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.


36 Responses to “The Crucible and the Rat”

  1. Deas on February 9th, 2009 12:42 pm

    Breathtaking, as always. Great stuff. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. Our Man in Abiko on February 9th, 2009 1:12 pm

    “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.”

    Lovely thought. Think Our Man would find a lump of Leicester cheese and little else in his bedrock. Man cannot live on cheese alone, a wise man once said.

  3. Clint on February 9th, 2009 1:36 pm

    Again, excellent writing to match the amazing pictures. I am glad you are out there killing it as often as you do since vicariously is the only possibly way I will be seeing these peaks!

    I still think you need to find some kind of collapsible sled that fits in your pack on the way up only to reveal a perfectly round saucer for the way down!

  4. wes on February 9th, 2009 2:03 pm

    I’d glad to see you’ve made it back safely. Congrats on finally knocking off Kiso-koma. The Chuo Alps don’t give in easily, do they?

    Ibuki should be a walk in the park compared to all of this.

  5. Gen Kanai on February 9th, 2009 2:10 pm

    Amazing images and imagery.

    Book recommendation: Peter Matthiessen “The Snow Leopard” (that is if you have not already read it)

  6. Philip Werner on February 9th, 2009 2:21 pm

    Chris – glad you made it through that storm at the summit. Sounds scary. Great photos as usual.

  7. butuki on February 9th, 2009 2:37 pm

    Wonderful, Chris. You expressed very well one reason why I love the mountains and can’t stand Disneyland. Loved how your writing brought the mountain right here to my living room!

    I’m looking forward to getting out to the mountains more often right after I move to Tokyo!

  8. Tornadoes28 on February 9th, 2009 4:00 pm

    I used to go backpacking by myself in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California. It was peaceful but also a little freaky at night. Do you prefer to climb solo?

  9. akatsukiotoko on February 9th, 2009 4:26 pm

    Well done!!! This is probably one of the most unbelievable climbing blog I have ever encountered! Great adventure you had there!

  10. Captain Interesting on February 9th, 2009 8:08 pm

    My, you’ve been smoking that Mark Twight again…. Gripping prose and photos – but even with without the photos, your writing brings it across live. Great stuff…

  11. I-CJW on February 10th, 2009 3:26 am

    Deas – a pleasure to share it with you, and thank you for coming by.

    Our Man – nothing wrong with Leicester cheese! It’s when you find a deep vein of Dairylea that you know you’re in trouble.

    Clint – I did have my SnowClaw with me ( – but tempting as it was to barrel down the Senjojiki cirque on it, the idea that I might not stop until I hit the ocean put pay to that idea..

    Wes – they certainly don’t give in without a fight. Which is nice sometimes, at least I’ve gotten to know that area much better as a result. Looking forward to Ibuki!

    Gen – super, added to the Amazon wishlist, thanks!

    Philip – I’d be lying if I said the storm didn’t have its scary moments, but it was good to be in control. Had plenty of food, I was warm, dry and (as long as the iPod battery held out), happy!

    Butuki – looking forward to welcoming you back to the big city! Let me know when you get settled, it would be great to meet up.

    Tornadoes28 – it’s hard to compare climbing solo to climbing with friends, they’re so different. I enjoy both, though. But if I’m honest, I’m always happier with the decisions I make when I’m going solo, because in the end it just boils down to me and what I feel I need to do.

    Akatsukiotoko – thank you! Adventure is a good word for it, absolutely.

    Captain – indeed! I couldn’t resist a small homage to Dr Doom. In my darker moments, though, his quote about suffering helped me through: “Sometimes you’ll suffer, which is what alpinism is all about anyway. Enjoy it, it’s what you signed on for.” Although what he would think of my rather heavy kit, and predilection for the Rolling Stones, I dread to think. “Where’s the Black Flag bootleg? The Skinny Puppy album? You’re afraid to suffer, that’s why your sleeping bag is rated to minus twenty. What’s that? A f*cking MontBell titanium spork? You’re a tourist.” etc, etc..

  12. George on February 10th, 2009 9:11 am

    My wife sometimes complains I push it too much. I just reply I can’t help it, I’m baka or something to that effect. Next time, I’ll try telling her I’m just feeding the rat.

    Great trip!

  13. julian on February 10th, 2009 9:49 am

    Another classic set of photos and gripping account. Always so inspiring to read.

