yake lr (12 of 12)

I lay half awake in my warm, brown, hotel bed and watched the dawn’s light slowly illuminate the frosted glass window.  A map of Yake-dake, the mighty volcano standing sentinel over Kamikochi, Japan’s hiking Mecca, lay crushed under my left side. I’d fallen asleep with it having briefly eyed off the courses running up its contours.  It was to be yet another mountain day.  The sixth on the trot.  Rain was moving in in a few days.  There was no time to be contemplating sipping lattes nor guzzling beers in old Matsumoto town.  Action was what was called for – but a few extra minutes of dozing would’t hurt.

Talk of skulls and bones emblazoned on rock face crashed my early morning dreams and I recalled the Hyakumeizan book by those Kiwis, from which I’d swatted a fair glob of my limited mountain knowledge.

“They never summited Yake did they?” I recalled vaguely. And I yanked the map out from beneath me and scanned the area around the summit more carefully.  Obsessed with Asama-yama and Daisen’s infamy, had another obstacle been overlooked? Closer examination of the map revealed that it was indeed the case.  Yake-dake&s higher south summit was off limits. My heart sunk.  All I wanted was a run of the mill climb up and down a mountain.  I was already running on fumes.  I didn’t need the  fear of imminent failure weighing me down on my climb yet again.

yake lr (4 of 12)
Hours later I stood at a closed mountain crossroads once more. The climb up from a roadside bus stop at Naka-no-yu (a place lost in the hills where nothing more than a tiny shop exists, from which one can ask for a key to a door cut into the rock face across the road and bathe in an underground hot spring) had been consumed by thoughts laced with the dread of failure. Like Rishiri and Kusatsu-shirane before, there’d been little time to grapple with the fact an extra, unexpected, closed summit existed. Just climb and hope.  Hope some sort of trail exists.  Hope it’s not as life threatening as one imagines.

yake lr (1 of 12)Smatterings of hikers were scaling Yake that day, but it seemed the cloud that hugged the ancient gas billowing volcano was going to spoil the party and  snaffle out the views. Rotten smelling vapours, loudly jetting out of sulphur encrusted vents mingled with drifting cloud. I shuffled my feet in the yellow hued earth unsure of my next move. Behind me was the path I’d followed up out of  resplendent forests and over boulder strewn ground from Naka-no-yu. To my right the trail curled up and around a raucous fumarole to the North Peak – the safe summit – eleven metres lower than its southern counterpart. To the left, black cliff face rose abruptly into cloud and vanished from view.  The South Peak was somewhere beyond that curtain of white. Ahead of me a thin little trail dropped down into Yake-dake’s crater, but within a few metres it too was lost in cloud.

I knew what I had to do. Doubt and fear swirled like the vapours in the air. I put off the moment of truth and headed up through the fumaroles to the open North Peak.  Maybe up there my desire to top out would be sated. There on the cloud darkened, muddy, bald summit hikers hunched their backs into a strengthening breeze and slurped hot noodles cooked on camp stoves.  It was a grim scene.  I tried to be satisfied.  Everyone else seemed content enough.  I politely asked a lone, middle aged hiker sporting a wicked comb over to take my summit shot.  I forced a grin.  He fired off a shot and followed it up with the obligatory second.  Handing me the camera, he bowed slightly as I thanked him and plonked myself down on a rock and munched on some snacks from my pack.yake lr (2 of 12)

Nope, that wasn’t going to do it.

“Fuck this shit,” were the actual words I mumbled to no-one.  Fed and watered though I was, nothing but a feeling of gut aching emptiness hung over me.

Back down at the crossroads the cloud miraculously lifted off the mountain just long enough for me to spy a gap in the black rock face up on the southern side of the narrow saddle in the crater wall. A group of hikers milled, readying themselves for a descent down to the bus stop.  I dumped my pack and bit my lip and walked straight for the darkened wall, readying myself for wails of protest to follow in my wake, as had been the case on Rishiri. But nothing.  Not a peep.  Not a hint of concern, the buggers.

“Let the mad gaijin go,” may well have been the general consensus. Soon I was up into the towering black ramparts and obscured behind a returning veil of cloud. I was left to my own devices – just the way I preferred it.

“Where were the skulls and crossbones?”

“Where were the granny killing bits?”

Clambering out of the dark rocks and hauling myself up onto the crater rim I then traversed a narrow place, where I supposed people could have been blown off on windier days.  Having covered ground more leery mere days before on the hike from Shirouma, I wondered what all the fuss was about. Up there my spirits lifted, like a hound regaining the scent of its quarry. Not a view was to be had, but that was fine, I followed a faint trail over soft ground until I spotted a wind blasted signpost poking out of a small cairn of stones.  Yake-dake was mine.

yake lr (3 of 12)“Now, surely, only Daisen remained,” a cocktail of high spirits and relief flowed through my body as I wandered off the barred trail and back down to the crossroads. The weather mirrored my moods that day.  Abruptly, the cloud cloaking Yake-dake lifted off the mountain and views down into the famed twin craters opened up. There a shallow, emerald green pond filled one depression, alongside it a dark, smoke issuing fissure, backed by the ominous looking crags of the volcano’s western rim, appeared to be nothing less than a bottomless pit.

Someone strolled amongst the boulders down there. A hiker clad in black. Or was it a fiend from the pit nearby, up scouting the face of the Earth for those disobedient souls who ignored mountaintop safety directives. Riding my new found wave of enthusiasm I strolled down into Yake-dake’s crater for a sticky beak of my own.

I followed a measly little goat track that wended its way between the boulders and rust coloured grasses, skirting uncomfortably the edge of the dark, gaping maw of the volcano. I crept as close as I dared. Wisps of white smoke floated up, out of the darkness.  I peered into the pit, down to where the charcoal and ochre hued walls of the crater turned as black as night. Not a sound could be heard bar for the breeze in my ears. A chill ran down my spine. One slip on loose ground there and you were on a one way trip to the centre of the Earth. The man in black reclined in the rocks above the green pool, propped up on an elbow, he puffed away on a cigarette.

yake lr (7 of 12)

yake lr (8 of 12)


“Konnichiwa,” he replied around his cigarette, breathing smoke and looking up through tiny black eyes and a wind tousled mop of black hair.

Lost in thought, that was as far as our conversation went, the otherworldliness of the surrounds sweeping us both away into the realms of our own private reveries. It wasn’t everyday one had the opportunity to sit back and soak up the atmosphere inside a living, breathing volcano.

After some time I climbed back up out of the crater to the crossroads once more, retrieved my pack and slipped down off the lip into the rocky, golden grassed fields below.  Further down in the sasa, trees displayed their autumnal hues of red and gold, a sight lost in cloud on the climb. Soon I was back in the forests and tackling the knee knocking descent down to Naka-no-yu, a hot bath on my mind.  Once there though, I saw that a bus back to Matsumoto was due within minutes and the lure of a quick getaway won out over a soak in the hot spring.

yake lr (9 of 12)

yake lr (10 of 12)

For the moment, I’d done all I could.  A multi day traverse of the North Alps was next on the agenda but rains were imminent.  It was time to rest up and move on out of Matsumoto to Takayama, on the western side of the Alps.



2 thoughts on “BURNING MOUNTAIN

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