The long dream

January 1, 2009 | Filed Under Uncategorized 

Am I dead? Did I die in the night? Somewhere in the storm did the wind rip my little tent from its moorings, casting us down into the icy maw of the mountain? Everything is white. The blizzard shines in the pre-dawn light and the flickering beam of the headlamp. I can’t remember why I’m here any more. How long have I been climbing? A minute? A week? A hundred years? There doesn’t seem a time when I was not on this mountain. Right foot, left foot, kick, axe, rock, ice.

The day before, I’d pitched the tent in perfect weather at just under 9000 feet and watched the sun set fire to the snow covered mountains. The storm hit at midnight, unforecast. Is it local, one of the short-lived brutes that cruise the Chuo-Alps looking for climbers to beat up, or has the low pressure front rushed in from the mainland two days ahead of schedule? I leave the tent and make a run for the peak.

How long will it last? The snow is heavier now. Several centimeters an hour.

This is stupid.

I should go down.

But Mt Kisokoma’s summit is only 1000 feet higher, an hour if I really push hard. Left foot, right foot..

I traverse below the peak of Mt Kisokoma-Mae, across the gullies which streak its face. The snowpack settles with a “whump” and a refridgerator sized block cracks neatly off below my snowshow and casually disappears down the mountain.

Screw the summit.

The village of Agematsu huddles in the valley at Mt Kisokoma’s foot, and at the ryokan inn a small girl with pigtails answers the door. Keiko is four years old, hates eggplant and mushrooms, and thinks I look like Brad Pitt. She tells me all this in one breathless stream of consciousness. I think we’re going to get on well. I’ve decided to cool my heels in the village and curse the blue sky that the storm surrendered so easily to. Her mother let’s me in, and as I untie my boots I ask Keiko what she wants to be when she grows up.

“A fish!”

In the room I lie down on the warm futon and run my fingers over the aging tatami. I’d gone from Agematsu station at 1900 feet on Friday night to the 9th stage of the A-route on Mt Kisokoma at 9400 feet, and back, breaking trail through fresh snow all the way. I start to hallucinate: I’m back in the storm, then suddenly I’m on my sofa at home, and then I’m tumbling down a snow-covered mountain, and then…

“Brad Pitt, can you play Othello?”, the thin sliding doors of the room shake as a tiny fist pounds on them.

Keiko sets the board down on the low, heavy table and kneels neatly on the other side. “I’ve lost some of the pieces, we might not have enough”. It doesn’t matter; she beats me five games to nil, long before the pieces run out. I thought you said you weren’t very good at Othello, I say.

“I was lying” she replies.

Beaten by a mountain, now beaten by a little girl.

You can’t cheat the gods by sneaking up the tourist route.

Yuka waits on the platform at Okaya station, hiking boots and rucksack, in a camo-patterned hippie skirt which swishes down to her ankles. She wanted something large scale at the year-end, raw high mountains, so I book a room at the Senjojiki Hotel which sits in the cirque below Mt Kisokoma on the opposite side to Agematsu at 8570 feet. Under liquid azure skies we soar up in the gondola.

At the top, I look at her and don’t need to say a word. “Yes, off you go. I’ll wait”, she says.

But they’d heard me coming, the gods of this mountain. Maybe the click as I stepped into the crampons or the staccato crash of the camera shutter. Within minutes the sky darkens and the wind roars, and I find myself setting out into a familiar white dream. This is the price you pay for trying the easy approach.

A wide ribbon of ice weaves gracefully up the walls of the cirque to the coll between Mt Hogen and Mt Naka, a 45 degree highway into the storm. I bash up it to the wasteland above at 9500 feet, pressing on until visibility drops so far that I am no longer confident I can return safely. Again, a few hundred yards from Mt Kisokoma’s summit, I turn my back on her and start to climb down and away. I think the mercury shows minus twenty centigrade. It’s hard to be sure. My eyelashes have frozen together behind my goggles.