    Do you leave a detailed plan of your intended route, with instructions for Yuka in case you don’t call in by a certain time? Or do you just figure that if you can’t make it down yourself, it will be too late anyway?

  14. Peter Skov on February 10th, 2009 10:51 am

    Since I started reading your blog I have always been impressed at how well you capture the emotions, the sensations, the experience of climbing, particularly in the mountains of Japan which are also familiar to me. I write and I do OK. I know where my writing is lacking expression and reading your blog is like a light shining down from heaven upon me, a pilgrim on his knees and scrambling through the dust. I look up and I can see where I want my writing to be. But I also know I can never be like that because I am a different person. This particular entry however, rang a different bell. I saw myself there, maybe because I was there in December 2007 and again in May 2008. I know the route, the challenges, the weather, the wind, and the views. I felt almost as if I was reading about my own two climbs with the greatest of their challenges combined. It is a very personal piece for me, what you wrote here.

    How you summarized the reason for climbing under such inhospitable circumstances was just how I feel and how I might have said it were I made of a slightly different character.

    “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.”

    I like what I learn about myself when faced with challenges in the mountains.

  15. jay on February 10th, 2009 12:54 pm

    Just incredible like always…You have me completely addicted to reading about your adventures!

  16. Jason on February 10th, 2009 4:13 pm

    I can understand the “feeding the rat” poem and respect you for putting yourself into difficult situations. Lately it’s been a challenge to even maintain my at least once a year quota of putting myself into a difficult physical challenge.

    Tokyo is a city that can put an iron grip on you and even having thoughts of getting out feel tiresome.

    For me, I couldn’t overcome Tokyo’s grip enough, so I’m heading back to Florida after 6 years here and 3 in South Korea before that. I gained nearly 25 pounds since I first left.

    I will of course keep reading your blog to make sure that I am setting enough challenges for myself.

    Let me know if you’ll be in Tokyo between now and Sunday.

  17. Nick Ramsay on February 10th, 2009 6:01 pm

    Truly amazing.

  18. Martin Rye on February 10th, 2009 8:17 pm

    I read your adventures and wonder how many years of skill you have gained from days in the Peak District and other adventures. To go high in conditions like that requires skill, determination and judgement. Skills can be taught. Determination is maybe something we are born with. Judgement to go back, press on, dig in. That come from experience. Experience is learnt from the hard lessons the high places can teach. Great lessons aren’t they. I so enjoy reading the lessons and experiences you seek to gain. Wonderful photos as always.

  19. Honor on February 11th, 2009 12:42 am

    But to snuff it without knowing who you are and what you are capable of, I can’t think of anything sadder than that.

    I couldn’t agree more. As usual your pics are stunning and you add great color with your words.

  20. Goddess Carlie on February 11th, 2009 1:49 am

    Wow! Beautiful, breath taking photos!

  21. I-CJW on February 11th, 2009 3:13 am

    George – it’s worth a try! “Nezumi ni esa wo yatte kuru”. It’s got a certain ring to it.

    Julian – thank you, as always. Yuka always gets a photocopied map, with the trail highlighted, possible escape routes marked, intended campsites, phone numbers, etc. But this month, she is in Hawaii (a retreat with dolphins, no less!). So I anointed my colleague, the formidable Ms Tanaka, as Keeper Of The Map, with strict instructions to call the Nagano police if was not in my seat by 7am on Monday morning as usual..

    Peter – I’m glad you enjoyed the account. I remember you mentioning Kiso-koma a couple of times, and as I was climbing I did wonder which routes you’d used. As for the prose, well we’re never satisfied. For me, this post is where I am aiming:

    Jay – thanks for coming by, more adventures on their way in the next few weeks hopefully!

    Jason – would definitely like to meet up before you head back home. I’ll shoot you a message on Twitter.

    Nick – thank you! It was amazing to be there, too. I’m glad a little of that feeling came through in the post.

    Martin – absolutely. They are the greatest lessons of all. And there’s nothing like it when that skill, determination and judgement all come together and forge something new from you. That’s the crucible.

    Honor – I’m glad that line resonated, it’s one of my favorites too.

    Goddess Carlie – thank you! I had a lot of fun taking them. In fact, it was a constant challenge to decide which way to point the lens, there were just too many things to look at.

