In a universe far, far away…

January 14, 2011 | Filed Under Uncategorized 

Wake up, it’s six thirty already.

For two months I’d seen nothing but the dance of tiny numbers on a screen, the gasps and shouts of a world so intangible that it scarcely exists from minute to minute. The real world, where low pressure fronts locked over the Sea of Japan loaded the mountains with deep snow day after day, was far away.

“What’s your plan for New Year?” she’d asked.

A warm breeze blows in from the Strait of Malacca, sending beads of condensation down the stem of my glass and into an ever widening puddle on the table. Yuka knew I had plans to get into the mountains as soon as I got back to Japan. The pile of ironmongery under my desk was growing by the day. My Singaporean colleagues would wander over, pick out a piece and carefully twirl it around in their hands, as if they were handling an arcane artifact of unknown power. They’d shudder as I explained what each item did, how each was integral to the calculus of scaling winter peaks, and repeatedly they voiced their opinion that I was crazy.

You do know that Bali is only a 30 minute plane ride away?

“Tsurugi. I really want to do Tsurugi again. We land on the 28th, I’ll head up to Toyama on the 29th, and I can probably summit on the 31st or so.”

The “impossible peak” stands at the head of the North Alps, the first to be battered by the winds and snow that hose Japan from Siberia all winter long. I’ve been longing to climb it again ever since I first tested myself in early winter there a few years ago, when I was the only living thing for miles around for three solitary days.

“You haven’t seen the forecast?” Yuka said. I hadn’t. My mind raced for alternatives, mental maps of safe winter routes pulled from their grey matter shelves, and then…

“There’s always… ice climbing…”

Yuka grins, and three days later, she’s jabbing me in the ribs, saying Wake up, it’s six thirty already.

I drag myself out of bed, up to the onsen hot spring on the roof of the hotel. The bath is curiously empty, and it’s only as I am drying off afterwards that I realise she must have been looking at the clock sideways; it was only three fifteen. We decided to forego sleep and head for the mountains anyway.

The car hisses onto the highway like fat on a hot iron plate. I mash the accelerator hard with heavy winter boots, the better to gun us up Nagasaka, the long slope of the highway that leads to the mountains. We’re flashing through towns still asleep under their blanket of snow, and towards the high country of the Yatsu-ga-take range. The first rays of sun set fire to the peaks, and with careful eyes you can see thin ribbons of ice in the valleys; they gleam like molten lead. We’ve got the Stones on the car stereo. It’s been a good day, and it’s barely started.

The track from Minoto winds through trees lit with early morning sun. The clouds that scrape the peaks talk of snow higher up, but this doesn’t bother us. Yuka’s flashing through the snow in her new sexy red Aku SL Pro boots, when something fast catches my eye on a parallel track. A pair of clever black eyes fix on me, and we stare at each other with a flash of mutual recognition; there’s no mistaking Hana, hero conqueror of the Hundred Famous Peaks of Japan. A split second behind, Julian appears. Hands are shaken, photos taken, tummies tickled. It’s good to meet friends in the mountains. They disappear as quickly as they appeared; they’re fast.


By the time we reach the Akadake Kosen hut, the clouds have turned grey and heavy with snow, and seem to cruise just meters above our heads. The ice candy, the fifteen meter fortress of ice built outside the hut, gleams nuclear blue. The new Black Diamond Cobras finally come off the pack and take their first taste of the delicate chandelier of ice, hacking, hooking and stabbing their way to the top of the line. The edifice is brittle and each swing of the axe carves off a faceful of shining crystals, many of which conspire to make their final home in the warm layers of my clothes. The chime of the breaking ice finds matching rhythm in the clanging screws dangling from my harness, and for a few moments I lose myself in this weird percussive symphony above the earth.

At a smaller ramp to the side of the main wall, Yuka ties into the rope and gets herself ready. She shoots quickly to the top, and comes back down grinning; worryingly competent. She does a few more laps, working on footwork and then her axe swing. The hours pass quickly; with a start, I realise it will be dark by the time we climb down the mountain and back to the car. We pack quickly and race back below the clouds, as the sun sets on the final day of 2010.

We live in many worlds.  Some flicker and boil before us on a screen, phantasmagorical, edifices built from pure thought. Some are hard, cold, seemingly immortal, but will pass to nothing in the warm spring sun.  Yet other infinities exist in a kiss, in the worlds that spring from each heartbeat,  in those shared moment when the threads of our lives briefly meet and intertwine.