It’s not often you get a grandstand seat at a suicide attempt, albeit an unwitting one. Yuka saw him first, the next morning. I was joining the snowpack stability testing with the brave men of the Nagano Police Mountain Rescue Team; thirty five centimeters of fresh on an icy base, perfect avalanche conditions in the cirque. And so the gods taunt once more. An icy clear blue sky for the last summit attempt of 2008, but with a spring loaded death-trap if I so much as try. And now a lone climber was dropping, oblivious, into the the top of the bowl. The police scramble for beacons and sondes, and we all wait powerless as the figure slowly wades into the loaded slope. “What can we do?” Yuka pleads, but there’s nothing to be done. He’s spun the chamber and clocked the hammer, and with the gun to his head he squeezes the trigger. Click. He gets lucky this time. The police race to meet him with a can of hot tea and a cold warning. “I wish we could arrest people who pull stunts like this”, one of them told me.

At the southern end of Agematsu village lies an area know as Nezame, the “Waking-Up”. Old wooden farmhouses crowd around a small canyon whose walls have been smoothed and carved by the waters of the millennia. It is the setting for the pivotal moment in one of Japan’s oldest tales.

In the legend of Urashima Taro, a fisherman travels (or dreams he travels) to a warm kingdom below the sea. He loses track of time, but shortly returns to his village only to find that a hundred years have passed while he was away. Going against the warning of the princess of the underwater kingdom, he opens the box that she gave him upon his departure. He wakes, at Nezame, only to find that he too has suddenly aged a hundred years.

As I climbed through the storms of that icy mountain kingdom I too lost track of time. Was the world below aging at a great pace? Or did it stay unchanged while I grew younger with every foot I climbed?

All I knew was that I was never going to open that box.

Comments

47 Responses to “The long dream”

  1. Ram Prasad Bojanki on January 1st, 2009 3:17 pm

    Wish you a Happy new year 2009.
    I been reading you blog for more than an year.
    I greatly appreciate your passion for mountain trekking.

    I lived in Matsumoto,Nagano ~5 years.
    You blog constantly reminds me of the good old climbing days in Japan.

    Thank you.
    Ram Prasad Bojanki
    (Atlanta,GA,USA)

  2. Martin Rye on January 1st, 2009 7:23 pm

    Another epic. The photo of the lone figure blazing a trail in the snow sums up the tale to me. Hard mountains and hard work to prize open their secrets. Worth it I reckon. Happy new year and travel safe in the year to come.

  3. Captain Interesting on January 1st, 2009 8:11 pm

    A witty and trenchant reminder that the Japanese winter mountains can give the Himalaya a run for their money …. Yes, I too was once convinced that we would be avalanched in that Senjo couloir. Fortunately, the kamisama was merciful…

  4. George Baptista on January 2nd, 2009 9:34 am

    Happy New Years to you, and thanks for another great read and photos. Some incredible-looking terrain there.

    The mountains around Yuzawa have finally got a good snow-cover now. Hope to start exploring them soon.

  5. julian on January 2nd, 2009 10:20 am

    The photos and words were worth waiting for. You would disappoint too many people if you pushed on to the top oblivious of the weather, only to return horizontal.

  6. Ben on January 4th, 2009 2:47 am

    Once again I am thoroughly impressed with your photos and tales of high altitude adventure! Being too far south in Kyushu all the peaks I can hit are usually snow-less, but I’ve enjoyed your blog for quite a while as well.

    Best of luck to you in this new year and happy trails!

  7. cjw on January 4th, 2009 1:15 pm

    Ram – a Happy New year to you too. I hope I can keep bringing you fond memories of the mountains of Japan through 2009 and beyond.

    Martin – here’s to a safe and happy year in the hills! I have to say I’m quite fond of that photo too, although it was one hell of a risk that guy was running.

    Captain – sounds like you had a close-run thing. The kamisama up there is not always merciful by all accounts..

    George – the terrain up there was just fantastic. Really looking forward to seeing what you guys get up to this season in Yuzawa.

    Julian – in hindsight I should have just waited it out in the tent for the day. But you just never know. Murphy’s Law dictates that the storm would have raged on for two days solid if I had. And Yuka would not have been happy about that..

