Still I was not going to stop now. I found a tree in a saddle between a tree-covered ridge and a smaller white peak, which was Yumioridake (弓折岳). Behind me Nukudodake (抜戸岳) was looking rather large with some impressive cornices. The Hotakas rose up on one side of Oku Maruyama and Yari, Obami, and Naka on the other side. I could feel my legs getting tired – they hadn’t had such a workout for a few months. But I was determined to reach that tree. I paced myself, stopped to catch my breath when I needed to, stopped to admire the view when I needed to, and I reached my tree 20 minutes before one. It was actually at the lip of a bowl and I was tempted to keep going to the back of the bowl to see what lay beyond, but I told myself to rest and stop always trying to go a little further and a little further. I spread my jacket on the snow and kicked back, ate the meager food I had brought (having planned to be out only a couple of hours originally), drank the last of my tea, snoozed with my T-shirt pulled over my head and then spent some enjoyable time shooting the snowy landscape.
By the time I was ready to go back down the first of the clouds had started to come in.
It was a slippery descent. My snowshoes had gripped the icy snow so well during the ascent but now the snow was soft and slushy. Where before my tracks had barely scratched the snow, I was now stomping holes up to my ankles, sometimes deeper. Climbing the sharp ridges in the avalanche zone was easier because I could kick my feet in deeper but I slid on my butt down the other side. Back near the bridge I saw a pair of fresh tracks – a medium-sized boot with crampons and a small sized boot, plus the basket impressions from stalks. Clouds had swallowed the mountains and everything but Nishi Hotaka was in shadow. I considered waiting to see how sunset turned out but the gathering clouds and the long walk back plus the longer drive dashed my optimism. I finished my film in my 35mm and my 645 cameras and slogged back to the car.
It was a longer walk back than I remembered. Once I finally reached the parking lot I was pretty dead, having been out for 12 hours. I changed my clothes and ate the last of my food, then steeled myself for the long ride back to Saitama. Despite my weariness, knowing I had to get home safely kept me awake, that and the coffee and snacks and the music from the CD player. Aside from getting lost in Matsumoto because the highway signs didn’t agree with my map book, I had no problems and made it back home at 1:20AM. Though I had not accomplished exactly what I had set out to do, I did get my snowy mountain photos and I did get my butt up a mountainside. I was satisfied. And then I checked the guidebook to see how far I had gotten and realized that I was so close to Kagami Daira. Had I gone over the back of the bowl I would have reached it… Next time. Next time I will try again.