East Tokyo Cycle Tour

Note: I wrote most of this last spring for a previous incarnation of my blog, but am republishing here since my Facebook feed is full of cherry blossom photos now. We did this on April 6, 2017, so almost exactly a year ago.

So Tokyo’s shitamachi(下町), literally “low city”, is a great place to cycle around because it’s a filled in swamp and very flat. Since it’s so flat, it’s not very difficult to get around on a mamachari, typical Japanese neighborhood grocery shopping bike which may or may not have more than one gear.

Last spring, after the snow season, I took some of the Schneider season staff who were staying at a backpackers near Asakusa on a cycle tour of the east side of Tokyo (otherwise they were stuck partying in neon-lit Shibuya).

IMG_0462

Cherry blossoms in full bloom along a canal near Fukagawa

Here’s the itinerary we took: Asakusa Station -> Kiyosumi Garden -> Tsukishima -> Tsukiji Market -> Kabukiza Theatre -> Imperial Palace -> Sumida River -> Asakusa Station

Taito City Rent-a-Cycle

Taito City, the municipality where Asakusa is located, rents mamachari type bicycles for 300 yen a day (return by 8PM) from four locations. The most convenient pick up point for us was the Sumida Park underground bike parking facility located right next to Asakusa Station and Azumabashi Bridge.

I called ahead the morning of to try to reserve 4 bikes for us, and was told I could not reserve but that we would have no problem renting 4 bikes after 12 noon (this is why we ended up starting our tour around 1PM). So I would recommend calling ahead for availability.

The number for the Sumida Park rental location is 03-3841-4031 (likely Japanese only).

Here’s the Taito City rent-a-cycle website:

https://www.city.taito.lg.jp/index/kurashi/kotsu/jitensha/rental.html (Japanese only)

There are numerous other options to rent bikes on the east side of Tokyo, but this public one is the cheapest.

You need to bring photo ID (passport or residence card for foreigners) and fill out the address of where you are staying to rent the bike. But it was a pretty smooth process and the bikes were of not bad quality. (I suspect this is where some of those abandoned mamachari’s at train stations that get fixed up by retirees in each municipality end up.)

There was a cool bike escalator to help you push the bike up the ramp out of the underground parking facility.

IMG_0427

Bike escalator

Kiyosumi Garden

Kiyosumi Garden is a Meiji Era Japanese garden administered by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. It’s designed so that you take a meandering walk around the pond, over bridges and stepping stones. The pond was full of koi, turtles, ducks and tons of tadpoles. There were also many beautiful birds stopping by. We were surprised by the amount of wildlife in the garden. Here’s the official website: http://teien.tokyo-park.or.jp/en/kiyosumi/index.html.

IMG_0435

Please do not be an obnoxious gaijin and disturb the wildlife in Kiyosumi Garden

Tsukishima Monja Street

Completed in 1892, Tsukishima is the oldest landfill island in Tokyo Bay.

Enough high-minded tour-guiding. Actually, this entire cycling itinerary was born of my idea to take my friends down to Tsukishima for monjayaki lunch. Monja is my favorite food to haze visitors with, because it looks like vomit. But the ingredients are pretty benign and who doesn’t like to play with their food? I’m a nice person. I could be hazing visitors with shiokara (fermented squid pickled in it’s own guts).

Read more about monjayaki here.

There’s a covered shopping street on Tsukishima that is lined with monjayaki shops. Just pick a shop that looks busy but not too busy and walk in!

IMG_0476

Monja Street

Tsukiji Market

I’ve never seen the tuna auction and waking up at 3 am to line up for Sushi Dai does not appeal to me, but the outer (retail) market is always fun to walk around. Everything closes down by 3 pm though, so not much was open when we passed through here on the bike tour.

IMG_0479

A bit of afternoon snack

Kabukiza Theatre

Cycling straight down Harumi-dori from Tsukiji to Hibiya to get to the Imperial Palace, you will pass Kabukiza Theatre. The building is now kind of interesting from an architectural perspective because is was rebuilt in 2013 to have an abomination of a skyscraper coming right out of the top of it, kind of like Grand Central Station in New York.

Kabuki theatre is the Elizabethan theatre (e.g. Shakespeare) of Japan. It was born of entertainment for the masses, so there is witty banter, beautiful dancing, and exciting action scenes involving trap doors and other stage tricks. You don’t need to understand Japanese or know anything about the story (Kabuki plays tend to be in media res like Greek plays) to enjoy it. Traditionally kabuki was an all day affair where you would go and eat and drink and socialize all day (like Peiking Opera) and plays went on forever so people wouldn’t always be paying attention (like American baseball). Now, Kabuki performances are usually just a series of highlights from the most famous plays broken into matinee and evening sessions. If you want to see kabuki and have not planned in advance (the lower price tickets tend to sell out quick), you can try your luck to get a hitomakumi “one-act” ticket on the day of the performance. Tokyo Cheapo has a good article about how to do hitomakumi. 

Imperial Palace

We passed near Nijibashi of the Imperial Palace. The Imperial Palace sits in the middle of Tokyo and since all train lines have to go around it, no train line in Tokyo seems to go straight east-west or north-south, making the Tokyo Metro map super intimidating. The palace is almost an exact 5KM loop making it a popular spot with runners.

IMG_0487

No bikes allowed here. Police came to shoo us away.

Sumida River

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a good bike path along the Sumida River. There is a walking and jogging path, but bikes are not allowed. We cycled across the bridge near Asakusabashi, headed north a bit on the other side of the river and then crossed back over another bridge before taking some back streets back up to Asakusa and the Sumida Park bicycle parking facility. There is apparently a cycle path along the Arakawa that I would like to check out next time.

IMG_0488

Obligatory golden poo and Sky Tree photo

Trip Data:

  • Total Cost: 300 yen bike rental + 150 yen entrance to Kiyosumi Park + 1700 yen monja lunch incl. one beer = 2150 yen per person
  • Distance: ~10 km
  • Time: 5 hours (including signing up for and returning the rental bikes, fully enjoying the wildlife in Kiyosumi Garden, two rounds of monja at lunch, and a stroll through Tsukiji Market)

Google Map of the tour for your reference below:

 

Processing Failure: John Muir Trail 2017

I haven’t quite known what to write about the John Muir Trail, because I did not finish it. I was so excited, so pumped, so confident I was prepared. I had spent the whole summer preparing. I had put my life on hold to prepare. I did not seek employment all summer. I took a wilderness first aid course. I built up my backpacking skills with multiple multi-day high elevation trips, dialed down my gear, had a packing system, learned how I like to camp, how I like to eat and otherwise plan my hiking day. I completed complicated administrative paperwork and planned months ahead to export my dog from Japan and import her to Taiwan so my parents could take care of her while I was in the States for six weeks. I was so ready for the rush of an “I CAN do anything I set my mind to!” confidence boost to propel me to the next great thing I would think of.

In my mind, the JMT was a series of shorter multi-day hikes: 3 days to Tuolumne Meadows, 4 days to Red’s Meadow, 3 days to VVR, 8 days to Kearsarge Pass, 5 days to Whitney Portal. By the time I hit the trail I had already hiked 5 days in a row before, the only part I was really worried about was the 8-day segment. Would all my food fit in my bear can? Would my scalp get too itchy?

When my hiking partner Jackie and I arrived at Tuolumne Meadows on the afternoon of Wednesday, September 20 and picked up our resupply boxes, the postman informed us that 1-2 inches of snow were forecast overnight.

“What are we going to do if it snows? We don’t have crampons or four-season tents.” Jackie asked, extremely concerned, almost fearfully.

“One or two inches of snow isn’t going to do anything. It’ll melt off. Crampons won’t help with fresh snow anyway.” I brushed off Jackie’s concerns. It had not occurred to me at all that we’d think of leaving the trail so early. We’d only been 3 days on the trail and on that day Jackie had just gotten into the swing of things, worked out the kinks in all her brand new gear, learned to pack her bag and was finally getting her hiking legs and looking like she was actually enjoying the hiking.

I woke up in the middle of the night to my tent touching my forehead. That’s weird, I thought groggily, my tent site is very flat, how did I slide down to one end? No matter, I’ll just scooch down a little…. Wait. Something is pressing down on my feet. “Arrugh! Muuurrghh!” *punch kick punch kick* In a claustrophobic half-awake panic, I make sounds that are not words.

“Tina! Tina!” I hear Jackie call as I realize the stuff pressing down on me is snow. Realizing it’s snow, I dig around for my headlamp and my mind is rushing. What can I use for a snow shovel? What can I use as a snow shovel? I put on rain pants and rain jacket, my glove liners and extra rubberized gloves salvaged the day before from the Half Dome cable glove pile, grab an empty 2L Sawyer Squeeze bag, and unzip the vestibule of my tent. A pile of snow drops down. “Whumph!”

All sides of my little hexagonal tent were pressed down and buried in the snow. Anticipating a stormy night, I’d pitched my SMD Lunar Solo low to shed wind, but that meant it was especially ill-suited to shed snow. The Sawyer Squeeze bag turned out to work quite well as a snow scoop, and after digging my tent out and re-tensioning it, I helped Jackie dig her tent out. When I thought of 1-2 inches of snow falling overnight on our tents, I had imagined light snow fluttering away. I forgot that early season snow tends to be wet and heavy. In any case it was more like 6-8 inches of snow that fell anyway.

In the morning, everyone was huddled inside Tuolumne Meadows Grill warming up with hot food and drink and exchanging information. The few northbounders, so close to finishing their hikes, were going to continue on. Someone reported that at least 10 southbounders had departed that morning already and they had tramped down a trail, so it should be fine, and two southbounders we were talking to decided to keep hiking. So late in the season many of the hikers were PCTers that had already hiked all the way to Canada and were back to finish the Sierras they had skipped earlier in the summer; they were very experienced and willing to suffer. I can’t remember what conversation I had with Jackie, but she was not prepared to handle the snow at all. I look back at my journal and right after getting back in my sleeping bag after the snow collapsed tent ordeal, I wrote “Alt plan shuttle back to Yosemite, stay a night, shuttle back to Tuolumne over weekend when it’s sunny.” That was the beginning of our compromise plan. I don’t think I would have left the trail if I didn’t think I could get back on it. It was the last weekend the YARTS bus was scheduled to run.

