Running along the western edge of Nagano Prefecture, the Northern Alps, or Hida Mountain Range as they’re known in Japanese, are a source of never-ending adventures. From spring to fall, they’re a go-to for hikers and backpackers looking for a challenge; they change into a snow sports haven in winter once they don their thick, fluffy snow coats. One place to experience the beauty of these mountains is Hakuba, a village of 9,000 that’s home to 11 ski resorts and hosted many events during the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano.
This bustling village was also my destination this past weekend! I felt like trying something different for my birthday and ended up going on my first overnight, camping trek to Karamatsu-dake (height: 2696m/8845 feet).
From what I could find online (which wasn’t much), Karamatsu-dake is considered the ‘easiest’ mountain to climb in this part of the alps. It is possible to climb it and return in one day, or you can spend the night at a hut located just under the summit and continue trekking the next day. The beginning of the hike is actually a series of gondolas and ski lifts which take you up over 1000m! It’s about an hour and a half hike to Happo Pond from the last lift, then somewhere between 2.5–4 hours from there to the hut (sources varied widely on the time). The hut doesn’t take reservations for camping or staying at the hut unless you are in a large group, so I figured I might need to hurry to grab a spot. My plan was to get there a bit before the lifts opened at 6:45am, hike to the hut, grab a spot for my tent, camp out, then come down the next day.
The starting point at Happo One Ski Resort is about an hour and a half drive from my house, so I left around 4:30am. I ended up getting there at just the right time — I managed to get one of the last parking spaces right across from the gondola station! There were so many people there already. Some were in line for gondola tickets, some were filling out hiker registration forms (mandatory for anyone planning on overnighting on a mountain), and others were waiting around for the gondola to start whisking people upwards. As I was standing in line, I checked out other hikers’ equipment. Most of the backpacks I could see were Mont-bell, and many people had hiking poles and sleeping pads strapped to the outside — lots of people planning to camp. I began to wonder if I should’ve brought those things.
The gondola and ski lifts were quite relaxing, but they couldn’t stop the large pit in my stomach churning and gurgling nervously. Was I seriously about to do this? I’d spent the night in a hut when I climbed Mt. Fuji, but this time I was carrying a tent. What if it breaks or something? What if it’s too cold? My down sleeping bag isn’t very fluffy. My bag is really heavy… Do I have enough water? Why is it so clear today? Man it’s hot…
Time: 7:30am Elevation: 1830m
I immediately pulled out my camera.
Spread out in front of me, in all of their untamed beauty, were the Northern Alps. A lady near me who’d obviously done this before began telling her companions the names of each mountain.
“That one’s Hakuba Yarigatake. Next to it is Shakushi-dake, and next to it is Shirouma-dake.”
“Ehhhhh… Where’s the mountain we’re climbing?”
“Oh, Karamatsu-dake? You can’t see it yet, but it’s … over there” she said, pointing off to the left.
Can’t see it, huh? This did nothing to help my stress, but I figured I climbed Fuji without being able to see the summit for most of it so… should be fine.
The first part of the trail was nothing but rocks. There are actually two trails you can take; one is longer but less steep and consists of mostly boardwalks. The one I took (’cause I was in a hurry) was shorter but steeper and was nothing but rocks. The trail was wide, though, which was nice; it let faster people pass my snail pace without any problems.
Eventually, I made it to Happo Pond. This wildly photogenic lake is famous for its perfect reflection of the Northern Alps in its waters on a calm day. For many people, this was their destination; any further and you start needing proper hiking equipment (read food, water, and boots). I’ve been wanting to go here for a while, but I ending up being a little underwhelmed. It was probably only because I knew I had a long way to go to my goal. I’ll have to come again sometime when I’m not carrying 8 kg (17.5 lbs) worth of stuff on my back!
