Climbing partner J and I have already delayed our trip one week due to heavy rain, and now it’s June 27 and we’ve decided to take our chances on the oscillating weather forecast. We load our packs into J’s Honda and hit the road for Niigata, where we hope to summit Hiuchi-yama today and Myoko-san tomorrow, before returning tomorrow afternoon. Traffic is light at 5:30 a.m., and aside from one 15-minute detour courtesy of our GPS unit, the trip is largely smooth. As we near the trailhead at Sasagamine, we drive past a family of monkeys moving through the roadside trees; they’ve attracted a dozen cars, all parked along the two-lane road, eager to photograph them.
I chide myself for keeping my camera inaccessible enough that I miss the chance. We also pass dormant chairlifts spanning to the tops of green, snowless runs. It feels more summer than spring, even at this altitude.
Four hours after departing Tokyo , the GPS announces our arrival at our destination, but clearly this is not the place. We activate the GPS radio on J’s mobile phone and, ten minuted later, we arrive at the parking lot next to Sasagamine Campground, across the street from the trailhead. Shoes come off and boots go on, as does sunscreen. It’s warm enough for short sleeves, and J zips the legs off his pants. We confer briefly and decide to leave the crampons in the car; there is some snow still visible up high across the valley, but only in the steep, shaded couloirs. Glad to shed that weight, we perform our final preparations and soon head across the street to the trailhead.
The beginning of the trail is well marked. The covered gateway includes pencils and forms asking us to detail the members of our party, our intended route, and contact details. If something happens, I wonder how long we will go unnoticed.
Minutes later, we pass through the gate and immediately begin sustained walking on raised duckboards, the wood slick with moisture, whether from the previous day’s rain or the present humidity is unclear. Perhaps an hour or so further along our endless narrow, wooden walkway, the thickly forested path breaks as we cross the Kurosawa River by footbridge. We stop for a snack; this is a chance for both of us to eat a quick granola bar while an incredible number of mosquitos also snack away. We are quick to don our packs and move ahead.
We know that we’re soon due to reach the Ju-ni-magari, twelve very steep switchbacks that will rapidly carry us up the mountain. Each is helpfully marked with a sign indicating 1/12, 2/12, and so on. Miraculously, I manage to miss noticing nearly every sign, leaving my vacillating between sentiments that these turns seem exceptionally long, then the pleasant realization that we’d passed a number of reference points. After a time, the switchbacks end, though we continue to climb up a well-worn path featuring steps formed and bordered by slick tree roots; the trick is to step enough on the earth to not slip off the wood. We encounter a small group of Japanese mountaineers on their way down. Noticing their rope, I ask about conditions at our objectives. One of them says that Hiuchi is ok, but that a rope is useful on a steep, snowy portion near Myoko.
Snow. A drift of crusty, old snow abruptly cuts across our path, which continues buried somewhere in the direction we need to travel. We tentatively continue where we imagine the trail runs, but by this point we are walking only on snow. J notes a pink ribbon tied to a branch. When we reach it, another in the distance catches our eyes. Now, our trail is intermittent, not connected by any line. We find a moderately level spot and decide to eat. I quickly down half a submarine sandwich, while J finishes off two onigiri rice balls.
Fog insidiously has limited our view. We’re unsure which direction to travel; halfway up the side of a small valley, we cannot see past the opposite side, where one obvious trail marker—a large, weathered diamond-shaped sign high in a tree—suggests the only exit. I’m unconvinced. Comparing topographic relief lines on our map to the little I can glimpse through the fog, I believe the prominent trail is the route we plan to use tomorrow for our return to Sasagamine.
We meet three Japanese men also traveling to Koya-ike, the mountain hut where we plan to sleep tonight. One of the men digs into his pack and checks his GPS, but its accuracy is insufficient to establish our precise location on the featureless snow. We’re looking for the pink ribbons, we say. Those mark the path for backcountry skiers, not the hiking trail, they respond. The Japanese head up the trail across the valley; J and I dither. We decide to go higher up our side of the valley in an attempt to see what is on the other side of the hill. It’s here I wish we’d brought the crampons. In their absence, we’re limited to step-kicking our way up the hillside.
At the top, little is resolved. Continuing over the far side of the ridge would put us clearly off the trail. The dimness in the fog accentuates the fact that we are using—and wasting—daylight, and we discuss a firm turnaround time in the event we fail to locate our path. We’ve given ourselves less than an hour to get back on trail, in order to allow enough time to return to the car in daylight, hopefully. I convince J that we should make our way across the valley toward the northeast, where I hope we’ll cross some indicator of the trail. With panache, J executes a textbook standing glissade and quickly covers the fifty feet to the valley bottom. I plunge-step down after him, less confident in my ability to control a glissade without an axe. Soon enough, we’re moving uphill again at the far side, when J yells that he’s spotted a pink ribbon. We’re back on track, and our relief is genuine—neither of us would have been pleased to return to the trailhead today.
