The old man and I sat on the peak of the Gendarme, watching the early evening clouds boil around the summits of the North Alps. From our seat in the skies, the world below appeared as a sea of white foam dotted with an archipelago of dark mountain tops. The pyramid of Yari stood talles 2000 t of all those islands, an unmistakable black spear thrusting into the heavens. The old man pointed slowly towards that distant peak,
Theres another route up Yari, you know. You wont find it on any of the maps. You wont find any old women or children up there, either. Its a hard route for hard men. Id reckon not one in a hundred thousand climb Yari from that side. They call it The Kitakama ridge.
From then on, it consumed me.
A year later, I started the climb from Nakabusa onsen, up the steep wooded slope to the Enzanso lodge. The fair weather of the weekend had drawn the crowds, now making their descent after taking in the views from the summit. Its not for nothing that this is known as the Ginza of the Alps. By midday Im at the top. The weather is fine, but at the ridge a sharp north wind cuts up from the valley on the other side. I pull on a jacket, and start the walk along to tonights destination, the hut at Otensho. Yari, and the Kitakama, are shrouded in billowing clouds until, quite suddenly, they part for an instant, the enormity of my quest revealed.
It was the first time that I had glimpsed Yari from this side. As impressive as it was from the other direction, nothing could match the view I was now afforded. A middle finger of rock thrust to the gods and man alike, it compelled the eye and made the roundabout peaks seem dwarfish and dull. And there, spilling off the northern side of the mountain, lay the Kitakama ridge, all broken black teeth and dismal spires. As quickly as it had revealed itself, the clouds again took the mountain. I hurried on along the ridge as the wind tugged and threatened.
The hut lies in a saddle between Mt Otensho and the Ushikubi peak, which boasts Wonderful views of Yari and a 360 degree panorama according to the map. It was already late afternoon, and I was considering where I might bivy for the night, when the owner emerged. He glanced at the ironmongery on my pack, the helmet and the rope, and asked simply Kitakama?. I nodded. He had a friendly smile and relaxed air, quite unlike that of many of the hut owners of the Alps, not a few of whom have gone mildly insane.
You look well kitted out for it. And you seem strong enough. I get a few through here each year, and I try to check em out. Once in a while you get a bumbly who thinks the Kitakama might be a pleasant stroll. I try to tell them to turn back. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they get halfway and make it back here in a terrible state. Sometimes they never come back, and I read about it in the newspaper later on So, where to tonight?
I tell him Im looking for a place to bivy. He says that theres no-one else at the hut tonight, and that Im free to stay for the knockdown price of Y1000.
As long as you make your own food. Oh, and if you can do me just one favour.
If you ever stay at the Otensho hut, then know that the English instructions for the chemical toilets are original CJW prose.
The next morning, we climb the Ushikubi peak together to watch the sunrise. He points out the route up the Kitakama.
Go down the Bimbozawa and cut left up the river to the Kitakama couloir. Careful on the Bimbozawa, it might be frozen this early in the morning. Follow the Kitakama col up to where it forks, and make sure you take the right-hand gully. The left hand is a death trap, people have died in there.
Black clouds roll in from the north. The metallic tang of snow is sharp on the wind now, and presently we are peppered with flakes. The hut owner tells me not to worry, that the forecast is good for the next couple of days, and that this will shortly pass.
I thank him for his advice, and make my way to the notch in the next saddle where a small sign proclaims the entrance to the Bimbozawa. Literally Poor Gully, it lives up to its name. The top is a mess of creeping haimatsu pine, followed by a 750 vertical meter, boulder choked decent. Its dry until the bottom section, where a sulfurous waterfall spills from the cliffs above. A crumbling rope leads down a steep, slippery slope at one point; I dont trust it, so I use my own. Its a grueling two hours of work before I reach the river of the valley floor, bruised and cut. I slap a bloody hand print on a nearby rock, a primeval marker, before diving my torn hand into the icy waters.
The clouds swiftly depart as I reach the entrance to the Kitakama col, leaving an azure ceiling flecked with mares tails. Its a short climb to the fork, where I stop to fill my water bottle. This may be the last place to take on water until I reach the Yari hut on the other side; even so, I can only take three liters with me, a perilously small amount for such a venture.
I climb into the right-hand gully, up over the grinding boulders. In places, house-sized pieces of rock bar the way, compelling me to take off my pack while I boulder to their tops. Hauling the pack up behind me is strenuous work, made no easier by its maddening tendency to get stuck half way up. Its hard work, especially after using so much energy descending the Bimbozawa. The head of the col hovers in constant sight, but seems to draw no nearer, until presently the oppressive walls open out into a grassy slope just below the top. A warm slab of rock makes a welcome seat with views across this lonely valley. Japan is such a crowded nation, and yet in this little corner of the land, I am the only member of my species in this valley and probably the next.
Too quickly, long-fingered shadows creep towards my sunny seat as midday passes. Shouldering the pack once more, I take the final few meters to the ridge proper and for the first time gaze out over the soft contours of Mt Washiba and Mt Suisho to the north, and the Yellow Sand ridge that stands between us.
The wind blows colder here. Icicles hang from the cliffs, and the remains of the mornings snow remain dotted over the ground. A little further on, a rope of reasonably modern vintage snakes down a cliff face. I clip into the end of it, give it a few bounces and it seems secure enough. Im able to mantle up and round the knoll to the left, where the terrain becomes a little easier. The line of the ridge leads due north for a few hundred meters, before swinging round to the west, for which Im grateful; climbing on the north side of the ridge, the afternoon sun brings heat even as the chill wind whisks it away.
