Imagine being a mountain photographer and being up in the mountains during three days of optimal weather. Imagine having two mornings and two evenings of excellent lighting conditions and during those times having two spectacular evening light opportunities. Imagine it’s the best trip for light that you have been on all year.
Now imagine that during each spectacular moment you were in the wrong place to get the shots.
I chose Senjodake in the South Alps for my last hike of 2009. I had not yet photographed the South Alps in winter and as I had seen photos from Senjo I decided that I would go there. In summer the buses drive up to Kitazawa Pass and deposit hikers within a thousand metres of the 3,033 metre-high summit. In winter, however, one must start in the Todai Valley far below and hike some six hours up to the pass before beginning the climb to the summit.
I left Saitama early in the morning hoping to reach the parking lot at the trailhead by 10 o’clock. To save money I drove the local highways instead of taking the expressways. This turned out to be a bad decision. I arrived much later than expected and it wasn’t until 12:30 before I set out up the valley. With sunset at around 4:30 I knew I was going to arrive well after dark.
It had been snowing that night and morning and had stopped not long before I arrived. There was fresh snow on the cliffs and trees only a hundred metres up the mountainsides and clouds were only just clearing away from the peaks of Kai Komagatake and Nokogiridake. The Todai Valley is not a glacial valley but with the steep cliffs on either side, and a morass of rocks and boulders spread out very wide while the river braids itself past sand bars and driftwood. It looks a lot like the valley below the toe of the Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand.
The path up the valley is not all that easy to follow. Pink ribbons mark the way which follows the left side of the valley up to the dam; however, I found pink ribbons in the trees on the right side and a path that had been used recently but not often. I followed this path a first but soon found myself trying to cross the river streams in various places in order to get over to the left side. Once on the correct path it became easier to see where to go. I stopped for one extended break when I couldn’t resist trying to photograph the clearing clouds over Kai Koma with the snow-covered boulders of the valley in the foreground.
It took almost three hours of hiking time to reach the part of the trail that begins climbing up the mountainside. Though there are a few hard switchback parts, the trail was easier than almost any hike I had ever done in Japan. In spite of this, I began getting tired as the afternoon wore on. Maybe it was because I had slept only three hours before the eight-hour drive, or maybe because I was carrying a heavier-than-usual pack with the extra winter clothes inside, but I began losing my inspiration for reaching the top partway up.
As I climbed up through the trees, one of the most gorgeous displays of evening light began taking place. A small cloud stuck on the rocky summit of Nokogiri was catching the orange glow of sunset, as were the rocky crags and cliffs. Fresh snow clung to the rock ledges and reflected the light was well. Below the cloud was a purplish shadow. The colour and light were fantastic. I had only once ever seen such a gorgeous alpine glow display when I was in Chile a few years ago. Now it was happening again and I could not get a clear shot of the mountain. I considered a photograph with the tree silhouettes in the foreground and the alpine glow shining through, but no break in the trees that was sufficient enough came. At last I had to tell myself that I would have my chance the next day.
The moon began to illuminate the woods as the path climbed and climbed. I was getting hungry and tired, and my flashlight battery was getting weaker. I needed to stop and rest but I was wet with sweat under my jacket and I knew stopping now would get me a chill. I wanted to reach the lodge soon because from there it would be a short walk to the campsite. When I at last saw the roof of a building I was ready to throw down my pack and set up for the night. But it was not the lodge I was looking for. The time being already 6:30 I decided that I’d had enough and since there was room to set up a tent I would do so.
The tent put up a fight. It was not easy getting the poles though the fabric of the sheaths because there were less flexible in the cold air (it was around minus 8 degrees Celsius). At last I got set up and could climb inside for dinner, a change into dry clothes, and hopefully a good night’s rest. I set my alarm for five in the morning; however, come morning, I was still way too sleepy and burned out. I cancelled the wake-up call and continued trying to sleep even past sunrise.
When I finally got moving it was past 9:30! Very late indeed. I had checked the guidebook the night before and discovered that I was only 15 minutes away from the lodge and about 30 minutes or less from the campsite. I had made it that close and given up! Now, when I should already have been on my way up the mountain, I had to pack up and move camp, and then get started climbing.
It was not far to the lodge as the guidebook had promised and from there I went to find the campsite but stopped when I reached the sign for Sensui Pass. I went back up to the lodge and asked a guy working there about the campsite. Apparently I had found the path in by the sign. Then I asked about going up Senjodake. I was told that with the new snow there was no way I would get up there today as it would take over six hours likely. If I could leave very soon I might make it to Kosenjo, a shoulder on the mountainside that was just above the tree-line. I recalled it from a few years ago – there was a good view of Kai Koma from up there.
I realized that I was already possibly too late getting started and might have to give up my plans of photographing at sunset. But I had to try. I found my way to the tent site easily and took my time to get set up properly and pack my things for the climb. Knowing I would get back after dark I packed my stove and some food. I wasn’t going to come back to camp tired and starved like before. Once everything was ready and I had made a visit to the toilet at the lodge by the campsite, it was already noon. I put on my hat and felt something nudge my leg. My tent had moved with a strong gust of wind. There were a few other tents around and I saw that they were secured with sticks stuck in the snow. I went to the trees and looked around for some good sticks to jam into the snow and tie my tent to. At last, at half past noon, my tent looked safe and I was ready to hit the trail.
