#63 – NORIKURA-DAKE
I sat on a boulder, at the side of an empty mountain road, high on Norikura-dake, a three thousand metre peak hanging off the southern end of the North Alps. I gagged for breath, not from the thin air, but after having escaped the confines of a highland coach full to bursting with gaga, silver haired hikers smelling of dead fish and liniment, all of them caught up in rapturous, semi-orgasmic delight, brought on by the autumnal hues gracing the flanks of the mountain.
Indeed, Norikura was putting on a show and foolishly I’d elected to bus it in towards the summit rather than hike in from lower elevations. By the time I’d disembarked, the colours were below me and all that remained was a three or four hundred vertical metre hike across a barren wasteland of grey, volcanic country, daubed with a few splashes of creeping pine and a solitary patch of grimy snow that had outlasted the summer.
It was a cold, gloomy, grey, mid October day. A day more suited for coffee shop book reading than getting out amongst it in the hills. But action was what was called for. I’d just walked off Kashima-yari the day before, the culmination of a four day trek south from Shirouma-dake, but with winter fast approaching, I felt there wasn’t a fair to middling day to spare. Counting Norikura, eleven peaks remained to be climbed in the North Alps. In essence, I’d sleep when I was dead.
From my vantage point on the boulder, I took in the curious spectacle of an elderly chap in bright red ski gear, shimmying up the dirty patch of snow, huffing and puffing as he went like a man possessed. At its uppermost limit he would turn, and growling to the heavens, launch himself furiously downhill on his skis and come skidding to a halt in a shower of ice crystals at the bottom of the snow in front of a tiny camera mounted on a tripod, where he’d howl demonically and swing his poles in the air above his head, before turning and repeating the process again and again.
The path through the brush pine led me towards the base of the snow and I timed my approach with the madman’s descent where, as before, he howled furiously as he came to a stop in front of his camera.
“Konnichiwa!” I greeted him.
“Ah!” I wasn’t the only one gasping for air. With hands on his knees, he looked at me and asked: “Peak attack?”
“Hai,” I replied.
“Ah, go left and go up. Left and up.”
“Okay, thank you,” I said.
“Hey! Okay!” he gasped.
And he went his way and I went mine and promptly lost the trail.
How the hell I did that on a virtually bald, gravel covered mountain top I am mystified to answer. One moment I was following arrows and circles painted on rocks and the next I wasn’t.
Busloads of hikers were traversing across to the summit on the ridgeline above me from the conflagration of concrete marking the terminus of the road up Norikura. I cut diagonally across a steep field of loose, volcanic kitty litter to meet their trail at a low point in the saddle just before the mountain’s final climb.
From there the top was a mere five minutes away up hard, stony ground, just beyond a dark little souvenir hut barricaded into the mountainside behind stone walls. There, the proprietor, a Japanese version of Grizzly Adams, ushered me aside and waggled a hand and said, “No free climb! No free climb! Everyone worry.”
I nodded and apologised and thought about telling him to “Mark his bloody hiking course better then,” but I guess with all the paint splashed about it had been and I’d just buggered up somewhere.
At the shrine on top, an old wind blasted torii was encrusted with spears of horizontal ice. Hikers milled, murmuring, seemingly oblivious to the cold but there wasn’t much mountain top conviviality going around. My mind was frazzled. Uninspired, I went through the motions of getting my summit photo taken and then watched, dazed, as the grey cloud drifted by overhead. Staring into nothingness, someone handed me a couple of mandarins. An old lady. She smiled, looking up at me through droplet covered glasses. I pocketed the fruit, climbed down and ate them sitting against the wall of a shuttered hut just below the bus terminal, out of a strengthening breeze.
I considered boarding a bus there and getting off the mountain quick smart, but reconsidered. Instead, I wandered down through boulders and brush pine and stunted trees, into the forests of yellows, reds and oranges. Taking some time at the end of an uninspiring day to see a little of the beauty that I was regretting to have missed out on.
In those woods, I was on my own.
In peace on Norikura at last.