Snowiest Snow Country Hike
We're back from Naeba. I haven't developed the photos we got from the summit yet, but they are AMAZING!
Those of you who know Naeba, or at least know the recent weather in Japan (especially the Japan Sea coast) may be asking yourselves "Wha....?!!? Are you serious!?" You may be thinking that we are idiots for even attempting it on the snow-stormiest weekend all year.
No, we are not idiots.
Actually, Naeba never happened. We changed plans the night before, having seen that low-pressure hanging off Hokkaido for several days with no sign of moving. The several decimeters of snow the day before departure was also a huge deciding factor. Instead of making a sure-fire failed attempt at Naeba, we opted to hike out from our back yard with lofty, and ultimately unreachable, goals.
It was the hardest and slowest 6.5 kilometers and 330 meters altitude gain I have ever walked. It took us two days, but they were amazingly awesome days.
Chris arrived Thursday night at around 10:30, and after showing him how easily the fresh snow slid off the old, frozen snow in our yard, it was a no-brainer to switch from attempting the hyakumeizan (famous one-hundred mountains of Japan) Mt. Naeba, to a no-named mountain only a few kilometers from our home with could be reached through terrain that would not put us at risk of being buried in an avalanche. Even after a late start our hopes were high. We expected to make it much further than we did.
After dropping off a route map with our neighbor, and telling him, "If we don't come back in three days, we are somewhere here", we stopped by the post office to mail a few bill payments (just to settle everything in case we die on the mountain). We didn't actually get started up until quite late (8:30 am).
By around noon, we were talking about lunch, but decided to wait until we reached an open area with fields (a place Tomoe and I have have been to several times in less-snowy weather (a half-hour walk from our home). By twelve though, 3.5 hours after setting out, we decided that we were too far, and we would do better to refuel, rather than keep on with low energy. After lunch (and a minor directional error) we trudged on another 1 kilometer, deciding to start making camp at 3:00. Yes. It took us about 2.5 hours to walk one kilometer. Plan "A" had long since been ruled out. If it had been slightly nicer weather with more compact snow, we would have been able to make it, but we were now discussing plan "B" (above)
We decided to set up camp at 3:00 (2.5 hours before it gets dark) because although we were trudging through above-the-knee-deep fresh snow, we weren't sure there was enough to make a snow-cave without taking the time to make a pile and compact it.
For those of you who snow-shoe, the knee-deep snow here is not like snow in other areas. At between 200-300 meters above sea level temps rarely drop below -5 degrees Celsius, which is great for not freezing your butt off at night, but it sucks for walking in HEAVY wet snow. Every step is a struggle. The usual protocol for walking in such deep snow is to continuously switch out the person in the lead, who will step aside, letting the rest of the group pass. Joining the the back of the line is quite easy if the path is packed by everyone before you - in fact, the hardest part is becoming too cold because the group moves so slowly, and walking is so easy, that you use little energy. It does give a good rest though, until you are once again in front plowing through fresh above-the-knee snow.
With a large group, this keeps the group moving with ample rest time, and no one person having to become totally exhausted. In our case though, there were only three people to take turns. What's more, on the return trip, the snow was so deep that the second person had to work as hard as the the first person would have had to the day before. At one point I suggested we take fifty steps each and switch - in order to prevent "macho-ism" or guilt about "not doing my share" from preventing us from stepping down when we should, and thus slowing the group down.
I couldn't even make fifty steps - I stepped aside after thirty.
After finding a promising drift over three meters, we set up camp and dug our hole for the night. Unfortunately, the packed layer of snow under the freshly fallen and drifted snow must not have been as deep as we thought. Despite two meters of snow above, we still saw light coming through the roof of the cave in a few spots, indicating just how light and substance-less this snow was. We should have called it there and started packing snow for a Japanese style kamakura, but we dug on, making sure not to dig "too high". The cave gradually grew wide enough for three of us and our gear to spend the night.
Or so we thought...
Snow caves are quite toasty, more-so than a tent in some cases (and less damp because the moisture is absorbed by the snow or freezes, rather than collecting on the un-breathable tent walls). This cave was no exception, and I was soon asleep. Having gone to sleep so early, however, my body clock awoke me around 1am, at which time I tried to sit up and realized I could not sit up as far as I remember I could sit up before I went to bed.
