December 14, 2008 | Filed Under Uncategorized 

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.


26 Responses to “Rematch”

  1. Captain Interesting on December 14th, 2008 12:40 pm

    Congratulations on the rematch: some wise comments on the art of turning back in there too….

  2. wes on December 14th, 2008 1:06 pm

    Beautiful…..and breathtaking. Congrats on getting revenge and on beating the weather.

  3. Martin Rye on December 14th, 2008 2:11 pm


  4. Our Man in Abiko on December 14th, 2008 4:14 pm

    Can’t think of a better word than Martin, so will say again: “Stunning”. Hope you don’t mind, I’ll link again to these pics. I have no head for heights, but love the wilderness. Maybe “envious” is more apt than “stunning” for me.

  5. cjw on December 15th, 2008 5:30 am

    Captain – your words about obeying the turnback time from your climb on Rishiri were still fresh in my mind. As I wrote, I was damn glad I made the decision. It would have been a far rougher night had I pressed on that previous weekend…

    Wes – felt good to get back up there. If you’re looking for a snowy climb, then Utsugi is a good one. I’d wait until you get a good few days of sun on that snow to pack it down (and if you get really lucky, some kind soul might plough you a path up there in the interim..) and you can easily hoof it up there in a day to the Komamine Hutte.

    Martin – it was. Hopefully the photos conveyed a little of what it was like up there.

    Our Man – by all means, link away!

  6. holdfast on December 15th, 2008 7:03 am

    Great story and jaw-dropping photos. This post alone has piqued my own and my girlfriend’s interest in visiting Japan next year.

  7. Gen Kanai on December 15th, 2008 8:07 am

    I’d love (and would pay for) a signed copy of this print at the largest resolution that the original could support:

    I was forced to turn back on the largest summit I ever attempted (Cerro San Lorenzo, Campo del Hielo Sur, Patagonia) and it was the right decision as we were out of gas to melt snow and quickly dehydrating. I don’t regret that decision.

  8. George on December 15th, 2008 9:47 am

    The rider in me looks at the photos and daydreams over the lines down the mountain-side.

    The climber in me wants to strap on some crampons and motor straight up.

    The photographer in me.. is just plain jealous!

    Great one!

  9. John H on December 15th, 2008 5:50 pm

    Beautiful, keep up the good work,

  10. Tornadoes28 on December 15th, 2008 6:16 pm

    Awesome pictures. Pretty amazing to be up in a place that seems so remote and yet when you look down in the valley, the city lights seem so close.

  11. Martin Rye on December 15th, 2008 10:30 pm

    It did and more. Your writing also.

  12. cjw on December 16th, 2008 1:27 am

    Holdfast – thank you, that’s quite a compliment. If this blog serves any purpose, then I hope it serves to show and encourage people to seek out the higher places in Japan. If you’re interested then feel free to get in touch, and I’d recommend the blogs in the blogroll below. You might also want to check out, run by Kevin in Nagano – he runs some great tours.

    Gen – hmm, maybe that’s something I should start to investigate. In the meantime, I give you the large version gratis, I hope it doesn’t disappoint:
    Cerro San Lorenzo looks incredible. I’d love to make it down to Patagonia some day.

    Rider George – I thought of you when I was looking down those snow-filled gullies, especially the east side of Akanagi..
    Climber George – I’d thoroughly recommend a climb up Utsugi, she didn’t disappoint.
    Photographer George – now you know how I feel when I look at your shots :-)

    John H – thanks. Hopefully many more posts to come.

    Tornadoes – yes, it’s quite a strange feeling to know that you’re all alone in the cold and the snow, and yet some 7000 feet below people are going about their lives. It’s rather melancholic.

    Martin – thank you, that’s what I’m aiming for.

  13. taintus on December 16th, 2008 5:23 am

    Ah, you were in my neck of the woods. Perhaps you saw me down below Ontake-san? Perhaps not.

    Anyway, amazing climb, nice photos.

    And, please, give Nina another chance. . .”I’m just a soul whose intentions are good, oh lord please don’t let me be misunderstood”.

  14. KamoshikaBob on December 16th, 2008 7:45 am

    Congrats on making it to the top one week later. If it was me, I probably would have given up and climbed somewhere else.

    I am curious where the top photo is taken from and looking toward.

    Too bad the Komamine Hutte wasn’t open more than the genkan. My recollection is that it’s a nice place to stay.

  15. cjw on December 16th, 2008 9:47 am

    Hi Taintus – actually you crossed my mind as I looked out to Ontake, and I remembered your post about that climb you did up there a few weeks ago. You’ll be glad to hear Nina redeemed herself on the trip back as I mashed the accelerator into a surprisingly empty Chuo Expressway.

    “And I wish you could know
    What it means to be me
    Then you’d see and agree
    Every man should be free”

    Hey KamoshikaBob – I’ve got a bad habit of not letting go when I get my teeth into something. “Single-minded”, my mother calls it. “Simple-minded”, my wife calls it…
    The top photo was taken looking down towards Akanagi from the summit of Utsugi to the southwest. The Hutte does look like a nice place to stay, but I was very glad that they at least leave the genkan open. I was also rather taken with the outside toilet (which was unfortunately full of snow), perched between the rocks. That’s one heck of a view from there..

