#60 – SHIROUMA-DAKE
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.