Closer to heaven

May 19, 2008 | Filed Under Uncategorized 


Looking around the hut you could tell the ones who had just been to the summit of Yari. They had the burnt-out, shell-shocked look of veterans. Bloodless fingers nervously flicked the ice from the sharp points of their crampons, axes caressed lovingly against their arms. A cigarette crackled and spat in the thin air as its owner sucked it down in one long inhalation.

An hour and a half later I had acquired my own Yari-induced thousand yard stare.

Yari is named after the Japanese for spear. Its pyramidal peak pierces the sky, a lethal black weapon atop the smooth white curves of the glacier which curls away below it. In summer it is a short, if hair-raising, climb from the hut below via two ladders and some fixed chain. In winter all except the top ladder lie below the thick snow and ice which remains plastered to its steep walls. The result is a near seventy-degree climb without protection, and a long fast drop to the glacier ending in a mess of certainly fatal injuries somewhere far below. With this in mind, I dug the axe deep, stabbed into the snow with my free hand to the elbow where I could, and kicked again and again until the crampons hit home to the toe with a reassuringly solid thud.

Lightning strike

I flopped onto the summit and lay for a few minutes on my back starring at the sky, lungs bellowing. As the chill hit me I got up, walked slowly to the small shrine which sits at the top and thanked the gods for a safe ascent. The cloud cleared briefly, arraying the Alps before me in every direction. Crouching out of the wind before the shrine, I noticed the coins left by previous climbers as an offering were strangely melted and discoloured. The result, perhaps, of the lightening which strikes this sharp conductor through the summer months?

The climb down took twice the time of the ascent, each step a blind kick into the whiteness below. Reaching the ridge at the foot of the summit, I walked back to the hut on legs turned to jelly. I grabbed a can of cold beer and nursed it, speechless, for a while.

I’d started out from Kamikochi at 8p.m. the day before, walking through the night and the black forest as far as Yoko-o. The full moon shone over my shoulder, lighting the snow capped peaks and throwing my shadow long over the path ahead. The bear bell jangled happily at my hip, and I reveled in the sharpness of my senses, the sound of the river and the scents thrown up in the cold night air. Chesterton’s lament for olfaction lost rang in my head,

The brilliant smell of water,
The brave smell of a stone,
The smell of dew and thunder,
The old bones buried under,
Are things in which they blunder
And err, if left alone.

The wind from winter forests,
The scent of scentless flowers,
The breath of brides’ adorning,
The smell of snare and warning,
The smell of Sunday morning,
God gave to us for ours.

At Yoko-o I rolled out the bivy, climbed in and watched the clouds race across the face of the moon until I fell asleep. Waking a short while later at 2:53, I stuck a cold hand outside to light the stove for breakfast, and searched the horizon for a glimmer of light. Nothing yet, but the sun would be up in an hour. I wanted to hit the glacier as soon as possible before the solar radiation turned it to slush.

By six, I was at the hut at Yari-zawa, chatting with its owner in the early morning sun. “There’s a couple of people camping at the bottom of the glacier, and two couples here at the hut. Should be nice and uncrowded for you today.” he said, sipping his coffee. Another hour later and I found the tents huddled against the stone windbreak, sole patches of colour against an otherwise monotone landscape.

From Yari-zawa, the valley curves around and up to the west and then north to Yari itself. As I climbed, the sun peered out from over the summit of Jounen-dake, lighting up the valley; the thermometer said minus four, but it felt like a convection oven. I pasted on the sunscreen and started up through the snow towards the hut below the summit at a little over 10,000 feet.

Reaching the final steep slope which marks the head of the glacier some five hour later the weather turned. Hard pellets of snow, like grains of pudding rice, fell from the liquorice coloured sky and a cold wind blew from the north. Suddenly my sweat-drenched t-shirt, so nice and cool when the sun was out, started to suck the heat out of me. I dug around in my pack, pulled out my jacket and hunkered in the snow for a few minutes as the soft down warmed my body. The clouds cleared momentarily, and taking a quick bearing on the line of bamboo wands stuck in the snow, I started the ascent to the hut again, still a thousand feet above. At eleven thirty I staggered into its warmth, and prepared myself for the route to the summit.

