Valiant efforts were made

The plan was simple. A fast, light assault on the high peaks of the Southern Alps: Kitadake, Aino, Senjo, Kaikoma and Hou-ou. Just bivy bags and a three day wild spiral enchaining the high mountains of Japan. But the left-hand side of that spiral had a name.

C-chan called it “Baka Ohne”: the Idiots’ Ridge.

We stormed Mt Kitadake’s eastern ramparts, halving the map time, and hoping we could climb above the weather. The remnants of typhoon Sinlaku still clung to the summit, but we slept that night hoping for a better dawn. Alone on the peak at 4am the next morning we stared out into the grey; the clouds surrounded us, tipping each hair on our heads with a single bead of dew and making us look old before our time. With no sunrise, we funneled our energies at Mt Aino, snatching it in minutes and ever more confident that our speed would carry our plan. The centre of the spiral complete, we swing west and then north, dropping down from 10,000 feet to under 8,000, and then to the entrance of the Baka Ohne.

On the map the ridge is well marked. It starts with a steep climb, rising up to the peaks of Senjo-ga-take at 10,000 feet again. The map also notes a series of smaller summits along its course; those will hurt. Two hundred foot vertical scrambles, then two hundred down again, a lot of physical and mental energy expended for little gain in height. Then there’s the bears. To the west of the ridge lie deep wooded valleys, undisturbed by man and thick with our ursine cousins. Occasionally they wander the ridge too, and last year’s cull did little to decrease their number. They are a threat until we rise above the treeline at 8,000 feet again.

But even the map cannot describe the devastation that is wrought by the winter snows and the summer typhoons. Trees uprooted and snapped like matchwood, spewn across spine of the ridge. Rock and boulders torn from their haunts are visited upon the slopes below. The clouds look down on the Englishmen as they pick their way through this. They see the mud and the blood, and with misguided love try to wash it from our hands and faces. We’re the only idiots here, and this is truly our ridge now.

Lightning licks a unseen distant peak, then a closer one. Casting off our packs and our metal on the ridge, we race down the slope and huddle fetal until the thunder recedes. Twice we do this. But with hoods cinched around our eyes, we once more move off into the forbidding greyness and finally make the summit of Mt Senjo. There is nothing to see, just a patch of rock which floats, detached, in the ether. But we have survived the Idiots’ Ridge, and somehow we are still on time.

When we saw the hut below the summit, we knew our bivys would stay in our backpacks tonight. Others have been trapped at the hut all day, and as one we rail against the weather forecast as it pipes in over the radio. We make short work of the hut owner’s bottle of bourbon. He doesn’t care about the rain, but the Hanshin Tigers are losing again. He institutes a 30 minute-early lights-out penalty, payback for the Yomiuri Giants fans he suspects lurk in our midst. In the dark the rain drums ever harder on the roof, and at midnight we are all awoken by the flash of lightning. 3am comes and goes without the usual dash for the door.

The Englishmen turn out into the cold dawn, making their way down to Kitazawa-toge pass. Weak sunlight filters through the clouds, and for a second we can see back across to Kaikoma and Kitadake. The peaks glow and for a second our hearts are full of hope. But cruising fast up the valley is a dark thunderhead, a purple cadilac of a cloud, bristling with energy and spoiling for a fight. Our spiral will go incomplete this time.

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an Idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Into the mist

I don’t want to get up. It’s 3am, and I can see the glitter of stars in the sky and a light frost on the bivvy bag. I was climbing these mountains almost 24 hours straight yesterday. But something pushes me out of my sleeping bag, and shivering in the cold morning I look towards Mt. Kurobe, it’s head still shrouded in low cloud.

