Mt Ibuki towers like a fist over the shores of Lake Biwa, north-east of Kyoto. Almost twelve metres of snow were measured on its summit in 1927, a record amount for a Japanese mountain, and one which stands to this day. Freezing winter winds sweep off Siberia and over the sea of Japan, loading the air with moisture and fueling the snow storms which batter the mountain. Its western slopes, the remainder of a long-collapsed volcanic caldera, are notorious for the avalanches which slip with devastating efficiency down that broad flank.
Or rather, was notorious. The ski slope, once the mecca for many from the Kansai plain during the winter months, lies silent and her lifts are slowly rusting away. So little snow falls nowadays. We spot the near-bare slopes of the mountain from the train. We’d poured over the weather forecast for a week beforehand, nervous of the storms that had dropped over a meter of snow along the seaboard and into Hokkaido. Our fears of avalanche, the compression tests, and the “safe” route we’d plotted up the southern ridge, dissipate like the thin clouds which momentarily cling to the mountain’s summit.
It’s my first climb with Wes, and Ibuki is his first mountain since he finished his Hundred Mountains climb last year. I’d looked with disappointment at the thin snow pack, but now I’m glad we’re not battling through waist deep snow on the ridge; our pace is leisurely, and we talk a lot as we slough a lazy zig-zag up the mountain’s broad, bare slope.
The summit is frozen solid. We find a snowdrift and start to dig out a cave for the night; the shovel meets with hard ice instead. After twenty minutes we have dug a tunnel less than a shovel-length in depth, and collapse in a heap to consider the options. There are other drifts, piled against the sides of the huts that dot the summit and serve refreshments to the summer hoards, but they are perilously shallow. And then we see it: a gap between the ice-hard drift and one of the huts, a snow cave pre-dug by the vicious winter wind. We drop in from the top. It’s an oasis, our home for the night.
The sun sets over Lake Biwa in a shimmer of gold. We race around, this way and that, taking photographs until it gets dark and the streetlights of Nagoya below start to shimmer in the crisp night air. The wind picks up and scours the peak again, but we are safe and warm in our cave, and we melt up snow for drinking water and chat until the candles die low. We run around again at dawn, cheering as the cloud which wreaths Ibuki’s head is torn away, and excitedly scanning the peaks of the Alps which loom on the horizon.
The Ibuki of old was a mountain for mystics, drawn to the alpine flora and medicinal herbs that heal the body, and the vistas over the Alps and Lake Biwa that succor the soul. My previous climb here was a featureless trudge to a summit teeming with tourists who’d been bussed to the top via the gash of asphalt that scars Ibuki’s flank. I had thought that old mountain long dead. But as I sit and watch the sun pull slowly over the horizon, I realise that she lives on for a few months each year, when the snow falls and the cold winds roar. And I have Wes to thank for that.