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By mid-afternoon Id reached a spire with a small, flat top, and pleasing views of Yari and the surrounding mountains. I decided to call this home for the night. I built a small wall from rocks to keep the bitter wind at bay, huddled behind it and watched the sun dip into the clouds that cloaked the horizon.
Yari seemed to fill the sky now, demanding attention. For a long time I gazed out along the ridge, trying to make out the lines of the peaks and spires that graced its length, imagining the route of the next day. Finally, the sun disappeared somewhere into the Sea of Japan, and a pale half moon rose to throw its light over Yaris flanks.
I noticed with alarm that my breath was clouding the air, and that the frost had already started to settle on my sleeping bag; 2000 I hurriedly tucked it into my bivy sack. I had a notion to make a small fire, maybe put some warmth into me before heading to sleep, but after half an hour of pointless scrabbling around in the dark for firewood, I realised that I was simply getting colder. The mercury hit minus eight as I burrowed into my sleeping bag, where I lay looking up at the planetarium sky that wheeled overhead, the milky way streaked with shooting stars.
Sleep came in dark, dreamless fits. The wind swung in the night, making a mockery of my carefully built wall, seeking out the small breathing hole in the bivy bag and chilling my cheeks and nose. Around midnight, the need to pee exceeded the need to stay warm. Clambering out in my underclothes, I stood shaking like a loon on this little peak in the sky and unleashed a stream at the setting moon. The thermometer now read minus twelve, and I was more grateful than ever that Id brought the winter sleeping bag.
An abrupt, sharp red line across the horizon marked the morning, and with it a cloudless sky. By the time Id finished the contortions of dressing while still in my sleeping bag, I was reasonably warm again. I drank a liter of Earl Grey tea as I watched the sun creep above the distant mountains, throwing beams of copper light over Yaris dark, austere face. Packing quickly, I noted a lightness to the rucksack that was at once welcome and worrying; it meant I was out of water.
The first hour was over easy ground, simple climbing up and down over easy blocks of solid rock. Then came the first serious down climb, a crumbling tower with loose shale, simple enough but a tiring fight against the constantly shifting ground, and punctuated with occasional and unnerving rockfall. The thermometer still showed minus ten on the shaded north side, and the wind ripped in fearsome gusts.
Back on the ridge, I traversed to the sunward side and basked there for a few minutes, letting the heat come back to my hands. An easy crack lead down to a short traverse, and then to a chimney bedecked with aging slings and rope loops at its top. I climbed up it and added one of my own slings to the collection, before rappelling down into another chimney on the other side. The rock here was smooth, white limestone, loose and riddled with cracks. My rope ran out five or so meters from the bottom, and a rising sense of panic started to grip my chest. I forced myself to take slow, deep breaths and tried to consider my options. A rope-free down climb was out of the question. Swinging out, though, I could just make out a line a little further along. I pulled off the prussic loops from my harness and laboriously climbed back up to the anchor, traversed over and found a shorter, safer route to the scree below.
Across the talus the going was easier, but the windward side of the ridge was another world . Dark and bitterly cold, the spires loomed above, black against the early morning sky. I pulled out the iPod, but even Jimi couldnt hold up against the shrill tear of the wind. The far off peaks of Mt Tsurugi and Mt Tateyama lay to the north, already cloaked in snow, and glorious in the bright late autumn sunshine.
An icy rime covered much of this side of the mountain. Time and again I had to melt it from the next foothold with my bare hands, which were now swollen and red with altitude and exertion. The pads of several fingers had split on the granite and the cold; every sharp edge now seemed to seek out those very wounds. Yari was close now, and towered over everything below it, an oppressive, omnipotent and uncaring god. At that moment I realised that, as much as I loved the mountains, they did not think one iota of me. At length the last gully of the Kitakama lead me wearily back to its ridge for the final time, out of the darkness, out of the cold.
A flat section of ground marks the Kitakama-daira, where the remnants of old camps lay scattered around; grotesquely twisted, ancient metal tent poles; a few rusting tin cans stuck between rocks; the remains of a broken whiskey bottle. With the end in sight, I moved rapidly over the broken blocks that mark the base of Yaris summit pyramid. A quick traverse to the south side and fifty meters of easy climbing up the face led to the base of two chimneys; the whole face here is studded with ancient pitons, rusting, useless and mostly unnecessary. The southern chimney gleamed in the sun, but with my pack on and climbing solo, I found couldnt wedge my way up it without perilously overhanging the valley below. Reluctantly, I returned to the sunless northern chimney, noting reluctantly the rotting rope that draped down it, and the rusting piton that held it at the top.
Again, the pack proved problematic, but I was loathed to remove and haul it. To the right, however, I spied a better line and quickly squeezed my way upwards to the ledge at the top. Here, though, the rock rose again above me, overhanging, severe. A single nut was wedged into a crack just above head height. Surely not this way, I thought I moved to the right, and rounding the corner of the ledge found a series of diagonally sloping cracks. My fist dug deep and tight into the first of them, my left foot hopping to a solid placement behind a blue fin of rock. Left hand reached high and found a thin hold that just took the pads of three fingers. A quick, coordinated pull and the right foot was neatly jammed high in the crack. With one more push I was there. A solid flake led up the last few meters where I clambered onto the summit, much to the surprise of the two old ladies who reposed there.