The heavy fog makes spotting the sparse series of ribbons a challenge. In a coordinated manner, J and I trade off moving ahead to scan for flashes of pink. We follow several until we get stuck on one ribbon on the treed border of the snow field. I continue up the snowy incline searching for a sign of the trail, but nothing. J joins me and we scour the area. It dawns on both of us that once again we must consider descending the mountain, this time with little chance of returning before dark. Short on options, we return to the last ribbon for a final effort. There, obscured by overgrowth, the toe of a duckboard path barely shows itself, and before we know it, we’re back on our way.
After the hours climbing and wandering on snow, the intermittent raised wooden path and muddy foot trail are a welcome diversion. The fog momentarily clears, and to our left we get our first, distant view of the hut. As we follow the contour of Kurosawadake, the mountain on our right, small snow fields cover lengths of the trail.
My left foot gives out below me. About to transition from a snow field back to solid ground, the snow on my downhill side sends my body lurching. The step I have kicked with my right foot is excellent; so solid that it holds my boot frozen in place as the rest of me tumbles. I hear pops at my knee and ankle; my heart sinks. The fall is short—maybe three feet—but that won’t matter if I can’t walk. At the count of three, J helps me up as I try to stand. Both my knee and ankle support my weight. It appears we have escaped peril this time. As I tentatively continue along, I can already feel my leg joints stiffening, but the beginnings of the sprain feel like a sweet blessing, considering what damage I could have suffered.
After a time, we reach the hut and check in. We are the only two guests staying indoors tonight; a few Japanese mountaineers, including the group we met earlier as we searched for our route, have pitched tents on a receding snow field at the hut’s namesake pond. The two men who operate the hut say it’s three hours round trip to the top of Hiuchi-yama from here, and that we’ll miss dinner if we make the attempt. Still fogged in, and with my leg rebelling against any rigorous exercise, J and I decide that we’ll see how the weather, and my leg, look tomorrow morning. Our plan was to make the easy climb up Hiuchi today, then tomorrow follow a path of several hours to Myoko to the east, then pass back along the obvious trail we’d spotted when we first lost our way, then descend back to Sasagamine. Now, we’ll be looking to do the lion’s share tomorrow.
With an hour until dinner, J and I take the opportunity to explore our immediate surroundings and take some pictures. Afternoon leisure time is a new phenomenon for us on a trip like this; last time, we barely reached the summit—and our hut—at Akadake before nightfall. We trudge across sun-cupped snow covering a series of ponds; all this will be meltwater in a week or two.
Dinner is rice with chipped beef and Japanese curry, with canned pineapple for dessert. We eat our fill.
To our chagrin, as we’ve eaten, the sky has cleared enough to reveal Hiuchi and paint it with light. The view is beautiful, but J notes that we could have made it had we tried for the summit. He’s right. My stomach and my leg are pleased we stayed.
After dinner we prepare our futons for the night. J goes downstairs to watch the next day’s weather forecast. Inconclusive. Lights out comes early, and we do our best to get comfortable on the futons. I have commandeered an additional mattress in an attempt to soften my bed, with only marginal success.
When the sun goes down, the winds pick up. Massive, gale-force gusts focused through mountain passes threaten to knock in the hut’s windows. The building gives gently in the sustained, insistent, violent gusts. It’s not until the following morning that I realize the wind has lashed the hut with rain all night.
Breakfast is served at 5:30 a.m., sharp. Wind and rain still whip the hut. Grateful for the shelter, J and I speculate on what the tent campers must have experienced last night. The decision is made to abort our trip and head back to the car. My leg is throbbing and stiff; I try to put on a brave face. Breakfast is some sort of light-colored stew over rice. Once finished, we fill our water reservoirs and dress for rain. After a time, we’re ready, and off we go, backtracking the path we walked yesterday.
Our trail shields us from the worst of the wind and rain, neither as strong as a few hours earlier. At one point, J slips crossing a snowfield and slides twenty feet or so, stopping at a weather-bent tree without incident. I’m fully mobile but moving slower than usual due to my leg. As long as things keep up this way, we’ll be down within hours. Returning is easy, as we had ample time the day before to examine our surroundings as we trudged back and forth across the snowpack. At the point where the snow started the day before, we encounter a group of Japanese hikers considering their options; like us, they clearly did not expect such extensive snow coverage. We wish them luck and continue on.
Soon, we’re stepping down the steep Ju-ni-magari, followed eventually by the bridge crossing above the Kurosawa River, then the interminable duckboard again. We move quickest on the boards, watching our surrounding gradually transition from alpine to forest to meadow. At the trailhead, we sign out using the appropriate form and make the short walk to J’s vehicle, still nearly solitary in the campground parking lot. I devour the last half of my sandwich from the day before, even as J begins to list restaurants we passed on the way in.
On our way to one of these, I get a second chance, and this time I don’t miss the shot.