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.