Too dehydrated and exhausted to speak, I could only motion in the general direction of the ridge when they asked where I had come from. They shrieked and jabbered as they peered over the edge, quickly pulling back and gripping their fists with fear. At the little shrine on the summit, newly refurbished, I pulled off my helmet and gave long thanks to the gods. The mountains were arrayed in every direction, crystal clear in the cold air, from Fuji in the south to Tsurugi in the north.
At the Yari hut below the summit, I stripped off my layers and took off my hat for the first time in three days. A couple asked me where Id climbed from, and I told them; the wife had read Nitta Jiros account of Kato Buntaro, the famous climber of the early 20th Century. She knew that hed met his death on the Kitakama, and excitedly insisted on a photograph. I stood there, wild haired and bemused, drowning in the warmth of the sun and human company.
The old man on the Gendarme was only partly right. The Kitakama is, without doubt, a hard, hard r 1000 oute. And while there may be no children or crones up there, it had in turns made me as scared as a babe in arms and as weary as an old woman, struggling to take the next step.
Many shall be restored that now are fallen
and many shall fall that now are in honor
Horace (Ars Poetica)
All is flux, nothing stays still.
Its hard to write anything that doesnt sound glib recently. I console myself with the voices of those long dead, who remind us that there is nothing so constant as change.
Theres only so long you can spend watching footage of the tsunami before you start to die a little inside. I needed eye-bleach, and photos of better times helped. We spent three weeks ice climbing in Cogne in January, and a few days on the ice at Akadake in Japan. It seems like a lifetime ago.
Thank you to all those who have sent emails, phoned and left comments on the blog. Both Yuka & I are safe and well, as are all our friends and family.
The situation to the north of Toky 2000 o is nothing short of horrific. If you can, then please donate to the Red Cross or other reputable relief agency. The following pictures are extremely distressing, but they give an idea of what people are up against:
If you are concerned, need information or any kind of assistance, then Yuka and I will do whatever we can for you. My email is cjw at i-cjw.com, and you can find me on Facebook (search for Chris White Japan), Twitter (i_cjw), Skype (cjw_japan) or Bloomberg (Christopher White, Elmwood Advisors).
There are no dreams,
For there are no nights of sleep
10th Century Japanese Tanka poem, author unknown.
Wake up, its six thirty already.
For two months Id seen nothing but the dance of tiny numbers on a screen, the gasps and shouts of a world so intangible that it scarcely exists from minute to minute. The real world, where low pressure fronts locked over the Sea of Japan loaded the mountains with deep snow day after day, was far away.
Whats your plan for New Year? shed asked.
A warm breeze blows in from the Strait of Malacca, sending beads of condensation down the stem of my glass and into an ever widening puddle on the table. Yuka knew I had plans to get into the mountains as soon as I got back to Japan. The pile of ironmongery under my desk was growing by the day. My Singaporean colleagues would wander over, pick out a piece and carefully twirl it around in their hands, as if they were handling an arcane artifact of unknown power. Theyd shudder as I explained what each item did, how each was integral to the calculus of scaling winter peaks, and repeatedly they voiced their opinion that I was crazy.
You do know that Bali is only a 30 minute plane ride away?
Tsurugi. I really want to do Tsurugi again. We land on the 28th, Ill head up to Toyama on the 29th, and I can probably summit on the 31st or so.
The impossible peak stands at the head of the North Alps, the first to be battered by the winds and snow that hose Japan from Siberia all winter long. Ive been longing to climb it again ever since I first tested myself in early winter there a few years ago, when I was the only living thing for miles around for three solitary days.
You havent seen the forecast? Yuka said. I hadnt. My mind raced for alternatives, mental maps of safe winter routes pulled from their grey matter shelves, and then
Theres always ice climbing
Yuka grins, and three days later, shes jabbing me in the ribs, saying Wake up, its six thirty already.
I drag myself out of bed, up to the onsen hot spring on the roof of the hotel. The bath is curiously empty, and its only as I am drying off afterwards that I realise she must have been looking at the clock sideways; it was only three fifteen. We decided to forego sleep and head for the mountains anyway.
The car hisses onto the highway like fat on a hot iron plate. I mash the accelerator hard with heavy winter boots, the better to gun us up Nagasaka, the long slope of the highway that leads to the mountains. Were flashing through towns still asleep under their blanket of snow, and towards the high country of the Yatsu-ga-take range. The first rays of sun set fire to the peaks, and with careful eyes you can see thin ribbons of ice in the valleys; they gleam like molten lead. Weve got the Stones on the car stereo. Its been a good day, and its barely started.
The track from Minoto winds through trees lit with early morning sun. The clouds that scrape the peaks talk of snow higher up, but this doesnt bother us. Yukas flashing through the snow in her new sexy red Aku SL Pro boots, when something fast catches my eye on a parallel track. A pair of clever black eyes fix on me, and we stare at each other with a flash of mutual recognition; theres no mistaking Hana, hero conqueror of the Hundred Famous Peaks of Japan. A split second behind, Julian appears. Hands are shaken, photos taken, tummies tickled. Its good to meet friends in the mountains. They disappear as quickly as they appeared; theyre fast.
