Climbing with Jimi

October 1, 2009 | Filed Under Uncategorized 

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”


36 Responses to “Climbing with Jimi”

  1. George on October 1st, 2009 12:12 pm

    As much as I enjoyed your whole piece, the image of you in downtown Tokyo rushing to catch a night-train towards the mountains is looping over and over in my head. Where’s he heading to? What kind of gear does he have? It’s make a great opening scene of a movie.

  2. Tornadoes28 on October 1st, 2009 3:27 pm

    Awesome pictures. The picture with the stone outcroppings reminds me of the Sierra Nevada mountains in California.

  3. Tom on October 1st, 2009 4:15 pm

    “Le’me stand next to your fire!!!” Yeah, loving the Hendrix! Great company to your equally great narrative.
    That’s a new photo style at the end – embarking into astronomy? Is that the moon?? Wonderful result!

  4. Mikael on October 1st, 2009 6:36 pm

    As is the norm in this blog all the pictures are great, but somehow the real magic happens when the camera is pointed downhill. Nice clouds and horizons are plentiful in mountain photography, valleys with light and clouds playing inside them less so. In these pictures you truly appreciate the scale of the mountains.

  5. Dave Hollin on October 1st, 2009 7:28 pm

    beautiful. What more can I say. You have a really engaging writing style and the pictures (as ever) are simply stunning!

  6. hanameizan on October 1st, 2009 11:57 pm

    Brilliant! Picking up sticks on the way up to light a fire at the top on which to lay your bivy. The sandy ground of the S. Alps is the perfect place to do it, and should you receive any criticism, I would reply:

  7. CJW on October 3rd, 2009 3:32 am

    George – you’re right, that *would* be a good opening. An over-the-shoulder shot as our protagonist strides through Roppongi in the early ours. A drunk young man crashes into him, but he doesn’t stop. Camera pulls away as the protagonist walks off, axes gleaming in the neon…

    Tornadoes28 – I’ve though the same thing each time I’ve been up there – very un-Japanese formations, the kind of thing you find in the US west.

    Tom – my first successful night shot, and entirely thanks to the knowledge and patience of Matsuo-san. The moon (which was only half full, in fact) setting over Mt Senjo, and the cloudy wisps in the center are the Milky Way. I think you might be seeing more night shots from now on…!

    Mikael – it’s my favorite vantage point too – standing on the top, and looking down.

    Dave – glad you enjoyed it. It was a cracking few days, one of those rare times when everything is just perfect.

    Hanameizan – I thought long and hard before writing about my wee conflagrations, but in the end decided to include them. As long as you obey the two golden rules – leave no trace, and don’t interfere with anyone else’s enjoyment – then I don’t see a problem. What really gets me is when I see the blackened remains of someone’s fire, often complete with half-burnt food wrappers and the like. That’s just not on. When I have a burn, I make sure to use only fallen wood, to dig a proper pit and replace the topsoil afterwards, and to burn everything until nothing is left but a fine white ash. In an area like Mt Jizo, I think you actually do the environment a favour with a small fire. The summit is so sterile that nothing rots, and there’s a serious erosion problem – forcing a little nitrogen and potassium back into the ground up there is a good thing.

  8. mike pitt on October 3rd, 2009 6:06 am

    What a great write up and amazing photo’s.
    Any chance of a post on what camera you use.Are you by any chance a professional photography you use the light so well.
    Great blog really enjoy reading your posts

  9. jjwalsh on October 3rd, 2009 11:51 am

    Amazing pictures and story, just gave a lift to a traveller from chekoslovakia who was travelling around Japan and hiking the mountains before going back to get his doctorate in Artifical intelligence- he said he got lost in the mountains so many times, didn’t have a map and couldn’t read any of the signs, but still had such an amazing experience. Seeing your photos brings back wonderful memories of climbing mountains in Japan and being more open to your inner voice and the influence of petic voices around you (like Jimi), Thanks so much for sharing it with us

  10. mikesblender on October 3rd, 2009 1:04 pm

    Absolutely gorgeous leading photo Chris!
    And as usual, sitting around in Tokyo this weekend, I’m jealously reading about your most recent adventure….

  11. Mike on October 4th, 2009 4:27 am

    Wonderful post as usual! I wonder, could you write a bit about how you pack so light, what items you bring and general climbing safety tips and preparation for people who want to do some of this? :)

  12. butuki on October 4th, 2009 5:09 am

    Chris, have a look at the <a href=""Bushbuddy. It uses tiny pieces of wood, leaves no trace, and is very light (pricey though… I have one, but I’ve also made one myself).

