In this modern world of trains, planes, and automobiles I still find it remarkable when I wake up on one part of the globe and lay my head down to rest on another part. Though I usually feel that way after an airplane flight, I had that feeling as I stood on the observation platform at Fujimi Pass on Route 60 in Shizuoka and looked out at the high mountains of the southern region of the South Alps. Arakawadake (荒川岳), Akaishidake (赤石岳), and Kamikouchidake (上河内岳) stood out clearly, and Hijiridake (聖岳) left a shoulder protruding out from behind Kamikouchi. I was looking back on the mountains that nine hours earlier I had seen from a very different view point – the summit of Chausudake (茶臼岳), part of the same chain as the others.
My plan was to visit this less often visited part of the Japan Alps for the second time and try to capture the views of the three behemoths – Arakawadake (3,141m); Akaishidake (3,120m); and Hijiridake (3,013m) – from Kamikouchidake (2,803m) and the slightly lower Chausudake (2,604m). With a three-day weekend from November 1st to the 3rd I decided to visit those mountains, and in order to have enough time to get there I arranged to leave work early on the 31st of October. It was a long drive from Saitama City to Shizuoka because at first I tried to avoid taking the expressway to save money. In the end, however, the slow pace along the intercity highways frustrated me and I took the expressway from Gotenba in Yamanashi to Shizuoka. From there it was almost three hours more of winding mountain road before at last I reached the gate along the forestry service road and had to park my car. It was 12:30 AM and I managed a few hours of poor sleep in the car before waking up to prepare for a long hike.
The weather report for that weekend had not been favourable. Clear skies on Saturday would be followed by increasing cloud on Sunday along with an increasing chance of precipitation as the day wore on. Monday promised sun and rain, and for Tuesday clouds and sun were forecast. A friend of mine who had planned a hike either with me or in the North Alps decided to cancel his plans altogether on account of the expected poor weather, and another mutual friend sent me a message to my phone saying he and the other friend were worried about me going because of the bad weather conditions that were expected.
Sunday morning was chilly and grey clouds were moving swiftly over the high mountains tops. It looked like rain could be expected at any time during the day. The route I would follow passed an emergency shelter after two and a half hours, a lodge two hours after the shelter, and finally one more lodge three hours after that, just below the mountain ridge and peak of Chausu. If the weather took a turn for the worse I would duck into the nearest lodge for shelter.
The sky directly overhead was clear and as the sun climbed up behind the mountains the air became warmer and a balmy breeze came round a corner on the forestry road I was following around the shore of an artificial lake. I crossed the 187 metre-long suspension bridge and began the hike up through the forest, where the autumn colours were still going strong. Movement in the fallen leaves caught my attention and I saw a brown snake trying to escape detection. I tried to take a record shot photo with my compact digital while the snake remained still, hoping I wouldn’t see it. Then, as I moved in closer for a better view of the snake’s head, I heard the leaves rattling. The snake was twitching its tail in the leaves like a rattlesnake uses its tail, but this snake had no rattle and was just making sound by rattling the dry leaves. Then it turned its head my way and I decided this would be a good time to show the snake I meant no harm and walk away peacefully. I don’t know much about Japanese snakes but I know there are a couple of venomous species and I didn’t want to test the nature of fangs of this snake.
The first leg of the trail was mostly pleasant and easy after the initial steep climb up many switchbacks. I came down to a stream with fallen leaves all around and many trees in the forest still not fully changed from green to autumn attire, and since I had built photography time into my hiking schedule and since it seemed there would be no evening photography that day, I stopped for almost an hour and a half to shoot the autumn stream scenery. From there I had to follow the streams and cross four rather dodgy suspension bridges. The wire cables looked trustworthy but the wood creaked and popped as I crossed and on some bridges the wooden planks had broken a little here and there.
I reached the emergency shelter in good time but saw a sign that told me it would be two and a half hours to reach the first lodge only 1.1 km away. Once I started moving after and short break I understood why the posted time was so long. The trail went on and on up switchbacks as the route climbed a truncated spur of the mountain. However, I reached the lodge at Yokokubosawa after only an hour and forty minutes. Here I met the only other visitor to the mountains I would see all day. We sat on a wooden bench outside the lodge and chatted, and he told me that he had stayed overnight in the emergency shelter below and had climbed up to the lodge below the mountain peak that morning. However, the clouds were gathering over the peaks and he decided it was better to get back before the rain started. The rain didn’t come, and as we sat and I ate a bit of lunch the sky overhead was clear blue and the sun was warm. When the man left to head down to the shelter I stretched out on the wooden bench and dozed a little in the warmth of the sunlight. But just before I had planned to get up and start moving again I felt a slight drop in the temperature and looking up at the sky I saw the first friendly white clouds drifting over the mountains. The weather was still going to change.
