The setting sun poked through the cloud and bathed the old black castle in orange light. At the end of a relaxing day strolling the streets of Matsumoto, winter woollies stuffed in my pack back in my little brown hotel room, I sent a silent prayer to the rain gods, encouraging them to take a few days off.  A four day trek through the North Alps loomed and, as usual, the weather was playing on my mind.

Early the next morning I boarded the first northbound train for Hakuba, some two thirds of the way to the Japan Sea from Matsumoto, beneath brooding skies that inspired little confidence…

matsumoto castle

Another mad cabbie.

Who were these lunatics hell bent on seeing how close they could come to sending their vehicles careening into the scenery?  Two baldies in the back seat, a pair of wide eyed gaikokujins, watched the greenery flash by.  What do they say in racing?  When everything goes quiet you know you’ve lost contact with terra firma, wait a second and then it all comes back, grinding, buckling, shattering, your view alternating between sky and ground, sky and ground…

I watched too much of that stuff for my own good.  Visions of our little black cab barrel rolling through the rice paddies and smashing into an old Japanese barn, a steaming knot of bent sheet metal, played in my mind’s eye.

There was no need to worry. Two overladen packs in the boot gave us all the traction we needed as the taxi hurtled up into the hills of Hakuba.  All that was required of us was to hang on.

Outside Hakuba Station I’d met the other baldie, a Canadian back in Japan, visiting old friends and getting some hikes in under his belt.  He was headed for Yari Onsen, a hot spring up in the hills at some two thousand plus metres.  I was bound for Shirouma-dake, the White Horse Mountain, though, for all I could discern, it may as well have been white alpaca or a purple bloody pig.  Everything on high was lost in a churning, glug of threatening looking cloud.

Once up Shirouma, the game plan was to hike south for three days to a spot in the hills called Ogisawa, where the Alpine Route – a combination of cable car and trolley bus rides spanning the breadth of the Northern Alps – pops out of the mountains at its eastern terminus. Those three days would see me over two more of the Hyakumeizan; Goryu-dake and Kashima-yari-ga-take. Four days, three mountains. It was the kind of pace that was needed. My last night out was in the Myoko Mountains and things had gotten decidedly nippy up there at some 2000 metres.  On Shirouma, a week closer to Christmas and some 500 metres closer to Heaven, I made sure I packed an extra woollen sock for my balls.

At the hut at Sarukura, at the start of the hike I bade farewell to the other baldie and we went our separate ways up into the hills.  The cloud hung thickly in the trees and soon a light rain began to fall and along with it, my spirits.

The highlight of the path up Shirouma-dake from Hakuba is the Daisekkei – The Big Snowy Valley – a stretch of steepening ice that remains in the deep sided ravine year round, which hikers must scale for a good hour or so before returning to solid ground.

Where the trail met the ice I was confronted by a notice that explicitly warned of crevasses and falling rocks in late summer.  Water gushed somewhere deep beneath the ice at my feet and, as if on cue, I made out a deep, onerous thud, that I could only assume was ice breaking apart back down the valley.

‘Well this was October,’ I rationalised unconvincingly.  ‘Late summer was long gone.  This ice should be hardening up again.’

One thing was for sure: I certainly wasn’t.  Another thud echoed up the valley from behind me as I located a pink tape trail marker tied onto a stone out in the ice.  The cloud refused to lift.  I could barely locate the following trail markers as I floundered in a world of white.  I walked in fear, waiting for the ice to open up beneath my feet and swallow me whole.  I lost the markers.  Footprints didn’t help.  Thousands ascend this route throughout the season,  seemingly spread out across the ice, as it was just a surface of pitted white offering up nothing distinct to follow.

The waters beneath my feet got the better of me.  Rocks scattered off to my left behind the curtain of coagulating cloud.  I couldn’t bare the Daisekkei any longer and headed sharp left for land.  Climbing off the ice and onto steep crumbly ground I located a faint trail and followed it upwards.  It soon turned to a single set of bootprints as the incline increased and then they too, vanished.  I climbed higher.  The snow lost in the whiteout beneath me and I found I had clambered up onto a precariously thin slither of loose gravel.  Soon things were becoming more precarious up there than they had been on the ice, wherever the hell that was…

‘Retreat,’ instinct told me.  ‘Get the hell down.’

I followed my own footsteps back to the ice.  And sat in the dirt a few metres above its edge and wondered what to do.  Just then the cloud thinned a little before my eyes and out on the ice, some thirty or forty metres away, a solitary figure, with seemingly not a care in the world, strolled downhill, bound for Sarukura.  The cloud just as quickly closed in again, swallowing him and I scrambled down the scree and strode out to the point where I suspected he’d waltzed past.  A brown stain of dirt smeared the ice at my feet and realised it was the muddy detritus loosened from hikers’ boots coming off the trail higher up.  Confident again, I followed this brown stain upwards and, at last, off the ice.

As I guzzled water, the clouds suddenly broke apart overhead and the unexpected sight of soaring towers of rock startled me after the trudge up through the impenetrable mists.

Climbing higher, cloud whistled by, caught up in a relentless air current.  I spied a hut, still high on the mountainside and lost the trail again in a field of boulders.  Sunshine shone on my back, but the winds stole all its warmth.  I toiled upward with disregard for anything but the hut way up ahead.  Popping over a rise I spied the trail below me on the other side and clambered down to it over thickets of creeping pine.  In the winds, now strengthening, my fingers began to freeze and I stopped to pull on my gloves before pushing on upwards to the hut on the ridge.

The hut, resembling something more like a small factory and fit to sleep 1000 was, as forewarned, shut.  I dumped my gear on a low bench in its forecourt and headed for the summit of Shirouma beyond a second hut complex further up that apparently squeezes in 1500 at the height of summer, and probably more.

Arriving at a sliding door to its mess hall, a vast, cavernous shed lined with tables and chairs a solitary pair of old men sucked on beer cans in the late afternoon light.  Damn, it was warm in there.  They directed me around the other side of the building to reception, where I slipped inside and bought a hot can of coffee and took up a space in front of a kerosene heater.  A few other hardy souls laughed and chatted amongst themselves, a wild haired, suntanned, long finger nailed, woman in tight jeans, the centre of their, and rather quickly my, attention.

A cold shower out of the question, I stepped back out into the frigid gale and set about getting up to the summit.  Grim faced in a grim wind.  The sky was streaked with thick layers of high purple cloud.  It was an astoundingly beautiful afternoon up there, with endless views out to the horizons.

Conditions were too much to dilly dally though.  It was blisteringly cold.  I fired off a few summit shots and hurried back to set up camp and snuggle into my sleeping bag in the shadow and shelter of the first hut.

South off Shirouma


2 thoughts on “ON THE WHITE HORSE

  1. Hold on, you’re not just going to leave us hanging are you? What of the wild haired, suntanned, long fingernailed woman in tight jeans? You can’t simply drop a loaded plot point like that, all but dripping with possibility, into the middle of your story and then just snuggle into your sleeping bag. This needs a proper ending, and only one will do.

    • Just another bit of the scenery, mate. Sorry to disappoint.

      And as you very well know, I’m more interested in snuggling up with old mayonnaise factory execs.

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