I knew it was almost crazy to leave at this time and as I went up I met several people coming down. After the third minor shoulder I met a younger guy coming down at high speed and he asked me where I was going. I told him I wanted to get above the tree-line and asked how long it might take. He said it should be another two hours. Two hours? It was already just past two o’clock by this time. If he was right I wouldn’t have much time to get ready for sunset. And then what about the hike back down? How late would I be back this time?
I decided to press on until 3 but I was losing enthusiasm again. I was not climbing up with purpose. I kept stopping and looking at each pink ribbon ahead of me. Each time the sun shone through the trees I hoped I was getting closer but each time I went up it was to just another minor shoulder. My snowshoes worked well where the path was wide enough or not so steep but in some places it was clear that crampons would have been ideal. I began to lament my laziness in the morning, my poor planning, and my lack of appropriate equipment.
At the fifth shoulder I could see Kosenjo above. There was no that much climbing left but still about 40 minutes to an hour. It was just approaching 3 PM and I had lost heart. The wind up there looked fierce and icy. I had extra clothes along. Should I put them on now? And what about the long walk back? Should I eat now? But then would I make it up there in time for sunset? If I ate before heading back then how late would I return to camp? I weighed all possibilities with a half-beaten heart and concluded that I should just head back down. I would stop at the fourth shoulder and eat something and then go back. This time was just a learning experience and next time I would know exactly what to expect and what to do.
At the fourth station I tried melting snow in my pot, which didn’t take too long, but it took much longer to get it to boil than I thought. I put on an extra shirt, wandered around, went up the trail and down a little twice, and still the water didn’t boil. It was a half hour later that finally I could poor hot water into my thermos and cup noodles. Once I had finished eating and packing it was already 4:10. I might as well have tried to climb up anyway! The frustration of having wasted so much time gave me a charge of energy. It was too late to turn and go back up again but I could go down quickly.
Around the third shoulder there was a decent view of Kitadake with alpine glow on it. I took out my cameras and managed to shoot the scene through the trees about 90% unobstructed. Now I was feeling fine. The distraction of photography had me in full form. Too bad I was heading back.
Down the trail I went as Kai Komagatake glowed orange and the moon rose into the sky. When twilight had turned the sky purple and the rocky peaks were still lit with the last of the fading light in the western sky, the moon hung over Kai Koma and Asayomine. It was another perfect scene which I could only appreciate through the trees. How I should have gone up anyway! I thought all the rest of the way down about how I could have managed to do this trip better so that I wouldn’t have missed the two best light shows I had seen this year in the mountains. Before I felt I had gone on long, I saw the lights of the lodge below.
I strolled into camp at 5:30. It had been one quick descent. I bought a Coke from the lodge, got water from the icy stream beside the tent site and prepared the second half of my dinner. While eating I attempted a 20-minute exposure of the tent site with Senjo in the background. At 7 three more hikers came in. The camp site was getting crowded now with about 20 tents. How many people were going to stay up here for the New Year’s Day sunrise?
My last card to play was a morning shot of Senjo from Sensui Pass. I set my alarm for 4:30 but during the night the battery in my cell phone died and left me without an alarm. I woke up when I heard other voices and slowly got myself out of the sleeping bag. I couldn’t dawdle too much, I knew. It was already 5:20. I heated water and ate, prepared my things, and dressed warmly with chemical pack heating pads in my shirt and socks. At 6:30 I was on the trail. By 7:00 the sun cast a weak orange light on Senjo, which I saw through the trees again. There was a thin veil of clouds in the sky.
At Sensui Pass the wind was howling. Grey clouds were over Senjo, but light was still on the peak. I chose a spot in some rocks and set up my 4×5. I had it all set up and was ready to shoot when I considered using an ND grad filter. I checked the exposure with the filter but decided that without would be better. At that moment the sunlight faded from the summit of Senjo. I had just missed the shot. Quickly, I rechecked the exposure and shot one sheet of film with sunlight on the trees in the valley below. Then that was the end of the sunlight for me. I had not only missed the morning light but by only seconds I had missed the second best shot. And I had been ready too. But I wanted to take my time to do everything right and as a result I missed my shot. Well, by now I could hardly be angry. This whole trip had been about missing photo opportunities because of bad timing or bad decisions.
Back at camp I took a few shots of the snow-covered rocks by the stream and then packed up to go down. Heading down the mountainside was fast but the long walk through the river valley took as much time going down as it had going up. I stopped once, inspired to shoot by the snow-coated boulders, the bare trees, and the moody grey sky building over Kai Koma, but after I had taken the time to dig out my 4×5 and had everything set up I noticed only then that there were five pink ribbons in my photo. I looked around for another photo op but by then I was rather fed up with wasting time, and so I just packed up and made every effort to reach the car without further delay.
I have to admit though that on my way back I found many interesting scenes with rocks, cliffs, and water and I came to recognize the charm of the Todai Valley. Perhaps I will go again someday just to photograph around the wide rocky riverbed. But I will also attempt Senjo in winter again, and this time I will be better equipped mentally to carry out my plan.
Looking at the snowy mountain scenes in the calendar my wife gave me, I feel I didn’t try hard enough this time. I should have continued the last 30 minutes to camp. I should have started up Senjo earlier and I shouldn’t have given up even though it was getting late. I missed out on the best shots because I didn’t set myself up right for getting them. Now I am looking to Shiomidake in March and I know I must not allow myself to slack off. I believe you get out of something what you put into it, and if I don’t try hard when it’s necessary I won’t bring back the goods.