    Ben – glad to hear you liked the post. There’s some good trails down in Kyushu, snow or no-snow. Not to mention that awesome ramen… Am I right in thinking you were planning to hit Mt Fuji last year? Did you make it?

  8. Jason on January 4th, 2009 3:01 pm

    I’m a bit late to comment on this report but yes indeed, another epic climbing story and certainly a good one to end 2008 with. Love the photo of the lone climber. How did he react when he was told he just traipsed down a likely avalanche zone?

  9. KamoshikaBob on January 5th, 2009 1:15 am

    Ake ome and koto yoro.
    Ditto on the comments above.
    I have a request though, for the new year, and that is to include locations/descricptions for your photos, at least the vista shots. Captions or endnotes, doesn’t matter, but I always find myself curious about what mountain I’m seeing from where in your pictures.
    Thanks for considering it.

  10. cjw on January 5th, 2009 3:58 am

    Hi Jason – I’m not sure what his reaction was (we rushed to make the gondola back down as soon as we saw he was OK), but I can tell you that the police were none too happy about it. There are clear signposts about the danger at the top of the ridge, and anyone looking at that bowl given the previous night’s storm should have been aware of the risk. I think one of the things that really upset the police team was that he put in a path from the top, which other climbers would then be tempted to follow. Made for a good photo though :-)

    Hey KamoshikaBob, kochira koso! Your suggestion is a good one. I’ve actually been thinking about adding a seperate page of technical information (weather, equipment, conditions, etc) for each climb, so I’ll think about how I can incorporate information on the photos too. I tooled around with the geo-locate function in Flickr a while ago, but the resolution of their maps is no good. I’ll figure something out..

  11. julian on January 5th, 2009 11:05 am

    Regarding maps, if you have a gps, you can upload the recorded gpx file to the http://www.yamareco.com site and automatically get an elevation profile and plotted route on a reasonable map, and with a single-click link to the detailed 1:25000 contour maps.

    But then you would want to buy a gps gadget that fits onto your camera which automatically records the location of each photo. And you might need to buy a new camera that’s compatible, which means lots of expensive new toys to buy!

    On a more mundane topic, how do you carry your camera? Fixed to the tripod and strapped to your pack? In its case? Or simply dangling free from your neck? Last Saturday, I could not find a comfortable way of carrying the DSLR with long zoom, without case and ready for taking pictures, while leaving both hands free.

  12. cjw on January 5th, 2009 12:00 pm

    Hi Julian – thanks for the yamareco.com pointer. I might have to look into GPS this year finally. Do you have a make/model you’d recommend?

    I’ve found the best way to carry my DSLR is to clip it to a carabiner (through the loop which attaches the strap to the camera body) and then clip the carabiner to my left rucksack strap at mid-chest height – it then hangs down and nestles quite nicely just above the hip belt & doesn’t get in the way. From there I can haul it up, still fixed to the rucksack, and shoot, or easily unclip it if I want to. The exact positioning is something you might need to play with, but the carabiner is definitely going to be your friend in that process.

    Outside the bag or the case your DSLR will take a few bangs though. Mine has a definite “war-correspondent” look to it. But they are tougher than they look. However make sure you get a clear lens protection filter. Or, better still, get a polarising filter. Yes, that’s my sordid secret. I always use a polariser. Now you know :-)

  13. julian on January 5th, 2009 12:38 pm

    Thanks for the advice. I had not considered clipping the camera to the outside of the rucksack and will certainly give it a try.

    Fortunately the camera store set me in the right direction and a polarizing filter and clear filter were the two I bought. But I know a polarizing filter isn’t going to magically turn my snaps into poster images. On Saturday I met an elderly man with a very expensive Pentax model around his neck, but without any filter the lens glass was filthy. Instead, he was taking pictures with a cheap digicam!

    Re. gps, I splashed out on the Garmin 60CSx Japanese model, but it’s almost three times the price of the US model. I would recommend getting the US model and using upupdown software (map set), which shows 10-meter contours and hiking trails, yet costs half the Garmin Topo 10meter software which does NOT show hiking trails and is next to useless.

    The 60CSx has stronger signal reception but is a little bulky. Given the choice again, I would get a US model of the compact Etrex Vista Cx and load it with the upupdown 10m mapset. I think you would get a lot of fun out of it.

  14. cjw on January 6th, 2009 3:28 am

    Thanks for the recommendation, Julian, I might well look into the Etrex Vista. Heck, it’s my birthday in 25 days…

    That polarizing filter might surprise you yet. A 90 degree rotation can turn “nice-but-nothing-special” into “wow”!

  15. Chris B on January 6th, 2009 7:56 am

    Wow!!
    Seriously gorgeous pictures!! :)

  16. Tom on January 6th, 2009 12:37 pm

    Is that last picture HDR?

  17. cjw on January 6th, 2009 1:10 pm

    Thanks Chris B – Japan has some amazing scenery, I’m always in awe of it and constantly surprised at how often I have it all to myself!

    Hi Tom – yes it is. I’ve been working on getting my HDR shots a little sharper and more natural, so I was quite pleased with how that one came out.

  18. Red Yeti Dave on January 6th, 2009 1:37 pm

    Another gorgeous posting to round off the year.

    Happy new year Chris. Here’s wishing you many happy adventures but fewer near-misses with avalanches… whumping indeed… gulp..

  19. Clint on January 6th, 2009 11:24 pm

    In regards to your GPS comment, it is easy to twist logic to make that purchase into something good.

    You see, your GPS coordinates are good for retarded gaijin’s like me to figure out how to get to all the cool area’s you post about in your blog.

    Never mind the fact that no one wants to see any more retarded gaijin’s like me in their secret back country reserves. Don’t think about that part, and the purchase is suddenly warranted.

  20. cjw on January 6th, 2009 11:32 pm

    A Happy New Year to you too, Dave! Here’s to many great days in the hills during 2009. Avalanches I intend to avoid altogether – as someone said of air-travel, “It’s not the near-misses I worry about so much as the near-hits”.

  21. Ben on January 7th, 2009 3:50 am

    Hey Chris, yes you’re right, my father and I made it up to the top of Mt. Fuji in a one night dash during Obon. Man was it crowded! I would have much rather waited to a little after the season, like September, but the timing didn’t work out. This year will start with Yakushima and then maybe I can hit some more of those peaks in the Miyazaki area.

    About the GPS, I’ve had Garmin since the beginning. All GPS here in Japan are 2-3x more expensive than the US versions like Julian said. But if you’re looking for something waterproof and reliable, you don’t need something with all those topo maps and huge memory built in. I just bought a used Garmin 72 off ebay in the US for $51 and with a topo map I’d have with me anyway, it’s more than adequate. The latest and greatest will easily run you over 40,000 yen. For me that is more money to spend on other more necessary gear.

  22. cjw on January 7th, 2009 5:16 am

    Hey Clint – I like that logic. Really, I’d be doing the public a great favor by buying myself a GPS. A gift to humanity! :-)

    Hi Ben – congratulations on Fuji! I can’t begin to think what it must have been like at Obon. When are you heading off to Yakushima? I was thinking about taking a trip down there myself some time in February and would be interested to hear about the conditions.

    Thank you for the GPS idea. I see what you mean about getting something foolproof and combining it with a good topo. I think you guys might have talked me into the whole GPS thing.

    Some questions for y’all:

    Battery life for most units looks like it’s 16-24 hours, which I presume is continuous use. Do you switch it on only as necessary (and if so, how long does it typically take to locate a signal, and does this signal-hunting drain the batteries quickly)?

    Have you had problems in cold or overcast weather, or in forests? And how often does it get fooled by the signal reflecting off canyon walls, etc?

  23. billywest on January 7th, 2009 2:45 pm

    Next time someone drops into an avalanche hazard zone like that and things don’t go well for him (or her; let’s not be gender-biased), promise you’ll post a photo or two of the moment(s) he/she bites the big burrito.

