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Day Six: Climbing Yarigatake

Day Six: Climbing Yarigatake

Humans adapt incredibly well. After five days on the trail, I was already seeing a huge difference in my fitness levels – despite the pre-dawn start and the immediate ascent, I felt fresh and energised, and my breathing remained steady (if heavy) as I made my way upwards. Within half an hour, we’d passed our first summit of the day.

It was a perfect morning for hiking. As the sun crept up over the horizon, you could feel the mountain coming to life – the birds started singing, and other hikers began leaving the huts and hitting the trail. A few followed our footsteps but many more headed off in different directions from Sugoroku Goya, which was very conveniently located at the junction of several multi-day hikes. It reminded me of Taro-san’s description of Suguroku as the kind of hut people would visit then revisit for all sorts of different reasons.

Leaving Sugoroku hut

For the next hour or so, Bruno wandered behind me – the day was gorgeous, and he was taking advantage of that for some photos. I continued on my own, losing myself in memories of the hike and everything I’d learned along the way.

You see, one of the reasons I go on these multi-day treks is because I know they demand a level of perseverance – both mental and physical – that I don’t often need, and I know it’s something I can use the opportunity to improve. The challenge appealed to me, as did the practicality of a vacation that doubled as a growth experience (followed by an equal dose of indulgence, of course). I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.

The preceding five days of this hike – in their typhoon-ridden glory – showed me that I could keep going despite the cold and wet, the pains and aches, the frustration and helplessness, the nagging voice that told me I was insane to even contemplate continuing on. It also showed me how to reach the parts inside me that allowed me keep going against the odds, and to this day, I feel stronger when I start thinking how I made it through the Alps. Looking back at it all on a bright, sunny morning and feeling the new-found strength in my mental and physical muscles was an affirmation that yes, the experience was worth it.

Yarigatake in the background

Yarigatake in the background

Our destination of the day was Yarigatake (3,180m), one of the most popular mountains in the northern Alps (both in its own right and as an access point to several other prominent mountains). We could see its sharp peak rising above the clouds ahead of us, and the path there involved following a series of ridges that remained high above the tree line. Our aim was to arrive around midday and do the summit climb before retiring to one of the many huts in the area.

The ridge leading towards the mountain

The ridge leading towards the mountain

There were some sections of the trail that were quite exposed, probably more so than on the other days, but the weather was forecasted to remain sunny (or at least non-stormy) for the whole day so we didn’t feel pressured to hurry on. Various groups of hikers went by in the opposite direction, and we also passed others who were resting on clusters of rocks. We exchanged far more greetings than we had on all the other days combined. It also grew quite warm during the day – I removed my outer layers and drank far more quickly than usual. In a way, this was what I’d originally imagined the whole hike would be.

On the way up

On the way up

As we approached Yarigatake, the ascent grew steeper and I started the ritual of counting my steps and only stopping in increments of a thousand. A pleasant distraction was the periodic return of the helicopter that brought supplies to the huts around Yari – we’d hear its blades whirring above us, and look up to see it circle briefly before dropping bundles down to the waiting men below.

Delivering supplies

Delivering supplies

We made it to Yarigatake Sansou (the largest hut on the mountain, with a capacity of hundreds) at the expected time, and paused briefly to nibble at Calorie Mate bars, restock on water and watch the helicopter drop-offs before continuing on to Yari. There were plenty of other climbers already there, both self-guided hikers like us and larger tour groups with helmets and a guide.

Yari’s reputation proved true – it’s not really a climb for the faint-hearted. I’m not sure I would have made it there and back without Bruno’s help. The upwards part was largely manageable, with some scrambles followed by sections with chains and ladders, but the downhill would have been a struggle. It was definitely a mountain that left me feeling accomplished to summit.

Afraid of heights?

Afraid of heights?

Luckily, there was some room for us to stop at the top and catch both our breaths and some photos. If we’d tried the climb at the more popular time of sunrise (recalling that Japan is the “land of the rising sun”), our options would have been far more limited – dozens of hikers typically try to be at the peak in time for dawn. As we were there in the early afternoon, there were only a handful of other people there, which meant that we simply took photos of each other and of the vertigo-including climb before moving on.

Clouds in the horizon

View from the summit

By the time I made it down the (aforementioned scary) descent, I was quite tired and ready to call it a day. Instead of staying at Yarigatake Sansou, where the crowd size was increasing by the minute, we decided to head downwards towards one of the smaller huts. The other advantage was that we’d have less of a descent the next day – which was a welcome side-effect, as we’d be descending by 1,500m and my knees were not entirely convinced of the sanity of the idea.

Bruno scouted ahead for huts while I perched on a rock and ate my bento, and before long, he was waving me on. One of the staff at the hut went by the name of Chippy and was more than happy to have someone to practice English with, so he and Bruno hit it off quite well – they’d later spend some time drinking together while I slept.

It was an older hut with the split level style, and we used our sleeping bags as we had at Sugonokoshi, but Chippy and the other staff were friendly and helpful. That said, it did seem to attract a different mix of hikers – I was the only female guest there, and all the others were middle-aged Japanese men. Dinner was served at a long table where Bruno and I received plenty of stares as the only gaijin and the only girl, but the novelty soon wore off and they began discussing their respective hikes and plans instead. Soon afterwards, we piled our empty dishes up and headed to our beds to call it a night.

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