A night on the phoenix*

November 24, 2008 | Filed Under Uncategorized 

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


33 Responses to “A night on the phoenix*”

  1. wes on November 24th, 2008 8:08 am

    beautiful! And all this time I was worried you’d gone to Tsurugi! I hope that you revisited that hut owner on the way down, and that he paid you 1500 yen for surviving.

    Glad to see the weather held out as well. The peaks facing the sea of Japan are getting buried with an unseasonably early dumping of powder. Looks like there’s not too much on Mt. Houou yet.

    Thanks for inspiring me to get back into nature (winter hikes currently being planned)

  2. cjw on November 24th, 2008 9:20 am

    Hey Wes,

    I thought long and hard about Tsurugi – this weekend was probably the last chance to get up there solo this season, but the forecast was so variable that in the end I decided to give it a miss. Probably the right thing to have done. There’s not much snow on Houou yet, about 50cm where it’s drifted, and mostly powder. But cooooooooold…

    I hope you’re enjoying your post hyakumeizan rest. Looks like we’re going to have plenty of snow this year!

  3. julian on November 24th, 2008 12:12 pm

    Great to see you’re back with a bang into the winter mountains. HDR or not, those photos are staggering. I camped out last night at a relatively balmy 1600 meters looking across at Houou-zan (at a “Fujimi-daira”). But not one of the phalanx of photographers who arrived by car before dawn will have taken a single photo that matches any of yours.

    BTW, do you not take a tent because of the weight, or because you prefer to be exposed to the elements in a bivvy?

  4. gen on November 24th, 2008 1:52 pm

    Amazing photos. Superb. Thank you for sharing.

    If I were traveling by myself, I’d also go with just a bivvy bag. Maybe one with one pole, but no tent needed.

  5. Tornadoes28 on November 24th, 2008 4:29 pm

    You must have a pretty nice sleeping bag. What rating and brand is it?

  6. Clint on November 24th, 2008 10:20 pm

    Wow, that is an amazing story and some unreal photography. To bivouac in subzero temperatures is hard core in its’ own right, actually taking photographs in that environment is even crazier. Well done!

  7. Red Yeti Dave on November 24th, 2008 10:47 pm

    I caught site of this posting this morning and saved it up all day…

    It certainly didn’t disappoint.

    Cracking photos, beautifully told – and what a night!

  8. cjw on November 25th, 2008 1:08 am

    Julian – it was great to get out finally! Which Fujimi-daira were you camping on? Somewhere on Akadake, or over towards Kinpu? To answer your question, I think it is that sense of being closer to the elements that I like with the bivvy. It was great to lie there for 20 minutes after I woke up the other morning watching the shooting stars. It’s also such a versatile piece of kit – so long as you can find a space to lie down, you have an instant campsite.

    Gen – absolutely. For one or two nights in decent weather, a bivvy is hard to beat.

    Tornadoes28 – I’ve got a Montbell #1 Ultralight Alpine Down Hugger. It’s fine at -10C, good down to -20C, and weighs in at 985g.

    Clint – I had plans to take a bunch of night photos as well, but the wind kept shaking the camera on the long exposures. Plus it was a little too chilly to be sitting around for long :-)

    RedYeti – glad it didn’t disappoint. Had a great weekend up there, enjoyed every minute of it.

  9. C-chan on November 25th, 2008 2:39 am

    I knew who you were talking to when I read the first line of your conversation with the owner of the Hoo hut on your FlickR page; this is so typical!!
    Until a few years ago they had staff positioned on the ridge to make hikers stay at Hoo hut(and not at the “rival” Yakushi hut).
    And this summer, a friend of mine was denied a stay with one meal – it had to be two, or none.

    The trail between Jizo and Kannon can be pretty confusing even during the day, so you did a very good job finding your way up at night!

    But wow, spending a night on the ridge, that must have been so wonderful … and cold, just looking at your picture of Kitadake makes me shiver, brrrr …

  10. cjw on November 25th, 2008 11:10 am

    Ah, I wondered if you might know the guys at that hut, C-chan. I thought your story was great – I can just imagine them hanging out on that ridge trying to steal customers from the Yakushi hut. They seemed pretty katai, but they knew their stuff and were very good-humored about my plans.

    Given the good weather on Sunday, I half wondered if I’d perhaps bump into you on Houou somewhere..

  11. gen on November 25th, 2008 1:22 pm

    Just a thought: not sure what you do for night/long exposures, but an all-manual camera (Nikon FM2 or Pentax K1000 equivalent) can’t be beat with a corded shutter release. No batteries to worry about freezing, etc. You do need to think about exposure times a bit, but at night you can be casual and just use a wristwatch. It does mean scanning film to digital but most Fujifilm places do that alongside the film processing.