Time: ~8:50am Elevation: 2060m
Time to reach Happo Lake: ~80 minutes
Elevation change: +230m
Distance hiked: 1.5km
When I finally stopped taking pictures of the snow fields still hiding in the valleys…
…the hike got hard fast. The trail shrunk to one-person width, meaning I now felt I had to go everyone else’s much faster pace. I was going too fast. I had to keep pulling over every chance there was even the slightest opening on the side to catch my breath and drink a sip of water. As I continued, I began to get worried about my water; it was much hotter than I had anticipated. Should I turn around? Surely they’ll have more water at the hut…
Finally, finally, I made it to the Maruyama Cairn.
According to the map I got at the gondola ticket counter, it was another ~200m in elevation gain from here. I was so close! Nearby, a couple passed, the girl pointedly asking how much further to the hut. “Hmm, about 50 minutes I think,” he replied. 50 minutes?! I looked at their athletic builds and almost turned around. 50 minutes for them meant at least another hour and a half for me. Part of my brain I laughed. Ha! What a GREAT idea. Climb a mountain you’ve never hiked before, with a tent you’ve never used before weighing down your backpack. HAPPY BIRTHDAY! Part of my brain bucked up. Even if it is another hour and a half, you’re almost there! Once you get to the hut you can set up your tent and take a nap. I continued.
One nice part of this last stretch was a group of four that passed me on the way up. It was two guys in their twenties along with their grandparents I think. As they passed, the two guys asked in English where I was from. I said America. As they continued forward, I could hear them trying to formulate another question in English — ” How… long… Japan? 違う違う。えええっと。。。”(That’s wrong, that’s wrong. Ummm…) “Two years!” I called after them. They turned around in surprise, then called back in Japanese, “Do you like Nagano?” “Yes!” I replied. They laughed and continued. I heard one of them say to the other, “Is she alone?”
We continued leapfrogging each other the whole way up. They’d wave and say hi when I passed, and I’d do the same when they passed. When the trail branched, one way going to the summit and the other the hut, they asked if I could take their picture; afterwards, the older man said “Thank you! ARIgaTO!” to which I replied, “Your welcome! DOU itashiMASHite!” They busted out laughing 🙂 They continued on to the summit while I headed to the hut. I thought about maybe following them up, but I didn’t think I’d be able to make it I was so tired.
The hut is a giant red building perched on the side of a cliff. I walked near the edge and saw, below me, about 10 tents pitched in various locations down the side. It didn’t look like there were many spaces left…
I turned my attention back to the hut. Tons of hikers were standing around outside; some were waiting in line to book a sleeping space, others were eating cup ramen they’d bought inside. I threw my backpack down next to the wall, grabbed my money, and walked inside. The lady at the tent reception area was very friendly; I paid my ￥1200 and listened to her explain where everything was. When she was done, I grabbed my backpack and began my descent to the camping area.
I remember thinking that there weren’t many spots left. It looked like most of the good spots were taken! I ended up hiking off the trail a bit and through the tall grass to a clearing on top of a hill. It was perfect. A little slanted, maybe, but the grass around me guaranteed no one would be setting up too close, and I had a great view of the valley below me. I grabbed my tent and managed to set it up with little difficulty!
Once it was up, I settled in a bit, then took a nap.
Afterwards, I grabbed my phone and money and trekked back up to the hut. When I was leaving my tent and making my way carefully through the grass to the path, a guy in his fifties who was camped a bit below me turned to his buddy and said 「セクシー」(sekushii / sexy). His buddy then not at all subtly turned around to look at me. I straightened, looked at the guys straight in their eyes, and waved, like yeah, I heard you. I don’t even need to know Japanese to know what you guys said. They looked super awkward. Part of my brain was rolling its eyes, like seriously? Even here I run into this crap? The other part was screaming, “I may be filthy, stinky and sunburned, but HECK YEAH I’M SEXY! I JUST CLIMBED UP A MOUNTAIN AND PITCHED A TENT ALL BY MYSELF! TAKE THAT WORLD!” Conflicting emotions.
