This mountain eats men

October 15, 2009 | Filed Under Uncategorized | 41 Comments 

“The problem is”, the Other Englishman mused as we stood in the freezing sleet which blew horizontally from the slate grey clouds that surrounded us, “they never have a plan B.”

And he was right. Here we were, stuck on the roof of the Tanigawa ridge, waiting for a party of neophyte climbers to make their painfully slow way down a short chained section. Twenty or so in the group, a single guide, they’d pressed on into ever worse conditions, with clearly no thought that maybe turning back might be a better option. No plan B for when it was all going wrong. They’d come to climb Tanigawa-dake, weather, safety and other climbers be damned. Finally we made our way past and sprinted off, and with a silent curse pumped warm blood back into our cold limbs.

Tanigawa-dake has a reputation. More people have died on its slopes than any other mountain on earth, some 850 at the last count. Its ramparts mark the boundary between the snow country of the north and the rest of Japan, a near impenetrable barrier at one time before the advent of the seven tunnels which now burrow beneath its walls. Avalanches in the winter, rockfall, flood and landslides in the summer.

After typhoon Melor wracked the center of Japan, it looked as if we might be in for a week of fine weather, with blue skies and warm Pacific air. From the early morning Shinkansen out of Tokyo station we looked across to clear views of a snow-capped Fuji on one side, and the Nikko ranges on the other. But the closer we got to that guardian of the snow country, the darker the skies became, until the peaks were blotted out by dark mists. At Doai station, the train emptied its cargo of weekend climbers – all of whom headed straight for the gondola, leaving us alone to make the climb to the ridge.

We headed up and into the teeth of the storm, and hit the traffic jam of bodies at the top again. At the peak of Oki-no-mimi the majority turned around, and for a while we had the mountain to ourselves. Alone on an island of stone in the middle of a grey sea, which hurled sleet and snow down upon us, we raced through the gloom until we ran smack into the unfolding desperation of the novice party whose aspirations exceeded their ability.

These autumn days are short on daylight, and even though we’d chewed up the miles in good time, the light was fading by the time we got to the bottom of the mountain. Our thoughts went back to the group we’d passed, who would surely be benighted up there. If they were sensible, they’d make for the emergency hut and stay the night. If they were sensible…. At Yuzawa we found a bath house by the station, rinsed the mud from our bodies and sank into its steaming waters.

The OE had met a man on Yari-ga-take who’d told him of Tanigawa’s reputation. “That mountain eats men”, the man had said.

“Which is all very well,” the OE wisely observed, “but some people do insist on jumping into its mouth”.



Climbing with Jimi

October 1, 2009 | Filed Under Uncategorized | 35 Comments 

So, what do you do? Three days of good weather, a bivy bag, and those winter routes aren’t going to scout themselves. How about what Fukada Kyuya called “one of the hardest routes in Japan”, the 8000 foot vertical ascent of Mt Kai-koma via the Kuroto Ridge?

Yeah, that’s what you’re going to do.

Put some Hendrix on the iPod, hit dark streets of Tokyo and seek out the first train heading west for the mountains.

“Well I stand up next to a mountain,
And I chop it down with the edge of my hand”

From the tiny station at Hinoharu I walk between the rice fields of the valley and towards the foot of the Kuroto Ridge. It rises cleanly out of the valley floor, a mile and half into the air. But the pack is light today, and under an immaculate sky I start the attack. The bottom part of the ridge is the remains of an ancient shugendo, a path used by the ascetics of Japan’s mountain religions. Today, though, it is deserted. Are we not the modern incarnation of those seekers of higher truths, though? My bear-bell rings to the heavens, but it is the can of grisly-strength mace on my shoulder that I thank Buddha for.

Below the sheer grey headwall of the summit, the taciturn hut owner tries to ignore the foreigner sprawled shirtless on the benches outside. The ridge so far has disappeared in a blaze. Ten, then twelve, then fourteen vertical meters a minute, until I could taste the ammonia at the back of my throat which told me I was burning muscle and that it was time to throttle off. I slowly suck down a couple of liters of water and drift into the peerless blue heavens until my shirt dries out and a wisp of cloud drifts over the distant summits of the Yatsu-ga-take range.

Time to go.

“We’ll hold hands and then we’ll watch the sunrise,
From the bottom of the sea”

Osamu Matsuo tells me he’s been camped on the summit for three days now, a patient hunter of a perfect portrait of Mt Fuji, which sits serenely to the south.

“There’s no money in regular mountain photography. People like Fuji.” he says, and to prove it he pulls out a sample sheet of his most recent exhibition. Against each tiny print are a forest of ticks, one for each sold, and all of Fuji in some guise or other.

