Fishing for mountains

May 6, 2008 | Filed Under Uncategorized 

Kitadake rising

I saw my soul at nine minutes past six in the morning, as I climbed the ridge between the summits of Nokogiri and Kaikomagatake. It floated like a phantom in the clouds billowing up the north face. It was clearly mine; I waved at it and it waved back. Its elongated arms and legs matched my movements. Like a shadow but surrounded by two, and at times three, perfectly circular rainbows.

Specter of Brocken

It walked with me as I made my slow way through the snow and up the ridge. At close to 10,000 feet the air was getting thin but this was no hallucination. I could see that it too seemed to be carrying a large pack, and I was happy to think that it must love the same things that I do. We walked together for maybe fifteen minutes before I climbed into the clouds that obscured Kaikomagatake’s peak, and that vision of my soul disappeared with the sun.

Specter walking

Sadly what I saw wasn’t really my soul but a phenomenon known as the Specter of Brocken, a rare interplay of the sun and clouds that occurs at mainly at altitude. It is named for the highest peak in the Harz mountains in Germany, where the Specter is said to be a monster of immense proportions which wears a headdress of oak leaves and carries an uprooted pine. It appears suddenly and seems to possess enormous, treetrunk-like limbs. The motion of the climber and the movement of the clouds upon which it is projected seem to give it life, a presence which is at once malign and malicious. It never fails to surprise, causing more than a few climbers to fall to their deaths with shock. I’d seen it once before on Kashima-yari last year, but this time felt different, more proximate, as if I truly was in the company of something sentient. I’m lucky to have seen it at all; Jim Wickwire, one of the first men to climb K2, said he saw it just once in forty years of climbing.

The Specter itself is obviously the result of the climber’s shadow being projected onto nearby clouds. The giant size is a misperception, the same one which makes the moon look larger when it is near the horizon. I’m not sure what causes the rainbows. Maybe some kind of back scattering of the sunlight. I suspect Captain Interesting knows, or has a book that holds the answer.

Clouds on the Roku-gome ridge

I was back for another attempt on Kaikomagatake in the Minami Alps. Like last time I started out from the foot of the Todaigawa valley, following the trail along five or six miles and up a few thousand feet through the boulders and debris. The winter snows were melting, turning the Todai river into a boiling, grinding flood of grey water. Rough log bridges that had spanned the current two weeks ago now ended half way across; with pack unclipped and slung over one shoulder, I jumped the gaps. Unlike last time I had a different line planned for my ascent of Kaikoma, one which would take me away from the trade route from Kitazawa, which was deserted two weeks ago but would now be crowded with Golden Week climbers. The map showed a route which branched off the valley and up Nokogiridake (the “Saw Peak”) and along to Kaikoma. Fukuda Kyuya’s description of Kaikoma is filled with superlatives, “the most beautiful of the Alps”, “the hardest climb” and I felt this would be a fitting route since technology has rendered the mountain otherwise overly accessible. I also needed solitude, desolation and a challenge; this promised all three.


Per the map, the climb up Nokogiri should be five hours. However the winter snow still lay thick and rotten on its upper slopes, turning it into a “tottering pile of shit”, to borrow a phrase from Jon Tinker. In turns it went from sawa-nobori (gorge climbing) to bouldering to hacking through steep, dense rhodedendron forest to chest deep snow, knife edge ridges and the constant staccato accompaniment of rockfall. Seven hours later I topped out at 8800 feet and from the summit beheld the long crest to Kaikoma. The north-east side of it was still heavily corniced with snow, while the south-west side was a mess of tumbledown rockfall where the snows had melted and granite boulders career down the mountainside.

North face of Nokogiri

The original plan was to make the summit of Kaikoma by nightfall, roll out the bivy and catch both sunset and sunrise. Creeping slowly along the ridge, however, it became evident that I would scarcely make the hut some two hours below Kaikoma before darkness. Progress was slow. Each fixed rope and chain had to be tugged and checked carefully before clipping in. The mountain erodes too fast for anything to stay permanently attached up here. Six hours of butt-clenching fear later I stumbled on the unmanned hut at Roku-gome, tugged at the door and found that snow had drifted inside and frozen it shut. I dug a pit by the door, unpacked the bivy and crawled inside, imagining myself to be cozy in the hut instead.