I used the bathroom and bought some orange jelly as a present for making it this far. I was quite content as I sat on the edge of the cliff, eating the wonderfully sweet jello and gazing at the colorful tents below me. Soon, though, a cloud bank moved in and I decided I should probably get back to my tent. There went my hopes of seeing the stars that night.
Remember how I’d thought there weren’t many more tent spots left? WRONG! There were probably 40 or 50 tents now scattered everywhere. They were pitched in places I didn’t think they’d be able to fit / that didn’t look too comfortable. I was glad I’d gotten there when I did!
I spent the next couple hours before bed snacking, playing on my phone (I had 4G!), and preparing for nightfall. I changed into my warmer clothes and hung my head light from the top of the tent. Once night did fall and I turned it on, I was treated to the sounds of a bat squeaking and circling my tent. He must’ve been attracted to my light ’cause every time I turned it off I couldn’t hear him anymore. I poked my head out a couple of times (with the light off) before bed; each time I was elated to see all the tents glowing through the mist, like clumps of colorful orbs.
Karamatsu Dake Sancho Sanso
Time: ~1:00pm Elevation: ~2650m
Total time to reach lodging: 5.5 hours
Total elevation change: +820m
Total distance hiked: ~4.5km
I spent most of the night tossing and turning. The ground was hard and uncomfortable (go figure), and my sleeping bag wasn’t warm enough. I did manage to get some sleep though and woke up around 4am to the sound of people taking down their tents. Their plan was probably to get up to the summit for the sunrise. I decided I wasn’t about that life but ended up staying up anyway. Wait… sunrise? Does that mean the clouds are gone? I poked my head outside, and was greeted with an absolutely clear sky. It was gorgeous; however, the moon was full so it was too bright to see anything other than what I normally see.
I finally left my tent around 5am and started taking my tent down, stopping every ten minutes to take pictures of the valley slowly waking up.
The tent stowed and my backpack re-packed, I hiked up to the hut and ate a squashed melon bread for breakfast, then bought a pin from the gift shop inside the hut. I decided not to hike to the summit. Even though it was only “15 minutes away,” it looked too steep, I was too sore, and it wasn’t my goal. My real goal for this trip was to hike a mountain, camp overnight, and make it back alive. Who knows; maybe I’ll come back sometime and hike it properly?
Time: 6:50am Elevation: ~2650m
The way down took no time at all it seemed. I passed a group of old women who recognized me from yesterday and were all shocked that I had a) camped and b) a tent, sleeping bag, and camera in my backpack. “There’s no way… Really?? Nuh uh… How?”
The mountains were even more beautiful than yesterday! I couldn’t stop taking pictures!
The Maruyama Cairn is somewhere up there… bye bye!
About half-way down, the weather became blessedly cloudy. I’d gotten sunburn on my neck and the backs of both my hands and didn’t want to make it any worse. I was back at Happo Pond before I knew it…
…and when it came time to choose between rocks and boardwalk, I opted for the boardwalk.
When the chair lift finally came into view I almost shouted with joy! When I got back to my car I DID shout with joy! I thought about turning back so many times, but I made it through! It was a great adventure, and I’m already looking for my next chance to make it back to Hakuba and the beautiful Northern Alps!
Happo-One Snow Resort
Time: 10am Elevation: 770m
Time to reach the car: ~3 hours 10 minutes
Total elevation change: -1880m (including gondola and lifts)
Total distance hiked over two days: ~9km
Parking: ￥1200 (1 day — ￥600, free parking also available further from the gondola station)
Round trip lift ticket: ￥2,900
Camp site: ￥1,200
Website for the Karamatsu-dake mountain hut (唐松岳山頂山荘, Japanese only)
Water from the hut: ￥300 a bottle
Souvenir pins: between ￥500-700
This hike can be completed in one day, but please note that the lifts close at 4:30. There are signs near the hut that advise hikers not planning on overnighting to leave the area by 1pm.
Please learn from my struggle and give yourself enough time to reach the hut if you’re not an experienced hiker. I arrived with plenty of time, but it took much longer than I thought it would and it was super discouraging. Go in with realistic expectations!