Sunday, September 21, 2008

Hiking up Tanigawa-dake 谷川岳

On Saturday I had the privilege of hiking with my friend Mariko and a couple of her friends. We went to Gunma prefecture and did one of the hardest hikes of my life. We went down the night before and slept in the lobby of the gondola building. It is apparently open for hikers/climbers all night. We slept basically on sheets on hard concrete covered with thin office carpet. Mariko and I couldn't sleep. It must have been from excitement or something, not from discomfort. We were both really excited about the next day's hike.

We woke up at 5:30 to eat and get ready to board the gondola at 7:00. The first thing I did was to walk out the door to enjoy the crisp morning air. It was the most satisfying breath I had taken in years. There was mist over the mountains and it was beautiful.I went back in only to discover that they were actually going to fire up the camp stove inside to boil water for cup ramen and coffee. I wonder what the staff would have said. I know that is a define safety no-no. You can see the vending machines in the background in the picture.
We boarded the gondola and took the ten minute ride that saved us an hour of hiking. I then decided that I would give the mountain a go in my sandals. I did the whole ascent in my sandals and changed into hiking boots before the chains. I was struck by the beautiful green at the top. The plants are quite different from the Rockies in Canada and I kind of felt that I was in a different world.
Technically the hike wasn't tough but mentally it was excruciating. We went the day after a typhoon which made for a pretty difficult descent. The way up was great and I felt like I could have gone on forever.

We then started our descent backtracking along the narrow top of the ridge between the twin peaks, Tomanomimi (トマノ耳) and Okinomimi (オキノ耳). I am afraid of heights, not so afraid that I can't do things like that but I find myself being overly cautious and slow. This was the first kicking of the ego. You can't tell from the picture but the terrain is quite steep.

The trail also had several sets of chains to help the climb, it really was half rock climbing. Given my fear of heights, dangling over the edge of a little cliff on the the top of a mountain ridge was not appealing. I felt a sense of accomplishment because when I used to hike regularly when I was younger, I would always avoid the chains like the plague. This was my small success for the day.

Once we finished with the ridge I breathed a sigh of relief as we were going to take the trail that branched off into the trees. I have always loved trails through the trees. We got less than a hundred meters before we encountered our first steep rocky, mossy (and still very wet from day before's typhoon) section. I had a bad experience a long time ago with slippery terrain and these rocks brought back bad memories. The trail turned out to be like that for the entire length save the last two hundred meters. I believe this was the first time that I have ever thought "Will this ever end?" while hiking. I am pretty content in the mountains and usually enjoy most trails - even after the stressful ridge I was good to go.

This last descent, which took at least two hours, destroyed my ego (which I don't mind now) and left me feel like I was going to sprain my ankle with every step. I discovered about an hour and a half in to this descent that my sunglasses with brown lenses actually made the rocks look wetter than they were. I had kept them on because the light on the trail was kind of grey from the mist and brown lenses make everything look better. I felt a bit foolish because I had been hiking fairly slowly because I was worried about the rocks. The change is perspective had good timing because I needed more confidence near the end to balance the thoughts of ankle sprains.

We finally got to the parking lot at the end of the trail. We had a twenty minute walk back to our parking lot. That also felt like the longest walk of my life. My feed were killing me because I was too lazy to ditch my hiking boots and go for my lovely Chacos that I had brought for that exact purpose. I have always had a policy of not wearing hiking shoes anywhere but the trail. My feet have never liked shoes and once a hike is done I can think of nothing but freeing my feet. The rest of my body felt great actually. After a tough part of a hike is over I don't usually have residual angst or tension, I go back to enjoying myself.

More photos