Thief in the Fortress

March 5, 2010 | Filed Under Uncategorized | 51 Comments 

The sound of my footsteps echoes across the empty Hayakawa valley. No other footprints in snow, no signs of life ahead or behind.

I really am all alone here.

A hundred square miles of wilderness, population density: One.

Pttac pttac, the sound of rockfall from above, and I dive for cover. Close into the cliff, I pull the heavy winter pack up and over the back of my neck and cinch the helmet a little tighter. Forty feet away, a volley of grapefruit sized rocks scar the fresh snow.

I really am very alone up here.

“Sorry, this is as far as I can go.”

I’d hoped he’d be able to take me as far as the Yashajin-toge pass. We’d made it to Ashiyasu, the last hamlet in the Hayakawa river valley before the walls of the South Alps, but the wheels of the taxi were starting to skitter on the pre-dawn ice. The walk-in to the bottom of the mountain was already long; this would add another 10km to it. In the cold and dark I watch the taxi trace its way back to civilisation. Time to pull on the harness and pack, start the climb.

On a long summer weekend, the flanks of these mountains are thronged with people. Buses whisk them smartly from Kofu station, up to Ashiyasu and through the tunnel at Yashijin, and safely to the start of the pleasant climb from Hiragawara or Kitazawa-toge. It’s hard to imagine, as I walk through the night on these icy roads, that such things could ever happen. A small signpost marks the begining of the old approach trail, the one they used before the road was built; I cut up it and through the forests, intersecting the road at intervals. As the dawn breaks, the small car park in front of the Yashajin tunnel appears. The snow is ankle deep and the tunnel is barricaded for the winter.

Mt Kitadake, the second highest mountain in Japan after Fuji, sits within these walls like the keep of an leviathanic castle. The Hayakawa river spills around its foot, an impassable moat, while Mt Aino, Senjo, Kai-koma and the Hou-ou-sanzan range spiral out around it. Formidable defenses, but with a small chink at Yashajin, where the range dips just enough that a determined burglar might steal his way in. So I went. The storms of the previous week has left a thick cover of snow on the ground, but also coated every branch and twig with a jacket of ice. In the early morning light they shine like chandeliers. A troop of monkeys screeches at my approach before they crash through the trees, sending shards of ice smashing to the ground, and filling the forest with sound of breaking glass.

The map marks the route from from the saddle of Yashajin down to the road below as a dismal dotted line. In reality, it is non-existent; landslide and disuse has all but torn it from the mountainside, and slick ice is all that remains. I pull out the rope and gingerly rappel down from tree to tree, emerging at last at the interior road on the other side of the Yashajin tunnel, and into the sunlight again. Then along the road and through its tunnels, each one as cold and dark as a meatlocker. A few kilometers further on, I cut up and over the icy slabs of Mt Karasu-no-zumi, down again to the lower road that snakes along the very bottom of the Hayakawa valley, and finally I’m there: the start of the Bokonzawa ridge that should take me to Kitadake’s summit. Ten hours of work to get here, and the climb hasn’t even begun. The siren-like call of a deer down by the river snaps me out of my melancholy. Shoulder the pack once more, put one foot in front of the other, and start to chew away at the mountainside again.

Remind me: why are we doing this?
Get up. Get moving.
It’s 1 a.m. It’s cold. It’s dark. It’s dangerous.
Whining about it won’t help. Get up.
You’re crazy.
Get up.

I wriggle out of the snowhole and shiver for a moment in the cold night air. The moon is no more than a faint glow beyond the ridge. The only light spills from my headlamp. A meter wide pool against the snow, I follow it up and through the trees. It’s deep enough for snowshoes here. I carve a knee-high, and then thigh-high, trail. The ridge steepens. I’m swimming through the snow now, gain a few feet then slip back down again. Six hours later I flop onto the hard ice of the crest of Bokonzawa-no-kashira. Brew some coffee, watch the sun breach the horizon and stain the mountains blood red, pink and then bronze.

Kitadake looks close enough to touch. I dig another snow hole, stash my gear and mark it on the GPS. Under a flawless blue sky I make good time across the ice, the ironmongery at my hips beating a hard rhythm in the thin air. The snow hangs impossibly fluted and perfect across the face of Kitadake’s eastern flank, the infamous Buttress. I’m so close now, but as I crest a small knoll what I see stops me in my tracks.

I’d heard tales of the Happonba, the eight rocky spires which crown the knife-edge ridge just above Bokonzawa. Each year they take another life or two. Four people fell to their deaths here on a winter ascent a couple of years ago. Cornices of snow cling thickly to the rocks, some lying to the left and some to the right, testament to the variability of the winds that blow up from the cols on either side. It looks desperate. I watch the spires for some twenty minutes, wondering if I should go back, call it quits. Instead, crablike with axes and front points buried in the snow, I inch out and around the first spire across the sixty degree ice. Then up to the tip of the next spire. It’s a two vertical kilometer fall on each side and thirty centimeters in between. I bang in a piton, back it up with a sling, and start rappelling slowly over the spires. The wind dies, the sun beats down, and rivulets of sweat trickle down my spine. After an hour of careful work, I’m on the other side and Kitadake fills my eyes.

Before long I’m back on my front points again, hauling myself up and over the mountain’s southern shoulder and onto the hard ice of its western flank. Here too, the ground falls away for a kilometer or more. I test each placement before committing to it. A slip here would be unthinkable.

And then, quite suddenly, there’s nowhere left to climb. I bash the ice from the face of the summit marker. It reads, simply, “3192m Kita-dake”. Fuji sits serenely above a sea of clouds to the east, but my eye is drawn to the wisps of vapour that are starting to rise from the Hayakawa valley below. The day is still bright and cloudless above, but the weather is starting to turn and this is no place to be caught. I retrace my steps with great caution. Back at the Happonba I clip the ascender to the rope I’d left and weave back over the spires. They seem easy now. Was I too cautious before? The answer comes in a flash; the cornice I’m standing on crumbles away and drops into the shadows of the col below. I fall with it for a second before the rope jerks tight, the icy maw of the col stretching away beneath my feet.

At the snowhole at Bokonzawa the cloud has already moved in, and the temperature is plummeting. There’s no telling what the weather will do the next day, but there will be no sunset shots this evening. I decide to abandon camp and make my way down to the previous night’s snowhole and the safety of the forests below. If nothing else, it cuts a few hours from the next day’s walk out. Slipping and skidding through the deep powder, I make it back and collapse into my sleeping bag some nineteen hours after setting out.

The business hotel in Kofu boasts a proper onsen hot spring on its roof.  I lie back in its waters, and my head starts to spin as the cold beer makes its way through me. Knuckles bruised and throbbing from being bashed against the ice. There’s a mysterious puncture wound in my right thigh. Another toenail lost, every muscle aches.

These are small prices to pay for the treasure I’d gained.