Fuji, Tramontane.

When I was a small boy, I had a sandscape. In a thick wooden frame, two panes of glass sandwiched a mixture of black and white sand in a viscous liquid. When turned on end, the sand would slowly filter down and form stark monochrome landscapes at the bottom. I would dream of walking through those black moors streaked with snow, the desolate ranges of rolling mountains. But occasionally the sand would funnel itself into a single, impossible cone. An abominable Olympus of obsidian ridges and cruel tongues of shimmering ice. And I would think that no man should ever climb such a thing.

A quarter century later, that same cone stares back at me from behind the window of the train. Fuji’s crown stabs at the troposphere, a plume of snow driven by Siberian winds billowing like a pennant from the summit.

I walk from the station to Sengen shrine, the old departure point for the pilgrims who would climb Fuji in clement months. The ascent from here is a long, slow march through the haunted forests of the Jukai. The headlamp casts a small pool of light on the path. John Coltrane drifts smoothly from the headphone and reminds me of warm bars and fiery whiskey, so very far from where I am now. The path steepens at the 1st stage way-point, and the forest closes in above me.

By late evening, the huts of the 5th stage emerge above the treeline, boarded up for the winter. In a snow drift by the path I dig a trench, throw down the bivy bag and start the process of melting snow to drink. My mind wanders to the icy flanks that hang above me. From a distance, Fuji seems so compact and perfect, the size of your fist held at arms length. It’s not until you are up close that its sheer bulk becomes apparent, or the numerous scars and cliffs that mar that otherwise perfect shape. There are no tents, no lights, not a single other sole on this mountain tonight. Minus fifteen degrees, but no wind. Good signs.

Dawn casts its glow over the peak, but also reveals strong winds higher up. I take the climb to the 8th stage at 10,000 feet slowly, hoping for a midday lull that will let me race to the summit. A shower of walnut sized stones rattle down like bullets a few feet away. I cinch the helmet a little tighter and climb on.

At the 8th stage, the tenor of the mountain changes with shocking abruptness. The soft snows and easy breezes give way to a howling, unrelenting gale and bulletproof ice. Up above the winds have only strengthened. Great vortices of snow are now being dragged from the summit. Two climbers died here only a few weeks ago, their tent torn from its moorings and sent aloft before crashing them down on the ice below. The place has a cruel, malevolent feel to it.

I excavate a crude snow hole in a bank of frozen snow and crawl inside, out of the wind that is rapidly sucking the heat from my body. Melt some snow, rehydrate, sleep a little, and massage the feeling back into my toes. I read the labels on all the food I have, try to guess which bubble at the bottom of the pan will be first to break to the surface. At dusk, I stick my head out of the hole. The thermometer reads minus 20 and falling. I try to sleep again, hoping for a break in the wind before dawn.

At 3am, the incessant battering seems to have died a little. In the cramped snow hole, it takes almost an hour to get ready. Finally I snap on the crampons and drag myself outside. The stars shimmer in the icy pre-dawn air. It’s hard to see where the mountain ends and space begins. Within half an hour, I’m at the ridge that will take me to the summit. The wind blows harder here.

At 12,000 feet, I’m lying prone as the gale whips me with all its strength. A constant express train of wind and ice hammer down from above, while all around me is stained blood red by the first rays of the sun. I mash the front points of my crampons deeper into the ice and pull up a little on the axes. My hands are unfeeling, my forearms are pumped and shaking. An eternity passes. It’s clear this gale will not relent. The thermometer shows minus 27; the windchill must be somewhere south of minus 45. I’m struck the very certain feeling that if I went for the summit now, I wouldn’t be coming back. Inch by inch, I move down. I’d got within 400 feet of the top.

The descent from the 8th stage to the shrine passes quickly. After two days alone, it’s strange to see people again, the way they linger and chat with one another. The wan, wintery sun warms my body, and with the exception of the tips of my little fingers, the feeling returns to my hands. At the Fujiyama hot spring, I strip away the armour that has kept me alive for the past two days and slip into the anonymity of those hot waters.

An hour later and with a cold beer in my hand, I watch the winds batter Fuji’s peak as the sun sets behind it. The windows of the restaurant perfectly frame its mighty form, exactly as I’d seen in that snowscape all those years before. That impossibly perfect cone, that tramontane Olympus.

Should any man climb such a thing?

An Ceann Bliadhna

“…and the Irish Meteorological Office is warning people not to travel unless absolutely necessary today. There’s snow on the highground, and the roads are lethal icy this morning…”

..but too late. The fat tires of the sports car were already skidding down the narrow road and towards the cliffs of the Gap of Dunloe. Ten o’clock in the morning, but the sun hangs just above the horizon and won’t rise much higher before it disappears into the icy Atlantic again in a few hours. Summiting in Eire at this time of year is a race against weather and clock.

Climbing over a farmer’s gate. An unmarked path through thick heather. The unfamiliar prick of gorse thorns against our legs, and the half-frozen peat bogs which threaten to suck the boots from our feet. Black faced sheep gaze with yellow eyes as we pass. Yuka demands their attention, but they turn and walk away. Above an icy crest, a thin cloud bank furls across the mountain; she sees her first brocken.

The storms race in, dark streaks across the checkerboard fields of the glen below. We’re cast into greyness and the snow races horizontally past, but the storm passes as quickly as it came. Cobalt skies and peaks ragged with cloud again fill our eyes. The loughs shimmer like molten gold in the pale winter sun. We are alone in these mountains in the dying days of the decade.

Failte ar ais, welcome back. The picture windows of the hotel bar look out across the blackness of the lough below. Sleet drips down the windows, beads of moisture drip down the half-finished pint of Guinness.

Is ann an ceann bliadhna a dh’ innseas iasgair a thuiteamas.
It is at the year’s end that the fisher can tell his luck.

It’s been a good year.

Crack addicts

Roppongi station is a Gomorrah at five in the morning on a Saturday, but a long figure with the helmet hanging from his pack slips unnoticed through the red-eyed crowds and into the early morning. I meet T and K at the crossroads, and we point the car onto the highway and towards the west coast of the Izu peninsula. The city melts into sparse towns, which in turn dissolve into tiny fishing hamlets which huddle in rocky bays on the cold shore of the Pacific.

