At Mt. Tsurugi: Hayatsuki Trailhead, Toyama Japan
Buzzing sound of a mosquito kept me awake that cold night in the back of my Nissan SUV. I looked at my mobile phone, and it said 1:55am, 5 minutes before I was set to wake up. I heard my heartbeat in dead silence. Almost 4 hours were wasted in my timid adrenaline lush for the decisive moment to come.
Chilly air crawled in from a crack of the left window, smelled of wet grass and earth. I opened the left rear door and threw sneakers down and stepped outside. I saw my white breath first time this year. When the car light went off, it was pitch black, unlike the night sky I glimpsed while driving through bumpy dirt roads and narrow, wooded passage and before my slumber.
It was clear starry sky whose moonlight shone all possible shapes of the boreal woods and high mountain ridge lines surrounding me. Sylvan trees and yonder mountains are so monumental and risen that they gave me an illusion of being somewhere far from Japan. This forest is very old, I thought. I felt this way about 10 years back near ancient Kumano terrains.
Not a second can be lost. I got back in the flattened back seat of the car and quickly opened the cooler box and grabbed two slices out of a loaf of bread and shoved them into my mouth and while I took out three 2-liter water bottles and started pouring water into Camelbak reservoir, which holds up to 3 liters of fluid. Then I filled an 800ml Nalgene bottle with water and dropped two electrolyte tablets, so did one 700ml Klean canteen with high-calorie energy drink. I threw one banana and two rice balls and Health Pack tablets of USANA into my mouth, chased by water, trying to charge more carbs and essential nutritions into my system as a continuous effort after the dinner last night.
It was about 5 to 7 degrees Celsius outside. Coming straight from lingering summer heat, this weather in mountains puzzled me and challenged me the selection of right clothes. In such case, first thing I grab is a Merino wool base layer, the absolute almighty gear, which can adjust itself in the warm and cold, and I covered myself with a moisture wicking t-shirt on top. I know well that my body temperature soars when I am in motion.
I also took off light hiking pants made by Mountain Hardware and changed into thicker Arc’teryx pants of 4-way stretch feature. I pulled out rugged Asolo hiking boots and replaced the sneakers. Then, I capped my head with a waterproof boonie hat made by REI and shouldered a large backpack. It was so heavy that, for just a second there, I simulated what’s to come on the trail in my head. Yet, I did not think I could lose anything. Well, maybe Nikon D810 full size camera could go.
Inside of 65-liter Osprey Atmos was the camera, 1-person tent, 3-season sleeping bag, some change of underwear, long sleeve mid-layer shirt, gore-tex alpine jacket and pants, gore-tex gaiters, neck gaiter, soft-shell Prima-loft jacket, burner, cooker, butane, eating utensils, first-aid kit, batteries, rain cover, eyewear, extra food, toiletry wipes, some crampons and short ropes, muilti-tool with a knife blade, wire chainsaw, and a talisman to ward off the evil. And, a climbing helmet was holstered on the central soft slide made of mesh material. With 6-liter of fluid, this pack must had weighed 15kg.
I attached Mammut head light on the boonie hat and turned it on and angled it down to the ground a couple feet in front of my feet. I put on Mechanix gloves and grabbed two Leki trekking poles and twisted and extended it but short enough so that getting the pointy tips on the upper level from where I stand would be easier.
I looked at my Suunto watch. It was 2:45am. Time to leave. Again, it was pitch black all around me except for the spot light in front of my feet.
After first couple of feet, I saw a standing sigh that listed expostulation phrases in bullet points, given by Tateyama Lions Club. To the left stood a large stone monument, which said “Challenge and Aspiration.”
Finally, my dry mouth and strange sensation in my stomach uncovered themselves as my own concern for unknown territory. And, I witnessed it transforming itself into fear. I braced up my nerves and stepped forward.
My head light then discovered a standing sign that says “trailhead” and the altitude of 780 meters. This is the start line. I stepped forward and hit a wall. No, it was the actual trail, only fashioned with small pieces of wood panels leading the steps above. This steep trail lasted for 20 minutes. Each step was high and slippery with bedewing. Despite this being the first few steps until getting a hang of the trail, and besides keeping focus on the grip and power emission in order to stabilize the burdened weight of the backpack, which keeps wanting to break away from the back, I was using more power and nerve to get through this.