As the sun goes down, I roll out the bivy. Matsuo-san looks on with disdain. “I hate bivys. Brrr! Get a tent, it’s not much heavier. You’ll be cold!” he warns. I tell him I’ll be fine, and I untie the bail of sticks I collected as I walked up through the treeline. Behind a sheltering rock I dig a pit in the gravel of the summit, and soon have a small fire going. Matsuo-san grins and lugs his camera and tripod over. “Ha, that’s the first camp fire I’ve seen at 10,000 feet.” He hops from foot to foot. “Would you, er, mind taking a photo of me sitting by it?” he asks. We take it in turns to shoot each other sitting by this tiny beacon in the sky, before turning our attention to the more serious business of capturing the night sky and Fuji in the twilight.

As the moon sets and the milky way rises, I burn down the last of the fire before covering it back over with gravel and laying the bivy on top of the warm ground. It barely feels like five minutes have passed before Matsuo-san’s voice wakes me up, just as the first rays of light crawl into the sky.

“Get up! We might have a ‘Red Fuji’ morning!”.

We almost did.

“All along the watchtower,
Princes kept the view.”

In winter, the Kuroto Ridge will be a hard climb. A section above the hut but before the headwall, a rolling flank covered in creeping pine, will need some careful consideration, but there’s nothing there that concerns me. The climb south off Mt Kai-koma and along the long Hayakawa Ridge, though, has me bothered. Lower altitude and tree lined with a southern exposure. In anything but the coldest of conditions, it promises all the joys of wading through slush filled with ankle grabbing tree roots. But today it’s a grand walk, gratefully sheltered under trees that are just putting on their autumn colours, and punctuated by small peaks that gaze over the mountains beyond.

“Where you going to run to, where you going to go?
I’m going way down south, way down where I can be free.”

At the Hayakawa hut, I take on 3 liters of water and start the climb up and towards tonight’s goal, the granite spires of Mt Jizo-ga-take in the Hou-ou-sanzan range. The cloud is starting to gather fast now, and already the summits of Kita-dake and Aino have vanished. As I climb out of the treeline the wind blows cold, at first welcome and then chilling. The north-west flank of Mt Takamine is a broken mess of boulders and steep terrain. I’m starting to think that this whole section might be a ridge too far in winter.

“And so castles made of sand,
Fall into the sea, eventually.”

The entire Minami Alps range is formed from ancient seabed, lifted up and thrust miles into the air as the Pacific and Eurasian plates crash into one another. Nowhere is this more apparent than Jizo, whose summit is a granite pillar known as the Obelisk and which is surrounded by soft golden sand. I bivvied here on a cold winter night last year, arriving too late, leaving too early and wearing the wrong boots to climb the Obelisk itself. Time to remedy that.

An instantly recognisable landmark from throughout the top end of the Minami Alps, the Obelisk stands like a three hundred foot high cairn. Closer still, it dissolves into a tumbledown collection of house-sized boulders, surmounted by a split needle, which looks like an easy lay-back climb. Closer again, that easy lay-back turns out to be a nasty off-width crack, too big for a finger and too small for a fist. And filled, as I surmise from the trickle of blood now dripping from my elbow, with viciously sharp crystals. A collection of ropes of varying vintage hang from the top, the usual collection of fraying kernmantles of dubious security. I push them aside and with an onsen towel wrapped around my fingers I jam my way up to the top. It’s a tough end to a long day.

“I have only one ancient desire,
Let me stand next to your fire.”

I spread the bivy out in a natural rock room below the Obelisk and dig a pit for the night’s fire, which roars for a short time and tints orange the boulders of the summit. At 3a.m. I wake and look out from my sleeping bag. The stars are hidden by low cloud, and the barometer is starting to drop; I scratch my plans to climb to Mt Yakushi to catch the dawn, and instead burrow back down for a couple more hours.

The first of the dawn climbers from the hut below is a man in his sixties, a traveller from the north on his way to summit all one hundred of the famous mountains. Mt Jizo is number sixty for him. From my rocky room I watch him come up, and before long we’re chatting on my doorstep. He cannot get over my 30 liter pack, or it’s 8kg weight.

“I camped overnight at the hut, and I have 25kg with me. And in the car, I’ve got a 100 liter pack as well. All my friends say I pack pretty light, but 8kg….” He walks round and round my kit, picking up each bit and shaking his head. As he makes his way back down, I can hear him mutter to himself.

“30 liters! 8kg! Haaa, I couldn’t do that. Wouldn’t feel safe. 30 liters…”

“All you do is slow me down,
When I’m trying to get to the other side of town.
You’re just like crosstown traffic.”

Yuka’s waiting for me at the Aoki onsen hot spring at the foot of the mountain, and I can feel the hot water and taste the beer long before I get there. The weekend warriors are grinding their slow way up the trail between the trees; it’s going to be a busy night at the hut. Down and into the cloud-wracked forest, it’s hard to believe this is the same mountain. As I pass the waterfalls which crash down the Dondoko valley, I start to picture them half frozen in the winter and make a mental note of their locations. A few hours later and the roofs of the onsen loom into view, just as the iPod runs out of juice.

“The story of life is quicker than the blink of an eye,
The story of love is hello and goodbye,
Until we meet again”