I woke before the alarm at 3 a.m. to a mighty crash from the valley. Landslides and rockfall are common at this time of year, as the snows melt and the mountains loosen their grip on their fabric. Then another crash and, as I watched the shooting stars from the small gap in the bivy, I imagined the noise to be the hooves of giant horses galloping down below. Kaikomagatake translates to “Horse Peak of the Kai Region”, and in ancient times it was believed that the horses of the gods were stabled here. Some people say it is because the snow forms the shape of a horse as it melts off the peak, but I wondered whether in fact it was the sound of rockfall that gave birth to the myth. Either way, it was time to get moving. An almost lenticular cloud hung over Senjogatake, bringing a warning of worse weather to come and the barometer was already starting to fall.


A few hours later I came over the north-west ridge of Kaikoma to the summit at 9800 feet, joining a few small groups of climbers who had made their way either up the north-east spur from Kurodo or from Kitazawa to the south-east. After some jokey applause and playful taps on my helmet, their general consensus was that only madmen come via Nokogiri. I found it hard to disagree. From the top you can see back down to the grey scar that is the Todaigawa valley. It felt strange to think that in a few hours I would be down there again, but food and fuel had run low on the longer-than-expected Nokogiri route, so down I would have to go. I turned my back on the summit and started the descent, passing hardy bands of climbers making their way up from their multi-colored tents pitched below at Kitazawa.

Clouds on Kaikoma

On the first day I’d met only one other person, Nagase-san the fisherman, who drove up just as I was preparing to depart. He greeted me good morning, then with a great sigh “Aaah, it’s been thirty years since I last came to the Todaigawa valley. Are you climbing Kaikoma?” I said I was, and he told me how he had come here as a high school student when he belonged to the mountaineering club, and they climbed Kaikoma in the days before the Minami-Alps through-road to Kitazawa was built. He was born and raised in Hyogo prefecture west of Kyoto and spent twenty five years as a hardware engineer in Tokyo before returning to Hyogo five years ago to work for a regional sake brewer. I asked if he still climbed. “No, not since high school. I fish. Every day, before and after work! And I remembered the river here, so I drove through the night to see if there might be something good here. Do you know anywhere good to fish?” There was a spot about an hour and a half away that I had passed before, and I offered to lead him there as it was on my way. We walked and talked about mountains and fishing until we reached the pools where mountain trout flitted back and forth. We said goodbye and I carried on up to Nokogiri and beyond.

Storms on Kitadake

Returning to the car late the next day, I found a plastic bag tied to the wing mirror, inside of which was a note and a parcel. The note read:


(I hope you can read Japanese)

Thank you for leading me up to the fishing spot in Todaigawa. I enjoyed our time together, and listening to you talk about the mountains I was reminded of how much I used to love climbing them too. Tomorrow I am going to Tokyo, and while I am there I will buy some hiking boots. I am going to climb the mountains in Hyogo, and when I use my boots I will remember you.

I hope you like fish and sake.


Inside the parcel were two mountain trout, carefully gutted, packed in snow and wrapped in newspaper, and a 250cc bottle of sake from his brewery. The fish were promptly grilled over a small fire and the the sake warmed up in the Jetboil. As I sat in the dark valley watching the flames I thought that in some way these mountains had shown me something of my soul after all.


27 Responses to “Fishing for mountains”

  1. Julian on May 6th, 2008 8:50 am

    Chris, your photographs make me want to take a photography course or throw my camera away! Absolutely spectacular, and congratulations on climbing that unusual and difficult route. I was looking out at Kaikoma on a sunny Saturday morning, wondering whether you would be up there. You were.

    Todai must be a good spot for fishing. Years ago, I caught a large trout there on the first cast. Without a stove, I tied it under the top tube of my bike and cycled (illegally) over the Alps Rindo back to Kofu. It tasted good, but lacked the flavour of a campfire by the riverside in that majestic mountain setting.