In 30 minutes, I was on a flattened floor made of ankle deep mud. I saw a boar escaping into the bush, but I did not care. I was out of breath and hot and tried to think of how to feel better. I drank several sips of water and laid down the pack and stowed away the bucket hat.
Trail was predominantly covered in mud, some rounded rocks, and extra slippery objects, which turned out to be roots of trees along the trail. Looking up, through heavily foliaged ceiling, there was no clear view of sky, for the moon had been sunken, and probably because my head light was too bright and erased subtle nuances of stars.
When the head light discovered wide plain of wrinkles or lumpy surface of some kind, all the sudden, another muddy climb began. Trail whipped around a gigantic tree, whose exposed roots provided steps to conquer the wall climbing. There were probably 5 times of the same sheer climbs on the roots in the next half an hour. Some sharp climb was so winding that I lost the route several times and getting caught my legs in underwood.
After a while, I saw a chrome sign on the ground that said 1200 meters. I decided to take a breather, thinking I had only gained 400 meter elevation. Stood panting on, I noticed that my upper body was drenched in sweat from exerting efforts; therefore, moisture-wicking t-shirt proved to be useless. From then on, every step I made reminded me to regret of wearing thick hiking trousers because it seemed no escape of moisture from inside even though I am sure it was well functioning. Such demanding hike exceeded my ability to manage the body heat.
In mountaineering, there are three basic management before your body takes a challenge: managing bulk, moisture, and body heat. Without an exaggeration, failure of such could result in critical conditions that can send you out to demise. Keeping a good groove of taking steady steps on narrow, steep trail, this thought of possible failure repeated itself in my mind for another chunk of time, god knows for how long. But, I did not give a darn about it because I hated myself for not conforming with the society and chose to be in any godforsaken place.
Behind me through thick foliage-covered gloom was the city lights of Toyama in some 20km distance. The city was already so far below my eye level. As steps advanced forward with slowing accumulating fatigue, I turned around and glimpsed the city light over and over, as if holding onto the grasp of one single familiar object to myself even though I wanted to separate from it.
While repeatedly wiping off sweat dripping from my forehead through the head light’s webbing, I sucked on the faucet of Camelbak several times and kept my moves minimal without averting my attention and glued my eyesight on the round beam of light a few steps ahead. Still, I could not help but being timid on this narrow, steep trail and sensed that I was walking on a tightrope. I swallowed it and focused on keeping the pace.
More and more signs appeared in intervals, which indicated the elevation gains every 200 meters. 1,400-meter sign arrived, then 1,600, and finally 1,800m. I felt overexertion, conquering steep humps over and over in the dark, so I took another break for a few minutes and mounted up again and continued the trail.
There were sheer drops on right and left, it seemed. I thought I was able to see that my own eye. I really did. Vague indigo shade around bush, rocks, and dirt road slowly appeared to my eye. Everything else was the abyss made of absolute black, a drop-off on both sides. My wrist watch showed about 5am.
Twilight before dawn arrived. Visibility increased and widened. Rough terrains, underwood, bare hillside on the other mountain range, ridges high up in the front, pine trees and other types of vegetations all came out in the open. I felt such psychological relief, which surely influenced the physical condition into favorable domain also. Stamina came back, I thought, and I opened the withered shoulders and lifted upper body and inhaled air freely.
Dawn breeze swarmed in through branches and leaves. Dawn light also arrived, so too the recharge of energy back to my body, rapidly. I regained my pace and shot up the trail in clear sight.
In no time I got to 2,000-meter sign, and the terrain began to show its fierce face with steeper and wider gaps between the ground and the next place to step on, which sometimes required one of four points of support being airborne. These sections were then followed by short, wet ladders, chains on the large rock formations, which were luckily, to my limited knowledge, granite stones, providing sufficient grips on my boots.
About 6:30am, it was a nice autumn day with crisp air with some overcast, and I was not sweating as much thanks to the lower temperature and constant breeze flowing from the mountaintop down and over the ridge I was hiking. At this point, probably I had my 2nd bar of Yokan, which is a sugared red bean traditional Japanese tea ceremony snack that I had discovered effective during all-out exercises like road racing and hiking. Each bar is small but is packing 150 kcal, same as a rice ball for 1/4 the bulk and weight.
When the view cleared all around after reaching some 2,200-meter hilltop, I noticed a red-roofed cottage of simple construction 50-feet down, around which was open camp site. There were two tents being taken down and packed away by three hikers. It was the Hayatsuki lodge. That means I reached the half-way of Mt.Tsurugi’s Hayatsuki trail, the toughest route of this mountain and referred to as the most challenging hike in Japan.
