#77 – HOUOU-SAN
Had I been even one hundred percent healthy it would have been a painful undertaking. Add into the mix a sinus infection and a good four months out of the hills – and well over six out of the altitudes we were heading into – well, this latest foray into the mountains of Japan could quite simply have been classified as madness. I say we, because my new hiking compadre and roommate, Patrick, was along for the ride: a Golden Week tour of the Southern Alps. The plan was to attack Kaikoma-ga-take and Senjo-dake via Houou-san, the Phoenix, and in doing so knock off three summits and resurrect my push towards climbing the Hyakumeizan.
Loaded up and ready to go, my sinuses, as was the usual springtime routine, churned with glug as we sat at the bus stop at Yashajin Pass, 1300 metres above sea level and about 1500 metres below the summit of Houou. I suspected we were in for a drubbing good and proper and we received no less than we deserved in return for our minimal efforts at conditioning over the weeks beforehand. The trail was long, the snow still blanketing the Alps, was deep in parts, slippery in others. Our packs dragged on us at the end of the first of a projected five days in the hills, and we stumbled down into a forested dale, well and truly spent, below the towering trio of peaks making up Houou-san.
The owners of the blue roofed Minami Omuro Hut, dug out of the surrounding snows, could have been forgiven for thinking they were being paid a visit by the living dead as we groggily fell in through their front door at sundown. I instantly forked out cash for a floorspace inside but Patrick, limp and bedraggled though he may have appeared, still had an arse crack as tight as a fish’s and opted for a 500 yen campsite on the snowpack outside instead. I was shown to a small tatami matted room that resembled an ice box in both size and temperature. I added my sleeping bag to the bedding and slid into it and munched on snacks and picked and flicked globs of crusty, lime green snot from my blocked nostrils.
The climb to the top of Houou-san the following morning was a short but steep affair from the hut and I blew snotty globs loaded with chunks of green out of both nostrils at every opportunity. We passed a second hut, buried like a bunker in the snow drifts and stepped down inside for some hot water. The gunk my head had filled up with overnight remained unmoved by the antihistamines I’d been popping, so it was time to down the double strength painkillers instead. Nasal complications aside, it was a fantastic day. Houou-san, ever since I’d seen images of it, was one of the mountains I’d been most looking forward to climbing. Its boulder fields were blanketed in a blinding, thick cloak of snow, all beneath a sky of the purest blue. There was nowhere I would have rather been. Fuji-san sat quietly out in a sea of opaque haze to the east, its snowy summit seemingly suspended in the sky.
Mid afternoon: and we collapsed on the highest of Houou’s three peaks, Kanon-dake, and I munched on chocolate almonds and dry, crumbly Calorie Mates. Of course, for Patrick, another serving of those wretched roasted beans was in order. We soaked up the views of Kita-dake, Japan’s second highest mountain, across the valley. Kaikoma, Senjo and Aino-dake surrounded her, and far to the south, a day or so’s hike from Kita-dake, beyond Aino, Shiomi-dake shone brilliantly white, summit still completely encased in snow. Closer to us, an hour’s hike away was the third peak of Houou-san, Jizo-dake, and the ‘The Obelisk’, a spire of rock sitting atop the terminus of an alpine ridge which plunged down into the treeline.
The efforts of the day convinced me to call it quits on Houou and we lazed on the summit probably longer than we should have. Too many more days allowing my sinuses to fester and I’d be oozing goo from my earholes to my arsehole. There was a distinct throbbing in my forehead which was noticeably warm to the touch. The gunk I was blasting out my nostrils continued unabated. Heading off the summit, we decided to head for the Houou-san Hut, nestled somewhere below The Obelisk, deep in the valley. We missed the trail junction we sought, buried somewhere beneath the snow beyond Kanon-dake and so, with the day drawing to a close, we decided to bushwhack down from the low point in the saddle rather than climb over Jizo-dake first.