It’s almost midday by the time we reach the bottom of the climb. The walk in was a vertiginous trail with steep falls into the churning ocean, and a rappel into the bay below.

“OK gentlemen, we’re crack climbing today. Wristwatches off, tape on.” T announces.

He leads the first pitch; K and I join him the belay some twenty minutes later.  I score nul points for style.  “Like Twight said, it doesn’t have to be fun to be fun,” T says. I had fun, I assure him. “Then you’re doing it wrong”.

K leads next, a traverse and then a staircase-like gash in the rock, up to a narrow ledge which is studded with stunted pines. Half a dozen sun-bleached slings flitter from a dead tree which sticks out from the face; it’s stomach-churning to think people rappelled off it.

T shoots off up the crack in the next wall, twisting impossibly through an overhang before disappearing out of sight. Higher up, a wide crack splinters the rock face in two; we jam our hands and feet into it and sacrifice some skin to the mountain gods. From a shady ledge at the top we watch the sun start to drop into the ocean. The crux is two pitches higher up, but we’re done for the day.

We rap back to the forest below. Darkness is already settling as we scurry back along the cliffs and climb out of the bay. Then the unmistakable pac-pac sound of rockfall echoes up from the behind us, sending a shower of sparks through the darkness from the spot we’d stood just minutes before. A parting shot from the walls of Mt. Umikongo, and then stillness  again, just the sound of the sea crashing against the shore below. We hurry back through the night, grateful that the dark conceals the drop off at our feet. Addiction is a dangerous thing, but sometimes you get away with it.

Lost in time

Go on, ask me about the snake. About the pit viper that almost bit the Other Englishman while we climbed the knife edge to Hoshi-Ana-dake. How we stole into the off-limits climbing route in the early hours of the morning, and threaded our rope up its black walls. About the bunch of wilting flowers stuffed into a rappel sling, an offering to some departed loved one who broke on the rocks below.

Or ask about the volcanic cones of Kirishima in Kyushu, and how they smoked gently in the late autumn sun. The turquoise lakes that glint in the calderas. Of climbs though stunted groves of shimmering birch trees and over iron red pumice, to stare into the sheer maw of these holes in the earth’s crust.

Maybe ask too for the tale of a pre-dawn ascent under a planetarium sky, on a holy volcano where the gods of Japan first descended in myth. And how we crested the peak to meet the dawn of a new day, the sun surging from a boiling sea of cloud below. Or of the lightning that strafed the ridge of Mt Sobo and kept us cowering in the valley below. The climbs through soundless forests in the night, dissolving ourselves in the thin beam of our headlamps until we could no longer remember who or how we were.

We’ve seen so much. One day I’ll tell you about all this.

This mountain eats men

“The problem is”, the Other Englishman mused as we stood in the freezing sleet which blew horizontally from the slate grey clouds that surrounded us, “they never have a plan B.”

And he was right. Here we were, stuck on the roof of the Tanigawa ridge, waiting for a party of neophyte climbers to make their painfully slow way down a short chained section. Twenty or so in the group, a single guide, they’d pressed on into ever worse conditions, with clearly no thought that maybe turning back might be a better option. No plan B for when it was all going wrong. They’d come to climb Tanigawa-dake, weather, safety and other climbers be damned. Finally we made our way past and sprinted off, and with a silent curse pumped warm blood back into our cold limbs.

Tanigawa-dake has a reputation. More people have died on its slopes than any other mountain on earth, some 850 at the last count. Its ramparts mark the boundary between the snow country of the north and the rest of Japan, a near impenetrable barrier at one time before the advent of the seven tunnels which now burrow beneath its walls. Avalanches in the winter, rockfall, flood and landslides in the summer.

After typhoon Melor wracked the center of Japan, it looked as if we might be in for a week of fine weather, with blue skies and warm Pacific air. From the early morning Shinkansen out of Tokyo station we looked across to clear views of a snow-capped Fuji on one side, and the Nikko ranges on the other. But the closer we got to that guardian of the snow country, the darker the skies became, until the peaks were blotted out by dark mists. At Doai station, the train emptied its cargo of weekend climbers – all of whom headed straight for the gondola, leaving us alone to make the climb to the ridge.

We headed up and into the teeth of the storm, and hit the traffic jam of bodies at the top again. At the peak of Oki-no-mimi the majority turned around, and for a while we had the mountain to ourselves. Alone on an island of stone in the middle of a grey sea, which hurled sleet and snow down upon us, we raced through the gloom until we ran smack into the unfolding desperation of the novice party whose aspirations exceeded their ability.

These autumn days are short on daylight, and even though we’d chewed up the miles in good time, the light was fading by the time we got to the bottom of the mountain. Our thoughts went back to the group we’d passed, who would surely be benighted up there. If they were sensible, they’d make for the emergency hut and stay the night. If they were sensible…. At Yuzawa we found a bath house by the station, rinsed the mud from our bodies and sank into its steaming waters.

The OE had met a man on Yari-ga-take who’d told him of Tanigawa’s reputation. “That mountain eats men”, the man had said.

“Which is all very well,” the OE wisely observed, “but some people do insist on jumping into its mouth”.

Climbing with Jimi

So, what do you do? Three days of good weather, a bivy bag, and those winter routes aren’t going to scout themselves. How about what Fukada Kyuya called “one of the hardest routes in Japan”, the 8000 foot vertical ascent of Mt Kai-koma via the Kuroto Ridge?

Yeah, that’s what you’re going to do.

Put some Hendrix on the iPod, hit dark streets of Tokyo and seek out the first train heading west for the mountains.

