Nine Heavens, One Hundred and Thirty Six Hells

November 5, 2007 | Filed Under Uncategorized 

“There, there, there’s nothing to be afraid of.” I said, pressing my cheek to her face and feeling her warmth in the morning sun. She shook angrily again in the wind, and spat another volley of pea-sized ice and rocks at me.

Mount Tsurugi was not afraid.

Her anger abated for a second and the staccato assault on my helmet went quiet. I clipped into the fixed chain that leads up the cliff before the summit. I then take a wrong turn and end up shuffling along a granite edge, a leg and hundreds of metres of air each side, feeling scared and stupid.

They say the man who can climb Tsurugi in winter can climb any mountain on earth. Yes, I thought, but he has to get down first.

Then before me is the pyramid of the summit, covered with snow, and dotted with black rocks. Daylight is short this time of year, and I had set a firm turnaround time of noon no matter how close to the top I was. I stood at the summit with six minutes to spare. In 1907 a geographical expedition climbed Tsurugi for the first time in living memory and found religious metal items and ashes that dated from the Heian period, a thousand years before. I wondered how they did it.

I’d climbed up to Mt Bessan the afternoon before, leaving the tourists behind in the valley. Perfect weather, and mine the only footprints in the snow. The typhoon that had blown through a few days before had dropped several feet of snow on the mountain, and anything standing bore a comb of ice on its leeward side. I pitched the tent and contemplated Tsurugi’s snowy head.

Saturday started bright and clear. The Tsurugi-zawa valley and Tsurugi itself were, as far as I could tell, deserted. I kept expecting to meet someone coming from the opposite direction, or to see a climber coming over the crest of Mt Bessan, but none appeared. In the distance the sun glinted from the roof of the north Alps – Shirouma, Karamatsu, Goryu and Kashima. The climb was long and exhausting; the snow had a crust which supported my weight for just and instant before collapsing and burying me up to my knees, again and again and again. The mini summit before Tsurugi, Mae-tsurugi, was a 50 degree wall of ice on one side and a half-ice half-snow concoction on the other. I slipped, self arrested, and slipped again before my axe dug itself back into the snow. Saturday morning, I could be in Starbucks on Kotto-doori. But is that life?

Most of the fixed chains were buried. Some I dug out with a fight, but the final one was impossible to extract. I gave up on it and simply tied my rope to its anchor and rappelled down, tying it off to a boulder at the bottom and trusting that I wouldn’t need it again on the last peak.

The route back from the summit left time for introspection, the usual cataloging of mistakes and experiences to learn from. A raicho, the white ptarmigan grouse that live in these hills and are said to be messengers of the gods, flew overhead and marked out my path back to camp.

I sat dazed in the tent. Every action required enormous willpower and energy. I melted snow to drink and devoured all the food I could find before falling into my sleeping back and zippering out the world. The down filling had not yet warmed up so my hands and feet were cold, but my face was hot with sun and wind burn. I slept like the dead until the alarm clicked at 4:30am and told me to go and climb Mt Tateyama, one of the 3 holy mountains of Japan.

The ridge from Mt Bessan to the bottom of Tateyama snakes in a lazy S shape. Its northern edge was heavy with corniced snow, fluted and sculpted by the wind into impossibly smooth shapes, like an icy Guggenheim way up here in the mountains. A mental note to stay on the south side and with only the raicho for company I set out again.

Just below the crest of Tateyama I saw my first human in two days. Scuttling and slipping down the slope above me, axe gripped in his downhill hand, I moved out of his line of fall. Just in case.

I said my prayers at the Oyama shrine, 3003 metres up with Mt Fuji rising in the distance. Then down the back of the mountain and towards the hotel at the bottom, where crowds of Japanese and Chinese tourists snapped photos of the snowy peaks in the winter sun. In Buddhist lore, the mountains of this area are said to represent the nine paradises while the sulfurous valley below represents the 136 hells.

“It’s so beautiful. I do hope heaven really is like that.” said one elderly lady as we passed. Did she really wish heaven to be a blasted snowscape, minus ten degrees, nothing to eat and all alone? I jumped in the onsen hot spring and followed it with a cold beer at the Hell Valley mountain hut.

Frankly, hell has a lot going for it.

Route and maps


11 Responses to “Nine Heavens, One Hundred and Thirty Six Hells”

  1. David Wood on November 14th, 2007 10:06 pm

    Truly gorgeous pictures and a very evocative account.

    Only just found your Blog – but it’s going in Google Reader straight away.

  2. cjw on November 15th, 2007 12:12 pm

    thank you David – really appreciate your kind words! Winter’s coming on, so things will slow down, but I have a couple of good winter routes planned..

  3. Miguel Arboleda on January 21st, 2008 5:55 am

    Hi CJW. I just discovered your site through Kevin from I loved following your story of your winter walk. And your photography is wonderful, too. I also love climbing the mountains in Japan, but unfortunately don’t have a lot of winter technical skills to be able to climb Tsurugi in winter. I love photography, too, so you, Kevin, and I have something to share on that chord. I don’t find a lot of blogs that I want to keep up with any more, but yours is definitely one of them!

  4. cjw on January 21st, 2008 11:09 am

    Hi Miguel,
    I’ve been a lurker on your blog for some time too – I’m a big fan, & I’m honored to be on your list of blogs you want to keep up with! Maybe I’ll see you in the mountains at some time?

  5. Phil Graham on September 8th, 2009 10:10 am

    Just stumbled across your site – very impressive!
    It’s a bit of a long shot, but I think I may have passed you on your way down Mt. Tateyama.
    I was heading up and noticed a tall foreign guy with a lot of kit coming towards me. I think we smiled and said ‘hi’. What I do remember thinking is; ‘that guy has the same crampons as me.’ It was Nov. 07, though I can’t remember the exact day.
    Anyway, keep up the good work.

  6. CJW on September 8th, 2009 1:24 pm

    Hi Phil – were you the Scottish (?) guy who was going over Tateyama and round the back to Bessan, and asked if you would need crampons up there? Certainly your description of me sounds correct (although you were nice enough to omit “sunburnt & knackered looking” – which I surely was)…

  7. Phil Graham on September 9th, 2009 1:06 pm

    Yes, I am Scottish! I was going over the back to Bessan, a lovely walk on a nice winters day. I guess it must have been you.., I did need the crampons after all.
    Just climbed Tsurugi from Bambajima for the first time this past weekend. Great day, though a bad case of ‘laughing knees’ on the way down!
    Drop me a line if you’re ever in this neck of the woods again.

  8. CJW on September 10th, 2009 11:12 am

    Phil – I imagine Tsurugi has been quite crowded this year, what with the film out and all? I’m yearning for another early winter climb up there when the crowds have gone home, probably late November/early December – maybe via the Hayatsuki ridge and over the top and on to Bessan and Murodo. Happy to have some company if you fancy it – drop me a email on cjw at if you wish. Cheers, Chris

  9. Chris Ward on August 24th, 2010 2:36 am

    Wow, your pictures are awesome!

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