Where Eagles Daren’t

June 28, 2009 | Filed Under Uncategorized 

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.


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.


18 Responses to “Where Eagles Daren’t”

  1. George on June 28th, 2009 11:08 am

    Thanks for another great article. Unfortunate to hear about the accident, I guess it’s an unavoidable part of the mountains. Here, we often see the blue/orange Niigata police helicopters buzzing about.. my wife will say, “uh oh, here comes the kenkei.”

    Btw, if you have a chance, the new Tsurugi movie is pretty good, it seems pretty faithful to Nita Jiro’s book.

  2. Martin Rye on June 28th, 2009 11:37 am

    Makes you think about the danger reading that. We walk a thin line every time we go into the mountains. Skill, experience, going light and fast can all reduce the risk. But it is still there. I am sorry to hear about the accident. But the wonder and majesty of the mountains there and in the UK were I am will draw people in – me as ever. Risk comes with the mountains. With the mountains comes adventure, peace, and joy. A risk worth taking.

  3. Chris B on June 28th, 2009 1:18 pm

    DeviantART calls you!! :)

    You got mad talent bro!!!!
    I added you to my blogroll. I hope some of my students float over and get a look at some of these amazing photos!!

    Here’s to hoping that fallen climber keeps the full use of all his appendages!!

  4. Mikael on June 28th, 2009 7:15 pm

    Scenery reminds me of Yamadera up near Yamagata, but definately more “kewashii”. They’ve put steps all the way up there.

    Seems faith makes people go up the most improbable places to show their piety. In Japan there are shrines on the mountains, and in the European alps they haul huge crosses up to the peaks. Even I’m not a religious type, I do feel some spiritual connection to high places too, and local deities deserve my respect; Whoever or whatever they may be.

    Hope the local deities give that fallen climber another chance to come up to see them.

  5. Ben on June 28th, 2009 11:02 pm

    That looks like a very fun place to go! Well minus the helicopter incident that is. This actually brings up a question though, what do you use for your emergency kit? Do you carry a PLB with you on your hikes? Amateur radio? Cell phone coverage? That guy was lucky there were several other people climbing the same route that day.

    What was the final verdict on the GPS? I like this new trend of posting GPX track logs with the posts. I should try to remember to do likewise when I head out.

  6. CJW on June 29th, 2009 8:03 am

    George – true, it’s always a risk. And Myogi certainly has enough signboards warning of the dangers… I caught the Tsurugi movie the other day, really enjoyed it. The portrayal of the Sangakukai was maybe a little biased against them, but I suppose every good film needs its villians (and they were redeemed in the end!)

    Martin – you put it better than I ever could. & I hope you noticed the choice of trail shoes this time around :-)

    ChrisB – honoured to be part of your blogroll. But speaking of talent, you should have seen that chopper pilot – he kept it rock steady just meters from the cliff, against all the thermals washing up from the valley. That’s talent!

    Mikael – we always make a trip to the local shrine or temple before a climb. Doesn’t pay to disrespect the gods.. Hopefully the victim is recovering – I can’t find anything in the local news, so maybe he/she did have a lucky (very lucky) escape.

    Ben – Myogi’s an easy one to get to from Tokyo if you’re ever up this way, and there’s a tonne of good routes. Cell phone coverage with Docomo is really good in the Alps (I was even able to Twitter up to about 9500 feet on Kiso-koma in February!), so I rely on that. PLBs are illegal in Japan under the radio broadcasting laws, which seems idiotic – although maybe they would just be another encouragement for people to push too hard and rely on the emergency services to rescue them.
    As for the GPS, I’m having a lot of fun with it. I’ve got some other recent trips logged, so I’ll be posting them as well.

  7. Ben on June 30th, 2009 12:27 am

    PLBs are illegal in Japan?! What the heck? I can see myself breaking that law quite easily, especially when you can rent them for cheap. Other than that, I had my eye on the SPOT satellite tracker, but it seems you have to pay for a subscription to their service in addition to the hardware. Though a rescue would cost much much more than a fine or a subscription service since it is not covered by most people’s insurance.

  8. CJW on June 30th, 2009 1:06 am

    Aye, true I’m afraid:

    Although that SPOT tracker is looking rather attractive…

  9. Project Hyakumeizan on July 1st, 2009 3:01 pm

    Many thanks for this dramatic post – and also for opening my eyes to entirely new mountain ranges. Mmm, gnarly is an excellent translation of ‘kewashii’ – I have often reflected on Japanese climbs that the technical factor (eg III or IV) often leads people to underestimate them – because the technical factor doesn’t encompass the rotten rock, the moss underfoot (see your excellent photos above), or the manky protection (rusty pitons). What about a Gnarl Factor to capture such risks – eg G1, G2, G3 etc right up to G6 (vertical mud, fatal runout, no pro….) etc ….?

