The Crucible and the Rat

February 9, 2009 | Filed Under Uncategorized 

It’s time to find out who you really are.

Strip away the convenient lies, the lovingly crafted self-image, the layers of false beliefs you’ve let accumulate over the years. You’ve done this, you’ve put yourself here. There’s no papering over the mistakes, no extenuating circumstances, you don’t justify this one by blaming others. You not even going to blame yourself. You’re in a tent, on a mountain at 10,000 feet, in a storm in the middle of winter. So you’re just going to have to dig into your soul, and keep digging until you find your bedrock, and pray that there is something down there.

Because if there isn’t, then quite frankly, you’re screwed.

From Agematsu station I creep up through the foothills, following the road along the river which crashes down from the mountains above. A troop of monkeys scurry off as I approach, their long winter coats glistening in the bright sunshine of this warm February afternoon, and one of them screeches from deep in the trees. The old melancholy surfaces as I walk past the few farmhouses that straggle up from the town, the feeling that I am turning my back on warmth and comfort. Deeper into the forest, deeper into the mountains, driven by some urge I cannot express.

I pitch the tent in a clearing on the ridge. As the world twists away from the sun and the darkness rushes in, I start laboriously melting snow for drinking water. Everything takes more time in the winter. Five minutes to put on your boots. Ten to take something out of your pack. Faced with that calculus, it’s easy to get lazy, tempting to conserve energy instead. But like a shipwrecked man who looks to slake his thirst with seawater, laziness will kill you up here. Another liter boiled. Keep drinking, keep eating.

The map shows six hours to the summit, but in the snow you count on double that. I’m up at 3 a.m. and climbing through the dark night under a planetarium sky, climbing towards dawn in the east. At night, with all the toys and distractions stripped away, your consciousness shrinks down to the pool of light that spills from the headlamp. The brain gets bored, its chatter ceases. Suddenly you are no longer a person climbing; you have become the climb. But as the sun rises over the far ridge, my destination, it lights the valley and the brain’s chatter starts up once again.

The crampons have made way to snowshoes at around 6300 feet, and before long I’m ploughing through waist high drifts and kicking at snow walls, desperately trying to get the next purchase before it all gives way below me. By midday, I’m at the point where I turned back last time; somehow, the ridge looks a little smaller, the mountain a little lower. I press on and make good time, up and over the most demanding and dangerous stretches, thin ridges of snow with sheer plummets into the valleys on either side. I look back at the trail of footprints I’ve carved in the snow, and it feels good. The snow consolidates at 8500 feet, and the crampons go back on.

I pass the Tamanokubo hut, the snow up to its eaves and shattering the thought at the back of my mind that there might be some winter entrance left open. The wind is stronger now with a malevolent icy sting to it. I’ve been at this for twelve hours solid, fueled by carbohydrate gel and snowmelt; I dig a shallow pit in the snow near the Sancho-Kiso hut, some 50 feet below the summit. The air is clear and the sky bright, but I take no chances with the tent, weighing it down with rocks and pulling it taught enough to bounce marbles off.

The storm rolls in around midnight. The tent ceases to exist as an object; it becomes pure noise. Sonic booms as the wind lashes it, the poles bend and creak, and the fabric bristles with energy. Spindrift is blasted into the tent itself, making me glad I’m in my bivy bag as well. Waves of doubt crash in. I’ve pushed too far. I won’t be able to get down. Maybe I missed something in the weather forecast. Maybe. Possibly. Horribly.

Time to start digging.

I hit bedrock with an iron clang. I’ve seen this movie before, these storms which wrack the Chuo Alps for a few hours and leave as quickly as they came, some peculiar meteorology of these mountains. I’d checked the weather forecast a few hours before; still the same high pressure front sitting over all of eastern Japan. The barometer holds steady at 1030hPA. I made a bet with myself that it would blow itself out by 8a.m., and that in fact the storm was a gift from the mountain gods, an enforced lie-in on Sunday morning instead of the usual dawn rush. I turn the iPod up full to drown out the noise, and as I fall asleep Jagger tells me that if I try sometimes then I’ll get what I need.

7a.m., it’s still grey outside, but a bet is a bet.

7:30 melt snow, eat, pack up the tent.

7:58 the first patch of blue sky.

8:00 sharp, the sun.

8:05 the clouds are torn from the mountain, and the sky is a deep sapphire blue. The wind is still gale force, blasting icy shrapnel at all in its path, but this no longer bothers me. I’m carved out of the same stuff. The climb to the summit shrine is intense, the conditions Himalayan. And there was nowhere I’d rather have been at that moment.

All of Japan is lain out before me, Mt Fuji, the Southern Alps, the Northern Alps, so close that I feel like I could run my finger along their cold spines and tell them that I loved them all. The wind is no longer an obstacle, it’s just another part of me, I sail it and surf its billowy contours down over Mt Naka-dake and on to to Mt Hoken-dake’s spear-like peak. I can see into the Senjojiki cirque, the hotel and the ropeway below, the bowl streaked with avalanche runs like tears on milky white satin.

Further, faster, stronger, up and over Hoken to look out on Gokuraku-daira, the Plain of Heaven, then down, tracing the western ridge into the arms of the hotel below. I’m so drained that it takes me a moment to resolve the sea of lenses I swim into outside the hotel; dozens of photographers have gathered to capture the mountains in their winter glory, and not a few have recorded my whirlwind descent. Many hands are shaken, and I’m glad I wore my bright orange jacket for their photographic delectation.

A liter of green tea, a beef curry, and with a mug of beer I watch from the restaurant windows as two climbers make their slow way up the ridge to Mt Hoken. My footprints have long disappeared in the strong wind, but each one remains indelibly etched into my mind.

Why do it, why go there. This is the question I get asked most of all. Mo Anthoine called it “Feeding the Rat”, the rat being the real, true you. You’ve got to keep feeding it.

The truth is, I like an unforgiving climate where if you make mistakes you suffer for it. That’s what turns me on… It does you the power of good. I think it’s because there is always a question mark about how you would perform. You have an idea of yourself and it can be quite a shock when you don’t come up to your own expectations. If you just tootle along you can think you’re a pretty slick bloke until things go wrong and you find you’re nothing like what you imagined yourself to be. But if you deliberately put yourself in difficult situations, then you get a pretty good idea of how you are going… And if you did blow it, at least there wouldn’t be that great unknown. But to snuff it without knowing who you are and what you are capable of, I can’t think of anything sadder than that.

Feeding the Rat

This rat has been well fed.

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