By the time we reach the Akadake Kosen hut, the clouds have turned grey and heavy with snow, and seem to cruise just meters above our heads. The ice candy, the fifteen meter fortress of ice built outside the hut, gleams nuclear blue. The new Black Diamond Cobras finally come off the pack and take their first taste of the delicate chandelier of ice, hacking, hooking and stabbing their way to the top of the line. The edifice is brittle and each swing of the axe carves off a faceful of shining crystals, many of which conspire to make their final home in the warm layers of my clothes. The chime of the breaking ice finds matching rhythm in the clanging screws dangling from my harness, and for a few moments I lose myself in this weird percussive symphony above the earth.
At a smaller ramp to the side of the main wall, Yuka ties into the rope and gets herself ready. She shoots quickly to the top, and comes back down grinning; worryingly competent. She does a few more laps, working on footwork and then her axe swing. The hours pass quickly; with a start, I realise it will be dark by the time we climb down the mountain and back to the car. We pack quickly and race back below the clouds, as the sun sets on the final day of 2010.
We live in many worlds. Some flicker and boil before us on a screen, phantasmagorical, edifices built from pure thought. Some are hard, cold, seemingly immortal, but will pass to nothing in the warm spring sun. Yet other infinities exist in a kiss, in the worlds that spring from each heartbeat, in those shared moment when the threads of our lives briefly meet and intertwine.
When can go back up there again? I want to get some more practice in before Europe. Yuka asks over dinner that evening.
I think 2011 is going to be a good year, in all my worlds.
Call it what you want. Boredom. Frustration. Fin de sicle ennui. Tokyo is a white hot skillet, a spitting stir fry of twenty million people, and I needed out.
The Kamikochi bus terminal at the foot of the Alps is as crowded as anywhere in the capital. And its only 5:30 in the morning. A human log jam of plaid shirts and last minute cigarettes. But speed and bad terrain are your friends when the August weekend crowds show up, and in minutes I leave the masses far behind and work my way up the familiar pan of the river and towards the spires of the Hotakas.
Few places in the Japanese Alps are as breath-taking as the Hotaka cirque. Two large huts and a multitude of brightly coloured tents huddle below the peaks, still streaked with snow. In my minds eye I trace the route; up the northern flank to Kita-hodaka, cut southwards along the ridge to Oku-hodaka, but my real goal is the dotted red line that the map marks between Oku-hodaka and Nishi-hodaka. Thats where Im going, thats where Ill leave the crowds firmly behind.
By dusk, Im there. The path has faded away, there are no signposts or markers here, just sheer drops on each side. I thread my way along the Uma-no-sei, the Horseback, and towards the tower of the Gendarme. On a little ledge below it, I unroll the bivy bag and contemplate my room in the sky as I watch the sun dip down through a boiling sky of clouds below.
Dawn comes in the blink of an eye, and I race back up to the peak of the Gendarme to meet it. Oku-hodaka stands directly in the line of the rising sun, black against the vermilion sky. Behind me, it casts a sky-wide Brocken; too large to fit the frame of the camera, a double and triple rainbow that arcs completely, perfectly sited at the summit of Kasa-ga-take on one end and the summit of Norikura-dake at the other. It was for my eyes alone.
The pack is light, and Im fast. The map tentatively suggests seven hours for the ridge, with plentiful admonitions to the dangers of knife edge ridges and cliffs involved. Eschewing the intermittent ladders and chains, I free climb where I need to and revel in the speed. Just over two hours later, I reach the Nishi-hodaka hut and its crowds, just as the cloud starts to roll in. Ive pushed enough for now. Its time to brave Tokyo again.
Call it boredom. Call it frustration. Call it pushing your boundaries. Call it the last days of Rome, that distant thunder of the Visigoth hoards outside the city. I needed out.
The news broke: Japan has fallen from the worlds second largest economy, and now lies in third place behind China. The same day, I handed in my residency card at Narita Airport, and boarded a plane for Singapore. Its time to see the sun rise over some different horizons.
For the first time in a long while, theres no map and I have no idea where I am going or where the boundaries are. Ill know once I cross them.
In the meantime, I remain I, CJW ~ Hiking, Climbing & Mountaineering (mostly) in Japan.
But can we trust the Soviet? Is he really on our side? Hes a genius, they say, but your neck is on the line and the valley floor glimmers three hundred meters below the tips of those razor-sharp monopoint crampons. How are we to know its not just another plot to rid the world of one more 21st century capitalist? The febrile mind of Vitaly Abalakov is all that is keeping me from tumbling into the icy maw of the valley, taking the eternal fall where the sky is never bluer and the rope never goes taught.
Its a lot of faith to place in a dead Russian.
Born in 1905, Vitaly and his brother Yevgeniy would become both prolific first acentionists as well as pioneering inventors of climbing gear and techniques. The first tube chock, the first hauling pulley, retrievable ice screws, tri-cams, indeed much of modern climbing paraphernalia sprung from Vitalys incredible imagination. Yet this profusion of novelty was to bring him profound sorrow as well as great fame. In 1938, the Soviet Commissariat for Internal Affairs arrested him and many of his climbing team, charging them with the crime of open public propaganda in their use of western mountaineering techniques. Several were executed, others faced the gulags. By the 1950s though, as the wheels of cold war realpolitik turned again, Abalakov regained his former status, was showered with accolades and recognised as the true Father of Soviet Mountaineering.
His greatest gift to me, and every other modern ice climber, was the impossibly simple technique that still bears his name: the Abalakov Thread.