The snow soon became very soft. We were carving out our own course through virgin territory. Even though we were heading downhill, the effort required to wade through thigh deep snow was exhausting. I noticed the snow laden walls of the ravine we’d struggled into began towering ominously overhead. The deeper into it we went, the more I wondered if we were actually doing the right thing. We came to the top of a five or so metre drop into a slender gully running the base of the ravine. Sliding down into it would have been one thing. Clambering out of it if we hit a waterfall or similar dead-end drop would have been another matter altogether. Daylight was fading and we were really only relying on our imaginations as to the hut’s precise location somewhere further on down the valley. I peered up at the soaring walls of snow overhead and my imagination turned to more dire possibilities.
“Surely there were enough trees holding all that snow in place.”
“All that snow…”
The more it played on my mind, the more I thought we’d gone and blithely wandered down into a deathtrap. A mild dose of panic swept over me.
“We can’t go down there,” I said. “We have to go back up to the trail.”
“What?” Patrick gasped. “We’ll never get back up to there before dark.”
“We can’t stay here either.” Anything that decided to dislodge itself from that mountainside overhead, had us in its crosshairs.
There was hope. Sunshine still lit the highest points of the ravine in an orange glow. I was no mountaineering expert, but logic surely said you don’t spend the night in a place like that – or wander into it in the first place – especially during the mid-spring thaw.
“Man, I’m thinking about avalanches. Let’s just go.”
And we went. And it wasn’t pretty. The energy, strength and pure force of will it took for both of us to clamber, hand over foot, under packs that seemingly weighed ten tons, with toes freezing in our boots and snot dribbling from my gummed up skull was nothing short of superhuman. Panting and salivating like rabid dogs as we collapsed into a tiny patch of exposed, gritty dirt back on the trail.
By then the sun had dropped below the horizon and in the day’s last remaining light, as a cool breeze licked at our ears, I hauled out the tent as Patrick tore apart dead limbs of exposed creeping pine for a fire. He had a bag of fat lighter in his pack: short resin infused pieces of wood from the heart of pine trees that catch alight as easy as tinder. His old man had sent over a Ziplock bag of the stuff from the States and we had a nice little fire crackling at our toes in no time. We sat and talked under the stars. Marvelling at out madness. Boots and socks propped on sticks at the edge of the flames. It promised to be a chilly night out in the elements somewhere in the region of 2500 metres.
The next morning, after thawing out in the third morning of brilliant sunshine bathing the Southern Japanese Alps, we climbed up and over to Jizo-dake, The Obelisk. After taking in the sweeping views we pointed our weary selves in the direction of the main trail and glissaded into the treeline. It took us the best part of the day to stagger off Houou-san, knees a-knocking, shoulders a-sagging. The snot rockets I shot out alternating nostrils suddenly turned to rivers of blood at some point in our delirium laced march and I plugged my nose with toilet paper from my pack. Patrick’s lips were cracked, his face red with sunburn. In a couple of days he’d be peeling from scalp to upper lip, adding the final touch to his living dead act.
We found the bus stop that promised deliverance back to civilisation with fifteen minutes to spare, outside a dilapidated old onsen in the woods. The place seemed eerily deserted. Collapsing on the stairs leading into the dark building we shared snacks with a scruffy brown dog that appeared on the scene. A wild grey haired old woman burst out of the doorway and brusquely demanded bus fares out of us, plus an extra 200 yen for our packs, thank-you very much, and while you’re at it don’t sit on my stairs you big, smelly, round-eyed foreigner types, you’ll scare off the customers. At least that was the impression we got. Too stuffed to be offended I asked for a Coke and she brought me out a can of some watered down, generic stuff, she charged like a wounded bull and had all the equivalent charm to boot. The cola hit the spot and I refrained from pushing my luck by asking for a soft cream to go with it. We toddled off, brown dog in tow, to the pick up point and plonked our sorry selves down on a pair of concrete blocks and waited for our bus ride out of there.