Posted by: tsubakuro | January 6, 2010

The South Alps in Winter

Creating a book of the Japan Alps requires a decent selection of winter images. I have photographed snowy scenes in the North and Central Alps, but except for some views from Hououzan in early May, I had no snow views from the South Alps. Knowing that it was possible to hike up to Kitazawa Pass in winter I decided to go there from December 28th to the 30th and hopefully get some nice views of Senjoudake, Kai Komagatake, Nokogiridake, Hououzan, Asayomine, and Kitadake.

In the Todai Valley

My first error was in choosing not to take the expressway. Saving money meant that I arrived at the trailhead parking lot two and a half hours later then when I had planned. As a result I was still climbing up through the trees when a gorgeous evening glow radiated from Nokogiri’s rocky face. Snow had fallen that morning and the clouds were clearing away that afternoon, giving me some good photo ops in the Todai Valley. But I grew tired and hungry before reaching camp and set up my tent on the road side for the night. Of course, no buses were running during winter.

My tent, the blue one, at the campsite with Senjodake in the background

The next day I got off to a slow start. I think after three hours’ sleep the previous night, followed by an eight-hour drive and a six-hour hike left me drained. I allowed myself the unforgivable luxury of lounging around in the sleeping bag and blew away the early part of the morning. It wasn’t far to the camp site but I took time to set up the tent and secure it from the gusts of wind that threatened to blow it away. When I was ready to start going up Senjo, it was already too late in the day to even think about reaching the top in all that new snow. I settled for reaching Kosenjo from where I would have a view form above the tree-line of the mountains I came to shoot. But it was longer going up then I had planned and in the end it was doubtful that I would reach the tree-line by sunset. Disappointed, I decided to turn back this time and come again some time next winter.

Kitadake from between the trees on the route up to Kosenjo and Senjodake

I managed to get a shot of Kitadake through the trees with evening glow on its face, but the view of Kai Koma in the purple twilight sky with the moon overhead I could only appreciate through the trees. I felt fine going down and at camp I was in good spirits. I tried for a 20-minute exposure of the campsite in the moonlight with Senjodake in the background.

The next morning I had planned to wake up early enough and get up to Sensui Pass for a shot of Senjo in the morning light; however, during the night my phone battery died taking my alarm clock with it. I woke up to the voices of other hikers but it was already past five o’clock and I left too late again. Once more I saw the best light on the mountains from through the trees, though this time the light was clearly weaker than the night before. Clouds were starting to build.

I reached Sensui Pass while there was still sunlight on Senjo and I was determined to get a 4×5 exposure of the scene. Before setting up the 35mm or the 645, I set up the 4×5 and made sure everything was right to capture the view. When all was prepared and the film was in place I had a last minute thought to check to see if an ND grad would be necessary. I checked the exposure and found that my lightest filter was still too dark, and so I turned and put it back in the camera pack. When I looked back, the light had gone from Senjo and was only shining in the valley below. I quickly exposed the film but due to the reduced strength of the light the photograph may come out underexposed. I tried one more sheet of film but by this time the light was gone all together. I guess I’ll have to wait and see the final results after developing.

The stream near the campsite

Back at camp I made a few exposures in 35mm and 4×5 of the snow-covered boulders in the stream and then packed up and headed back down. The sky was darkening with grey clouds which made for some moody scenes in the Todai Valley. I stopped for one shot with the 4×5 but just before I was ready to shoot I noticed five pink trail marker ribbons in the photo. Here I gave up and made my way back to the car.

Though I had accepted my poor timing as the main reason for missing the best shots at first, in retrospect I think that I wimped out. I should have continued up to camp after a short break that first day and I should have taken a short break and then pushed on for the last shoulder on Senjodake. Even with bad timing and delays I still could have made something out of the trip. I’ll have few photos to add to the pool for the book project from this trip.

All was not wasted, however. Keeping these mistakes in mind I will do better when I attempt to get up to Senpuku Pass and the Shiomidake area in late March. Hopefully then the weather will be as good as it was on this trip to Kitazawa Pass.



  1. Ah yes, the fleeting nature of mountain light – I had exactly the same experience on the Rigi, a Swiss mountain, last weekend. The sun was touching the horizon over a sea of cloud – and sinking too fast for me to set up a tripod for the “real” camera. Instead, I managed a few grab shots with a pocket digital apparatus. Better a few substandard images than none at all, I suppose….

    • I find that time in the mountains is mostly spent moving with very little time for photography, so the precious moments are absolutely imperative to capture. Sometimes it’s a question about waiting but more often it’s about running up hill, setting up the tripod as you run, and shooting while half out of breath.

      There have been many times when I didn’t stop to take out the big guns and just grabbed a snap shot only to find later that the snapshot turned out really well and it would have been worth it to have stopped for a ‘real’ photograph.

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