At the observation point, I lowered my backpack and enjoyed the fresh breeze. I raised my head for the continuous trail that followed into upper woods, but as I looked further, some rocky gray surface rose high passed the forest line, presenting a grand image of powerful nature.
I felt a chill. I undressed the soggy t-shirt and opened the backpack and took out Patagonia’s mid-layer soft anorak, which can be used as an light outer and put on Mammut helmet also. I looked at the rocky mountain once again in awe. I had several Hi-Chew pieces and Honey Stinger waffle, and gulped energy drink. I was paying attention to my condition to keep the blood-sugar level up high and stable. I still felt fresh.
Only concern was, for the first time, I was going to carry Nikon D810 full-size camera from my neck, drooping in front of my belly. I had attached an extra holster, which was originally designed for binoculars, in order to reduce the free movement off the neck by 4 points of support, but in vein. The camera was still dangling around my chest area, so I had to say, “F$ck it.” However, the view was outstanding, and first few shots by Nikon captured yonder Toyama bay area.
“Good morning. How are you guys?” I greeted the party of three as I was walking passed them, and I looked up the rocky mountain in awe, knowing from now was the true climb.
Steeper trail was formed by larger rocks of granite type of stones and slippery slate. There seemed to be less mud but wet and hindered by bald tree roots. Many of routes to unreachable upper levels were mended with scrap metal ladders, janky pieces of wood boards, and climbing ropes. They all looked about to go. Without a doubt, my dangling camera was moving in all kinds of directions and hit the side of rocks many times.
My breath got heavier, solving problems after problems that required bending body, crouching in the air, and extending legs and arms further than before. Finally, my backpack started to present itself as such a huge burden that an anguish surfaced in my thought.
“Is this an overkill? The 65-liter backpack with everything packed? It must be”, the whole time as the hike became severer I asked and answered myself with this presumption, which only made me feel worse. Even better, steeper the rocky climb, more chance I had witnessing what type of loads other hikers were carrying 100 or 200 meters above me. Due to the difficulty and high demand of experience and endurance, I only came across 4 other folks the whole time in ascent, all of whom gave me the way to pass them. Still, they were carrying small 25 to 28-liter daypack on their back. It was obvious they had stayed a night at the lodge and started the hike around 6am, half an hour before I reached the lodge.
A 100-meter elevation gain was fast because the trail shot up in a sharp angle even though walking on the ridge put a hiker in a position to go up the hill and down again repeatedly. And, each time you’d go over the hump, more exposed and vulnerable the foothold became, opened to all the potential cause for a mistake. I looked to the left and right, and that view reached so far that I was able to capture spiky summit of a mountain of similar height, Mt.Yarigatake in south direction. I held my Nikon D810 and took several shots, but my leg was shaky because if I lost balance, it was almost certain that the freefall into the deep of the cliff would force me to meet my own destiny.
I looked forward and above. Trail looked now all rocks. It started to smell of sulfur. I looked to the right side and saw on the neighboring mountain, smokes or some kind of gas growing dense and forming pillars. I shortened trekking poles and bundled them together and inserted through the holder of the backpack. There was almost no soil at this point, if not glazed sand layers on unstable surface of rocky terrain. Every grip on the footing needed careful surveillance beforehand.
A large rock blocked the way, and you’d notice iron rods sticking out from the surface, leading the way around the rock as place to put your steps on. This would be followed by a large slate wall with bolted anchors and through them chains guided the route upward, which was otherwise just a rounded surface of a gigantic rock whose edges were hidden away. There were only small nibs and dents to place the toe of hiking boots. Most of support of the body came from arms holding the chain and upper edges of the rock. Closer the surface of granite rock to my body, more chances to hit and break the camera.
There were many times I thought of stowing away the camera into backpack. But, I was determined to take some good pictures with this bad boy after long-waited and heavy-weighted hike up this high. Plus, packing the camera inside of the backpack meant 2.0 kg backward pull on my back, and I did not want to let go the painfully learned body movements with the current weight distribution at this point.
Rocks after rocks, problems with chains and bolted anchors came and went, and every problem, just a mere mountain scenery transformed into beautiful vistas. Around 2,800-meter altitude, by clearing challenges and laboring away the trail, I was panting more and sweating more and feeling some dizziness due to thin air. I ate more snacks into my system and made sure to hydrate myself.