Down in Lee Vining we learned that the YARTS bus would only run that weekend if Tioga Pass was open by 2 PM Friday (it snowed again Thursday night), and, obviously, not subsequently closed. Back on the Internet, reading reports of knee to thigh deep snow on Donohue Pass made me more and more depressed. I moped over gourmet fish tacos and a slice of carrot cake as big as my head and drowned my sorrows in Mammoth Lakes beer. I think Jackie took pity on me when she proposed we hop on the bus Saturday morning instead of Sunday morning, as was our original plan (to wait until the snow had melted more).

Back on the trail, Lyell Canyon was gorgeous, with trees iced for the holidays, the clear stream singing over the rocks, and Donohue Pass glistening high and white in the distance like something out of the Lord of the Rings. During the day it was brilliant and perfect hiking weather, not at all cold and not at all sweaty, but once the sun dropped below the ridge to the west of the valley, it became deathly cold.

I was too elated to be back on the trail to care and, despite the biting wind, left my tent fly half open to watch the stars appear as ice crawled toward the middle of the small pool at Upper Lyell Base Camp. In the morning, it was so cold that the water in my cook pot started to freeze over as soon as I filtered it in, and ice crystals grew off the top of the Sawyer Squeeze Filter when I set it down. I didn’t sleep well, shifting my weight over my crappy sleeping pad when various body parts went numb, but my toes stayed warm. Jackie, on the other hand, had a truly miserable night. No matter what, I really really wanted to get over Donohue Pass, and she really really did not want to spend another two subzero (Celsius) nights in the backcountry. We compromised. I got one more night so we could go over Donohue Pass to Thousand Island Lake and she got one less night because we would take up our campsite-mates Jerry and Sam’s offer of a ride from Agnew Meadows. As it turned out, between Thousand Island Lakes being so breathtakingly amazing and me throwing in sleeping bag liner, Benadryl and earplugs to make things marginally more bearable for Jackie, we did hike all the way to Red’s Meadow before calling it quits.

Could I have continued on by myself after Red’s Meadow? I don’t know. One big mistake we made is Jackie and I never discussed how to handle the kind of situation we found ourselves in where one person wants to bail and one person wants to keep going. When we applied for the permit, neither of us had backpacked before, but by the time we got on the trail I was a much more experienced hiker than she was. As it turned out, we had different priorities, expectations, fitness levels, risk tolerance, and congenital cold tolerance. Jackie was also nursing what turned into a full-blown sinus infection after so many nights in the cold. The other big mistake was that we underestimated what it meant to hike in the Sierras in the shoulder season. Days were short to make miles and camping in freezing was miserable. Services were shuttering up along the trail. We were in Tuolumne Meadows the last weekend it was open. MTR was already closed. We probably could’ve hiked to VVR, but egress from VVR is to the west of the Sierras and seemed logistically difficult. South of VVR all lateral trails would take over a day of extra hiking to reach a remote trailhead. We didn’t know if some of those trails were even passable since they were little travelled this year due to the unusually high snow pack. And if the reason we had to take a lateral trail to exit the JMT was snow, it would be highly likely the relevant access roads would be closed… maybe until next spring! A couple weeks after we got off the trail, I learned that a pair of hikers we met on the YARTs bus back to Tuolumne Meadows did manage to make it to Mt. Whitney. Seeing that on Facebook threw me into another depressive slump. The weather had held out for them, but, as a Facebook commenter noted, that was a matter of luck. I was super jealous, but I am too risk adverse for that.

So, I still yearn for the Sierra Nevada and Mt. Whitney beckons. I would like to try to hike the JMT again next year between late-August and early-September; my permit options have widened because I have done the section inside Yosemite National Park. But, I don’t know if I can put off life for another year to do it. I still don’t know what I am doing with my life, and I don’t want the JMT to be a weird excuse for not making hard decisions… or maybe I should just hike the PCT from April 2018 while I’m at it, “it” being procrastinating from “real life”.

IMG_4365

Disaster strikes

IMG_4444.jpg

Looking up Tioga Pass on Friday evening from the Mobil gas station in Lee Vining (home of the Whoa Nellie Deli), hoping it won’t snow overnight again

IMG_4480.jpg

Back on the trail!

IMG_4585.jpg

At least I got to see this

[If you haven’t seen them already, I posted my best photos from the JMT along with a short daily summary for each day of my 9 Day 2017 JMT Adventure on Instagram (@tumeketina or see the Instagram widget on the right column of this blog) shortly after leaving the trail in October.] 

A Song of Ice and Fire: 7 Days on Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier

I recently attended a 7-Day Mountain Skills Course (MSC) with Aspiring Guides out of Wanaka, New Zealand and it was much more epic than I could have imagined.

My motivation in signing up for a beginner mountaineering course was driven by everything I read on social media while following the exceptionally high snowpack in the Sierras over the past summer in connection with preparing for the JMT. Additionally, after hiking to both Xueshan and Dabajianshan in Shei-pa National Park in Taiwan, I was intrigued by the fabled Holy Ridge (聖稜線) traverse that connects the two peaks that purportedly requires some rock climbing and rope knowledge. Basically, I wanted to learn about snow travel, basic climbing and rope skills and orienteering, so that I could expand the range of terrain and conditions that I am comfortable being in by myself in the outdoors.

The Aspiring Guides MSC course was overkill for my immediate goals and quite a financial commitment, but I was already scheduled to go on a trip to New Zealand and I had always dreamed of spending time in the Southern Alps. It turned out to be totally worth it and exceeded my expectations.

Day 1, November 19 (Sunday) – Travel Day and Rope Skills

The course began with viewing the weather forecast for the week. Because we were blessed with an exceptionally good weather window, our guide Whitney (originally from the US but has been living and working in the mountains of NZ for as long as I’ve been alive; a hard-core mountain man who does not pack extra socks!) explained that the plan was to conduct our course on the West Coast. We would drive to Fox Glacier, helicopter up to Centennial Hut on the Franz Josef Glacier, travel to Pioneer Hut and then walk down the Fox Glacier to Chancellor Hut and helicopter out from there.

After sorting out gear, packing our packs, making some sandwiches, and stopping at a local outfitter to pick up last minute items, we left Wanaka around 11:30 AM and drove over the pass to Fox Glacier, arriving at about 3:30 PM. It was a treat to get this unexpected side trip to a part of New Zealand I’d never been to before. Once you cross the divide, the mountains on the West Coast are densely forested instead of covered with short desert-y scrub like in Rohan (i.e. Central Otago). It’s temperate rainforest with lush giant ferns that look like they are from WHEN DINOSAURS WALKED THE EARTH. The high Southern Alps catch the moisture from air blowing from the west over the Tasman Sea and cast a rain shadow to the east.

IMG_5990.jpg

Perhaps for weight balancing reasons, I got to sit in the front seat of the helicopter! It was the first time I’d flown in a helicopter I can remember, and running down to the helicopter, kneeling beside it with my hand on my head to holding down my hat was pretty exciting. We lifted off. Pastoral cow pastures quickly gave way to primordial green forest that soon turned into a real live glacier and snowy alpine landscape.

After settling into Centennial Hut and marveling at the view down Franz Josef Glacier to the Tasman Sea, we had an indoor lesson inside the hut on how to rope up for glacier travel, presumably so that we could walk out of the hut in the morning and not die.

Day 2, November 20 (Monday) – Learning to Walk

The first on-snow day of the course was about learning the basics of how to walk on a glacier. We began the morning by abseiling (rappelling) down from the hut because we didn’t know how to walk down the hill yet! Then, we learned how to walk in crampons and use our ice axes to self-arrest before practicing tromping around Chamberlin Snowfield. Cramponing is hard on the ankles and my rental boots gave me heel blisters on both feet despite having stopped to apply duct tape at the first sign of a hot spot.

IMG_6075

Abseiling from the hut

IMG_6094

All roped up!

Having learned how to walk on the snow, we climbed up beside a rockfall for a lunch break and a view of the snowfield, but quickly skedaddled when some rocks began rolling down nearby.

IMG_6082.jpg

All the views!

IMG_6106

The view from our lunch spot

IMG_6109

IMG_6110.jpg

IMG_6116.jpg

We got back to the hut for tea (in the British or American, not Kiwi, sense) before 2 PM. After a short rest, we had an indoor lesson on how to use prussics with a carabiner attached to the roof beam of the hut until other parties arrived / returned to the hut for the night.

Day 3, November 21 (Tuesday) – Learning to Climb

So far I have patched my heel, my pants, my pen and my headlamp with duct tape. Today’s morning call was at 4 AM, so when I went for my morning pee, I could see the Pleiades from the toilet window.

IMG_6217

Dawn at Centennial Hut

After a hearty egg and bacon breakfast (we were well fed on the course, helped by the fact that there was natural refrigeration outside), we were off to learn how to use snow stakes. Then, we climbed a small col near the hut to practice pitching and had lunch with a view of the valley of Rudolf Glacier, which feeds into Tasman Glacier, looking down toward Mt. Cook Village, which was obscured by the sea of clouds filling the valley.

IMG_6141.jpg

IMG_6157.jpg

IMG_6149

IMG_6150

We were headed down the way we came when, unexpectedly, we were in white out conditions. We had a quick tutorial on navigating in white-out by GPS (Gaia GPS on Whitney’s iPhone). I was leading and had trouble telling if the terrain was going up or down in front of me making me feel a little vertigo. We considered retreating back to the hut, but then Whitney managed to find the small face leading to the ridge above the hut and we got to practice using our new pitching skills on steeper terrain. By the time we reached the top, the weather had cleared, but by then we were all exhausted and ready for a break and a cup of tea.

IMG_6168.jpg

IMG_6169.jpg

IMG_6171.jpg

IMG_6172.jpg

In the afternoon, we top-roped the rock in front of Centennial Hut past the drop toilet. It took a while for Whitney to find secure points on the top to place protection and make an anchor, then we abseiled down and climbed back up. It was my first time rock climbing outside. It’s hard to belay on a ledge because you can’t just back up to take up rope in a jiffy, you have to pull faster! My triceps were super sore from belaying all day, on ice and rock.

IMG_6176

IMG_6182

Day 4, November 22 (Wednesday) – Crevasse Rescue

In the morning we covered crevasse rescue: how to get out of a crevasses if you fall in, and how to help someone else out if they fall in. Hanging in a crevasse peering down into the alluring glacial blue was a beautiful respite from the bright sun on the surface of the snow. Everyday, after about 9 AM when the sun would come over the ridge, the temperature would rapidly get hotter and hotter as the effect of sun reflecting off the snow created what felt like a microwave oven, so that we would wish we were back in the refuge of the hut by 11 AM. By the time we finished our cravasse rescue lesson, the snow had softened in the intense heat and post-holing back to the hut really aggravated my blisters.

