This Mountain Sickness

Some call it a sickness. To swap warm beds for nights on cold granite, high above the clouds where the air is thin. A willing choice, a desire even, to leave comfort behind and instead carry your home on your back through the high places of this world. What else could account for all this, if not some tragic disease of the mind?

Mt Kita-dake shines brightly in the autumn sun, defiant against a cobalt sky. Our packs are heavy with the eight days worth of provisions for the long climb ahead, an unsupported voyage through the Minami-Alps. With each footfall we grind a little more of the mountain away. Four thousand and six hundred feet later we sit in the early afternoon sun on the Kotaro ridge, watching the clouds race up the valley. I point out the surrounding mountains to Yuka: Kai-koma, Senjo, Houou-sanzan. The cloud rises higher, blotting the peaks one by one, and finally obscuring Kita-dake too by the time we reach the hut on its northern shoulder. As we pitch the tent, we look out into the gathering darkness and resolve to make the summit before dawn the next day, hopeful of a sunrise to make up for the lost sunset of this first day. We’re halfway through dinner when suddenly the tent lights up, as though on fire.

We race out and confront the conflagration that has consumed the western skies. The cloud-wracked valley seems to seethe, an unearthly scene of orange and red, pierced through by the orb of the sun. Within minutes it transforms again, the mists around us boiling away to leave a sea of clouds below, and within that sea a dozen dark islands where the peaks of the Alps gash through. Yuka bursts into tears. “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.” she says, and we stand, arms around each other in the cold wind, watching the sun sink into the milky ocean below.

The next morning, Japan is laid out before us from the summit of Kita-dake. Fuji sits darkly to the east, and to the west we can make out the peaks of Kiso-koma where we’d spent New Year. Far to the north, Yari-ga-take’s sharp peak stands out, no doubt heavy with climbers this long holiday weekend. Reluctantly we leave the summit and climb down the ridge and along towards Mt Aino-ga-take, still making good time despite the burden on our backs. The sun creeps a little higher in the sky, cooking the left side of our bodies while the right side shivers in the wind. By the time we reach Aino, a thin haze has pulled itself across the sky, and the wind blows fiercely. We hurry off, and on the far side of the summit break for lunch, admiring the chain of peaks that march away to the south. Suddenly our journey doesn’t seem so far. Then Yuka pulls off her boot, and mutters darkly under her breath.

The small blister on her heel which we’d treated the day before has become much worse. We re-apply bandages and duct tape the inside of her boot. “I’ll be fine. It’s all downhill for the rest of today, it’ll be fine by tomorrow.” she says, but this is not a good sign.

It’s still only midday when we arrive at the Kuma-no-daira camp, but we decide to pitch the tent anyway and give Yuka’s blisters some time to heal. In the warm afternoon sun we chat to the hut owner. He recounts his days of climbing in the Himalayas, and about how he brought his American wife and 3-month old son to this hut when he started it twenty years ago. The only routes in or out are over the 10,000 foot peaks on either side; so when his son became ill, the hut owner would carry him on his back over those vertiginous summits and down to the villages below, like something from Japanese folklore. He sent them back to the States when his son became too big to do this, but will travel back to see them when the hut closes for the season in three days time.

The inky canopy of the sky is still studded with stars as we pack up the tent the next morning. Yuka’s patched her feet with whatever she can find, but still moves a little slower despite her protests that she is fine. Climbing up is noticeably painful for her, but thankfully the day starts with a long, gently undulating ridge towards Mt Shiomi to the south. The sky is cloudless and perfect, but each slope is taking its toll on Yuka and I’m starting to eye the climb up Shiomi with increasing dread. She barely slackens her pace though, and incredibly we are still running well ahead of the map time.

I know she must be in agony as we hit the steep northern flank of the mountain, yet she laughs and jokes with the climbers descending towards us. She’s properly taking a mouthful of carb-gel every twenty minutes, and knocks her feet forward in her boots every few paces to relieve her heels. Finally at the summit, she excitedly traces the path we’ve taken all the way from Aino with her finger. “We came all that way!” But then it hits her.

“I can’t go on, can I? This is so frustrating. My legs are fine, I could keep doing this for days… but these blisters…. such a small thing. But this isn’t failure. I’ve done three huge mountains, and it’s been fantastic. Just walk me down to the trailhead tomorrow and I’ll go home – you should carry on.” she says. I tell her I’ll think about it. The thought of abandoning the journey tears at me, but so does the thought of going on without Yuka. We don’t talk much as we climb down Shiomi’s sharp western edge and to the busy camp at Sanpuku-mine, with its explosion of multi-coloured tents gleaming under the bright sun.

From the tent, we watch the peaks above us throw longer shadows across the valleys. I’m mentally reorganising the gear I’ll need and my itinerary, when Yuka rolls towards me and says “let’s go home together”. I can’t think of anything to say, so I lie there staring at the ceiling before climbing back up the ridge to take some half-hearted photographs of the sunset. We eat without speaking much, and the next morning I still can’t think of anything to say. Yuka breaks the silence,

“I don’t want to go home either. I keep thinking I might be able to go on, but we both know that’s a stupid idea. But these four days have been amazing, I’ll never forget them. I climbed three mountains, and I made it half way, I carried all my own gear, and if it wasn’t for these blisters I could easily have made it. I don’t want to go home without you. Let’s come back together next year. We’ll start here and we can climb the rest of the route. It’ll be easy!”. She punches me on the arm, and I can’t help laughing. Suddenly we have fun again as we climb down into the Iina valley below and head towards home.

The first thing I saw this morning when I woke up was a map of Japan spread across the end of the bed. Yuka’s sitting next to it, thumbing through my guidebook to the Hundred Famous Mountains of Japan. “Y’know, a lot of these are pretty easy. Day climbs. Huh! I was looking at the calendar, we’ve got a few long weekends coming up. We could go to Kyushu again and climb the south of the island. And Gunma as well. Yakushima, maybe? Come on, get up, let’s sort out the gear and decide what we should take next time!”, she gushes.

Some call it a sickness.

Personally, I think it might be the cure.

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