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.

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