Backpacking in Denali

My summer season job with MICA Guides wrapped up September 10 which gave me just enough time to do an overnight backpacking trip in Denali National Park before the park service stopped running their buses on September 13.  My plan was to rent a car from Anchorage, drive up to Denali on September 11, pick up a permit and camp at Riley Creek Campground near the park entrance. Then I would take a Camper Bus into the park on September 12, camp out in the backcountry, and hike out and catch a bus back to the park entrance on September 13… the last day buses were running, so no being over ambitious and missing the bus!

A few unique things about backpacking in Denali National Park:

  • Private vehicles can only drive the first 15 miles of the 92 mile long Denali Park Road, the only road in the park.
  • Park busses only run from late-May to early-September. (Basically, when snow is not expected.)
  • Backcountry permits are only issued in person at the Visitors Center from 8 AM the day before the start of your trip, so you can’t really make a detailed hiking plan before you get there and you will want to get to the park as early as possible the day before your trip to maximize your permit choices.
  • There are no established trails, your permit is for a Unit or Units that you have a certain amount of time to move through. Based on the quick search I did, there isn’t much information about suggested backpacking routes in Denali NP on the Internet besides climbing Mt. Eielson. But I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be — a true wilderness experience!
  • From the whiteboard behind the permit desk at the Visitors Center, it looked like for some Units the maximum number of people who can camp per night is 4 people, so don’t plan to backpack in a large group.  
  • No trails means assuming you will be hiking at a speed of no more than 1 mile an hour. You don’t know what the vegetation will be like, if the drainages will be swampy, what stream crossings will look like, if a scree slope will be traversable.

In summary, it’s an intimidating mix of needing to plan in advance and then not being able to really plan much in advance. Luckily, I had learned quite a bit about hiking in Alaska — following moose trails, alder bashing, finding campsites, bear awareness — over the course of the summer and felt like I was prepared with realistic expectations. Here’s a good read if you are looking for more information about backpacking in Denali.

The drive to Denali National Park

It had started to get cold and rainy in at the end of August, such that I had started to long for being indoors and having insulation (I lived in a tent all summer), but from Labor Day weekend Alaska was enjoying an Indian summer which brought us back to the warm sunny weather of early July and camping was once again quite pleasant. Parks Highway offered impressive views of Denali (The Mountain) on my drive up from Anchorage, but I didn’t stop to take any photos because I was trying to get to the park in time to pick up a permit. (The Internet said that permit pick up was until 3:30 pm, luckily for me the desk was actually open until 5 pm.) The scale of the scenery on Parks Highway was much bigger than Glenn Highway where I’d spent the summer. The mountains were striped rust red tundra and spruce green with the gold of aspen and alder lower down, their black rocky peaks dramatic against a bright blue sky. It was a bit confusing when I got to Denali National Park. I got a camper bus ticket at the Wilderness Access Center, then had to go to the Visitor’s Center to get my backcountry permit and then Riley Creek Mercantile to get a walk-in tent site. I was glad I had a rental car to run all these administrative errands; I had considered taking the train.

Picking up my permit

The process of getting a backcountry permit worked like this. There is a whiteboard listing Unit availability above the permit desk. You get a form to fill out from the permit desk and the ranger sends you to flip through binders that describe the different Units. I had done a bit of poking around on the park website Unit map so I had a few Units written down as candidates for an easy overnight backpack. Unit 12 Sunrise and Sunset Glaciers on my list was available, so I snapped the last spot up. Of course, after hiking on a glacier almost every day for 3 and a half months, the thing I wanted to do most in Alaska was see more glaciers! Then I watched the required leave-no-trace, stream crossing, bear awareness videos, purchased a USGS quad map of my Unit to study and borrowed a bear canister.

Backpacking in Denali

The next morning at about 7 am, I got on the earliest camper bus for the 4 hour ride to Eielson Visitor Center to begin my hike. We saw a couple of moose and a mama bear and two cubs from the bus. The bus driver would stop to allow everyone to capture the wildlife with their gigantic telephoto lenses. It was cloudy, overcast and windy. When I arrived at Eielson Visitor Center, Denali was hidden behind a shroud of clouds and I nixed the possibility of climbing Mt. Eielson as it was covered with a dusting of snow at the top.

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Perfect conditions for hiking!

