Celebrating 50 years of Adventure Travel

Adventure in Japan’s Kita Alps

March 26, 2019 by Michael Burz

Stumbling off the Singapore Airlines 747 in Narita, Japan, my friend Mitch and I searched the crowd. With a name like “Smoke” Blanchard, our Kita Alps hiking guide could be a Lara Croft look-alike or a crusty old guy. It was 1983, our usual Sierra hikes had been interrupted by unusually heavy snows and, in the pre-internet era, we hadn’t researched our trip leader.

Scanning the welcome signs, we spotted “Mt. Travel Sobek”. It was not held by Lara Croft. There he stood: a compact tour de force with a white beard, hiking shorts, jaunty cap and a combination walking-stick/umbrella. Our adventure had begun.

We acclimated in Tokyo, met our hiking partners—two lawyers from Canada—James (not Jim) and Peter, and toured the city’s fish market, temples and restaurants. As we explored the city, we saw how the Japanese imbued the practical with the poetic. But Smoke wasn’t at home in the city, leaving us scrambling to catch up as he vanished into crowds, antsy to get to the mountains.

After a train ride to the Kita Alps, many miles and many climbs—one up a volcano—we arrived at Karasawa lodge, which we would use as a base camp for our toughest climb.

Our objective the next morning was a peak called Gendarme. Cold, drizzly, and very foggy, we could barely see the route, much less the summit we were headed for. We had to climb to a shoulder and traverse across it to the summit. Smoke led the way up through the boulders, following painted blazes. The Japanese had thoughtfully placed handholds and steel cables to help around the tricky bits. The scrabbling was tough but not crazy; just made difficult by the inclement weather.

We reached the shoulder and looked across to the final ascent. The shoulder was a knife edge about 10 inches across. To the left, the cliff dropped away into the fog. On the right, it dropped further into the fog. Smoke opened his umbrella and casually walked across the knife-edge, as graceful as a tightrope walker. He stopped and turned motioning us to follow. I was second after James. Small rocks I dislodged dropped into the void; the frequency between plinks getting longer and longer. My heart was pumping so hard not even the fog could muffle the sound. Half way across, I lost my nerve and sat down as if on a saddle. I butt-walked my way to the other side. When we had all made it, Smoke looked up at the summit, smiled and said, “Well, gentlemen, now it gets a little steeper and a little tougher.” Before we had time to react, Smoke was on his way.

The view from the fog-enshrouded summit didn’t quite equal the sense of accomplishment. As a heavy drizzle set in, we turned and headed down.

Back at the mountain house, we celebrated with beer and sake, exchanging climbing stories with a team of Japanese climbers who were very impressed that we had summited.

The next morning, the weather had improved. The sun was up, the sky indigo blue. Over breakfast on the deck with our new friends, we looked out on the Kita Alps, peaks rising above the roiling clouds. One of the women from the other climbing team asked what we called this gesturing to the scene. I responded, finding only an engineer’s practical term, “A cloud bank”.

“In Japan”, she said, “We call it the cloud ocean.”

Michael Burz, MT Sobek Guest

MT Sobek Trip: Kita Alps, 1983

About the Author Michael Burz

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