A byte of life from the Land of Sumos and Sushi

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Before wiping my board down and putting it into summer hibernation, me and my team of snow lovers made one final search for snow on the scared mountain of Haku-san. At 2702m, this was to be the second highest mountain that I’ve climbed in Japan after Fuji (see October Archives) and spans the prefectures of Ishikawa, Fukui and Gifu. Fuji was tough, there’s no doubting that, but Haku-san left me far more exhausted than Fuji ever did.

The hiking team consisted of me, my American friend Brandon, local legend Yasu, and two new Japanese guys Adachi, and Yomei, both keen and talented freestyle skiers.

We kitted up, and commenced the hike at around 9am. After just a few minutes, I knew we were in for a tough time. It was a very warm day, and hiking with a board, boots and other gear in the heat was hard going. After crossing a suspension bridge and hiking up a stream bed, we hit a narrow rocky path that wound its way up the mountain.

It must have taken at least 1.5 hours to get to the first patches of intermittent snow. We stopped here for a much needed rest, my legs feeling the exertion. Haku-san is an extinct volcano and one of the three most sacred holy mountains of Japan. Because of this, it is a popular climbing destination, and we saw many others making their way up, including several skiers, but we were the only snowboarders there, to our knowledge.

Once we reached the snowline, the difficulty of the hike increased. I had opted to climb in shoes (my not so trusty Merrels) rather than my snowboarding boots, which although lighter, had considerably less grip, and saw me taking many a tumble in the snow.

Brandon too, experienced similar problems, especially during some of the steepest sections where he would take two steps forward, only to slide one step back. However, slowly, after several breaks and around four hours, we made progress, eventually stopping at the top of the steepest chute to break for lunch.

Yasu fired up his camping stove, reached for his saucepan, and was soon cooking a mix of noodles and cow intestines, which although not my favourite food, still went down well after burning so many calories on the way up.

At this point, we could see the peak, perhaps just 30 minutes away, and we sat in the sun, drank a can of celebratory beer each, and chatted away. Nearby stood a shrine and a Japanese gate. Brandon and I discussed the idea of building a ramp up to it and performing a few slides and tricks over it to impress our Japanese friends, but the idea was soon dismissed as a waste of precious energy.

After lunch came the final assault. A quick blitz of around half an hour to take us to the top. By this time I had summit fever, and my pace had picked up again, as I followed in Yasu’s footsteps whilst he powered on ahead.

Yasu is a 48 year old smoker, regular drinker, even a self confessed alcoholic (well, he does own a bar). Despite this, he was strides ahead of us young whippersnappers, all of whom are 20 years his junior, and he reached the peak several minutes ahead of me.

Brandon rolled up a few minutes after me along with Japanese friend Adachi, but Yomei decided to give the peak a miss and waited for us on the lower slope. There was much rejoicing at having reached the top. Brandon in particular was especially happy, and in true American fashion let rip with a series of “Whoops!” and “Hell Yeahs!”. Little did he know what was in store for him on the way down.

We paused for a sort while, then swapped shoes for boards, donned gloves, before finaly strapping in, and beginning the decsent. The first slope was pure joy, cruising down the perfect pitch in the sun shine sugar snow, feasting on a spectacular scenery, carving clean white lines into the surface of the speckled, dirt ridden snow.

Yasu was leading the pack, and going at quite a speed when he experienced some technical difficulties which led to him being deposited heavily onto the ground, leaving a ski and his poles strewn out in his wake. After discovering that he was not seriously injured, we all had a good laugh at him, and continued onwards, with Yasu deciding to exercise a little more speed control from then on.

After having to unstrap to walk over a rocky outcrop we arrived at the top of the next slope, which was fairly steep, and littered with rock debris. We carefully made our way down this pitch, but were then faced with a long and challenging traverse to get to the next slope.

It’s times like this that I’m reminded of how impractical snowboards are. Whilst Brandon and I where unstraping our boards, scrambling up, slipping down, and generally struggling to make our way across this steep and arkward section, the skiers were far ahead, engaging the terrain with ease.

It was at this point that Brandon decided he did not want to be where he was. He was physically exhausted, was having difficulty breathing, and was very unhappy (to say the least) with the tricky terrain. Admittedly it was challenging for us both. At one point I lost my footing and found myself flying down the slope uncontrollably, desperately hanging on to my board with one hand whilst trying to stop myself with the other. I eventually managed to grab a tree branch, halting my rapid decent and hauled myself to my feet with my last scraps of energy.

Brandon continued to verbally abuse the mountain, claiming that the situation was “ridiculous” amongst other less flattering terms. However, we both knew that the only way down, was across, so continued to make our slow traverse, praying we wouldn’t take another fall, whilst our Japanese skiing friends patiently waited in the sun, and most probably had a good chuckle at our predicament.

We eventually made it over to where they were sat, but by this time Brandon was past the point of no return, and all traces of his love for snow had long since evapourated. Next was the final straight, back down to whence we came. Our young Japanese friends flew down, popping 360 spins at every available opportunity. I attempted to follow suit, but ending up misjuding and having a close encounter of the first kind with a tree.

The very last stretch was a battle through the forest. As the trunks closed in around us, tight technical boarding was required to navigate through the birch and pine. Somewhere along the way we managed to pick up an out of control telemark skier, who provided us with much entertainment as he appeared not to have learnt how to stop, so performed a series of quite spectacular collisions with trees, rocks and other people.

By this time Brandon had given in to the mighty mountain, and fully accepted defeat. He removed his board and made the remainder of his way down on foot. It could be said with quite some certainty, that at this point in time, the young American was not a “happy chappy”.

Eventually the trees became too dense to ride through, so boards and skis went back onto packs, and out came the hiking poles. Yasu raced off down he mountain as he had to get back to open his bar, leaving the rest of us to make our way back at a more leisurely pace.

That final hike was probably the hardest of all. Exhausted from our long ascent, tricky traverses, burdened with heavy gear, and in dire need of decent rest, we still had a good 1.5 hours of walking to get back to the car. With aching legs and shoulders, sore feet and bodies in need of some serious t.l.c., we endured on. As we neared the base, Brandon’s sprits rose again, and by the time we were at the car, he was back to his normal jovial self, and we were already joking about how he had "lost it up there".

In total, the 9.5 hour round trip left us thoroughly exhausted, and good for nothing but bed. Overall, it was definitely more about the hiking than the riding, but despite our fatigue, it was a great day, and a great work out.

It would be nice to return when the snow is deep and powdery, but for now my board is in a deep sleep, dreaming of the day it will awaken from it’s summer slumber, and grace the slopes once more.


Blogger Lewis said...

I think "This is ridiculous" is a phrase that will pass into legend in the far-flung realm of Fukui-ken. God bless you Brandon.

Monday, June 13, 2005 6:53:00 pm

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aramando said....
Crikey, I got tired just reading that.

Sunday, June 26, 2005 7:00:00 pm


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