  24. cjw on January 8th, 2009 1:00 am

    Hi Billy – without wanting to sound gory, part of the reason I was taking the photos was in case he did get hit. I thought it might help the search effort if I could catch his last known location. Yuka really wanted to see an avalanche (“But not with anyone involved!”) and tried to persuade me to climb up the ridge to set off “just a small one”. I respectfully declined that honour :-)

  25. julian on January 8th, 2009 3:25 am

    Throughout last year, batteries were never a problem. I kept it switched on the whole time, and batteries lasted at least the stated 18 hours for my 60CSx. Turned it off only at night. Thus, one pair of batteries even lasted the longest trip: a 3-day traverse of the S. Alps. On longer trips, you can exchange batteries without loss of data.

    Power-on to location identification is 10, sometimes 20 seconds. Much quicker than (my) car-navi. It does not seem to suffer like a mobile phone running down due to weak signal.

    I noticed only two false signals due to canyon reflections (including the one we discussed). Each was a single blip, and obviously wrong. Not bad in 1000 km of hiking.

    Re. loss of signal, I only looked at the GPS periodically during each hike, and the signal was always there, even in forest. Before buying, I borrowed a friend’s Vista Cx and tested it running under sugi trees in Okutama, and I did occasionally hear it lose signal. That’s why I went for the 60CSx which has stronger tracking, but it’s probably not worth the extra weight.

    As for the lower-end models, Ben’s right if you’re used to carrying the 1:25000 topo paper maps, but being map-challenged, I really like to see that reassuring dotted line of the hiking trail upupdown mapset on my GPS screen and my tracks dutifully following it.

    But with almost any GPS, you can plot your intended route using free Kashmir on a PC, upload it to the GPS, then follow it. That’s great for mucking around snowshoeing in unknown areas when signs and paths are buried. GPS saved my bacon a couple of times (disorientated in thick fog at night, started descending from top of Ontake on the wrong side).

  26. Ben on January 8th, 2009 3:44 am

    Julian makes the exact point that I have for buying a hand held GPS again: bad weather and poor visibility. Granted in a complete storm, the GPS may not receive a reliable signal and I will probably be bunkered down in my tent anyways. I haven’t played with the newer models, but the older models can lose signal in heavy forest canopy and in places with lots of high buildings like downtown New York. The two models I’ve last had, a Garmin 76 Map and Garmin 72 both had places to hook up an external antenna, which in the car I always did. Never lost a signal then, and acquisition was probably around 30 seconds or so. Both of those GPS are also WAAS enabled with lets you get more accuracy as long as you are in range of those correction signals.

    For me, I don’t leave the GPS on all day. I generally have a good idea where I am going from the map. I do make way points in the GPS for trail junctions, places of interest off the trail, watering spots, and places to camp. On the hike, if I get confused, disoriented, or just want to check, then I take out the GPS and let it show me the way. Batteries have never been a problem for me either. As long as it takes a pair or so of AA batteries, I don’t think it will ever be an issue.

    Julian makes another good point about having a map on the GPS versus print maps. Here in Japan, I have yet to come across one with UTM marks on it. Those are the most commonly used markings on USGS topo maps to help people match their GPS coordinates to the map. That means you will either have to mark them out yourself (which isn’t that bad), or learn to deal with doing things in deg, min, sec. Just make sure you change your GPS datum to match the map you are using; which will almost always be Tokyo 1927 for here in Japan.

    I am planning to go to Yakushima at the end of March, but you are the second person now to tell me they want to go in February. I am starting to think I should change my plans. There should still be a good bit of snow on the peaks though and I probably don’t have enough gear to deal with it alone. Much more confident about soloing it in March.

    Good luck on the shopping for the GPS and let us all know which one you decide to go for!

  27. cjw on January 8th, 2009 11:36 am

    Julian, Ben, thank you both for your thoughtful comments. You’ve convinced me, and 2009 is going to be Year Of The GPS at i-cjw.com. I can tell already that this is going to be fun.

    Ben – Yakushima in winter intrigues me. I can’t find much information on it, apart from the odd warning of “deep snow”. I’ll give it a shot maybe, and will let you know what I find.