“Well I stand up next to a mountain,
And I chop it down with the edge of my hand”

From the tiny station at Hinoharu I walk between the rice fields of the valley and towards the foot of the Kuroto Ridge. It rises cleanly out of the valley floor, a mile and half into the air. But the pack is light today, and under an immaculate sky I start the attack. The bottom part of the ridge is the remains of an ancient shugendo, a path used by the ascetics of Japan’s mountain religions. Today, though, it is deserted. Are we not the modern incarnation of those seekers of higher truths, though? My bear-bell rings to the heavens, but it is the can of grisly-strength mace on my shoulder that I thank Buddha for.

Below the sheer grey headwall of the summit, the taciturn hut owner tries to ignore the foreigner sprawled shirtless on the benches outside. The ridge so far has disappeared in a blaze. Ten, then twelve, then fourteen vertical meters a minute, until I could taste the ammonia at the back of my throat which told me I was burning muscle and that it was time to throttle off. I slowly suck down a couple of liters of water and drift into the peerless blue heavens until my shirt dries out and a wisp of cloud drifts over the distant summits of the Yatsu-ga-take range.

Time to go.

“We’ll hold hands and then we’ll watch the sunrise,
From the bottom of the sea”

Osamu Matsuo tells me he’s been camped on the summit for three days now, a patient hunter of a perfect portrait of Mt Fuji, which sits serenely to the south.

“There’s no money in regular mountain photography. People like Fuji.” he says, and to prove it he pulls out a sample sheet of his most recent exhibition. Against each tiny print are a forest of ticks, one for each sold, and all of Fuji in some guise or other.

As the sun goes down, I roll out the bivy. Matsuo-san looks on with disdain. “I hate bivys. Brrr! Get a tent, it’s not much heavier. You’ll be cold!” he warns. I tell him I’ll be fine, and I untie the bail of sticks I collected as I walked up through the treeline. Behind a sheltering rock I dig a pit in the gravel of the summit, and soon have a small fire going. Matsuo-san grins and lugs his camera and tripod over. “Ha, that’s the first camp fire I’ve seen at 10,000 feet.” He hops from foot to foot. “Would you, er, mind taking a photo of me sitting by it?” he asks. We take it in turns to shoot each other sitting by this tiny beacon in the sky, before turning our attention to the more serious business of capturing the night sky and Fuji in the twilight.

As the moon sets and the milky way rises, I burn down the last of the fire before covering it back over with gravel and laying the bivy on top of the warm ground. It barely feels like five minutes have passed before Matsuo-san’s voice wakes me up, just as the first rays of light crawl into the sky.

“Get up! We might have a ‘Red Fuji’ morning!”.

We almost did.

“All along the watchtower,
Princes kept the view.”

In winter, the Kuroto Ridge will be a hard climb. A section above the hut but before the headwall, a rolling flank covered in creeping pine, will need some careful consideration, but there’s nothing there that concerns me. The climb south off Mt Kai-koma and along the long Hayakawa Ridge, though, has me bothered. Lower altitude and tree lined with a southern exposure. In anything but the coldest of conditions, it promises all the joys of wading through slush filled with ankle grabbing tree roots. But today it’s a grand walk, gratefully sheltered under trees that are just putting on their autumn colours, and punctuated by small peaks that gaze over the mountains beyond.

“Where you going to run to, where you going to go?
I’m going way down south, way down where I can be free.”

At the Hayakawa hut, I take on 3 liters of water and start the climb up and towards tonight’s goal, the granite spires of Mt Jizo-ga-take in the Hou-ou-sanzan range. The cloud is starting to gather fast now, and already the summits of Kita-dake and Aino have vanished. As I climb out of the treeline the wind blows cold, at first welcome and then chilling. The north-west flank of Mt Takamine is a broken mess of boulders and steep terrain. I’m starting to think that this whole section might be a ridge too far in winter.

“And so castles made of sand,
Fall into the sea, eventually.”

The entire Minami Alps range is formed from ancient seabed, lifted up and thrust miles into the air as the Pacific and Eurasian plates crash into one another. Nowhere is this more apparent than Jizo, whose summit is a granite pillar known as the Obelisk and which is surrounded by soft golden sand. I bivvied here on a cold winter night last year, arriving too late, leaving too early and wearing the wrong boots to climb the Obelisk itself. Time to remedy that.

An instantly recognisable landmark from throughout the top end of the Minami Alps, the Obelisk stands like a three hundred foot high cairn. Closer still, it dissolves into a tumbledown collection of house-sized boulders, surmounted by a split needle, which looks like an easy lay-back climb. Closer again, that easy lay-back turns out to be a nasty off-width crack, too big for a finger and too small for a fist. And filled, as I surmise from the trickle of blood now dripping from my elbow, with viciously sharp crystals. A collection of ropes of varying vintage hang from the top, the usual collection of fraying kernmantles of dubious security. I push them aside and with an onsen towel wrapped around my fingers I jam my way up to the top. It’s a tough end to a long day.

“I have only one ancient desire,
Let me stand next to your fire.”

I spread the bivy out in a natural rock room below the Obelisk and dig a pit for the night’s fire, which roars for a short time and tints orange the boulders of the summit. At 3a.m. I wake and look out from my sleeping bag. The stars are hidden by low cloud, and the barometer is starting to drop; I scratch my plans to climb to Mt Yakushi to catch the dawn, and instead burrow back down for a couple more hours.

The first of the dawn climbers from the hut below is a man in his sixties, a traveller from the north on his way to summit all one hundred of the famous mountains. Mt Jizo is number sixty for him. From my rocky room I watch him come up, and before long we’re chatting on my doorstep. He cannot get over my 30 liter pack, or it’s 8kg weight.

“I camped overnight at the hut, and I have 25kg with me. And in the car, I’ve got a 100 liter pack as well. All my friends say I pack pretty light, but 8kg….” He walks round and round my kit, picking up each bit and shaking his head. As he makes his way back down, I can hear him mutter to himself.

“30 liters! 8kg! Haaa, I couldn’t do that. Wouldn’t feel safe. 30 liters…”

“All you do is slow me down,
When I’m trying to get to the other side of town.
You’re just like crosstown traffic.”