  2. kevin on May 6th, 2008 9:29 am

    Awesome photos! I hate that you remind me of how little hiking I do now, even though I am so must closer. It was also an great story about the fisherman. THAT is what is great about Japan and trekking or biking here.

  3. Captain Interesting on May 6th, 2008 4:03 pm

    Great post with really memorable photos. You are absolutely right about Fukada Kyuya’s comments about the mountain. It was clearly one of his favourites. Here is part of the Kaikoma chapter from Hyakumeizan:-

    “If asked which was the most perfectly pyramidal mountain in the Japan Alps, I would immediately vote for Kaikoma. Its summit is the prominent obelisk that immediately catches one’s gaze when one looks out from Yatsu-ga-take, Kiri-ga-mine, or the Northern Alps. The shapely triangle stands a little aloof from the mass of big peaks in the Southern Alps, set apart also by its strongly individual character. It has a presence that deserves to be called resolute.

    Kaikoma would also be my answer, and not just for the riches of its view, if I were asked which was the most beautiful summit in the Japan Alps. I would also cite the elegance of the white granite gravel that adorns its summit. From a distance, the peak appears like a heap of white sand, or a White Crumbling Mountain as some ShinshÅ« folk used to call it. “

  4. cjw on May 7th, 2008 3:53 am

    Julian – thank you for the compliment, but really it’s just a combination of the clever people at Nikon and playing the odds by taking of thousands of photos. I think there’s around 30 photos on the site that I’ve taken with my Nikon in the last year out of a total of 12,000 that I’ve shot in that time. One quarter of one percent… that’s a sobering number… I’m amazed that anything can live in Todaigawa – the combination of the fast flow and the dams don’t make for an easy environment. But it sure makes for tasty fish!

    Hi Kevin – I’m pretty sure you’re getting out into the hills more than I am ;-) I’ve managed a grand total of 4 trips this year including our snowy hike in Feb.. I know what you mean about the fisherman – I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have (and cherish) a similar story of their travels in Japan.

    Captain – a beautiful translation (as always), and much appreciated. I’ve been a little tied up these past couple of months, but now things are settling down again I will do some further spinning of the rolodex to see if anyone knows of a publisher that might be interested.

  5. C-chan on May 7th, 2008 6:35 am

    Wow, that surely was an unusual approach to Kaikoma, and even more so at this time of the year …
    the photographs are stunning, and so must have been the views that you had.
    I looked at this mountain from Kayagatake (1700m) this morning, the snow has become at lot less than only a week ago. I have been living close to this mountain for more than five years now and still not climbed it, hope I’m going to make it this year – definitely not from Nokogiri but if possible from Kuroto-one.

  6. Tom on May 7th, 2008 1:12 pm

    Wonderful account Chris – I was only going to skip through it as I’m busy, but ended up reading the whole thing more than once. I love the photos you put with it.

  7. cjw on May 7th, 2008 1:25 pm

    C-chan: that’s a great mountain to live close to, you’re lucky.

    You’re right, the snow is melting fast. When I last went up there a couple of weeks ago, you could barely see the roofs of the huts at the bottom of Kitazawa. Now they stand quite bereft of snow. In a couple more weeks it should be possible to climb without crampons.

    The Kuroto-one was looking beautiful in the sun the other day; it’s a long climb up. I’ve become quite a fan of the Todaigawa valley approach though (the route from the valley via Haccho-zaka to Kitazawa is short but steep) – the deserted feel of the valley coupled with the devastation caused by the river is eerily spectacular.

  8. wes on May 7th, 2008 11:59 pm

    congrats on finally scaling the peak. Nokogiri is one of the 200 famous mountains, so you certainly killed 2 birds with 1 stone on that one.

    i’ve also experienced the ブロッケン現象 about a half a dozen times. It took me a while to figure out the katakana pronunciation of Brocken.

    any plans for your next mountain adventure. I’m thinking of climbing Mt. Goryu sometime before the rainy season starts!

  9. cjw on May 8th, 2008 12:10 pm

    Hey Tom – sorry to drag you away from your work, but pleased you enjoyed the post! We should try to get out one of these days for a walk somewhere roundabouts. Or just head down to Tsukiji and find some good sushi.