The double basses start as I cross the boulder strewn moraine. So low you can barely hear them above the wind, a murmuring sleeper in the pre-dawn. Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony on the iPod. The eerie lament of the basses fits perfectly with Kurobe’s grey walls, which hang heavy and oppressive in the dark. As the mist gathers the strings join in, lifting higher, dragging me up the mountain’s face until, just as I reach the summit ridge, they hang suspended on one note, impossibly long. I look around and can see no more than ten yards in any direction. Then, with three long single notes on the piano, the soprano begins far down at the depths of her register. She rises, pulling me with her and as I walk Kurobe’s shoulder I’m very aware of the drop on either side.

Her lament reaches a crescendo as I hit the summit. I sit, back against the peak marker. Staring out into the greyness, the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end as the soprano reaches her own chilling summit and the strings swirl around her in a misty denouement. At with that the cloud bank races towards me and clears for a few brief minutes, laying Japan out before my eyes with such sudden violence that I gasp. It feels like days since I last saw the sun. It’s time to go home.

At 9pm on Friday night I set out from Shin-Hotaka at the foot of the North Alps. I walk into the night, the way lit by a full moon and a sky full of stars. In my heart, though, I know the weather won’t hold; mares tails chase each other across the sky and the moon wears a bright halo, ice crystals high in the troposphere which hold a portent of rain to come. I climb alone in the dark, across boulder choked rivers and through thick forests, the crash of water cascading through the mountains the only sound.

I reach the Kagami-daira hut around midnight. It’s named for the ponds of still water which dot this part of the mountain and reflect, like a mirror, the surrounding peaks. Barely a breath of wind stirs the water as I look out towards the pyramidal summit of Mt Tsurugi, the lights from its own huts glimmering on its dark shoulder like the pips of warlord. I wait for the camera to pull what few traces of light it can from the scene, and I ring my bear bell nervously. This looks like bear territory. Indeed, part-way up the climb I passed a flat area known as Kuma-no-odoriba: The Bears’ Dancehall. Finally the shutter snaps shut, and I make my way to the hut to bivvy down for a couple of hours sleep.

At 4am the weather is still good. From the top of Mt Yumiori I watch the sunrise until the first drop of rain fall and clouds are race up the mountain face, enclosing everything in damp greyness. From here it’s a long, wet climb up to Mt Suishou and Mt Washiba and they are neither of them joyful. I sit for a few moments in the gloom on each, sucking at the air some two miles above the ocean, and contemplate my next move. I’m not a peak-bagger, I don’t have to be here. Maybe I should call it a day, go home, find a warm bed. But instead I climb down and as night falls I find myself walking towards the foot of Kurobe; I owe it to myself to at least try, and the weather up here is a fickle animal.

Back at Shin-hokata the next day I slump into the hot spring by the river. Lao Tsu said that to see a man’s true character you should see him drunk. I think that to see a man’s true character you should see him at a kon’yoku, a mixed bathing hot-spring. The gentile old man becomes an exhibitionist, arms folded and legs akimbo as he surveys from above. The burly biker with the ponytail daintily covers himself with a washcloth and sits in the water, knees drawn to his chest, eyes on his toes. Young girls wrapped in big bath towels vie with doughy matrons whose modesty is so gone that they high-step out in and out of the bath.

The exhibitionist is toweling off as I climb out. He sniffs his arm exaggeratedly. “We smell good, don’t we?” he says. We didn’t. We smell of sulfur from the spring. But I knew what he meant.

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Fuji love

If Mount Fuji didn’t exist, the Japanese would build it anyway. I’ll leave it at that.

This stratovolcano juts out of the western edge of the Kanto plain, asserting itself as the highest peak in the Japanese archipelago. And for reasons lost in the mists of a climb up Mt Daisen, we have come here to climb and renew our vows on the tenth anniversary of our wedding.

The north side of the mountain is divided into nine stages, one every six or seven hundred feet vertical. The masses disgorge from their cars and buses at the 5th station on the north side, having taken the Fuji Subaru Line highway up to 7500 feet. Few care that they stand at what was the summit of Fuji’s precursor, Mt Komitake, which was active 100,000 years ago. Then 25,000 years ago Mt Kofuji erupted from Komitake’s southern flank, to form a double-cratered mountain. Mt Shinfuji, the present mountain, erupted around 10,000 years ago. It stood on the shoulders of its parents and engulfed the pair. Young Fuji is an ambitious upstart.

