We sit on a rocky ledge above the cloud, the icy autumn wind numbing our toes through their thin rock shoes. A line of hikers creep up the valley below and I wonder if they could see us up here, a kilometer above their heads, two tiny pinpricks of sentience on an otherwise lifeless canvass of grey stone. We were on the Kita-dake Buttress, the alpine classic of Japan, and we were quite alone.
Twice before Tony had escaped the maul of the Buttress, skirting disaster and each time leaving a nagging sense of loss and frustration. This time, a typhoon dancing against the shores of Taiwan threatened to turn east and swing up through the Japanese archipelago, surely nailing us to the wall of the mountain to await hypothermia or rescue. We had a narrow window of opportunity, maybe scarcely half a day, and through it we squeezed, dragging our packs and ropes. Tony left no doubt that if the Buttress turned him back again this time then he would not return.
We had bivouacked in a grassy clearing the previous night, huddled around a tiny stove and tinier bottles of whiskey, fortifying ourselves against the swirling mist that rose from the river floor. We slept a brief, uncomplicated sleep, punctuated only by the bark of deer in the thicket behind us and the wind which screamed thinly up during the small hours. The idea of stumbling around in the pre-dawn dark trying to locate the entrance to the climb was less than appealing, so we forewent the usual alpine start and rose with the sun. It poked, desultory and weak, through the veils of cloud on the horizon, and barely warmed our backs as we moved up and towards the black ramparts of the mountain.
The gullies of the east face of Kita-dake were clearly named on a Friday afternoon: A-Gully, B-Gully, C-Gully and D-Gully. And Hidden Gully, presumably an after-the-fact justification for missing it out the first time between gullies B and C. Either C or D would take us to the base of the climb, but with the dashing waters and grinding boulders of the former, D looked the more enticing of the two. It was an egregious notion of which we would shortly be disabused of as we pulled our packs though whippy thickets of birch and to a short rock step where we took out the rope. The air hung redolent with choice Anglo Saxon as Tony, still in trail shoes, took the first pitch and questioned at intervals the sexual mores of the mountain’s mother. I followed, and took my first taste of Kita-dake rock: smooth like marble, and everything slopes downwards. It sucks the strength from toes and fingers in an instant, and whispers “I will hurt you” in a malevolent undertone. It did not make us happy.
I took the second pitch of the gully, the final few moves accompanied by Tony on the radio counting down the meters of rope I had left. Five, four, three, two… In desperation I jammed a couple of cams into the only forgiving cracks I could find and brought him up. D-gully continued to torment us, every stone filled with hate in its heart and every rock seething blind fury. The slime-filled third pitch was for Tony’s delectation, but finally we were free of its clutches. We arrived at the thin traverse that lead to the base of the climb proper, the trail snaking across the face of the mountain and up through low pine and birch to a small ledge.
“I don’t know if I’ll always want to climb. I might suddenly want to learn the trumpet or something one day” – Tony Grant
Swinging the lead through the first few pitches, we made good progress. Far in the distance, though, a black-flanked Fuji sat on the horizon capped in cloud, and thin wisps of cloud were starting to move upwards again. With every meter climbed the air grew thinner and colder, and I was starting to feel the twin effects of altitude and exertion. Life at sea level on the equator is poor training for high alpine climbing; each move brought a renewed tightness in the lungs, while the autumn wind, chilled from the snow fields below, determinedly sought out every inch of bare flesh. Add to that the spare 60 meter rope in my pack and the full armory of climbing ironmongery at our belts, and the strain was beginning to show. We were wearing every stitch of clothing, and still it wasn’t enough. I ate a jelly bean, mashing and levering it alternately from my left molars to my right with a dry tongue and watched as Tony inched upwards.
The crux pitch of the climb is described as a short, diagonal crack sloping up to the right, generously studded with pitons, and to be done on aid rather than free-climbed. The climber must make the first move on to two thin footholds, then reach up and to the left to clip the first piton, which is then pulled on to make further placements higher. Tony spreadeagled himself against the rock, constructing makeshift etriers to stand in before feeling around the unseen top of the move. He found a “thank Jesus” hold, pulled hard and disappeared into a cloud of static on the radio, and then silence.
We were on the arete proper now, where the easy slabs of the lower buttress give way to a knife edge. A foot each side sought out tiny sulci in the rock, just enough to grip. Tony sat above me yarding in the rope, high on the famous Matchbox rock formation, so called as it looks not remotely like a box that one would keep matches in. A short rappel off its top took us to a beautiful pitch of thin slab, full of airy, balancy moves, and for fifteen minutes I danced with the mountain on tiny toes and fingers. The summit roared into view, and we were almost home.
We are nothing to a mountain. We flash in and out of existence, unnoticed, unregistered, not even a blink in their great lives. Since I first climbed Kita-dake, the hair on my temples has grown grey and I’ve bought my own new life mewling into this world, yet the mountain remains steadfastly resolute against the tides of time. Except that, just occasionally, we are shown that even the great ranges are not immune to the decay that must one day take us all. Above the Matchbox used to lie the final pitch of the route, a straightforward and low angled climb to the just below the summit. A couple of years ago, however, this entire section divorced itself from the mountain, ending a two million year marriage and suiciding a thousand tonnes of rock into the gully. It left a heaving blank wall that still stinks of cordite and occasionally dispenses further rockfall. The top of the classic has gone, and a vicious unclimbable quarry met me instead.
The aspirant’s only choice is a true knife edge traverse, hands gripping the scalpel-sharp rail and then shuffling some twenty meters out and over the looming blankness of the East Face to an uncomfortable, half hanging anchor beyond. Midway, the knife edge is broken by a two foot gap, easy enough to step across, but which affords a full view downwards of the destruction which was visited upon here. Something about it spoke to my mortality and left me uneasy and nauseous, and I raced towards the anchor, placing no protection on the way. Tony followed and then lead the final pitch, a incommodious chimney filled with wobbling pitons and overhung blocks, which took malicious delight in snagging our packs and trying to throw us back down the mountain.
With that, like cloud racing across the face the moon, the climb was over. We shook hands and embraced before gingerly looking back and down at what we’d climbed. In the pale light of mid afternoon we tagged the summit, and then started the death-march descent down the hiking trails. It was dark by the time we reached the Hiragawara hut, where the keeper, a young man of room temperature IQ and fewer still social graces, begrudgingly gave us a futon for the night. We didn’t care.
The next day dawned to an azure sky like liquid paint, defiant against the forecast of rain and high winds. Crowds of hikers made their way up and towards the peak. We were thrown unctuously from the hut at first light and made our way to the bus stop, where I asked the conductor if she knew whether Scotland was still part of the Union. By midday we were swallowed again by Tokyo’s canyons, and after saying goodbye at Shinjuku we went our separate ways. We had done what we came to do, and while we had left the mountain, we knew the mountain would never leave our hearts.