For a long time I have been dreaming about climbing Kitadake, the highest mountain in Southern Alps and the second highest peak in Japan, in winter. When the chance to take several days off together with three other guys from company came in March, I immediately proposed this idea to them. It would take one tremendously long approach day over the Kitasawa pass down to the base of the mountain, then one day to climb up to the summit and down again and one more day to get back to the car and all the way to Osaka. None of us being truly accomplished mountaineer, they seemed to share none of my enthusiasm for such an undertaking. They found it too hard, too uncertain. Why not climb Senjougatake instead? Little disappointed, I agreed and comforted myself with an idea that I can take it as a reconnaissance for my own attempt latter on. When our work schedules took definite form, myself and my good friend Kouji, the only one who was up to try anything, ended up with full four days free together, while Kishida san and Nakahashi kun with three.
And then I had the idea… The wildest dream! We shall climb all together the Senjougatake and there part our ways. While the other two will go back down again, Kouji and myself will continue on the Senjou summit ridge and do the full circle over Ainodake, itself another three thousander, to Kitadake and descend by the original line of ascent. A truly ambitious plan indeed.
But as it always happens when the time to go comes by, somebody moves house or gets married or whatever else. This time it was my partner Kouji and with him out, my plan was in ruins. I would love to do it solo, but after all it was probably overambitious and after insisting of the others, I set on climbing Kai-komagatake instead, being a beautifully shaped and worthy mountain too, but with considerably fewer difficulties along the way.
And so it happened that one cloudy March day I found myself on the final ridge of Kai-komagatake together with the little but strong Nakahashi-kun. Kishida-san, not feeling in the best shape today, has turned around already. The steep and rocky southern ridge is classical winter hike on mixed ground of easy difficulty and although the weather is not really on our side, we are both having a good time. At least it is not raining. Short sections of steep snow ridges are taking part with enjoyable scrambling as we are climbing up and up through the clouds. Finally the steep slope gives in and we are standing next to the summit marker and a small shrine.
Since we got here in good time, we take a whole hour on the summit to rest, enjoy it all and perhaps even see some views, that is if the clouds would be so kind to let us. And surely here and there, they do seem to break and we get glimpses of the surrounding valleys. Looking up one can even see blue color through the mist, but when we start on the way down it is as cloudy as ever.
From the Komatsumine we decide to take the straight ridge line back down to the Kitasawa pass. In the morning we came here by the second trail ascending from the east over the Sensui pass. Why not explore all the options, right?
Easier said than done though. There are no markings on the trail, at least not where we expect the trail to be. Here and there we feel like we are actually following in someone’s tracks, but always end up being led into deep forest, certainly not on the right way. If what we are following truly are human tracks, they must be of somebody who was as lost as we are. Lost might not be the best word. We know where to go, we are on a ridge after all and it means following it straight down. Just the going is difficult in deep wet snow and in thick forest. I am cutting the way forward through low and dry branches with my ice axe, worried that I will tear my new and expensive alpine jacket on the sharp edges everywhere around. At one point we get to a cliff on our right side, which enables us to triangulate our position on the map as precisely as the cloudy weather allows.
After few more minutes we find a colorful ribbon attached to a tree and with it our way down. From here it goes very fast. We are running in long strides down the steep slope, sliding in the snow, from one ribbon to the next, always taking the shortest way possible. We even manage to hit our camp location directly from above, saving us a long detour over the top of Kitasawa pass.
When Kishida-san sees us, he cannot believe we arrived so fast. Rest of the day is spend attending to our stomachs and tired bodies.
The next day, Senjougatake is the target on our radar. My two companions decide to aim just for the lower peak of Kosenjou and let me go faster alone for the true summit. We start together to get on the same trailhead, than I am leaving them behind and go on my own pace, they following in my footsteps. Because I want to make sure to really create enough of distance and time advantage for myself, I am going as hard as I can sustain with very few breaks. It is no reckless wild chase, I actually love to ascend in this style, getting up very fast and than enjoy the heights for prolonged time.
Weather is great today, sky being clear blue above. Soon I get my first glimpses of the surroundings as the forest loses some of its thickness with elevation. Yesterday’s Kai-koma stands sharp against the sky, north-east over the Kitasawa pass. I can’t wait to get a good view on Kita and Ainodake ridge line in the opposite direction. But that side seems to be a bit cloudy.
After crossing the tree line, snow changes to perfectly smooth and hard white surface, very easy to walk on, twelve spikes of my crampons getting just the right purchase. Wind got much stronger here too, so at about two-thirds of the summit slope of Kosenjoudake I stop to put on my alpine jacket and some more sun protection after the experience of terrible sunburn on Goryu few weeks back. At that point I see that my two friends have already reached the low part of the same slope too and now are waving to me gestures of greetings. How is this possible when I went that fast? They seem so close behind. I start off in a pace of a possessed madman and soon find myself standing on the top of Kosenjou. Here I spend some time taking pictures and looking around. Northern views are truly splendid, without a single cloud spoiling anything. I can even see the unmistakable massif of Minami Yatsugadake clearly, with Mount Iou, Yoko and Aka, the trio which I traversed at night two months ago. Southern views, on the other hand, are cloudy. There is a big octopus-like cloud, wriggling in the Senjougatake curl, having the summit firm in grip of its long tentacles. Even Kitadake seems too shy to show itself all naked, only the peak and base being visible, long wide patch of mist covering the central part.
It is still quite early and my friends must be here in a moment. We can all go together further on towards the summit, I am thinking to myself. But as I keep waiting and nobody comes, suddenly I realize the octopus of cloud had disappeared and I am looking all and clear at the summit. In that moment I give up further waiting and swoop on the knife ridge leading along the edge of the curl. I am running in huge strides the first, down sloping part, reaching a kind of col in a minute. From here it is the same, steep, but perfectly smooth and hard snow up and up again. And so I climb.
At this point I can see the other two have already reached Kosenjou and are playing there. But how long can they keep waiting on one place before getting unbearable cold in this wind? They have to get back to Osaka today, while I have one more day. We were talking about the possibility I might stay one more night, but would they really leave without me? The thoughts now press heavily on my mind and I am trying to climb as fast as possible.
Finally I have reached the highest point on the rim of the Senjougatake curl. Altimeter shows 3003 meters above sea level, but the mountain still has one unpleasant surprise in its sleeve. To get to the true summit, only 30 meters higher, one must first descend a good deal down to a col and then climb up again on the other side. Looking back down, I cannot see anyone on the Kosenjou any more. They have left already for the descent and suddenly I feel infinitely alone and weak. The gusts of wind are punching me with sudden and terrible force and I feel like I have lost the time and will to climb further. Taking one last handheld summit picture, picking up one small stone as I always do, I turn around for the descent.
Back on the Kosenjou I stop to admire the scenery one last time. Kitadake and Ainodake are now all clear and visible, with the top of Mount Fuji protruding behind. The mountains have been nice to me today and I feel grateful and very lucky. Two great summits in two days with friends makes for a memory not to be forgotten.
While descending further down, I keep turning my head up towards the beauty of Kitadake, grand and splendid in its shape under the limitless sky, so still, waiting. And when it finally disappears behind the horizon completely, I keep smiling, for I know that I shall return some day to fulfill one lasting dream.
The wildest dream.