IMG_6193.jpg

IMG_6198.jpg

After lunch we went to climb the first gendarme under Mt. Jervois closest to Centennial Hut. This was my first multi-pitch rock climb! I was rewarded with an epic view.

IMG_6203.jpg

IMG_6210.jpg

We had to keep our faces covered like little old Chinese ladies to keep from getting sunburned.

IMG_6212.jpg

View from the top — you can see our tracks leading to Centennial Hut below

One the way down, I caused an avalanche of hot isothermic afternoon snow by throwing the rope down for the abseil. It started off small and rapidly picked up speed and surface area and churned into what looked like a giant white river rapid. Hey look! I managed to throw the rope all the way to the bottom without it getting caught on anything! Then we glissaded (read: slid on our butts) part way down before tromping down deep unbonded snow that sucked but probably would’ve made a nice spring ski.

After crevasse rescue in the morning and climbing in the afternoon, I was so tired I could barely write this daily trail journal, but I managed to recover enough to do a tiny bit of laundry (underwear, buff, a pair of socks) and jerry rig a fancy clothesline out of climbing gear and the knots I’d learned.

Day 5, November 23 (Thursday) – Flying The Nest

We were like baby birds in the nest with an attentive mother teaching us how to fly. And today we flew the nest. Having learned how to walk on flat stuff, climb up and down steeper stuff and get out of a crevasse, we embarked from Centennial Hut to travel to Pioneer Hut… a grand journey of 5-6 kilometers.

We roped up for glacier travel like pros, crossed the now familiar Davis Snowfield, and climbed a small pass confidently, making good time. We were rewarded with an amazing view of snow-capped Mt. Tasman, second highest peak in New Zealand, and a new glacier to travel on, Fox Glacier.

IMG_6222

First view of Mt. Tasman

IMG_6223

Goodbye, Davis Snowfield!

Then, we were asked to abseil down the other side, at which point we realized we weren’t quite ready to be travelling out there over the glaciers without our Mommy. Our abseil was just past a yawning crevasse to the left and took us onto a huge pile of avalanche debris. I managed to hammer the snow stakes for our anchor into the hard snow without smashing my fingers too much. Win! (Comment: “You are not much of a carpenter are you.”) We abseiled one by one. As the last two of us were hypothesizing how we would get the anchor out after the group finished getting down, Whitney came strolling back up the hill as if it was a walk in the park. Later, he explained that as we get more experience cramponing, we’ll get more confident on steeper slopes and not have to pitch so much, which is a really slow way to travel.

IMG_6227.jpg

IMG_6228.jpg

IMG_6229.jpg

By the time we all got down past the avalanche debris it was about 10:30 AM and the snow was softening quickly. It was a race to get across the snowfield and get to Pioneer Hut before the snow got too soft and the slog got too brutal. We managed to reached Pioneer Hut before noon and had a big rest and instant noodle lunch before going back outside to play in the snow – crawling around in crevasses looking for suitable bivy spots and learning to dig a snow cave. I think our snow cave was only about a quarter done before all four of us got tired and went back inside to dry off and have a hot drink. Lesson learned – between the possibility of falling into the depths of a crevasse in your sleep if you build a shelf in a crevasse and the sheer amount of digging it takes to build a comfortable snow cave – mountain huts are great! Thank you, New Zealand Alpine Club!

IMG_6239.jpg

View from Pioneer Hut. Look at all the crevasses and avalanches! That’s where we came from!

Day 6, November 24 (Friday) – Learning When to Retreat

Light cloud cover this morning gave us amazing sunrise colors on the way to Engineer Col, which we were attempting to climb before the snow got too soft. On the way, we ran into two of our hut mates curled atop their backpacks attempting to nap on the glacier. They’d left the hut at midnight to attempt an ascent of Mt. Tasman and had had to turn back because the snow was too soft and dangerous. I followed their tracks through the bottom of the ice fall below Marcel Col, imagining it was like walking through Khumbu Icefall enroute to summiting Mt. Everest, when I was rebuked by the guide and we quickly got out of there. The icefall consisted of huge square chunks of snow and ice that looked like giant fluffy marshmallow squares.

IMG_6308.jpg

Clouds blowing over Mt. Haast, Mt. Tasman still hidden

IMG_6310.jpg

Icefall below Marcel Col

IMG_6314.jpg

Climbing up snow-capped Mt. Tasman (Just kidding, but we were going the same way)

We practiced setting up pitches and belaying each other part way up Marcel Col, but snow conditions were worsening even as we got higher. You would think the snow would be more solid as we went up in elevation, but it seemed to get softer and our anchors less secure. So, Whitney called it and we hiked a loop back down Marcel Col past some huge crevasses.

IMG_6334.jpg

IMG_6335.jpg

At about 11 the snow turned to slush and the sun beat down, cooking me in my black wool hiking top. When we stopped for a break, I rolled around in the snow to cool down. It was a long, hot slog back to the hut. I can deal with cold, but not heat, and it was especially unbearable that we had to stay wrapped up head to toe like old Chinese ladies afraid to get a tan. I wished I’d packed my billowy white woven desert hiking shirt.

IMG_6341

Snow, snow, everywhere but so f-ing hot!

When we got back to the hut we were gloriously rewarded with booty stolen out of two unattended cardboard boxes waiting at the helicopter landing spot. We’d been spoiled by the fresh meat and veg that Whitney had packed in and eaten all of that heavy and bulky stuff before hiking over to Pioneer Hut where Whitney had conjured up a satisfactory but unexciting mystery box dinner from non-perishables in the Aspiring Guides box and free hut food left by others. The booty meant we had meat and fresh vegetables again!

IMG_6343

Interesting afternoon clouds behind (in)famous Pioneer Hut loo, which you need to rope up to get to in bad weather

IMG_6344.jpg

Sunset from Pioneer Hut

Day 7, November 25 (Saturday) – Tourist-ing

There’d been a thick low cloud hanging over the towns of Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier down on the coast. We hadn’t been able the see down the sea since the first day we arrived. While we were roasting on the glaciers under intense cloudless blue skies above this cloud layer, the sky had been quiet because no helicopters were able to come up from the West Coast. The booty we stole was off another Aspiring Guides group that had been scheduled to fly out but was unable to and ended up having to stay an extra night. Whitney had spent the better part of the afternoon yesterday working the satellite phone and radio to make sure we’d be able to get out today, since people had flights to catch tomorrow. The last resort was to fly east to Mt. Cook Village, which would be more expensive and a logistical hassle because our van was parked in Fox Glacier.

When I got up at about 6 AM, the cloud down in the glacier valley looked the same as always but after our hearty pancake breakfast it was gone! We grabbed a heli out as soon as possible, so as not to miss this good weather window, so we’re down in Fox Glacier having a coffees and ice creams by 9:30 AM.

Since we missed hiking down to Chancellor Hut, we missed our only possible chance to ice climb on this trip. Ice climbing was the only topic we were supposed to cover for this course that we weren’t able to cover due to conditions. While it was a bit sad our ice screws saw no use the whole trip, I was a tiny bit relived my blister-full feet got a break. I had had a vivid blister nightmare involving the blister on my right heel getting worse and my flesh heel beginning to flake like smoked salmon and having to go the hospital and being thwarted by fat grubby caterpillars… I thought I woke myself up crying out in my sleep, but no one said they heard me.

One the drive back to Wanaka, we stopped for a short walk to the beach, where we’re excited to watch porpoises frolick in the waves until the sandflies found us. I guess no trip to New Zealand is complete without a few sandfly bites. When we crossed the small stream on our way back to the car, one of my flipflops floated away and I chased after it with quite a vengance because I was not putting those rental mountaineering boots back on again!

IMG_6386.jpg

We woke up on a glacier and now we’re on a beach!

After a classic Kiwi fish and chips lunch in Haast, followed by a full belly and warm van induced nap, we arrived safety back at the Aspiring Guides office in Wanaka, where we were promptly offered a beer to enjoy while we sorted out our gear, repacked and had our credit cards finally charged for the helicopter ride out and any rental gear items we used. Then, getting a shower was the number one priority on everyone’s agenda, so Whitney dropped us off at our respective lodgings. We liked each other so much that we all met up for beers and dinner later in the evening. It was a great way to wrap up a killer week of new terrain, new skills and new friends.

IMG_5437

It was an honor to learn and grow smelly with these guys over the course of the week. (photo courtesy of Whitney)

Tips and Tricks

If you, like me, are looking to transition from hiking to mountaineering, here are a few tips I learned on my trip.

1. How to carry an ice axe and snow stake on a ULA Circuit Pack: I couldn’t figure this out on the Internets and actually wrote ULA to ask, but the solution is you can stick an ice axe down one of the the toggled loops for your trekking poles and then secure the handle with the bungy cord on the front (loop around for extra security). A snow stake fits down the side compression strap and into the side water bottle pocket. I didn’t buy any dedicated mountaineering gear for this trip and my stuff was a blend of my existing hiking gear and snowboarding gear, but I’m happy to report that the ULA Circuit Pack worked great for my trip. The long strap over to top which I usually use to hold my sleeping pad worked great to carry the rope coiled up when we didn’t need it.

IMG_6043

How to carry an ice axe and snow stake on a ULA Circuit pack

2. If you rent boots and already have your own insoles (e.g. Superfeet), bring them! I suffered.

3. Bring a light colored summer desert hiking shirt. White snow under bright sun is hot!

4. Do not feed the local wildlife, but if you have to, they like pancakes, preferably with a maple syrup / butter sauce, and single malt whisky.

IMG_6390.jpg

Hiking the Hakuba Range (白馬連峰)

At the end of August, looking to escape the Tokyo summer heat, I took a highway bus from Shinjuku to Hakuba, the famous ski town in Nagano, for a three-day solo hike in the Hakuba Range.

Hakuba hike map

My 3-day hiking route and planned alternate course, in case of adverse weather.

Day 1: Wednesday, August 30

Happo Ike Hut (八方池山荘) –> Karamatsudake Hut (唐松岳頂上山荘) (4.56km)

The 6:35 AM highway bus from Shinjuku Bus Terminal direct to Hakuba Happo Bus Terminal arrived on time at around 11:45 AM. First things first, I went to the Montbell store on the second floor of the bus terminal building to purchase a fuel canister. Then, I got directions and a bus schedule for post-hike logistics from the information counter.

