I am no stranger to chains. I have encountered them many times on mountains like Tanigawadake, Mae Hotakadake, Yokodake on Yatsugatake, and of course, the Daikiretto on the Yari/Hotaka Range. I was well aware of the chains on Myogisan. I had a taste of them twice before on visits to the rock arches below Kondosan, and I had seen them hanging from the cliffs along the Kanto Fureai no Michi route, like a subtle invitation leading up and above the forest canopy to whatever lay above the cliffs rearing overhead.
Myogisan （妙義山） is not a high mountain, its highest point at Soumadake (相馬岳) reaching a mere 1,104 metres, not much higher than the elevation of Karuizawa City (929m) at the top end of nearby Highway 18. It’s not, however, Myogi’s height that draws people but rather its fantastic appearance. Like the crumbled remains of an ancient rotting tree stump, Myogi’s rocks stick up from the forest and thrust cliffs, spires and needles above the trees. Considering total area, Myogi spreads out a bit like an enormous horseshoe with the most impressive cliffs at Kondosan and Haku-unzan towering over Highway 254. The backside of the horseshoe faces Highway 18 and the Kanetsu Expressway, and in the middle of the shoe is the Ura Myogi area with various trails leading up to the castles and tusks of crumbling igneous breccia and tortured jumbles of black basalt and andesite. Myogisan was once a great volcano in an area that exhibits a concentration of dormant, active and extinct volcanoes – Myogi and its higher, gentler neighbours Akagiyama and Harunasan representing the extinct and the smoking cone of Asamayama and the gas-emitting multi-cratered Shiranesan representing the active and dormant respectively.
My friend, B (web site here) and I had decided only the day before that we would pay Myogi and second visit (we had been there with a third companion back in October of 2006) and our destination choice had been largely inspired by i-cjw’s blog post about his recent visit. I chose the Ura Myogi area to start our climb because I new of the series of trails from that side. I had no map, wasn’t sure where to get one, and had forgotten to check the Net for one, but typically I was full of optimism that we would find our way somehow and if not we could always head around to the front side where the rock arches were. We started out on the trail around 8 o’clock, a trail that seemed partially grown over, making us wonder how often the backside route was used. Being in the lead I had the responsibility of clearing away the strands of spider webs with my face, but that grew old really fast and so I was soon ascending the path with two fallen cedar branches in my hands, waving them up and down in front of me in an effort to clear the way without tickling my nose. I was starting to feel like a Shinto priest waving those branches.
The route began climbing a narrow ridge and all around we were treated to views of the freshly sprouted leaves colouring the spring forest scenery with dashes of cherry blossoms here and there. After a while we encounter blocks and fins of rock standing above the landscape. One place was naturally carved out like a wide shallow cave where there was enough room to set up a tent, have a separate cooking space with natural seating and a small party room. There was even a window in the rock looking out over a collection of spires and needles.
The trail sometimes ran along the top of a ridge so narrow that the trail was only lined with a trim of grass tufts before the cliffs fell away on either side. Soon we encountered our first set of chains. They were not bad at all. We held on to them as necessary as we climbed and descended parts of the route to the summit of Soumadake.
It was just around 11 when we reached the summit of Souma and stopped for a rest. The day had begun with a bit of haze but now as the sun warmed the valley below the featureless screen of water vapour and dust was starting to delete the horizons. I could make out the white peaks Yatsugatake beyond Arafunayama (荒船山) and also in the distance Tateshinayama. Asamayama was not far off and clearly visible with just a hint of smoke – nothing like the white plume I saw billowing from the mountain after the minor eruption at the beginning of February – and fresh snow on the trees of Kurofuyama. Nearest to us were the multiple black crumbling towers of Kondosan (金洞山).
From Soumadake we went on to Haku-unzan (白雲山), taking in the view of the spectacular sheer cliffs of Haku-un before climbing up to what appeared to be the highest point but without a sign announcing the summit, and then we made the short stroll over to Tengudake (天狗岳), which actually had a sign. It was here we met a man in his early sixties who told us about the mountain, mostly things we already knew, but since he was knowledgeable I asked him about the route to Kondosan. What he said was what I expected. It had many very steep parts with cliffs and chains. But he also said that many people do it only they start from Myogi Shrine below Haku-unzan and follow the Kanto no Fureai route to the rock arches and then go up to Kondo. Those with quick legs can do it in about 6 and a half hours, he said. We were encouraged but knew to expect difficulty.
We made our way back to Souma and stopped once again. Yatsu and Tateshina were even harder to spot now as the haze was thickening. The route from Souma was steep at first and then we came to the chains resting on a slope of worn volcanic rock. It looked steep, especially when viewed from between my legs as I prepared to descend backwards. Finding foot holds was not always easy and sometimes I had to grip the chains and rest my weight on the rock as my toes searched for a secure place to stand. Once we had come down it didn’t look so bad looking back up again.
