A night on the phoenix*

My watch swings from a stunted tree on the summit of Jizo-ga-dake. It tells me two things. First, it’s been five hours since my conversation with the owner of the Houou-zan mountain hut. Second, the temperature outside is minus fourteen and falling.

At the hut some 1000 feet below the peak, the owner flashed his yellowing incisors at me, the only two teeth in his head.
“It’s Y6000 to stay, or Y3000 without food.”
“I’m not staying.”
“Then it’s Y500 to pitch your tent.”
“No tent. I’m bivvying.”
“Same as a tent, Y500.”
“Not here, I’m bivvying at the summit.”

His crabapple face creased and narrowed.
“You’re not s’posed to bivvy unless you get into trouble…..”
“I’d better go get into trouble then.”
Kanshin da na.” Gotta admire that.

He bets that I’ll be back by 8pm. And that he’ll charge me Y1500 if I do.

Minus fifteen. My stove is playing up and my water bottle is turning to ice. The wind is too strong for a fire; if I take my gloves off for more than a minute my hands go numb. I’d say this counts as trouble.

I throw the bivvy down and crawl inside. A heat patch slapped underneath my heart and one on each femoral artery sends warm blood coursing through me. A billion stars play overhead. For a few minutes the blur of Andromeda sits on Mt. Jizo-ga-dake’s spire, chained and awaiting her fate as she did in legend while Cassiopeia preens above her. I drift into a sleep as dreamless and black as the sky above, alone on this ancient seabed thrown two miles into the sky.

I wake at 3a.m. when the gale finds the airvent in the bivvy and blows in a faceful of spindrift. I’d seen the sun go down over Mt. Jizodake; determined to see it rise from the summit of Mt. Kannon-ga-dake I set out into the night. The snow is soft and glistens in the light of the headlamp as the wind kicks it into icy clouds. On the saddle between the two peaks it is all I can do to keep from being blown into the blackness on each side. I somehow pick out a trail before losing it again, and resort to a more straight-line approach through the snow and the rocks. Kannon-ga-dake shines ahead of me as the moon wheels overhead like the grin of the Cheshire cat.

There’s the merest suggestion of a thin red line on the horizon as a I reach the summit. Mt. Fuji still slumbers, alone, and to the right the snow capped peaks of the Southern Alps stretch away into the night. Far in the valley below I can see a single headlamp tracking through the trees, a climber probably making his way up the Nakamichi ridge from Aoki-kosen. I have the peak to myself this winter morning. The stove lights, first time, and capriciously melts enough ice for a coffee.

The sun rises, lighting the three summits of the Houou-sanzan;Jizo, Kannon and Yakushi. Jizo the bodhisattva of travellers, children, and souls lost in the underworld, Kannon the bodhisattva of mercy, Yakushi the Buddha of healing. And once again I’m reminded that we travel, small and lost like children, through hell and towards compassion, finally to be healed in the heat of the new dawn.


* Houou-sanzan: Literally, the three peaks of the phoenix

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