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.