THE LAST ALP

OCTOBER 2009

#98 – YAKUSHI-DAKE

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The hut below the gentle rise of Taro-san was a bundle of red-roofed structures, appearing somewhat drab in the gloomy conditions, but I knew there was warmth inside, soft futons, a roof between me and the phantoms I feared lurked overhead.  I hurriedly vacated the world of cloud and wind and stepped inside the dark entranceway and hit up the lady at the cluttered reception for a square meal on either side of a good night’s sleep.

I was shown to my own quarters, such is the luxury of hiking during the work week at the end of the season, and later, dined with a few older gents, the only other lodgers that evening.

After breakfasting with them I gathered up my day pack and lethargically set to hitting the trail.  An icy nip to the air had me hunkering deep into the folds of my jacket.  Cloud had given way to a crystalline blue sky, and across the creeping pine I watched the Sun, crest the horizon to the left of Kuro-dake’s crown rising on a distant ridge.  Kurobegoro appeared startlingly different from that angle, in contrast to the open welcoming atmosphere when approaching from the east, the mountain held on to its secrets like a cloaked figure with its back to the world.

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I turned toward Yakushi-dake, making my way up into tracts of creeping pine and bamboo grass that bristled with frost in the shadowy hollows.  Climbing higher onto Yakushi’s wind blasted ridges I passed wooden signposts half eroded away by the forces of nature.  Lumps of wood that sported exposed rusty bolts where the timber had been scoured by wind, ice and flying grit.

Soon I hit the snow fields and found them an easy traverse.  Not too long after that the summit came into view at the end of a snow-covered ridge.  As I approached Yakushi’s crown, one of the fellows I’d overnighted with at the hut was down on his haunches firing up his camp stove.

The Last Alp

The Last Alp

“Coffee?” he offered and I happily encouraged him to brew up enough for two.  A small shrine with glass panelled doors and a pile of stones on its roof sat on the summit and I wondered how often it required replacing, having seen the state of the wind scarred signposts below.  Another hiker from the hut arrived and we took in the views, cloud obscured though they were, then I said ‘Sayonara,’ and headed back across the snow fields and down the long trail to the hut.  My mountain business in the Japanese Alps, having spanned three seasons, had finally come to an end.  It was time to bid farewell to the harsh realm of the thunderbird, where the brush pine creeps and the lightning dances on the chain laced ridgelines, where the ice clogged sawas churn with meltwater and the wind and snow and rain carve the landscape.

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The sun shone but the wind blew hard on my descent to the hut.  The lady huddled by the heater in the entrance reception called ahead for a taxi.  I had about a three-hour descent, down a trail into the woods and to the road at a spot called Oritate below the western reaches of Yakushi-dake.

I collected my gear, and turned my back on the Alps and winter’s fastening grip and made for autumn at lower elevations.  My knees knocked on the steep trail, there, the final glimpses of Yakushi’s summit was eventually lost in the treetops, the forest was bathed in a golden glow of sunlit beech.

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