Words to measure yourself by

I read an interview with Reinhold Messner today, and these quotes won’t stop going round my mind:

I was the first man to climb the world’s 14 tallest peaks without supplementary oxygen, but I never asked how high I would go, just how I would do it. Climbing is more of an art than a sport. It’s the aesthetics of a mountain that compels me. The line of a route, the style of ascent. It is creative.

I put myself in the position of being at the end of my life looking back. Then I ask myself if what I am doing is important to me. Now that I’m nearing 59, I understand that failing is more important than having success.

If you look at my life, then one thing is clear. I did one activity at a time, with all my willpower, all my money and all my time. Complete commitment.

Reinhold Messner

Sushi & Samurai

The accents of Japan are shaped by its geography. The trade routes with China and Formosa formed the accents of Okinawa and the Ryukyus. In the north the harsh snows of winter produced the characteristic lock-jawed, glotteral sounds of Tohoku and Sendai; you learn to keep your mouth closed when the winds rip from the Siberian mainland. The impenetrability of the accent increases with the depth of the snowfall.

Straw overboots for use in the snow, Zuigenji temple

In Matsushima it takes three attempts before I realize the itamae-san, the sushi chef, is asking me where I am from. His hands deftly pare slabs of fish, dash them with wasabi and squeeze them atop warm blocks of vinegared rice. The autumn sky is clear and a cool breeze blows over the pine-topped islands of the bay after which Matsushima is named. Tourists roam the area in mean gangs to see the autumn colours, and business is good at the sushi bar.

Business was also good for the samurai clans in the middle ages as the country tottered and split, rival governments springing up like the so many bamboo shoots. Taxes and tributes flowed not to the Emperor but to clan coffers, financing the rebuilding of family castles and shrines, as well as wars aimed at burning the castles and shrines of rivals. The temple complex of Zuigenji was restored, and in return shed its affiliation with esoteric Tendai Buddhism and adopted the harsh, military discipline of Rinzai Zen.

“I’m 78 this year, but I’m as strong as a bull!”

The itamae-san tries his luck with the two young girls at the end of the counter. They all laugh, and he opens his mouth wide. Gold gleams from lower jaw, while his top set consists of just one tooth each side.

“Yaa, menkoi!”*


*Menkoi – cute, north-Japan dialect. Kawaii in standard Tokyo dialect.


Lost bearings

The children of the Aso caldera plain are bronzed, and they run lightly over
the sun heated flagstones of the village shrine and through the icy waters
which run down from the mountains. The people of the plain have been here for generations. They farm rice and rear beautiful long-haired red-gold cattle, which lean over walls and admire their reflection in the car windows as we drive past. It’s August, and the farmers have gathered to celebrate their harvest with a sumo contest beside the gates of the shrine in the lea of the mountain.

Mount Aso sits in one of the world’s largest calderas, the still-active remains of a volcano which hurled lava over much of Kyushu a hundred millenia ago. The walls of the caldera stand two hundred meters high and form a perfect circle 20km across. They enclose the Aso plain, billiard table flat, the leftover result of a lake which formed in the crater and has now since long vanished. Only the lush green paddy fields betray the richness of the thick black sedimentary soil it left behind. Everything feels lilliputian measured against the caldera walls.

The Isle of Axholme, where I grew up, was a similar sized island which stood above the marshes of north Lincolnshire in England before Cornelias Vermuyden drained the land in the 17th century. Aso is very familiar. The walls of the cal protected it, much as the marshes did for Axholme, and the people have the same untouchable confidence that only isolation breeds. Ideas from the outisde are viewed with skepticism, change only happens when it suits them, which is to say rarely. They are anchored in a way that city dwellers are not.

We’re here to climb some mountains, two and maybe three over the long weekend.

We say out prayers at the shrine and drive past the giant white stupa which marks Aso before starting the climb. It takes no more than an hour to reach the top and as we do the clouds briefly clear. Revealed is the full sweep of the caldera walls and the patchwork of farms within them, while the summit of Mt Kuju (tomorrow’s destination) peers over them in the north.

The core of Aso still spews gas and pumice from an enormous crater. Further along the ridge we find ourselves peering into its very bowels as the verdant vegetation suddenly gives was to a wasteland of hematite reds and sulfuric yellow streams. The black-red mouth of the volcano stands stark against the backdrop of the green hills all around, throwing a column of smoke into the troposphere as a constant warning to the towns below.

We climb down and I feel uneasy. There’s something not quite right about active volcanoes. It’s as if I am trespassing on the birth of something private. I’m glad to be going down.

The sun dips behind the caldera as we drive north to Kuju and I lose my bearings. This never happens. I blame the igneous rocks of the area which throws my internal compass, or maybe the strange horizon effect of the cal. Either way, we drove in circles, making Kuju after nightfall and camping at the southern trailhead where the easy-going campsite manager cocks his head on one side and looks at us quizzically.

