Getting high in the highlands

Trekking in the Northern Alps of Japan can be arduous and scary, but that pales against its joys

by Skye Hohmann

High in the Northern Alps of Japan there are snowfields in August. Up above the tree line, wherever the bare geology dips into cirques, thick blankets of dirty white stretch out between the peaks and jagged ridges like caught clouds.

In summer, these mountains are a patchwork of green, white, and exposed tawny rock. In winter, they are meters deep in snow, smoothly fondant-frosted. But in between, in October, crimsoned foliage brocades the slopes and the snowfields have receded to leave only the unmelted slivers of winters past — some centuries old, perhaps — in the shadowed clefts and recesses where erosion and glaciation have incised and ground away the rock.

Memory works in much the same way.

In the moment, experience blankets you, surrounds you as completely and thickly as the snow in winter. Then, after six months, only patches remain. After that, as time continues to pass, what’s left are memories etched in the places where experience has left deep marks on you.

Climbing these mountains leaves deep marks on you, and not all are metaphorical. Indeed, the weight of my pack bites into my skin, bruising my hip bones and shoulders as my partner and I hike up the twisting, sandy path from the trailhead. The path begins deep in the trees, a short but steep taxi ride from the Nagano Prefecture town of Hotaka, famous for its watery wasabi fields. It’s a long, slow, switchbacking climb that has us winding up through fir woods that smell oddly of strawberries before it takes us up through weather-twisted hardwoods until we emerge on the smooth saddle of the mountain.

Behind us rise the strange volcanic rocks of Mount Tsubakuro’s summit; in front the mountains swing our eyes around to the peak of Mount Yari. As it is still morning there is cloud down in the valleys, leaving the high mountains in their own layer of space.

Aching and jangly with the awkward tangle of emotions that hits me when I’m physically tired, I focus on the trail ahead, snapping back irritably when spoken to. I fall behind, and struggle to catch up. I forget that I love to hike. My hiking partner and I are getting married in a month’s time, and as the day wears away from lunchtime and we slog on up the rocky, conical peak of Mount Otensho, I wonder why I’d want to marry somebody who actually enjoys this.

We press onward and upward. The high mountains are more alive than I’d imagined, and the verges of the trail are studded with wildflowers. Turning a corner we startle a pair of ptarmigan, camouflaged in their mottled summer plumage, and follow them until they find cover in the scrubby green of a patch of dwarf pine.

Then here, two days from the nearest road, we encounter the first of the snowfields. They’re gray with dirt and pitted, made wavelike by uneven melting. Around them, the chilled air smells like winter. Between them and the bare rocks of the peaks, alpine meadows are thick with flowers. The little white stars of Stellaria nipponica catch my eyes as the path cuts between waist-high banks of snow.

By the third day, without noticing it, we’ve fallen into a rhythm, a pace that carries us steadily along the track. Our relationship is like this, I realize: we walk comfortably together, focusing on the path, but when we look up we’re in the most beautiful place in the world.

No matter how tired you are in the mountains, the view can take your breath away and leave your heart beating wildly.

Rain catches us just before we reach the rambling, red-roofed hut below Mount Yari’s 3,180-meter peak. We fumble the tent up on the rocky campsite, and take shelter in the lodge itself. After three days of unwashed camping, it’s like entering another world. While the rain beats down on the roof, we drink red wine and eat freshly baked croissants in the wood- paneled cafe, romantic but for the smell of drying socks.

All night, lightning illuminates the tent like flashbulbs going off. The forks of electricity are so close we can hear them crackle in the air. We cower on our inflatable mats, hoping that the sharp peak, braced with metal ladders for the steep ascent, is acting as a lightning rod. I finally fall asleep in the early hours while the rain pounds down on us with a ferocity that only summer storms can muster.

Dawn breaks clear, and we’re packed up in time to make the summit by sunrise. Mount Yari here in Nagano Prefecture is Japan’s fifth-highest peak, and its spire is instantly recognizable across nearly all of the Hida Range of the Northern Alps. Sunrise from the summit is breathtaking, and, as it’s not a weekend or holiday, there’s plenty of room for us to watch the whole of the surrounding mountain panorama being slowly illuminated.

The main track from Mount Yari to Kamikochi is sometimes referred to as “the Ginza of the Alps.” Looking for excitement and to avoid the crowds, we choose instead a route that leads across the jagged cut of the Daikiretto — The Great Gap.

Deep cuts make deep marks in experience. Some distance after leaving the campground, the trail drops — then rises again — more than 300 meters over the 3 km separating the rocky peaks of Mount Minami and Mount Kita-Hotaka.

It begins easily enough: from a distance the steep descent must resemble a game of snakes and ladders. I’ve been concentrating on my handholds and footholds on the metal rungs, and haven’t noticed the sky darkening. But when the path levels out enough to turn around, I see clouds have cloaked the peaks above us.

The narrow ridge we are on bridges the two cliff-faces and the drop is fearsomely steep. It’s a long way down on both sides. Before long, the ridge narrows to a razor’s edge as we scramble along with hands and feet gripping for dear life. Then the clouds break and vertigo clutches me. My partner coaxes me forward, and when I look up again I’m at the base of a cliff that disappears into cloud above us.

A small group of hikers pass us going the other way, and then it’s our turn on the chains that make the long vertical ascent. Both the chains and the rockface are wet and slippery, and we move slowly upward under the weight of our packs. This is real climbing, but without ropes and pitons, and we proceed cautiously, testing each foothold and handhold before moving. Time turns timeless.

People talk about conquering mountains, but I’ve never felt that way. Like a solo sailor on the ocean, I am completely alone with my abilities. What I defeat or defeats me is only myself.

Sometime in the mid-afternoon we reach the hut on Mount Kita-Hotaka’s summit, soaked to the skin, arms and legs quivering with exhaustion, giddy with relief. We heat up soup, rest until we stop shaking, and then push on to the lodge at Karasawa. Dusk is falling by the time we pitch the tent, pull off our boots, and fall asleep, too tired to eat. The cold wind off the snowfield in the cirque makes me glad of my woollen hat and winter-rated sleeping bag.

The next day dawns like an apology: bright and clear and warm. We take the long way down to Kamikochi, across the shoulder of the mountain and through the alpine forests. Walking easily along the side of the clear, quick, Azusa River, I am suddenly and completely sure that if we can get through this together, we can get through anything.

The Northern Alps are most easily accessed via Kamikochi, reached by a combination of bus and train from Matsumoto (¥4,400 return), or via the Tsubakuro trailhead near Hotaka Station. There are dormitory-style accommodations in all mountain huts; most also have camping areas.