And there I stood. High on the mountain that had haunted me for the entirety of my Hyakumeizan adventure. The city fled, I was a lone soul on a mountaintop once more. A tormented soul, up against the ropes, staring, Daisen, his last demon square in the face. They were the ropes that separated the sane from the mad. Ropes, it was said, that only those with a death wish stepped over outside of winter when the heavy snows add width to the decaying ridge to the summit. A week before I had sensibly turned my back on imminent danger. Walking away from the snow covered Japanese Alps. Now I was eyeing off risks only the foolhardy undertook.
An uneventful climb up through the forests cloaking its lower reaches before a stroll over a boardwalked trail looping around an area of mountain pasture led me to a spacious hut hunkered down in a depression on the safe summit of the mountain. I slipped through the entrance way and set up camp on its smooth timber floor. It was dark in there. Silent. The place had been shuttered for the oncoming winter. I drank some water and lay back on my sleeping bag and stared at the ceiling. It had been a long bus ride out of Osaka that morning to Yonago, a major centre in the far western reaches of Tottori Prefecture. There, i grabbed some last minute supplies for my overnight trip up Daisen and boarded a bus bound for the busy terminus at the trailhead up the mountain.
“Make it to the hut,” that was the goal of the day. But once up there, I felt restless and rightfully so. Daisen had haunted my Hyakumeizan dreams longer than all others. Many a late night I’d look at the one grainy photograph I’d managed to locate on the net showing off some of the perilous, crumbling ridgeline leading to the top of the mountain. If there was anything left to salvage from the disappointment of throwing in the towel in the Alps, it was to get over that crusty, gnarly slither of ground and back again. That restlessness may well have been the mountain calling.
With plenty of daylight left to play with I took a stroll up behind the hut to the ropes. I’d set myself the target of hitting the summit in the early morning calm of the following day. “I’ll just take a stroll up and see what I’m letting myself in for,” I thought as I rose from my resting spot and took up my camera.
The last, and most challenging, of the Hyakumeizan’s five closed summits now lay within sight. The highpoint’s cairn silhouetted against the sky some half a kilometre away, vanishing behind drifting cloud before appearing again, alluringly within reach. After over 6000 kilometres of travel from the moment I stepped out of my apartment in Osaka and made the day trip to Ibuki-yama, the next 600 metres was going to make or break me. Beyond the knee high ropes unenthusiastically barring my way, the path continued on.
I stepped over the rope and followed it. I lead me down to a tiny saddle in the scrub and I came to another rope, sized up the conditions, there was barely a breath of air, cloud clung to the mountain below the ridgeline masking most of the bottomless drops off either side of the razorback. It was as good a time as any to go for it. Whether I went then or in the morning there’d probably be nobody around to rescue me anyway. I moved on. Birds chirped amongst the bushes and mist. All else was silent save for the crunch of gravel beneath my boots. Then the path rapidly narrowed. Pausing and looking back, I watched cloud sweep in behind me. Beyond my chest cavity, all remained calm. Deep inside however, my heartbeat was picking up pace. I surveyed the immediate surrounds ahead of me. Most of it consisted of thin air, spliced up the middle with a slither of terra – not so very – firma. For a start, I took to the scrub that held the earth together. Stepping over stems and branches and using the true trail beside me at waist height for a makeshift handrail.
But then came the narrows. Short terrifying slithers of ground where it seemed the earth beneath the mere inches wide trail was narrower than that above it. Thank heavens for the cloud clung to mountain tens of metres below me, floating like mists above a bottomless pit. Progress across the little narrow strips of stony ground was akin to a balancing along the top of a brick wall. Stones scattered, falling through the mist, the sound of their long drops, bounding off mountainside persisted for longer than I cared to focus on. Sometimes there were more plants to grasp. I held them like a baby clinging to its mother. At little nubbins along the perilous way a rope or two existed to aid in my progress up and over them. My legs were jelly. My mouth was parched. As I straddled a piece of trail for a breather, as if sitting on the back of a horse, I couldn’t tell whether the moisture running from my eyes was tears or sweat. From that position I tried shimmying along on my arse and sliced open my thumb on a sharp shard of stone. Moving on like that was worse than the highwire act.
I arrived at a steep little hump rising abruptly in the middle of the narrows some four or five feet in height with the same again down the other side. Previous nubbins offered a little girth. This one did not. Every foothold was meticulously assessed. Every breath measured. Every blink timed to perfection.
I remained so intensely focused on the few feet of ground ahead of me that the rope leading to the cairn on the summit startled me for a second as I stumbled upon it and then, there I was, Ken-ga-mine. Daisen’s summit. All 1731 metres of mountain lay beneath my feet and trembling frame. A whimper of relief. A scatterbrained summit photo. My mind and senses uncoiled from their rigidly wrought intensity. Cloud rose around me in reverence.
If only the eight peaks further west were all that lay between me and Hyakumeizan glory. On Daisen I felt relief, but it wasn’t a completely fulfilling victory. I’d left some twenty peaks behind me, smothered in a blanket of snow, to be climbed at some other time. A time that, there on Daisen, had yet to hold any importance to me. During the week at home in Osaka, I reassessed my goals. With a return to working life scheduled to commence on November 26, my thwarted hundred mountain venture turned into the “Drive to 75.” Not bad, not how I wanted it, and not that I had much drive left, but not bad. And the only thing separated me from making it: getting the hell back down off Daisen. I restrung my reserves of focus and determination and headed back out along the razorback to safety. Not quite the nerve jangler as the way across had been but a sphincter squeezer nonetheless.
After a refreshing night’s slumber and beneath clear skies I strode off Daisen satisfied the last of my big challenges was put to rest. It had been a chilly night and the boardwalks, leading me back to the trail down into the woods, were encrusted in a thick layer of ice. The sun rose behind me and peering off the side of the mountain toward the Japan Sea, I took in the tremendous view of Daisen’s perfectly conical shadow cast across the expanse of forests below me.
Chugoku, the region west of the Kansai, sported no more of the revered Hyakumeizan. Shikoku, the least populated, and arguably the most mysterious of the Japanese archipelago’s four main islands was next on the agenda.