The Spear

May 24, 2010 | Filed Under Uncategorized 

“You’re kidding, right?”
“Nope, there’s no early train, I just called them. Best we can hope for is the 6:24, which puts us in Kamikochi at 8:30″ said the OE.
It was going to be tight. The map shows ten and a half hours from Kamikochi to the top of Yari-ga-take, and that’s in good weather. In early May, the snow lies still deep in the Yari valley, the slushy remains of the season peppered with avalanche debris sometimes a few meters high.

Under a peerless blue sky we set out from Kappabashi bridge, through the early morning haze and forests just beginning to sprout new green again. A troop of wild monkeys coo softly to each other as they graze the new buds. A few hours further on, the path steepens and the foliage gives way again to a wild, late-winter landscape. The walls of the valley look neatly combed where small avalanches and snow runs have gouged their innumerable paths.

A small huddle of brightly coloured tents sit at the entrance to the valley, a group of Chinese students lazing around them and soaking up the midday sun. The OE, of course, speaks fluent mandarin. It seems they climbed to the summit early that morning; ominously, they tell us that the going is getting slushy underfoot.

Shortly after the Oomagari, the dog-leg turn in the valley, Yari’s summit drifts into sight, a perfect obsidian pyramid still streak with rivulets of late-season snow and ice. So close you could reach out and touch it, deceptively close and taunting. Thankfully, the snow is in better condition than we had expected, and greets each cramponed kick with a solid grasp.

We’re soon well ahead of the map, and the sun is still high in the sky as we start the final, steep ascent to Yari’s shoulder and the safety of the hut. I find my rhythm, kick-step-breath, and motor up the final slope, and from the top watch the OE patiently kick up it in his own pace. In the shade of the hut I shiver, and it is only then that I realise I’m still just wearing a t-shirt.

In the gloom of the following morning, we turn out of the hut at 4am to climb to the summit. The snow lies plastered across the face of the pinnacle, over the chains and the ladders that usually bedeck the mountain in kinder seasons. Warily eyeing the drop at our feet, we make our way up the most promising route to the small shrine which marks the summit. The sun rises wearily through a sea of clouds, lighting Fuji’s flanks to the south and catching the peaks of the Alps along their length. We steel ourselves for the long descent, and make our way towards the hot spring and beer that inevitably mark the end of every good trip.

The Yari valley marks the epicenter of Japanese alpinism. Its roots lie in the mountain priests and the hunters who first explored its depths, one in search of food for the soul, the other in search of sustenance for the body. Our climb fed our friendship.


22 Responses to “The Spear”

  1. Simon Cox on May 24th, 2010 12:20 pm

    I’ve missed this blog. Good to see a new post, and what a reward: amazing photos and you used the word ‘obsidian’. Now that’s a worthy combination…

  2. George Baptista on May 24th, 2010 3:11 pm

    Yarigatake… so many memories there. The solitude before the huts open, angry snowstorms, kilometer-long debris, creamy powder snow, lazy sunny days, night hiking under a brilliant Milky Way..

    Glad to see you made it up there!

  3. Jason Collin Photography on May 24th, 2010 5:18 pm

    OE stands for? Other Explorer? Operational Expert?

    What were things like in the hut? I’d like to see a shot of inside one sometime.

    The exposure on the 6th shot from the top is great, an outstanding landscape. Then the shot two below that one…that wisp of dome cloud is very cool looking.

    I like the climbing shots in this one too, makes me able to feel the effort of climbing more.

    Does what you think about while you climb solo or with someone differ? When you caught your rhythm and pushed on the final ascent before the hut, what is in your mind then? I would guess nothing, just solely focused on reaching the goal and putting one foot in front of the other.

    Thanks for taking us along with you on another climb.

  4. Hendrik M on May 24th, 2010 5:41 pm

    Love the monkeys. The rest is fine, as well ;)

    @Jason: OE = Other Englishman.

  5. t on May 24th, 2010 7:08 pm

    Glad to read you again Chris. When you are absent too long, I worry about you, knowing your penchant for deep snow ever-shifting over jagged stone.

    Be well…

  6. ted on May 24th, 2010 7:09 pm

    Glad to read you again Chris. When you are absent too long, I worry about you, knowing your penchant for deep snow ever-shifting over jagged stone.

