This mountain eats men

October 15, 2009 | Filed Under Uncategorized 

“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”.

Comments

41 Responses to “This mountain eats men”

  1. George on October 15th, 2009 1:59 pm

    The mountain there is “only” around 2000m, but often feels much… bigger.

    In my limited time up there, I’ve seen weather change in a few minutes, gale force winds, big big avalanches, and huge bears.

    Welcome to Tanigawadake!

  2. butuki on October 16th, 2009 7:52 am

    Now I don’t feel so wimpy any more. I guess with the amount of mountain walking I’ve done and the number of times I got into trouble, I instinctively know now when the weather doesn’t look right or I’m facing my limits. Hope that hiking party made it out all right!

    When I was descending Tanigawadake at three in the afternoon I saw groups of day hikers wearing jeans and slippers and nothing but a t-shirt, just starting up! I really think that gondola instills false bravado in those people who don’t know anything about the full fury of a mountain like Tanigawa, and there ought to be proper warning signs and information prominently posted and a ranger who watches out for people. I wonder if the authorities even care about safety?

  3. Mikael on October 16th, 2009 9:23 am

    That picture of the bamboo shrub (can’t for my life remember the Japanese name for it) in the wind brings back memories. I brought back slightly similar pictures taken on my first foray up Hokkaido’s Asahidake, and was very proud of the abilities of my first digital camera (a Nikon Coolpix 5700, in 2002, and still going strong). Anyway, I showed them to the lovely old lady caring for the university guest house I was staying in at the time, and used my then 20 word Japanese vocabulary to ask what they were called. The lady, with her about 10 word English vocabulary, thought for a while, and came up with the perfect explanation: “Bamboo furendo!” Naturally, a bamboo type plant. That’s why I’ll probably never know the name in Japanese. For me that plant is always a “Bamboo friend”.

  4. Project Hyakumeizan on October 17th, 2009 11:34 am

    A mountain that eats people …. what an apposite title. Fukada Kyuya tells the story of a mother who was willing to let her mountaineer son climb anywhere – except Tanigawa-dake! By the way, I wonder where that statistic of 850 fatalities comes from? Do the police keep a tally? The figure quoted in Nikon Hyakumeizan is, of course, somewhat lower, but that was back in 1964 and since then the butcher’s bill has kept ticking up ….

  5. George on October 17th, 2009 12:14 pm

    I did a quick search for the fatalities figures, here’s an interesting link from the Tanigadake Mountaineering Center:
    http://www6.ocn.ne.jp/~tozan-ce/jyourei.htm
    “特に昭和41年には37人もの命が失われています。”
    That’s 43 fatalities just in 1966. I think most are rock-climbing-related.

  6. George on October 17th, 2009 12:14 pm

    oops, that should read “37 fatalities”

  7. CJW on October 17th, 2009 12:59 pm

    George – I know what you mean. From Doai, we looked at the ridge and didn’t think it looked like much at all. Then we got up there… As for Doai and Tsuchitaru, never have two places been so aptly named, it was mud, mud, mud!

    Butuki – you made a wise call, it wasn’t a day to be bivying out. Funny, I had the same conversation with Wes about the need for rangers up at the gondola. It’s just an accident waiting to happen.

    Mikael – it’s generally called “sasa”, but from now on I won’t be able to think of it as anything but “bamboo friend”!

    PH – indeed, Tanigawa has a fearsome reputation that belies its stature. The 850 was the average of varying numbers that are scattered across the internet – I’m still looking for something definitive. As George says, most of them seem to have been rock-climbing accidents, mainly those attempting new routes.

  8. Hendrik M on October 17th, 2009 5:52 pm

    Great photos and superb writing.

    I thought Mount Everest would have the highest death toll (with all the tourists who “climb” it up, or try for that matter), but its “only” around 210. While we don’t have mountains here, I do have respect for them and do not understand how some people can leave their common sense at home and go in flip flops and t-shirt up a mountain. I hope people start to use their brain again when they go out in nature, be it for a walk or climbing a mountain.

  9. Dave Hollin on October 17th, 2009 8:07 pm

    just love the pictures….yet again. The depth and texture you achieve is truly stunning and a real art. The writing is a well balanced compliment to the pictures, rich and thoughtful. I always enjoy you posts so keep it up!

