Time and the Mountains

The view north from Sugorokudake with Washibadake, the peak on the right, and Suishodake, the more distant peak left of centre.

The view north from Sugorokudake with Washibadake, the peak on the right, and Suishodake, the more distant peak left of centre.

For mountain photography, time is of the essence. One studies the maps in order to plan where to be at the right time for the right light and how to get there by the swiftest and least taxing means. The mountain photographer requires time to reach his goal, survey his chosen site, set up his equipment and be ready for the moment. At least this holds true when we are talking about sunrise and sunset photography in the mountains. The rest of the day (and night if one chooses) can be spent at a little more ease, exploring the nature, seeking new views to capture. In a day, the photographer will unlikely walk too far, choosing instead to spend his time searching for subjects and scenes fit for his lenses.

For climbing, time is a very important factor. The climber studies the maps to check the routes and times, planning how much time will be required to reach check points. The climber wants to move swiftly and lightly. For a day of climbing much energy will be spent on moving up mountains and crossing ridges. Being weighed down by a heavy pack is undesirable. A light pack with food and drink and a light-weight camera are enough. Use the daylight hours efficiently to reach the summits and get back in a reasonable time to enjoy dinner at your tent.

I used to be only a photographer. Reaching the summits was not a concern for me. But the last few years have been different. Reaching the summit has become almost as important as bringing home a good collection of photographs. That is one reason why I shoot less these days. Another reason is that I shoot 35mm, medium, and large format on most outings. That means a heavier camera pack and more time spent switching cameras and lenses. Especially using a 4×5 camera takes time. Thus my daylight hours have to be carefully balanced between moving up and over summits and being in the right places at the right times to capture the scenes I desire to bring home. Often to my frustration, the time pressure of reaching peaks and getting photographs often leaves me in a time pinch.

During the extended holiday period of September – affectionately called “Silver Week” as a term for a holiday period shorter than Golden Week – I planned a rather ambitious trip to the Ura Ginza Line of the North Alps of Japan. I had four days and set my sights on four Hyakumeizan: Washibadake (鷲羽岳), Suishodake (水晶岳), Kurobegorodake (黒部五郎岳), and Kasagatake (笠ヶ岳). Checking the maps in my guidebook I saw I would be facing some long days on the trail – about 12 hours a day for three of the days – and I had to factor in photography time. I was prepared to cut one or two mountains out if I really had to but I was quite determined to try for at least three summits.

The east face of the mountain was once glaciated. A cirque now cradles a beautiful alpine setting of flowers and grasses and large blocks of granite.

The east face of the mountain was once glaciated. A cirque now cradles a beautiful alpine setting of flowers and grasses and large blocks of granite.

Day 1 started after a night drive from Saitama that brought me to an overcrowded parking lot and left me parked a 15-minute walk from the bus terminal. It was a long and pleasant hike in gorgeous weather but gruelling at times due to the weight of my backpack, which was around 35kg and if it was a little more I wouldn’t have been surprised. I started an hour late but made up for time early on, time which I later lost as I climbed the route up to Kagami Daira (鏡平), where I took a much needed and extended break.

Looking across one of the ponds at Kagami Daira to the Hotaka Massif.

Looking across one of the ponds at Kagami Daira to the Hotaka Massif.

With four days of supplies, camping gear, and my camera equipment there was little I could think of to make my pack lighter. Not knowing what to expect temperature wise I had brought some extra clothes for cold and for wet weather. From Kagami Daira I found myself stuck in a position I did not want to be in. I was up on the ridge leading to the campsite by around four o’clock. It was too early to be thinking about sunset photography but perhaps a bit late to be heading into camp. I had planned to have camp set up by 4:30 but it wasn’t until past five before I was setting up in a very crowded tent site. Evening light came and went before I could get set up and on the move. I could have waited to set up camp but it was filling up quickly and I didn’t want to just throw down my pack and come back to find tents all around it with no space for my own.

Day 2 was the first really ambitious day. I awoke at 3 AM and was on the trail heading up Sugorokudake (双六岳) by 3:40. I reached the summit in good time and had to wait about 40 minutes for sunrise. I had time to check my cameras and get set up. After over an hour on Sugoroku, I followed the trail over Maruyama and over to Mitsumata Rengedake (三俣蓮華岳). Kurobegorodake was looking very tempting but I had planned to visit it the next day and so I pressed on for Washibadake.

Though Washibadake is not a volcano, a volcanic crater sprouted from its eastern flank long ago.