I was moving up the next switchback chain at 1:15 and an hour later I reached a bench from where there was a view across to some of the lower peaks. Grey, unfriendly looking clouds were tumbling and tearing themselves over the mountains. I could see a rain curtain farther away but that one was not heading my way. The one that was heading my way came over the mountains just as I was putting my pack cover on my pack in anticipation of the rain. I wanted to change my clothes and put on rain gear but it was too late. I just got the cover on and my jacket on when the rain began falling in earnest, oscillating between a steady rain and torrents. It wasn’t long before my pants were soaked and with my sweat from the inside and rain from the outside, my “Dry Edge” jacket was soaked too. I spent the next hour and a half in the rain becoming hungry, tired, wet, and rather miserable. But I had expected the rain and, thankfully, it started so late into the hike. Still, I was in a bad place because I had no recourse but to keep on going. The lodge had an off season use room open and thus I had chosen not to bring a tent. This meant I had no emergency shelter here partway up the mountain. When I stopped for a rest I soon became cold, so I had to keep moving as much as possible.
At last I came to the lodge and with only a couple of minutes to go I felt like stopping on the slope across from the lodge. It was as if I just hoped the lodge would reach out two arms and put me in its sheltering room. But I forced myself to safety and then, once inside the room, I began preservation procedures. First I took off the pack cover and took out the dry clothes I had packed on top. I undressed and dried myself vigorously with my hat since I had left my small towel in the car. Then I put on my dry shirts and a fleece and my long underwear and spread out the sleeping bag and climbed inside. I took out the camp stove and began heating water for a cup of pasta and a hot vitamin C drink, and while the water heated I ate a few snacks to get my metabolic fire burning inside to help make me warm again. It was not a real emergency situation but I knew what I had to do to avoid a real emergency. There was no one else up there so I had to make sure I was looking well after myself.
The rain continued the rest of the day and I stayed indoors. I hung my wet clothes on the lines that were strung in the room and I prepared my pack and food for the next day. I checked my route in my guide book and then settled into the sleeping bag where I was warm and comfortable.
I awoke too late. I had set my phone alarm for 4:00 but I had forgotten to turn my phone on, having turned it off the day before to save battery power. I got up just as the sky was turning a bright orange/yellow in the east and the silhouette of Mt. Fuji’s cone rose above the clouds that filled the valley below. I should have already been up on Chausudake by that time, as I had planned. I quickly dressed and went outside, wearing the rubber slippers provided by the lodge, and slipped on the wooden stairs which now had a bit of frost on them. The wind was knocked out of me a moment when I landed on my butt and hit my back against a step, but I was OK. I decided there was no time to pack up my gear for the day now so I grabbed my 35mm camera bag and tripod and dashed up to the mountain ridge. Here I managed to capture some beautiful scenes of white sardine clouds marching over Kamikouchidake and Hijiridake. Then I returned to the lodge and began getting ready to go out. The clouds below were warmed by the sunlight and they soon started climbing up the ridge and threatening to engulf the lodge. I rushed up to the ridge where I could enjoy the sunshine for a long while but the wind blew strong and cold. My winter jacket was still wet so I didn’t wear it but carried it along on my camera pack hoping the sun and wind would dry it.
I met another hiker near Heidi’s Hill but only exchanged greetings with him. The route descended from the main ridge and came to a flat area where many wildflowers bloom in summer. Beyond the other end of the flats rose the peak of Kamikouchidake in a beautiful pyramid form with the light of morning shining on its steeper face. Quickly I began preparing my tripod and medium format camera because the clouds were already blocking out my sunshine and advancing toward Kamikouchi. By the time I was ready for the exposure, however, the clouds were swallowing the mountain. I walked up the path a little and beseeched the clouds to part for a few moments, and then returned to my camera. On the shoulder of the mountain where the clouds had not covered the figures of two more hikers appeared. That made four other people I had seen so far. They disappeared and the clouds moved off the mountain again. More clouds were coming in rapidly and I knew the timing was going to have to be just right. The mountain was clear and the sunlight on its eastern face again and I clicked the cable release two times before the next pall of grey cloud obscured the view. I could have waited for another chance but I suspected the view beyond the mountain was in danger of being covered by cloud and so I hurried to pack up and move on.
The final ascent of Kamikouchidake was a windy affair and I was starting to feel the cold. The two other hikers I had seen came down past me. They had stayed at the lodge below Hijiridake and were heading to Tekaridake, a ten-hour walk if I read the guidebook correctly. I made it to the shoulder of Kamikouchi and tried to find a place out of the wind where I could shoot the view over to Hijiri, Akaishi, and Arakawa, but the wind blew in from two directions and when I escaped one blast I was assailed by the other. I crouched below the shoulder and shot the mountain views, still getting chilled. At last I decided it was better to put on the jacket with its wet parts and keep the wind off me rather than crouch there shivering. Soon the clouds swept up from below and the mountains vanished before my eyes.