A thin red line on the horizon the next day mocked the forecast for cloud and rain. Pulling on cold boots and crampons, I grabbed my camera and ran onto the hard ice outside, filling my eyes with the beauty of a clear dawn across the mountains. I wondered to myself if I would ever tire of this sight, of the flickering purples, blues and reds which marked the start of a new day. I can’t ever imagine not wanting to see this. I watched the sun break above the horizon, saw it kiss the peak of Yari and continue to rise into the cloudless sky above. Back in the hut I made a liter of hot chocolate and drank it down as I looked out over the white roof of Japan, and I thought myself the luckiest man alive.

Giant leaps through the sun-softened snow took me back down the glacier, fast and fun. By eight I was back at the Yari-zawa hut. In a few hours I would be at Kamikochi among the day trippers, where people no longer met your eye or said good morning as they passed. I dropped my pack, stripped off my t-shirt and washed in the cold river. The water leapt and fizzed as if it were happy to at last be free of the glacier and on its way to the sea again. What if the water of my body felt the same way? Would it too rejoice when I closed my eyes for the last time? It was a thought at once both terrifying and strangely comforting, and it accompanied me down the trail to the shrine at Hotaka.

The midday bus took me back to Shin-shimashima and by evening was back in Tokyo. My wife opened the door, giggled at the sunburnt vision in front of her. “You smell like you had a good time.” she said.

I certainly did.


19 Responses to “Closer to heaven”

  1. max on May 19th, 2008 11:38 am

    You say glacier a lot. But there aren’t any in Japan. I thought you would have known that. Ever been to Europe?

  2. C-chan on May 19th, 2008 11:54 am

    So, you’ve made it to Yari, and more important, you’ve made it back … wow.
    Having read the article I’m not surprised that the mountain is almost empty of people at this time of the year!

  3. cjw on May 19th, 2008 12:37 pm

    @max: True, I say glacier a lot. I like the word (although seemingly less than I like the word “hut” if word-count is anything to go by). While it may not be a technically perfect translation for the Japanese “sekkei”, I think you’d agree it’s a lot more poetic, not to mention easy on the eye, than “permanent snowfield with remnants of glacial ice”. But enough of that; truly, thank you for coming by and reading.

    C-chan: you would have liked the lack of crowds at this time of year, it was a great time to be in the Kita-Alps. Beautiful weather too.

  4. Julian on May 19th, 2008 1:16 pm

    Ahhh, obscenely beautiful photographs once again. It must take some willpower to pull out the camera at that subzero time of the morning. Did those skiier’s tracks originate from the Yari hut?

    Glad to hear the Amino Vital made a difference; I’ll check out that Mark Twight book.

  5. cjw on May 20th, 2008 3:29 am

    Thanks Julian – having got up there I wasn’t going to miss the chance of seeing the sun come up! Apparently Yari is a bit of a mecca for late-season skiers, and there were two guys while I was there who had climbed up and were preparing to ski down the next day. I think there’s only a small window of opportunity to get down though – first thing in the morning the snow is still solid ice, and then the sun gets on it and turns it to mush in a couple of hours. Seemed like a lot of fun though.

    Amino Vital is the stuff of Gods. I’ve been eulogising to my triathlon-running colleagues this week..

  6. Julian on May 20th, 2008 10:09 am

    Yes, when you’re trudging down through the slush, those sweeping curves of the board look mightily appealing.

    Triathlons? I had been wondering what you do in the summer when the snow has gone (and softies like me can finally enjoy the Alps).

    The photo of the vaporised coins is interesting. The largely aluminium 1-yen coins are in rude good health, even though Al is a better conductor than copper, so I assume it is the coins with the lower melting point that have suffered. I wonder if any other readers can shed some lightning on this?

  7. George Baptista on May 20th, 2008 2:35 pm

    Very impressive trip. We also hiked up/rode down that same general area this GW (we have a few pics up at The view of Yarigatake from the neighboring Obami-dake is also really great, highly recommended if you ever make it up there again.