To reach the beginning of my hike, I took the Adam Gondola and two ski lifts up Happo One (pronounced “oh-nay”, meaning ridge) Ski Resort. At the top of Adam Gondola, I purchased a Nozawana oyaki for lunch and ate it on the next lift up. (“Oyaki” is a Nagano specialty buckwheat steamed bun.) The lifts were set really low, and I swung my feet in the long grass. Dairy cows relaxed on the verdant green ski slopes.

IMG_3747.jpg

The lifts got me up to Happo Ike Hut by 1 PM. Upon asking where to get water, I was informed it was 100 yen for up to two liters. I had 500 ml on me and should’ve filled up at the bottom of the mountain for free. Rookie mistake!

The weather forecast for the week was rainy, and when the bus had driven into Hakuba Valley the clouds were hanging low, covering to tops of the mountains on both sides of the valley. But by the time I reached Happo Ike pond at about 1:40 PM, the fog had begun to lift. I took a coffee break and enjoyed the reflection of the Hakuba range in the pond.

IMG_3783.jpg

There’s a little shrine at Happo Ike to the dragon god who lives in the pond.

Beyond Happo Ike, you leave the tourists behind. Since I started hiking in the afternoon, I ran into only one other hiker on the way up to Karamatsudake Hut, where I camped for the night. He was an older gentleman who had driven up from Chiba in the morning, so we were on more or less the same schedule. Seeing the sleeping pad strapped to the outside of my pack, he asked if I was tent camping. He was curious how heavy my pack was. I said that the scale at the bottom of Happo One said 11 kilograms. He said his was 12 kg, and he was planning to stay at the hut, which meant he hadn’t packed food, tent, or sleeping bag… how come my pack was so light? Then, he realized he was carrying 2 kilograms worth of camera kit. I said, that totally explains it, because my tent is only 750 grams and my sleeping bag even less than that. That’s one benefit of having not gotten crazy about photography while hiking… yet.

I completed the anticipated 4-hour hike from Happo Ike Hut to Karamatsudake Hut in just about 3 hours. It’s a short hiking day, but I’d been up and traveling since 5 AM and was satisfied to call it a day. Welcomed by a sign offering draft beer, I checked-in and paid 1000 yen for a tent site. After a brief chat with the girl at reception about mountains in Taiwan, I set up camp. The campground consisted of scattered sites down the other side of the ridge from where I had climbed up, and offered amazing views of the Tateyama peaks dominated by Mt. Tsurugi.

IMG_3806.jpg

Karamatsudake Hut

IMG_3809.jpg

What my campsite looked like

IMG_3821.jpg

View of Karamatsudake Hut and tent sites

I’m relaxing and unpacking and somehow 1.5 hours disappeared. I climbed back up the ridge to go to the hut to use the restrooms, then returned to my tent to cook dinner as sunset fell on the archipelago of the Kita Alps in a cotton candy sea.

IMG_3825.jpg

Sunset on cloud-capped Mt. Tsurugi

IMG_3820.jpg

Scoping out the next day’s hike: looking north across Kaerazunoken

Day 2: Thursday, August 31

Karamatsudake Hut –> Hakubadake Chojo Shukusha (白馬岳頂上宿舎) (8.64km)

I am awakened in the middle of the night by rain inside my tent. It’s condensation being shaken off the inside of my tent by the wind blowing outside. I wiped down the inside of my tent with a small camp towel, changed the orientation of my head (since I had been sliding down toward one end of my tent) and slept much better for the rest of the night.

I had ambitious plans to wake up for sunrise but couldn’t actually motivate myself to get up. Anyway, when I finally got out of my tent there was pretty much zero visibility due to the mist. I packed up my tent and went to the hut to brush my teeth, pee, and make some coffee. Reception at the hut tried to sell me 1L of PET bottled water for 600 yen, but I purchased 1L of unfiltered river water for 150 yen and ran it through my Sawyer filter.

It was imperceptibly drizzling as I started the day’s hike and after about 20 minutes, I stopped for breakfast of a piece of Family Mart chocolate pound cake at the peak of Karamatsudake. It’s wrapper had conveniently puffed up into a balloon at high elevation to keep it from getting smushed in my pack.

IMG_3827.jpg

400 calories of chocolatey goodness

The next section of the hike was a rocky traverse called Kaerazu no Ken (不帰の険), which translates to “Cliffs of No Return”. It looked pretty sketchy based on the trip reports I’d read on Yamareco and my map had a dotted line labeled “danger”. So, in case of heavy rain and low visibility, I had a plan B of going south from Mt. Karamatsu and taking an easier traverse to Mt. Goryu. I was walking among wisps of cloud, but it wasn’t raining so I decided to follow plan A and go for it. Just past the first sign marking the beginning of Kaerazu no Ken, the trail wasn’t too bad. A family of ptarmigan waddled down the trail in front of me, unperturbed by my presence. But soon I had put away my trekking poles and found myself traversing cliffs on chains and swinging around rocky corners trying to stay balanced with a bulky pack on my back. Finishing the traverse without falling to my death, I was rewarded with a huge slogging uphill climb on switchbacks and then some more chains to the top of Tengu no Kashira (天狗ノ頭). From the top of Tengu no Kashira, you could see that the peaks to the south were super rocky and steep compared to the rolling ridge to the north, which looked much less extreme.

IMG_3829.jpg

Sign warning hikers of the start of Kaerazu no Ken

IMG_3838

Ptarmigan

IMG_3849.jpg

These chains will later make the cables at Half Dome a piece of cake

IMG_3856.jpg

“I think the trail goes that way?”

IMG_3859.jpg

“Snow river” in the valley that will not melt through to the next snow season

IMG_3869

View south of Tengu no Kashira

IMG_3877.jpg

View north of Tengu no Kashira

I was pretty spent by the time I got to Tengu Hut. The clouds thinned and parted a bit and I quite successfully dried out my tent and aired out my feet over lunch at a picnic table in front of Tengu Hut.

IMG_3884.jpg

Lunch, tent drying, and water-getting at Tengu Hut

However, by the time I started back on the trail again, the mist had dropped again and there was no visibility as I crossed the small snowfield after Tengu Hut, making it a bit scary as I couldn’t see where I was going. Then, there was a climb up brilliant white marble (?) scree to the top of Hakuba-Yarigatake. Since there was still no visibility, I took the easy route around Sakushidake (杓子岳) instead of summiting another peak. Past the Hakuba saddle there were supposed to be alpine flower meadows, but I couldn’t really see anything. I finally spotted a sign for the municipal run Hakubadake Chojo Shukusha hut (白馬岳頂上宿舎), paid my 1000 yen to camp out back and warmed up in the restaurant.

Day 3: Friday, September 1

Hakubadake Chojo Shukusha –> Tsugaike Shisenen Ropeway Station (6km)

Sometime during the night, I pulled my Buff down over my eyes and ended up sleeping past sunrise again. It was the coldest night I’d spent so far in my tent and sleeping bag, and when I awoke I stuffed my hiking clothes inside my sleeping bag to warm them up and unzipped the mesh door of my tent to my heat up some breakfast in the vestibule of my tent while still sitting in my sleeping bag. It’s a brilliant blue sunny sky out. Darn it! I missed a beautiful sunrise. After eating, I zipped my tent back up and put on my now toasty warm hiking clothes. The sun was just beginning to warm my tent as well, as I pushed my pack out through the tent door, collapsed the tent and collected my tent stakes. The tent was pretty dry from the sunny morning, so I didn’t have to worry about drying it during the day.

IMG_3896.jpg

Breakfast

I made my way up to the top of Mt. Shirouma. There is a another huge hut right there! Yesterday, I couldn’t see anything. This is why I like overnight hiking: you get two chances to see stuff. At Mt. Karamatsu, the night before, I had a beautiful sunset, but no view in the morning in the morning. Last night, there I couldn’t see anything when I arrived at the campsite, but this morning there is not a cloud in the sky.

Behind the privately run Hakuba Sanso hut near the peak, there was a spot on the ground that marked each of the landmarks in the distance. Looking southwest, I could see Yatsugatake. Unfortunately, there was no Fuji view that morning. Toward the south, I saw Shakushi and Hakuba-Yari peaks which I crossed yesterday. In the distance, I could see Yarigatake and Mt. Hotaka, and closer Mt. Tsurugi; toward the west, Toyama city and Noto penninsula surrounding Toyama Bay, further west, the Sea of Japan.

IMG_3904.jpg

Hakubadake Chojo Shukusha Hut

IMG_3907.jpg

View from Hakuba Sanso Hut

IMG_3908.jpg

There was more of this view in full 360 degrees from the top of Mt. Shirouma. Toward the northeast was the mellow ridge leading to Mt. Korenge that I would walk that day. The ridge rising above the clouds looked like the backbone of a sleeping dragon. And then it sank beneath the rising clouds.

IMG_3913.jpg

Dragon’s backbone of Mt. Korenge (View from summit of Mt. Shirouma)

After an initial steep decent, it was an easy and flat walk on crushed rock the size of large gravel. I passed by large cairns lurking mysteriously in the fog. The white rock changed to red, indicating iron content. My map showed a side trail leading on to the site of an old refinery and mine office.

The rocks on the slope up Mt. Korenge tinkled like glass when I walked over them. I picked one up and it felt lighter than it looked. An almost pumice. Atop Mt. Korenge, I took a break for a second breakfast of coffee, nuts and salami. I packed out an abandoned tupperware that obviously had held someone’s lunch in it. (It was a nice tupperware, but I was afraid to open it to wash it out and ended up just throwing it away when I got down to the gondola station at Tsugaike.)

IMG_3938.jpg

Mt. Shirouma behind me

At Hakuba Oike Hut, I picked up some water (free!) and admired the flat campground looking onto an alpine meadow. Should be pretty on a clear day. Where is the pond? I followed the sign for Tsugaike to the other side of the hut and see the edge of the water in the mist and the trail going around the pond. After following the trail for the while, I think, this is a huge pond! More like a lake? I could only see the edge of the clear green water but it feels like the trail has been going around it for quite a while. The trail becomes some pretty fun rock hopping with occasional X and O symbols directing the way. It was like this all the way to the top of Mt. Norikura, which is not much of a peak but the high point on a flat mountain top. (No use hiking here to snowboard down, you’d just be stuck!) Finally, the sky opens just briefly enough for me to see the whole Hakuba Oike pond and take a photo.