Nawww. It's just my imagination. But just in case, I set my alarm to wake me up in another hour. I also made sure my glasses, cell-phone, head-lamp, and shovel were in, or near my sleeping bag. A quick scan of the cave revealed that everyone was sleeping on their side, rather than on their back. My thinking was that if the cave is to collapse, we would probably have a better chance to survive if it does not collapse into our gaping, snoring mouths.
An hour later I woke up (actually I was never able to fall asleep again) to find a "possible" difference in the space between me and the snow-cave ceiling. Still, however, no proof. I did not have a tape measure with me at the time. Once again, I set the alarm for one hour later and attempted (unsuccessfully) to drift into sweet slumber.
At around 3 am I awoke (from a non-sleep) to find that there is no way I could ever put my boots on in the same position that I had taken them off the night before. I barely even sit up enough to see my toes. I looked over at Chris and thought he might be dead (though a loud snore quickly comforted me). The Ceiling seemed to be crushing him. I poked his leg, and he responded with "Is this cave getting smaller?"
At 3 am we went outside to set up a tent (and Chris, his bivy-sack). A few hours before, I had stomped down a space in the snow for our tent in case Tomoe, who on rare occasions gets claustrophobia, need to escape the cave. When I got out to put up the tent, I found knee-deep fresh snow in the tent spot. Another stomping proved to be a bad idea, as I was not wearing my gators, allowing a lot of snow to get into my boots getting my socks wet.
Once in the tent, I slept well. I slept so well, in fact, that I disregard the alarm, opting instead to wake up well after 6, meaning (thankfully) that we got a late start that day. There was at least 50cm of new snow. We found ourselves climbing in waist (sometimes higher) deep snow. Even the tracks from our previous day were barely visible as a small indent in fresh snow above my crotch.
The reason I say it was lucky that we got a late start is that it reduced temptation to "go for it". Although I think we would have been fine had we gotten up earlier and continued on (we had food for several days), it was more emotionally comfortable to follow the "known" path home - which we decided to do at 11am. Plan "C" (below) shows the route we actually did.
Another influence was our neighbor - the guy I gave the map to. I had had my cell-phone turned off all day so as not to interfere with the avalanche beacon, and when we finally arrived at camp I switched it on (we were only 3km from our house - well within range) to find five messages - almost one every hour. The neighbor was so worried that he called to find out where we were. When I didn't answer, he gathered some of the other neighbors and began discussing rescue plans. (How many of my Tokyo neighbors would have done that?). We called him the first night to assure him that we were OK, and called again in the morning to tell him we were starting up the mountain, and our plans had changed a bit. He told me that there would be even more snow that night than the night before - more than we have had all winter. What could be a more perfect excuse to head back without feeling like too much of a loser?
The hike back was a bit easier in that in most places we could see a slight trace of our previous day's track, reducing the need for too much map navigation, which was slightly more difficult in this area than on a steep mountain ridge because the micro-terrain was not so steep and didn't show up on the topo.
Still, the snow was deeper on the way home, sometimes reaching above our waist. This was compounded by semi-clear skies, which made for beautiful vies we missed the day before, but also meant the snow was becoming heavier as it melted when the sun peaked its head out every once in a while. Luckily, the trip home was more downhill than up, making heavy snow more bearable. The backup plan we would have followed if we had woken up earlier would have had a long climb, followed by a much more defined downhill into a small village from where we could then take a plowed road home with just one-hour's walk.
We arrived home just as the snow (which we had been watching in the Northern horizon) reached the village. After a stop at the neighbors to appologize for causing them so much worry, we savoured our local hot-spring bath. The neighbors said that they were worried, but not "too worried" because "Kevin is a mountain pro". This assumption of theirs was based solely on the fact that we had given them a detailed topographic map showing our planned route. They didn't even know that such detailed maps existed. Obviously I must be a pro.
When I get more time I will post photos and a bit of description of the great snow we had in the village, finally making this an "average" snow-fall year. Until now it had been somewhat lacking.