My Patagonia

April 30, 2009 | Filed Under Uncategorized | 26 Comments 

The three minute warning. In the dark days of the early 80’s, it was a key part of every schoolboy’s lexicon. When Mother Russia pressed the button, that was all the time you’d have until the mushroom clouds blossomed above the craters where every English city used to be. What would you do in those three minutes? Where would you go? It was unacceptable not to have a snappy answer. Boil an egg. Jump off the school roof. Punch a teacher. Try to feel up that girl in the next classroom.

We were force-fed “Z for Zachariah” and Greenham Common. In 1985, the BBC finally aired “The War Game”, a film depicting the aftermath of the seemingly inevitable nuclear strike. It had been embargoed for twenty years, judged “too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting”. I don’t think I was allowed to watch it at home, but it didn’t matter; our slightly-to-the-left-of-Trotsky English teacher showed it to us in the classroom anyway. We all knew what was going to happen. Morrissey had said as much. The end of the world, and you weren’t sure whether it would be better to survive or be drunk and under the first bomb.

Do you know what you get when you Google “3 minute warning” now?

A professional wrestling tag team. And a Welsh ska band.

The wall came down, Gorbachev and Reagan had their love-in, and then Yeltsin sold off the war machine to his buddies from the bottom of a vodka bottle, just to be sure. All that worrying, it seems so quaint. I wonder what schoolboys worry about these days. If music is a reflection of the times, and The Smiths was our nuclear conflagration, then they don’t appear to have much on their minds, judging by Miley Cyrus and Kayne West. Maybe I’m just getting old. But damn, if our world was going to end in flames, then at least we had a decent soundtrack.

These are the thoughts that wander through my mind as I lie, watching the stars, from the floor of the Todai-gawa valley. The fire is dying, and the two-mouthful hip-flask of Lagavulin sits empty at my side. The mountains brood in the darkness on either side, and even though the night is cloudless, there is the occasional flash of light from the south as some distant electrical storm discharges itself. Yuka paces backwards and forwards. “I’m trying to feel my fear,” she says. I boil some water and pour it into a flask for her hot water bottle, and shortly we lie down to sleep with the sound of the river echoing around.

The morning chill reminds us that it is not yet May, and that the valley, so low against the mountains, is still at over three thousand feet. As Yuka pokes her nose out of the sleeping bag, I dash around picking up sticks for a fire. There’s plenty of wood here, trees and branches scraped from the mountainsides by landslide, lightning and flood. Blanched white by the sun it lies scattered, as if the riverbed were a mess of thighbones and ribs. I light the pyre, and it roars to life fueled by the chill wind which the river carries down from the peaks, and with it the smell of snow. We’d found a small restaurant in Chino the night before where they cure their own bacon, and we bought a slab the size of a forearm; now carved into thick slices and impaled on sticks, it spits and sends puffs of blue smoke into the milky pre-dawn air.

Todai-gawa valley is utterly deserted. Long ago, before they built the Minami-Alps Rindo, this was one of the main entrances to the Southern Alps. The broken down huts which lie along it are testament both to its history, and the fact that few travel this way any more, the Goretex-clad hoards preferring the buses which take you right to Kitazawa-toge and its well appointed lodges. And that’s why I like it here. It’s not a beautiful valley in any classic sense. Chocked with boulders and tree trunks, a pancake flat floor a hundred or so meters across, it winds up from Todai to the bottom of Kitazawa, an unstoppable highway of destruction. Quiet and solitary, there is no path, just a feeling and the occasional faded twist of red cloth tied to a tree or rock by some long-passed traveller. It’s also a deceptive climb; only an odd tightness in the quadriceps the following day betrays the 3000 foot rise in altitude along its course, a fact I don’t mention to Yuka. Still conscious that we smell deliciously of bacon, I double check the bear bell and capsicum spray, and we set out.

The lightshow starts around 6a.m. as the sun pulls level with the far peaks of Kai-koma and Nokko-giri, sending shards of gold through the sky. Within minutes the mountains are a tinged a pale blue, and then the sun peeps over the ridge and light spills into the the western side of the valley. It’s my third time to see this, and it never disappoints. Yuka squeezes my arm and tells me she can understand why I love this nondescript valley so much.

Light snowfall this year has deprived the river of its usual life. Where I’d waded across raging currents last year, today there is dry gravel, and it looks like the hank of rope in my pack will go unused. The intricate web of cris-crossing streams has been replaced by a single, wide thread of water, which crashes through the boulders and through the thick, grey silt. The sides of the valley continue to crumble, and at one point pebbles rain down and hit the water like sniper’s bullets, probably sent upon us by a deer or tanuki raccoon-dog scrambling on the upper slopes. I show Yuka how to pull her pack over her head for protection, and we hurry on.

