Fishing for mountains

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.

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