Closer to heaven


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.

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