Of course, there is the Senjoujiki way up Kisokomagatake, utilizing the ropeway and making the whole hike just a short stroll up the last three hundred vertical meters to the easy summit of this 2956 meters high mountain in the Central Alps. But that is a tourist route, not something we, who sometimes dare to call ourselves mountaineers, would find an appropriate way of scaling a mountain of this prominence.
In a striking contrast, from the other side, the Agematsu A-course is a steep and sustained climb of 2200 vertical meters from the Agematsu train station to the summit, following one unbroken ridge, promising a challenging adventure for two young fools looking for punishment.
These two fools were of course none other than myself and Gaston Rebouffat… well, I mean Takeshita Asahi, one of my newly hired colleagues at Mont-bell. Before I even met him, a word made its way to me that he had just attempted Tsurugidake in January and so I should speak to him for we might make a good mountaineering duo. To my great amusement, when we introduced ourselves few days later, I found this guy perfectly matching Lionel Terray’s description of Rebouffat both in appearance and manners and thus nicknamed him this way, at least in my head.
Our climb up the Kisokoma was supposed to be a final goodbye to snow before the inevitable rainy season washes all the remaining bits away completely.
The first morning train brought us to Agematsu at half past eight. It was a bright, warm and pleasant early summer day in the countryside. As we were walking through the quiet small-town streets, listening to the greetings of bird songs and singing of students coming from the opened windows of local junior-high school, I realized how beautiful this place is.
Located in a picturesque valley, surrounded by deep forests, high mountains and steep rivers, small fields lie around the solitary farmhouses.
Since several years ago, I have been feeding a small flame of a dream in my heart about someday living in the countryside. Now, for the first time, I felt like perhaps this place might be the one where I would like to stay.
Our way led us through the Komagatake shrine and big river-conquering construction deep below the mountains, to the Keishin no taki, where the true climb begins. From there the path climbed up in seemingly endless succession of switchbacks and turns through the complicated terrain. Sweat was pouring from our heads and only the thick canopy of the forest above was our guard against the strong sunshine. Here and there we could see bits of our grand surroundings through occasional clearings among the trees, once getting a nice view towards Mount Ontake, still white with snow, other times towards Mount Sannosawa and the rocky ridges around Mount Houken, still so far and high. But we were making good progress, ascending in a pace equivalent to what the map suggested for descent.
At about 2400 meters snow appeared on the ridge and with it some difficulties. Apparently nobody went here for quite some time and there were no footprints or any other marks to show us the right way. Although the general direction along the ridge was clear, finding ourselves without any recognizable trail made advancement rather difficult at times. Fortunately at 2600 meters we came out above the tree line and the line of ascent was clear once again. What turned out not so clear was the weather. The summit closest to us, the Maekisodake, was still all visible, but the higher peaks behind were already bathing in cloudy blankets.
It didn’t look all bad though and I didn’t believe it will rain on us, but at this point we had a long ridge and 2000 meters of elevation change behind us and our will to go further was not at its strongest. As a minor irritation, I could feel one of my quadriceps tendons on the outer side of my right knee was strained and hurting a bit.
Nonetheless we continued into the clouds and up to the summit of Kisokoma itself. The highest point was reached exactly eight hours after leaving the Agematsu train station in the morning. Both of us happy to finally sit down for good, we started our dinner preparations. I didn’t want to go any further and thus lose the chance of seeing the views from the summit if the weather was to improve and decided we will bivouac right here where we sit, at the very top of the mountain.
And what a great decision that was! No sooner was our dinner finished than the clouds around us opened up and while slowly descending to the valleys below, they revealed a grand theatre of rocky peaks appearing one by one on the white scene, lit up beautifully by the setting sun. First the spear of Houkendake cut its way through the mists, floating dark tooth, like a pirate ship on a stormy sea. Then Mount Sannosawa, extravagantly colored by the stripes of white snow. The last was Mount Utsugi in the far distance. If we will feel fit and lucky with the weather, we shall go all the way there in the morrow.
I could not wish for better evening programme. Not even fine weather would beat this spectacle of rock, clouds and the evening light. It took me long time to finally stop running around excitedly with camera and start preparing my bed.
Rebouffat seemed to be much more down to earth and preoccupied with construction of a roof made from an emergency blanket over his bivy. I could not understand why would anyone want to have roof above his head when it is clear that the night will be full of stars.
None of us having slept more than three hours the night before, we were dead the moment we snugged ourselves in the down of our bags. When I opened my eyes after few hours at last, my whole field of view was full of stars and I was laying there happy as one could possibly be.
The time flew slowly and with it the night sky was moving over my head. For once I didn’t mind my usual mountain sleeplessness after midnight and enjoyed every moment of opening my eyes. Except that it was somehow difficult to open them sometimes. I didn’t understand why and it came to me just after getting up before the sunrise. All around was covered with rime and probably every time i closed my eyes and slept a bit, my eyelashes froze lightly too.
I was up by three thirty, waiting for what the sunrise will bring. All the mountains were faintly visible in the morning darkness. The weather held. By four o’clock Rebouffat got up and while we were attending to our breakfast the sun appeared on the eastern horizon. To my disappointment clouds rose with it and in a few minutes white mists were surrounding us again. Fortunately not for long though and the next few moments revealed a heavenly landscape lit by warmth of the morning sun. One could not recognize where the sky ends and earth begins. In the distance, Ontake rose like an island from the sea, further to the north Mount Norikura and even further, so small and yet unmistakable, the Hotakas and Yari were like a spectre in the blue and grey shades of the early morning.
