#65 – KASA-GA-TAKE
“Sometimes one hears of mountains named after things like crowns and hats and the likes. Kasa-ga-take is one of these…and remains faithful to its name from all points of the compass. From Tateyama, far to the North, to the Hotaka Peaks to its east and Hira-yu Onsen and Takayama City to the West, this mountain literally embodies its name Kasa-ga-take, the Umbrella Peak.”
from ‘Nihon Hyakumeizan’ by Kyuya Fukada.
Bussing into Takayama, on the Gifu side of the Northern Alps, watching the sodden, autumnal countryside pass by through a window splashed with raindrops, fears and doubts got the better of me. Rain was eating up hiking days. It was around two months until Christmas, give or take a day or two. The self imposed deadline I’d set to reach the summit of the still distant Miyanoura-dake, the southernmost of the Hyakumeizan. Sixty-one days. Thirty-six mountains. Four mountains a week. All looked good on paper. Hell, I could even extend things a week or so. Anyway the end of the schedule wasn’t a concern. The last dozen hikes were doable in winter. It was the next couple of weeks in the Alps that would be the make or break the deal. Somewhere out there, an alpine winter was bearing down upon me, like a frozen tsunami and what looked doable in the diary, I feared, could turn rather treacherous in reality. I was worried, scared even.
Rain spilled out of heavy, grey skies over Takayama. I skulked around the cramped, gloomy station precinct, overrun with tourist types arriving and departing from the town dubbed as ‘Little Kyoto.’ Patrick, the American fella, whom I’d run into in Nagano, was hooking back up with me for the weekend though, as he’d informed me ahead of time, not for a hike. It seemed he’d come a cropper on the perilously steep stairs in his Japanese house and buggered up his ankle.
“Hey!” he greeted me, head and shoulders above a mob milling beneath the shelter of the station roof. “Great hiking weather, huh?”
“For ducks, maybe.”
Tourist Information pointed us in the direction of cheap lodgings. An old temple cum hostel some ten minutes or so walk to the east of the station. The rain eased to a sprinkle and we set out through water slickened streets. Zenko-ji was it’s name and we found it easily enough. An ageing, no-nonsense type chap greeted us as we entered.
“Call me Tommy,” he said. “Take off your shoes and leave them there,” he motioned towards the shoe shelves lining the entrance way. The place was dark and high ceilinged. He led us to a room off to the right of the entrance hall and had us fill out our details.
“Where are you from?”
“Australia,” I answered.
“The U.S.,” replied Patrick.
“Oh, the States, huh?” said Tommy. “I lived there for a time. I worked for Hilton Hotels. Head of the West Coast Division. My brother got sick and I returned home to take care of this place.”
Tommy led us around the darkened halls of Zenko-ji and finally to our upstairs room.
“A hiker, huh?” he responded when I told him I was headed for the mountains above Shin Hotaka and Kamikochi. “When this rain moves through it should be good weather for hiking.”
The rains hung around into the night and we found a cosy little joint down a back street in which to imbibe some brews. The Blues Brothers played on the television screen high in one corner. Another American was propped up at the bar, nursing half a glass of beer and when he heard I was climbing a hundred mountains, he suggested I should hit the highpoints of the U.S. next. “And guess what!” he added, “There’re only fifty of ’em.”
Saturday dawned bright, but dark skies, bordering on black, hung over the Alps. After breakfasting on coffee, toast and eggs in a small, spotless cafe, across the street from the hostel, crammed with silent old men scouring newspapers or staring blankly at the twits on breakfast television, Patrick and I hit the town. Tourists for a day, we took in the sights lining Takayama’s tranquil streets. We bought lunch from a roadside stall, set up for passers by in need of a quick bite and, as he went to sit on a table that could easily have been mistaken for a stool, Patrick was quickly swatted away like a dirty foreign fly, by the wide eyed old crone running the place.
The skies over the Alps refused to lighten. I’d kept an eye on them all day as we strolled from site to site in soft fall sunlight. The grim reality of what was going on up there wouldn’t reveal itself fully until the following morning.
I left early Sunday for the hills, leaving Patrick to head back to his house in Fukui. It was time to hit the bigguns in earnest; from Kasa-ga-take the Umbrella Peak to Yari-ga-take, the Spear and then across the dreaded Daikiretto and up onto the spires crowning the Hotaka massif.
“It should be fine up there,” Tommy said, as I laced up my boots in his entranceway.
And indeed it was. Dazzlingly so. As I bussed into Shin Hotaka Onsen, from where trails wind their ways up into the surrounding mountains, fellow passengers exclaimed with glee at a sight I had no desire to see. Mountaintops clad in brilliant, virginal white. My heart sunk to my ball sack. I’d seen enough snow early on in the year to realise that what we were all ogling was some seriously perilous stuff. The ridgelines shone. How could something so brilliantly white have fallen from clouds so mercilessly black? In the space of two days the Alps had been transformed from barren, autumnal crags to ones smothered in Arctic white. The rains that had soaked the region were in fact snows at something above two thousand metres.