Yuka’s waiting for me at the Aoki onsen hot spring at the foot of the mountain, and I can feel the hot water and taste the beer long before I get there. The weekend warriors are grinding their slow way up the trail between the trees; it’s going to be a busy night at the hut. Down and into the cloud-wracked forest, it’s hard to believe this is the same mountain. As I pass the waterfalls which crash down the Dondoko valley, I start to picture them half frozen in the winter and make a mental note of their locations. A few hours later and the roofs of the onsen loom into view, just as the iPod runs out of juice.

“The story of life is quicker than the blink of an eye,
The story of love is hello and goodbye,
Until we meet again”

This Mountain Sickness

Some call it a sickness. To swap warm beds for nights on cold granite, high above the clouds where the air is thin. A willing choice, a desire even, to leave comfort behind and instead carry your home on your back through the high places of this world. What else could account for all this, if not some tragic disease of the mind?

Mt Kita-dake shines brightly in the autumn sun, defiant against a cobalt sky. Our packs are heavy with the eight days worth of provisions for the long climb ahead, an unsupported voyage through the Minami-Alps. With each footfall we grind a little more of the mountain away. Four thousand and six hundred feet later we sit in the early afternoon sun on the Kotaro ridge, watching the clouds race up the valley. I point out the surrounding mountains to Yuka: Kai-koma, Senjo, Houou-sanzan. The cloud rises higher, blotting the peaks one by one, and finally obscuring Kita-dake too by the time we reach the hut on its northern shoulder. As we pitch the tent, we look out into the gathering darkness and resolve to make the summit before dawn the next day, hopeful of a sunrise to make up for the lost sunset of this first day. We’re halfway through dinner when suddenly the tent lights up, as though on fire.

We race out and confront the conflagration that has consumed the western skies. The cloud-wracked valley seems to seethe, an unearthly scene of orange and red, pierced through by the orb of the sun. Within minutes it transforms again, the mists around us boiling away to leave a sea of clouds below, and within that sea a dozen dark islands where the peaks of the Alps gash through. Yuka bursts into tears. “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.” she says, and we stand, arms around each other in the cold wind, watching the sun sink into the milky ocean below.

The next morning, Japan is laid out before us from the summit of Kita-dake. Fuji sits darkly to the east, and to the west we can make out the peaks of Kiso-koma where we’d spent New Year. Far to the north, Yari-ga-take’s sharp peak stands out, no doubt heavy with climbers this long holiday weekend. Reluctantly we leave the summit and climb down the ridge and along towards Mt Aino-ga-take, still making good time despite the burden on our backs. The sun creeps a little higher in the sky, cooking the left side of our bodies while the right side shivers in the wind. By the time we reach Aino, a thin haze has pulled itself across the sky, and the wind blows fiercely. We hurry off, and on the far side of the summit break for lunch, admiring the chain of peaks that march away to the south. Suddenly our journey doesn’t seem so far. Then Yuka pulls off her boot, and mutters darkly under her breath.

The small blister on her heel which we’d treated the day before has become much worse. We re-apply bandages and duct tape the inside of her boot. “I’ll be fine. It’s all downhill for the rest of today, it’ll be fine by tomorrow.” she says, but this is not a good sign.

It’s still only midday when we arrive at the Kuma-no-daira camp, but we decide to pitch the tent anyway and give Yuka’s blisters some time to heal. In the warm afternoon sun we chat to the hut owner. He recounts his days of climbing in the Himalayas, and about how he brought his American wife and 3-month old son to this hut when he started it twenty years ago. The only routes in or out are over the 10,000 foot peaks on either side; so when his son became ill, the hut owner would carry him on his back over those vertiginous summits and down to the villages below, like something from Japanese folklore. He sent them back to the States when his son became too big to do this, but will travel back to see them when the hut closes for the season in three days time.

The inky canopy of the sky is still studded with stars as we pack up the tent the next morning. Yuka’s patched her feet with whatever she can find, but still moves a little slower despite her protests that she is fine. Climbing up is noticeably painful for her, but thankfully the day starts with a long, gently undulating ridge towards Mt Shiomi to the south. The sky is cloudless and perfect, but each slope is taking its toll on Yuka and I’m starting to eye the climb up Shiomi with increasing dread. She barely slackens her pace though, and incredibly we are still running well ahead of the map time.

I know she must be in agony as we hit the steep northern flank of the mountain, yet she laughs and jokes with the climbers descending towards us. She’s properly taking a mouthful of carb-gel every twenty minutes, and knocks her feet forward in her boots every few paces to relieve her heels. Finally at the summit, she excitedly traces the path we’ve taken all the way from Aino with her finger. “We came all that way!” But then it hits her.

“I can’t go on, can I? This is so frustrating. My legs are fine, I could keep doing this for days… but these blisters…. such a small thing. But this isn’t failure. I’ve done three huge mountains, and it’s been fantastic. Just walk me down to the trailhead tomorrow and I’ll go home – you should carry on.” she says. I tell her I’ll think about it. The thought of abandoning the journey tears at me, but so does the thought of going on without Yuka. We don’t talk much as we climb down Shiomi’s sharp western edge and to the busy camp at Sanpuku-mine, with its explosion of multi-coloured tents gleaming under the bright sun.

From the tent, we watch the peaks above us throw longer shadows across the valleys. I’m mentally reorganising the gear I’ll need and my itinerary, when Yuka rolls towards me and says “let’s go home together”. I can’t think of anything to say, so I lie there staring at the ceiling before climbing back up the ridge to take some half-hearted photographs of the sunset. We eat without speaking much, and the next morning I still can’t think of anything to say. Yuka breaks the silence,

“I don’t want to go home either. I keep thinking I might be able to go on, but we both know that’s a stupid idea. But these four days have been amazing, I’ll never forget them. I climbed three mountains, and I made it half way, I carried all my own gear, and if it wasn’t for these blisters I could easily have made it. I don’t want to go home without you. Let’s come back together next year. We’ll start here and we can climb the rest of the route. It’ll be easy!”. She punches me on the arm, and I can’t help laughing. Suddenly we have fun again as we climb down into the Iina valley below and head towards home.