I made the last 100 metre-dash up to the summit of Kamikouchi but the views were sparse. Occasionally I caught glimpses into the sunlit valleys below or over to Chausudake, however, the view was more often grey mist.
Wondering if it was still going to rain I decided to start heading back and along the way I stopped to shoot some contorted rock strata and an interesting dakekanba tree.
When I returned to the top of the path leading back down to the lodge the first couple of drops appeared on the wind-blasted rocks. I was now below the clouds a little and could see how the rain might come about – the clouds were rising high enough that their moisture content would cool, condense and fall as rain. I should reach the shelter soon, I though. From the balcony outside the door to my room I watched the remaining sunlight glide across the orange and yellow slopes below. Then I felt sleepy from all the activity and excitement of the last three days and decided to take a short nap. It was 2PM.
An hour and a half later I awoke and went to the door to look outside. I was surprised to see white everywhere. Was it snow? No, not exactly. I went out and took a closer look. Granular snow had blown around like large-grained dust and frost was forming on the trees and bushes. Excited by the sudden change in weather, I got dressed properly and grabbed my compact digital camera. I made my way up to the ridge and enjoyed the freezing wind and studied the frosted dwarf pine and grass. On the ridge, rime was growing quickly. A sign I had seen earlier was becoming illegible because of the growth of feather rime and longer feather rime was growing on rocks that were exposed to the wind. I began going up the last stretch to Chausudake and felt the power of the alpine wind as it tried to bite my windward cheek and blow me off balance. With sunset coming soon by this time, I didn’t want to hang about too late and so I slowly went back to base, dreaming of what photo opportunities I would have the next day.
That night, a nearly-full moon came through the clouds for a moment. The roof was coming down. The next morning looked good.
I was already awake well before my alarm at 4AM and I went to look outside the door. At first I thought it was still cloudy but then I realized frost was coating the glass. Sliding the door aside, I stuck my nose out into a very chilly wind and frozen world. It was time to dress up warmly. I put on two pairs of wool socks and I wore my long underwear under my hiking pants and my wind/rain pants. Under my fleece I wore two long-sleeved shirts and a T-shirt, and I put my jacket over top of everything. I wore a knit hat and threw my hood over that. All layers were arranged so that the inner ones were tucked in to pants and socks. With knit gloves too I was ready to put on my boots and go out. It would have been a great morning to bring the larger format gear if it hadn’t been for the wind. So I put my 35mm camera in my jacket and stuffed two filters and a roll of film in my jacket pocket. With my phone and digital camera in my inner jacket pockets I was ready to head up to the ridge.
The moon was setting in the west and in the east the sky was getting lighter. As I expected, the wind blew with all its might. Finding a place to set up the tripod and get some twilight shots without the camera moving from the wind was not easy, and while I was photographing the heat in my fingers, especially those on my right hand, was draining away into the wind.
After the first few exposures I had to stuff my hands in my pockets and hike up further. Just below the summit I found some excellent foreground material in frosted dwarf pine and other alpine shrubs. There was almost no wind here because the summit of Chausu rose overhead and blocked the wind. I could have brought up my larger cameras after all. But there was no time to lament a poor decision. I had to keep busy shooting with the 35mm.
At last I was on top of Chausu and looking to finish my roll of film. A self-portrait with the cell phone ended in a single over-exposed shot. The phone battery died just after. My digital compact was going OK and I got a few more shots before the “Low Battery” message appeared. My time for photography was up and it was high time to get packed up and on my way down. The weather was still clear and with the sun up the air was less chilly. I briefly entertained the idea of going back to get my 4×5 camera and trying for a shot but not only would that add almost an hour to my time up here but also the best opportunity had already passed.
Back at the lodge I packed up and set off at 8:30. I reached Yokokubosawa by 9:50, an excellent time to be sure, and after a break I continued on down the long switchback route to Usokkosawa, which I reached by 11:13. The going was good and fast. At 11:30 I was moving again. It was warm and sunny and the cold wind from above only hid in the really shady places. There were no more signs of frost on the ground.
When I reached the stream at Usokkosawa where I had photographed two days before I felt inspired to finish my 645 roll there and took of my pack. I ended up spending another 35 minutes there, mostly struggling to find compositions I was satisfied with, and while doing so two more descending hikers passed me. That made six people I had seen in three days! But after crossing the suspension bridge I ran into several people on the forestry service road who had come up just to walk on the road beside the lake and enjoy the autumn foliage and mountain views. Kamikouchidake was visible from the road in places and I think I saw Tekaridake too.
Finally, I was on the road home, having enjoyed the sudden change from autumn to winter on the mountains above and now enjoying the surrounding autumn scenery again. I kept catching glimpses of Kamikouchidake as the highway wound around the river and artificial lakes. Then at last I reached a view point where I could pull off the road and take in the wide view of the southern part of the South Alps at Fujimi Pass. To avoid a long and tiring drive home I took the expressways when I could and got home by 9:30 PM, a big relief since I had expected to make it much later.