  10. Laney Landry on October 17th, 2009 10:07 pm

    The fatalities are enormous. I totally agree that there should be some sort of Ranger or safety driven device in place. It always amazes me when I see people attempt something so grand with no thought of preparation. Will look into this man eater more.

  11. wes on October 18th, 2009 12:00 am

    Great post as usual. Tanigawa has a reputation for nasty weather and it’s on my ‘revenge’ list.

    The lack of park rangers is one thing that a lot of foreign hikers notice when they come go hiking in National Parks in Japan. I think the situation at Tanigawa might be one where the gondola operators aren’t really concerned with what tourists do once they disembark. I’d be curious to know if there are rangers/avalanche experts stationed there in the winter to give climbing advice. Somehow I doubt it.

    Out of all of the Hyakumeizan only rangers I saw were outside of the gondola in the Chuo Alps! At Mt. Shari there’s the hut owner who forbids hikers from setting out after 2pm, and perhaps a staff member during high season at Mt. Shibutsu, but other than that – NOTHING!

    It’s defintely a ‘do it at your own risk’ attitude over here and people rarely get sued for negligence.

  12. KamoshikaBob on October 20th, 2009 1:04 am

    Thanks for bringing back memories of my trek on Tanigawa last year. Yappari, the (relative) lack of elevation, the ease of access, and the familiarity of the mountain (at least for those of us who traverse those tunnels on a semi-annual basis) combine to engender a casual attitude toward the dangers that this precipe holds. Last year September, a buddy and I parked at the Tsuchitaru trail head, then caught the train through the tunnel to Doai, then the gondola up to Tenjin-daira. (Ascending paths and my lungs don’t get along very well, so I bypass them where possible.) Sure enough, loads of people were crowding the path to the summit, where a wedding was in progress, but once we continued on from there, we met maybe half a dozen other climbers. It was on that traverse, however, that I realized how dangerous this mountain was. Heading north on the ridge, the right hand side was literally a vertical drop, probably almost 1000m to the valley floor. As we looked down at a rock face across that valley, I spotted about 3 black spots moving up, and when they reached the top of their climb, they responded to our calls and waves. Something else responded to my waves, though. The weather that day also was changeable, although was at least equal parts sunny and cloudy. So at one point along our traverse, the ridge was in the sun, but a snake of cloud had slithered up the valley to our right, so that as we looked down on the cloud below us, our shadows were encircled with a rainbow. I apologize for letting this get long, but I had read about such a phenomenon here on Chris’ site, and so I was getting very excited and shouting and waving my arms to see the shadow wave its. As I was making such a scene, (my buddy was staying well back of the edge) a lone hiker came by, and when I explained to him what the ruckus was, he said, “Ah, Burokken, neh,” and trudged on. I had forgotten the name Chris had used for Brocken’s Spectre, but this was the highlight of that day. Unfortunately, I had not gotten myself into proper shape before climbing Tanigawdake, and although my lungs no longer slowed us down once we had passed the summit, my knees did during the long, long way back down to Tsuchitaru. Of course we didn’t have lights because we had planned to stick to the map times, and be down before dark, which we were not. And so cell phone lights were all we had to see the mud as we slipped our way down with sore knees. Sorry to take up so much space on someone else’s blog, but that’s my story of underestimating Tanigawadake.

  13. CJW on October 20th, 2009 9:42 am

    Hendrik – it is quite shocking how much higher the death toll has been on Tanigawa versus the rest of the world. And you’re right, it’s distressing to see people so poorly prepared.

    Dave – thank you for your kind words, as ever. I despaired of getting any decent shots given the conditions, but thankfully a couple turned out OK.

    Laney – that’s some of the most inventive spamming I’ve seen in a while [NSFW, folks]! Usually I’d delete the comment, but given that you seem to have read the post (either that, or you’re a very clever bot) I’ll let it slide. This time…

    Wes – yup, you nailed it. I could never understand why the Chuo Alps system, which works so well there, has never been more widely adopted.

    KamoshikaBob – ah, that’s where you saw the Brocken! I remember you mentioning it a while back. I’m quite envious that you got those views off the ridge, though. Definitely need to get up there again on a decent (and uncrowded) day. I feel for your knees on the way down. That descent to Tsuchitaru is never ending, especially in the mud.