  28. Peko-P on January 8th, 2009 5:31 pm

    Wow, this is one of the most A-M-A-Z-I-N-G blogs I have come across in a long time! The photos inspire me to … climb a mountain!

    Thanks much!

    KyotoFoodieのPeko

  29. Ben on January 8th, 2009 11:13 pm

    Ok, last quick note then about Yakushima. There is another good blog from a foreigner living there. He’s got some good information and he’s open for questions. Check him out at http://www.yakumoneky.com

  30. Ben on January 8th, 2009 11:13 pm

    Sorry, supposed to be http://www.yakumonkey.com

  31. cjw on January 9th, 2009 12:38 am

    Hi Peko-P – you should, you should! Plenty of good trails round Kyoto..

    Hey Ben – that’s very useful, thank you. I’ll send him an email and see if he’d be kind enough to impart any knowledge of conditions in winter on Minoura-dake.

  32. jay on January 12th, 2009 11:06 pm

    I really enjoy reading about your adventures and looking at all of your amazing photo’s. wow!!

  33. cjw on January 13th, 2009 6:07 am

    Thanks Jay – I’m having a lot of fun taking them and writing about it. I saw you replaced your D40 with a D80 – it’s a great camera, I’m looking forward to seeing what you produce with it. The one thing to watch out for is the exposure meter, which can be rather hit & miss..

  34. damian on January 15th, 2009 1:34 pm

    Bit late on the comments for this classic cjw offering, not that what I wanted to say hasn’t already been said. Other than:

    I read this and my mouth formed a hmmm shape: “The snow is heavier now. Several centimeters an hour.”

    Then this and I swallowed: “The snowpack settles with a “whump””

    So I was very glad when I read this: “Screw the summit”.

    Good decision, Chris.

  35. john turningpin on January 16th, 2009 4:04 pm

    Holy Christ. That last picture in this post is incredible.

  36. cjw on January 17th, 2009 6:08 am

    Hi Damian – yup, that was one of the easier decisions to make that trip. I learned my lesson the hard way. BTW, best of luck with Hakuba Alpine Guides – I hope you don’t mind, but I put a link below in the blogroll, and rather hope I get the chance shortly to avail myself of your services!

    Hey John – glad you liked it!

  37. damian on January 17th, 2009 2:40 pm

    Hi Chris, thank you for he good wishes and link.

    I think it would be more so my pleasure to tag along with yourself one of these days in the mountains.

  38. cjw on January 19th, 2009 1:45 pm

    We should try to make that happen! Haven’t been up to Hakuba for quite a while..

  39. damian on January 20th, 2009 2:03 pm

    Just let me know…

  40. john turningpin on January 23rd, 2009 5:02 pm

    >Hey John – glad you liked it!

    Love it, sir. Am awed with what you’ve able to accomplish here in Japan. And was most happy to see the recent interview on 7:10. Cheers.

  41. Peter Skov on January 30th, 2009 2:24 am

    I have been meaning to comment on this post for a couple of weeks now. I loved the tale you told. When I read your blogs I feel that my writing is so immature or childish compared to yours. You have a definite edge to your style.

    As usual the photographs are stunning. The dawn photo with the trees in the foreground is superb and the lone climber descending into the cirque is great, for lack of better adjectives. One thing my friend and I were disputing, he suggested your photos from Senjoujiki were taken at night because of the dark sky whereas I said they were taken during the day under bright sunlight. I know from experience that it is hard to get nice white snow that is not overexposed and keep the sky recognizably blue. Usually winter scenes or high mountain and high desert scenes end up with dark skies. Then he suggested that you had adjusted the colour filtration on your camera. For example you set it to tungsten light which then rendered everything more blue.

  42. I-CJW on January 30th, 2009 3:35 am

    Hi Peter – the photos from Senjojiki were all taking during the day, between 8am and around 11am. From memory, I had the white-balance set to auto, or sunlight, but what gives the skies that effect is probably the polarizing filter. I love my polarizing filter. I tend to shoot a little dark anyway, as the exposure meter on the D80 is not great, and my laptop tends to make photos look brighter than they are, so I overcompensate..

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