Gods & Ghosts

April 23, 2009 | Filed Under Uncategorized 

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.


68 Responses to “Gods & Ghosts”

  1. Tornadoes28 on April 23rd, 2009 3:57 pm

    It takes some courage to climb solo. With the threats of avalanche or injury, it takes some guts.

  2. Gen Kanai on April 23rd, 2009 4:31 pm

    Another stunner. Amazing images and writing.

    You should think about putting together a photo book of your images. I’d be first in line.

  3. David on April 23rd, 2009 6:16 pm


    Thanks Chris.

  4. julian on April 24th, 2009 1:19 am

    Another photo set & trip report on steroids! I too hope you find time to put together a book.

  5. Honor on April 24th, 2009 1:22 am

    I’m fully agree re the book. You give us places to escape to – wonderful stuff.

  6. Eric on April 24th, 2009 3:08 am

    Great as always. Thanks.

    I agree with the book idea. Please consider it.

    In the meantime, I’ll keep savoring the blog.

  7. George on April 24th, 2009 2:00 pm

    Someday you are going to put on an exhibition of your photos at a gallery somewhere, right??

    Thanks for another inspiring piece!

  8. RedYeti on April 24th, 2009 9:38 pm

    Stunning once again. Your images often haunt me as I look at scenes in real life – making comparisons.

    Love the view from the cave, under the tarp.

    And very, very glad you made it!

    You are quite, quite bonkers ;)

    But in a good way.

  9. I-CJW on April 25th, 2009 1:04 am

    Tornadoes28 – I always try to leave a big margin of (at least, subjective) safety. Not making the summit is not such a big deal for me.

    Gen – thank you, as always. Hmm, a book – maybe something I’ll start to look into during the rainy season, when I’m locked out of the mountains..

    David – glad you enjoyed the post.

    Julian – I’m not sure if it’s steroids, but there’s certainly something at work in that home-made energy gel :-)

    Honor – many thanks! Hmm, a book, a book…

    Eric – OK, book under consideration!

    George – likewise, I’d travel long distances and pay good money to see the shots of your winter exploits blown up large.

    RedYeti – ah, I never felt so sane! The cave-tarp combo has become a bit of a favorite this winter, I’m looking forward to playing around with it more next year. BTW, we are seriously looking at Iceland on your recommendation..!

  10. wes on April 25th, 2009 1:08 am

    another fantastic account of an unusually deceptive peak.

    glad you stuck it out after two botched attempts. I would’ve called it a day much earlier, especially after having summited back in ‘07 eh.

    How was Tsurugi looking across the valley?

  11. I-CJW on April 25th, 2009 2:04 am

    Hey Wes – yup, I was pretty glad I gave it another bash as well. Coming down the Toomi ridge afterwards was tough, though, thigh deep slush by midday – nice! Tsurugi was looking fine on the first day (GW, perhaps…), but on the second day a bunch of that Gobi desert sand was in the air, and it was kinda hidden in a yellow mist. You’d have enjoyed it, we should go next year.
    Good luck with the exams!

  12. brb on April 25th, 2009 7:37 am

    Great photos and writing, as always. This is the next best thing to actually climbing a mountain in Japan.

  13. RedYeti on April 25th, 2009 10:35 am

    Glad my scribblings have inspired you to look at Iceland. It’s a very unusual place!

    And at the moment it might be a very cheap place to visit (and thereby help out the economy! ;)

  14. Muza-chan on April 25th, 2009 5:22 pm

    I love your photos!

    And this reminded me that I use to hike mountains…

  15. Hao on April 25th, 2009 11:41 pm

    Beautiful pictures! I’ve never been much into hiking but judging for the pictures it looks like I should give it a try :)

    My fave pic is the one titled “Room with a View”, and the one below “Sunrise over the Hakuba Valley”

  16. Mihai on April 26th, 2009 12:43 am

    This is great!
    The story, the pictures and the places.
    I hiked Iwaki Mountain last week and the feeling you have when ou are on top cannot be described.
    I’ll come back on your blog for sure, you are doing an amazing work!

  17. I-CJW on April 26th, 2009 5:30 am

    brb – very kind of you, thank you. If I can distill and convey a little of the experience, then I count it as a job well done!

    RedYeti – that is true. I’m just hoping that thing have not collapsed to the point where I can’t hire a car/get a flight/find a hotel.. Doesn’t seem like that’s the case though.

    Muza-chan – glad you like the photos – and the mountains will be there for you whenever you want to go back to them.

    Hao – I think you might enjoy getting to the mountains. I meet a surprisingly large number of programmers and mathematicians up there – something about the puzzle-solving nature of working yourself physically through the terrain, and the logistics, seems to appeal. That, and the lack of null pointers…

    Mihai – still some good snow on Iwaki, looks nice up there! I still haven’t climbed in Tohoku, but it’s on the list of places to visit. Maybe this next winter…

  18. Mikael on April 26th, 2009 7:25 am

    The quality of the pictures is easily high enough for printing between hard covers. However, if you ever go ahead with that project, please include at least some of the text as well. Your writing adds great depth and context to the images, and the result would be something far better than just another coffee-table book with great mountain scenery.

  19. RedYeti on April 26th, 2009 10:13 am

    Chris the close correlation between the sciences and mountains was something much in evidence in my university club.

    It wasn’t absolute, in fact one of the best presidents – and climbers – was an arts student. But she was more the exception than the rule.