In front of me, Ive bored an Abalakov: two intersecting holes drilled into the ice at 45 degrees, through which a 6mm cord has been threaded. My harness is clipped to this cord, and my whole existence now depends upon the strength of a bootlace thick piece of nylon and the incredible properties of waterfall ice. Lean. Out. On. It. Let the frontal lobes overcome the fearful reptilian cortex of the brain. Trust the Russian. I relax into the harness and hunker down on the anchor. Somewhere down below, the taught jiggling of the rope tells me, Adrian is taking out an ice screw and will shortly climb up to join me on these same thin threads.
Its absurd. What are we doing here?
The helicopter spirals through the air, and in seconds we are at eye level with the jagged peaks of the Remarkables mountain range outside Queenstown. With dazzling precision, the pilot weaves the machine between the snow covered spires and puts us down at the head of Wye Creek in the heart of the range. The walls are thick with columns of blue ice. Seconds later, the helicopter disappears into the early morning sun again, and there is nothing but Adrian, my guide for the next ten days, and me. We walk to a squat, grey rubber tent, the only feature in the barren landscape, and Adrian unzips the heavy door. Welcome to the office, he says. We drop our packs inside and start to kit up for the first climbs of the trip.
Ice climbing: space age technology combined with medieval siege warfare. Reverse curved axes and vertical point crampons, sharpened to terrifying edges, bite into the brittle ice. Fuck gravity, were going higher, they scream. Precision bored ice-screws hang thick from our harnesses. The weaponry of our sport. We hunt at the fringes of the world, those cold places where nature conspires to percolate tonnes of dihydrogen monoxide into terrifying sculptures hundreds of meters high. Frozen waterfalls. Rock just sits, unmoving, unchanging, but these mighty edifices are in constant flux. The ice changes by the year, never quite forming the same way. It changes by the hour, as the interplay of sun, wind and temperature collude to alter texture and stability. It even changes as the climber puts his tools to it; stress fractures radiate as the ice screws bite; a swing with the axe will stick with astounding rigidity one moment, and with the next a huge dinner plate of ice fractures off the surface, to crash down to the slopes below.
As dangerous as the job of the lead climber is, perched hundreds of feet up on metal points dug mere millimeters into the ice, the job of the belayer below is arguably more so. He pays out the rope vigilantly, ready to hold it fast in the event that the lead climber falls, and yet is subject to a near continual bombardment of ice from above. Thick dinner plates roar past, followed by milk-jug sized slices of icicle. At the end of the day, the bottom of the route is strewn with glassy fragments of ice embedded in the soft snow. Ever wanted to know what it feels like to be in an air raid? Belay an ice climber. There are three types of fun, Adrian explains, Type one is where you have fun at the time, and its fun when you tell people later. Type two fun is where its not fun at the time, but its fun when you tell people later. Type three fun is where its not fun at the time, and its not fun when you tell people later.
I suspect most ice climbing is about Type 2.4.
By the end of the second day, Adrian tells me theres nothing left to teach. Like a duck to water. Rock scares the bejeesus out of me, but ice I get. Lets just go climbing. he says.
Each day we cruise the walls of the valley, picking off lines here and there. One pitch turns to two, two turns to three, before we rappel back to the bottom of the climb and sit on our packs eating humus and crackers. High above the valley lies the Upper Tier, a cascade of ice which tumbles over a lip at the top of the cliffs, leaving a wide cave behind. Theres room here to camp even; on several nights we would glance upwards from our tent to see the headlamps of bivouacking climbers shining out from behind the ice. At the far left-hand side of the formation lies a route named Iron Curtain, which starts with a five meter vertical section with a spectacular drop away below it. Adrian leads it twice; a few days later as my confidence builds, I lead it too. A hundred feet higher up, my arms are burning and my head is spinning. Another Soviet ploy.
Theres a formation here thats not shown in the guide book. Adrian says, pointing to a leftward sloping route, like three giant jellyfish stacked upon each other. I duck around the bottom of a rock outcrop and start to pay the rope out as he climbs. A cacophony of ice starts to fly overhead, thudding into the deep snow below. Its a bit brittle! comes the shout. The bombardment ceases; I dare to stick my head out. A snipers bullet of ice catches me straight below the eye. Adrian is teetering a hundred feet up, and his axes are hitting the ice with an ominous hollow thud.
Hows it look?
Im not happy. It doesnt seem to be anchored to anything. I can see a big gap between the rock and the ice.
You want to lower off?
A few minutes later Adrian is on the ground.
I can see why that one isnt in the guide book..
On the final day, we climb Trigger Finger, a steep three-pitch route. I lead the first pitch to the tune of You Are My Sunshine, and the third pitch to the Scarecrows song from the Wizard of Oz. I would wile away the hours, conferrin with the flowers, if I only had a brain The sun arcs across the sky as we look for one final line. A route in the middle of the wall looks unclimbed this season; a cave in the rock some eighty feet above is fringed with thick icicles, a perfect belay point for the second pitch. I cruise up to the cave, drill an Abalakov, and set the anchor. Adrian flashes up behind me and takes the rope taught as I climb out of the comfort of the cave and back into the vertical world. At the base of a three meter pillar of ice, I fire in another screw and clip the rope. Tools high overhead now, gentle kick-taps with the crampons, and Im there. I reach, plant the axes deep in the sloping ice at the top of the pillar, and step up
Bang. Both axes pop, and Im floating in space. Everythings sky blue, then white, then blue again, and then stops as the rope goes taught and I slump in my harness. Looking up, I see Adrians head poking out of the cave. Logging some air time there, dude? he shouts down. Im in Queenstown, I figured I might as well do some bungy jumping, I shout back. Someones dragging a scalpel point around the inside of my skull. I wait for the stars that are streaming before my eyes to vanish, then climb slowly up the slope and back into the cave. Fingers and toes all wiggle? he asks. They do. I need to get back on the horse, so again I climb out of the womb of the cave and back into the cold and vertical world outside. The ice screw at the bottom of the pillar has barely moved, and the Abalakov acts as if nothing had happened. I swing the axe, and pain explodes through my right hand. Back into the cave. The adrenaline has worn off. My hand is swelling through my glove.