  12. C-chan on November 25th, 2008 9:22 pm

    Yes, the oyaji at Hoo-koya is not that bad when you talk to him but the way they do business is kind of greedy … there’s more rumor, for example, that they demolished the Kita-omuro hut when it went out of business but was still standing (to force people to stay at Hoo koya), or that they hardly do any maintenance on the Dondokozawa route because they want people to use the Gozaishi-onsen route as Gozaishi belongs to the same family … and so forth and so forth.

    Unfortunately my daughters (6 and 8 ) won’t let me go on a hike during the weekend, but if you ever visit Hoo or another mountain in this area on a Wednesday or Thursday, I guess you do have a chance of bumping into me.

    I am looking at a beautiful Fuji silhouette right now, the weather today would be perfect for the mountains, aaah, ikitai …

  13. cjw on November 26th, 2008 2:14 am

    Thanks Gen – maybe that’s something I’ll look into. I need to find a lightweight SLR though, it’s hard on the back to carry two 600g camera bodies :-)

    C-chan – ah, politics in the mountains too…

  14. George on November 27th, 2008 11:07 am

    For the past 6 months I’ve been really looking forward to seeing the snow again. I had also forgotten what it meant to be really truly cold, until one early evening a few weeks ago. Then it all came back to me, and the only thing I could focus on was getting back to someplace warm.

    Then I smiled when I read your blog and realized that no matter how much I suffered that evening, it must’ve been even colder when you took that night-photo of the stars. Ay dios mio!! Nice one.

  15. damian on November 27th, 2008 12:09 pm

    Glad you got back out there again. This one certainly didn’t disappoint (they never do, of course).

  16. Martin Rye on November 27th, 2008 9:22 pm

    There should hopefully be a joy in the journey. I reckon views like that brought much joy.

  17. Jason on November 29th, 2008 2:49 am

    Sounds like an epic hike and night on the summit!

    I first saw these photos on your Flickr photostream….epic (HDR?) shots. Thanks for braving the cold to take them! Your efforts show us scenes most of us would never see otherwise.

    Loved your conversation about not paying for staying at the hut/tent/bivvy.

  18. M. on November 29th, 2008 4:31 am

    Read this just now, CJW, and thought of you:


  19. cjw on November 29th, 2008 10:01 am

    George – it was certainly a chilly night, but like you say there’s something special about being that cold. Felt pretty good. Looking forward to seeing your shots from this coming season – another 100+ days perhaps?

    Damian – saw your photos of Hakuba Yari and knew I needed to get back out there…

    Martin – absolutely, well put.

    Jason – glad you liked the shots (yes, a couple are HDR). I’ve found it best to be straight with the hut owners. They can smell weakness… :-)

    M – perfect! This went straight on my Amazon wishlist. Especially after what happened with the last snow cave..

  20. Ichi on November 29th, 2008 2:53 pm

    Wow. What an amazing experience. Your writing is beautiful and I just wanted to say thank you for giving me something so powerful to read when I just woke up.



  21. uktokyoite on November 30th, 2008 2:15 am

    Those are truly beautiful pictures and a great write-up to go with them. Thanks for sharing and brightening my day!

  22. cjw on November 30th, 2008 8:58 am

    Ichi/UKTokyoite – thanks for coming by, it’s always a pleasure to share this stuff. More trips and photos coming up in December hopefully!

  23. butuki on November 30th, 2008 11:59 pm

    That was a great story to read and since I’ve walked the trail several times, too, I was able to visualize just where you were, just not at -15 degrees!

    Your recent HDR photos have been really inspiring and I’m thinking of getting the software, too. (something new to get my new MacBook Pro!) Just worried about getting carried away and rendering the photos “unreal”, though that is part of the attraction, too.

    I’m curious about which bivvy you use. One of the hooped ones, like the Big Agnes Three Wire or Bibler Lightsabre? Or one of the traditional, nose-covering ones?

    These days, with the weight of the one-man tents getting so low (I just bought a Terra Nova Laser Competition, but there are others like the new TarpTent Scarp 1 __four season__, the TarpTent Sublite, and the Bibler One Shot) that using a bivvy seems counterproductive. Though, after reading Ronald Turnbull’s “The Book of the Bivvy” I keep wondering what I am missing! There really is nothing like being out there under the stars!

    I’m not confident in winter mountain conditions. Might you be able to recommend a place I can learn how to use crampons and an ice axe? I’ve climbed Yatsugatake in winter with snowshoes so I have some experience, but still wouldn’t go up high alone.