By five thirty we were moving again, descending towards Nakadake, itself looking just like a heap of rubble and not too worthy of going over the top. Instead we opted for the traverse route, which with its ‘kiken’ marks promised some adventure at first, but turned out to be just an easy walk over rocky terrain, hardly asking for use of hands on just a few occasions. Even the Houkendake, the one I was looking for the most, now standing in front of us seemed very small and just easy sloping. We climbed it free by a way little closer to the Senjoujiki edge of the ridge and stood on the summit in no time. The weather was really spectacular, the views fantastic and although the climbing itself was very quick and not challenging, I was happy as a kid and enjoyed it all very much!
Only the strained tendon gave me something to worry about. The night’s rest didn’t help much and it did hurt, especially when climbing up. With every up and down on the ridge I could feel it getting worse. The last short climb up to the summit of Hinokiodake made me aware of the fact, that no matter how much I want to continue forward all the way to the Utsugidake, we will just have to turn for the descent here by the Hinokio ridge. There would be no way of retreat if we went further and the route was still very long. If I were fit and we managed to keep the fast pace, we could still make it up to Utsugi summit and down to Komagane before our bus was due to leave on its way to Osaka, but not in state like this. I was clenching my teeth every time I had to use my right quadriceps and hoped that I can just get down without it all turning into any real injury.
We took our time on the 2728 meters high Hinokiodake to enjoy the freshness of high altitude air and the beauty of the scenery around us. Since we gave up on the way forward, there was nowhere to hurry now.
I was hoping for quick and easy descent, but in fact it all turned into quite an ordeal. As soon as we got down to the tree line we were back on snow, without any trail and in a difficult terrain. The ridge was very steep on both sides and heavily overgrown. We kept falling through the snow into hidden holes beneath, traversing and sliding over the surface, breaking our way through the bushes. All the fierce movements necessary to get through were giving me hell. occasionally we found the correct route and enjoyed a few moments of reasonably easy progress, all that untill it was lost under the snow again. At one point I was following a trail of animal footsteps for quite a long time. It was probably a fox and it seemed to know an easy way down. Like if it was accustomed to use the human trail in snow-free season and remembered it even when all around was buried. Than we encountered a bear’s tracks following the same trail. It was a small bear and heading in the upwards direction so I was not too worried about meeting it, but to know that even here they still manage to survive was a bit surprising.
It felt like forever before we finally got bellow the snow line. All the time I had a dilemma in my head and leg. If I used the leg almost normally, it was possible to ignore the pain for a while and make a good progress on the way down, but on the bigger scale I could see it makes the pain worse. On the other hand when I was trying to use my right leg as little as possible, not putting any pressure on the thigh muscle, I could go down in a bit slower pace almost without suffering, but it was increasingly more painful to get the knee moving again after doing so. And so I was somehow switching between both these approaches, untill it turned impossible to ignore the pain any more and I was forced to do all the work with my left leg, using the right one in only stretched position.
I believe I can endure more physical suffering than is normal for an ordinary person. All my life I found some strange pleasure in pushing myself beyond the limits of painless. I loved the physical sensation after Muay Thai trainings, when I was beaten up and totally exhausted and I love when the conditions get hard in the mountains. But this time I have to admit the pain was messing with my head a bit. I was checking my altimeter all the time and desperately wanted to know the elevation of the valley to get some mental support and measurable goal to aim for, but Rebouffat had the map and he was going a bit ahead. I was angry at him for not going slower with me, but at the same time I knew I am not right in my anger. I just could not help it. He could not know how bad it feels for me when he keeps the distance and in fact he was clearing the way in front of fallen branches and such things to make it easier for me.
At one point I stepped on a big lose root which gave way under my weight and I slid about my body length down from the trail onto the bamboo grass-covered slope. The lightning of pain that went through my leg made me gasp for breath for a moment and as I crawled back up to the trail I felt the urge to cry inside. I managed to pull myself together and continue, but slower again.
Then we reached the mark showing one last kilometer to the trailhead somewhere down there. Rebouffat was almost counting the meters for me at loud. “500 meters mark! Come on, just five more minutes!”
One cannot believe how hard it is not to use your right leg when you are walking on a steep left-sloping trail. Just when I could see the asphalt route some ten meters below me, I made the last mistake of twisting body on my right leg on a right turning switchback. Scream of pain came out from my mouth, but that was it. The next moment I was standing on the road and Rebouffat came to me to shake my hand.
The descent covered some 1600 meters of elevation change and even though our progress was slow due to the snow up on the mountain and then due to my condition, we still made it down faster than the official map time. On only few occasions was I happier to get down from mountain than this time.
We were extremely lucky that right at the moment we got down, bus came and stopped to give us a ride down to Komagane.
On the way we stopped for a bath in the Komakusa no yu hot spring. Maybe it is an overstatement caused by my physical condition at the time, but this must be the best rest place I have ever visited in Japan. For just 1000 Yen we got ourselves a bath in a beautiful spa with views up to the snowy Senjoujiki and very nice lunch at local restaurant. There was free sencha tea everywhere in the building and I drank at least seven cups to avert the slight dehydration I got myself during the last two days.
Three days later, as I am writing this, I still have one painful tendon in my right leg and muscle pain in the left one from overuse on the way down. But it was a damn fine trip and a great adventure! And into the future, there is still one Utsugidake to be climbed when the opportunity comes next.
Click here to watch a short movie from this adventure on vimeo: