We sit on a rocky ledge above the cloud, the icy autumn wind numbing our toes through their thin rock shoes. A line of hikers creep up the valley below and I wonder if they could see us up here, a kilometer above their heads, two tiny pinpricks of sentience on an otherwise lifeless canvass of grey stone. We were on the Kita-dake Buttress, the alpine classic of Japan, and we were quite alone.
Twice before Tony had escaped the maul of the Buttress, skirting disaster and each time leaving a nagging sense of loss and frustration. This time, a typhoon dancing against the shores of Taiwan threatened to turn east and swing up through the Japanese archipelago, surely nailing us to the wall of the mountain to await hypothermia or rescue. We had a narrow window of opportunity, maybe scarcely half a day, and through it we squeezed, dragging our packs and ropes. Tony left no doubt that if the Buttress turned him back again this time then he would not return.
We had bivouacked in a grassy clearing the previous night, huddled around a tiny stove and tinier bottles of whiskey, fortifying ourselves against the swirling mist that rose from the river floor. We slept a brief, uncomplicated sleep, punctuated only by the bark of deer in the thicket behind us and the wind which screamed thinly up during the small hours. The idea of stumbling around in the pre-dawn dark trying to locate the entrance to the climb was less than appealing, so we forewent the usual alpine start and rose with the sun. It poked, desultory and weak, through the veils of cloud on the horizon, and barely warmed our backs as we moved up and towards the black ramparts of the mountain.
The gullies of the east face of Kita-dake were clearly named on a Friday afternoon: A-Gully, B-Gully, C-Gully and D-Gully. And Hidden Gully, presumably an after-the-fact justification for missing it out the first time between gullies B and C. Either C or D would take us to the base of the climb, but with the dashing waters and grinding boulders of the former, D looked the more enticing of the two. It was an egregious notion of which we would shortly be disabused of as we pulled our packs though whippy thickets of birch and to a short rock step where we took out the rope. The air hung redolent with choice Anglo Saxon as Tony, still in trail shoes, took the first pitch and questioned at intervals the sexual mores of the mountain’s mother. I followed, and took my first taste of Kita-dake rock: smooth like marble, and everything slopes downwards. It sucks the strength from toes and fingers in an instant, and whispers “I will hurt you” in a malevolent undertone. It did not make us happy.
I took the second pitch of the gully, the final few moves accompanied by Tony on the radio counting down the meters of rope I had left. Five, four, three, two… In desperation I jammed a couple of cams into the only forgiving cracks I could find and brought him up. D-gully continued to torment us, every stone filled with hate in its heart and every rock seething blind fury. The slime-filled third pitch was for Tony’s delectation, but finally we were free of its clutches. We arrived at the thin traverse that lead to the base of the climb proper, the trail snaking across the face of the mountain and up through low pine and birch to a small ledge.
“I don’t know if I’ll always want to climb. I might suddenly want to learn the trumpet or something one day” – Tony Grant
Swinging the lead through the first few pitches, we made good progress. Far in the distance, though, a black-flanked Fuji sat on the horizon capped in cloud, and thin wisps of cloud were starting to move upwards again. With every meter climbed the air grew thinner and colder, and I was starting to feel the twin effects of altitude and exertion. Life at sea level on the equator is poor training for high alpine climbing; each move brought a renewed tightness in the lungs, while the autumn wind, chilled from the snow fields below, determinedly sought out every inch of bare flesh. Add to that the spare 60 meter rope in my pack and the full armory of climbing ironmongery at our belts, and the strain was beginning to show. We were wearing every stitch of clothing, and still it wasn’t enough. I ate a jelly bean, mashing and levering it alternately from my left molars to my right with a dry tongue and watched as Tony inched upwards.
The crux pitch of the climb is described as a short, diagonal crack sloping up to the right, generously studded with pitons, and to be done on aid rather than free-climbed. The climber must make the first move on to two thin footholds, then reach up and to the left to clip the first piton, which is then pulled on to make further placements higher. Tony spreadeagled himself against the rock, constructing makeshift etriers to stand in before feeling around the unseen top of the move. He found a “thank Jesus” hold, pulled hard and disappeared into a cloud of static on the radio, and then silence.
We were on the arete proper now, where the easy slabs of the lower buttress give way to a knife edge. A foot each side sought out tiny sulci in the rock, just enough to grip. Tony sat above me yarding in the rope, high on the famous Matchbox rock formation, so called as it looks not remotely like a box that one would keep matches in. A short rappel off its top took us to a beautiful pitch of thin slab, full of airy, balancy moves, and for fifteen minutes I danced with the mountain on tiny toes and fingers. The summit roared into view, and we were almost home.
We are nothing to a mountain. We flash in and out of existence, unnoticed, unregistered, not even a blink in their great lives. Since I first climbed Kita-dake, the hair on my temples has grown grey and I’ve bought my own new life mewling into this world, yet the mountain remains steadfastly resolute against the tides of time. Except that, just occasionally, we are shown that even the great ranges are not immune to the decay that must one day take us all. Above the Matchbox used to lie the final pitch of the route, a straightforward and low angled climb to the just below the summit. A couple of years ago, however, this entire section divorced itself from the mountain, ending a two million year marriage and suiciding a thousand tonnes of rock into the gully. It left a heaving blank wall that still stinks of cordite and occasionally dispenses further rockfall. The top of the classic has gone, and a vicious unclimbable quarry met me instead.
The aspirant’s only choice is a true knife edge traverse, hands gripping the scalpel-sharp rail and then shuffling some twenty meters out and over the looming blankness of the East Face to an uncomfortable, half hanging anchor beyond. Midway, the knife edge is broken by a two foot gap, easy enough to step across, but which affords a full view downwards of the destruction which was visited upon here. Something about it spoke to my mortality and left me uneasy and nauseous, and I raced towards the anchor, placing no protection on the way. Tony followed and then lead the final pitch, a incommodious chimney filled with wobbling pitons and overhung blocks, which took malicious delight in snagging our packs and trying to throw us back down the mountain.
With that, like cloud racing across the face the moon, the climb was over. We shook hands and embraced before gingerly looking back and down at what we’d climbed. In the pale light of mid afternoon we tagged the summit, and then started the death-march descent down the hiking trails. It was dark by the time we reached the Hiragawara hut, where the keeper, a young man of room temperature IQ and fewer still social graces, begrudgingly gave us a futon for the night. We didn’t care.
The next day dawned to an azure sky like liquid paint, defiant against the forecast of rain and high winds. Crowds of hikers made their way up and towards the peak. We were thrown unctuously from the hut at first light and made our way to the bus stop, where I asked the conductor if she knew whether Scotland was still part of the Union. By midday we were swallowed again by Tokyo’s canyons, and after saying goodbye at Shinjuku we went our separate ways. We had done what we came to do, and while we had left the mountain, we knew the mountain would never leave our hearts.
The old man and I sat on the peak of the Gendarme, watching the early evening clouds boil around the summits of the North Alps. From our seat in the skies, the world below appeared as a sea of white foam dotted with an archipelago of dark mountain tops. The pyramid of Yari stood tallest of all those islands, an unmistakable black spear thrusting into the heavens. The old man pointed slowly towards that distant peak,
“There’s another route up Yari, you know. You won’t find it on any of the maps. You won’t find any old women or children up there, either. It’s a hard route for hard men. I’d reckon not one in a hundred thousand climb Yari from that side. They call it ‘The Kitakama’ ridge.”
From then on, it consumed me.
A year later, I started the climb from Nakabusa onsen, up the steep wooded slope to the Enzanso lodge. The fair weather of the weekend had drawn the crowds, now making their descent after taking in the views from the summit. It’s not for nothing that this is known as the Ginza of the Alps. By midday I’m at the top. The weather is fine, but at the ridge a sharp north wind cuts up from the valley on the other side. I pull on a jacket, and start the walk along to tonight’s destination, the hut at Otensho. Yari, and the Kitakama, are shrouded in billowing clouds until, quite suddenly, they part for an instant, the enormity of my quest revealed.
It was the first time that I had glimpsed Yari from this side. As impressive as it was from the other direction, nothing could match the view I was now afforded. A middle finger of rock thrust to the gods and man alike, it compelled the eye and made the roundabout peaks seem dwarfish and dull. And there, spilling off the northern side of the mountain, lay the Kitakama ridge, all broken black teeth and dismal spires. As quickly as it had revealed itself, the clouds again took the mountain. I hurried on along the ridge as the wind tugged and threatened.
The hut lies in a saddle between Mt Otensho and the Ushikubi peak, which boasts “Wonderful views of Yari and a 360 degree panorama” according to the map. It was already late afternoon, and I was considering where I might bivy for the night, when the owner emerged. He glanced at the ironmongery on my pack, the helmet and the rope, and asked simply “Kitakama?”. I nodded. He had a friendly smile and relaxed air, quite unlike that of many of the hut owners of the Alps, not a few of whom have gone mildly insane.
“You look well kitted out for it. And you seem strong enough. I get a few through here each year, and I try to check ‘em out. Once in a while you get a bumbly who thinks the Kitakama might be a pleasant stroll. I try to tell them to turn back. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they get halfway and make it back here in a terrible state. Sometimes they never come back, and I read about it in the newspaper later on… So, where to tonight?”
I tell him I’m looking for a place to bivy. He says that there’s no-one else at the hut tonight, and that I’m free to stay for the knockdown price of Y1000.
“As long as you make your own food. Oh, and if you can do me just one favour….”
If you ever stay at the Otensho hut, then know that the English instructions for the chemical toilets are original CJW prose.
The next morning, we climb the Ushikubi peak together to watch the sunrise. He points out the route up the Kitakama.
“Go down the Bimbozawa and cut left up the river to the Kitakama couloir. Careful on the Bimbozawa, it might be frozen this early in the morning. Follow the Kitakama col up to where it forks, and make sure you take the right-hand gully. The left hand is a death trap, people have died in there.”
Black clouds roll in from the north. The metallic tang of snow is sharp on the wind now, and presently we are peppered with flakes. The hut owner tells me not to worry, that the forecast is good for the next couple of days, and that this will shortly pass.
I thank him for his advice, and make my way to the notch in the next saddle where a small sign proclaims the entrance to the Bimbozawa. Literally ‘Poor Gully’, it lives up to its name. The top is a mess of creeping haimatsu pine, followed by a 750 vertical meter, boulder choked decent. It’s dry until the bottom section, where a sulfurous waterfall spills from the cliffs above. A crumbling rope leads down a steep, slippery slope at one point; I don’t trust it, so I use my own. It’s a grueling two hours of work before I reach the river of the valley floor, bruised and cut. I slap a bloody hand print on a nearby rock, a primeval marker, before diving my torn hand into the icy waters.
The clouds swiftly depart as I reach the entrance to the Kitakama col, leaving an azure ceiling flecked with mares’ tails. It’s a short climb to the fork, where I stop to fill my water bottle. This may be the last place to take on water until I reach the Yari hut on the other side; even so, I can only take three liters with me, a perilously small amount for such a venture.
I climb into the right-hand gully, up over the grinding boulders. In places, house-sized pieces of rock bar the way, compelling me to take off my pack while I boulder to their tops. Hauling the pack up behind me is strenuous work, made no easier by its maddening tendency to get stuck half way up. It’s hard work, especially after using so much energy descending the Bimbozawa. The head of the col hovers in constant sight, but seems to draw no nearer, until presently the oppressive walls open out into a grassy slope just below the top. A warm slab of rock makes a welcome seat with views across this lonely valley. Japan is such a crowded nation, and yet in this little corner of the land, I am the only member of my species in this valley and probably the next.
Too quickly, long-fingered shadows creep towards my sunny seat as midday passes. Shouldering the pack once more, I take the final few meters to the ridge proper and for the first time gaze out over the soft contours of Mt Washiba and Mt Suisho to the north, and the Yellow Sand ridge that stands between us.
The wind blows colder here. Icicles hang from the cliffs, and the remains of the morning’s snow remain dotted over the ground. A little further on, a rope of reasonably modern vintage snakes down a cliff face. I clip into the end of it, give it a few bounces and it seems secure enough. I’m able to mantle up and round the knoll to the left, where the terrain becomes a little easier. The line of the ridge leads due north for a few hundred meters, before swinging round to the west, for which I’m grateful; climbing on the north side of the ridge, the afternoon sun brings heat even as the chill wind whisks it away.
There’s no path to speak of. The scant accounts I’d read of the climb suggested that “route-finding was paramount” and that faint traces of sporadic track may be apparent. The recent typhoon, however, seemed to have scoured the mountain clean of any human activity, so my route would lie with gut and intuition. After traversing several sections, I spot a shiny brass-coloured new piton sticking out the rock. Secure, I anchored my rope to it and moved out across a thin ledge, slinging a solid rock flake on the other side before traversing back to undo the far anchor. Soloing like this is a slow game. Further on, a short chimney was marked by an ancient piece of knotted rope, and a rusting piton more ancient still. It moved horrifically in its crack as I tugged on it. I ignored it, took off my pack again and shimmied backwards up the crack, again hauling my pack up behind me. From the top it occurred to me that I should perhaps have cut the old rope off or kicked the piton out, death-traps that they were, but I was now too high above to reach either.
By mid-afternoon I’d reached a spire with a small, flat top, and pleasing views of Yari and the surrounding mountains. I decided to call this home for the night. I built a small wall from rocks to keep the bitter wind at bay, huddled behind it and watched the sun dip into the clouds that cloaked the horizon.
Yari seemed to fill the sky now, demanding attention. For a long time I gazed out along the ridge, trying to make out the lines of the peaks and spires that graced its length, imagining the route of the next day. Finally, the sun disappeared somewhere into the Sea of Japan, and a pale half moon rose to throw its light over Yari’s flanks.
I noticed with alarm that my breath was clouding the air, and that the frost had already started to settle on my sleeping bag; I hurriedly tucked it into my bivy sack. I had a notion to make a small fire, maybe put some warmth into me before heading to sleep, but after half an hour of pointless scrabbling around in the dark for firewood, I realised that I was simply getting colder. The mercury hit minus eight as I burrowed into my sleeping bag, where I lay looking up at the planetarium sky that wheeled overhead, the milky way streaked with shooting stars.
Sleep came in dark, dreamless fits. The wind swung in the night, making a mockery of my carefully built wall, seeking out the small breathing hole in the bivy bag and chilling my cheeks and nose. Around midnight, the need to pee exceeded the need to stay warm. Clambering out in my underclothes, I stood shaking like a loon on this little peak in the sky and unleashed a stream at the setting moon. The thermometer now read minus twelve, and I was more grateful than ever that I’d brought the winter sleeping bag.
An abrupt, sharp red line across the horizon marked the morning, and with it a cloudless sky. By the time I’d finished the contortions of dressing while still in my sleeping bag, I was reasonably warm again. I drank a liter of Earl Grey tea as I watched the sun creep above the distant mountains, throwing beams of copper light over Yari’s dark, austere face. Packing quickly, I noted a lightness to the rucksack that was at once welcome and worrying; it meant I was out of water.
The first hour was over easy ground, simple climbing up and down over easy blocks of solid rock. Then came the first serious down climb, a crumbling tower with loose shale, simple enough but a tiring fight against the constantly shifting ground, and punctuated with occasional and unnerving rockfall. The thermometer still showed minus ten on the shaded north side, and the wind ripped in fearsome gusts.
Back on the ridge, I traversed to the sunward side and basked there for a few minutes, letting the heat come back to my hands. An easy crack lead down to a short traverse, and then to a chimney bedecked with aging slings and rope loops at its top. I climbed up it and added one of my own slings to the collection, before rappelling down into another chimney on the other side. The rock here was smooth, white limestone, loose and riddled with cracks. My rope ran out five or so meters from the bottom, and a rising sense of panic started to grip my chest. I forced myself to take slow, deep breaths and tried to consider my options. A rope-free down climb was out of the question. Swinging out, though, I could just make out a line a little further along. I pulled off the prussic loops from my harness and laboriously climbed back up to the anchor, traversed over and found a shorter, safer route to the scree below.
Across the talus the going was easier, but the windward side of the ridge was another world . Dark and bitterly cold, the spires loomed above, black against the early morning sky. I pulled out the iPod, but even Jimi couldn’t hold up against the shrill tear of the wind. The far off peaks of Mt Tsurugi and Mt Tateyama lay to the north, already cloaked in snow, and glorious in the bright late autumn sunshine.
An icy rime covered much of this side of the mountain. Time and again I had to melt it from the next foothold with my bare hands, which were now swollen and red with altitude and exertion. The pads of several fingers had split on the granite and the cold; every sharp edge now seemed to seek out those very wounds. Yari was close now, and towered over everything below it, an oppressive, omnipotent and uncaring god. At that moment I realised that, as much as I loved the mountains, they did not think one iota of me. At length the last gully of the Kitakama lead me wearily back to its ridge for the final time, out of the darkness, out of the cold.
A flat section of ground marks the Kitakama-daira, where the remnants of old camps lay scattered around; grotesquely twisted, ancient metal tent poles; a few rusting tin cans stuck between rocks; the remains of a broken whiskey bottle. With the end in sight, I moved rapidly over the broken blocks that mark the base of Yari’s summit pyramid. A quick traverse to the south side and fifty meters of easy climbing up the face led to the base of two chimneys; the whole face here is studded with ancient pitons, rusting, useless and mostly unnecessary. The southern chimney gleamed in the sun, but with my pack on and climbing solo, I found couldn’t wedge my way up it without perilously overhanging the valley below. Reluctantly, I returned to the sunless northern chimney, noting reluctantly the rotting rope that draped down it, and the rusting piton that held it at the top.
Again, the pack proved problematic, but I was loathed to remove and haul it. To the right, however, I spied a better line and quickly squeezed my way upwards to the ledge at the top. Here, though, the rock rose again above me, overhanging, severe. A single nut was wedged into a crack just above head height. Surely not this way, I thought… I moved to the right, and rounding the corner of the ledge found a series of diagonally sloping cracks. My fist dug deep and tight into the first of them, my left foot hopping to a solid placement behind a blue fin of rock. Left hand reached high and found a thin hold that just took the pads of three fingers. A quick, coordinated pull and the right foot was neatly jammed high in the crack. With one more push I was there. A solid flake led up the last few meters where I clambered onto the summit, much to the surprise of the two old ladies who reposed there.
Too dehydrated and exhausted to speak, I could only motion in the general direction of the ridge when they asked where I had come from. They shrieked and jabbered as they peered over the edge, quickly pulling back and gripping their fists with fear. At the little shrine on the summit, newly refurbished, I pulled off my helmet and gave long thanks to the gods. The mountains were arrayed in every direction, crystal clear in the cold air, from Fuji in the south to Tsurugi in the north.
At the Yari hut below the summit, I stripped off my layers and took off my hat for the first time in three days. A couple asked me where I’d climbed from, and I told them; the wife had read Nitta Jiro’s account of Kato Buntaro, the famous climber of the early 20th Century. She knew that he’d met his death on the Kitakama, and excitedly insisted on a photograph. I stood there, wild haired and bemused, drowning in the warmth of the sun and human company.
The old man on the Gendarme was only partly right. The Kitakama is, without doubt, a hard, hard route. And while there may be no children or crones up there, it had in turns made me as scared as a babe in arms and as weary as an old woman, struggling to take the next step.
“Many shall be restored that now are fallen
and many shall fall that now are in honor”
Horace (Ars Poetica)
“All is flux, nothing stays still.”
It’s hard to write anything that doesn’t sound glib recently. I console myself with the voices of those long dead, who remind us that there is nothing so constant as change.
There’s only so long you can spend watching footage of the tsunami before you start to die a little inside. I needed eye-bleach, and photos of better times helped. We spent three weeks ice climbing in Cogne in January, and a few days on the ice at Akadake in Japan. It seems like a lifetime ago.
Thank you to all those who have sent emails, phoned and left comments on the blog. Both Yuka & I are safe and well, as are all our friends and family.
The situation to the north of Tokyo is nothing short of horrific. If you can, then please donate to the Red Cross or other reputable relief agency. The following pictures are extremely distressing, but they give an idea of what people are up against:
If you are concerned, need information or any kind of assistance, then Yuka and I will do whatever we can for you. My email is cjw at i-cjw.com, and you can find me on Facebook (search for Chris White Japan), Twitter (i_cjw), Skype (cjw_japan) or Bloomberg (Christopher White, Elmwood Advisors).
“There are no dreams,
For there are no nights of sleep”
10th Century Japanese Tanka poem, author unknown.
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.
Call it what you want. Boredom. Frustration. Fin de siècle ennui. Tokyo is a white hot skillet, a spitting stir fry of twenty million people, and I needed out.
The Kamikochi bus terminal at the foot of the Alps is as crowded as anywhere in the capital. And it’s only 5:30 in the morning. A human log jam of plaid shirts and last minute cigarettes. But speed and bad terrain are your friends when the August weekend crowds show up, and in minutes I leave the masses far behind and work my way up the familiar pan of the river and towards the spires of the Hotakas.
Few places in the Japanese Alps are as breath-taking as the Hotaka cirque. Two large huts and a multitude of brightly coloured tents huddle below the peaks, still streaked with snow. In my mind’s eye I trace the route; up the northern flank to Kita-hodaka, cut southwards along the ridge to Oku-hodaka, but my real goal is the dotted red line that the map marks between Oku-hodaka and Nishi-hodaka. That’s where I’m going, that’s where I’ll leave the crowds firmly behind.
By dusk, I’m there. The path has faded away, there are no signposts or markers here, just sheer drops on each side. I thread my way along the Uma-no-sei, the Horseback, and towards the tower of the Gendarme. On a little ledge below it, I unroll the bivy bag and contemplate my room in the sky as I watch the sun dip down through a boiling sky of clouds below.
Dawn comes in the blink of an eye, and I race back up to the peak of the Gendarme to meet it. Oku-hodaka stands directly in the line of the rising sun, black against the vermilion sky. Behind me, it casts a sky-wide Brocken; too large to fit the frame of the camera, a double and triple rainbow that arcs completely, perfectly sited at the summit of Kasa-ga-take on one end and the summit of Norikura-dake at the other. It was for my eyes alone.
The pack is light, and I’m fast. The map tentatively suggests seven hours for the ridge, with plentiful admonitions to the dangers of knife edge ridges and cliffs involved. Eschewing the intermittent ladders and chains, I free climb where I need to and revel in the speed. Just over two hours later, I reach the Nishi-hodaka hut and its crowds, just as the cloud starts to roll in. I’ve pushed enough for now. It’s time to brave Tokyo again.
Call it boredom. Call it frustration. Call it pushing your boundaries. Call it the last days of Rome, that distant thunder of the Visigoth hoards outside the city. I needed out.
The news broke: Japan has fallen from the world’s second largest economy, and now lies in third place behind China. The same day, I handed in my residency card at Narita Airport, and boarded a plane for Singapore. It’s time to see the sun rise over some different horizons.
For the first time in a long while, there’s no map and I have no idea where I am going or where the boundaries are. I’ll know once I cross them.
In the meantime, I remain “I, CJW ~ Hiking, Climbing & Mountaineering (mostly) in Japan”.
But can we trust the Soviet? Is he really on our side? He’s a genius, they say, but your neck is on the line and the valley floor glimmers three hundred meters below the tips of those razor-sharp monopoint crampons. How are we to know it’s not just another plot to rid the world of one more 21st century capitalist? The febrile mind of Vitaly Abalakov is all that is keeping me from tumbling into the icy maw of the valley, taking the eternal fall where the sky is never bluer and the rope never goes taught.
It’s a lot of faith to place in a dead Russian.
Born in 1905, Vitaly and his brother Yevgeniy would become both prolific first acentionists as well as pioneering inventors of climbing gear and techniques. The first tube chock, the first hauling pulley, retrievable ice screws, tri-cams, indeed much of modern climbing paraphernalia sprung from Vitaly’s incredible imagination. Yet this profusion of novelty was to bring him profound sorrow as well as great fame. In 1938, the Soviet Commissariat for Internal Affairs arrested him and many of his climbing team, charging them with the crime of “open public propaganda” in their use of western mountaineering techniques. Several were executed, others faced the gulags. By the 1950’s though, as the wheels of cold war realpolitik turned again, Abalakov regained his former status, was showered with accolades and recognised as the true “Father of Soviet Mountaineering”.
His greatest gift to me, and every other modern ice climber, was the impossibly simple technique that still bears his name: the Abalakov Thread.
In front of me, I’ve bored an “Abalakov”: two intersecting holes drilled into the ice at 45 degrees, through which a 6mm cord has been threaded. My harness is clipped to this cord, and my whole existence now depends upon the strength of a bootlace thick piece of nylon and the incredible properties of waterfall ice. Lean. Out. On. It. Let the frontal lobes overcome the fearful reptilian cortex of the brain. Trust the Russian. I relax into the harness and hunker down on the anchor. Somewhere down below, the taught jiggling of the rope tells me, Adrian is taking out an ice screw and will shortly climb up to join me on these same thin threads.
It’s absurd. What are we doing here?
The helicopter spirals through the air, and in seconds we are at eye level with the jagged peaks of the Remarkables mountain range outside Queenstown. With dazzling precision, the pilot weaves the machine between the snow covered spires and puts us down at the head of Wye Creek in the heart of the range. The walls are thick with columns of blue ice. Seconds later, the helicopter disappears into the early morning sun again, and there is nothing but Adrian, my guide for the next ten days, and me. We walk to a squat, grey rubber tent, the only feature in the barren landscape, and Adrian unzips the heavy door. “Welcome to the office,” he says. We drop our packs inside and start to kit up for the first climbs of the trip.
Ice climbing: space age technology combined with medieval siege warfare. Reverse curved axes and vertical point crampons, sharpened to terrifying edges, bite into the brittle ice. Fuck gravity, we’re going higher, they scream. Precision bored ice-screws hang thick from our harnesses. The weaponry of our sport. We hunt at the fringes of the world, those cold places where nature conspires to percolate tonnes of dihydrogen monoxide into terrifying sculptures hundreds of meters high. Frozen waterfalls. Rock just sits, unmoving, unchanging, but these mighty edifices are in constant flux. The ice changes by the year, never quite forming the same way. It changes by the hour, as the interplay of sun, wind and temperature collude to alter texture and stability. It even changes as the climber puts his tools to it; stress fractures radiate as the ice screws bite; a swing with the axe will stick with astounding rigidity one moment, and with the next a huge dinner plate of ice fractures off the surface, to crash down to the slopes below.
As dangerous as the job of the lead climber is, perched hundreds of feet up on metal points dug mere millimeters into the ice, the job of the belayer below is arguably more so. He pays out the rope vigilantly, ready to hold it fast in the event that the lead climber falls, and yet is subject to a near continual bombardment of ice from above. Thick dinner plates roar past, followed by milk-jug sized slices of icicle. At the end of the day, the bottom of the route is strewn with glassy fragments of ice embedded in the soft snow. Ever wanted to know what it feels like to be in an air raid? Belay an ice climber. “There are three types of fun,” Adrian explains, “Type one is where you have fun at the time, and it’s fun when you tell people later. Type two fun is where it’s not fun at the time, but it’s fun when you tell people later. Type three fun is where it’s not fun at the time, and it’s not fun when you tell people later”.
I suspect most ice climbing is about Type 2.4.
By the end of the second day, Adrian tells me there’s nothing left to teach. Like a duck to water. Rock scares the bejeesus out of me, but ice I get. “Let’s just go climbing.” he says.
Each day we cruise the walls of the valley, picking off lines here and there. One pitch turns to two, two turns to three, before we rappel back to the bottom of the climb and sit on our packs eating humus and crackers. High above the valley lies the Upper Tier, a cascade of ice which tumbles over a lip at the top of the cliffs, leaving a wide cave behind. There’s room here to camp even; on several nights we would glance upwards from our tent to see the headlamps of bivouacking climbers shining out from behind the ice. At the far left-hand side of the formation lies a route named Iron Curtain, which starts with a five meter vertical section with a spectacular drop away below it. Adrian leads it twice; a few days later as my confidence builds, I lead it too. A hundred feet higher up, my arms are burning and my head is spinning. Another Soviet ploy.
“There’s a formation here that’s not shown in the guide book.” Adrian says, pointing to a leftward sloping route, like three giant jellyfish stacked upon each other. I duck around the bottom of a rock outcrop and start to pay the rope out as he climbs. A cacophony of ice starts to fly overhead, thudding into the deep snow below. “It’s a bit brittle!” comes the shout. The bombardment ceases; I dare to stick my head out. A sniper’s bullet of ice catches me straight below the eye. Adrian is teetering a hundred feet up, and his axes are hitting the ice with an ominous hollow thud.
“How’s it look?”
“I’m not happy. It doesn’t seem to be anchored to anything. I can see a big gap between the rock and the ice.”
“You want to lower off?”
A few minutes later Adrian is on the ground.
“I can see why that one isn’t in the guide book..”
On the final day, we climb “Trigger Finger”, a steep three-pitch route. I lead the first pitch to the tune of “You Are My Sunshine”, and the third pitch to the Scarecrow’s song from the Wizard of Oz. I would wile away the hours, conferrin’ with the flowers, if I only had a brain… The sun arcs across the sky as we look for one final line. A route in the middle of the wall looks unclimbed this season; a cave in the rock some eighty feet above is fringed with thick icicles, a perfect belay point for the second pitch. I cruise up to the cave, drill an Abalakov, and set the anchor. Adrian flashes up behind me and takes the rope taught as I climb out of the comfort of the cave and back into the vertical world. At the base of a three meter pillar of ice, I fire in another screw and clip the rope. Tools high overhead now, gentle kick-taps with the crampons, and I’m there. I reach, plant the axes deep in the sloping ice at the top of the pillar, and step up…
Bang. Both axes pop, and I’m floating in space. Everything’s sky blue, then white, then blue again, and then stops as the rope goes taught and I slump in my harness. Looking up, I see Adrian’s head poking out of the cave. “Logging some air time there, dude?” he shouts down. “I’m in Queenstown, I figured I might as well do some bungy jumping,” I shout back. Someone’s dragging a scalpel point around the inside of my skull. I wait for the stars that are streaming before my eyes to vanish, then climb slowly up the slope and back into the cave. “Fingers and toes all wiggle?” he asks. They do. I need to get back on the horse, so again I climb out of the womb of the cave and back into the cold and vertical world outside. The ice screw at the bottom of the pillar has barely moved, and the Abalakov acts as if nothing had happened. I swing the axe, and pain explodes through my right hand. Back into the cave. The adrenaline has worn off. My hand is swelling through my glove.
“I don’t think it’s broken, but I can’t climb on it. I guess this is the end.”
“Let’s rappel off, then.”
“C’est la vie.”
“C’est la guerre!” he shouts.
They say that deep sea fish cannot be bought safely to the surface, so pressurised are they that they will explode.
The next day the helicopter reverses its journey, whisking us from the cradle of the mountains and back into Queenstown in a matter of minutes. I catch sight of my reflection in a window. Bearded and glassy eyed, I’m suffocating in the warm, thick air. I’m a deep sea fish in a strange world. Decompression. Back at my hotel, I strip the layers of clothing away for the first time in many days and survey the damage. My right hand is like a baseball catcher’s mitt, my knees and elbows are swollen and blue. A huge yellow bruise is rising on my left thigh, and worryingly I have a small axe-tip shaped puncture wound in my left pectoral, which matches a hole in my jacket I’d noticed earlier. I try not to think about it. I pull a beer from the fridge, and stand under the shower for a long time.
“A friend asked me the other day, if I had the choice between never taking another turn on skis and never swinging an axe again, which would I chose? I told him I’d take the axe every time.The sense of achievement is… it’s like nothing else…” Adrian’s voice trails off in the dark of the tent. But really, why do we do this? This utterly pointless, often dangerous, always strenuous activity? What is it about a mountain, or a cliff, or a frozen waterfall deep in the hills that compels us to climb it, to walk along its ridges or to see what’s at the top?
We climb, not because “It is there”, but to remind ourselves that “I am here”.
With thanks to all the guys at Adventure Consultants, the pilots of Heliworks, and especially to Adrian, his patience, skill and strong belay hand. And, of course, Vitaly Abalakov, without whom our racks would be twice as heavy.
“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.
I don’t want to get up. It’s 3am, and I can see the glitter of stars in the sky and a light frost on the bivvy bag. I was climbing these mountains almost 24 hours straight yesterday. But something pushes me out of my sleeping bag, and shivering in the cold morning I look towards Mt. Kurobe, it’s head still shrouded in low cloud.
The double basses start as I cross the boulder strewn moraine. So low you can barely hear them above the wind, a murmuring sleeper in the pre-dawn. Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony on the iPod. The eerie lament of the basses fits perfectly with Kurobe’s grey walls, which hang heavy and oppressive in the dark. As the mist gathers the strings join in, lifting higher, dragging me up the mountain’s face until, just as I reach the summit ridge, they hang suspended on one note, impossibly long. I look around and can see no more than ten yards in any direction. Then, with three long single notes on the piano, the soprano begins far down at the depths of her register. She rises, pulling me with her and as I walk Kurobe’s shoulder I’m very aware of the drop on either side.
Her lament reaches a crescendo as I hit the summit. I sit, back against the peak marker. Staring out into the greyness, the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end as the soprano reaches her own chilling summit and the strings swirl around her in a misty denouement. At with that the cloud bank races towards me and clears for a few brief minutes, laying Japan out before my eyes with such sudden violence that I gasp. It feels like days since I last saw the sun. It’s time to go home.
At 9pm on Friday night I set out from Shin-Hotaka at the foot of the North Alps. I walk into the night, the way lit by a full moon and a sky full of stars. In my heart, though, I know the weather won’t hold; mares tails chase each other across the sky and the moon wears a bright halo, ice crystals high in the troposphere which hold a portent of rain to come. I climb alone in the dark, across boulder choked rivers and through thick forests, the crash of water cascading through the mountains the only sound.
I reach the Kagami-daira hut around midnight. It’s named for the ponds of still water which dot this part of the mountain and reflect, like a mirror, the surrounding peaks. Barely a breath of wind stirs the water as I look out towards the pyramidal summit of Mt Tsurugi, the lights from its own huts glimmering on its dark shoulder like the pips of warlord. I wait for the camera to pull what few traces of light it can from the scene, and I ring my bear bell nervously. This looks like bear territory. Indeed, part-way up the climb I passed a flat area known as Kuma-no-odoriba: The Bears’ Dancehall. Finally the shutter snaps shut, and I make my way to the hut to bivvy down for a couple of hours sleep.
At 4am the weather is still good. From the top of Mt Yumiori I watch the sunrise until the first drop of rain fall and clouds are race up the mountain face, enclosing everything in damp greyness. From here it’s a long, wet climb up to Mt Suishou and Mt Washiba and they are neither of them joyful. I sit for a few moments in the gloom on each, sucking at the air some two miles above the ocean, and contemplate my next move. I’m not a peak-bagger, I don’t have to be here. Maybe I should call it a day, go home, find a warm bed. But instead I climb down and as night falls I find myself walking towards the foot of Kurobe; I owe it to myself to at least try, and the weather up here is a fickle animal.
Back at Shin-hokata the next day I slump into the hot spring by the river. Lao Tsu said that to see a man’s true character you should see him drunk. I think that to see a man’s true character you should see him at a kon’yoku, a mixed bathing hot-spring. The gentile old man becomes an exhibitionist, arms folded and legs akimbo as he surveys from above. The burly biker with the ponytail daintily covers himself with a washcloth and sits in the water, knees drawn to his chest, eyes on his toes. Young girls wrapped in big bath towels vie with doughy matrons whose modesty is so gone that they high-step out in and out of the bath.
The exhibitionist is toweling off as I climb out. He sniffs his arm exaggeratedly. “We smell good, don’t we?” he says. We didn’t. We smell of sulfur from the spring. But I knew what he meant.