    I agree it must be something about the necessity to problem solve that must appeal to the “scientific mind”.

    I’d never thought about the absence of NPEs but now that you mention it… ;)

  20. KamoshikaBob on April 27th, 2009 12:26 am

    Ditto on the comments above. A real thriller. So what DID you say to those other two climbers?

    As for the book, I was thinking the same as others even before I saw the comments. I vote for the summit pic of your back to be included. (It might even be apppropriate for the cover.)

  21. I-CJW on April 27th, 2009 2:58 am

    Thanks, Mikael, that’s very kind of you to say so. Ah, so many projects, so little time..

    RedYeti – oddly enough, I was reading about John Gill in Krakauer’s “Eiger Dreams” last night. As well as pretty much inventing the sport of bouldering, he is also a research mathematician. Good book, by the way – much better written than Into Thin Air.

    KamoshikaBob – good to hear from you! Those two other climbers got my usual, cheery “chiwassu!”, but they were miserable b*ggers and pretty much blanked me. The second was having a very hard time, and the lead was offering him such encouragement as “If you fall, you’ll die”. Nice! Hmm, a book, a book… this needs some serious thought!

  22. Tom on April 27th, 2009 7:09 pm

    It’s a shame about the other climbers – how can you be miserable when surrounded by such beauty?? A great account as always.

  23. Martin Rye on April 27th, 2009 10:34 pm

    I looked at this post days back and thought about it for a bit. Sometimes we write much about the mountains and you have done so here with the normal excellence. But it was the photos that got me thinking. The one with you above the clouds alone was a amazing but the dawn photo was the one that said so much more than words and why you went to me. A joy to see and read and thanks for sharing.

  24. David on April 29th, 2009 8:26 pm

    This was the best thing I’ve read in months, and just what I needed to rekindle my own longing for summits, thank you. Your photography and prose are amazing, and I am grateful to you for spending the time to share. I now need to go read *everything*…;)

  25. I-CJW on April 30th, 2009 11:17 am

    Tom – my thoughts exactly. Poor guys were in a bad way, though. Experience suggests that they might have over-fortified themselves on the shochu the previous night..

    Martin – as always, thank you for coming by and for your kind words. I have to admit, that was a pretty special dawn up there, and I sang loudly and tunelessly all the way up the mountain as a result.

    David – if the post inspired you, even a little to seek, out the summits again, then I can count myself a happy man!

  26. damian on May 6th, 2009 12:22 pm

    Chris – so sorry I couldn’t join you when you came to town, but thanks for the offer to do so. Next time.

    Having said that, you captured well why climbing/time in the mountains alone is so perfect and reading your report makes me happy that you did it solo.


    ps – I have had the same dream before.

  27. Captain Interesting on May 6th, 2009 4:16 pm

    The age-old dilemma of turn back or carry on – but rarely, if ever, so well captured as in this post!

  28. I-CJW on May 9th, 2009 9:08 am

    Hi Damian – next time, for definite. I quite fancy Kashima-yari next winter, but hopefully we can link up much before then. Interesting you mention about having the same dream. I think Wes Lang also saw it when we climbed Ibuki together. Hmmm, further research required…

    Captain – indeed, the age-old dilemma. And one which forces you to have some very frank conversations with yourself. Which is why I treasure it.

  29. damian on May 10th, 2009 9:39 am

    I hear of dangerous ice routes on NE Kashimayari.

    Have you ever climbed the old routes on the NW ’slabs’ of Kaerazu behind Happo? Possibly something for summer, despite the rusting pitons left in place along side the bolts. I hear no one bothers to climb them anymore. I’m not much of a rock climber myself.

    For your research: Besides mountain camping, I have also had the same dream when sleeping in my van in a car park. Similar in notion, different in aesthetic.

  30. I-CJW on May 13th, 2009 10:29 am

    Haven’t climbed those, but something I will look into.. I can imagine NE Kashimayari being tough, it looked pretty slick even the other day.

  31. Peter Skov on May 19th, 2009 12:42 pm

    Weird. I wrote another lengthy comment for this post too and it has also disappeared. Computer gremlins must be after me today. Maybe it’s a lesson for me not to write long comments. After 400 words the post disintegrates.

    Well, what can I say without repeating what has been lost? Nothing. I was so inspired to write my comments but now I feel deflated by computer shenanigans.

    What’s that about a book? Are you doing one? I’ll order a signed copy!

  32. I-CJW on May 20th, 2009 11:43 am

    Ach, Peter! I’m so sorry! I checked the spam filter, and your comment wasn’t caught in there… I checked all the settings, but there’s no word limit. But I will run some tests, be assured of that. If someone is kind enough to take the time to write a long comment, then I certainly don’t want it to disappear into the ether.

    Still thinking about the book. I don’t want to just compile the blog into print. It’s got to be original. I have some ideas…

  33. Peter Skov on May 21st, 2009 5:43 am

    I will re-post my comment on here later too. This one was just too delicious to resist, plus I just have to “speak” my mind since we share similar passions.

    No, of course you don’t want to just book the blog, but your writing is of excellent calibre and no matter what you would write about the mountains of anywhere it would be a pleasure and inspiration to read. I would likely want to send a copy or two to friends at home. Of course a book wouldn’t be complete without a collection of your photographs as well. Keep thinking about it. At this point in the game I think it’s time we had books about the mountains of Japan in English too!

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