  8. cjw on May 21st, 2008 3:37 am

    Julian: no triathlons for me, just my colleagues. I swim like six year old girl. I’m not sure even Amino Vital would solve that that problem…

    The coins are a mystery. Looking back at some of the photos which didn’t make the final cut there was one which showed a part-melted 1 yen coin, but that was definitely in the minority. As my wife pointed out though, a lightening strike would have certainly destroyed the wooden shrine too. The only conclusion I could come to was that when they rebuild the shrine, they gather up the vaporised coins and put them back. I should have asked at the hut. Next time.

    George: many thanks for the recommendation – I’m definitely going to go back to check out the other approaches and routes round Yari. I love the photos on They are a perpetually dangerous temptation to give up the day job and spend a year learning to ski properly (at least I ski better than I swim…).

  9. Captain Interesting on May 21st, 2008 4:22 pm

    Well, the coins are, indeed, a fascinating mystery, but I’ll leave it to more learned heads to speculate on the cause…. As always, a great story, well illustrated. Reminds me of our own (autumn) ascent of Yari, wading through waist-deep powder snow. Was mildly surprised not to be avalanched. As for the glacier, there is quite a bit of historical justification for calling this particular sekkei a glacier. See (at the risk of being self-serving):-

    PS: don’t attempt to ski Yari-sawa when frozen, unless you’re very confident or feeling lucky. Have seen a colleague fall all the way down the initial slope head-first, fortunately without damage….

  10. wes on May 21st, 2008 10:51 pm

    Congrats on a successful ascent (and descent). I guess I won’t be staring at you from the top of Goryu, as I’m off to climb it tomorrow morning. I’ve got my gear prepared and my camp site eyed on the map. You’re story has inspired me, so I let’s hope the weather holds out.

  11. cjw on May 22nd, 2008 3:09 am

    Captain: I’m not sure how I managed to miss that post of yours the first time around, but it’s one of the best pieces I’ve read in a while. Sadly it looks like Professor Ono’s book is out of print, but there’s a couple of secondhand editions on Amazon, one of which may well wind up on my bookshelf shortly.
    Your admonition regarding Yari-zawa is timely – a skier died there a couple of weeks ago when he took a fall and slipped 200m down the slope. Your colleague was fortunate.

    Wes: Good luck on Goryu! You should have some nice snow up there. I’m not sure which way you are going but if you’re cutting across from Karamatsu then it might be an idea to throw a couple of slings or some rope in your bag for the fixed chains on the ridge west of the hut. Look forward to reading the report.

  12. Melanie on May 22nd, 2008 7:51 am

    Truly stunning photos!

  13. billywest on May 23rd, 2008 4:21 pm

    Great post and amazing pics!

    I’m thinking of doing an article for 7:10 to Tokyo about what some people are doing with their time in Japan. I definitely want to feature your website.

    Hope you don’t mind.

  14. cjw on May 25th, 2008 12:20 pm

    Thanks Melanie – the mountains make it easy though. I just turn up and press the button…

    Billywest – by all means, I’d be honored!

  15. Mountaingoat on May 26th, 2008 8:16 am

    C, enjoyed revisiting Yari through your excellent post. I love that mountain despite one very scary night nearby. I am in Tokyo tonight, having quit the trail (road) in Shikoku and would like to catch up, but I know it’s very short notice. I was actually able to change my flight to tomorrow night so time is short and I mainly want to sleep. But I’ll keep following your blog once I get back home. All the best!

  16. cjw on May 26th, 2008 11:09 pm

    Hey MG – it looks like I might have missed you, I only saw this today. I’ll shoot you an email. Have a safe flight back!

  17. Grant on April 8th, 2009 2:16 pm

    I have got to make the same ascent!!!!!! I am but a rookie though!!!! Your story was truly incredible…and like many before me I must say inspiring as well!

  18. I-CJW on April 15th, 2009 7:30 am

    Hey Grant – glad you were inspired! If you need any info then feel free to give me a shout (cjw at the site address).

  19. Guillaume on March 3rd, 2010 3:36 am

    Hello !

    Nice expediation. On what date were you there ?



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