Though Washibadake is not a volcano, a volcanic crater sprouted from its eastern flank long ago.

On the way up I considered capturing some of the views but time was always on my mind. I took a couple of digital snaps and moved on, thinking I could take my time for more serious photography on my way back in the evening. When I reached the summit of Washiba it was already noon. I had been rushing when I could and taking my time when I needed to. I seriously considered giving up Suisho. It was there in the distance and I knew it would take about 2 hours and a half to reach the summit. Plus time on the summit photographing and coming back to Washiba would mean I would be on Washiba again just around sunset. Perhaps it was better just to linger around here. But as I downed the last of my water and looked to the hut near Suishodake I figured I could try to reach it, and off I went.

Looking over to Suishodake from the summit of Washibadake

Looking over to Suishodake from the summit of Washibadake

Getting to the hut was not bad. I was able to reload my water bottles but at a price. It seemed that with the high number of guests staying that long weekend and no rain, water was at a premium. Beer sold out and guests were being told that they had to share a futon between three people. After refreshments I decided I would not climb Suisho after all but I would go along the trail until the last leg where the trail went up through the rocks and required some ladder climbing and scrambling. I went and eyeballed the summit. A part of me egged me on – “Climb it. You made it this far.” But realistically speaking if I did it would surely add 40 minutes to an hour to my day and it was already late to be this far from camp.

Yarigatake and Washibadake from near the final climb up Suishodake

Yarigatake and Washibadake from near the final climb up Suishodake

I prepared to turn back when I met a woman I had chatted with briefly the day before. She was with two companions – a man and a woman – and all three of them must have been in their twenties. They told me that there was another way back to the Mitsumata camp and from there on I could take the Naka Michi route back to the Sugoroku Camp, a route that would go around the mountains and not over them. I could save maybe one or two hours I was told. That sounded good to me and I went with them and took a path that descended below Waremodake and Washibadake to a small pass where the headwaters of the Kurobe River began flowing on the south side. I stopped for a couple of photos and let them carry on their way. But I kept one eye to my watch and decided to move.

Hikers descend into the ravine where the headwaters of the Kurobe River begin flowing.

Hikers descend into the ravine where the headwaters of the Kurobe River begin flowing.

Down in the ravine the sunlight began to disappear. Clouds were piling up behind the high peaks and spilling over the top. Sometimes sunshine split through and lit up the early autumn colours. A few rowan bushes were already turning red and orange and many other plants were preparing their autumn garb as well.

A small rowan, or mountain ash, on a rock

A small rowan, or mountain ash, on a rock

Many a time I considered stopping and setting up for some nature photography but each time I used only the digital compact for speed. That is a situation I have recently come to dislike. Why carry all that camera gear if I am only going to record snap shots? But if I need to move quickly then why carry all the camera gear? I come home and find my digital camera has recorded scenes I would really have loved to have recorded on film but I never took the time for it because I was trying to keep up with my schedule.

A taste of home: berries plucked from the bushes around 2,500 metres.

A taste of home: berries plucked from the bushes around 2,500 metres.

I caught up to the three other trekkers and spent an enjoyable time talking with them and picking berries that I hadn’t seen or tasted since I was roaming the local forests in my city in Canada over ten years ago.

Still time was running out. Evening light was almost a write off because of the clouds; however, just before sunset a few strips of sunlight lit up the colourful foliage of the ravine slopes and I was not in the right position to capture those fleeting moments. I left the three and rushed for higher ground but never made it. I was cold as I watched the sky and mountains for any last effort to create a beautiful sunset and as I started heading back I felt my fatigue setting in. I watched the scores of people laughing and chatting outside their tents while they prepared dinner. I still had two and a half hours to go. As dark was setting in around 6 o’clock I met a man descending to camp and he asked where I was going. When I told him he advised me to give it up. I assured him I had a headlamp and that I would be OK. Besides, I had no choice. My food and supplies were all at my camp and I had not enough money to stay in the Mistumata Lodge. Soon after I came to where the path diverged, the route I knew on the right, the route I didn’t know on the left. I turned left, hoping to save time.

