“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”.