  16. Peter Skov on December 16th, 2008 9:53 am

    As I have said about your adventures and photographs many times, I am envious and in addition, envious almost to the point of jealousy. I did the ridge from Houken to Utsugi in October and the weather was great for hiking and climbing but too good for photography. It was such a calm night that I slept in only my sleeping bag on the top of Higashikawa Dake. I also visited the top of the Senjoujiki Cirque, south side of Houken, last December and it was cold but absolutely marvelous. Still I am envious.

    Your digital photos have a peculiar quality to them. It’s almost like frost dusting on a painting but with all the colours at full vibrancy. It looks different from film but suits your subject matter.

    I also enjoyed your writing. It’s a notch or two above mine when I am at my most creative so it’s as inspiring as your adventures and photography.

  17. Jason on December 17th, 2008 5:16 am

    The snow patters shot is great, I favorited it on Flickr.

    I like how you described being all alone on the summit, and perhaps the only person for hundreds of square kilometers….that is indeed a rare thing in Japan.

    Funny how you described only a mad man would take one of the ridges!

    I had an experience a few years ago of having to turn back. Me and a friend visiting from Florida, a very inexperienced hiker, went up the Fujinomiya trail of Mt. Fuji (south side). The wind was blowing like crazy the whole way up. Once we got to the summit we wanted to walk around the crater to the east side to see the sunrise. Fog had rolled in and the wind made it hard to even walk fully upright. As we proceeded, a sudden sensation came over me that if I took another step forward, we wouldn’t be able to find our way back and that going forward more would be the end for us.

    So I didn’t even plant the foot I had raised, but instead led us back to the closed hut where we huddled under my backpack’s raincover until the first light.

    In the morning it was clearer but still impassible, couldn’t walk upright it was so windy.

    Sometimes you’ve just got to go back.

  18. cjw on December 17th, 2008 7:18 am

    Peter – sleeping out on the tops of mountains, you’re a man after my own heart. I think it might be the HDR processing that gives the photos the effect you mention. You shoot film like a master so you don’t need to resort to the tricks that digital mortals like me have to employ.. But if you do decide to get a DSLR at some point then HDR might be something you want to look at. I’m glad you like the writing – I think it’s a strange hybrid of Bruce Chatwin and Mark Twight, with maybe a smattering of Edward Abbey and Colin Fletcher..

    Jason – thanks for the comment on Flickr. The sunlight on the snow and ice was throwing up incredible contrasts around midday, especially on the soft roll of the cirque near the top of the mountain.
    I know that sensation you had on Fuji. Sometimes you just know viscerally that you shouldn’t take another step. It’s a sensation you ignore at your great peril.
    I saw a great sign the other day at the foot of the Houou-sanzan. It said “Do you have enough courage to turn back?”. That pretty much sums it up.

  19. damian on December 17th, 2008 11:23 am

    Those great conditions were worth the return trip and also well worth reading. Thanks for making the effort on both counts. I felt motivated.

  20. David Wood on December 18th, 2008 12:07 am

    I wish I could come up with another comment, after the many I’ve left, that was even a shadow of the originality of the post or that was merely a ghost of the inspiration provided by the images.

    But I can’t. So this will have to suffice.

  21. cjw on December 18th, 2008 3:37 am

    Damian – those trips you’ve been doing to the Hakuba backcountry have been motivating me to get out, so it’s only fair I return the favour!

    David – you’re always so generous with your comments, thank you.

  22. billywest on December 22nd, 2008 4:04 am

    Yes, it would be strange if, due to some unfortunate circumstance (or set of them), a climber found him/herself fading into the next world while looking down on the city lights below knowing that thousands of people are so close by.

    It would be made even more bizarre if “Firestarter” were blaring into that climber’s ears in those final moments.

  23. Vikingslav on December 23rd, 2008 1:53 am

    Truly awesome. Tremendous on all fronts, the climb, the writing, the photos…
    A rare achievement and a gold star from this reader….

  24. cjw on December 24th, 2008 12:13 pm

    BillyWest – certainly would be a strange feeling. I’m not sure if it would be comforting or something else. I don’t intend to find out. Although as requiems go, I think “Firestarter”would be a pretty good one :-)

    Vikingslav – your kind comment is much appreciated. I’ll try to keep up the standard!

  25. butuki on December 26th, 2008 12:10 pm

    Chris, what a wonderful piece, both the writing and the photos. I love the way you talk about the mountains through your emotional reactions rather than the practicalities of schedule and gear that so many other people tend to fall into. And you have a superb eye for the places you pass through. I came away from reading this with hoarfrost on my beard and my fingers chilled from the wind.

  26. cjw on January 1st, 2009 2:27 pm

    Hi Butuki (& Happy New Year!) – that’s high praise indeed, as I’m constantly in awe of the prose and shots that you consistently produce. There are so many great bloggers who do a much better job than me on routes and gear, so I just try to fill the niche I can..

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