Ice world

The key element to extreme sports is that once you’ve really pushed yourself to the limit, maybe even risked everything, it provides a new way of seeing the world.

Like a snowboarder who’s sailing 30’ off a mountain, I’ve seen these guys, you can’t breathe while they’re moving it’s so hairy.

Or the guys who ride big waves. These waves are half the size of a fuckin’ hotel.

If you screw up there, you’re dead.

After those experiences, how are you going to disturb a guy like that?

He wakes up in the morning knowing he’s going to risk grave bodily harm and when he pulls it off and remains serene throughout, it’s because he’s dispensed with so much of the “God my shoes hurt” “my girlfriend’s a bitch” “my phone bill’s too much”.

He’s blown all the clutter away and connected with something way more absolute and powerful.

Then all of a sudden you have a whole new perspective”.

Henry Rollins, author/icon

Rollins words echoed in my head as my axe busted out of the ice for the umpteenth time and the ledge I had precariously kicked into began to crumble away. Nothing else mattered at that moment. I felt I was carved out of the same cold blue ice as the wall I was on.

We’d spent Saturday fooling around on the ice wall at bottom of Aka-dake. Blue sky and blue ice, we raced for the top of the wall to reach the sunlight which warmed its top. In the minus 17 degree air every ray of sun burned like a furnace where it hit my upturned face.

Sunday was a waterfall climb known locally as the God of the Mountains, a 200 foot plume of icicles and blue-white ice in winter. Once you start you either finish or fall. We kicked and chopped, shouting when our arms became too pumped to make the next swing and whooping when the axes bit deeply and carried us to the top.

A lone deer followed the river below the frozen fall, turning its intense gaze to the men waging war on the blue ice. As our eyes met, Rollin’s words came to me again.

He’s blown all the clutter away and connected with something way more absolute and powerful.


Water. Nutrition. Shelter. The three basics of staying alive in the roaring outdoors. You either take them with you, or find them on the way.

I’ve been looking for alternatives to my usual food pack of Snickers bars and curry rice. Snickers are fine but they don’t hold up well in warmer weather. And curry rice tends to be cloying at the end of a dehydrated day, not to mention the mess. Making pemmican has been high on my list of things to try for some time, but this year I’m going to do it.

Pemmican has been described as the ultimate food. Originally a Native American invention (it means literally “travel food for long trips”), it is a high energy but balanced mix of fat, meat and fruits. Per gram, its nutritional value is hard to beat. It can last for years without going bad. Antarctic expeditions lived exclusively on it for six months at a time.

I’ve been racking my mind over where to get the fat though. Hardly a readily available item in the middle of Tokyo, I thought. It was hard enough at the Kinokuniya supermarket explaining that I needed yeast to make bread that one time. I might as well have asked where the armoured weaponry section was.

Then I remembered. Before cooking sukiyaki, the pan is primed with a big lump of fat. Pure, white beef suet. Definitely a supermarket item.

Tomorrow I will trawl the supermarkets of Aoyama in search of ingredients. I may have to skip the powdered beef liver though. But pemmican of some form will be mine.

Does it really have the lasting properties ascribed to it? Can it feed an army for weeks? Is it the food of the gods?

Or will the immortal words of antipodean bard Mike “Crocodile” Dundee ring true:

Well, you can live on it, but it tastes like shit.

My koan

“Who is it that carries for you this lifeless corpse of yours?”. Hsueh-Yen’s koan comes to me often in the mountains. I look up at a distant peak and know that by nightfall I will be at its top, but I do not know where the will comes from or how it must happen. Something stirs and pushes me on.

I lay in the tent listening to the light patter of snow on its canvas in the pre-dawn. Much against my will something drags me from the soft, warm down of my sleeping bag and plunges my feet into icy boots. Then it throws me towards Mount Hyakkyo-ga-take, whose head remains swathed in cloud and snow.

I’d walked through the primeval forests of Mount Odaigahara the day before. Mist clung to the trees, smothering all sound except that of the river below. My bear-bell rang forlornly in the gloom, but I was glad of its presence (and my capsicum spray) after finding bear scat on trail.

Beautiful as it was, I was not sorry to turn my back on Odaigahara. The freezing mist had chilled my bones and the gloom my heart. I went in search of the nearest hot spring to put the warmth back in them both before making my way to the foot of Hyakkyo for Sunday’s climb.

The storms of early winter had washed away much of whatever path there had been up the northern spur of the mountain. No cultivated cedars for Hyakko, this is primeval forest and I crash through the thick undergrowth and over fallen trees, trying to keep a compass bearing. Then I come upon a mighty gash in the mountain, a landslide deep and wide which bisects the path for fifty meters both above and below me, and I know that today\’s climb has come to an end. The exposed yellow clay is fresh and garish, and stands in contrast to the deep greens and browns of the forest around it. A small rock bounced lazily down its length before stopping with a clatter in the mess of tree trunks and boulders at its foot.

I head for the hot spring resort of Dorokawa, which lies at the foot of the holy mountain Omine. I soak away my aches and disappointment in the hot water for hours until night falls. I need real food and walk Dorokawa’s deserted streets until find it at a lonely okonomiyaki restaurant. The owner is closing up for the night, but takes pity on me and waves me towards the tatami mats and a small room festooned with banners of the seven lucky gods. His wife takes my order, brings me some hot sake and asks where I am staying. She shivers when I say my tent.

The sake cuts like a knife and spreads through me. The owner shuffles over and, trouser fly down, cooks the okinomiyaki for me on the hot plate in the table. We talk about Omine. He thinks there will be a meter of snow on top, but I am not so sure. He leaves me to eat, and watches the Sunday night history drama on television about the Satsuma rebellion. For a moment I am jealous of him and his wife tonight. Their beds will be warm, and their life uncomplex. Whatever carries their corpses is different from mine. Warm and fed, I stand and make my way out. The owner’s wife wonders aloud if she should lend me a blanket, and I smile and tell her I have a good sleeping bag. The car rolls through the dark night, along the rock-stewn road to the trailhead, into the snow and away from the land of men.

Mount Omine has been a training ground for ascetic buddhist monks since the seventh century when En-no-Gyoja roamed its peaks. Even today women may not stand on its slopes, a fact proclaimed by large signs at the entrance.

The climb to the top follows the Omine-okugakemichi, the 1300 year old pilgrimage route which winds over one hundred miles along the hills of the Kii-peninsula. Snow falls heavily for the first few hours. I count my steps, one to ten, over and over again to keep going. At the gate to the temple on the top of the mountain I bow, and as I do so the sun breaks through the clouds and within minutes the mountains lay their snowy splendor before me. Jumping and shouting with delight I bound down the mountain, crampons cutting smooth and deep into the bright snow.

I still don’t know who it is that carries this lifeless corpse of mine. But I do know that the mountains call to it, and it to them. And for that I am glad.

Plans, plans…

Dark clouds cruised the high places, dropping the first snows of winter, clearing briefly to reveal snow capped peaks and keeping us to the foothills of Kyoto and Nara over the year end.

We traced the millenia-old footsteps of En-no-Gyoja, Kukai and Saigyo through Yoshino near Nara. The armour of Minamoto-no-Yoshitsune still sits at Yoshimi shrine alongside the weapons of his retainer, the warrior-monk Benkei. It’s been there for almost a thousand years.

The long weekend is approaching. So here’s the plan. Jump on the shinkansen on Friday evening. Hire a 4WD at Osaka, and drive up to Odaigahara. Spent Saturday hiking through the snow in Odaigahara’s primeval forests, then head west to Mount Omine. Climb up on Sunday, back down on Monday. Gonna need some snowshoes..