It was perhaps a good idea but because I didn’t know the route and it was dark I was never positively sure of where I was going. In the dark it would be easy to miss a sign and accidentally find myself descending down into a valley. The route went down a lot and I was getting worried. It took a long time it seemed before the trail started heading toward the looming silhouette of Sugorokudake. But every time the trail started going up it would go down again. I shone my lamp into the darkness hoping to see detail on Sugoroku but only the nearest pines picked up the light. I seemed farther than I had thought. Perhaps taking the route over the mountains would have been better because at least I would know where I was going. But this mysterious route just led me on into the night. I could only find comfort in the thought that as long as I moved and time moved I would eventually be at my camp. At last I made it to Sugoroku where the trail went either to the summit or camp, and as the hour hand on my watch hit 8 I could see the light from the lodge below. I staggered completely exhausted to my tent by 8:20, ten minutes earlier than I had expected to arrive according to the plan I had sketched out a few days prior. Would I have the energy for another day like this tomorrow? Would I be able to reach Kurobegorodake? The latest weather report looked unfavourable. Clouds and possibly rain were on the way.

On Day 3, when the rain began falling on my tent just around 7 AM I was already in bed too long. I had decided earlier that I would not get up but had then been debating with myself about going or not. The rain made the decision for me. In a way I was glad for the chance to rest. However, I was soon longing to get outside and exploring again. After noon the rain stopped though the clouds still hung on, reducing visibility to about 20 metres. I did some wet nature photography around camp and on Sugorokudake in the afternoon after having killed the morning sitting in the lodge looking at photo books and getting inspired to get out in spite of the rain.

Chinguruma flowers gone to seed on Sugorokudake

Chinguruma flowers gone to seed on Sugorokudake

Kurobegorodake was out, and on Day 4 the rain continued so that I gave up trying to make it up Kasagatake on my way back. I just retraced my steps back to Kagami Daira and spent an hour shooting in the rain and relaxing a little before heading all the way back down. It was a long walk back but I made it in good time and even had time for a soak in a hot spring before hitting the road. Should I have tried for Suishodake anyway? No, I told myself that if I give it up I must do so without regret. Kurobegorodake I really wanted to see but the weather cancelled that for me. The only real regret was that I didn’t take time to shoot in the ravine of the headwaters of the Kurobe River. In retrospect, I should have gone down from Washiba and Waremo and entered the ravine without going over to the Suisho Hut first. Then I could have taken my time shooting some nature scenery before heading back to camp at a slightly more reasonable time.

Well, I have now been smitten by the beauty of the Ura Ginza Line and the place called Kumo-no-daira (雲ノ平) beyond. I know I will go back at least twice more. The vast landscape of this part of the Japan Alps has me thinking of home. I need time to explore. The wise older trekkers give themselves five hours a day for moving and then relax the rest of the day. It would make more sense for photography to spend more time roaming and shooting rather then moving with an eye on the watch all day. And if climbing is the priority for the day then the heavier equipment should be left in the tent. A better plan needs to be in place. So I must go back and make sure I give myself more time for climbing and for photography. Maybe take in only one or two peaks per trip and spend more time recording the natural beauty on film.

Looking into what is perhaps the most remote area of the North Alps

Looking into what is perhaps the most remote area of the North Alps

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3 responses to “Time and the Mountains

  1. That’s a familiar dilemma – do I spend 10 more minutes taking photos, or 10 more minutes on the trail.. But as tough as that decision always is, I like to think that it’s nice to be so torn between two equally pleasurable options.

    Am I right in thinking that first shot is of Kurobe-goro? It’s a beauty – I love the rolls of clouds behind it. If it’s any consolation, you got far better weather up there than I did last year. I spent three days stooging around those mountains with literally 20m visibility.

    I’m highly impressed you made it up there with that weight of kit, too, even if you didn’t get the 4×5 out as much as you wanted. Perhaps think of it as training for those heavy winter routes 🙂

  2. Thanks, Chris. The full backpack is always over 30kg, usually around 35kg these days. That’s why I drop everything at a camp and carry only a lighter pack of about 15kg with me for the day treks. That’s camera gear and drinks and snacks. If I had more money I might stay at lodges and save on the tenting weight, or if I had more time I would just go more often and be selective about what cameras I bring with me. The truth is that I still get the bulk of my best photos with my 35mm gear. The 4×5 is fun to use but time consuming and getting the focus right is a challenge for me as I have said before.

    Yes, the photo is Kurobegoro. It has become my favourite mountain not yet visited, next to Tsurugi. Your photos in the fog and all inspired me in part to make this journey. The other inspiration came from Hana Hikes the Hyakumeizan. I think Hana and her master did Washiba, Suisho and Kurobegoro in one trip so I figured I would try. Now I really want to get up to Kurobegoro so I’ll be back next year for sure and make it priority number one!

  3. Pingback: Links to Trip Reports « Project: Sanmyaku

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