  14. Peter Skov on October 20th, 2009 10:55 am

    Seems almost every year I hear of people dying up there. One guy I know lost a good buddy to Tanigawa. You are so right about the plan B. Did you guys have one? Some people seem to think that the summit must be reached at all costs and sometimes the cost is the ultimate price to pay. I am glad you guys were able to make it up and back safely. The morning after the typhoon I stood at my train station on the access bridge above the rails and saw clear blue skies Tokyo way and dark clouds over Gunma and Nagano. And that’s what you two jumped right into.

    You know what? I have given up at least three Hyakumeizan (including Tanigawa but not including Hotakadake which I gave up twice to poor weather before I finally made it) and two Nihyakumeizan on account of the weather turning poor. The reason to give up was not because I thought I couldn’t make it to the summit in the bad weather but because for me there was no point as I had come to photograph. When there are no good opportunities for photography at the summit I head back and look for a chance to shoot nature scenes below.

    The reds in your photos are amazing. In spite of the poor conditions I am glad you still attempted some photography.

  15. Peter Skov on October 20th, 2009 11:07 am

    In addition, I remember the frustration of having to wait for party after party of seniors to come down the ladders on the Takesawa route to Mae Hotaka. I felt we did more standing and waiting than climbing. In the end the weather turned treacherous and we were too far behind schedule to make it before dark. We gave up and went back to the Kamikochi campsite.

  16. CJW on October 20th, 2009 11:14 am

    Hi Peter – we almost activated Plan B at the ridge when we hit the queues (head back and hit the onsen). Even though it was a quick & light trip, we still had enough gear to have spent the night reasonably comfortably in one of the emergency huts, and had headlamps if we needed to come down in the dark. I think I’ve turned back from almost as many summits as I’ve made it to the top of.

  17. Peter Skov on October 20th, 2009 11:24 am

    Well, your writing confirms it. Even when you have to turn back there’s still a good story to tell. I remember your winter attempt on Utsugi. You didn’t make it the first time but your photos and writing were still enthralling.

  18. Jason on October 22nd, 2009 5:21 pm

    I would never have guess the mountain with the most fatalities on it would be one I never heard of in Japan. I would be very interested in reading an essay on why this is the case, either due to number of climbers per year, difficulty of trail, or the lack of preparation of climbers cited by Chris and other commenters.

    I’d like to see a photo of that shear 1000m drop off!

    Very tight story telling Chris.

  19. George on October 23rd, 2009 4:17 am

    Jason, there are several books in Japanese that describe the general history/background of the rock-climbing scene in Tanigawadake, but I can’t seem to find them at the moment. I think it should be possible to find something on Amazon.co.jp though. My haze recollection is that opening of the train-line at Doai opened up the area to lots of competition from Tokyo-based climbers for first-ascents and fame.

    There are a few routes listed here:
    http://climbjapan.blogspot.com/

  20. Sandra on October 26th, 2009 4:46 am

    Wow. Seriously amazing photos and stories.

  21. CJW on October 26th, 2009 9:55 am

    Jason – yes, incredible isn’t it? And not one of the 10,000 footers either. As George says, it does seem to have attracted the attention of teams trying new routes back during the original tozan boom mid last century.

    Sandra – glad you like them!

  22. billywest on October 27th, 2009 2:31 am

    Just don’t go and write a post titled, “This Man Eats Mountains,” or else fate just might make it your last post ;)

  23. Our Man in Abiko on October 28th, 2009 2:27 pm

    Stunning, as usual.

  24. Rockie on October 30th, 2009 10:33 pm

    More excellent work. “The mountain eats people” is superb!!! Love the path of colors leading to nowhere…

  25. butuki on October 31st, 2009 2:57 am

    Chris, I’m starting to seriously look at bivvies for walking, including winter. So far I’ve got the Big Agnes Three Wire Bivy on my list and will most likely go with that, but I’ve not done any camping with a bivvy without using a tarp in conjunction. What would you recommend? (I’m claustrophobic so a closed bivvy that lies on my face is out).

  26. The Envoy on October 31st, 2009 3:14 am

    Arr… a deadly beauty, she (the mountain) is.

