#80 – AI-NO-DAKE
Ai-no-dake, the largest of all the mountains in the Alps, ‘sprawling limitlessly like some great oaf,’ as Fukada-san noted, grew larger, filling the sky to the south, as I slowly picked my way down Kita-dake to the red roofed hut below.
At the Kita-dake Hut I waited in a short line to pay for a camping space and book dinner and breakfast. Apparently, according to conventions in the mountains, dinner inside the hut is reserved for the lodgers and the lodgers are supposed to have reserved a futon space well before showing up. Campers are supposed to fend for themselves, or feed on the ‘take out’ the huts provide. Maybe it was because of my scrawny look – ‘Feed the poor bugger before he dies on us’ – on my six month sojourn through the mountains of Japan the year before or simply because I was a ‘gaijin’ and not expected to know the protocols anyway. Whatever the reasons, I had become accustomed to just turning up at hut doorsteps late in the day, looking like a lost puppy and politely requesting nourishment or a bed or both. The hut owners were always happy to relieve me of my yen and well, maybe that’s all it came down to anyway. ‘Mister, if you’re happy to squeeze in between ten dozen snoring and farting golden oldies, who’ll probably trample you to death before dawn on their ways out, please, be our guest.’ That night, seeking dinner and breakfast and a tent space in the dirt outside, I was quickly accommodated and directed to where I should rig up my little green shelter. Once set up, I stripped to my undies and lay back on top of my unfurled sleeping bag for an afternoon nap. After the long climb up and over Kita-dake, as soon as my head hit my inflatable pillow, I passed out. Some university student types were camped next door and as I was setting up, it sounded like the party was well underway. One of them at one point unzipped my tent by mistake and shrieked. She wasn’t the only one to receive the fright of her life. If my tent wasn’t solidly pegged into the earth it would have shot ten feet into the air, such was the shock I got. I guessed that blew my chances of an invite to any shenanigans later on.
Dinner in the hut was the usual mountain fare: rice, miso soup, vegetables and pickles and a shrivelled fish that looked and tasted as though it had been scraped off a salt pan in the desert – not the best to look at with its warped, open-mouthed visage, but absolutely delicious. I ate quietly in the mess hall of the hut as dozens of fellow hikers slurped and guzzled their dinners around me.After the meal I wandered back out to my tent through heavy, swirling mists that had swept in and wrapped themselves around the mountains. The air was chilly. A couple of old fellas smoked and drank at the edge of the light cast by the hut buildings. Hut generators hummed in the darkness. Noise in the huddle of tents had dropped to muffled murmurs. I slid into my sleeping bag and, although I always inflated a thin little sleeping pad, slept restlessly until morning.
By pre-sunrise breakfast the mists hadn’t lifted but sunshine was thankfully forecast or so it said on the notice posted inside the hut. Well, sunshine until lunchtime anyway. After that, rain was predicted to rear its ugly head. It was summer so I supposed a bit of afternoon precipitation was to be expected at times. ‘If it came, I’d live with it,’ I thought.
It was to be a two mountain day – Ai-no-dake was set for conquest during the morning proceedings, while further on, Shiomi-dake was scheduled for an afternoon goings over. Following that, I’d descend to a well-earned beer in the hut just beyond its summit.
Dawn was barely breaking as I slowly made my way out onto the trail that rose gently toward Ai-no-dake. A wind whipped in, gusting from the west. As I leant into it, it failed to cast the sailing mists off the mountain. As my clothes grew damp in the wind, I ducked behind a stack of thrusting rock. A quick pee was in order before donning my wet weather gear to keep the moisture and chilliness at bay. I followed the paint marks on the trail and the half visible splodges of colour that were other hikers in the fog ahead of me. As the light grew, I strode on through a brightening, yet still damp, veil of white.
Eventually the morning sun prevailed and burned through the mists strafing the final approach to the summit. Fuji-san sat so close you could almost touch it. A small crowd had gathered on Ai-no-dake’s wide, rocky top. Some had fired up their camp ovens in the shelter of the nubbin beneath the summit marker. I scanned the horizons for the supposed incoming weather. Far to the north-west, beyond the peaks of Kita, Kaikoma and Senjo, a white bank of cloud was building.
‘Still a long way off,’ was my assessment.
With Ai-no-dake taken care of, I had officially hit the Twenty Mountains To Go mark and knocked off the fourth highest peak in the land. Things were progressing well, and although it was early on in my assault of the Alps that summer, my spirits were high. I had a fellow hiker snap a couple of shots of me alongside the summit post, and after spending a relaxing twenty or so minutes up there ogling uninterrupted views, bathed in reassuring rays of sunlight, I set my sights on the high, round-topped peak to the south: Shiomi-dake.