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.
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.