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bei Ichiba, Nagano (Japan)
This was one of these rare occasions when I can manage a 2-day trip to the mountains. This time was also my first real experience in the South Alps (granted that Hakkorei does not really lie within the boundaries of the Alps). Shiomi-dake is 3052m high (East peak) in the North half of the South Alps.
From Tokyo it is already a long way to get to the highway exit (Matsukawa) and then it's another 30 minutes to the place where we camped and at least another 30 minutes to the end of the road (actually there was another 2km section but that was closed to traffic). In total it takes about 5 hours from my place to the start of the trail.
Day 0: On Friday night the sky was clear so I tried to take a few shots at the stars, as a practice run before the night at 2800m high. We stayed very low in altitude and there were lights around me so there was virtually no chance to get anything good. In the end one shot revealed the milky way but it is awfully grainy and looks terrible at anything bigger than 320 * 240 pixels.
Day 1: After a 2-hour night we rose at 4:20 AM (already quite bright even though it was before sunrise) and drove to the end of the road (1630m). With a 25-kilo backpack (possibly more or less 2 kg, it was too heavy to keep my arm steady when weighing the pack with the scale) we set foot on the forest road at 6:20 AM (the sun already high in the sky), after 40 minutes we reached the trail head (1790m) (鳥倉登山口). The trail enters the forest and after a short way uphill snow appeared. The snow overall was dense and packed with some softer spots giving in to our weights (especially so with a 25 kg-pack). Shorty the trail became a very long traverse, almost no uphill elevation for a while but exposure on the left required caution. I took the lead as long as I could take it, kicking forcefully in the dense snow with my winter boots to make steps. Most of it was OK but after repeated impacts I started to feel some light pain and welcome the break that I never care to take when hiking alone. Besides one stretch with very hard snow almost feeling like ice (which required more than 5 kicks to make each step) nothing turned out to be delicate. On the way we had a few vantage points towards the Center Alps to the West, the top part of which was still covered in a thick layer of snow.
At 10:30 we reached the ridge over Sanpuku hut (2600m) and we view opened towards the South, East and North. We could see our summit, Shiomidake to the North, seemingly too far to be reached. We kept going towards Sanpuku and the view improve towards the North (Nottori, Ainodake Kitadake, Kaikomagatake, Senjogatake) and also to the South (Arakawadake, Akaishidake and more summits that I can remember). The trail was barely noticeable as the snow was deep except for few spots exposed to the sun. Snow walls reaching above 1m high were quite common and required powerful kick steps to be overcome. Trees made progress even slower, constant attention both at ground level to avoid holes and at eye level to avoid branches was necessary. Falling into holes and sinking at mid-thigh level occurred countless of times. Only a few stretches were open and frees of obstacles, notably the ascent to Hontani yama.
We kept going this way with little to see besides the trees and the snow covered with dirt. Once we reached the branching point before a small summit preceding the location of the hut we decided to go for the bypass trail. It turned out to be a very unpleasant adventure and lasted 1h20 for barely 1km. The snow already melting for a month had reduced in thickness so that it was below tree level, but more than 1 to 2 meters remained, it means that 1) we can fall in a hole at any time 2) many trees are still bent under the weight of the snow and may have their trunks on the side barring the way 3) we are 1 to 2 meters taller compared to one standing on the ground (summer) and so it's impossible to make ones way without pushing trees at each step one takes. On top of that one needs to add the bulk of the pack which towers above one's head in the back.
When things reached their climax and morale was getting low suddenly the woods became more spread out and progress became fast and easy we found a relatively flat spot at 15:20. After some leveling with the shovels we pitched the tents and as we started preparations for dinner (melting snow etc.) I was planning to get to the ridge above in order to bet at first lodges for sunset (and stay as long as it took to get a nice shot at the stars). However after a few cups of sake (hakkaisan) my motivation dropped, but anyway it turns out the weather had turned cloudy and going up there would have been a waste of my time. Likewise the skies remained cloudy until after sunrise.
Day 2: We woke up at 3:30 AM, fresh with more than 7 hours of sleep. After breakfast preparations we set off around 5:30 AM with a lighter pack (we left all the useless gear in the tent). After 35 minutes through the woods walking straight uphill we got to the ridge and passed by Shiomi hut but I failed to notice it (a bit on the side almost entirely buried in snow). The visibility was far from great, we could not distinguish Kaikomagatake in the distance, likewise for the Center Alps. Kitadake and Ainodake were visible with a white background while the skies above us remained blue. After some snowy slopes when we got to about 2800m in altitude trees progressively disappear (first low pines then just rocks) and from there there was not much snow left. The summer trail was visible almost all the way and only a few patches of snow obliterated it now and there.
After some rock scrambling to bypass the snowy sections (the other guys put on crampons and used ice axes) we soon got to the Tengu iwa, which is impressive from a lower altitude but did not present major difficulty when climbing it. Before we knew it we were at the summit of Shiomidake (West peak) 3047m high at 7:40 AM. We gingerly moved to the East peak which is slightly taller at 3052m walking on the side of a cornice while, sliding to the South would be a very bad idea, walking too much on the other side could also be fatal (falling through the cornice) but the snow was stable and it was relatively safe.
We returned to the tent at 9:30 AM and then went back all the way to the car on the same trail. The snow had gotten softer so it was easier to fall in holes. We passed Hontani yama at 11:55 AM, Sanpuku hut 1:30 PM. From there the traverse was particularly delicate, the snow too soft and threatening to collapse under one's feet. When it got easier and I grew tired of the same routine I relaxed my attention and suddenly before I understood what happened my left foot slipped, with momentum my other leg was carried away and I fell and started to slide. In a split second I turned on my belly and grabbed at snow with my bare hands, luckily I managed to stop within 2 meters due to the wooden frame marking the trail (I was originally passing a bit above as it seemed more stable). Fortunately it was not a critical stretch and many trees would have caught me had I slid further. A good lesson: dense melting snow is a bitch, crampons are inefficient, and constant attention is a must.
At the end of a tedious walk we reached the trail head at 15:35 and the last 30 minutes on paved road seemed like a never ending.
Overall it was a relatively technical hike made harder with the snow, we had great views and the weather was good most of the time. It is a tough one at this time of the year two days.
After all the effort we dropped by the local onsen (Akaishi sou), it was a great one in open air, the water quite hot but the cool air of the mountain made it really enjoyable. Also it was cheap, 500 yen.
More pictures here: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/hohnuui8tsd1e0r/AADkqSauv_lNsgjaejsX1Udxa