IMG_3958.jpg

Hakuba Oike pond

There was more rock hopping until I reached a small snowfield, and after the snowfield the rock hopping got quite a bit more challenging. Climbing down big boulders with a heavy pack on is much more difficult than with only a day pack, because you don’t want to destroy your knees and ankles from impact. Finally, finally, I reached the raised wooden platforms set over a marsh I’d been spying from up above.

IMG_3969.jpg

The wooden walkway was being replaced, and there were pallets of new wood to be installed off to the sides of the pathway. I hopped over onto one of the pallets and made myself comfortable. Since I didn’t really pack lunch for this last day, I end up cooking half a pack of quick cook pasta and a cube of kimchi jigae soup, since that’s what I have left. Yes, I have become one of those Japanese hikers that cooks hot lunch!

IMG_3975.jpg

Lunch break!

As I was packing up after my lunch break, one of the workmen made his way over and asked me when I was heading down. He was looking for someone to walk down with. I’m a little weirded out initially, but he started telling me about his job. He and his team have been up at Tsugaike since July living in two trailers by the top of the Tsugaike ropeway. His company also did the wooden walkways at Happo-Ike, which I passed the first day of my hike, as well as at Mt. Naeba and Mt. Hotaka. I commented that it was a nice job to be able to work in all those beautiful places. He replied that he only comes to the mountains to work, his hobby is golf. He pointed out some bear scat on the trail. I haven’t seen a bear while in Japan yet!

We ran into a hiker testing the water at a spring. This water is safe, he called out to us, so we stopped for a drink and a chat. This typical retiree hiker explained he thought it would be boring to just set a goal of climbing the Hyakumeisan, so his personal goal is to test all the water sources on the Hyakumeisan. He says that so far, all the water sources he’s tested have been potable. Good to know right?

IMG_3978.jpg

Guided by someone who’s walked up and down the trail everyday for months, I made it down to Tsugaike ropeway safely, with no injuries and finished my hike in good time. After getting to the bottom of Tsugaike Ski Resort, I consulted the bus schedule. I could’ve either hopped a bus direct from Tsugaike back to Tokyo, but I ended up busing back to Happo Bus Terminal where busses are more frequent so I could catch an onsen before returning to Tokyo.

IMG_3980

The ski resorts of Hakuba Valley come into view

IMG_3982

Tsugaike Gondola, the end of my hike

Logistics and Costs

I picked Hakuba for this last minute hike because the logistics were easy. I took a highway bus to and from Shinjuku, ski resort gondolas and lifts to and from the trail heads, and one of the Hakuba town buses from Tsugaike back to Happo Bus Terminal.

Shinjuku <–> Happo Bus Terminal Highway Bus: 8700 yen round trip

Happo-One Ski Resort: one-way up Adam Gondola – 1550 yen (1400 yen if you have a jRO search and rescue insurance card)

Tsugaike Ski Resort: one-way down the ropeway – 1360 yen

Tsugaike –> Hakuba bus: 560 yen

Tent site at Mt. Karamatsu: 1000 yen

Tent site at municipal Shirouma Hut: 1000 yen

Trip Tips

I wouldn’t have done Kaerazu no Ken by myself if it was raining. If it had been raining that morning at Mt. Karamatsu, my Plan B was to go south to Mt. Goryu, instead of north to Mt. Shirouma, because that ridge is less dangerous. Kaerazu no Ken was pretty sketchy and since I was alone, I was very careful and it took me 1.5 times the estimated course time on the map to complete it, because I didn’t want to lose my grip or footing anywhere and fall into an abyss…

There are two huts at the top of Mt. Shirouma, Hakubadake Chojo Shukusha (白馬岳頂上宿舎) and Hakuba Sanso (白馬山荘). Hakuba Sanso does not have tent sites.

There is free water at Tengu Hut, Hakubadake Chojo Shukusha and Hakuba Oike Hut, but not at Happo Ike Hut or Karamatsudake Hut.

The John Muir Trail

As you may know, I plan to hike the John Muir Trail, called the JMT for short, in September. It’s less than 3-weeks before I fly to the US to make final preparations (mostly buying food and sending myself re-supply) before embarking on the trail. My friend Libby suggested I tell you all a bit about what the JMT is and why I am doing it. Sorry if I have been chewing your ear off about the JMT this and the JMT that without first explaining what it is.

What is the JMT?

The John Muir Trail is a 211 mile (340km) trail from Yosemite Valley to the top of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48, in the High Sierra backcountry of California.

To give you a better idea, 211 miles is the distance between New York and Boston or Tokyo and Kyoto.

2388276396_8be8c71ea2_b.jpg

JMT Elevation Profile (stolen from the Internet)

The trail is named after pioneer conservationist John Muir (1838-1914), founder of The Sierra Club and chief advocate for the creation of Yosemite National Park. John Muir called the Sierra Nevada the “Range of Light” for the light colored granite peaks carved by glaciers 2.5 million years ago.

Construction of the JMT began in 1915, a year after Muir’s death, and the last sections were only finished in 1938 due to the intervening Great Depression. So, hiking the JMT is not really walking in Muir’s footsteps, but maybe it can be considered walking his footsteps in spirit.

It would be really hard to follow John Muir’s footsteps. In his books, Muir bushwhacks and scrambles up mountainsides with no particular trail or path in mind, getting himself in and then extricating himself from hairy situations, carrying only a few pieces of hard bread in his pockets and making beds out of fallen pine boughs. He had none of the modern high-tech, quick-drying, light-weight gear, but I’d say he was the ultimate bad-ass ultra-light hiker.

Despite the badassity, Muir was no macho peak-bagging exploration expedition leader set out to conquer nature. He was a naturalist and philosopher who believed that man needed to go into nature to commune with God and witness the glory of His creation. Through his careful observations while exploring the Sierra, Muir theorized that Yosemite Valley and its surroundings were shaped by glaciers (now the accepted theory) and later went to Alaska multiple times to study glaciers still in the moment of Creation there. He believed that we need nature for spiritual reasons, and that we cannot think of nature merely as resources to be exploited by man.

Find out more about the JMT at the Pacific Crest Trail Association website. The PCT, popularized by the book and movie Wild, pretty much overlaps with the JMT in the Sierras.

Why am I hiking the JMT?

Maybe you can tell from my description above, John Muir is a personal hero. When I learned about him as an 8 year old on my family’s trans-America road trip, his story and environmental philosophy really fascinated and appealed to me.

Before moving to Taiwan, my parents drove our family from Atlanta, Georgia to San Jose, California on a two-week road trip across the American West. We covered the Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest, Arches, the Great Salt Lake, Redwood, and probably did a small trip to Muir Woods before flying out of SFO. We came back another summer to do Yosemite, Sequoia and King’s Canyon. Thinking back now, those family road trips to the big and sexy National Parks of the American West cemented my American identity, associating freedom with wilderness and patriotism with conservation. I don’t remember many details of what I saw, but this fed into a subconscious attraction to and romanticized notion of the American West. There is a whole genre of film devoted to this feeling: the Western.

Despite taking my brother and I to the National Parks, my parents are not athletic or outdoorsy people, so these were just car trips to the most accessible parts of each park, staying at some highway motel. After I grew up, I knew that what I’d seen and could barely remember was the tip of the iceberg. If barely the tip of the iceberg could continue to have such an impact on me, I knew I had to go back and experience them more fully, but I didn’t think I had the experience or know-how to do so.

I read Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra a couple years back and it became my dream to hike the John Muir Trail. (Note: Muir’s writings are in the public domain and free on Kindle e-book.) I didn’t have any concrete idea how I would do it though, until I read Carrot Quinn’s Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart, which made long distance hiking seem possible to me. Instead of continuing to wish I were more outdoorsy, I would just DO THE THING and become outdoorsy!

I started collecting my backpacking gear last fall, and after getting a permit for the JMT over the winter, started gaining experience with multiday backpacking trips in the spring. 

My hiking plan

My hiking partner Jackie and I have a permit to begin hiking the JMT from Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley on Sept 18. Long story short, I originally had a permit for July 12, but due to the unusually high snowpack in the Sierras from last winter, we reapplied and got a later permit. Unfortunately, that pushes us into shoulder season and we face risks of early season snowstorms in October.

We plan to hike at a pace of about 10 miles a day and complete the trail in about 25 days, weather permitting. Our actual hike will be longer than the official 211 miles because we plan to hike Half Dome and Cloud’s Rest, resupply via Onion Valley and will need to get down to the trailhead from the top of Mt. Whitney at the end of the hike.

My goal is not to hike fast, because I want to have time to enjoy, explore and take everything in, but we are somewhat limited in how leisurely we can go by the late season. I’m not hung up on completing the trail. If you know me, I like to be prepared and am pretty conservative and risk adverse, so if the weather looks iffy, we are definitely open to bailing early. In any case, I’m sure it’s going to be awesome!

Resources

Here are some of the JMT planning resources I have been relying on. The JMT is really popular and there are so many great resources out there. I’m never going to write a “how to” trip planning guide for the JMT, but you can look forward to my trail journal.

Elizabeth Wenk, John Muir Trail: The Essential Guide to Hiking America’s Most Famous Trail

This is the bible for JMT trip planning. I’m also planning to bring this along on the hike, since the detailed descriptions are going over my head now, but I’m sure they’ll be invaluable on the trail.

Bearfoot Theory blog

Kristen hiked the JMT in 2014 and her blog has the best and easiest to follow guides for all your preparation needs, from how to get a permit to how to pack your food. She’s a quit-the-day-job-to-become-an-outdoor-adventure-blogger success story, but only because her content is so good! You can hear her tell her story here.

Facebook Groups:

All of your stupid questions asked by someone else and plenty of up-to-date photos of trail conditions.

  • John Muir Trail
  • John Muir Trail Hikers 2017
  • Ladies of the JMT

John Muir Trail Yahoo Group

Run by Roleigh Martin and John Ladd, seasoned JMT and Sierra veterans. These guys and Lizzie Wenk are also active on the Facebook Groups.

Ape Man’s Youtube Channel

I really like this older California gentleman’s take on hiking and the outdoors. His videos are less polished than a lot of the videos by younger, better looking folks out there (sometimes he looks down to a sheet of looseleaf paper for his notes), but he’s got great no-nonsense practical advice that comes from many years of experience and familiarity with the Sierras and bad dad jokes.