He hands us a map of the area, optimistically hand drawn with short, straight roads and navigational pointers such as “field with many cows” and “Mr Suzuki often paints here”. We pitch the tent and head for the local hot baths where we joins the locals as they scrub the harvest chaff from their bodies. We talk of crops and cattle, green grass and rainfall. This feels like home.

The south route up Mt Kuju is a vertical 1000m climb. Yuka smiles all the way the next day and studiously refuses any help, working out all the foot and handholds herself. She is still burning with energy at the top and insists on doing all five of the mini-summits at the top finishing with Naka-dake, the highest point in Kyushu. The area reminds me deeply of the Peak District, it has the same rolling nature and familiar granite formations. Like the plain of Aso below, I feel very at home here.

“Nepal. You should go to Nepal and climb a bit round there.”

A walker in his sixties with angular, orange wraparound sunglasses advised us.

“Take lots of pencils. The children love them. And Diamox for the altitude. Pencils and Diamox.”

We climbed down through the black mud on the west of the mountain, sliding and slipping, reaching the saddle between the peaks by mid afternoon. I found myself wanting to see these mountains in the snow. My red tent nestled in the whiteness.

The thunder which echoed from the peaks put pay to Monday’s plan to climb Mt. Sobo, so we spend the day in the Takachiho gorge.

Amaterasu, the sun goddess, is said to have shut herself away here after her brother Susanoo went rampaged across the land. Without her light, the world started to die, and so the other gods devised a way to lure her back from her hiding place, and finally tempted her out. The cave where she hid is still visible from Takachiho shrine, but it is said that no human has ever set foot there.  To make sure she could never hide again, the door to the cave was hurled northwards and landed in Togakushi (literally door-hiding-place) in Nagano and forms the beautiful mountains around Takatsuma.

The land around Aso and Takachiho is neither manmade nor is it natural. It was carved by the gods as they fought and loved, and I don’t want to get on the plane back to Tokyo.


Once more unto the glacier

Shirouma-dake had been on my mind for months following my last fateful venture up its slopes. I wanted to get up the glacier, preferably all in one piece, and take a good look at what had turned me around last time. I also had my eye on the route that lead south from the summit, along the ridge to Karamatsu. Especially the bit marked “dangerous” and “unmarked route”. Sounded like just my sort of place.

The bus from Hakuba station rattled up to the trailhead and dumped me at the deserted car park of the mountain hut. Low clouds hung a few hundred metres up, obscuring the peaks as they had the last time, giving the place a closed-in, oppressive feel. Something boomed from higher up, an aircraft maybe, but it brought back unsettling memories of the mountain’s icy embrace.

And then the obligatory warning signs by the path. Rockfalls are common this season, please be careful. The glacier has crevices, please be careful. Watch out for bears. A short prayer to the mountain gods was in order, a request to refrain from throwing anything at me or dropping me through anything. Just let me get to the top.

It’s hard to think this is the same valley as the one I came up only a few months ago. A river roars out from the mouth of the glacier, and there is a small hut perched on the side of the path. I wasn’t really aware of the glacier, the daisekkei, last time; everything was deep in snow. This time however the glacier is very much in evidence, a grey morass studded with rocks and other debris, cut through with forbidding crevices. In good Japanese style I got out the crampons and crunched onto the ice, working my way around its groaning gaps and wondering what horrors lay beneath.

A while later I was off the glacier and climbing the Iwamuro (literally Rock-room) cliffs at the head of the valley. These I remember. They rise like castle battlements a couple of hundred metres high. I feel like I am in a Kurosawa film, charging headlong towards the gates. And I am sure that it was they that conspired to snuff me out last time as we climbed back down their icy ramparts last time.

I hurried on to the top, took my proof shot and set out into the late afternoon sun along the ridge southwards towards Karamatsu, meeting no-one save a father and son team.

“So it was worth coming to Japan then? Economically, I mean?”

Straight outta Kansai! They don’t mess around like Kanto folks. My kind of people. The Liverpudlians of Asia.

I make it to Tengu-daira as the sun sets, roll out the bivy and set the curry rice cooking. I’d been worried about having enough water, but fortunately there is a good runoff from a snow field that lingers on the northeast side of the rise. I’m just about to bed down for the night, when

“Excuse me,where is the nearest hut?”

A figure looms up through the darkness. No jacket and a nylon bag for a rucksack, the sort that children carry their gym kit in. He’d been expecting the Tengu-daira hut to be open, but it seems to have closed for the season. I show him where we are on the map, and point out the nearest huts, both three hours walk away and it is pitch black. I offer my headlamp, but he refuses and thanks me as he walks off into the blackness.

One of the problems with the mountains in Japan is that their accessibility and well-stocked huts lull people into a false sense of security. I hope he got down safely. I should have asked for his name and a contact number, then I could have checked the next day. You only think of these things later.

