Into the mist

September 15, 2008 | Filed Under Uncategorized 

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.


16 Responses to “Into the mist”

  1. wes on September 15th, 2008 9:32 am

    Wonderful photos as usual. How long was the shutter open for that kagami-daira photo? I assume you had a tripod?

    It’s a shame you had to come out of the mountains so early. This morning the weather was phenomenal, and I could see all the peaks you climbed plus Mt. Fuji, all from the top of Tsurugi.

    I had a similar experience on Kurobe. The cloud was thick, and I was resting on the summit when all of a sudden the clouds lifted for a brief second, revealing an unbelievable sea of mountains. Then, the mist returned and the rain poured down. An omen, perhaps?

  2. George on September 15th, 2008 11:42 am

    Great photos as usual. My wife and I did a slightly different course a few years ago. Shin-Hodaka, Sugoroku, Yarigatake, Minami-Dake, then Minami-Dake Shindo down to the Yaridaira valley and back to Shin-Hodaka. Beautiful views all around.

    The Sugoroku/Mitsumata-Renge area is a yama-skiing mecca during the spring, with rolling terrain and great slopes everywhere. Really want to visit it next spring.

    The past week we were able to time it right and hiked around Hakuba Mon-Wed. First time in the mtns there, and we explored Shirouma, Shakushi-dake and Hakuba-Yarigatake. I thought our tent was going to blow off the mtn Mon night, but otherwise it was a great trip.

  3. cjw on September 15th, 2008 12:09 pm

    Hey Wes – I think the Kagami-Daira shutter was around 3-5 minutes (the star trails look about right for that length of time). I got a 500g full size tripod in Bikku Camera for Y800, so light on the wallet and light(ish) on the back!

    I really wanted to stay on and go up Kasagadake this morning, but then Lehman decided to file for bankruptcy. That’s a whole other mountain I’ve got to climb tomorrow…

    Was Tsurugi your final hyakumeizan?

  4. wes on September 15th, 2008 1:10 pm

    Tsurugi was #98. I’ve still got Tekari and Hijiri ahead of me.

    You can try Kasa some other time (although the approach from Sugoroku is a lot easier than the one from Shin-Hotaka!)

  5. cjw on September 15th, 2008 1:41 pm

    Hi George – that whole Kamikochi/Shin-hotaka area is just great, isn’t it? I’m thinking of checking it out again when there’s some snow up there, so I’d be interested to hear how it goes with your skiing up there.

    Wes – congratulations on Tsurugi! Just 2 more to go, wow..!

  6. Martin Rye on September 15th, 2008 5:04 pm

    In the world of credit crunches and money problems, you have such special mountains to go visit and leave all that behind for a while. Again the photo’s are a thing of beauty.

    I have added a link to you on my site and thanks for the link from yours.

  7. julian on September 16th, 2008 6:51 am

    Such a pleasure as always to see your photographs, taken on the same day, almost the same mountains, but in a totally different class from my own!

    Going up from Shin-Hotaka, did the river crossings involve wading through the river? Going up to Washiba/Suisho, are there any major chains/ladders (as on Yari) that might force me to carry the dog? I hope to do the exact same route soon.

    Did you bivvy under the eaves of the hut, and if so, do the hut staff mind?


  8. cjw on September 16th, 2008 9:33 am

    Hi Julian – thanks as always. I wasn’t too pleased with the shots I got, the light was all over the place, not to mention getting rain in my lens…. frustrating days!

    From Shin-hotaka the river crossings are easy, no wading involved. Washiba won’t be a problem either. On Suisho, though, there are a couple of short ladders, but nothing approaching Tsurugi or Yari. You could probably lift Hana right over them.

    I got to the Kagami-daira hut around 1am so there was no-one around to complain when I bivved for a couple of hours on the veranda :-) There’s also a big viewing deck by the main pond, out of sight of the hut – now it says “no tents”, but if you got there late and left early enough…

  9. julian on September 16th, 2008 11:42 am

    Thanks for the advice, Chris. Ladders are no problem with one hand, it’s really only steep chains with no footholds that can be tricky with just one arm on the chain, the other around the dog!

    The tip about the verandah out of sight is perfect, as I am planning to set off at 9 pm and may kip for a couple of hours around midnight.

  10. Captain Interesting on September 17th, 2008 6:26 pm

    Great story with striking photos – was particularly interested by the time exposure of star trails in Kagami-daira. Mt Kurobe? That will be Kurobe-goro, I presume, the one with the horseshoe-shaped corrie. A beautiful and remote area. What a shame the credit crisis cut short your trip…

  11. cjw on September 18th, 2008 9:30 am

    Thanks Captain! Kagami-daira was just beautiful, quite stunning that night. I still haven’t figured out how to take good star-trail photos though.

    Kurobe-goro, yes – I was interested to read Fukada Kyuya’s explaination of the derivation of the name. I’d assumed it was named for some hoary climbing legend of a man… It was wonderfully deserted at the weekend, a combination of the distance and the rain the previous day seemed to keep most people away. I can see myself spending a lot more time up that way (the meltdown of the global financial system notwithstanding..).

  12. butuki on September 27th, 2008 5:12 pm

    What amazing shots, CJW! Really atmospheric and powerful. What was eerie about the for me is that almost every shot was taken from almost the same vantage point as the photos I took of my ow trip there two years ago. Like a time warp.

    Kurobe Goro is one of my favorite areas to walk in Japan, simply stunning.

  13. cjw on September 29th, 2008 10:17 am

    Wow, Butuki, I just looked up your photos from round there – you’re right, quite uncannily similar, even down to the star-trails over the mountain!

    Kurobe Goro is great, isn’t it? I’d love to spend some more time there (maybe in better weather!).

  14. David Wood on October 9th, 2008 10:51 pm

    I can’t leave the same comment on every entry – so I’ll limit myself to the odd one here and there: Gorgeous photos and evocative text Chris.

    I really should be in bed now (long drive to the Lakes from Brighton, after another day spent patiently shepherding the Offshore team) but can’t help reading…

  15. cjw on October 14th, 2008 9:07 am

    Thanks David, appreciate the kind words (as ever), and apologies for keeping you from some kip!

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