“When can go back up there again? I want to get some more practice in before Europe.” Yuka asks over dinner that evening.

I think 2011 is going to be a good year, in all my worlds.

Comments

22 Responses to “In a universe far, far away…”

  1. Project Hyakumeizan on January 14th, 2011 8:21 pm

    明けまして御目出度うございます!Deprived of an i-cjw fix for so long, I was about to go into cold turkey. But here you are again. Delighted that the path of your estimable blog crossed paths, so to speak, with Hanameizan. And that you managed to find something to climb. As for Tsurugi, it’ll always be there tomorrow….

    Well then, 今年もよろしく。。。

  2. Jason Collin Photography on January 15th, 2011 2:02 am

    Glad to see another post in the old RSS feed this morning. After all that time in incredibly hot Singapore there is no acclimation period necessary before trying to summit a snow covered mountain in Japan had the weather allowed? I guess the human body is not exactly like a test tube which if you take off a hot burner and drop into a cool water bath explodes, as I often did on purpose in 8th grade science class.

    I like the choice of the Stones for the very early morning soundtrack.

    When can we expect the posts from Europe?

  3. Murph on January 15th, 2011 3:03 am

    Came across your blog only a few months ago,after doing some reasearch on backpacks.The Mammut you use came up in a Google search.Anyway,I started my blog by accident as well as the motorcycle trip that i`m on,that was only supposed to be two or three month bike trip,and one year later i`m still on the road taking pics and getting back into climbing at 47.
    I`ve linked you on my blog,look forward to your posts.Great journey and images.
    This year hopefully I take the bike and I to Europe and if money lasts,early next year over to Nepal.We`ll see.I intend to stay in EU once I get there.

    Murph

  4. Miguel on January 15th, 2011 9:13 am

    It’s good to see you in the mountains again. All that SIngapore talk made me think you were going to become a scuba diver!

    As usual your post is a wonderful read and your photos as engaging as ever. It’s great keeping up with what you are doing and how you interpret it.

    This story seemed a little rushed, though, compared to your others. I guess making the quick rendezvous with Japan to do your climbs does sort of preclude stopping to smell the roses. Just good to know that you DO get a chance to get back here! I don’t know what I would do if I were stuck in Singapore all the time and couldn’t ever get to the mountains!

    Good to see the appearance of Julian and Hana, too!

    (By the way, I’ve started up my blog again, this time seriously. In conjunction I’ve also just gotten my photoblog up, for more frequent postings and more focus on photography: http://laughing-knees.com/chamber-moon/ )

  5. Joe on January 15th, 2011 10:21 am

    ‘Tummies tickled’ – it’s always good to read about social greetings in other countries and cultures… ;-)

  6. Mikael on January 16th, 2011 8:28 am

    Early morning onsen is the best there is. Especially a rotemburo in winter, when you can see some deer hiking past in the nearby forest, undisturbed by the crowds who are still deep inside their futons.

    Whereabout Europe are you headed?

  7. George Baptista on January 16th, 2011 12:02 pm

    Snow. Ice. Hanging out with your mates. Does it get any better than that?

  8. Loco on January 16th, 2011 3:08 pm

    Chris, lovely to read your voice and see your pics! I hate ice but you make it actually look like, well, fun! Happy New years Bruh and I hope whatever world you dwell in will be healthy and prosperous
    Loco

  9. Vlad on January 17th, 2011 9:00 am

    Happy New Year! Lots of snow and new gear!
    Glad to see you back, was starting to go into withdrawal.
    I will probably be in Japan this summer, any suggestions where to go not too far from Tokyo? Something easy, because I am really getting out of shape here in Finland, where the tallest things are the trees.

  10. thesoulofjapan on January 20th, 2011 9:19 am

    You climbing my holy mountains of Japan again? Keep smiling, I’m still guarding Japan. Toyama will be challenging. Good luck.

  11. Michael on January 23rd, 2011 7:46 am

    Nice to see an update from you again Chris :) . I just cruised back in here on a link from the Chocolate Fish blog. I ended up getting a couple of tops on your recommendation. They’ve been fantastic so far, even though I haven’t tested them in any real hiking conditions. Warm, comfortable and best of all, not a whiff of smell! Here’s to hoping we can do some more climbing together in the coming year. :)

  12. CJW on January 23rd, 2011 6:26 pm

    Project Hyakumeizan – こちらこそ、今年も宜しくお願いします。Looking forward to a good winter. Who knows, maybe Tsurugi will feature…?