    Wes – I was happy to finally make it, and glad of another chance to walk up the Todaigawa valley again. I’m interested to hear you’ve experience the mighty Brocken on a number of occasions, as (from the accounts I’ve read) it does seem to be quite unusual. Maybe there is something about the mountains of Japan that leads to an unusual prevalence…
    I’m planning to head up to Yari the weekend after next and catch it while it still has a little snow on the peak. Maybe I’ll be able to see you from there on Goryu ;-)

  10. billywest on May 12th, 2008 4:13 am

    Though I’m not a mountaineer myself, (have only done Mt. St. Helens in Washington State – after the eruption, of course)I really enjoyed looking at your site today. Great photos and nice writing; I’ll definitely keep coming back and will add this site to 7:10’s blog and website list… Which reminds me, thanks for visiting 7:10 to Tokyo. I hope you’ll check back in soon.


  11. Julian on May 12th, 2008 12:43 pm

    Chris, referring back to your January post, which route did you take up Omine? On Saturday, I was able to get to Tunnel-Nishiguchi for the shortest route to the top, but that road is marked on the map as closed until April 15. (For good reason – it was just wide enough to let a small car through.) A new road signpost tried to send hapless hikers to a very distant start point. You must have had a long battle, particularly in the snow.

  12. cjw on May 12th, 2008 10:40 pm

    Hey Billywest – thanks for coming by – I’ve got 7:10’s RSS feed coming through, so I’ll be back regularly! I love the layout as well by the way, very impressive.

    Julian, I started out from Ogawa-guchi, a little further west of Tunnel-nishiguchi on the 309, and climbed up towards Tetsuyama (1563m). There’s no path from there, but the forest is sparse enough to follow the ridge up to the mountain at 1846m (Shukenzan?). However about 50 meters below the peak of Shukenzan there had been a landslide which I didn’t feel like tackling given that it looked pretty fresh. Reluctantly I turned around and went down, so I didn’t make it as far as the summit of Hakken. I consoled myself with a bath at Dorogawa, and went up Sanjo-ga-take the next day instead. The snow was actually still fairly light in January. I took snowshoes, but really didn’t use them much. I think it very much depends on the year.

    The Omine hyakumeizan is an interesting one. Fukuda was quite clear that he considered Sanjo as being the Omine mentioned in the ancient texts, although his trip took him all the way from Sanjo up to Hakken. However Sanjo is closed to women, so I suspect that is why the hyakumeizan marker is at Hakken instead. Frankly I think Hakken might be the better choice anyway. As beautiful as Sanjo was, especially the climb down the southern ridge, Hakken is both higher and has a better outlook (from what I could see), and of course those beautiful buna forests.

  13. Julian on May 13th, 2008 8:35 am

    Aha, that was a crafty route, starting from just before the winter gate. It also explains why I could not find the No Women sign of which you took such a nice picture and had been hoping to see.

    Alas, at the top of Hakken it was sheeting down, as it was for almost the whole weekend!

  14. cjw on May 13th, 2008 11:40 am

    Bad luck on the weather (it was no better in Tokyo), but at least you made it to the top. I’m looking forward to reading the report!

  15. Ted T on May 17th, 2008 2:40 am

    Wonderful stuff. I’m a late-comer here, but a quick fan. Besides your ability to capture the beauty of the mountains here (with your words and your eye), I especially appreciate your prudence, recognizing that danger nearly always trumps pride.

    I had my own encounter with Brocken, atop Rausu-dake in Hokkaido. I lingered too long up top as the clouds swirled in, obscuring the trail down. Heading toward my own shadow led me off the peak, and toward a couple other reminders of mortality. One tough day…

  16. Wednesday on May 27th, 2008 2:14 pm

    Finally! I understand. “broken” = Brocken. I climbed Yari last fall, and had my own little run-in with the Specter of Brocken. At the time I spoke very little Japanese, and the only word I could decipher – from the extremely excited and wildly gesticulating people I met – was ‘broken’. (Actually, this is exactly what I hastily scribbled in my journal: Round rainbow; jibun-no silhouette; incredible – “broken”? Huh? Lots of men in knicker-bockers) And guess who forgot her camera. Love your photos and writing. It’s all very inspiring.