Mount Kai-koma glistens in the distance as the sun glints off the last of the winter snows. It’s one of the things that draws me here, the long walk in to the foot of the mountain. Six or so miles along the valley floor with the mountain almost continually in sight, beckoning. With the conveniences of road and rail, it’s hard to find that elsewhere in Japan, as if having to walk many hours just to get to the foot of the mountain were something abhorrent. How much better to stand on that peak which has filled your eyes for so many hours, growing larger with each passing step. Today, though, we take our time, investigating the many waterfalls which spill from the mountains on either side, sometimes gazing up at the sheer walls and spying the distant line of the Minami-Alps Rindo which has been carved into the rock high above.

By late morning, we reach our destination, the fork where the Todai-gawa river meets its other major tributary and the path leads off and up Yacho-zaka towards Kitazawa. A large sign, new since I was last here, announces that the Roku-gome course is closed to climbers. It doesn’t suprise me. I tried it last year, and it was pure death. Blocks of snow came crashing down from above, and there was not so much a route as a place where it felt that the human body might squeeze between the boulders, the raging river and the trees felled across the way. But here, at the mountain’s foot, it’s peaceful and we lie in the sun listening to the sound of the water and the call of the deer, before making our way slowly back down again.

For Bruce Chatwin it was Patagonia, that place he felt would be safe in the years after the coming nuclear war. And if the end comes, you’ll find me in the Todai valley, far above the world, watching the stars pass overhead as the fire dies to ash and the river crashes on regardless.



Gods & Ghosts

April 23, 2009 | Filed Under Uncategorized | 35 Comments 

I packed my gear and told myself it didn’t matter. I’d made the sensible decision. A prudent judgment call. “Summiting is optional, getting down is mandatory”. And all the other comfortable homilies and half truths, salves on a wound of defeat. Climb back down and tell myself I’d done my best, but that the conditions were simply wrong. That I didn’t need this and that I was here for the experience of being here, and not simply to get to the top, and that Yuka would approve and that everyone would understand and say how sensible I’d been and…. bollocks.

You just had to look back, didn’t you?

Mt Goryu’s north face towers above, brutal as a medieval god. I can see the ridge where I’d quit the previous day, driven back by the fear of sluff avalanche as the sun baked the snowpack. A little higher still is the spot where I had turned back a few hours earlier this morning, exhausted by the hard ice of the pre-dawn. From there I’d looked down between my feet and past the point of the crampons, down at the kilometer of ice and snow which funnels off Goryu’s peak and into the unseen valley below, and I knew I didn’t have it in me to climb higher.

So why I am still looking?

Two days ago, I’d started out along the Happo ridge, through the ski resort and the low clouds. In summer, it’s a dull climb along the boardwalks which snake around Mt Happo, desperate attempts to control the erosion of a million sneaker-clad feet. They come to see the North Alps reflected in the depths of the little lake. In winter, though, I’m alone, free to make my own course through the slushy late season snow, to where Lake Happo slumbers under the ice. I look down on the sea of clouds, imagining all those people for whom today is grey and overcast. Yet here I am bathed in the glow of the sun, the sole participant in this evening’s lightshow. But it’s going to get dark fast; I need to start digging.

Fifteen minutes gives me a pleasing, bath-tub sized trench in the snow; it’s too warm for a full snow-cave tonight. I make sure to dig a window facing due East, then climb inside and out of the strong wind that presages the gathering warm front. The wind catches the tarp roof from time to time, lifting it and then slamming it down, momentarily sending a soft shockwave through the air of the cave like a deep sigh. I imagine myself to be in the very womb of the mountain.

There’s a right time and a wrong time to remember that you didn’t pack the fork. The right time is just as you leave the apartment, or maybe while standing outside a convenience store along the way. The wrong time is when your noodles come to the boil some 6,500 feet up a snowy mountain. But as Confucius said, man who has a pencil and a toothbrush also has a pair of chopsticks. Five minutes later, warm and full of food, I dig a shelf for the alarm clock, and the last thing I remember is looking out over the tops of those dark clouds that swirl above the Hakuba valley.

The sound of the alarm jars me out of my sleep. I’d been dreaming the same dream I often have up here, that hundreds of people have set up camp around me in the night. Is it the subconcious craving for company, or a reaction to the unusual feeling of being completely alone? Or a fear that the hoards will disturb these peaceful mountains?

Not more than a suggestion, a glimmer, a hint of a red line scrapes across the horizon. From my window I watch the inky sky lighten by degrees; propped up in the warm sleeping bag, I nurse a pot of coffee and think to myself that there is nowhere I’d rather be at 4a.m. on a Saturday. No hotel on earth offers a room with a such a view. Within minutes the sky catches fire, and the peaks of the Alps are clad in soft pinks and oranges, turning their austere milky flanks into pastel canvases for the dawn.