    Some videos

  13. butuki on October 4th, 2009 5:13 am

    Oops, made a mistake with the link… Bushbuddy

  14. David on October 4th, 2009 7:25 am

    I was just wondering how much training outside of hiking and climbing you have. How much running mileage do you have if you happen to run?

  15. CJW on October 4th, 2009 8:20 am

    Mike Pitt – no, I’m far from being a professional photographer. I’m just a lucky guy whose fortunate to live near mountains with beautiful scenery and great light displays. I use a Nikon D80, a Nikkor 18-200mm VR lens, and a polarising filter. There’s some more photo-related stuff under the Photography link at the top of the page.

    JJWalsh – it’s always a pleasure to share my trips to the hills, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Pretty adventurous for that chap to be climbing without a map – there’s a pun about Artificial Intelligence in there somewhere… :-)

    Mikesblender – that top photo is pretty much straight out of the camera (I think I adjusted it for the D80’s funny exposure meter, but that’s all) – with all the cloud rolling in, I didn’t think I was going to get any decent shots that day. Goes to show you, it’s always worth pointing and clicking. I’m just sitting around in Tokyo this weekend too, demolishing a can or two of Kirin’s finest. Have to take a break sometime!

    Mike (#3!) – actually, I will put a post together about equipment soon – it’s on the to-do list. It’s more about the things you don’t take than the things you do. Take a look at the SectionHiker, Laughing Knees, Red Yeti and Summit & Valley blogs listed below for an idea of what real ultra-light guys use. There are some pointers on safety in this piece which I wrote a few months ago:

    Butuki – many thanks for the link – I’d heard of the Bushbuddy (maybe from one of your posts?) but never seen it in action. I’m definitely “warming” to the idea of taking something like this with me in future..

    David – I usually hit the gym a couple of times a week, and try to do a routine that mirrors the differing pace and intensities of a climb or hike. It varies, but the current “full” routine is:
    – 5km run (either barefoot or in Vibram 5fingers) – slow, around 10km/hr
    – Free weights (usual stuff, bench, flys, etc) interspersed with 5 sets of 50 squats – squats are the king of mountain exercises. If I’m feeling good, I’ll do 5 sets of 50 with 40kg weights for the first 10 of each set.
    - 30 min cross-trainer – mountain setting, 10 sets of 1min on level 17 (hard), 1 min on level 5 (sprint), 1 min backwards
    – Lat pull-downs and rows, or an exercise which is a squat while holding a 25kg weight which you lift with both hands over your head at the top of the squat.
    – 2km run at 11-12km/hr

    I’m not much of a runner, but at least I enjoy it now that I’ve given up “proper” running shoes. I do yoga as well, although not as often as I really should.

  16. butuki on October 4th, 2009 2:52 pm

    Aha, so you’re a FiveFinger man, too! Aren’t they incredible? I do get pretty weirded out by the funny looks, though…

  17. butuki on October 4th, 2009 2:56 pm

    Also, after four years of tearing my hair out looking for the right new theme for my blog, I’ve finally settled on the same one that you’re using, plus Monochrome Author for the written part (I can switch themes according to category). I’ll also have to do a lot of customizing, though. Nothing I’ve found does exactly what I need or looks right out of the box.

  18. CJW on October 5th, 2009 9:55 am

    Butuki – I love my Vibram Five Fingers. Funny, I’ve found that adults don’t notice them much, but kids are utterly entranced by them..
    My CSS is here if you want it:
    The header and footer have some manual edits, but nothing special.

  19. Peter Skov on October 7th, 2009 3:37 am

    I must say I envy your luck with light. I had four days and I missed the first day’s evening light, enjoyed a half-decent sunrise on the next day and said hello to clouds and later rain from then on.

    As usual a great tale and great photos too!

  20. CJW on October 7th, 2009 11:12 am

    Thanks Peter – the light was pretty hit-and-miss up there. You’d get about 30 seconds of good conditions before the cloud came across again.. Still, the main thing was that I had a great time – fast, light and high.

  21. butuki on October 8th, 2009 9:39 am

    Chris, thanks for the CSS. I was actually going to ask what you did with the footer…

    I’d also really like to see your equipment list for this trip. I want to get myself to start climbing more all year, but don’t quite have the confidence yet with very cold weather at altitude. Would be great to see your list and see what I need to add to my summer list to keep it warm enough.

    8 kg? Very impressive! Especially for wintry conditions.

  22. Peter Skov on October 8th, 2009 12:28 pm

    That’s the advantage of quick gear light a 35mm or a digital SLR. When the conditions are changing quickly you can grab the shots even if it means throwing your hat on a rock and bracing the camera as best as you can. You do manage to get the shots though. I am always impressed with the pics in your posts.