  27. CJW on November 5th, 2009 1:08 pm

    BillyWest – the only mountains I eat are mountains of Calorie Mate and Snickers.. food of the gods!

    OMIA – thank you, as ever.

    Rockie – you’ve no idea the panic that set in when we finally got a glimpse of those colours – just seconds to click off as many shots are possible before the cloud rolled in again..!

    Butuki – the Three Wire Bivy looks like just the thing if you’re claustrophobic. The only thing that struck me was (looking at the Big Agnes website) that they seem to have replaced the all eVent upper with a Cordura foot. That would be bad if it was the case – the foot of the bivy is generally the place that suffers the most from condensation. Maybe worth checking with them. I’m a big fan of Integral Designs – the Unishelter Exp (eVent version) might be worth looking at, if only to compare.

    The Envoy – she sure is, she sure is..

  28. Tony on November 16th, 2009 6:00 am

    Whilst it’s certainly interesting to read everyone’s point of view here about Tanigawadake, I think you might all be reading things into those statistics that aren’t necessarily there. Changeable weather aside, I wouldn’t have thought there were many serious dangers waiting for you on the hiking trail from the top of the gondola. Unless we can see a breakdown of that 850 number, I’m assuming that the vast majority of those deaths will have taken place in Ichinokurasawa on the rock-climbing routes, and maybe the lions share of those in winter. The rock can be loose, the terrain often unprotectable, with huge runouts on properly steep grass that are basically unavoidable if you want to get to the top of your route. Then in winter you can factor in the shorter daylight hours, the steep and runout snow slopes on routes, the huge cornices that develop up on the summit ridge, and the huge avalanche danger from around the middle of February onwards.
    There are certainly plenty of ways to meet your maker on Tanigawadake, but relax everyone, walking up the path from the gondola is way down there on the list. :-)

  29. Tony on November 16th, 2009 7:21 am

    PS Forgot to say, nice website cjw… good work. I also enjoyed your comments about the Hoshiana shindou on Myougi san… a classic outing :-)

  30. CJW on November 23rd, 2009 6:47 am

    Hey Tony – you’re absolutely right (and I think a few comments above mentioned it, too) – the vast majority of those fatalities were in climbing parties. That said, even the relatively straightforward ridge has taken a few, and if people insist on going up there in jeans and t-shirts when it’s sleeting on top, then it will surely take a few more…
    Hoshiana was a good day out, our elapine encounter notwithstanding!

  31. MTC on December 1st, 2009 9:40 am

    My own last trip up Tanigawadake was done in the company of what seemed a rather significant portion of Japan’s population.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/28196204@N05/4024690511/sizes/l/

    Ah, mountains!

  32. Keela on February 8th, 2010 9:27 am

    Love the picture of the tree, its really surreal. Looks like something from a Tim Burton film

  33. Ron of Tokyo on July 21st, 2010 3:43 am

    Good People,

    Mate and I climbed Tanigawadake and did the peaks ridge trail and camped out for 2 nights last weekend. Amazing vistas but incredibly steep ridge lines and I can see why the death stats are so high. The weather can change in an instant and after starting ou climb late arvo a thunderstorm moved in and we were battered by the most torrential downpour I have ever experienced, which was accompanied with lightning. we were pretty lucky to make it to the first cabin as the air was electrified and we were basically climbing in the middle of the thunderstorm. 1 hour later it was blue skies with not a breath of wind at the summit – freakish! 2 days climbing were outstanding but did have a bear encounter at close range (20m) in steep, dense terrain on our descent doing the avalanche alley ridge line and by passing the top of the gondala – incredibly steep track. Unbelievable mountain experience all round but agree that preparation and equipment is key…..

  34. OE on April 17th, 2011 3:00 pm

    Wiki declares (almost proudly) 781 deaths since proper records began in 1931, through 2005. Compares with a total of only 637 on ALL the world’s 8000m peaks. Quite an achievement.

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  37. Mei May on October 29th, 2013 9:40 am

    I really like your article! Wish I found you earlier when I was hiking all those mountains with very little information to go on. The comments in your article are pretty helpful too. Thanks for a beautiful piece!

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    In the 60’s, my dad was on Tanigawa and started an avalanche after walking on snow cornice. Only a few broken bones.

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