A Mountain, Redeemed

March 1, 2009 | Filed Under Uncategorized 

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.


15 Responses to “A Mountain, Redeemed”

  1. David H. on March 1st, 2009 1:13 pm

    Looks like you had an easy climb for once. If you’re able to avoid busloads of tourists anywhere they have easy access, that’s a victory in itself, I think.

  2. holdfast on March 1st, 2009 4:25 pm

    The cable car to the summit of my local lump is due to reopen in the next month or so. Cue ‘car’ loads of tourists! Is it selfish to think that you have to ‘earn’ the view at the top or do these mass transit options open up the mountains to the less able and possibly fuel the fire to start someone on their own journey to enjoying the outdoors in a ‘purer’ way?

  3. Clint on March 1st, 2009 11:38 pm

    Wow, you really started off this entry with an amazing photo.

    I am curious as to the reasons why the annual snow pack has diminished so greatly. I can’t find much on google. Is this a phenomenon related to global warming? It is always sad to hear about these huge shifts in weather patterns.

  4. Our Man in Abiko on March 2nd, 2009 1:10 pm

    Lovely. Fifth pic’s my fave.

  5. julian on March 4th, 2009 1:47 pm

    As you describe, so much more beautiful and uplifting in the winter with the snow covering at least some of the disfigured summit, and without the crowds.

    It’s a pleasure to see your dusk/dawn photos from mountaintops in mid winter, as I’m too soft to sleep up there myself!

  6. Captain Interesting on March 4th, 2009 5:48 pm

    I much enjoyed reading about this mountain in “stereo” – your account and Wes’s. Together they prove that there is no such thing as an irredeemable or an uninteresting Meizan!

  7. I-CJW on March 5th, 2009 12:57 pm

    David – it was a good climb, and blissfully quiet. Such a contrast to last August!

    Holdfast – I don’t think it’s selfish at all. We go to the mountains to find ourselves, feel a little more alive, to get away from pre-packaged comfort and the easy options of modern living…

    Clint – the climate is certainly changing – but then it always is. I would love, though, to see a good plastering of snow on Ibuki one winter soon.

    Our Man – thank you, as always! Can’t tell you how happy we were when the clouds parted and the sun peeked out from over the horizon that morning.

    Julian – the sunrise and the sunset, it’s what I live for! From the top, as we started down, we could see a dog and owner starting out at the bottom, and for a moment it crossed our mind that it might have been you & Hana – but they were moving far, far too slowly!

    Captain – indeed! Ibuki thoroughly lived up to the appellation. Some mountains are just more seasonal in their Meizanality.

  8. Peter Skov on March 6th, 2009 3:08 am

    I was waiting for your next post. So you went to Ibuki. I saw it in the series of magazines Nihon Hyaku Meizan which were out last year. It didn’t look interesting and I wondered why it was chosen to be among Japan’s top 100. I guessed it had to be for historical significance. Of course, in winter and in your photographs it looks nice (love the clouds in the last photo) but I can see some large structure has been built on the top and that makes it a little less attractive.

    By the way, I always thought the Tateyama area held the record for the most snow with sometimes over 15 metres of snow being deposited on the alpine route. Or doesn’t that count because the snow isn’t actually on the mountain so much as it is on the slopping plateau that leads to the mountain base?

  9. I-CJW on March 6th, 2009 5:14 am

    Hi Peter – Ibuki has certainly suffered more than most at the hands of the tourist industry (not to mention the cement industry, which has carved off part of the northern flank). But it does have deep historical roots, and there’s no doubt of its Meizan status. And, of course, it’s a lot easier to turn your back on the overdevelopment at the peak when there is a layer of snow on it, and look out over Biwa to one side, and the Alps and Hakusan on the other.

    I imagine you’re right about Tateyama – although the snowpack on the plateau is 15m, on the summit it is much less.

  10. wes on March 8th, 2009 5:58 am

    cheers for the kind words and great companionship on our hike. It was great to finally meet up.

    I’m still on a bit of a rush from our trip, as it was my last chance before the hay fever kicked in.

    Looking forward to future climbs together.

  11. I-CJW on March 17th, 2009 12:52 pm

    Wes – likewise, I had a great time too, and am looking forward to our next trip! Hope the hay fever clears up soon..

  12. Peter Skov on March 19th, 2009 4:11 am

    It’s a bit like Bukouzan, a Nihyaku Meizan. Taiheiyo Cement has stripped off a good chunk as well.

    So are you trying to complete the Hyaku Meizan?

  13. I-CJW on March 22nd, 2009 2:07 am

    Peter – yes, exactly, I think I made the same observation in the post about my Ibuki climb last year.

    Good question about the hyakumeizan. I want to climb good mountains in ways and conditions that are a challenge. And the hyakumeizan is stuffed full of good mountains. We’ll see.

  14. Ashley on August 10th, 2010 4:00 am

    awesome photos! I really enjoy your blog – I’m into hiking and whatnot, but haven’t done any serious mountain climbing, so it’s great to read (and see) it here, especially in Japan. :)

  15. CJW on August 10th, 2010 5:55 am

    Hi Ashley – glad you like the blog. If you want more info on places to go, etc, then do check out the Hiking In Japan link below. It has great detail on the hyakumeizan and many other mountains. Enjoy the hills!

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