I dont think its broken, but I cant climb on it. I guess this is the end.
Lets rappel off, then.
Cest la vie.
Cest la guerre! he shouts.
They say that deep sea fish cannot be bought safely to the surface, so pressurised are they that they will explode.
The next day the helicopter reverses its journey, whisking us from the cradle of the mountains and back into Queenstown in a matter of minutes. I catch sight of my reflection in a window. Bearded and glassy eyed, Im suffocating in the warm, thick air. Im a deep sea fish in a strange world. Decompression. Back at my hotel, I strip the layers of clothing away for the first time in many days and survey the damage. My right hand is like a baseball catchers mitt, my knees and elbows are swollen and blue. A huge yellow bruise is rising on my left thigh, and worryingly I have a small axe-tip shaped puncture wound in my left pectoral, which matches a hole in my jacket Id noticed earlier. I try not to think about it. I pull a beer from the fridge, and stand under the shower for a long time.
A friend asked me the other day, if I had the choice between never taking another turn on skis and never swinging an axe again, which would I chose? I told him Id take the axe every time.The sense of achievement is its like nothing else Adrians voice trails off in the dark of the tent. But really, why do we do this? This utterly pointless, often dangerous, always strenuous activity? What is it about a mountain, or a cliff, or a frozen waterfall deep in the hills that compels us to climb it, to walk along its ridges or to see whats at the top?
We climb, not because It is there, but to remind ourselves that I am here.
With thanks to all the guys at Adventure Consultants, the pilots of Heliworks, and especially to Adrian, his patience, skill and strong belay hand. And, of course, Vitaly Abalakov, without whom our racks would be twice as heavy.
Youre kidding, right?
Nope, theres no early train, I just called them. Best we can hope for is the 6:24, which puts us in Kamikochi at 8:30 said the OE.
It was going to be tight. The map shows ten and a half hours from Kamikochi to the top of Yari-ga-take, and thats in good weather. In early May, the snow lies still deep in the Yari valley, the slushy remains of the season peppered with avalanche debris sometimes a few meters high.
Under a peerless blue sky we set out from Kappabashi bridge, through the early morning haze and forests just beginning to sprout new green again. A troop of wild monkeys coo softly to each other as they graze the new buds. A few hours further on, the path steepens and the foliage gives way again to a wild, late-winter landscape. The walls of the valley look neatly combed where small avalanches and snow runs have gouged their innumerable paths.
A small huddle of brightly coloured tents sit at the entrance to the valley, a group of Chinese students lazing around them and soaking up the midday sun. The OE, of course, speaks fluent mandarin. It seems they climbed to the summit early that morning; ominously, they tell us that the going is getting slushy underfoot.
Shortly after the Oomagari, the dog-leg turn in the valley, Yaris summit drifts into sight, a perfect obsidian pyramid still streak with rivulets of late-season snow and ice. So close you could reach out and touch it, deceptively close and taunting. Thankfully, the snow is in better condition than we had expected, and greets each cramponed kick with a solid grasp.
Were soon well ahead of the map, and the sun is still high in the sky as we start the final, steep ascent to Yaris shoulder and the safety of the hut. I find my rhythm, kick-step-breath, and motor up the final slope, and from the top watch the OE patiently kick up it in his own pace. In the shade of the hut I shiver, and it is only then that I realise Im still just wearing a t-shirt.
In the gloom of the following morning, we turn out of the hut at 4am to climb to the summit. The snow lies plastered across the face of the pinnacle, over the chains and the ladders that usually bedeck the mountain in kinder seasons. Warily eyeing the drop at our feet, we make our way up the most promising route to the small shrine which marks the summit. The sun rises wearily through a sea of clouds, lighting Fujis flanks to the south and catching the peaks of the Alps along their length. We steel ourselves for the long descent, and make our way towards the hot spring and beer that inevitably mark the end of every good trip.
The Yari valley marks the epicenter of Japanese alpinism. Its roots lie in the mountain priests and the hunters who first explored its depths, one in search of food for the soul, the other in search of sustenance for the body. Our climb fed our friendship.
March 5, 2010 | Filed Under Uncategorized
The sound of my footsteps echoes across the empty Hayakawa valley. No other footprints in snow, no signs of life ahead or behind.
I really am all alone here.
A hundred square miles of wilderness, population density: One.
Pttac pttac, the sound of rockfall from above, and I dive for cover. Close into the cliff, I pull the heavy winter pack up and over the back of my neck and cinch the helmet a little tighter. Forty feet away, a volley of grapefruit sized rocks scar the fresh snow.
I really am very alone up here.
Sorry, this is as far as I can go.
