Where Eagles Daren’t

June 28, 2009 | Filed Under Uncategorized | 18 Comments 

The dull thwack of rotor blades cuts through the thick summer air. We hurry along the knife edge, trying desperately to gain a vantage point. And then we see it through the foliage; a few hundred meters further along, a helicopter hovers motionless above the spire that marks the northern ridge of Mt Kondo. I marvel at the skill that keeps it so close to the trees that crowd the peak.

“Fuck. Someone’s come off Taka-modoshi.” I say, and the Other Englishman nods in silent agreement.

We can see the trees getting thrashed by the downwash of the rotors, but apart from that the mountain is still. The humidity numbs us, and sends rivulets of sweat trickling down our backs and along our arms. It’s hard to imagine, in the warm sun and the deep green of mid-summer, that someone lies in pain and fear just meters away. I watch the thin steel rappel lines snake from the helicopter, and see a medic clamber onto the skid.

Taka-modoshi – “Where eagles turn back” – is a 50m cliff face and the crux of our traverse today. It starts easily enough, but steepens quickly and ends with a swing out and to the right, and across a knife-edge to the safety of the ledge behind. It’s chained along it’s length, but hard to protect otherwise. The drops on each side are dizzying. I’d guided two clients over it in April, and they’d been grateful of the protection of the belay. Today we’ve gone light, but I’m beginning to wonder if we haven’t pared down our kit too far…

A sweet summer breeze blows through the late night streets of Ginza, and in a tiny bar with porthole windows and bedecked in sailing paraphernalia, two Englishmen pour over a map and a list. We’d climbed much of Myogi in late winter, when the ice still clung to the northern faces, but decided that Taka-modoshi was better left for another trip. With a patch of fine weather forecast in the middle of the monsoon season, what better venue for a quick one-dayer?

“Rope?” I ask.

“All the major climbs are chained…” the OE replies. A line goes through that entry on the list. Harness, slings, krabs all follow. We get down to gloves, water, food, sunblock and boots.

“Boots…” mulls the OE, “…I was thinking trail shoes. Then we could run the path at the bottom on the way back.” And so it was.

The calculus of kit is a fine one, but we knew the payoffs between weight and safety. Every minute longer on a climb is another minute in the risk-zone; and every ounce of kit tugs at you, slowing you down. Fast and light, we’d be up and over Taka-modoshi in minutes; but I’d seen people up there for half an hour, clipping and belaying, fighting against the lactic acid build-up in their pumped forearms and trembling legs. More is not always better.

“Ichi for the michi?” the OE asked, fingering his empty beer glass*.

“Sure. Corona with a lime – that vitamin C makes it a health drink.” I said, and with that we toasted tomorrow’s plans.

We part ways with Yuka at Myogi shrine; she’s hiking the trail round the bottom of the mountain towards the stone arches at the Naka-no-dake shrine. The OE shoots up the trail towards the Dai-no-ji, a huge metal kanji that perches on the side of the mountain at 3000 feet and shines across the plain below. It feels good without a pack, without heavy boots, and we slice the map time in half.

The first climb is a 30 meter cliff, generously studded with fist sized holds and a solid chain. To its left is a cave, guarded by a cut stone wall like something out of Indiana Jones; this is the Oku-no-In, Myogi’s hidden temple. We climb the trembling ladder that leads to its inner sanctum, and we can make out a line of ancient statues and inscribed slabs resting against its walls. Light spills from a natural gap in the boulders above. We bow and ask for safe passage, before moving on to the cliffs above.

We pass quickly over the peaks of Mt Hakuun and Mt Souuma, and along the knife edge of the Harane Ridge. These ancient volcanic walls fall away to sheer drops on each side, like the battlements of some long forgotten basalt castle. The forests below are alive with the sounds of cicadas, carried up on a warm breeze and heavy with the scent of cedars. By midday we’re well ahead of the map time, and at the junction of the Onna-zaka trail. A sign in blood red kanji marks the way to the Taka-modoshi, and the OE reads,

“‘Extremely dangerous. Experienced climbers only. Kewashii rock faces.’ What does kewashii mean?”

I thought for a minute, trying to find the right word.

“Gnarly.”

And with that, the helicopter began its slow beat from the valley below.

We continue on, and meet a couple of teams coming the other way. Each bears a different story; someone fell the full 50m, no, someone fell the last section. Maybe a spinal injury, maybe unconscious, no-one seems exactly sure. The last climber we meet is on his own, and has the haunted look of someone who witnessed the whole thing. Someone fell, he says, but gives no details. Be very careful. We assure him we will be.

The OE quickly scales the bottom of the Taka-modoshi and I follow, passing him at the halfway ledge and swiftly making it up and over the top. Swing out to the left, then back across to the right and over the edge, I shout down to him. Minutes later he’s up.

“Not so bad,” he says, “but I wouldn’t like to have done that with a pack on.”

Light and fast was order of the day.

We downclimb and sprint back down the slope to join the hiking trail at the foot of the mountain, then run the 4km back to the onsen hot spring that waits below. We pass teams making their way down, and the lighthearted jokes of those who’ve had a long day echo down the trail.