    Would love to climb with you some time! (starting out easier though!)

  24. cjw on December 1st, 2008 1:31 am

    Hey Butuki, good to hear from you. I share your worry about over-using HDR – it’s an interesting tool, but there is definitely the temptation to use it as a crutch. I can feel myself getting lazier, which is not good.

    I’ve got an Integral Designs Salathe bivvy. It’s nose-covering, but does have a small wire hoop, more like a stiffened hood. At 860g it’s down there with the lightest of the lightweight tents. More than the weight, though, I like the versitility. If you can find a space to lie down (or even sit) then you can make camp. Top of the mountain? Done. Snowhole? Done. Carpark bench? Done. No pegs, no poles, no guyropes. I wouldn’t want to spend a week in it, but for a quick one or two nights in decent weather it is hard to beat.

    For yuki-yama training I’d recommend talking to Oomori-san at Office Alpine – he’s affiliated with ICI Sports and I’ve been ice climbing with him a couple of times. I know he runs some beginners yuki-yama courses around Yatsugatake. There are usually leaflets at the ICI Sports stores, or you can email him on office.alpine “at” piano.ocn.ne.jp. Nice guy, very competant. Or there’s a couple of places in Hakuba, I think Kevin would have contact information.

    We should definitely get out together some time. I still have my eye on Naeba early next spring. We didn’t manage it last year, but later on in the season when the snow compacts a bit then it might be fun!

  25. Kyushu Livin' on December 2nd, 2008 8:46 am

    Hey readers,

    I have been following the site for the past couple weeks. Great writing. I wonder if you guys could recommend any hikes around the bottom part of Honshu. I have some free time after New Years and was looking for a nice 1-day hike. I’m not too advanced and don’t have all the gear for more serious hiking. Thanks in advance, and if there is already a list some where feel free to point me to it. I was looking for a personal recommendation though. Cheers.

  26. cjw on December 3rd, 2008 12:11 am

    Hi Kyushu Livin’ – I’m not sure how far up Honshu you want to come, but the two areas that spring to mind are the Sandan-kyo or Miyajima, both near Hiroshima, both beautiful and easy enough to hike in winter..

  27. billywest on December 4th, 2008 4:31 pm

    Very inspiring post. One of those posts that makes think ‘What the hell am I doing with myself?’

  28. cjw on December 5th, 2008 12:05 pm

    Billy, I usually think that same thing about half way up the mountain..

  29. butuki on January 13th, 2009 2:45 pm

    Hi CJW, I recently bought Photomatix and have used it a few times while developing my recent Yatsugatake photos, but I’m curious how you use it. I took three pictures, by hand, at three different exposure settings, but since each picture wasn’t exactly positioned the same as the others, when I tonemapped them many were quite blurry. Do you use a tripod for all your pictures? Or do you use one image and set the different exposures in Photomatix?

  30. cjw on January 13th, 2009 11:27 pm

    Hi Butuki – Photomatix does have some tolerance for mis-aligned photos (there is an option to “align”), and I’ve got some acceptable results with hand-held shots. But the best results are definitely done with a tripod – the over-exposed shot especially needs to be as sharp as possible.
    Keep the ISO as low as you can (preferably at 100), and if your lens has vibration reduction then you are best to switch that off – otherwise it tends to make small adjustments that throw out the final alignment(and of course with a tripod you don’t need VR switched on anyway).
    I usually take 3 exposures, set 2 stops away. Sometimes though, it just doesn’t work out and you have to move on..

    There’s a good tutorial and much eye-candy here: http://www.stuckincustoms.com/hdr-tutorial/

  31. Peter Miller on October 1st, 2011 2:38 pm

    Just returned from Houou Sanzan under far more benign conditions that yours — clear autumn weather for all of two days. Your photos and writing are both superb. How did the phoenix come to be associated with these three peaks, and what is the significance of that association for the Japanese? (If you have any idea.)

  32. CJW on October 6th, 2011 4:34 am

    Hi Peter – thank you for you kind words, I’m glad you had a good trip to the Hou-ou Sanzan!

    As for the “phoenix” appellation, it’s a Buddhist icon and I believe an extension of the spiritual significance of the three peaks (Jizo, Kannon and Yakushi). Also from a certain angle, the shape of the range is vaguely reminiscent of a giant bird with neck and wings outstretched (somewhat akin to the the beautiful Fujiwara period Hou-ou-dou at Byoudou-in in Uji, South Kyoto, which appears on the back of the Y10 coin).

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