#83 – AKAISHI-DAKE
Gun-shy after storms of the week before, I had one eye on the trail ahead and one on the skies, as the clock ticked toward lunch time, on the second day of my second foray into the Southern Alps that summer. From the hut on Arakawa’s Naka-dake, I descended out of the clouds, dropping down off the rugged peaks to the south via a plummeting trail, choked with summer grasses. Here the ptarmigan poked their heads out of the fronds swaying in the mountain breeze and eyed me off as I passed by. A mother foraged with her chicks. She seemed more interested in showing them the ropes than she was in me as I pointed my camera at her and her brood. The thunderbirds – as they are referred to in Japan – were go, and I prayed they weren’t a portent of things to come.
Hot, glorious, sunshine beat down on the back of my neck as I made it to the doorstep of the splendid little Arakawa Hut. It sat nestled in a greenery choked bowl beneath the soaring peaks of the Arakawa Mountains to the north and Akaishi-dake to the south. Ahh the sunshine, as welcome as it was, I knew it had a knack of stirring up some rather rambunctious weather at times. Cloud hugged the summits overhead. I kept my head down. I didn’t trust the stuff one little bit as white and fluffy and innocuous as it looked. As far as I was concerned, one little wispy horse tail on the horizon had the potential to fire off a lightning bolt and frazzle my arse as I pulled out a chair in the hut’s mess hall and sat myself down. Having strolled unaffected through cloud cloaked ridges for over twenty four hours, my recently induced paranoia had me calculating the narrowing odds as to when I’d be dumped upon from above again.
I ordered myself up a steaming curry rice. Hearty mountain fare. Feeding my face, I vigilantly watched the weather outside through a large window and scoured my map, squinting to make out the contour lines disecting the trail ahead. From the hut, the map indicated three hours of steady climbing to the top of Akaishi-dake, the Red Stone Peak. There was hut up there on the summit. As tentative as I was about any incoming tempest, I had to keep up the pace. Half days of hiking were not going to get me out of the Alps before the end of the Obon Holiday and my scheduled return to the grindstone. So push on it was. Make a dash for the top of Akaishi and assess the way on from behind the summit hut’s door.
Fed and watered I rejoined the trail heading south. The way on took me out of the clamouring scrub, through bare, rocky country. Soon the cloud swept down from the heights and the world turned white once more. I strained my ears for any hint of thunder, constantly prepared to turn tail and head back to the Arakawa Hut. Cover was at a premium on the path up Akaishi. Nooks in the rocks seemingly non existant. I felt like a walking lightning rod.
In the end there was nothing to fear and I made it over Ko-akaishi to the main summit without any dramas, consigning mountain 83 to the books. Akaishi was a magical place even in heavy cloud. Stone piled high on stone. At sunset the mountain’s faces of stone glow red in the fading light and it’s from this sight that it gets its name. I strode through the boulder fields hemmed in by cloud. There’d be no setting sunlight illuminating Akaishi that day. Heading down off its southern flanks I caught a glimpse of the towering summit fortress before it was hastily swalloed by cloud once more. With my sights set on the next hut a couple of hours away at a spot called Hyakkanbora I hurried on. I wandered a vast tract of flat ground, paved with stone and dressed with windblasted patches of creeping pine. Hijiri-dake, the next day’s target appeared out of cloud rising to my left into pale blue skies.
Arriving at Hyakkanbora with a sigh of equal parts exhaustion and relief I was waylaid by a trio of cheerful chaps as I headed through a bunch of tents to the hut.
“Do you drink beer, gaijin-san?”
“Oh! Well, yes!” I replied and grabbed hold of a tall can of ice cold beer that was thrust into my hand and dumped my gear down beside theirs. The usual interrogation ensued: name, nationality, reasons for being in their homeland, each response met with nods and grunts of approval. We carried on into the night. One of the fellas was proud to show off his worn out pair of gripless tennis shoes he’d been hiking in for his entire week in the Southern Alps and mutter his disdain for cumbersome hiking boots. He handed out food, pickles and tiny dried fish and I bought more beer back for each of us after I went to check into the hut. At some point, before inebriation took firm hold, I said my good nights and retired. For all my thunderstorm paranoia, it had turned out to be one of those sublime days in the mountains. Summits reached, glorious hiking, no weather dramas and good company at the end of it all. I curled up in my sleeping bag on my small space on the hut floor and quickly fell soundly asleep, serenaded by the snores of three floors of hikers.