    Thank you ALL for the kind comments and support. I had my Nikon D80 cleaned the other day, and at the same time they updated the firmware. The old problem of the D80 over-exposing everything seems to have been fixed. Of course, I only found this out post-trip. I’ve lightened the photos to compensate, but if anyone would be kind enough to give a second opinion (too bright, not bright enough) then it would be MUCH appreciated! Once again, thank you!

  22. David on February 12th, 2009 7:15 am

    Spectacular. I haven’t climbed mountains as intense or scenic as these, not by a long shot, but your pictures and writing still resonate wonderfully with my memories.

  23. billywest on February 12th, 2009 2:13 pm

    That first pic of the snow-covered gate really sets the tone for this one. Love it!

  24. john c on February 12th, 2009 10:34 pm

    Hi Chris – have been reading your posts for a while now, and they get better all the time. Ever thought about quitting the day job?! Its a beautiful thing to be so passionate about something, as you are with the mountains. Hope you and Yuka are well…

  25. I-CJW on February 13th, 2009 9:48 am

    David – many thanks, good to hear that the tale evoked some memories for you. You know, Waseda has a very hardcore climbing club. I made the mistake of pitching my tent near a group of them one night – they drank until 2am, got up at 4am and did seriously gnarly climbing. Might be worth checking out if you’re interested (or maybe even just the club circle, which might be a bit less extreme)..

    Billywest – yup, that shrine on the top was quite something. I shot some video, which when I get a spare moment I will post, of the climb and the summit. You’ll like it!

    John – hey cuz, good to hear from you! Quit the day job? Nah, I enjoy it too much. And besides, I’m not sure if I’m a hedge fund manager whose hobby is mountaineering, or a mountaineer whose hobby is running a hedge fund. Your big day is coming up, you nervous yet?

  26. john c on February 13th, 2009 8:17 pm

    I’d say if you think about one while doing the other, then the one you’re doing is the day-job…

    Not about the big day – its the stag do that is making me nervous!

  27. I-CJW on February 14th, 2009 9:38 am

    Ah, in that case it gets even more confusing. I think about trading when I’m in the mountains, and about mountains when I’m trading…!

  28. fallforniagara on February 16th, 2009 10:52 pm

    Your pictures are truly inspiring. Great stuff.

  29. Peter Skov on February 17th, 2009 2:29 am

    Just thought I’s share this sentence from a book about the Cathar’s I am reading by Jean Markale as the sentence reminded me of this post. The sentence was part of a paragraph about the significance of the symbolism of the North and also of Montsegur in the Pyrenees.

    “The main goal is to scale the flanks of the mountain in order to emerge into full light.”

    With so many people spiritually seeking in this world, don’t you feel that climbing mountains has satisfied the answers your soul seeks?

  30. Peter Skov on February 17th, 2009 2:29 am

    Cathars. No edit button after one hits “post”.

  31. I-CJW on February 17th, 2009 3:56 am

    Fallforniagara – thank you!

    Peter – that’s a great quote. I had to read it a couple of times for the full implication and meaning to sink in. You’re dead right, though. There’s few answers about yourself that can’t be found in a near-vertical world of ice and snow, far above “civilisation”.

  32. David H. on February 27th, 2009 2:43 pm

    “Inspiration”—a fitting tag as your blog is the best of its type I have ever seen. Always well written and beautifully photographed. I feel guilty about just sitting here reading it instead of being out doing it.

  33. I-CJW on March 1st, 2009 12:53 pm

    Thank you, David, your support & kind words mean a lot to me. Sometimes it’s good to get out, sometimes it’s good to sit & read. But the best times are when you sit & read, and then feel inspired to get out!

  34. Mikael on March 11th, 2009 4:30 pm

    Recently came across this blog, and as the rest have pointed out, it’s high quality stuff. Looking forward to read more in the future.

    Anyway, this story really hit it home for me. Now I know where my recent restlesness is coming from: This rat hasn’t been properly fed for almost two years. Just given some snacks, which tasted good at the moment, but didn’t make the hunger go away. It’s time to start planning for the summer and autumn.

  35. I-CJW on March 17th, 2009 12:54 pm

    Hi Mikael – yup, felt good to feed the ole’ rat. But it’s getting hungry again… :-)

  36. Sonja on December 31st, 2011 4:30 am

    Thank you for writing this blog. I love Japan, I love climbing, you inspire me to combine both and go climb in Japan.

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