The first thing I saw this morning when I woke up was a map of Japan spread across the end of the bed. Yuka’s sitting next to it, thumbing through my guidebook to the Hundred Famous Mountains of Japan. “Y’know, a lot of these are pretty easy. Day climbs. Huh! I was looking at the calendar, we’ve got a few long weekends coming up. We could go to Kyushu again and climb the south of the island. And Gunma as well. Yakushima, maybe? Come on, get up, let’s sort out the gear and decide what we should take next time!”, she gushes.

Some call it a sickness.

Personally, I think it might be the cure.

The Flow of the Fourth Island

Sachiko once hit an American soldier over the head with a flower pot.

Her nose scrunches up as she laughs at the memory, and her face dissolves into a myriad of deep laughter lines. It’s hard to believe that in four hours time, she will turn eighty years old.

We pitched the tent high in the mountains before negotiating the perilous road down into the valley, where the map pointed to an onsen hot spring. At the end of a narrow track, the remains of the onsen lay, its neat perimeter walls now overgrown; in the middle stands a modern cottage, and it was from here that Sachiko bustles forth at the sound of the car’s tyres crunching over the gravelled path.

“Yagase onsen? It was here… but it burnt down ten years ago. I was the owner. Where are you from? England? I love English people! Diana was my favorite. I don’t like Charles though. That woman. I suppose he’ll never be king. I like most Americans. But not Bush. He was just in it for himself. Won’t you come in and at least have something to eat? Have a beer? There’s nowhere else in the valley.” She skips lightly from foot to foot.

We protest mildly, but to no end.

“Two of the boys from the village have come over, too. They’ve probably never met a foreigner before, it will be good for them.”

The boys are sitting at the low table in the middle of the living room, giggling nervously. The older one confirms, indeed, he’s never talked to a foreigner before, and the younger one sits nodding his head vigorously. Sachiko skips in from the kitchen and makes the introductions.

“This is Ken-chan. He’s sixty this year. And this is Dai-chan. He’s fifty-eight.”

Dai-chan says something in the incomprehensible accent of the Tosa region, which makes them all laugh. Sachiko fishes through the small mountain of beer cans on the table until she finds an unopened one, and deftly cracks it open.

“The boys live up by the Todoroki waterfall. Even in this little valley, each hamlet is different. The men of the waterfall have the best hearts. Can’t say the same for their heads, though…” This is the cue for more laughter and impenetrable comments.

Another pack of beers disappears, the boys get to their feet and weave an uncertain path to the door, gently bouncing off each pillar on the way. I offer to drive them home, but they refuse and get into their small white trucks before making their slow way back up the side of the valley towards the waterfall. I wonder aloud if it’s safe for them to be driving in that condition.

“The other evening I found a police car lurking just up the road there,” Sachiko says, “I asked him what he thought he was doing, and he told me he was looking for drunk drivers. I told him to leave immediately! Go and catch the crooks in the city! The men around here need a drink or two in the evening, it’s the only chance to socialise that they get after a day in the fields. And besides, the only person you’ll hurt on these little roads is yourself. I haven’t seen that policeman since.” She sticks her nose defiantly in the air, pulling all four foot ten of her frame ramrod straight and marches briskly back into the house.

Sachiko holds court again.

“I was eating okonomiyaki with my friend at a restaurant just after the war. There were four American soldiers in the next room getting drunk and talking loudly. I told you that I grew up in Hong Kong and Formosa, yes? So I knew a little English, and could tell that they were being so rude. ‘All Japanese girls are pan-pan‘ one of them was saying. That was the slang word for prostitute in those days. Well I stood up, and my friend begged me to calm down but it was too late. I walked into their room, and there they sat grinning at me; maybe they thought the pan-pan had come to them. The noisy one had his back to me, but he is still talking, and such rudeness. “Pan-pan this, pan-pan that”. So I pick up a big flower pot from the alcove and shout ‘No Hiroshima, no Nagasaki, Jesus Christ God dammit, Yankee go home!” and whack I bust it over his head!”

Yuka and I sit open-mouthed as she recounts this tale.

“My friend felt so bad about it all. As she said, we could have been shot; they all had pistols. So we tracked them down to the local hotel where they were staying, and waited in the lobby to apologize. We waited and waited, and after a few hours the clerk finally came to tell us that the soldiers had seen us waiting there and had crept in the back way; it seems that the noisy one was just married, and was afraid we’d report what they’d been saying to their commanding officer. He was in a bad way, too. Had a huge bump on the back of his head, and another on his forehead where he’d smacked into the okonomiyaki hot plate! Ha ha ha!”

Sachiko had clearly been quite a handful in her younger days, and kept her fire as she danced into her ninth decade. She insists we stay the night.

We’d driven from Kobe, over the bridge from the mainland to Shikoku. The least visited of Japan’s four islands, home to two hyakumeizan mountains and innumerable valleys and gorges. Yuka has marked the best waterfalls in red pen on the map; we thread our way along narrow mountain roads, single tracks at best, to stop at each one and hike up the valleys towards the waters that thunder down into aquamarine pools.

A little way from Mt Tsurugi, we set the tent at a deserted campsite. The early evening is perfectly still, and the smoke from our fire rises straight up as we grill fresh aubergines, potatoes and the famous onions of the region. One by one, the stars appear; later, as we swig from a bottle of cheap red wine, the milky way blooms across the sky. I tell Yuka about how the milky way is really the cross sectional view towards the center of our galaxy; she tells the tale of the weaving princess who can cross that milky river once a year to see her lover on the far side. Slowly the fire dies, and we crawl into the tent.

The roads of Shikoku are narrow, and subject to nature’s continual battery. The soil of the region is thin and the mountainsides steep. Every rainfall brings trees and boulders crashing down from above, and every road is scarred by these events. Indeed, driving around the island it would appear that the major industry is road repair; scarcely a few kilometers of open road appear before another set of roadworks is marked by a dozen workers furiously waving red and white flags to direct the traffic. In the hot August sun they wave on each car with a slight bow.

