Gods & Ghosts

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.

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