Id hoped hed be able to take me as far as the Yashajin-toge pass. Wed made it to Ashiyasu, the last hamlet in the Hayakawa river valley before the walls of the South Alps, but the wheels of the taxi were starting to skitter on the pre-dawn ice. The walk-in to the bottom of the mountain was already long; this would add another 10km to it. In the cold and dark I watch the taxi trace its way back to civilisation. Time to pull on the harness and pack, start the climb.
On a long summer weekend, the flanks of these mountains are thronged with people. Buses whisk them smartly from Kofu station, up to Ashiyasu and through the tunnel at Yashijin, and safely to the start of the pleasant climb from Hiragawara or Kitazawa-toge. Its hard to imagine, as I walk through the night on these icy roads, that such things could ever happen. A small signpost marks the begining of the old approach trail, the one they used before the road was built; I cut up it and through the forests, intersecting the road at intervals. As the dawn breaks, the small car park in front of the Yashajin tunnel appears. The snow is ankle deep and the tunnel is barricaded for the winter.
Mt Kitadake, the second highest mountain in Japan after Fuji, sits within these walls like the keep of an leviathanic castle. The Hayakawa river spills around its foot, an impassable moat, while Mt Aino, Senjo, Kai-koma and the Hou-ou-sanzan range spiral out around it. Formidable defenses, but with a small chink at Yashajin, where the range dips just enough that a determined burglar might steal his way in. So I went. The storms of the previous week has left a thick cover of snow on the ground, but also coated every branch and twig with a jacket of ice. In the early morning light they shine like chandeliers. A troop of monkeys screeches at my approach before they crash through the trees, sending shards of ice smashing to the ground, and filling the forest with sound of breaking glass.
The map marks the route from from the saddle of Yashajin down to the road below as a dismal dotted line. In reality, it is non-existent; landslide and disuse has all but torn it from the mountainside, and slick ice is all that remains. I pull out the rope and gingerly rappel down from tree to tree, emerging at last at the interior road on the other side of the Yashajin tunnel, and into the sunlight again. Then along the road and through its tunnels, each one as cold and dark as a meatlocker. A few kilometers further on, I cut up and over the icy slabs of Mt Karasu-no-zumi, down again to the lower road that snakes along the very bottom of the Hayakawa valley, and finally Im there: the start of the Bokonzawa ridge that should take me to Kitadakes summit. Ten hours of work to get here, and the climb hasnt even begun. The siren-like call of a deer down by the river snaps me out of my melancholy. Shoulder the pack once more, put one foot in front of the other, and start to chew away at the mountainside again.
Remind me: why are we doing this?
Get up. Get moving.
Its 1 a.m. Its cold. Its dark. Its dangerous.
Whining about it wont help. Get up.
I wriggle out of the snowhole and shiver for a moment in the cold night air. The moon is no more than a faint glow beyond the ridge. The only light spills from my headlamp. A meter wide pool against the snow, I follow it up and through the trees. Its deep enough for snowshoes here. I carve a knee-high, and then thigh-high, trail. The ridge steepens. Im swimming through the snow now, gain a few feet then slip back down again. Six hours later I flop onto the hard ice of the crest of Bokonzawa-no-kashira. Brew some coffee, watch the sun breach the horizon and stain the mountains blood red, pink and then bronze.
Kitadake looks close enough to touch. I dig another snow hole, stash my gear and mark it on the GPS. Under a flawless blue sky I make good time across the ice, the ironmongery at my hips beating a hard rhythm in the thin air. The snow hangs impossibly fluted and perfect across the face of Kitadakes eastern flank, the infamous Buttress. Im so close now, but as I crest a small knoll what I see stops me in my tracks.
Id heard tales of the Happonba, the eight rocky spires which crown the knife-edge ridge just above Bokonzawa. Each year they take another life or two. Four people fell to their deaths here on a winter ascent a couple of years ago. Cornices of snow cling thickly to the rocks, some lying to the left and some to the right, testament to the variability of the winds that blow up from the cols on either side. It looks desperate. I watch the spires for some twenty minutes, wondering if I should go back, call it quits. Instead, crablike with axes and front points buried in the snow, I inch out and around the first spire across the sixty degree ice. Then up to the tip of the next spire. Its a two vertical kilometer fall on each side and thirty centimeters in between. I bang in a piton, back it up with a sling, and start rappelling slowly over the spires. The wind dies, the sun beats down, and rivulets of sweat trickle down my spine. After an hour of careful work, Im on the other side and Kitadake fills my eyes.
Before long Im back on my front points again, hauling myself up and over the mountains southern shoulder and onto the hard ice of its western flank. Here too, the ground falls away for a kilometer or more. I test each placement before committing to it. A slip here would be unthinkable.
And then, quite suddenly, theres nowhere left to climb. I bash the ice from the face of the summit marker. It reads, simply, 3192m Kita-dake. Fuji sits serenely above a sea of clouds to the east, but my eye is drawn to the wisps of vapour that are starting to rise from the Hayakawa valley below. The day is still bright and cloudless above, but the weather is starting to turn and this is no place to be caught. I retrace my steps with great caution. Back at the Happonba I clip the ascender to the rope Id left and weave back over the spires. They seem easy now. Was I too cautious before? The answer comes in a flash; the cornice Im standing on crumbles away and drops into the shadows of the col below. I fall with it for a second before the rope jerks tight, the icy maw of the col stretching away beneath my feet.
