“…and the Irish Meteorological Office is warning people not to travel unless absolutely necessary today. There’s snow on the highground, and the roads are lethal icy this morning…”
..but too late. The fat tires of the sports car were already skidding down the narrow road and towards the cliffs of the Gap of Dunloe. Ten o’clock in the morning, but the sun hangs just above the horizon and won’t rise much higher before it disappears into the icy Atlantic again in a few hours. Summiting in Eire at this time of year is a race against weather and clock.
Climbing over a farmer’s gate. An unmarked path through thick heather. The unfamiliar prick of gorse thorns against our legs, and the half-frozen peat bogs which threaten to suck the boots from our feet. Black faced sheep gaze with yellow eyes as we pass. Yuka demands their attention, but they turn and walk away. Above an icy crest, a thin cloud bank furls across the mountain; she sees her first brocken.
The storms race in, dark streaks across the checkerboard fields of the glen below. We’re cast into greyness and the snow races horizontally past, but the storm passes as quickly as it came. Cobalt skies and peaks ragged with cloud again fill our eyes. The loughs shimmer like molten gold in the pale winter sun. We are alone in these mountains in the dying days of the decade.
Failte ar ais, welcome back. The picture windows of the hotel bar look out across the blackness of the lough below. Sleet drips down the windows, beads of moisture drip down the half-finished pint of Guinness.
Is ann an ceann bliadhna a dh’ innseas iasgair a thuiteamas.
It is at the year’s end that the fisher can tell his luck.
Roppongi station is a Gomorrah at five in the morning on a Saturday, but a long figure with the helmet hanging from his pack slips unnoticed through the red-eyed crowds and into the early morning. I meet T and K at the crossroads, and we point the car onto the highway and towards the west coast of the Izu peninsula. The city melts into sparse towns, which in turn dissolve into tiny fishing hamlets which huddle in rocky bays on the cold shore of the Pacific.
It’s almost midday by the time we reach the bottom of the climb. The walk in was a vertiginous trail with steep falls into the churning ocean, and a rappel into the bay below.
He leads the first pitch; K and I join him the belay some twenty minutes later. I score nul points for style. “Like Twight said, it doesn’t have to be fun to be fun,” T says. I had fun, I assure him. “Then you’re doing it wrong”.
K leads next, a traverse and then a staircase-like gash in the rock, up to a narrow ledge which is studded with stunted pines. Half a dozen sun-bleached slings flitter from a dead tree which sticks out from the face; it’s stomach-churning to think people rappelled off it.
T shoots off up the crack in the next wall, twisting impossibly through an overhang before disappearing out of sight. Higher up, a wide crack splinters the rock face in two; we jam our hands and feet into it and sacrifice some skin to the mountain gods. From a shady ledge at the top we watch the sun start to drop into the ocean. The crux is two pitches higher up, but we’re done for the day.
We rap back to the forest below. Darkness is already settling as we scurry back along the cliffs and climb out of the bay. Then the unmistakable pac-pac sound of rockfall echoes up from the behind us, sending a shower of sparks through the darkness from the spot we’d stood just minutes before. A parting shot from the walls of Mt. Umikongo, and then stillness again, just the sound of the sea crashing against the shore below. We hurry back through the night, grateful that the dark conceals the drop off at our feet. Addiction is a dangerous thing, but sometimes you get away with it.