We plan to climb from the bottom.The traffic noise closes behind us as we walk through the tall cedars that line the entrance to Asama shrine. The gods appeased, we make our way along the road through the jukai, the sea of trees, which lay thick on Fuji’s lower slopes. The forest looks peaceful and lush; it hides its reputation as the suicide capital of Japan, and the old legends of tortured spirits which await those that set so much as a foot inside it.

The sun is low in the sky as we reach the first stage of the mountain, marked by a shinto tori and guarded by two stone monkeys, who crouch on their plinths with palms pressed piously together and watch us pass with doleful eyes. This is the old route up Fuji, the one which served for generations before the highway was built. The path cuts up through the forest, eroded so deeply by the feet of passing pilgrims over the centuries that it lies a good six feet below the forest floor. The old paving survives in parts, flat stones pressed elegantly together. The sky darkens, and the forest closes in. Presently our world collapses to the beam of our headlamps. If Yuka is nervous, she doesn’t show it. She’s keeping pace; I’ve loaded 15kg into my pack to slow me down, and it seems to be working.

By 9pm we are at the sixth stage, and we see the first signs of other life on the mountain. A steady trickle of headlamps are making their way up from the fifth stage at the end of the highway. Officially it’s closed season on Fuji, but the huts stay open until mid September anyway; the volume of climbers is many times less than high season as a result.

The sky is clear and a soft wind blows from the south-west. The lights of Yoshino and Kawaguchi town flicker far below us now as we take a short break. Shooting stars flit through the blackness, and I can feel Fuji’s mass looming over us in the blackness. On through the night we climb, more climbers pressing onto the trail as they arrive at the fifth station, or turn out of the huts along the mountain where they have been catching some sleep. The trail switches back and forth, and each turn looks like a battlefield. The dying lie motionless at the edge of the track, some doubled over trying to catch their breath in the thinning air. Up, up we climb, and I am racing over the rocks trying to circumvent the traffic jams caused by slow moving groups. Yuka has fallen behind; I stop and wait. She won’t let me carry her pack. “I brought it, I’ll carry it”, she says.

By 3am we are in sight of the summit. Yuka is spent. No amount of energy gel or chocolate covered almond bribery is going to help. It’s between her and the mountain. She hasn’t slept in 22 hours and is beginning to cough with the altitude.

“Does anywhere hurt?”, I ask.

“My soul”, she replies. And yet she puts foot in front of foot, and somehow, as the sky lightens before dawn, she makes the summit of Fuji. I’m very proud.

I wrap her in the sleeping back I’ve carried up, and make her a giant cup of konbu tea. As dawn finally breaks we exchange our vows once again and watch the sun come up through the sea of clouds which lie across the Kanto plain. Ten years has passed so quickly. I look at my wedding photographs and wonder who I was then. But Yuka just gets more beautiful by the day.

A few hours later we start the long descent, an interminably slippery switchback to the fifth stage where we look with envy at those heading back to their cars and buses. Our path still has many miles to go, and once again we are alone on the mountain. We pass the sad, dilapidated huts which once served the traffic from the first to the fifth stage, some little more than a pile of rotting timbers now. Such a contrast to the modern huts above with their solar powered lighting and chemical toilets. Within the space of a few hundred meters we have travelled back several hundred years.

At 1pm, we reach the car, almost 24 hours after setting out. At the nearest hot spring we bathe life back into ourselves and fall into a black sleep before starting the drive back to Tokyo.

“You owe me one, Mister. You’d better write about how well I did, and how much you love me.”

And she’s out the door. On her way to a three day meditation retreat, less than 24 hours after coming off the mountain. Do I need to say more?