I love her dearly, but Nina Simone is a terrible climbing partner. I sat in the car trying to find the energy and motivation to go another ten rounds with Mt Utsugi, and Nina wasn’t helping. She was in the throws of despair, and I had enough to carry without her troubles weighing me down too. I needed climbing music, and as the sun crawled above the southern Japan Alps, I spun the iPod and found it.
The Prodigy may not be mountain climbers, but who else is going to start that fire?
What almost kills a man in poor weather can lift his heart when the sun shines. Under bluebird skies I seek out the trail I’d carved last weekend. It’s still there, two painful tracks through the snow. Tentatively I kick at it and my soul soars as the crampons hit hard, consolidated snowpack. The sun pulls higher, and before long the sky is so blue it seems to ooze. I’m soon down to my baselayers, and there’s the familiar feel of strong mountain sun on my skin and the sting of cold air in my nose.
The six thousand vertical feet between me and the summit are getting chewed away rapidly. I’ve made an early start, and my mind is starting to entertain thoughts of making a run not just for Mt Utsugi, but also along the ridge and over to Mt Kiso the following day. Anything seems possible today. There’s a reason they call it blue-sky thinking. I can see the emergency hut perched in the middle of the ridge, so close I could touch it. If I can be there by sundown, then Kiso is stone’s throw away…
My nemesis, the knuckle that leads from the approach ridge to Utsugi ridge proper, is intact and waiting. I’d thrown myself at her last weekend, blinded by the snow and chest deep in drifts. Now she looked so small, a short climb across nicely compacted snow, In five minutes I climbed what I had failed to do in an hour only seven days prior. Looking out from the top of that rise, though, I realised why she had turned me back. The Komamine Hutte was still 2km away. Even the emergency hut, nestled in the valley, was a good kilometer off and through deep snow and bad visibility I wonder if I would have found it. I thought that by turning back I’d failed at the final hurdle. In hindsight I realised that turning back was the mark of success that day.
Almost too quickly I reach the Hutte. The snowpack had been baked by the sun and stripped of its powder by the wind, and is like walking on plasterboard. I look behind me for the familiar two tracks through the snow, but all I can see is a dotted line of crampon 12-point holes leading into the distance like the tracks of some strange centipede. The Hutte, sitting squarely below the peak, goes unmanned in winter and is locked up apart from the two meter square dirt floor that is the entranceway in the high months. I squeeze through the catflap-like winter opening in the door and melt some snow for coffee before taking a look at the peak, and the ridge that lies beyond and over to Mt Kiso.
In Japan it’s rare to be on your own. Truly on your own. But as I sat on that cold peak, surveying the land below, I knew that I was. No-one had followed me up, and I doubted anyone would. The ridge from Mt Kiso was, sadly, impassable; anyone attempting it would have been blown straight into the valley below. And only a madman would have come along the Akanagi Ridge. So, I here I am, properly alone, the proud temporary inhabitant of several hundred, if not a thousand, of some of the worlds most beautiful square kilometers.
With Mt Kiso out of the question and time to kill, I head back down to the Hutte and start the chore of melting snow for drinking water. The building creaks and groans in the wind, but I find that with the catflap propped open a stream of warm sun spills across the dirt floor. A couple of hours later I walk up again to the summit to catch the final rays of the dying sun. Mt Ontake, Japan’s second highest volcano, slumbers to my right. To my left, the sky is thick with cloud rumbling off the Pacific and pregnant with snow. I realise again that another close call has been avoided; being strung out on the ridge to Mt Kiso when the storm hit would not be pleasant. As it is I’m still wary of what the dawn will bring.
I turn my back on the peak and watch the glow of the sun on the Minami Alps and the Yatsugatake ranges. Suddenly there’s a glimmer on the horizon, and within seconds an eye as red as the devil has pulled its way over the hills. It quickly fades from blood-red to gold, and a huge full moon leaps into the sky. Forgetting the icy wind I stand transfixed as it floods the mountains with its pale light. I turn off the headlamp and in its glare can easily walk back down the ice to the hut below. Those clouds fresh in my mind, I dig a pit in the snow in front of the catflap; it’s going to be a heavy night.
Next morning it’s a balmy minus nine degrees in the Hutte. Poking my head out into the pre-dawn I can make out heavy swirls of snow and almost 30cm of fresh. Mt Utsugi’s parting present. I pack and make my way out into the storm, gingerly tracing the ridge back down to the treeline. My tracks, so carefully built, have come to nothing again.
Mt Utsugi is passionate and melancholic, a bipolar, volatile mountain who loves and hates with equal abandon. She is, without doubt I think, a hardcore Nina Simone fan.