Further into the mountains the roads are narrower still, barely tarmacked tracks and full of blind corners. There is no space for two cars to pass, which has the perverse effect of making everyone speed through these constrictions as insanely high speed, before something comes the other way. We soon adapt. A quick glance in the mirror at the roadside confirms nothing is approaching, mash the accelerator and scream around the corner before jumping on the brakes again. We do this for miles on the way to Tsurugi, only to find that the southern approach road is closed due to landslides. We retrace, and start our climb from the eastern flank.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with the young men nowadays.” Sachiko declares. “They don’t seem interested in women at all. I asked my grandson, and he said he had a steady girlfriend. He’s 18! A steady girlfriend! I told him, you should be seeing as many girls as you can. Just don’t get any funny diseases; always use a condom. He called me pervy. Well is that my fault? I mean when I was his age, I was standing on the docks waving all the young men off to war, all to be killed in China. It just wasn’t possible to have a boyfriend, not even for five minutes.”

The summit of Tsurugi is served by a cable-car, but we take the long route instead, up and through the  forests that cling to the mountainside towards the peak of Ichi-no-Mori. The whole of Shikoku stretches out below us, rumpled mountains and deep valleys. As we climb to the marker on Tsurugi, we mix with the day trippers who’ve taken the quick way up. Yes, the summit is overdeveloped, but it is clearly a mountain close to the heart of those Shikoku dwellers who climb it. Dapper old men compete with small children along the wooden boardwalks. “Ah! This is Shikoku!” and “Jirogyu looking wonderful today!”, their voices ring in the fine August air.

We plunge back into the treeline and are soon heading along a rarely used trail. In places the recent rains have brought down trees and landslides across the path, and we skid over the slick mud. This route’s name, the Gyoba or Pilgrims’ Path, attests to its original and long forgotten purpose. In a generation it will probably have returned completely to nature. Yuka charges ahead, loving the terrain. “It’s barely wide enough for one foot.” she cries.

We drive deeper into the heart of the island, furthering our waterfall odyssey. We have each one to ourselves; at the more secluded ones, we strip and run screaming into the icy waters before dragging ourselves out to dry in the blazing sun. Eventually we make it to the southern edge of the island and the waters of the Pacific, and cruise the coast road for a few miles through innumerable rundown towns. Many of the shops are boarded up or deserted; Shikoku is dying. The idea depresses us, so we turn again inland and along another valley to a campsite, where we surprise the elderly warden as she is about to leave for the evening.

“No, there’s nowhere to buy food around here. The man who ran the village store got old, and moved away to the city to join his son. But I can give you some rice to cook.” she offers. We start a small fire and grill what leftovers we have from the previous evening. Without warning, the warden appears again out of the darkness with a watermelon and some cucumbers. She informs us that she’d just picked them from her field, and leaves with the admonition to watch out for mamushi adders. We pull our sleeping bags around us and lie in the long grass as the planetarium wheels above us. Shooting stars gash the sky, and Yuka whoops with each one.

The next morning we duck through the faded entrance curtain of a hillside onsen and out of the seething sun. An old man, bent double with age and wearing just a pair of boxer shorts, shuffles into the lobby and wishes us good day. We buy big chunks of raw bonito and garlic at the local store; scrubbed and fed we make our slow way across the island and towards Mt Ishizuchi.

Tired of hammering at his masters degree, Adam kissed his wife and baby girl goodbye for a few days and came to the Omogo gorge to bike the roads and jump in the icy cold azure pools of the river. The fire is full of charcoal and the cooler full of beer. ” Come on over when you get set up. I’m having a Grateful Dead afternoon.” he offers, as Garcia and the crew drift cooly from the iPod speakers. We pool our resources and end up drinking and cooking deep into the night. He’s the only other camper in the valley, a regular visitor, and knows ever stretch of the river. At midnight we stagger down to the pools and jump into the cold waters. Our howls carry up through the inky gorge; after a minute I jump out and run back to the warmth of the fire on the bank.

It’s a dark and foreboding morning as we race to the shrine that stands at the foot of the mountain. We’re the only climbers today on this side; up the gorge and then the steep side of the valley to the ridge that curls around to below Ishizuchi’s peak. The path is indistinct and little used now, shunned in favour of the cable car which serves the other side of the mountain. Cloud drifts through the buna forests, deadening all sound and covering the waist-high sasa bamboo grass in dew, which soaks us as we push through it. It obscures the sheer drop to our right, and I shout back to Yuka to keep a close eye on where she is walking. Head down she follows, and I can hear her muttering under her breath, “Shuchu, shuchu“. Concentrate, concentrate.

Ishizuchi is a granite island in a sea of cloud. We make our way carefully over the slick rocks and towards the summit marker on the dramatic horn of Tengu-dake. We lie on our stomachs and shuffle our heads over the sheer drop of the summit wall, which falls away into space. I glance down and admire the line of pitons which lie rusting in the cracks below. The summit done, we run down the mountain to soak in the bath of the eerie hotel at the entrance to the gorge. “There’s no-one staying tonight, so I’ve only filled one of the baths. You can get in together if you wish.” the owner tells us. The August rain falls outside, and it’s time to think about heading home.

I ask Sachiko what accounts for her tremendous health and vigour.

“Several years ago we had such snow one night. My uncle, my father’s brother, was staying and he took a walk up the valley.”

I’m starting to wonder if she’d heard my question.

“He walked up the valley to my father’s grave by the roadside, and when he got there he found half a dozen school scarves wound around it. He took them down, and the next day went along to the local school to find the owners. The teacher called all the classes together and asked to whom they belonged. Six of the local children put their hands up, and explained that as they passed they’d felt sorry that the old doctor’s grave should be so cold on such a snowy night. So they put their scarves on it, and continued home. Poor things, they must have been cold without them.”

By now I’ve quite forgotten how we got onto this story.

“The children grew up to be teenagers, and then one night four of them died in a car accident. Their car went off the main road and tumbled down into the valley floor. In memory of their kindness to my father, I walk every day the six kilometers and back from here to the place where they departed this world.”

“That’s my secret. I walk.”

Blow, blow, thou summer wind

We’d drifted in and out of consciousness all the long night, the sonic boom of the wind putting pay to any chance of deep sleep. The tent was a living thing, a pulsating beast of pure noise which bent down with each mighty gust to kiss us on our foreheads. Against the steady background roar would come a noise like a cannon every so often, as the wind hit some rock face deep in the valley below us;  it was as if the mountain itself had declared war. We were tossed around, our tiny red nylon ship, on a malevolent sea of wild air.

Sleep, when it came, was a ten minute loss of sensation, blackness filled with howling dreams, a brief interlude before being dragged awake again like a struggling fish on a line. In my dreams, huge branches were ripped from distant trees, carried aloft before slicing like knives through the thin tent walls. Each time I woke, I reached up through the dark and pulled down the barometer; each time, it had dropped a little more. This wind, which I had hoped signaled the retreat of the day’s poor weather, was in fact the herald of a worse weather system to come. Each downward lurch of the barometer dragged my heart a little further with it. There would be no summit tomorrow.

It was then that Tim punched me in the face.

He said he’d been dreaming. I asked him what about. Punching me in the face, he replied. I couldn’t blame him. Here we were, his first big mountain expedition, and I had him trapped at 9000 feet in a horrendous storm. Was it any wonder his subconscious had it in for me? Thankfully he punches like a girl. Or so I told him.

Nothing was going according to plan. The previous evening, armed with a metric tonne of meat and vegetables, we arrived at the Todai-gawa valley ready to build a fire that would drive back the night and roast our food. As we stepped out of the car, the ground felt soft underfoot and the smell of the forest filled our lungs. It was then that we realised that everything was sodden. The river growled in the unseen darkness, and we dug with our bare hands under logs and boulders, searching out what little firewood had escaped the rains. Tim pulled a Financial Times from his bag, and the flame soon consumed the front page before dying in the damp. Nothing would hold a light for more than a few seconds. The International section came and went. The pages of Companies & Markets were sacrificed. By the Government Bonds page, things were desperate. We dropped to our knees, blowing furiously at the meager flames, alone in the dark as the clouds swirled menacingly overhead. And then, a crackle. A small piece of tinder had dried out just enough. We blew again. Some more took. We piled on the drier wood and placed the rest around to dry beside the nascent flames as they licked higher into the gloom. Suddenly the night was not so dark, and the thought of cooked meat filled our heads. I pulled out the grill and threw chicken and onions onto it, lobbed a few foiled-wrapped potatoes into the embers for good measure, and sat back.

Then the rain started.

We cooked what we could as the heavens tried to kill our tiny hearth, and we washed it down with a bottle of good red wine. And then another one, before we collapsed in the tent, tired, damp, drunk. But not hungry. The rain hammered down all night, big blats of water which killed the fire, but we didn’t care. We’d overcome the odds for now.

The next dawn a weak sun poked through the clouds to watch us stagger up the Todai-gawa valley towards Mt Kai-koma, with sore heads and a thirst that the gravelly water of the river wouldn’t slake. At least it had stopped raining. I pointed to patches of clearer sky to the north, and pronounced the worst of the weather over. Tim pointed to the sackcloth black clouds to the south, our destination, and proclaimed me delusional. But we were making good time. At the fork of the river there were signposts declaring the Roku-gome route closed. I’d climbed it a few years ago, and could see why they’d shut it off. The memories of crossing the river by shuffling across a fallen tree, fifty feet above the grinding waters below, the unmarked trails and constant clatter of rockfall, they stay fresh in my mind. We moved further south and started up the Yaccho-zaka ridge instead, zig-zagging back and forth. I was happy to see Tim keeping a good pace; his boots were so new that he’d only taken the labels off on the train, and I’d had bad premonitions of his feet turning into burger halfway up the mountain.

At the Odaira hut we shocked the lady warden by telling her we were going to the summit that day. Never, she said. It’s too far, and where will you stay when you get there? You’ll have to climb all the way back down in the dark. Our intention was actually to camp on the summit, but I told her instead that we’d head for the unmanned hut at the top of Roku-gome, forty minutes below the peak on the other side. Her look of concern lifted slightly when I told her about my April expedition through the snow a few years ago up there, and how I’d had to spend the night outside the hut, as the snow had drifted inside and sealed the door. You foreigners are survivors, she said, I suppose you’ll be OK. She gave us sweet rice balls to eat with our coffee, and told us that the forecast was for rain the next day too.

We climbed on. Kitazawa-toge was a city of primary coloured tents set against the deep green of the valley floor, the way a child would draw a mountain campsite. The rain was beating down again by this point. At intervals, groups of bedraggled climbers appeared, fresh from the summit. No views, they said. And the wind’s getting up. You boys had better get a move on. Up through the Sensui-toge pass, and the steep ridge which leads to the peak of Mt Komatsu. We passed the last group climbing down. Finally we had the mountain to ourselves, but as we cleared the ridge I looked to where Mt Kai-koma’s peak should be and saw only thick black clouds. The wind blew harder. It was a tough call. We could probably make the summit by dark, but there was no margin of error. I looked back at Tim; he’d put in a strong day, and it was easy to forget this was his first time out. At the nearest patch of flat ground I unrolled the tent.

We woke at 4:30 the next morning, and lay listening to the wind. The peak still boiled with black cloud, worse even than the day before, and it spared us any discussions of whether we might, or could, or perhaps should try. Some days you get to the top, some days you don’t. We were going home, and it felt like a good decision.


I’ve been asked a lot about the ten deaths on Tomuraushi up in Hokkaido last week. My response is that I’m surprised it doesn’t happen with more regularity. Over-zealous guides on a tight schedule taking large groups of elderly and inexperienced climbers into the mountains is a recipe for disaster. It must have been blindingly obvious to the guides that the pace of their group that day in those conditions was woefully inadequate to make their destination. To press on until two dropped of hypothermia, then leave them and three others in a tent with two of the three guides, with one guide taking the rest of the group on was an act of staggering negligence and incompetence.

But it’s sadly not unusual. I’ve seen idiots come down avalanche bowls, and heard of guides sending exhausted single members of a party back down mountains on their own. Everywhere, enormous groups of elderly alpinists, slow and struggling under huge loads, yet always perversely ill-equipped. Team leaders who bully and batter their charges, and groups who climb through ever worsening weather to die by the half dozen just meters from the safety of the huts, and all because “we’ve come this far, it would be a waste to turn back now”.

The heaviest and most dangerous thing you can take to the mountains is your ego.

Where Eagles Daren’t

The dull thwack of rotor blades cuts through the thick summer air. We hurry along the knife edge, trying desperately to gain a vantage point. And then we see it through the foliage; a few hundred meters further along, a helicopter hovers motionless above the spire that marks the northern ridge of Mt Kondo. I marvel at the skill that keeps it so close to the trees that crowd the peak.

“Fuck. Someone’s come off Taka-modoshi.” I say, and the Other Englishman nods in silent agreement.

We can see the trees getting thrashed by the downwash of the rotors, but apart from that the mountain is still. The humidity numbs us, and sends rivulets of sweat trickling down our backs and along our arms. It’s hard to imagine, in the warm sun and the deep green of mid-summer, that someone lies in pain and fear just meters away. I watch the thin steel rappel lines snake from the helicopter, and see a medic clamber onto the skid.

Taka-modoshi – “Where eagles turn back” – is a 50m cliff face and the crux of our traverse today. It starts easily enough, but steepens quickly and ends with a swing out and to the right, and across a knife-edge to the safety of the ledge behind. It’s chained along it’s length, but hard to protect otherwise. The drops on each side are dizzying. I’d guided two clients over it in April, and they’d been grateful of the protection of the belay. Today we’ve gone light, but I’m beginning to wonder if we haven’t pared down our kit too far…

A sweet summer breeze blows through the late night streets of Ginza, and in a tiny bar with porthole windows and bedecked in sailing paraphernalia, two Englishmen pour over a map and a list. We’d climbed much of Myogi in late winter, when the ice still clung to the northern faces, but decided that Taka-modoshi was better left for another trip. With a patch of fine weather forecast in the middle of the monsoon season, what better venue for a quick one-dayer?

“Rope?” I ask.

“All the major climbs are chained…” the OE replies. A line goes through that entry on the list. Harness, slings, krabs all follow. We get down to gloves, water, food, sunblock and boots.

“Boots…” mulls the OE, “…I was thinking trail shoes. Then we could run the path at the bottom on the way back.” And so it was.

The calculus of kit is a fine one, but we knew the payoffs between weight and safety. Every minute longer on a climb is another minute in the risk-zone; and every ounce of kit tugs at you, slowing you down. Fast and light, we’d be up and over Taka-modoshi in minutes; but I’d seen people up there for half an hour, clipping and belaying, fighting against the lactic acid build-up in their pumped forearms and trembling legs. More is not always better.

“Ichi for the michi?” the OE asked, fingering his empty beer glass*.

“Sure. Corona with a lime – that vitamin C makes it a health drink.” I said, and with that we toasted tomorrow’s plans.

We part ways with Yuka at Myogi shrine; she’s hiking the trail round the bottom of the mountain towards the stone arches at the Naka-no-dake shrine. The OE shoots up the trail towards the Dai-no-ji, a huge metal kanji that perches on the side of the mountain at 3000 feet and shines across the plain below. It feels good without a pack, without heavy boots, and we slice the map time in half.

The first climb is a 30 meter cliff, generously studded with fist sized holds and a solid chain. To its left is a cave, guarded by a cut stone wall like something out of Indiana Jones; this is the Oku-no-In, Myogi’s hidden temple. We climb the trembling ladder that leads to its inner sanctum, and we can make out a line of ancient statues and inscribed slabs resting against its walls. Light spills from a natural gap in the boulders above. We bow and ask for safe passage, before moving on to the cliffs above.

We pass quickly over the peaks of Mt Hakuun and Mt Souuma, and along the knife edge of the Harane Ridge. These ancient volcanic walls fall away to sheer drops on each side, like the battlements of some long forgotten basalt castle. The forests below are alive with the sounds of cicadas, carried up on a warm breeze and heavy with the scent of cedars. By midday we’re well ahead of the map time, and at the junction of the Onna-zaka trail. A sign in blood red kanji marks the way to the Taka-modoshi, and the OE reads,

“‘Extremely dangerous. Experienced climbers only. Kewashii rock faces.’ What does kewashii mean?”

I thought for a minute, trying to find the right word.


And with that, the helicopter began its slow beat from the valley below.

We continue on, and meet a couple of teams coming the other way. Each bears a different story; someone fell the full 50m, no, someone fell the last section. Maybe a spinal injury, maybe unconscious, no-one seems exactly sure. The last climber we meet is on his own, and has the haunted look of someone who witnessed the whole thing. Someone fell, he says, but gives no details. Be very careful. We assure him we will be.

The OE quickly scales the bottom of the Taka-modoshi and I follow, passing him at the halfway ledge and swiftly making it up and over the top. Swing out to the left, then back across to the right and over the edge, I shout down to him. Minutes later he’s up.

“Not so bad,” he says, “but I wouldn’t like to have done that with a pack on.”

Light and fast was order of the day.

We downclimb and sprint back down the slope to join the hiking trail at the foot of the mountain, then run the 4km back to the onsen hot spring that waits below. We pass teams making their way down, and the lighthearted jokes of those who’ve had a long day echo down the trail.

“You guys are fast. Get us a beer in at the onsen, will you?” one shouts.

“It’ll be warm by the time you get there, old man!” we reply, and their laughter follows us down.

At the onsen, the banter continues into the early evening. We push the accident out of our minds. Everyone is clean and refreshed from the bath, the beer is ice cold. The OE fingers his empty glass.

“Ichi for the michi?” he asks.

“Why not. Beer’s really just a sports malt drink, isn’t it?” I say.


* Ichi=one, michi=road….

Yamareco route map

GPX File

Technically, a Taka is a hawk rather than an eagle. But poetry trumps taxonomy in this case.