The path was narrow and winding, sometimes following the very edge of the cliff. The anabatic wind was blowing up from the east side, a cool blast of wind that was refreshing for us sweating in the stagnant warmth of the west side. We saw a pink ribbon on a tree blowing like a streamer nearly vertically in the air. Occasionally as I neared the cliff edge my hair would be suddenly tussled even though I wouldn’t feel it on my face. We stopped for a rest on some rocks and met a young guide leading a group of five women, the youngest of which couldn’t have been less than her late fifties. Seeing people of retirement age in the mountains of Japan was not unusual at all but given the challenge of the steep slopes and chains we had encountered so far we had to respect these ladies and the other men and women we had seen up here.
Kondo was getting closer and at last we reached the first ruined tower of knobbly breccia. The path typically led up to an abutment of pure rock with a chain hanging down. Accepting the challenge, we climbed without difficulty. Next we came to an iron ladder that was screwed into the rock and climbed first vertically, then angled outward a bit before hugging the rock on an 85 degree angle.
The path stepped to the left a bit and then another chain innocently crept down from a steep hip of rock. Climbing here was a little more challenging and it was also the beginning of a three-part series. One chain led to the next and then the next. Footholds were not always so easy to find and we sometimes had to hang on to the chain with both hands tightly as we prodded the rock with our toes for a place with knob or groove. I had heard once on Goryudake advice from a climber from New Zealand who told me not to use the chains but to grip the rock with your hands because once you feel you can trust the rock you can get up much more easily than by holding onto the chain. I agreed at the time but here on the climb up Kondosan I felt much better gripping the chain over stretching and seeking for handholds on worn volcanic rock.
At the top of the chain sequence the path went along a rock face where at one point it just vanished becoming only a slope of rock with a chain attached. A seep had made the rock wet and toes were placed with great caution. We reached the first of the five castles of Kondo above Taka Modoshi (鷹戻し), a name that means the Hawk’s Turning Back. Did that suggest that even hawks would not fly beyond those rocky faces we had just climbed? The route down from here was even worse. A chain dropped straight down through a split in the rock. It was pulled taut over the rock and getting fingers under the chain meant scraping knuckles. There was an alarming moment of gripping the chain with my body pressed against the rock while I eased my self down with my toes probing for footholds. I wondered if this wasn’t the place i-cjw had gotten “comfortably stuck”. The split in the rock was a tempting alternative to hanging off the face but it was also narrow and one could easily get wedged in there. About three metres down my left foot located an excellent step and from there it was not so bad. A second chain was a little less scary and then we had over come the worst of the chains. Ahead were just steep climbs and descents with some scrambling as we crossed the second rocky peak before finally getting up on Higashidake (東岳) – 1,094m – on Kondosan.
From the top we surveyed the next two rocky peaks of Nakanodake (中之岳) and Nishidake (西岳). We had found a good map discarded or lost on the path just before the final ascent and we saw that the path led to Nakanodake and no further. Anyone going to Nishidake was on his own. All around the sky filled with haze, Asamayama barely visible. Looking back to the chains we had descended it looked like a sheer drop though we knew it wasn’t as steep as that.
In front of me lay the lower world of Kondosan – rock pillars, arches and a shrine far below with the coloured specks of other visitors to Myogi moving on the natural observation platforms. I looked at my feet on the rocks and thought, “One step is a step down on the same chunk of rock; the next step is into oblivion.”
Checking the climbing times on the map we saw it was time to hurry. At 3:45 we were on the move, retracing our steps back to Taka Modoshi. I thought the chains going up would not be so hard because it’s always easier to climb looking up than to look down at the world from between your legs, but it was still a challenge that required what I jokingly referred to as fire fighter skills. That meant you had to hang on to the rope with both hands and push with your toes against the rock when there were no good footholds. Going down the Taka Modoshi part required a lot of fire fighter training practice. It was scary but I was not really worried because I knew we had come up this way and we were certainly going to get back again. We knew what to do and that helped quell any fears. But the long sequence of chains made it tiresome and I was glad for the ladder when I reached it.
When we reached the fork in the path that led to what I presume is called Onna Saka (女坂), we left the route we knew and descended into what I think is called Hoshi Ana Ravine. The path went through a thick carpet of fallen leafs clinging to the slope, and at times we couldn’t find any solid ground for our feet and slid on the rocks. Further below, we walked through a forest and then at last water appeared from the rocks. With the 5 o’clock sun shining through the trees and sparking golden in the splashing waterfalls we stopped to shoot a few scenes. It was here I noticed that I had neglected to put my one roll of film in my 35mm camera. I had been shooting with my compact digital and 6×7, but I had also hoped to capture some images on 35mm, particularly the colour pattern of the fresh verdure in the forest as viewed from high above. This is only the second time in 24 years that I have gone shooting without realizing I hadn’t put the film in yet. I loaded the roll and was at least able to get a few shots in the forest. At least I hadn’t missed any really dramatic lighting situations
Back at the car we both agreed that it had been a fun climb. The chains of Myogi had sometimes been frightening and had tested our physical strength and mettle but we had passed all tests and stood on all the main summits of Myogi. There was reason to be pleased with ourselves and B picked up a cold beer at the first convenience store while I settled for a Coke, drinks well earned.