We’d drifted in and out of consciousness all the long night, the sonic boom of the wind putting pay to any chance of deep sleep. The tent was a living thing, a pulsating beast of pure noise which bent down with each mighty gust to kiss us on our foreheads. Against the steady background roar would come a noise like a cannon every so often, as the wind hit some rock face deep in the valley below us; it was as if the mountain itself had declared war. We were tossed around, our tiny red nylon ship, on a malevolent sea of wild air.
Sleep, when it came, was a ten minute loss of sensation, blackness filled with howling dreams, a brief interlude before being dragged awake again like a struggling fish on a line. In my dreams, huge branches were ripped from distant trees, carried aloft before slicing like knives through the thin tent walls. Each time I woke, I reached up through the dark and pulled down the barometer; each time, it had dropped a little more. This wind, which I had hoped signaled the retreat of the day’s poor weather, was in fact the herald of a worse weather system to come. Each downward lurch of the barometer dragged my heart a little further with it. There would be no summit tomorrow.
It was then that Tim punched me in the face.
He said he’d been dreaming. I asked him what about. Punching me in the face, he replied. I couldn’t blame him. Here we were, his first big mountain expedition, and I had him trapped at 9000 feet in a horrendous storm. Was it any wonder his subconscious had it in for me? Thankfully he punches like a girl. Or so I told him.
Nothing was going according to plan. The previous evening, armed with a metric tonne of meat and vegetables, we arrived at the Todai-gawa valley ready to build a fire that would drive back the night and roast our food. As we stepped out of the car, the ground felt soft underfoot and the smell of the forest filled our lungs. It was then that we realised that everything was sodden. The river growled in the unseen darkness, and we dug with our bare hands under logs and boulders, searching out what little firewood had escaped the rains. Tim pulled a Financial Times from his bag, and the flame soon consumed the front page before dying in the damp. Nothing would hold a light for more than a few seconds. The International section came and went. The pages of Companies & Markets were sacrificed. By the Government Bonds page, things were desperate. We dropped to our knees, blowing furiously at the meager flames, alone in the dark as the clouds swirled menacingly overhead. And then, a crackle. A small piece of tinder had dried out just enough. We blew again. Some more took. We piled on the drier wood and placed the rest around to dry beside the nascent flames as they licked higher into the gloom. Suddenly the night was not so dark, and the thought of cooked meat filled our heads. I pulled out the grill and threw chicken and onions onto it, lobbed a few foiled-wrapped potatoes into the embers for good measure, and sat back.
Then the rain started.
We cooked what we could as the heavens tried to kill our tiny hearth, and we washed it down with a bottle of good red wine. And then another one, before we collapsed in the tent, tired, damp, drunk. But not hungry. The rain hammered down all night, big blats of water which killed the fire, but we didn’t care. We’d overcome the odds for now.
The next dawn a weak sun poked through the clouds to watch us stagger up the Todai-gawa valley towards Mt Kai-koma, with sore heads and a thirst that the gravelly water of the river wouldn’t slake. At least it had stopped raining. I pointed to patches of clearer sky to the north, and pronounced the worst of the weather over. Tim pointed to the sackcloth black clouds to the south, our destination, and proclaimed me delusional. But we were making good time. At the fork of the river there were signposts declaring the Roku-gome route closed. I’d climbed it a few years ago, and could see why they’d shut it off. The memories of crossing the river by shuffling across a fallen tree, fifty feet above the grinding waters below, the unmarked trails and constant clatter of rockfall, they stay fresh in my mind. We moved further south and started up the Yaccho-zaka ridge instead, zig-zagging back and forth. I was happy to see Tim keeping a good pace; his boots were so new that he’d only taken the labels off on the train, and I’d had bad premonitions of his feet turning into burger halfway up the mountain.
At the Odaira hut we shocked the lady warden by telling her we were going to the summit that day. Never, she said. It’s too far, and where will you stay when you get there? You’ll have to climb all the way back down in the dark. Our intention was actually to camp on the summit, but I told her instead that we’d head for the unmanned hut at the top of Roku-gome, forty minutes below the peak on the other side. Her look of concern lifted slightly when I told her about my April expedition through the snow a few years ago up there, and how I’d had to spend the night outside the hut, as the snow had drifted inside and sealed the door. You foreigners are survivors, she said, I suppose you’ll be OK. She gave us sweet rice balls to eat with our coffee, and told us that the forecast was for rain the next day too.
We climbed on. Kitazawa-toge was a city of primary coloured tents set against the deep green of the valley floor, the way a child would draw a mountain campsite. The rain was beating down again by this point. At intervals, groups of bedraggled climbers appeared, fresh from the summit. No views, they said. And the wind’s getting up. You boys had better get a move on. Up through the Sensui-toge pass, and the steep ridge which leads to the peak of Mt Komatsu. We passed the last group climbing down. Finally we had the mountain to ourselves, but as we cleared the ridge I looked to where Mt Kai-koma’s peak should be and saw only thick black clouds. The wind blew harder. It was a tough call. We could probably make the summit by dark, but there was no margin of error. I looked back at Tim; he’d put in a strong day, and it was easy to forget this was his first time out. At the nearest patch of flat ground I unrolled the tent.
We woke at 4:30 the next morning, and lay listening to the wind. The peak still boiled with black cloud, worse even than the day before, and it spared us any discussions of whether we might, or could, or perhaps should try. Some days you get to the top, some days you don’t. We were going home, and it felt like a good decision.
I’ve been asked a lot about the ten deaths on Tomuraushi up in Hokkaido last week. My response is that I’m surprised it doesn’t happen with more regularity. Over-zealous guides on a tight schedule taking large groups of elderly and inexperienced climbers into the mountains is a recipe for disaster. It must have been blindingly obvious to the guides that the pace of their group that day in those conditions was woefully inadequate to make their destination. To press on until two dropped of hypothermia, then leave them and three others in a tent with two of the three guides, with one guide taking the rest of the group on was an act of staggering negligence and incompetence.
But it’s sadly not unusual. I’ve seen idiots come down avalanche bowls, and heard of guides sending exhausted single members of a party back down mountains on their own. Everywhere, enormous groups of elderly alpinists, slow and struggling under huge loads, yet always perversely ill-equipped. Team leaders who bully and batter their charges, and groups who climb through ever worsening weather to die by the half dozen just meters from the safety of the huts, and all because “we’ve come this far, it would be a waste to turn back now”.
The heaviest and most dangerous thing you can take to the mountains is your ego.