I hiked down to the end of the developed trail from the Eielson Visitor Center, and gingerly picked a crossing across Gorge Creek. First real stream crossing ever completed, my feet were soaked but my merino wool socks squished out quickly and stayed warm. I walked along the gravel bar of Thoroughfare River as recommended by the ranger who issued my permit, but got bored and decided to punch up into some tundra to see what I could see. After a short bash through some small trees and wading through shin deep shrubbery, I started to recognize the plant life I wanted to walk on. The red stuff, mostly blueberries, was short, firm and easy to walk on, so I let the vegetation direct my path. Greener vegetation indicated drainages and I learned to follow the moose paths across those parts to avoid ending up in boggy marsh.

Tarn

Beautiful tarn

I didn’t have much of a plan except to camp in the valley along Sunrise Creek, since that was the closest area I was allowed to camp. The problem with Unit 12 is that most of it is visible from the Denali Park Road and you have to camp out of sight of the road. That also makes it a not so wilderness-y experience, but easy access to the road and Eielson Visitor Center made it a fool-proof, if a bit boring choice, for my solo end-of-season backpack.

I came to a small creek before Sunrise Creek where I found I had to backtrack and lose some elevation. Being stubborn I tried to climb higher across a scree slope but I kept falling so I ended up scree skiing down into the gorge and rock hopping across to Sunrise Creek.

Then I tried to walk as far as I could up Sunrise Creek. I was hiking up the north bank when the gravel bar virtually disappeared. Making the silly decision to avoid getting my feet wet, I was attempting to boulder across a short section of the gorge wall when a cinder block sized rock I was hanging on to detached from the wall and fell into my lap. I was lucky to only suffer a bruised thigh. So after a cold crossing, I gave up on following the river and climbed up on the south bank of Sunrise Creek.

It was only 4:30 PM, but suddenly, I was completely exhausted. I had only hiked about 6 miles but I think the fatigue from an entire summer of physical work and little time off caught up with me. My plan to hike up to the bottom of Sunrise Glacier was abandoned for the more urgent need to find a place to lie down. I set up my little tent on the bench below Bald Peak, and sheltered from the katabatic winds, took a nap for 1.5 hours. Somewhat recovered, I made dinner of Idahoan mashed potatoes and a foil packet of lemon pepper tuna and lay back down again reading Into the Wild (Chris McCandless’ ill-fated Alaska adventure having happened not far away) in my tent until the valley came ablaze at sunset around 8:20 PM. I was a less exciting expedition than I had hoped, but I guess the luxury of solo hiking is having the freedom to do things like pull in early to take a nap.

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My campsite view of Sunrise Glacier

In the morning, I left my tent up to dry and set off to climb the saddle under Bald Peak and up a little knoll in front of it. The cloud cover from yesterday burned off over the course of the morning, revealing dramatic white peaks framing Sunset Glacier. As I got to the precipice, the peak of Denali poked up over the ridge behind Mt. Eielson. A pleasant surprise! I’d been hopeful but not at all certain I’d get a Denali view from there.

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Sunset Glacier

Me and Denali

Obligatory Denali selfie

I descended back to my camp, packed up and had an easy walk down the bench and back down to the gravel bar. I planned to simply follow the gravel bar along Thoroughfare River back to Eielson Visitor Center, but the stream crossings got intimidating and I ended up tussock hopping around a tarn and retracing part of my route across the blueberry fields from the previous day. There were still a lot of blueberries good to eat, but thankfully I didn’t see any bears! I arrived back at Eielson Visitor Center by 2:30 PM and first things first, took off my wet boots and socks and put on my Crocs. Yay, camp shoes! I put my name on the bus list and watched a video about climbing Denali before getting put on a bus for the 4 hour ride back to the park entrance.

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Thoroughfare River

Denali

Denali with lenticular cloud

Post-hike

It was late evening by the time I got back to my car and I was feeling strangely not stoked about more camping and hiking adventures. I think I was realizing my body just wanted to recover from the summer. I sat in the parking lot feeling a bit defeated and found an AirBnb in Palmer and booked it for the next night. Too tired to make any other plans, I camped at Riley Creek Campground again. I had slept like a log on the tundra, but seemed to have trouble getting comfortable that night. When I got up in the morning to use the bathroom, I noticed that the tenugui I had hung on the corner of the picnic table at my campsite had frozen into a stiff origami shape. The plastic collapsible water bottle I had left on the picnic table was crunchy with ice crystallized across the inside. Ah, that’s why I had trouble sleeping. It was too cold to wait for hot water to boil and percolate my own coffee, so I quickly packed up my things and went to Morino Grill next to the Visitors Center to restore the feeling to my fingers with a cup of corporate-y Starbucks latte. My backpacking night had actually been very comfortable, and it had definitely not been close to freezing cold, even though it was at higher elevation. I had been super lucky with the timing of my trip! As my fingers regained feeling, I felt pretty good about my decision to spend my last two nights in Alaska indoors.