It was 8:30am. As I overcame a hump and walked over branches of starved trees, I heard a greeting in front of me. There was a male hiker sitting and taking a break.
“That looks very heavy, young man,” he said.
“Yessir, I think it was an overkill,” I replied and I decided to stop and chat. Out of breath, I could use some rest too.
“Are you hiking and camping and all that?”
“Actually no. This is my first time here, and I’m doing one-shot hike from the bottom to the summit and back down to the trailhead in one day, so I packed everything just in case of emergency.”
“Good. This is my 5th time, but I think here is it for me this time. I’m all out.”
“It’s only 150 meters to go up, right? Can’t you just suck it up and do it?”
“I wish. I am almost 70 years old, son.”
“What? You do not look that old. Wow, I am impressed.”
“Off you go, son. The summit awaits you.”
“Thank you sir. Take it easy on descending. Good day.”
I walked on and passed another middle age male somewhere along the hellish terrain, but I was feeling more energy. Maybe because I learned someone that old could accomplish such demanding hike many times as if it was just a walk around block. Or, just because for the last 24 hours since I left my house in Tokyo, I had not have a conversation, I felt the warmth and life in connection to another human being, surrounded by godly nature.
Under quiet, calm sky, I found a great rhythm and a hang of body movements finally in synch with terrains’ ever-changing characters. There were still some moments when my camera swung and hit the rock, but it was not enough to wonder what to do with it.
Located around 2,950 meters, the final approach to the peak was said to be the most challenging and technical section of the trail, called “Vertical Crab Walk.” To solve it, you’d literally need to crawl upward the vertical gap between slate walls on the right and left, using a flimsy line of chains. Here, several hikers had fallen and fractured bones, or rocks fell on them, and few unlucky ones lose his or her life, every year.
As long as you’d stay calm and keep in mind the three-point support, this problem is not a problem. The Nikon was still drooping around my chest. When I pulled my body above the rock, the trail’s grading eased, but the ground was all big rocks and a ton of space in between them. This reminded me of the summit of Mt. Olympus because it was made of very similar formation of rocks.
I was all eyes there. Because I was so busy sending my range of view as far as it can see, I did not pay much attention to where my feet were stepping on. I almost reached the point where my legs had their own reliable sense of its own to overcome the terrain. My eyesight was fixed on a small shrine standing on the summit. I approached but was kept being distracted by amazing opening of 360-degree view around me.
Within a few second, I was in front of the shrine. After unloading my heavy backpack to the ground, which surprised a few hikers who had reached the peak before me because it was just too large for a day hike.
I took off the helmet. Then, I threw 100-yen coin into the donation box and bowed twice and clapped my hands twice and pressed my hands together and prayed.
At 10:00am, I stood on the summit and took a deep, long breath. I felt great relief and feeling of fulfilment. The all-around view was incredible and I was speechless. I was able to see almost all famous mountains of Japan above cloud line including Mt. Fuji, Mt. Yatsugatake Mountains, Mt. Hodaka, Mt. Yarigatake, Mt. Tateyama, Mt. Hakusan, Hakuba, and the Myoko mountain range and beyond. This view will be burned to my memory forever, I told myself.
One guy who looked like an experienced hiker said to his mate that it was his 3rd time reaching the summit, but only this time he has the good clear view. Other times were all foggy and couldn’t see a darn. I guess I was lucky.
My Suunto showed exactly 3,000 meters of the altitude. Mt. Tsurugi is 2,999 meters high, but my wrist was slightly above it. I walked to my backpack and sat next to it and pulled out a strawberry jelly sandwich and some Hi-Chews chased by water and anti-cramp beverage. I was fatigued, but I felt great. And, more I sat, more rejuvenated I became, readying myself for the long descent to come.
I knew that the weather forecast said it’ll rain in later afternoon, so given the crazy long and hard trail to do again, I only had half an hour to rest. I took as many photos I can with D810, iPhone, and Huawei P10, utilizing panorama feature also. Even though the camera’s specs can freeze so much information of the site into a large data in a split second, yet what my eye was seeing right there at that moment up there was much greater. I could guarantee that.
It was about 10:40 when I felt a rain drop on my cheek. Rain cloud seemed to have progressed faster than the forecast. Darn, I thought, and some anxiety drifted through my head.