  17. Red Yeti on May 27th, 2008 9:41 pm

    I first saw my spirit high above Chamonix on a golden autumn evening. He also had to nip off behind a rock for some personal time. When it was more appropriate, I called my brother over.

    He wasn’t quite so awe struck. It seems hang-glider pilots see them regularly. Albeit they may wonder if they’re seeing angels, with those wings.

    This was more like a short story than a blog entry. Simply inspiring words and pictures that I keep staring at.

  18. cjw on May 28th, 2008 7:47 am

    Ted – glad you like my random literary ramblings.. I’ve added your blog to my RSS reader too. I’m very jealous of your location down in Kyoto.

    Hi Wednesday – the mystery of the Brocken solved! The men in knicker-bockers I’m not so sure I can help with… :-)

    Red Yeti: LOL, personal time with the Brocken, I love it. I read that pilots often see them, which makes sense. I’m fast coming to the conclusion that the phenomenon is a little more common than Jim Wickwire made out.. Either that, or he was most unlucky!

  19. tornadoes28 on June 6th, 2008 3:00 pm

    The photos of your shadow on the clouds is amazing. I had never seen that before. I can imaging what a feeling it would be to se that while climbing in the mountains, especially if you are by yourself.

  20. cjw on June 8th, 2008 3:49 am

    Aye, it was pretty special, tornado28. When I saw it last year, it was against a solid, and unmoving, cloud bank. But this time it was projected against much thinner cloud, which was moving fast across the lip of the ridge, so the shadow really did seem to have a mind of its own. Really took me by surprise for a few minutes..

  21. KamoshikaBob on September 24th, 2008 3:55 am

    This may be a bit after the fact, but I just saw a Brocken’s Spectre yesterday (Sep. 23) on the traverse north from the peak of Tanigawa-dake. The “sharpness” of Japan’s mountains might make Brocken a more common sight than elsewhere. The clouds were swirling back forth on both sides of Tanigawa, and about halfway between the peak and the next (equally high) peak of Ichinokura, I looked down to the right to see a circular rainbow on the clouds at our feet. It being around 1:30pm, the sun was still high, but the valley was so deep, and the ridge we were on was so steep (precipitous, even) that Brocken had an easy time showing up. Having read your blog in May, I had been led to believe that it was an unusual phenomenon, but just as I was yelling exultantly and waving my arms to see the shadow, another hiker comes up and says, “oh, a Brocken” and keeps going. Still, it made my day, even if I can barely walk today from choosing such a long route.

  22. cjw on September 24th, 2008 6:02 am

    Congratulations on sighting the Brocken! Sounds like that other hiker didn’t have much romance in his soul.

    Tanigawa-dake must have been beautiful yesterday…

  23. Billy on April 1st, 2009 5:30 pm

    incredible photos. I can almost smell the fresh air…almost.

    I’m bookmarking this site!

  24. I-CJW on April 15th, 2009 7:29 am

    Thanks Billy (& apologies for taking so long to acknowledge your comment – things have been kinda busy recently…!)

  25. An Ceann Bliadhna : i, cjw ~.::.~ hiking and climbing in japan on December 31st, 2009 7:36 am

    [...] Climbing over a farmer’s gate. An unmarked path through thick heather. The unfamiliar prick of gorse thorns against our legs, and the half-frozen peat bogs which threaten to suck the boots from our feet. Black faced sheep gaze with yellow eyes as we pass. Yuka demands their attention, but they turn and walk away. Above an icy crest, a thin cloud bank furls across the mountain; she sees her first brocken. [...]

  26. Porsche Bosch on October 3rd, 2011 8:24 pm

    Helpful information. Lucky me I discovered your site by accident, and I am stunned why this coincidence did not came about earlier! I bookmarked it.

  27. Martin Ystenes on January 15th, 2012 1:52 pm

    Re. the circular rainbow:

    Thus is a socalled “fog bow”, which has a different explanation. You will find a photo I made from a similar experience, with an explanation here:

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