    Jason – yes, fortunately there were no signs of cracking as we passed from plus thirty five to minus five! Posts from Europe will appear when life settles down a bit. I’m working through the Asian day, and climbing through the European day. Doesn’t leave much time :-)

    Murph – welcome! And thank you for the comment. I’m looking forward to following your blog and seeing where you get to…

    Miguel – good to hear from you, and glad your blog hiatus is at an end. This was a bit of a rushed post, but then it was a quick up and down to Akadake and back. It was great to bump into Julian and Hana. You always have an idea at the back of your mind that you might, but it happens too rarely.

    Joe – indeed! And you always thought the Japanese were a reserved people, I bet!

    Mikael – absolutely right. I remember a great rotemburo where I watched two troops of monkeys engage in a pitched battle just meters away. We’re in Cogne right now, north Italy (about 45 mins south of Aosta). Great scenery, great ice.

    George – you’re right, that’s about as good as it gets!

    Loco – happy new year, and may 2011 be successful, fun and ice-free for you!!

    Vlad – happy new year!! Nothing like starting a fresh year with a pile of new kit, is there? Hmm, close to Tokyo… I’d strongly suggest Myogi in Gunma. It’s quickly become my favorite day-trip from Tokyo. Shoot me an email if you need more info (cjw at i-cjw).

    McAlpine!! Great to hear from you! Thank you for guarding these holy mountains in my absence. Yup, Toyama will be a challenge, lots of snow this year. Of course, lots of snow means a good rice crop, which means good sake…

    Michael – good to hear from you, and very pleased to hear the Chocolate Fish tops are working out! I’ve been living in mine for the past month, still as fresh as a daisy. And with just that, a single-layer goretex jacket and a windstopper softshell, I’ve been fine on the ice down to minus fifteen. I wish all my clothes were made of merino…

  13. wes on January 24th, 2011 1:25 pm

    another excellent posting. glad to see you found an appropriate alternative to Tsurugi. Glad to see you ran into Julian as well. Must’ve been a pleasant surprise. Sorry we missed each other by a day, but I guess there’s always March.

    Looking forward to the reports from the (real) Alps

  14. chris on February 6th, 2011 1:38 am

    That climbing wall stuck to an ice building looked a bit random at first. I guess no one was climbing without gloves? No need for chalk I suspect.

    Right now, during a record heat wave here in Sydney, snow is looking fantastic. Hell, even a blizzard is looking like a good idea. Desperate times indeed.

  15. Charles on February 22nd, 2011 2:43 pm

    cjw is finally unmasked. Thanks for all the inspiring posts and brilliant photography.

  16. Maz on March 6th, 2011 11:26 am

    It’s been a while since I have had the time to come back to your blog but great photography as usual – What a very cool ice-climbling wall!! The Ellis Brigham version in Covent Garden doesn’t really match it…

    Good to see you back and I look forward to your upcoming posts.

  17. Steve Miller on March 15th, 2011 6:38 pm

    Watching the endless stream of news, and it popped into my mind that I should check on you, see if you were OK. I know you don’t know me, but I have enjoyed your blog for a while now, and I thought that perhaps I needed to check and see if you were well. Please know,we pray for you all.

  18. Peter Skov on March 28th, 2011 1:48 am

    Chris, I will have to get back here to read this later but I just stopped in to see how you are doing. I figured you were in Singapore when the quake and tsunami hit. No, I wanted to see what you were up to. Just scrolling through the photos I immediately recognized “that guy and his dog”. It looks like you spent a good time here. I haven’t been out to the mountains since last September and it seems it won’t be until September again before I get out. I almost feel as though hiking up mountains was something I used to do in my thirties (I turned 40 last month). But with gas being scarce now and funds being tight plus a two-month-old daughter at home I can’t really afford any personal freedom except for when I ride the train to work. Anyway, I’ll get back to your post here later.

  19. Peter Skov on March 29th, 2011 1:11 am

    Ahh… So wonderful to read your thoughtful prose again. In the photo the meeting with Julian and Hana looked almost arranged. How wonderful the coincidence of it.

    While your adventures back in Japan may not have taken you to any frozen forsaken summits of rock, ice, and wind, it seems your ice climbing outings with Yuka were certainly memorable. I am very happy for you that you got away from the ranks of numbers on a computer screen and that your wife is so eager about winter outdoor activities. Off to Europe? I envy you. My wife even worries about going to the local park these days because of possible radiation contamination in the air.

  20. Sonya on April 2nd, 2011 7:30 pm

    Stunning mountain photography on your site.

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