02 September 2010

Tateyama to Kamikochi - Day Five

10 August 2010

Today was our longest day yet. We ascended from 2500m to 3060m and then descended to 1400m. By the end of the day we were tired, soar, hungry and soaking wet. But it was a lot of fun.

Because we knew the weather was going to be bad we were up by 5:00 and on the trail by 6:00. Four hours would get us to the fork where we would decide to head south if the weather was bad or push on east to Yarigatake if the weather was good. From 2500m where we camped up to 2800m (the first peak of the day) the weather was fantastic. We couldn't even see where the typhoon would be coming from. At this point we thought we might get lucky and it would miss us entirely. Whoops.

At the fork the weather was still good but we could see dark clouds chasing us from the west. We were still 4 hours from the peak of Yari but we figured that, worst case scenario, we'd be a few hours from the top before the edge of the storm descended on us. We decided to get to the top of Yari, take a quick break, and then hike down the mountain 2 hours to the next hut, since we didn't want to stay on top of Yari during the typhoon.

As expected, about an hour from the fork the mist that had slowly been creeping up on us from the west got tired of toying with us and turned into rain. This bullying also coincided with us running into Glen again. Until this point we had only ever seen him at the camps because he left so early. That morning he hadn't left till 5:00 and he wasn't surprised we caught up to him. We exchanged plans while putting on our rain gear - he was going to go to Yarigatake and stay there for the night, braving the typhoon.

The final ascent to the top of Yari was pretty grueling. It had stopped raining so we were able to take off our rain gear and air out, but that didn't make the monotonous switchbacks any easier. Everywhere the mountainside was the same - scree and mist, scree and mist. With the trail switching back every 10m it didn't feel like we were making any progress. When we looked back to see where we had came from we couldn't tell - for all we knew our starting point could have been 10m back or 1000m back. And then all of the sudden we were at the hut - 3060m.

The hut and the area outside it were very crowded. The rains returned in earnest immediately after we dropped our packs so everyone crammed together under the awnings. The foreigners were particularly popular here - all two of us. While putting on our rain gear for the descent to the next camp we were accosted by drunk, rich Japanese climbers. Drunk because they were drinking beer from the hut; rich because they could afford to. A beer at 3060m cost 1000¥ - and that's the cheap stuff. Foreigners are uncommon in Japan; to see them on hiking trails is rare. So we got the usual questions: where were we from, why were we here, what did we think of the mountains... We weren't feeling as accommodating as we usually do (these kinds of interrogations happen frequently and we're used to them) because we were in a hurry, so we played the foreigner ace card: "wakarimasen" ("I don't understand"). The questions quickly turned to "gambatte!" ("goodluck!") and we were on our way.

We decided against ascending to the peak (3180m) because of the weather. This was a little disappointing but we couldn't even see the top from where we were because of the clouds so we weren't missing much. As we were heading back to the trail to take us down the mountain we ran into Glen for the last time on the trip. He had ascended faster than we thought he would. I guess getting out of the rain was good motivation. We exchanged expletives about climbing up that "fucking" steep slope in the "fucking rain," shook hands and bid each other goodbye.

Thirty minutes into our descent the rain, which must not have felt that it was being paid much attention to, redoubled its efforts. Thunder lasting for what seemed like minutes echoed off the valley slopes; lightning lit up the underside of the clouds; and raindrops the size of pennies washed away the trail beneath our feet. This lasted all day and well into the night.

I make it sound a little bleak but it was actually kind of fun. Neither of us had been in a storm of that magnitude before; nor one whose power was so unrelenting for so long. It's one thing to be in a storm that powerful; it's quite another to witness one that sustains that power for 6 hours. I've never been in even a light storm that lasted for that long.

The above picture is of us exploring a cave about 1100m down from Yarigatake. A monk used to live there for half the year and would ascend Yarigatake... many times a year. I forget how many. He would spend his days chanting something about being in awe of the power of the gods. It was a 1 or 2 sentence chant that he would repeat all day, every day.

We made the next camp in two hours despite the rain. It was still pouring when we arrived though so we decided to push on another two hours to the next camp since we couldn't set up in the rain and we had no idea how long it would last. We had been to that camp during Golden Week and we knew it was only 3 hours from there to Kamikochi (and 2 hours from where we were) so it wouldn't be too much work. We got to see some interesting wildlife on this stretch.

We saw (and avoided stepping on) dozens of these giant toads all the way from the first camp we stopped at to the last camp. They were huge and came in different shapes and sizes. Some skinny, some fat; some brown, some yellow; some all warty, some very smooth; some old, some young; all huge. They were adept climbers. The rock this one is climbing was probably a meter high and it got right to the top. They weren't hard to miss because they a) were huge, and b) jumped like crazy when they felt us coming. We also saw a rabbit and some more grouse.

We made the next camp and it was still pouring rain so, yes, we decided to keep going. This time we decided to push straight through to Kamikochi... but we bit off more than we could chew. An hour away we were wiped out: hungry, sore, soaked. We collapsed under the awning of the closest hut, defeated.

Aimee dug the stove and dinner out of our packs while I endeared myself to the receptionist by dripping water all over the foyer of the expensive mountain hut while paying for our campsite. Then we further endeared ourselves by cooking our food on our rocket stove (it's loud) under the awning that was conveniently placed over the window of the expensive restaurant. Then we put on a show for the patrons - we set up our tent under the awning so we could walk the assembled tent out into the rain.

After staking the tent by myself we collapsed inside it and went to sleep. The wet grass gave us the most comfortable sleep of the trip. Our 13 hour day soaked us; tired us; took us from 2500m to 2800m to 2500m to 3060m to 1400m; and left us 1 hour from our final destination. It was a great day.

Day One
Day Two
Day Three
Day Four
Day Six

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