  10. billywest on July 10th, 2009 1:52 am

    One for the road, eh?

    Title of a great Stephen King short story.

    Do you ever read horror stories right before you trek out? Or, even beside a campfire on top of some mountain?

  11. Hendrik M on July 13th, 2009 3:35 pm

    Magnificent pictures.

    Great and inspiring habit of visiting the shrine before a climb, hopefully keeps you safe for a long time.

    Ichi for the michi, now that’s a saying that I will incorporate immediately into my vocabulary!

  12. Peter Skov on July 16th, 2009 1:56 am

    Well, back to Myogi, eh? I was just thinking the other day that of all the times I have been there I only had half decent photo opportunities on my last visit.

    Reading the account of the climb I have a mixed reaction. On the one hand you and OE seem to have raced across Souuma and Hakuun, which was for me a steady steep climb with careful descents. On the other hand, you make Takamodoshi sound pretty darn scary. I remember it being a challenge with all the vertical climbing up chains and gruelling in the heat of the day. I also clearly recall becoming tired in the brain every time we had to descend by chain because looking at the world from between my feet was something of a novelty that quickly grew old. But in the end it was not that bad. I mean, I did it, and with more of a tired head than a tired body to show for it. It was the same when my wife and I crossed the Daikiretto. Doing it made my brain tired but after having done it I felt I could do it again. But perhaps I am just naive that way. I tend to think that if others do it often enough then I can do it too.

    Reading about the helicopter reminded me of a visit to Kurofuyama, next to Asamayama, back in May of 2006. There was an older man down and his wife and a companion were giving him CPR while at least two people stood by with cell phones and were reporting the incident. It was about an hour later before we saw the rescue chopper circle over Kurofuyama and people below pointed off to the trees where the man had collapsed. The chopper circled twice before someone rapelled down. I realized that help takes time to arrive in the mountains.

  13. Peter Skov on July 16th, 2009 3:05 am

    Oh, yes. The Tsurugi movie. i finally saw it too. I was kind of excited to see Kojima Usui though as you said they were portrayed as the villains – very arrogant and what they heck, were they wearing suits in the mountains? But I was glad to see the atmosphere changed and in the end Shibasaki’s group and Kojima’s group became “kakegainonai nakama.”

    I went mostly to enjoy the scenery on the big screen and I felt my legs itching to get moving uphill (it’s been two over months!). I didn’t know that there was evidence of a climber on Tsurugi some several hundred years before. I read that Kojima found some iron on Kitadake with a date inscribed from the 1700s.

  14. Christian on July 20th, 2009 5:29 pm

    Yeah, a further wonderful article about this wonderful country which is not really popular for hiking in Germany.
    With your articles, your pictures, your art of writing, you are a really good ambassador for hiking and climbing in japan.

    In my point of view, i love your articles and specially your perfect pictures of this wonderful landscape, so I`m still waiting for further articles in your blog.

    Keep Working ;-)


  15. huong on July 21st, 2009 1:49 pm

    Your pictures are simply breathtaking!

  16. CJW on July 26th, 2009 4:02 am

    Project Hyakumeizan – I love the idea of a Gnarl factor – or maybe a Kewashii factor (K1, K2)…

    BillyWest – the mountains have plenty of real-life horror stories of their own.. More grim & gruesome than anything Mr King & ilk could ever come up with!!

    Hendrik – yup, never a bad thing to curry favour with the gods, just in case. They’ve been around a lot longer than we have.

    Peter – I think you’re right, many times it’s more nervous exhaustion than physical that takes its toll. Glad you enjoyed Tsurugi “The Movie”, it had the same effect on me – I can’t wait to get back up there some time this winter when the crowds have gone home. Didn’t realise Kojima found relics on Kitadake too – I’ll have to do some research on that. The relics he found on Tsurugi were dated to the Heian period – amazing to think someone climbed that over 1000 years ago.

    Chris – Japan’s a great place for hiking and climbing, I’m proud to be able to share some of it!

    Huong – I’m glad you like them! But taking good photos in Japan is so easy, the scenery does all the hard work for you.

  17. mikesblender on July 28th, 2009 11:54 pm

    Long time reader, first time commenter.

    As usual, another excellent article. Well written with amazing pictures.
    I don’t mind telling you that my recent excursion into hiking was inspired by your site.

    Looking forward to more!


  18. Australian Hiker on August 14th, 2009 2:19 am

    Hi Mate, Great read and awesome pics. Keep it up.

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