  23. Project Hyakumeizan on October 8th, 2009 3:04 pm

    How delightful to read that Matsuo-san is still making his marathon mountain hikes in search of the perfect Fuji image. And amusing to learn that only Fuji photographs sell. Exactly the same here in Switzerland: a certain 4478-metre peak near Zermatt steals the show, although it isn’t the highest mountain even in its immediate neighbourhood.

    On another note, I would be intrigued to learn one day exactly how you get the weight of your pack down that low. Maybe you could produce some technical notes, along the lines of your excellent posting on photography?

  24. butuki on October 9th, 2009 12:14 am

    Peoject Hyakumeizan: check out Backpacking Light. The resources there are superb, and the forum community one of the best I’ve ever found on the Web.

  25. butuki on October 9th, 2009 1:59 am

    Just got my pack down to 8.5 kg including three days of food, lightweight, homemade tripod (made of three, sectioned old tent poles joined by one of those tiny flexible tripods you can get in camera shops, and stabilized by a triangle of spectra cord), two carbon fiber trekking poles (also used as tarp poles… still trying to figure out how they might make an easily deployed tripod for my camera… that way I can get rid of the other tripod), and a clothing/sleeping system for possible snow. I’m heading off to Tanigawa (to Tairrapyou) later today and will start walking tomorrow. Hope it’s not too windy or icy.

  26. CJW on October 9th, 2009 2:47 am

    Butuki – I copied the footer code here: if you need it. And I will post something on kit. I’m heading up to Tanigawa-dake on Sunday for a one-dayer, wonder if we’ll bump into you…

    Project Hyakumeizan – Matsuo-san was on fine form! A very nice man to share a summit with. & you’ve convinced me; a kit post of some sort coming up this weekend!

  27. The Envoy on October 10th, 2009 12:15 pm

    Such heavenly pictures.

  28. Nigel on October 12th, 2009 2:38 am

    Looking forward to the next installment Chris. I was up near Tanigawa-dake, Tairappyo, on Saturday … was really nice up there. Looking forward to another trip soon before the snow starts

  29. CJW on October 12th, 2009 8:42 am

    Thanks Envoy, it was pretty close to heaven up there.

    Nigel – good to hear from you! It must have been beautiful up there on Saturday (and today, as well, judging from the webcam). However the gods decreed that we had to do it on Sunday, CJW-style – horizontal sleet, a howling gale, sub-zero temperatures and 20m visibility… We’ll have our revenge this winter though.

  30. Nigel on October 12th, 2009 9:41 am

    Oh well, better luck next time eh Chris. What route did you take up there? So much good stuff to do. George got me on to the Tairappyo route … Lots of other stuff to do there and doable in a day trip from Tokyo too. Excellent

  31. butuki on October 12th, 2009 1:30 pm

    As you know I was up on Tanigawadake today, too. I was originally going to walk to Tairappyo, but had some things to do at home, left on Sunday, got there late due to a problem with my Suica card (did you know that you can’t use it for the Shinkansen?!?!?!), and when I arrived found the conditions that you described Chris. AHHHH! No way I was going to camp in that with my tarp (though it’s designed for it). So down the mountain I retreated to do go for a wonderful day hike to the top today. Great weather! TONS of people!

  32. George on October 12th, 2009 2:17 pm

    Well, looks like Tanigawa-dake/Tairappyo was certainly popular this weekend. We decided to chase the snow and headed towards Kashimayarigatake on Sun/Mon. It was nice to hear snow/ice underneath the boots and crampons, although I have to say it was pretty cold. At one point I checked my watch and it ranged from -6c to -10c in our tent at night. Time to break out the winter gear..

  33. CJW on October 14th, 2009 7:03 am

    Nigel – we did the Doai to Tsuchitaru route (never have two places been so appropriately named). Really enjoyed it, I’m hoping to be back up there next March sometime.

    Butuki – a very wise choice. I looked at the webcam on Monday and saw all that great weather, it must have been beautiful. Looking forward to seeing the photos.

    George – sure was, that’s a busy mountain! Good call on Kashima-yari, I saw your shots on FB. Yea, winter gear at last~!!

  34. Clint on October 15th, 2009 11:36 am

    Writing, climbing, photography.

    The late Galen Rowell…

    You just need to sell your business or quit your job and I think you could fill his burly shoes.

  35. Bushbuddy on January 22nd, 2012 7:47 am

    Really serene pictures! I can’t wait to get back out there.

  36. South Jacksonville FL CRIMINAL on November 22nd, 2014 2:33 am

    An outstanding share! I have just forwarded this onto a friend who had been conducting a little homework on this.

    And he in fact bought me lunch due to the fact that I stumbled upon it for him…

    lol. So allow me to reword this…. Thank YOU for the meal!!

    But yeah, thanx for spending some time to talk about this issue here on your web page.

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