The omens were not good. Rain hit hard on the carriage roof as we entered Hakuba, and it was snowing lightly at the bottom of Mt. Shirouma. Thunder boomed from the peaks. The first day of the season, no tracks to follow, just a long haul up the daisekkei and up to the top. Avalanche risk? “There’s another party just gone up ahead of you. They might hit them first for you.” said the emergency hut owner. Reassuring.
The higher we went, the worse the conditions. Footprints vanished in an instant as horizontal winds and snow obliterated all signs from the slope. A complete whiteout. We crawled, axes buried to the hilt in fresh snowfall, making no more than a few feet progress a minute. Everything froze solid. The GPS fizzed and died, maps were snatched from our hands by a greedy wind. Eyelashes heavy with ice and at a little over 9500 feet, only a few hundred meters from the summit, we turned back. The mountain had spoken. Not today. Not this time around.
A thousand feet lower, and I’m leading our group down the slope. A four hour climb to the top has now stretched to seven hours on the mountain. It’s early afternoon, there’s a meter of fresh snowfall on an old base, the temperature is rising and we’re on a 35 degree slope… There’s the inevitable yell from the rear, the train-like roar upon me which knocks me to the ground like a bowling skittle, and for the first time in my life I know what an avalanche feels like.
First I’m heading downhill, feet first, floating on top with blocks of ice and snow flooding past me and exploding on my helmet. Then I’m flipped on my right side, and I’m in the tumble-dryer, curling around with breakers of snow crashing over me again and again. Each time as the sky went black and I go under the snow I could hear myself scream “No, no, no!” and I fight and I punch for where I think the surface is. Then light, then dark again, as the next wave curls over me with a sickening, heavy sssssshhh noise. And again, and again, four or five times in all, each time a fight towards the little patch of light I can still see through the snow. Each time breaking back into the light only to be covered over by the next heavy breaker.
And then it stops.
Like hitting a wall, it stops instantaneously. I’m still under, but above my head I can see that little patch of light. In the instant before the snow settles, I push and punch and jump for it, just managing to throw my left arm out into the open and dragging my head along with it. Then, with an almighty thump, the debris settles and I’m encased. I can move nothing, save my left arm.
And the only thought going through my head is, “if the slope destabilizes again, then I’m gone”.
Somehow I’d managed to hold onto my axe, and my left arm goes to works like a dervish desperately clawing at the debris enclosing my body. And all the time “if the slope destabilizes..” running through my head. I dig my torso out, by my legs are still stuck fast. “If the slope destabilizes..”. Whack, whack, whack, two hands now, pulling and chipping. All that fresh snowfall, so light and feathery when it first settled now churned into wet, smothering concrete.
Whack, whack, left leg, right leg, and I’m out. For a second I stand on top of my snowy coffin, looking down the slope into the now clear valley below. Pulse normal. Nothing is broken. No shock. This is strange. And then I remember my group, all uphill from me.
Turning, I can see two of the group already just out of the debris like me, and the torso of the third poking through the snow (miraculously we all ended the right way up with our heads above the surface). We run to our half buried companion, dig and haul, and pull his legs from the snow. As we do so we stain the snow red, his yellow climbing suit splashed with vermilion along his right leg. Either his axe or his crampon had torn a chunk from his calf at some point in the fall – but we need to get off the avalanche run before trying to stabilize him. Dragging him, we run as quickly as we can.
A few hundred feet below we shelter under some rocks as the mountain continues to boom around us. The leg wound is not as bad as we feared, he’ll be able to walk off. I find a couple of Snickers and pass then around. Some Aquarius sports drink appears. Not much is said. We all know how close we came. The mountain has said no with a vengeance. This is what you get for ignoring the signs.
And so down. Our little group froze in our tracks with each blast of wind, each clap of thunder, fully expecting another tonne or two of wet snow to descend and lock our bodies to the mountain until summer comes.
We climb down, past the little village of tents at the bottom of the daisekkei. Past the hut at the bottom of the mountain, on to the bus, the bullet train, and 4 hours later back in Tokyo fighting my way through the crowds making their way off on Golden Week vacations. Life goes on.