Sunday was a blast. A quick hike through the pre-dawn, and down the Tengu-no-ookudari cliffs, short rappels down the chains studding the cliff face. The the three granite towers at the head of the Karamatsu valley, marked dangerous on the map, up and over each. Nothing technical, just a good old-fashioned scramble up the rock face.

“I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.'” Kurt Vonnegut

The rain lashed down and not a soul moved on the ridge. Boots slipped and hands gripped, carrying me effortlessly up the granite and towards Mt Karamatsu. Something of the Tengu had made its way into me, and I thought this is so much better than just nice.

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Banzai, Noakes-san

“John Noakes, this is all your fault.”

This was the first thought that went through my mind on Sunday morning at 4:30a.m. as the alarm buzzed me out of my fitful sleep.

I’d spent the previous day thinking about where my mountain addiction had sprung from as I climbed along the ridge up to Kashimayari-ga-take in the north Japan Alps. There was the walk with Dad when I was six around Monsal Head in Yorkshire, that certainly lit the fuse. But even before that, there was something. What was it?

John Noakes walking the Pennine Way. In the mists of the 1970’s, I’d watched John walk along Britain’s backbone each week on TV.  With his timeless mop haircut (unlike that fop Peter Purves) and quizzical expression, he was like a man perpetually peering at something just over the horizon. Quite why he should have appealed so much to a four year old I’m not sure. But something stirred. I have a vague recollection of Mum saying I could do that when I was older.

The wind had swung during the night, sometime around 1a.m., and was now blowing from the north. A cold Siberian gale lifted moisture from the Sea of Japan, and was now firehosing the Alps with ice. The rock wall I’d built on the west side of my bivy was no longer providing shelter, and the wind buffeted my cocoon relentlessly.

I squinted through the airhole in the bag and could still see a lone star above, but there was an unmistakable pre-dawn glow in the sky. The forecast for rain had proven incorrect; the north wind had blasted the clouds away. I stuck a gloved hand out of my sleeping bag and listened to it scrape across the hoarfrost which had built up inside the bivy, and felt the rigidity which could only mean that the outside was frozen too.

I ran through my checklist as always, a set of steps that minimizes lost time in these cold mornings. Open the bivy. Put on your jacket. Put on your boots. Start the stove while rolling up the bivy. And so on. So much easier to think about than to actually do. But eventually I reach for the zipper and prepare for icy chill that comes next.

But the zipper doesn’t move. It’s frozen solid. Both sides. I heave at it as best you can in what is basically a body-bag, but it is stuck fast.

Noakes never had these problems. They always showed him first thing in the morning propped up on one arm in his sleeping bag, mug of tea in hand and dog Shep next to him. His A-frame tent sloughing off Yorkshire drizzle and flapping lightly in a mild Pennine breeze. You didn’t tell me about frozen zippers and hoarfrost, John. Why not?

Cursing his name, I pull a glove off and start to de-ice the zipper with my thumb. After a few minutes I am able to pull back the cover, and the wind shreds me to the bone. Why do I do this?

There’s a dream-like quality to bivying out. The night before I had watched the lights in the valley below, and wondered about the people down there. Saturday night, gathered around the television, out drinking and eating, making love. And then me a mile above their heads, all alone in the cold. I could feel their lives, but I couldn’t tell them that their worries were all small and meaningless, or about the things that really mattered and they took for granted. The melancholy of the gods.

But in the morning the clouds lay low and thick across Japan, and I thought again about how lucky I am. My day would start with bright sun, a blue sky and a view that stretched from one side of the land to the other. My food would taste good, and I would feel the morning sun warm my face and the backs of my hands. Maybe that was what I saw in John Noakes all those years ago, a man happy with himself and his efforts. Drinking his morning brew with impossible intensity and contentment.

I took photos of the sunrise, and then noticed a line of headlamps snaking its way up the ridge towards me. A quick departure, leaving nothing but a bare patch in the ice where I had lain and a small, ineffective stone wall. And so down once again.

I caught the odor of bear three times on the descent as I cut through the forest lower down the mountain. I sang dirty songs from school and blew my whistle, all the while nervously fingering the blank space on my belt where my bear-spray usually hangs. Of all the times to forget it. Yet another something else Noakes forgot to whisper in my four year-old ear.


I read recently that the TV crew who went with him claimed John didn’t do the Pennine way, that they had filled his rucksack with newspaper and filmed him just doing a few short sections. Much to the delight of bitter cynics who never did and never will understand what he was doing there in the first place. Whether it is true or not is irrelevant. Hiking and climbing are mental transformations, not physical ones. In the soul of anyone who saw John Noakes on the Pennine Way and who has since picked up a sack to climb or walk as a result, he travels on.

Banzai, Noakes-san.