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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