    Be well…

  7. Karl on May 24th, 2010 9:34 pm

    I thought I’d lost my internet inspiration, but then you put up this post.
    Glad to see you back, Chris.
    You seem to be lucky with weather. Here in Switzerland, we’ve just had the first weekend in May of weather good enough to allow mountaineering.
    / Karl

  8. Mikael on May 25th, 2010 5:55 am

    Another fine climb. Well worth the wait to read about it. Somehow the black and white picture is my favourite out of these.

    Those map times have had me thinking too. They always seem to be well on the safe side, closer to obaachan-pace (which is good of course, and no disrespect intended to the obaachans), but where do they get them from? Are they consistent between different map publishers for example, so as I know my pace on my Daisetsuzan map I could plan accordingly on other maps as well? Any idea?

  9. Peter Skov on May 25th, 2010 12:43 pm

    As soon as I saw the monkey photo I thought, “Yup, I should have had the camera out.” they were right beside the trail and completely fearless of the passing human beings who pointed cameras at them from barely a metre’s distance at times. I had left my camera stuffed away for thatfinal stretch to the bus.

    Your trip to Yari seems to have gone smoothly. Was it last year or the year before I was in awe of your trip. However, this year I feel I could totally managed such a hike and climb. I am a bit envious that you have better light for the evening/morning shots than I did. And I am envious that the OE is fluent in Mandarin. I studied it for about a year some years back but after visiting China, I stopped studying it.

  10. Gen Kanai on May 26th, 2010 1:45 am

    Are you still using that D80 (?) because those images don’t look like they come from a D80. Amazing.

  11. Daniel Silverman on May 26th, 2010 2:50 am

    Thank you for another beautiful story of nature and friendship.

  12. David on May 26th, 2010 11:17 am

    Glad to see the blog up and running again with a stunning update!

  13. Joe on May 26th, 2010 6:54 pm

    …and breathe… Chris is back.

  14. hanameizan on May 26th, 2010 9:12 pm

    Breathtaking photos as always, making my feet itch to get out there. Like Ted and others, as the gap between your posts gets longer, I begin to wonder whether you’re OK.

  15. Vlad on May 27th, 2010 2:57 am

    I was waiting for the new post. Very nice as usual – I love shots 1 and 7.
    Btw, I am leaving Japan end of June, so if you have a few minutes to spare for a drink somewhere in Tokyo,please email me. It would be nice to see the author of my favorite blog in person :)

  16. Martin Rye on May 27th, 2010 4:02 pm

    Friendship forged in such majestic mountains. Priceless.

  17. Project Hyakumeizan on May 27th, 2010 6:36 pm

    The photo of that wave cloud over the Dai-Kiretto – so beautiful that it sends a chill down my spine. Many thanks for allowing me, vicariously, to visit Yari in the spring again. I will also be re-reading your photography hints to find out how you get colours like that from a D80 or, indeed, a D-anything …

  18. JapanSoc on May 28th, 2010 3:00 am

    It's still winter at 10,000 feet: Mt Yari-ga-take…

    Rumours of CJW’s demise are mildly exaggerated. We caught the last of the snow, starting in Kamikochi, Nagano, and climbing up the Yari “glacier” to the mountain that has been rightly called “The Matt……

  19. locohama on May 28th, 2010 3:38 am

    Welcome back buddy and concrats on another excellent adventure! The pictures and accompanying words are beautiful as usual. Good to have ya back, and thanks for let’s us experience your life vicariously

  20. OE on June 17th, 2010 10:49 am

    That monkey came out really well. And that cloud. Serves me right for fumbling around with different lenses. BTW the OE isn’t that fluent in Mandarin. He was bluffing.

  21. sgs on July 15th, 2010 2:41 am

    I’ve been a silent admirer of the photos and accounts on this blog for some time, and want to join the chorus of relief that it’s back. Thanks, cjw.

    This must also be one of the best places to ask for informed advice about the mountains. I’m only an occasional summer hiker, and I would like to know more about the ridge between Kashimayari and Shirouma. Chris mentions his walk through in Oct 07, but without too much detail. I’m definitely a hiker without any pretensions to rock climbing, and due to my uncouth and anti-social character, I tend to find myself hiking alone. Could anyone fill me in on the potential problems of this walk undertaken at the end of this month or early in August?

  22. James Annan on July 28th, 2010 7:19 am

    Nice pics.

    sgs, we have walked that ridge one summer a few years ago, and apparently described the trickiest bit thusly “This isn’t as famous or difficult as the ridge between Hotakadake and Yari-ga-take, but was still quite strenuous and slow with lots of chains and a few ladders.”

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