Hiking in Taiwan: Dabajianshan (大霸尖山) 4-Day Solo Hike

On clear days, you can see Dabajianshan (大霸尖山) from my parents’ apartment perched on the hills southeast of downtown Hsinchu. The distinctive square shape of the peak makes it super easy to recognize. It’s on the 500NT note. Dabajianshan is the holy mountain of the Atayal people and where they believe their ancestors came from. The “ba” in Daba means “dominate”; it’s the same character used in「霸王」or warlord. All reasons I decided to climb it.

Most people climb Dabajianshan in a 3-day hike, staying two nights at Jiujiu (or 99) Hut, which is manned. However, a Chinese language hiking guide I read strongly suggested breaking up the hike into 4 days and tent camping at 3050 High Ground or staying at Zhongba Hut which appealed to me because I like to avoid crowds and had a romantic idea of seeing sunrise from Dabajianshan.

Trail journal below.

Day 1 – Monday, July 17

Dalu Forest Road (大鹿林道) to Madara Creek Trailhead (馬達拉溪登山口) (19.5km)

Dalu Forest Road is an easy walk. It’s a mostly gravel road crossed by many small waterfalls. I actually get to see most of the endemic and endangered birds and butterflies described on the interpretive signs along the trail. Good job with signage and conservation efforts, national park and forest service! The road winds up the side of the mountain and the view on the other side of the valley is not bad. But it does get tedious after about 10km. (And there is no where secluded to pee.)

IMG_2840

Beginning of Dalu Forest Road

IMG_2842

Gwanwu Waterfall – a popular day hike in Guanwu Forest Recreation Area but you can’t tell it’s this high from the bottom of the waterfall.

Dabajianshan used to be a popular two-day climb, but typhoons repeatedly washed out Dalu Forest Road so its been closed to private motor vehicles since 2008 adding an additional 20km each way to the hike. You can see how the road was damaged and how streams/waterfalls just run across the trail in the video below.

I drove up in the morning from my parents house in Hsinchu past Judong (竹東) and Chingchuan (sp? 清泉) (a beautiful hot spring village high in the valley where Zhang Xueliang, the once rival warlord to Chiang Kai-shek who was blamed for losing China to the Communist Party, was once held in house arrest), so by the time I arrive at the trailhead to turn in my permit it’s a few minutes past 11AM, and the ranger lets me though without watching the safety video, because he wants to get off his shift. You’re not suppose to enter the trailhead after 11AM because of the long walk up to 99 Hut (4 hour, 4km hike up from Madara Creek Trailhead), but I’m only camping at Madara Creek.  Since I get a late start, I meet only one other hiker going up that day when I’m hiding from the rain in a worker shack at the 15km mark. He has a thick accent and I imagine what exotic location he is from in China. (Later I find out it’s Macau.)

When I finally get up to the campground in front of the abandoned visitors’ center at Madara Creek around 5:45PM, the water is not running at the toilets which is troublesome because there aren’t any good places to do you business around there. (It is apparent people have been using the toilets anyway and they are really gross.) I’m staking in my last couple of tent pegs when two vans pull up filled with workers who will be staying the night. They take over the visitors’ center building, despite a sign posted saying that the foundations of the building are not stable so do not enter.

I was looking forward to relaxing and enjoying my solitude since I have the sole permit reservation for the campground, but now my peace is disturbed by a chainsaw and leaf blower as the workmen build a f-ing bonfire.

IMG_2877.jpg

They were there to cut the grass along the forest road the next day.

I retreat to the nearby forestry service workers’ hut and manage to have a quiet dinner overlooking the creek. After dark, there are too many bugs in the hut (elevation ~1800 meters), so I have to hastily pitch my tent inside the hut. This was not as relaxing as I hoped!

IMG_2879.jpg

Forestry Service Hut

Day 2 – Tuesday, July 18

Madara River Trailhead to Zhongba Hut (中霸山屋) via Jiujiu Hut (九九山莊) (9.5km), and evening visit to Dabajianshan (4km round trip)

I sleep in longer than I intended because it is so dark inside the workers’ hut and only finish packing when I hear a leaf blower go on. I finally cross the red Madara Creek Bridge and start hiking just before 8AM. This results in me getting hailed on in the afternoon thunderstorm on the way to Zhongba Hut. It’s been classic Taiwan summer weather recently – 午後雷陣雨 – not-a-cloud-in-the-sky mornings followed by afternoon thunderstorms.

IMG_2882

Looking back across Madara Creek Bridge towards some hikers coming down from the mountains that morning

Not very far up the trail, I dig my first cathole the first place it looks viable to go off trail. It’s difficult, but I hit a rock and after wedging the rock out, the hole reaches regulation depth. (Review LNT principles here.) Achievement unlocked! I’m back on the trail clipping my potty trowel to my backpack when a hiker coming down passes me. Lucky!

The climb up to Jiujiu or 99 Hut is a slog, except for around the 2.4KM mark where there is old grown cypress forest. I love the smell of hinoki! Apparently there are two kinds: Taiwan Cypress /扁柏/ヒノキ, and Formosan Cypress/ 紅檜/ベニヒ. I thought they were all the same. FYI a lot of the large cypress tori (e.g. at Meiji Jingu) and large hinoki baths in Japan are constructed out of Taiwan hinoki.

IMG_2884.jpg

Cypress forest

I wander into 99 Hut to checkout the facilities even though I don’t plan on staying there and get ambushed by the caretaker and the cook who make me sit and drink ginger tea and then oolong tea with them. The cook feeds me sausage and eggs left over from breakfast and gives me two tomatoes for the road. The caretaker names all the flowers in the photos I took on Xueshan and shows me photos of Dabajianshan that he’s taken in all conditions. “This year, it snowed April 1 at 99 Hut!” he says as he proudly shows me the photo. He’s incredulous I have only brought my phone for photo taking purposes. I finally extract myself by promising to stop by again on the way down.

20170718_114930_001.jpg

Mr. Chang, the caretaker of 99 Hut, and I

On Daba Trail there are four baiyue: Dabajianshan (3492m), Xiaobajianshan (小霸尖山 3360m), Yizeshan (伊澤山3297m), and Jialishan (加利山3112m). It is hailing pea-sized pellets at the time I reach the junction for Jiali Shan. I see two people turn off the main trail to climb Jiali despite the crappy weather, but I skip Jiali and Yize and head straight along the increasingly muddy trail to Zhongba Hut for shelter. I’m not that crazy about peak-bagging baiyue; I’d rather get dry. It’s a good thing that after the junction for Jialishan at 3050 meters, the trail is never very steep.

At 3:20 in the afternoon, I’m resting on the deck of the very cozy Zhongba Hut. Arrived, swept out the hut, and had a pee before it started raining again. Great facilities here! Cathole digging equipment and rainwater collection tank with water coming out of a tap just out back. I lost my trash bag out of the side pocket of my backpack, probably when I set my pack down to dig out my rain jacket. I hope I find it on the way back down or I’ll feel really bad.

IMG_2917

Zhongba Hut

The clouds part above Zhongba Hut around 5:50PM, so I decide to go to Dabajianshan and see what I can see.

Dabajianshan is hiding mysteriously in the mist when I approach. I bow and say a little prayer of thankfulness and hope for good weather and safety and then cross to the metal rails toward the traverse under the Daba peak to Xiaoba. There’s a sign attached by a chain to the metal railing, and I’m taking a selfie with the sign and white where Daba is supposed to be behind me, when suddenly the clouds part and I see Daba clearly on my phone screen. Of course, I immediately turn around and shout “Wow! Wow! Wow!” out loud to nobody.

If ever you arrived at the top of a mountain and were sure it was a god, it would be Dabajianshan. You can’t step on the top and conquer him (no longer permitted by law because it’s dangerous, and really you shouldn’t out of deference to aboriginal beliefs), but you can sit at his feet and look out onto the wondrous view he has. I don’t stay long, because I want to be back at the hut to cook dinner before dark, and I want to get an early night so I can be back up at Daba for sunrise.

IMG_2983.jpg

No, this is not a stock photo. I took it with my very own wee little iPhone.

Day 3 – Wednesday, July 19

Zhongba Hut to Dabajianshan and Xiaobajianshan and back (5km?), then down to 99 Hut (9.5km)

Zhongba Hut is snug and quiet, no bugs, no scurrying or other animal sounds. The only sound is the occasional commercial jet flying overhead. When I wake up at 4:20, I go outside and can still see many starts though the horizon is getting reddish. I make a coffee, bottle it up and go to have breakfast with Dabajianshan. On the way, I can see the twinking of a city’s lights in smog far down below.

I wondered if anyone would make a night climb from 99 Hut to see the sunrise, but turns out it’s just me. It’s an amazing experience to share the sunrise with Daba; one tiny human and a great mountain god.

IMG_3013.jpg

Sunrise at Dabajianshan

Indeed, as the 99 Hut caretaker had told me, at sunrise, Daba is first red (5:09AM) and then turns golden yellow (5:13AM). After sunrise, I cross under the square Daba peak formation and head for Xiaoba. The ridge between Daba and Xiaoba offers great views of Xueshan and the Holy Ridge, but I can’t take any good pictures because they are eastward in the direction of the rising sun.

I get lost at the bottom of Xiaoba. On the way up yesterday, 3 separate hikers had warned me that the ropes on Xiaoba were damaged, not reliable and that they had forgone getting to the top. Unable to find the ropes, I end up behind the formation on the east side, then come back around and make an attempt at climbing up the north face, but then decide I don’t really want to get dead. I’m about to give up when I find a marker and finally locate the ropes. There are plenty of good footholds and handholds along that route that the tiny, tiny bit of indoor bouldering experience I have is enough to make me feel comfortable enough to climb up and down without relying on ropes.

IMG_3037.jpg

Panorama from top of Xiaobajianshan (Xueshan Main Peak in the middle of the photo in the mountain range in the distance)

IMG_3073

I climbed this rockpile by myself and didn’t die.