Epilogue: My AirBnb host turned out to be a super cool fiber and ceramics artist, I had the most comfortable stay, and the house was walking distance from two craft beer breweries (Arkose and Bleeding Heart)!

 

My First Month in Alaska

I am sitting on the deck of the CNB (staff lounge building) eating Moose’s Tooth pizza, finally getting to read Carrot Quin’s blog posts about here Brooks Range Traverse, writing this with a red pen because it was the only one I could find. This is my life in Alaska.

Today is my day off. It’s been a brilliantly sunny and warm day, but a rain cloud has appeared to cast am ominous shadow and the wind is picking up… typical Alaska weather. Earlier today, I ran 3.5 miles down Glenn Highway to Caribou Creek Recreation Area, hiked down and waded to a sand bar in the middle of the Lion Head branch of the Matanuska River, ran back to MICA base, rewarded myself with Moose Tracks ice cream from our MICA Mocha truck for lunch, hand-washed some laundry, video-chatted with a friend in Tokyo, and took a shower in the outdoor solar and propane powered guide shower.

I am spending the summer as an apprentice guide with MICA Guides, a company that primarily operates on Matanuska Glacier, about 2 hours northeast of Anchorage on scenic Glenn Highway. Yesterday, I was checked off as an assistant climbing guide and a few days before that I was checked off to lead treks on the glacier by myself. The glacier is like the Labyrinth of Greek mythology, changing every time you walk on it. Guiding on the glacier is living the duck on water analogy, trying to look smooth and calm on the surface while processing safety considerations and balancing them with the guest experience and not tripping over your crampons while looking back to see if your clients are still alive staying in line.

In the past month, I have learned to ice climb, kayaked in Prince William Sound, slept on a glacier, hiked cross-country over tundra and helped build a house. My experience with MICA so far has been excellent. The first couple weeks of orientation (disorientation?) taught us to roll with the punches and be ready for anything. Which accrues benefits like being able to depart for an overnight backpacking trip with only 15 minutes notice (which is what I did with my last day off).

Talking about Berkshire Hathaway and value investing with guests on a recent work backpacking trip, I thought about the companies I have worked for. Law firms view the size of the pie (market) as limited and aggressively try to grab a bigger piece of the pie from competitors. This culture trickles down to individual lawyers within a firm, manifesting in behaviors such as work-hoarding and back-stabbing. The company I worked for as an in-house lawyer seemed to take the view “Shit! My piece of the pie is getting smaller!… But, we’re just going to either freak out or pretend it is not happening and not change the way we have been doing things”, which breeds a bunch of dutiful but complacent “shoganai” paycheck collectors. The attitude at MICA is to grow the staff and create opportunity and make the pie bigger for everyone. There is, of course, great emphasis on technical training and delivering excellent product, but also a recognition that guiding is a short-term career for most and thus a big emphasis on building better humans with leadership and life-skills in general. It’s really refreshing and I appreciate what Don, the owner, is trying to do here in this little intense, live-together, work-together utopia experiment. This is really a business that you can feel good about patronizing. So, come visit!

As a first-year apprentice guide, I am technically an unpaid intern, but I am getting a lot of training (the most I have ever gotten as a job) and get to go on trips and have experiences that would otherwise cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars. The mistakes I made while learning to lead treks were discouraging and ego-crushing at times and neither my phone nor computer recognize my fingerprints anymore (manual labor, plus hours of wet gloves on the glacier, plus washing dishes in scalding hot water and rinsing them in cold bleach water), but this is definitely a great introduction to being a mountain guide, and I am feeling pretty good about my life choices right now.

The Mat

The Mat

Climbing after hours

Climbing after work

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I got paid to go backpacking!

Lion Head with the Crew

Lion Head hike with the crew

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).

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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Disaster strikes

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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

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Back on the trail!

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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.

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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.

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Abseiling from the hut

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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.

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All the views!

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The view from our lunch spot

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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First view of Mt. Tasman

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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.

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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!

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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.

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

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Icefall below Marcel Col

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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.

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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.

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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!

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

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Karamatsudake Hut

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What my campsite looked like

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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.

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Sunset on cloud-capped Mt. Tsurugi

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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.

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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.

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Sign warning hikers of the start of Kaerazu no Ken

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Ptarmigan

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

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“I think the trail goes that way?”

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

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View south of Tengu no Kashira

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Hakubadake Chojo Shukusha Hut

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View from Hakuba Sanso Hut

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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?

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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.

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The ski resorts of Hakuba Valley come into view

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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.

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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.