At the snowhole at Bokonzawa the cloud has already moved in, and the temperature is plummeting. Theres no telling what the weather will do the next day, but there will be no sunset shots this evening. I decide to abandon camp and make my way down to the previous nights snowhole and the safety of the forests below. If nothing else, it cuts a few hours from the next days walk out. Slipping and skidding through the deep powder, I make it back and collapse into my sleeping bag some nineteen hours after setting out.
The business hotel in Kofu boasts a proper onsen hot spring on its roof. I lie back in its waters, and my head starts to spin as the cold beer makes its way through me. Knuckles bruised and throbbing from being bashed against the ice. Theres a mysterious puncture wound in my right thigh. Another toenail lost, every muscle aches.
These are small prices to pay for the treasure Id gained.
February 28, 2010 | Filed Under Uncategorized
One minute, its minus twenty and the only sound is the scratching of the crampons on ice and the thin whistle of the wind blowing straight in from Siberia. The next minute, youre in Borneo on ancient volcanic slab above a rainforest teaming with life.
Life is good, but it leaves little time for verbiage.
January 11, 2010 | Filed Under Uncategorized
When I was a small boy, I had a sandscape. In a thick wooden frame, two panes of glass sandwiched a mixture of black and white sand in a viscous liquid. When turned on end, the sand would slowly filter down and form stark monochrome landscapes at the bottom. I would dream of walking through those black moors streaked with snow, the desolate ranges of rolling mountains. But occasionally the sand would funnel itself into a single, impossible cone. An abominable Olympus of obsidian ridges and cruel tongues of shimmering ice. And I would think that no man should ever climb such a thing.
A quarter century later, that same cone stares back at me from behind the window of the train. Fujis crown stabs at the troposphere, a plume of snow driven by Siberian winds billowing like a pennant from the summit.
I walk from the station to Sengen shrine, the old departure point for the pilgrims who would climb Fuji in clement months. The ascent from here is a long, slow march through the haunted forests of the Jukai. The headlamp casts a small pool of light on the path. John Coltrane drifts smoothly from the headphone and reminds me of warm bars and fiery whiskey, so very far from where I am now. The path steepens at the 1st stage way-point, and the forest closes in above me.
By late evening, the huts of the 5th stage emerge above the treeline, boarded up for the winter. In a snow drift by the path I dig a trench, throw down the bivy bag and start the process of melting snow to drink. My mind wanders to the icy flanks that hang above me. From a distance, Fuji seems so compact and perfect, the size of your fist held at arms length. Its not until you are up close that its sheer bulk becomes apparent, or the numerous scars and cliffs that mar that otherwise perfect shape. There are no tents, no lights, not a single other sole on this mountain tonight. Minus fifteen degrees, but no wind. Good signs.
Dawn casts its glow over the peak, but also reveals strong winds higher up. I take the climb to the 8th stage at 10,000 feet slowly, hoping for a midday lull that will let me race to the summit. A shower of walnut sized stones rattle down like bullets a few feet away. I cinch the helmet a little tighter and climb on.
At the 8th stage, the tenor of the mountain changes with shocking abruptness. The soft snows and easy breezes give way to a howling, unrelenting gale and bulletproof ice. Up above the winds have only strengthened. Great vortices of snow are now being dragged from the summit. Two climbers died here only a few weeks ago, their tent torn from its moorings and sent aloft before crashing them down on the ice below. The place has a cruel, malevolent feel to it.
I excavate a crude snow hole in a bank of frozen snow and crawl inside, out of the wind that is rapidly sucking the heat from my body. Melt some snow, rehydrate, sleep a little, and massage the feeling back into my toes. I read the labels on all the food I have, try to guess which bubble at the bottom of the pan will be first to break to the surface. At dusk, I stick my head out of the hole. The thermometer reads minus 20 and falling. I try to sleep again, hoping for a break in the wind before dawn.
At 3am, the incessant battering seems to have died a little. In the cramped snow hole, it takes almost an hour to get ready. Finally I snap on the crampons and drag myself outside. The stars shimmer in the icy pre-dawn air. Its hard to see where the mountain ends and space begins. Within half an hour, Im at the ridge that will take me to the summit. The wind blows harder here.
At 12,000 feet, Im lying prone as the gale whips me with all its strength. A constant express train of wind and ice hammer down from above, while all around me is stained blood red by the first rays of the sun. I mash the front points of my crampons deeper into the ice and pull up a little on the axes. My hands are unfeeling, my forearms are pumped and shaking. An eternity passes. Its clear this gale will not relent. The thermometer shows minus 27; the windchill must be somewhere south of minus 45. Im struck the very certain feeling that if I went for the summit now, I wouldnt be coming back. Inch by inch, I move down. Id got within 400 feet of the top.
The descent from the 8th stage to the shrine passes quickly. After two days alone, its strange to see people again, the way they linger and chat with one another. The wan, wintery sun warms my body, and with the exception of the tips of my little fingers, the feeling returns to my hands. At the Fujiyama hot spring, I strip away the armour that has kept me alive for the past two days and slip into the anonymity of those hot waters.
An hour later and with a cold beer in my hand, I watch the winds batter Fujis peak as the sun sets behind it. The windows of the restaurant perfectly frame its mighty form, exactly as Id seen in that snowscape all those years before. That impossibly perfect cone, that tramontane Olympus.
Should any man climb such a thing?