IMG_3116

Ridge between Dabajianshan and Xiaobajianshan

When I get back to the bottom of Daba, I meet four recent college grads, two girls and two guys. I take a few photos from them and they take a couple for me. One of the guys points out Turtle Island, the distinct island off the coast of Yilan, in the distance, indicating that the lights I saw below before sunrise were probably Taipei. It’s about 8 AM, which means I got to spend 3 hours hanging out with Daba and Xiaoba all by myself.

img_3128.jpg

When I get back to Zhongba Hut, there is a guy inside passed out in his sleeping bag. I try to gather up my things quietly and prepare to pack-up and cook my breakfast on the deck outside the hut. After a bit, he gets up and comes outside for a smoke. “Where did you come from?” I ask, since no one was there when I left at almost 5AM. Turns out he’s a porter carrying gear and lunch (!) for the group of hikers I ran into on top of Zhongba lookout (中霸坪) on the way back here. He lives in Chingchuan. The group he’s with got up in the wee hours to see sunrise at 3050 High Ground near the junction for Jialishan and they will be having lunch at Zhongba Hut. I offer him a sachima (a type of Chinese pastry I packed as breakfast food). He wanders off the pee and then goes back to bed. [Aside: Not to judge… Okay totally judging… but if you can’t carry your own lunch on a day hike (since they stay two nights in a row at 99 Hut)… Catheter and bedpan, much?]

I climb Yizeshan and Jialishan and take the obigatory peak photos on the way back down to 99 Hut. By the time I get to the top of Jialishan the cumulonimbus have piled up threateningly.

IMG_3142

Yizeshan – laminated sheet someone left up there

IMG_3157

Jialishan – Notice cloud difference from previous photo

I manage to make it to 99 Hut at 2PM just before it really starts pouring and take up the caretaker’s offer to stay there (instead of back down at Madara Creek Trailhead — being a government facility, he does charge me the requisite 200NT) and the cook’s offer of hot dinner (complimentary). When the rain lets up I go take a nap until dinnertime.

IMG_3179.jpg

After dinner, I joined other hut stayers to watch the sunset, but the clouds didn’t quite clear in time, so we were treated to a cloud light show instead.

Day 4: Thursday, July 20

99 Hut to the beginning of Dalu Forest Road (23km)

IMG_3181.jpg

Sunrise at 99 Hut

I tried to decline hot breakfast the night before but am woken up at 4:30AM by the cook anyway. No matter, I wanted to get moving early anyway in attempt to finally beat the afternoon thunderstorms one of these days. I’m back through the old growth forest at 7AM and back across the red bridge at Madara Creek Trailhead at 8:40AM. Not much to say about the day except I leap-frog with the porter I met at Zhongba Hut all day, chatting occasionally, and cross paths with a group of 7-8 other young porters from the same company bringing 200kg of fresh food up to 99 Hut in anticipation of the weekend. The forest road is monotonous since I’ve seen it before and I end up listening to Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me? on Audible. (She had something really insightful to say about confidence and entitlement at the end of the book. Really!) Cumulonimbus are looming again by 1:30PM but I manage to finish the trail just before 2PM and before any rain!

IMG_3193.jpg

Finish!

IMG_3194.jpg

Convenience store dog at the Hi-Life I stopped at in Judong to get coffee on the way home. It was, of course, super hot back at lower elevation and this dog was enjoying a nap in the AC. Must be tough being a Husky in Taiwan. #itsadogslife

Five Days on the Shinetsu Trail

The Shinetsu Trail is an 80 kilometer trail from Mt. Madarao to Mt. Amamizu along the ridge that separates Nagano and Niigata prefectures. I found out about it while hanging around Iiyama Station waiting for a Shinkansen when I was living in Nozawa Onsen. In Japan, it’s a rare “long trail” designed for multi-day trekking and not peak-bagging. It is not high elevation (the tallest peak is Mt. Madarao at 1382 meters) and there is not very much elevation change. There are no Hyakumeisan and no fancy mountain huts along the trail. Instead, the trail crosses many historic mountain passes between Nagano and Niigata, used for trade and travel between the domains of Shinshu and Echigo once upon a time, some of which have now become roads which provide easy access to various points of the trail. Some local minshuku down in Iiyama valley are signed up to provide accommodation for hikers on the Shinetsu Trail and will drive you to and from the appropriate trail heads each day. Or there are six designated tent sites along the trail. Four are barebones sites with pit toilets and a water source maintained by the Shinetsu Trail Club, an NPO, and two are existing commercial camp facilities.

Since my interest in the Shinetsu Trail was to use it as a practice hike for the JMT, I planned the hike as a 5 day 4 night tent camping (“tento-paku” in Japanese) backpacking trip and my friend Genna from Nozawa hopped along.

This is the story of how it went down.

Day 1 — Monday, June 19

Course: Chiroru Trailhead (チロル登山口) → Mt. Madarao (斑尾山) (start of Shinetsu Trail) → Akaike (赤池)

Distance: 11 km

Genna and I catch the Hakutaka 553 Hokuriku Shinkansen departing Tokyo 7:52 and arriving in Iiyama at 9:43. I had planned for us to catch a 10 AM bus from Iiyama Station to Madarao Kogen Hotel to start the hike. But, when we arrive at the bus stop in Iiyama, it turns out that the 10 AM bus only runs on weekends and holidays. Rookie mistake. So, we get a ride from a concerned taxi driver who warns us about mama bears with their cubs.

Since we take a cab, we are able to get the driver to drive us all the way to Chiroru trailhead (where the main lift ticket office is for Madarao ski resort in the winter). The climb up Mt. Madarao is basically straight up the ski slope, steep and hot, with no cover and, frankly, not very fun.

IMG_1975

I climbed the last bit to the peak from the top of the highest chair lift twice last winter for a backcountry tour. I thought it would be interesting to see what the mountain looked like in the summer. Everything looked totally different. The last time I was up there we hiked to the right of a huge cornice.

2017-02-13-PHOTO-00000047

Hiking up Mt. Madarao in February

Last winter, our guide Andy from North Nagano Outdoor Sports had explained that the snowpack on Mt. Madarao is very stable because the short bamboo (sasa) covering the mountain creates a great bonding layer for the snow. There were many bamboo shoots poking out on the hiking path but nothing tender enough to pick and eat.

At the fork right before the peak, we run into two sprightly young guys (college students?) with sleeping pads strapped to the outside of their packs. We run into them again loitering around the signboard at Akaike when we finish our first day’s hike around 4 in the afternoon. The boys pressed on and I found out from Instagram later that they thru-hiked the whole trail in 3 days and 2 nights.

It is an easy hiking day. We get to the top of Mt. Madarao to begin the trail just before 11:30 AM and reach our campsite at Akaike before 4 PM. We hike through beech (buna) and cedar (sugi) forests and couple small marshes, one full of skunk cabbage (already past flowering) and the other full of frogs that sings a chorus for our lunch. They were so loud!

IMG_1977

Official start point of the Shinetsu Trail

IMG_1978

Lake Nojiri

IMG_1976

Mt. Myoko – looked so cool! I want to climb Myoko now…

IMG_1992

Idyllic Akaike (That little building had running water and flushing toilets!)

After we set up our tents, Genna wades into Akaike for a swim. I sit at the edge icing my ankles saying, “I’m sketched out by unknown bodies of water.”

Genna goes, “Hope there aren’t any monsters.”

“You mean like that?” I point at a huge arm-length white koi swimming straight towards her, freaking Genna out.

My second hiking fail of the day is when I pull out my camp cook-set and realize I brought an empty fuel canister instead of a full one. Good thing Genna has brought a 230g canister that ends up comfortably lasting us the entire trip.

At night, the stars are so bright above our campsite. Each time I wake up without moving from my sleeping bad, I see the Big Dipper was hanging a bit lower as it descends toward the to horizon.

Day 2 — Tuesday, June 20

Course: Akaike (赤池) → Katsuraike (桂池)

Distance: 20.1 km

I wake up at 5:30 to a lot of condensation on the inside of my tent. I use my tenugui to wipe off the condensation, then wring out the tenugui and use it to wash my face on the way to the toilet. We cook breakfast and make coffee and set off at about 7:30 AM. We have 20.1km to cover in a day and neither of us has ever hiked that far before.

We find a beautiful panorama of Mt. Madarao, Mt. Myoko (妙高山) and Mt. Kenashi (毛無山) from a clearing just past Numaike (沼池) / Nozomiko (希望湖). So we take a snack break (second breakfast!) to enjoy the view and discuss that we should’ve camped there instead. For next time!

IMG_2005

After Wakui (涌井), most of the trail is on forest road (林道) with little cover on a hot and sunny day. 31 degrees when I check my phone. We break for lunch and put out damp tents to dry at Tomikura Gap (富倉峠) around noon. Just past Tomikura Gap are sweeping views of Iiyama Valley. Apparently, this is where famed warlord Uesugi Kenshin, daimyo of Echigo province (present day Niigata), set up camp to battle his rival Takeda Shingen who had conquered Shinshu (present day Nagano) during the Sengoku period (16th Century).

IMG_2013

Around 2PM, we are hot, sweaty and exceedingly grateful to reach a nice little pentagonal hut perched on the ridge near the top of Kuroiwayama ( 黒岩山) where there is a nice cross breeze. We strip down to sports bras to dry our t-shirts in the cool breeze.

We’d been a bit intimidated by the distance in the morning, but since most of the trail was forest road or old trading routes (graded for horses and ox carts), the trail was pretty flat the whole day and we arrive at our second campsite at Katsuraike about 3:30PM. We take a brief swim in Katsuraike to cool off (too hot and sweaty to care about monsters) and then sunbathed a bit to dry off. The forecast for Wednesday was rain and cloud cover began to come in at dusk. At Genna’s first report of hearing a mosquito, I zip myself into my tent for the night.

Day 3 – Wednesday, June 21

Course: Katsuraike (桂池) → Sekida Gap (関田峠)

Distance: 11.4 km on the Shinetsu Trail, plus 1.5 km to campsite

I wake up to a large tick clinging to the screen door of my tent looking like a kid trying to lick ice cream through a store window. Nope, I think, and flick it off with my finger into the grass somewhere. It’s a rainy morning but luckily there’s an empty rundown old house at the campsite serving as a makeshift shelter. In the shelter, we hang our tents to dry and cook breakfast. We get a late start to the day around 9AM after the rain lets up a bit.

IMG_2030

Getting water at Taroshimizu spring (太郎清水)

My rain jacket wets out almost immediately and turns into a sauna suit. The first 3.5km of the trail after Katsuraike is a tough uphill climb to the top of Togari Onsen Ski Resort with two small stream crossings along the way.

IMG_2032.jpg

When we reach Togari Onsen Ski Resort, we climb onto one of the ski lifts to dry off and cool down.

IMG_2033

Togari Onsen Ski Resort

Then there is a bit of a climb up the ski hill. Shortly after we get off the ski slope and back into the trees again, the rain stops. The clouds lift first over Iiyama valley and the wispy clouds hanging over Nozawa Onsen and the Chikuma River (千曲川) were so pretty. Thanks to the rain, we’re able to see frogs and mushrooms, snails and slugs on the trail. So, all in all, I’m actually glad we had to hike in the rain.

