#79 – KITA-DAKE
I had heady designs of knocking off all the remaining Northern and Southern Alps on my hundred mountain list during that summer of 2008. Eight peaks remained along more or less a direct line in the North, while nine peaks sat spread across the Southern Alps – Japan’s highest mountain range and home to the nation’s second highest mountain: the resplendent Kita-dake.
The first challenge was to wrangle an extension to my summer break out of the powers that be at work. They took their time at coming to a decision but in the end accommodated my desires. So, after the annual three-day camp in a bug infested northern Kyoto location, with the kids from our English school, I was free to flee for the summer.
In reality, as I counted days, it was going to be a touch and go affair. I estimated it would take just over a week to complete each leg. That was if I didn’t snap one. A two-day lay off in between was the only time I allowed the gods to have any fun with the weather, otherwise they were requested to leave things blue skied with freshening breezes.
After Ontake, I wondered if I still had a head for heights. Kita-dake, outstripped Ontake by a hundred and some metres and the climb to the top required another 1700 metres or so of elevation gain. First cab off the ranks, she was going to be a test run of sorts. Out of the 17 mountains in my sights that summer, no less than nine topped out above three thousand metres and most of the rest were so close to scraping its underbelly it didn’t matter.
I arrived in Kofu City – main gateway to the Southern Alps – late on a scorching afternoon and took to the town’s old castle ramparts to see if I couldn’t catch a breath of one of those breezes I’d put in an order for. The mountains filled the western horizon beneath a heat bleached, smog smeared sky.
Later, settled for the evening in a clean, pokey business hotel, I took my last shower for the week, stuffed my pack with water and trail snacks and my belly with convenience store cuisine: pork and rice, sliced salami and cheese, yogurt, fruit jelly and a chocolate sundae. Pre-dawn breakfast was more of the same, minus the ice cream.
The mountains were filling up for the summer. Before sun up, in front of the station, hikers were already being herded into lines by bus company staff. Some chatted in groups, some smoked, some stood stoically, fighting sleep or plugged into their headphones. I bought a pair of tickets for the bus ride into the Alps, one for me and one for the pack and waited patiently to be loaded into one of the grumbling buses pulling to a stop before us.
The bus ride took us up and over Yashajin Pass, from where Patrick and I had ventured up Houou-san that past spring, and down into the valley beyond to the camp at Hirogawara. Kita-dake’s summit shone high overhead in the morning sun and I strode into the forests beneath her gaze, fully expecting nothing less than a pummeling at her hands for the remainder of the day.I took to her steep trails at a snail’s pace. As the heat of the day soaked into the woodland I began taking frequent breaks and swallowing water, trying to sense if any hint of altitude sickness was waiting to kick in. Climbing out of the forest into the alpine zone where the creeping pine held sway the views opened up out to a dark blue, snowless Fuji to the east while surrounding Kita-dake to the north, Houou, Kaikoma and Senjo-dake reclined under blue skies.
Hikers congregated at the hut below the summit crown. I found a spot to sit down and take a break and knocked back some snacks to keep me going. Feeling fine and with plans to overnight at the campground of the hut on the far side of Kita-dake, I climbed up to the summit past lines of descending hikers. At my feet clumps of summer flowers poked out of cracks in the rocks.
Looking south, the mountains lined up in front of me. Ai-no-dake, Shiomi, the Arakawa peaks and on and on. I couldn’t wait to get on and get up them. Afternoon cloud, sweeping in from the south and slowly swallowing the panorama had me moving off the summit and heading to the campground below, along the trail to Ai-no-dake. It had been a fantastic, trouble free opening salvo to my summer in the mountains.
Basking in the afternoon breeze in the crags of Japan’s second highest peak, little did I realise that I was less than a day away from receiving a few well directed salvos of my own…