“You guys are fast. Get us a beer in at the onsen, will you?” one shouts.

“It’ll be warm by the time you get there, old man!” we reply, and their laughter follows us down.

At the onsen, the banter continues into the early evening. We push the accident out of our minds. Everyone is clean and refreshed from the bath, the beer is ice cold. The OE fingers his empty glass.

“Ichi for the michi?” he asks.

“Why not. Beer’s really just a sports malt drink, isn’t it?” I say.

——————————-

* Ichi=one, michi=road….

Yamareco route map

GPX File

Technically, a Taka is a hawk rather than an eagle. But poetry trumps taxonomy in this case.



In the Hall of the Spider King

June 18, 2009 | Filed Under Uncategorized | 31 Comments 

The Philippine tectonic plate crashes into Japan like a beaching battleship, it’s prow rising from the surf; this is the Izu Penninsula. Still it judders from time to time, showering earthquakes up and across the Kanto plain, while its many hot springs are a reminder that Vulcan’s forges hammer away not far from the surface. Yet the folds of its hills and valleys lie within an hour of Tokyo, and so it is that we dash headlong to it at the first sign of a break in the monsoon rains.

We camp not far from the base of Mt Amagi, the jagged half-moon remnants of a long dead volcano, and our goal for the next day. In a quiet valley by a river choked with boulders we pitch the tent, before making our way to the local hot spring where we poach ourselves lightly in the gathering dusk. Small wisps of high cloud move fast across the moonless sky with the westerly breeze, a suggestion that the fine weather will be short-lived; our little window grows smaller, and we resolve to get up at first light to beat the rain. It’s dark by the time we reach the tent, but the air is filled with the chorus of frogs in the rice fields and the glow of fireflies, who dart in and out of the wasabi leaves which line the banks of the river.

The next day breaks with grey clouds cruising the peaks, heavy with the threat of rain. Even in our haste, though, we cannot resist stopping the car at the Joren waterfall on the way; 5a.m. on a Sunday is probably the only time you’ll ever see it devoid of its usual coach parties and tourists. We make our way down along the path towards the roaring waters below, where we startle a white crane which has been drinking in the pools. It takes elegantly to the skies, crossing in front of the waterfall once, then again, then off into the early morning sky.

At the old Amagi tunnel we start out along a deserted road which winds slowly up next to a gushing river. Spider webs lie thick across the path, heavy with dew, and we duck below them or with silent apology cut through them with a stick. Two deer, drinking from the river below, run crashing up the opposite slope as we approach, pausing on the opposite bank to watch us pass with doleful black eyes. A baby mamushi, one of the few mildly poisonous snakes in Japan, slithers across a nearby rock. It’s hard to imagine you are only 100km from the heart of Tokyo.

As we climb, the forest changes from farmed cedars to primeval buna beech woods. These islands were once covered with these beautiful trees, but now they are so rare that the maps actually make a special note of areas where the buna still grow.  Where the ground below the cedars is a dead carpet of fallen brown needles, the buna forests are filled with grasses and bushes, with airy canopies that spill the early sun in pools of light below. Where usually I would climb quickly through forest, the better to get to the open skies of high ground, today I linger and we run from tree to tree delighting in their crooked shapes and strange branches.


The path narrows, and presently the trees too close in, so close at times that their branches mesh across the track like a leafy tunnel. We reach Haccho-ike pond at around 4000 feet, where we eat fresh corn on the cob and watch the mist swirl across the water, while unseen frogs chirp from the banks.

As we climb further along the ridge, towards the summit and towards the coast, the weather starts to close in. The fog lies across the primeval buna, like a scene in an ancient Japanese folktale. It’s the kind of place you might lie down to sleep for five minutes, only to wake and find a hundred years gone by. The fog brings down with it the scent of blossoms from some shrub we cannot find, but it perfumes the forest sweetly like earl grey tea. Through the mist and this scent we pass, just we two. We haven’t met another soul all day.

The summit of the Amagi range, and the highest point in Izu, is Mt Banzaburo. As we approach, we hear voices, and then we make out a score of climbers who have made their way from the quick loop up the eastern side of the mountain. The summit is small and crowded, too cloudy to make out a view, so we tag the peak and quickly disappear back into the forest from which we’d come.

“How far did we walk?” Yuka asks as we arrive back at the car.
“About 25 something kilometers.” I reply.
“That was great. We should come to Izu again.” she says, and I grin, aiming the car squarely for the nearest hot spring.

The legend of Joren waterfall goes like this:
A woodcutter rested by the waterfall one day, and as he dozed in the hot sun he noticed that a wasp-spider (jomo-gumo) was winding a web around his leg. “She must have mistaken my leg for a branch”, he thought to himself, and with a stick carefully twisted the silk from his leg and laid it on the ground. With that, there was a mighty shaking of the earth, and a great hole opened up, swallowing the stick and the web. The woodcutter ran to his village, telling the villagers “The master of the Joren waterfall is a beautiful wasp-spider. But if he catches you, he will wind his web around you, drag you to his lair and you’ll never leave!”. The villagers never approached the waterfall again.

Yuka was right, Izu has a way of getting under your skin. That old spider still has some powerful magic.