The narrow knife ridge up to Mt. Nabekura (鍋倉山) is definitely the highlight of the trail. We could see all the way to Naoetsu (直江津) and the Sea of Japan on one side and all the way up and down the Chikuma river valley on the other, all at once! Though the rain had stopped, it was still extremely windy from the storm and I had to remember to pay attention to my feet and not fall over.

IMG_2048

Nagano side

IMG_2055

Niigata side

Since the ridge is so narrow and windy, at some point near 1PM we simply squat straight down on the trail and eat a well-deserved lunch. We rest again at the top of Mt. Nabekura and again at Mt. Kurokura (黒倉山), where the sun comes out and we are able to dry our tents and put away our rain jackets.

Yesterday it was 31 degrees but today the temperature was in the low teens. I wore my thin leggings and merino wool long-sleeve hiking shirt (which dried like a champ), but otherwise probably didn’t need to bring these extra clothes

We detoured off the trail to Chayaike (茶屋池) which was worth it because it was a very pretty pond and had a lovingly maintained toilet.

IMG_2057

Our campground for the night, Green Pal Kogensou (グリーンパル光原荘) had apparently not opened for the season yet. It was still very windy when we arrived that we spent a lot of time looking for the most sheltered tent site, only to have the wind die down by the time we got our tents set up. We cooked dinner on the deck of the main green building at the campground with a view overlooking the mountains of Joetsu and the Sea of Japan.

IMG_2061

Day 3 on the Shinetsu Trail was green tunnel and killer vistas, what I imagined it would be like hiking the ridge between Nagano and Niigata. Day 1 was tromping around Madarao Kogen; Day 2 was mostly road walking; Day 3, we got to the good stuff.

Day 4 – Thursday, June 22

Course: Sekida Gap (関田峠)– Nonomi Gap (野々海峠)

Distance: 18.9 km on Shinetsu Trail, plus 1.5 km from campsite

I was thinking while hiking that there would not be much to say about Day 4, except that we started to see snow on the trail: snow patches tucked in shady areas, snowmelt ponds and muddy depressions where there had probably been snow until very recently.

Previous days we noticed that if we came upon a muddy bit, there would be a lot of flies. Well, today was pretty much all muddy, what with yesterday’s rain and the recent snowmelt, so there were a ton of flies.

The trail became challenging but monotonous; a lot of slippery, muddy ups and downs and “limbo trees,” what we decided to call tree branches/trunks crossing the trail at inconvenient height to either duck under or step over. There were great sweeping views of Niigata, but not as dramatic as yesterday. You couldn’t really see the sea because it was quite hazy without yesterday’s rain.

IMG_2075

We emerged at Nonomi Gap just as a group of retirees were being loaded onto a minibus. (They were a hiking group from Osaka thru-hiking the Shinetsu Trail in six days, staying two nights at Madarao Kogen and three nights in Togari Onsen.)

The bus driver asked where we were going and we were able to hitch a ride to our campsite 2km down the road at Nonomi pond (野々海池).

IMG_2081

Skunk cabbage blooming at Nonomi pond

The campsite looked nice enough. But as we put our tents up, we attracted a swarm of black flies. And then, they started to bite. The taps at the indicated water source were not running (probably turned off to prevent pipes from freezing in the winter), so we had to go down to the lake to get water, while being tailed by a vicious swarm of flies. Genna daringly waded into the pond with a plastic grocery bag to get less scummy water to fill the Sawyer Squeeze bag with and we both had to sacrifice ourselves to some flies to filter 4 liters of water for camp. Teamwork!

Our hardship turned out to be unnecessary, because on the way back I stopped by the toilet and found out the hand-washing tap by the toilet was running. It makes a good story (did I mention Genna almost stepped on a snake, I screamed my death scream and the nice guy working on getting the campsite ready for the season hopped in his k-truck to check if we were okay?), and I guess there had to some Type II fun on our trip.

Flies were still swarming our tents, so we boiled a pot of water, split it in two and literally dove into our tents. There must’ve been around 200 flies swarming the fly of my tent. The sound of the flies flying into the fly of my tent sounded like rain. I killed the 5 that got inside my tent when I dashed in. Then, there was nothing to do but eat and get ready for bed. I was pretty happy I didn’t have to get up and go to the bathroom at any time that night.

Day 5 – Friday, June 23

Course: Nonomi Gap (野々海峠) → Mt. Amamizu (天水山) → Daigonji Kogen Campground (大厳寺高原キャンプ場)

Distance: 6.2 km on the Shinetsu Trail, plus ~5 km to get to the trail and off the trail from our campsites 

I wake up to a brilliant symphony of birdsong. And only 8-10 flies still hanging around my tent. I have not left my tent since 6-something yesterday evening and contemplate getting up to go to the toilet. I check if Genna is awake yet and then go back to sleep. I wake up again and get ready for the day by packing up everything except what I need to wash up and make breakfast.

Having confirmed that Genna is up, I work up the courage to exit my tent, go to the toilet, wash my tenugui and brush my teeth. Flies do not follow me, and things are looking good. But, when we start boiling water for breakfast, the swarm reappears and breakfast is another split the hot water and dive for tents affair. After we’ve finished eating our breakfasts, it’s a non-stop dash to take down tents, pack up and leave, barely stopping at the toiler sink to fill up on water. We have to keep moving or the flies will catch up. I think we’re on the road around 7-ish, but I didn’t keep track because our priority was just to beat the flies. We look like Pigpen from the Peanuts comics, being followed by a little cloud of flies.

Up the trail from Nonomi Gap we reach a sunny clearing looking down over Niigata where the trail hooks 90 degrees to the right. We stop to make some coffee and dry our tents. It’s okay for a bit and then we start getting bitten again. We’re just finishing packing up when the group of senior citizen hikers from yesterday appears. As we move on ahead, I overhear their guide explain that our choice of coffee spot is the northernmost point of Nagano Prefecture.

IMG_2086

Misaka Gap, final pass before Mt. Amamizu

IMG_2084

View of Niigata from Misaka Gap

Then it’s more up and downs through muddy bits and the most significant snowfield we cross on the trail (still pretty small) and before we know it, we’ve reached to top of Mt. Amamizu, the official endpoint of the Shinetsu Trail. It’s only 10AM. We take a few photos, finish our coffee and get moving again before the flies gather too thickly.

IMG_2088

Another uphill. “Guess what day it is?” “Leg day!”

IMG_2090

IMG_2091

Finish! Official endpoint of the Shinetsu Trail.

Down toward Matsunoyama trailhead, we meet an old man picking bamboo shoots with bear bells that sound like pretty wind chimes. In 80km, we’ve walked a bit backwards in the spring season, despite having come down in elevation. At the trailhead, we meet to bus driver that gave us a lift yesterday and chat for a bit about their group and he points us in the right direction for our last campsite at Daigonji Campground.

We decide to road-walk rather than take another trail to the campsite after I ask Genna the rhetorical question, “Have you had enough nature yet?”

We get to the campground just past 11 and the manager is not in yet. One of the guys working there cutting grass can’t believe we’ve walked all the way from Madarao and keeps saying “sugoi desune!” and pulls out some folding chairs for us to sit on. I ask if the restaurant is open. It is. So, instead of waiting for the manager, we go to the restaurant and have the most beautiful and delicious hiyashichuka (cold summer ramen noodles) I have ever seen in all my years of living and traveling in Japan.

IMG_2178

IMG_2129

We put our hats back on for this photo cuz our hair was so greasy and gross. 😛

We also have two beers apiece which get us nicely buzzed since we haven’t had alcohol since??? Then we check in and ask about taking a bath, but the guesthouse is not open yet, so we can only use the shower in one of the cottages. We get the key to a cottage, which has a nice deck with a breeze. I do some laundry in the shower and hang it on the deck to dry and write the last of my trail journal lying on the deck in my underwear. It’s so nice. The perfect temperature, shade, no flies, breeze; a beautiful day. We chill on the deck of the cottage until we get kicked out of the cottage for the next guests to use the shower.

IMG_2139.jpg

After the hike, we chilled for the rest of the day and the next at Daigonji Campground doing nothing except laying around eating the rest of our food.

IMG_2140

Our view during dinner at Daigonji Campground

Post-hike Reflections / Advice

I was discouraged from doing this hike prior to July 1 by the Shinetsu Trail Club because they hadn’t completed train maintenance until last weekend and there was still a bit of snow and felled trees on the trail. Except for our last camp site, none of the tent sites we used were officially open. It wasn’t a problem because no one else was there and there were toilets and water sources at each camp site. I think the trail would be beautiful in earlier spring green, perhaps from May.

I’m glad I did not wait until July to do the trail because it was already really hot. It’s not high elevation, so it really did not cool down at night either. I only had condensation inside my tent the first night. In terms of warm layers, all I should have packed was a 100 weight fleece. I tried sleeping without my long johns on one night but since I use a quilt, my thighs were sticking uncomfortably to my sleeping pad so I had to put them on.

The prime season for hiking the Shinetsu Trail must be Autumn. There were so many varieties of Japanese maple lining the trail it must be very beautiful for fall colors.

IMG_1983.jpg

Out of season red leaves. A teaser for fall?

The Shinetsu Trail is still not so well-known among Japanese hikers. It’s refreshingly undeveloped, but well-maintained and adequately marked. Even though there is very little infrastructure on the trail after Togari Onsen, you are never more than a few hours walking to a town if you need to bail or get help. (I also had cell phone coverage the entire time.) It was a great trail to do a beginner long-distance trek. Perhaps because we were hiking before the official start of the season, the only other hikers we saw were the two boys the first day and then the group of ~16 retirees from Osaka that gave us a lift on the end of the fourth day. We did see a few other people during our hike doing forest road maintenance or picking spring mountain vegetables.

Matsunoyama Onsen near the end of the trail is a very cute little hot spring village and I’d probably try to stay there next time because Daigonji was still pretty much the middle of nowhere. Good thing Kiwi Sig Other showed up with a rental car so we could get back to civilization. It’s probably pretty easy to hitchhike down to civilization from the trailhead as the only people around are friendly locals who know about the Shinetsu Trail. The magic onsen water cured the itchiness of all my fly bites. Not bad for one of the Three Famous Medicated Onsen of Japan.

Contact me if you have any questions about hiking the Shinetsu Trail!