The wind is still strong, but without a cloud in the sky the temperature will soon rise and the snow will start to soften. I cast a long shadow on the ground as I move off and up. Higher now, the smooth lines of Mt Maruyama are set against the jagged cliffs of the Fuki ridge, whose three turrets roar into the sky. I’d climbed them a few years ago on my way from Mt Shirouma on a rainy Sunday morning, and was glad that my route today would not cross them. Still higher, and with every step Mt Karamatsu rises, its white pyramid piercing the lapis lazuli sky.

To my right lies Mt Shirouma, to my left Mt Goryu and Mt Kashima-yari. Goryu is bludgeon, a square-shouldered brute with enormous presence, while its brother Kashima is finely fluted, a twin-peaked poseur which shines in the morning glow.

Turning south along the ridge from Karamatsu, I make my way around Mt Daikoku, chopping the fixed chains from the ice and snow. From here, Goryu looks like no big deal. It’s only a few hundred feet higher than Karamatsu, and the ridge looks as straight and flat as a highway. Ambitious thoughts creep through my mind, visions of racing up Goryu and being halfway to Kashima, even, by nightfall. But I know I’m fooling myself, I know what lies in store. From here, Goryu looks you straight in the eye. Then it knocks you to the ground, sending you down to grovel in the saddle at its base, 1,300 feet below the summit again.

The ridge is heavy with cornices which hang, threateningly, over the slopes below. From above, they simply look like part of the mountain itself; it would be all too easy to walk across one, perhaps falling through or collapsing it with your weight. I watch for the telltale cracks and holes which mark their edge, always making for the areas where trees, sticking forlornly from the snow, betray the presence of firm ground beneath. The raicho ptamigon call softly, unseen, to one another, while black crows drift up on thermals from the valley.

Goryu creeps closer, slowly squeezing all else from view, until those rocky shoulders are all I can see. In the saddle, the mountain huts lie buried so I start my excavation in a snow drift out of the wind. Today’s cave is an achitectural masterpiece, a work of passion, but the afternoon is drawing on and I have little time to admire my creation. I pull out the rope and, clanking with ironmongery in the thin air, I set out for the summit.

The sun’s embrace is quickly turning the top of the snowpack into slush, and it’s exhausting to push through it, all the time kicking the crampons and hammering the axes down into the safety of the ice beneath. As I climb, I notice the face is streaked with lines where the snow has slipped across the icier layers beneath.  Finally I reach a rocky outcrop below Goryu’s left shoulder, lungs spewing battery acid. As I sit there, a wide patch of snow in the gully in front of me languidly starts to slide for no reason, piling and folding up on itself as it gracefully slips a hundred meters or so down the mountain. Get hit by one of those, and it would be like a sumo wrestler patiently edging you off the dojo with a  powerful inevitability. I tell myself tomorrow morning will be better, I should climb before the sun comes up, climb when the snow is solid and compacted. As the sun sets I go down and seek out the safety of the cave.

The pale half-moon creeps across the sky as I set out the next morning. Where I’d sunk to my thighs through the slush the previous afternoon, now the snow was so solid that the crampons barely bit into it. Climbing higher, I reach the spot where I’d turned back the previous day and rested again. Slush yesterday, this morning it’s an ice rink. The next gully is steep and smooth, a luge-like funnel. I fix a poor belay into the rock outcrop and move off, and it is here that I look down at the long tongue of slick ice that runs a thousand meters down below me.

The ice horribly uneven, sometimes thick but hard as a nail, and sometimes deceptively thin, just a crust on top of snow beneath. I look down again, hanging off my axe leashes, then look up at the headwall of Goryu’s north face above me. Cautiously I move back to the outcrop, pretending that I’m going to rest there for a moment while I figure out a better line, but all the time knowing that I’m going to turn back again. Imagination is a poor climbing partner, but I cannot shake the image in my head of the axes popping from the ice, sending me speeding down the slick face of the mountain.

As the sun clears the horizon, rising through the mist that hangs in the valley, I climb down and fill my head with reasons and excuses. It had been a brave attempt. I’d given it two goes, hadn’t I? Good enough, no? At the cave I pack my things, and as I do I see two climbers coming up the Toomi ridge towards me, no doubt heading to Goryu. Safer with two, yes. Sensible guys. I’ll pass them on the way down. They’ll ask if I summited and I’ll tell them it was too much for me. I’ll grin and they’ll say something nice. Maybe they won’t make it, either.

One last look at the mountain before I go down.

A minutes passes. Then one more.

Time to move.

But not downwards.

