#96 – KURO-DAKE
Five mountains to go.
Two and a half years after setting out on my quest to climb the Hyakumeizan five mountains stood between me and…
The original, six month, all in one adventure had extended beyond the much alluded to date of Christmas 2007 and on I had laboured, through bursts of momentum and months long spells of stagnation. Now with the final curtain call looming in little more than a week or so, I wasn’t feeling much other than cold, stuffed inside my sleeping bag in the frigid Mitsumata Hut, the dark of night and biting air snaffling any flagging enthusiasm that might have existed. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved being out there in the mountains, but this particular hundred mountain lark was wearing out its welcome, what, with all its self-imposed deadlines and demands. It was high time for some listless wandering. Maybe the lack of enthusiasm exhibited by the trail workers inhabiting the hut was catching.
I’d spent the evening chatting with a pair of cheerful middle-aged ladies, Naomi and Yukari, out on their own Hundred Mountain quest. They were living in the 80s and 40s respectively (Yukari still had some hard yards ahead of her) and were similarly eyeing off Washiba and Kuro-dake on their current mountain trip. I guess the mood wasn’t all that oppressive. Just the darkness and being lost in my own thoughts leant a heaviness to the air… as did the longing for clear skies in the morning and an extended fair weathered forecast.
Kuro-dake, the Black Peak, is also known as Suisho-dake, the Crystal Peak. The former deriving from the dark complexion of the rock making up the mountain, the latter supposedly for the abundance of crystal that can be found on the trails and down off the ridges in the area. Although a stone’s throw from Washiba, it’s the most remote of the Hyakumeizan dotting the Y-shaped range of the North Alps. Just north of the fork in the Y, it stands “aloof” as Fukada-san puts it, away from the main hiking paths. Of course that was then, upon penning his ode to the most majestic of Japan’s mountains he added Kuro-dake to the map.
The only crystals I’d be dealing with, as I set out for the summit, just after sun up the following morning would be of the snowy variety it seemed. For mere moments the sunlight touched the innermost realm of the Japanese Alps as its rays burst over the ragged eastern horizon. Overhead an ominous, billowing grey ceiling of cloud hung low over the North Alps once more and the sun eased itself gently up into its murk.
I took to the trail below the hut, where the waters of the Kurobe pour out of the earth, as if some burst mains pipe lies beneath the grassy, sloping meadow. The morning wind whipped up behind me and I wondered glumly if I was in for another rough day in the mountains. Most of the over night snow had melted off the trail and I headed on past the junction where I’d retreated off Washiba the day before. I was hearing rumbles of thunder yet again but pushed on, hoping I could ride anything out at the hut further up, closed though it was. The trail rose and became more snow bound, before traversing a broad section and then climbing again to the Suisho Hut, shuttered for the winter. A tiny little place, perched high on Kuro-dake’s southern ridge, it looked another great spot to hole up in whenever I passed through those parts again. The skies remained leaden, the winds high and an occasional rumble of thunder had me doubting whether taking on the exposed summit of Kuro-dake was a wise idea. From the hut it was a mere half hour’s climb away. Probably less. But there was quite a bit of exposure to any lightning bolts that might sail that way.
I hung at the hut uncommitted. Yari and the Hotakas sported summits lost in cloud. Washiba, a touch to the south was snow smothered. Another peal of thunder rattled out of the heavens from somewhere. And I remembered cautionary stories of stupid bids for glory going wrong as illusive summits loomed. I turned tail once more. There was always tomorrow.
Kuro-dake was proving a stubborn nemesis. Earlier that year in the unstable weeks of late spring an avalanche and rockfall sent me and a fellow hiker scurrying from the mountains surrounding Kuro-dake with our tails between our legs. The next time I had her in my sights was the previous afternoon and she summoned up a snowstorm, now it seemed she was up for more.
As I set off down to the junction below Washiba’s north face, I realised the thunder wasn’t rumbling as much, though the skies remained oppressive. Rain, or more probably snow, fell out to the west. I sat on a rock at the side of the trail not knowing what to do.
Then Naomi and Yukari appeared from around the bend hollering and laughing. Thoroughly enjoying their trudge through the snow.
“Hi!” Naomi smiled, leading the way, “Did you climb it already?”
“No,” I replied looking up from my rock like a lost soul on a park bench run out of bread crumbs for the pigeons, “There’s a storm coming in. Haven’t you heard the thunder?”
Naomi looked at Yukari as if I was speaking Swahili, “No, I think it’s okay.”
“So you’re going to climb?”
When others join in on foolhardy behaviour it’s a great confidence boost. And if those middle-aged housewives were going to get up Kuro-dake and return to the hut and savour their day out in the mountains, I sure as hell wasn’t going to be the odd one out skulking, chagrined in the corner of the hut that evening.
“Hurry up, you’re faster than us,” Naomi ushered me ahead and I set out on the long walk across the windswept snow fields again. Walking on impatiently, I grew warmer under my winter woolies and pulled back the hood of my rain shell and as the wind howled. In doing so, I realised that it had been the wind hitting the hood causing the thundery rumbles I was hearing. While there may have been some bad weather floating about it hadn’t been as dire as I’d thought!
A double shot of confidence saw me to the top of Kuro-dake in no time. My latest Hyakumeizan nemesis lay entirely beneath my boots. Naomi and Yukari had reached the Suisho Hut by the time I made the summit and I waved down to them from on high. Looking to the north the Kurobe Dam was just visible beneath a descending cloud bank. Other than that most views were pretty much lost.
I didn’t spend long up on Kuro, the wind was relentless and I could feel the cold seeping into me if I stood still too long. I followed the snowy trail, through the summit boulders back down and passed the ladies as they headed up for their turn on the summit. From beyond the shuttered Suisho Hut I watched them high-five as they emerged onto the highest point of Kuro-dake.
Waving I turned my back on the mountain for the final time.
We all spent another cold night at Mitsumata, basking in our efforts of the day and the insipid warmth radiating out of the heater. Things were looking up. An afternoon sun had pierced the clouds, Naomi and Yukari had also knocked off Washiba on their way back to the hut that afternoon and blue skies were promised for the upcoming few days…