Valiant efforts were made

September 23, 2008 | Filed Under Uncategorized 

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.


16 Responses to “Valiant efforts were made”

  1. C-chan on September 23rd, 2008 5:38 am

    OK, so there was no need to ask about the weather in blog!!

    Poor you … and lucky you, you survived Bakaone and the thunderstorms, that’s something!

    Kitadake-sanso had warnings about this trail in the weekly report at Yama to Keikoku’s website but they ceased a few weeks ago so I thought it was in better shape.

    I stayed in the Senjo hut a few years ago with my father and I remember the manager there, guess it’s still the same one from what you write!
    Before doing Senjo he spent seven years (I think) in the hut on Kurotoone to Kaikoma.

    I’m just preparing for a day hike to Kitadake tomorrow … hopefully in better weather.

  2. wes on September 23rd, 2008 6:59 am

    you’ve definitely been on the receiving end of foul weather this summer, haven’t you? I, too, was planning on hitting the southern Alps this past weekend but wisely postponed my trip.

    At least you didn’t get snow!

  3. julian on September 23rd, 2008 10:42 am

    You’ve got guts (or something else!) to attempt that long, long route in foul weather. I wonder why C-chan calls it Baka-0hne? A few years ago, a friend had the same experience of trying to escape the lightning on that exposed ridge to Senjo by scrambling off the ridge.

    I imagine you did not meet many other hikers along the way.

  4. C-chan on September 23rd, 2008 11:10 am

    Hi Julian,

    actually, “baka-one” is not really my invention, but I heard from more than one person around here (I’m living in the area) that it’s called like that because the trail on that ridge is so hard to walk and so long that only idiots do it.
    It’s also famous for bears.


    PS: Oh, and by the way I didn’t walk that ridge yet but I wouldn’t mind trying it if I had enough time (and good weather, of course)!

  5. julian on September 23rd, 2008 11:46 am

    Hi C-chan

    From your blog, it looks like you’ve been busy enjoying some intensive hiking in the fine weather!

    I didn’t know the ridge is also known for many bears. But even in Okutama, there was a nasty bear incident very recently involving a famous Japanese mountaineer:

  6. Captain Interesting on September 23rd, 2008 3:58 pm

    Hmm, maybe there’s something about the Southern Alps – after nearly being washed off Kita-dake in a typhoon – and then having all the gear frozen solid in the ensuing clear night – I explained to my Japanese companions about the concept of a “character-forming” trip. Sounds like you just had one too. Great write-up, very vivid, and I particularly like the photo of the wood…

  7. Captain Interesting on September 23rd, 2008 5:38 pm

    Julian: just read the Yahoo news item about the bear attack on the famous mountaineer Yamanoi-san: thanks for pointing it out.

    My attention was arrested by two things – how close the bears were to Yamanoi’s residence. (Next thing we know, our ursine cousins will be riding the Yamanote line.) Secondly, just how many fingers and toes Mr and Mrs Yamanoi have lost during their high-altitude adventures. That reminds me, I need to go out and get a better pair of gloves….

  8. cjw on September 23rd, 2008 11:23 pm

    C-Chan: your warning was greatly appreciated, at least we knew what we were heading into that day! The manager at the Senjo hut was great, he really made everyone (even Giants supporters) feel very welcome.

    Wes: a wise decision to stay away. My companion was flying in from Hong Kong for the trip, so we were tied to that weekend and decided to take a bet on good weather following the typhoon (which seems to have happened, but 3 days late). Still, as Mark Twight said, “It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun”..

    Julian: the lack of other people up there was one redeeming feature. We met just one person on the ridge (just below O-senjo) – he must have set out from the hut around 2pm, and was planning to bivy if he didn’t make it to Ryomata. I hope he made the hut, as it was an awful night.

    Captain: funnily enough, I used exactly the same phrase during the trip. To which my companion replied “There’s a fine line between character building and soul destroying”…

    We got chatting to the taxi drivers at Hirogawara about bears. Despite last year’s cull, their number does not seem to have diminished – the general consensus was that they were breeding faster than ever and with greater survival rates for their young (bears, not taxi drivers). But this seems to be putting pressure on food sources and pushing both bears and deer further up the mountains, and I imagine also closer to residential areas. We sighted a deer just below the summit of Kitadake, which solved the puzzle of why there were chewed pine cones all over the mountain.

    Having read of Yamanoi-san’s exploits on Gyachung Kang (, I sense the bears might have picked the wrong person to mess with.

  9. Kirt Cathey on September 23rd, 2008 11:23 pm

    You re-confirmed my decision to cancel hiking into the mountains this weekend. Thanks again for the great write-up.

  10. cjw on September 24th, 2008 2:03 am

    Good call, Kirt! The galling thing was that we knew Tuesday would see better weather, and today better still… Let’s hope this weekend holds good!

  11. Tom on September 24th, 2008 10:07 am

    Wow, a valiant effort indeed!
    At least it provided me with a fantastic read, as always. Thanks for the return link, hope you get better weather this weekend!

  12. cjw on September 25th, 2008 4:44 am

    Thanks Tom – at least the weather can’t get worse. Or can it?

  13. butuki on September 27th, 2008 5:06 pm

    Two days in awful weather in bivies… sounds utterly delightful!
    But then Brits love having tea and crumpets picnics in crummy weather…

    Just glad you made it back in one piece.

  14. cjw on September 29th, 2008 10:14 am

    Hey Butuki – the weather was too horrible on the second night to even contemplate a bivy. And after the bourbon, you’re thinking “it’s only Y2000 for sudomari”….

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