Standing at the bus stop I looked grimly up at the soaring peaks surrounding me. They rose like a wall of white out of the leafless forests, searing a line against brilliant sky blue sky. I had nowhere near the amount of experience needed to hike for prolonged spells in conditions such as those. Conditions that were only going to become more treacherous over the ensuing weeks. Defeated. I knew it there and then and it stung. It hurt, like nothing else had hurt.
But, I had to see it first hand. Staring up at the snowline from down at the bus stop wasn’t good enough. I had to go and stand on that line in the sand, or rather, the snow. The line I dared not cross. Summoning an immense force of will, I pushed myself to climb up to the snow line on Kasa. One last effort before throwing in the towel. With shoulders bearing the weight of a heavy pack and a couple of tons of disappointment, I took to the trail. After hours of effort the tree line thinned out. The sky overhead remained a mockingly brilliant, cloudless blue. Norikura and Yake-dake out to the south sported their own crowns of white and there, across the valley, ran the jagged line of knife edged rock, linking Yari to the Hotakas. That was the no go zone. Zettai, zutto. I was stupid enough to want to keep going, but not stupid enough to actually do it.
I came to a field of boulders below the ridgeline curling around to Kasa and met the snow. An inch thick, it cloaked the ground and flat topped boulders, as it slowly melted in the sunlight. Stepping up onto the ridgeline itself and peering across an abruptly disappearing cirque of whiteness to Kasa, the snow suddenly turned knee deep. A trio of hikers strolled towards me from this world of glittering white and I quizzed them about the trail onwards. Their carefully considered opinion was that I turn around there and then. The trail around to Kasa was not fit for hiking any longer that season. To me the terrain didn’t appear to be all that threatening, snow clad though it was. According to my map the route around to the summit was not across ground that was overly perilous so, with plenty of daylight to play with, I decided to push on a little further. Bugger coming back up there if I didn’t have to. It was slow going. The trudge through the fresh snow ate up the hours.
A hut sat on some level ground just below the summit. The place was solidly boarded up for the winter. A cold wind whipped at my neck and ears. The sun was heading for the horizon. There, in the hut’s forecourt the snow was hard, windblasted to some extent. I peed into it, to test its depth. Solid, but still about a foot deep. Too deep for tent pegs. A couple of picnic table tops rose just out of the snow and appeared to be just the right size to pitch my tent on. I scrounged about for a rock and went about banging my tent pegs into the gaps between the table top boards, setting up some pretty solid anchor points. The temperature began to drop faster than the sun and a blustery wind picked up strength. I started to shiver as I unfurled the tent from my pack and realised I had to get in out of the elements. I tore off my gloves in frustration as I fumbled with the poles. The fibres of the tent becoming so much more taught and uncooperative in the cold conditions. My fingers froze. I wondered about frostbite and forced the poles into their respective brace positions in the tent corners, slung in my gear, stacking it on the windward side to bolster my shelter against the gusts, jumped in after it and zipped up shut. Safe and sound, I slipped into my sleeping bag and rubbed the warmth back into my tingling fingers. Crikeys, that was cold. I scoffed down a carton of Pringles and then a pack of chocolate almonds that had turned as hard as stones in the icy conditions.
As the light faded, the winds weakened and I poked my head out of my tent and surveyed the scene. The summit lay a couple of hundred yards above me up a gentle, sloping stretch of open ground. The windblasted snow took on an orange hue as the sun dropped to the horizon. Across the valley, solitary ridgetop lights shone from the huts nestled in the crags between Yari and Hotaka. I didn’t envy anyone who had to make their way down from those precarious vantage points over the next few days after they all shut up shop for the year. Kasa’s summit could wait for the morning. Alone on the mountain, I zipped the tent shut and settled down for a long night’s sleep.
Awakened by the first smidgin of dawn’s light, I lay in my sleeping bag savouring my last morning on the trail. Warm, I shut my eyes not wanting the feeling to end. When the light grew stronger, I eventually rugged up and hauled myself out of the tent. Before summiting, I broke down camp beneath clear skies. The tent pegs were hell to remove. I snapped one off with a rock trying to dislodge it. Maybe the thing’s still up there to this day, jammed into a gap in one of the tables. Standing over a reassembled pack of gear, the sensation of aloneness a solitary soul feels at daybreak on top of a mountain swept over me. My pained spirit calmed. I stepped off the table top, snow crunching under foot and slowly ambled up the final yards to Kasa’s summit.
On top, I sat amongst the neat stone cairns erected there and stared out at the alpine vistas. Yari and the Hotakas, Yake-dake having a morning smoke, Norikura and Ontake-san beyond that. Melancholy swept in. It had been a good run. Sixty some mountains in around five months. Who was I to complain? I’d seen more of Japan than a lot of Japanese probably see. I’d tested myself more than ever before and had that so called adventure of a lifetime.
I whiled away the time up there and then turned and headed down. Down to my gear resting on the table, down to the line in the snow where the trail split and headed north towards Sugoroku, and then down off the mountain, to a bus, to Takayama and Tommy’s temple.
Ah, the irony: at last done in by the weather on The Umbrella Peak…