Off with the pack, off with the harness and the rope and the ice-screws and runners. Clip a bottle of water and the camera to my belt, an axe in each hand, and I go. From the first footstep, I know it’s right. I’m flying. Not a foot wrong. The ice is perfect, softened by the morning sun, each placement smooth. Da-shang da-shang, the axes hit home as I roar up the gully towards the headwall. And then I was gone. I remember every inch, but I was no longer climbing the mountain. I was swimming through it, and it through me. It was beautiful.

The headwall vanished in an instant. Within seconds I was up, skirting the cornices and moving swiftly over the icy rocks to the summit marker. I lie there gulping down huge lungfuls of thin air, wondering what had just happened.

Strange things happen on mountains. They are the borders of our world, a grey zone between life and death, where we are never more than visitors. Sometimes we meet our true selves there, sometimes we realise inexplicable truths. They are the realm of gods and ghosts, as any ancient culture will tell you.

As I lay on that summit I felt the blood course through me, the wind and the sun on my face, and I wanted for nothing more.



Comfortably stuck

April 13, 2009 | Filed Under Uncategorized | 30 Comments 

“You OK?”. My voice echoes off the steep cliffs of Mt Myogi’s peak. The fixed chain leading down has stopped its clanging; there’s an ominous silence.

“Yes. I’m….”. The chain moves a little. “I’m… comfortably stuck.”

She appears over the lip of the wall, and inches slowly down. A warm spring breeze blows lazily up from the valley below. The only sounds are the calls of deer and the quiet snick-snick of karabiner gates as Yuka carefully clips down the chain. Myogi is the crumbling remains of a volcanic caldera, sheer drops and impossible towers, an aerie ruin of black, broken teeth punched through an ancient seabed. It pays to be careful up here.

Still ten feet off the deck, Yuka loses her footing on the sheer wall and drops, but the sling brings her up short. She eyes it nervously, then looks down at me and grins.

“Once I started to fall, it wasn’t so bad any more..”

I close my eyes, and when I wake up I’m in another city. More meetings, more people. London. I close my eyes again. Asia. Singapore, maybe? I’m so tired, I can’t remember what month it is. More hands are shook. Everyone’s excited. Everyone’s scared. Everyone’s stuck. I close my eyes again, and I’m home. I need to climb a mountain.

We find our muscles as we set out from the shrine at Myogi’s base, where the cherry blossom explodes against a liquid blue sky. Ten thousand cherry trees dot the landscape around the mountain, so the taxi driver tells us. Just a month ago there was still ice on the trail, and I’d waded through snow to the base of a roaring waterfall to fill my bottle. Now we kick up clouds of dust as we walk over the dry soil; the waterfall is barely a trickle down the rock face.

The tourist trail weaves around the edge of the mountain, but we are quick to branch off and make for the walls above. We climb up, and before long we have them to ourselves. Sandstone gives way to granite. The walls hang closer now, at once oppressive and protective. We race the morning sun as it climbs into the sky, up and up to the knife-edge ridges that run between Myogi’s crumbling towers, ridges no more than a few inches wide in parts. The valley opens out below us, and to the north Mt Asama sends up plumes of smoke, a constant reminder of the primeval forces that still conspire to shape these fragile islands.

Most Japanese mountains have a section marked “dangerous”, a tiny red kanji in a small circle, with maybe an admonition for the inexperienced to steer clear. On Myogi, the entire map is a mess of red. It’s this that has bought the yamabushi, those followers of ascetic Buddhism, to these crags for centuries. Pitting body and soul against granite and gravity, they cut away at the meaningless excesses of existence until they become the very stuff of the mountain itself. It’s not hard to imagine them striding through these peaks, fleeting shadows seen from the corner of an eye, set against a charcoal watercolour landscape.

Only 1100 meters at its highest point, Myogi has neither the physical stature of its Alpine cousins to the west and north, nor does it boast grand temple complexes like Kumano or Togakushi. Yet something in the way it juts defiantly straight out from the plane below, its fingers renting the sky apart, gives it a formidable majesty that the easy, grass-covered slopes of its peers lack. Even the Joetsu Highway dares not lay a tunnel beneath Myogi, settling to curl languidly around it instead, the better for travellers to gaze up at those spires and wonder what secrets they hold.

Like shipwrecked mariners we flop onto the top of the Higashi-dake tower, hot and grimy under the midday sun. The deer are still calling out their warnings from somewhere in the forest below.

I close my eyes.

I’m in another city, sitting on the ledge of a tall building. I look around.

Everyone’s scared. Everyone’s excited.

I’m…. comfortably stuck.

And then I’m falling, slipping through space, watching the rope snake out above me. It’s going to be OK.

Once I started to fall, it wasn’t so bad any more..