January 2013 – The dark traverse

Yoko and Akadake seen from Akaiwa no kashira on the reconnaissance climb

Yoko and Akadake seen from Akaiwa no kashira on the reconnaissance climb


I cannot sleep. It is just one o’clock, but I have been awake since about midnight. I am sharing the tent with three other torsos, breathing quietly in steady rhythm of unconsciousness, unaware of my suffering. I am terribly hot and thirsty, but in this sardine-like compressed form it is too much pain in the neck to attend to any of these discomforts. My original plan was to get up at three in the morning and get going by about four o’clock. But excitement from what is awaiting me, just adding one more dimension to my restlessness, makes me give up the waiting. The night is so perfect, the Ice candy, that huge monolith of ice next to the Akadake kousen hut, glowing blue in the light of million stars above. The conditions are flawless! At about two o’clock, just as I am about to zip our tent behind me, Fukushima san, my senior, good friend and overall great character, turns in his sleeping bag towards me. Not sure if he is awake or sleeping, I whisper: “Jaa, ittekimasu!” and I’m off.
Ice candy

Ice candy


Bright beam of light is cutting through the forrest darkness as I am swiftly following my own footsteps up the slopes of Mount Iou. Yesterday I did a reconnaissance approach through here up to the shoulder of Ioudake and back down, all in one hour and twenty minutes, just about third of the official map time. Ice axe firm in my grip, not that it would be needed to climb, but if I met a kamoshika like yesterday, tonight, in the darkness, it would be scary. These deer like creatures share nothing of the grace and cuteness of their normal siblings like you can meet and play with in Nara. Kamoshika is big, with constitution of a bodybuilder and rough, almost boar like fur. And they have two big and sharp teeth pointing from their bearded mouths. Thus the ice axe, to give myself confidence. Thinking about bear is too much for me at this moment.
I make it to the final cornice up to the ridge in one hour of steady climbing. But just as I am breaking through, the game changes completely. As soon as my head popps up and over the broad ridge, I get a punch of wind blown snow right to the face. I get myself up and quickly turn my back against the wind to take a breath. Focusing my sight I can faintly recognize the contours of the mountains around, Ioudake to my left, the rocky pillars of Yokodake and all the way back, although I cannot see it, there I sense the crown jewel of Yatsugadake and my final goal today, the huge buttress of Akadake. There is no moon to be seen on the sky and the stars don’t shine sufficiently bright for me to be able to climb just like that. To make things worse, the wind coming from north over the ridge is extreme, often pushing me in furious punches off balance. I am trying to force my way forward, but soon find going without eye protection impossible. Though it is not extremely cold, raging of the wind definitely makes it feel like if it were. My jacket is already frozen stiff from the sweat vapors condensed on its inner side. I crouch behind a small stone cairn to put on balaclava and goggles. During this short operation, although I am hidden on the leeward side, the wind forces light powder snow everywhere around my neck and deep into the jacket. Then, shut off from the elements inside my clothing, I try to continue, only this time to realize, that in my dark tinted goggles I can see nothing but the whirlwind of wind blown snow in the beam of my headlamp. What a precarious situation I got myself into. I climb back down under the cornice to calm myself. Then try second attempt, only to be beaten by the wind again. Shall I wait here until it will get a bit lighter with coming of sunrise? Impossible! The sun will not come up the next three hours. I would freeze here. Shall I go down? That would be a huge pain in the neck. No way! The only option is to battle it through.
So I climb the cornice for the third time, determined not to turn back no matter what. I have to summon all my willpower to climb the rocky step to the summit of Ioudake, totally blinded by the torrents of snow in front of my dark goggles, having no idea if I am on any trail at all. But there it is. I can see the big cairn marking the summit now and to my big surprise, two small eyes, sparkling in the light of my lamp, moving fast over the rocky summit plateau. I cannot but wonder what poor creature can live in these conditions.
At once I start on the way down to the col below and here finally the wind weakens so I can move and breath freely, no more snow being forced to my face. It is still deep night when I reach the half snowed up Ioudake Sansou hut. There is no way to get in of course, but some strange shape can be seen on the leeward side close to the wall. As I come closer I can see it is a tent. Who could be camping in this place, I ask myself and then almost laugh when I realize how much more absurd it must feel for those sleeping inside. Who on earth could be walking around our tent at this hour, in this deserted place? I use this opportunity to take a short break, drink and eat a bit. Then, in little higher spirits I move on.
The only part of this whole adventure I was a bit concerned about was the Yokodake traverse, to be precise routefinding in this delicate terrain of steep rock walls and gendarmes. The winter line should be different in places from classic summer trail and there was supposed to be some steep snowfield traverse where using rope is recommended. But never in my mind was I anticipating that I will be navigating through all of that at night. Fortunately, apart from about three exceptions, most of the time, after one looked around all corners, it is quite easy to judge the right way. Steel ropes, chains and ladders bolted to the rock protrude from snow here and there and I climb them with caution.
Suddenly I come to a strange point. The trail shrinks to a snowed up ledge along the almost vertical wall, uncomfortably narrow and about four meters long. There seems to be no other way around this spot for the slope bellow falls abruptly into darkness, but this has to be the right way because I can see the trail actually might be continuing on the other side. I start this scary traverse slowly, making the steps very carefully, not sure about what is hiding underneath the snow cover. One, two, three, four steps, I am already half over it when suddenly while making the fifth step my foot goes straight through the snow and into emptiness. I end up on my second knee, fortunately not losing overall balance. I stand up quickly, jump over the last part and take a deep breath. It happened so fast that I had no time to be scared and it all haven’t come to me until I was safe again on the other side. I just remember the darkness bellow.
The next parts of the climb come naturally. Just when it seems I came to an unclimbable cliff, there always turns out to be some manageable way up or down. In the meantime, I notice that the sky is getting lighter in the east, long awaited sign of approaching sunrise. From one of the peaks of Yokodake I look down to the west and immediately recognise the silhouette of Daidoshin, the famous rock formation, so popular among Japanese climbers. It seems so small from up here, almost harmless.
By descending steeply on mixed ground to the right I finally reach the snowfield traverse. It certainly is fearfully steep and the way down very long. If one were to slip here, self arrest would probably be impossible. Luckily the snow is in good condition and I am able to frontpoint to the side in the shortest possible way, a little unnerved, but safe.
Further on the trail leads me back to the eastern side of the mountain and as soon as I turn around one sharp rock corner, I am stroke by a sight of such magnificence, that some dirty words manage to escape my mouth. The sun has just appeared rising on the horizon, flooding all of the vast countryside, the countless small mountains and valleys as well as the sky with red and golden light and right there in front of me, huge and splendid, perfectly shaped, Mount Fuji stands proud and high, the unquestionable ruler of all mountains in Japan.
Morning Fuji

Morning Fuji


The sun is rising

The sun is rising


I am standing there in unending awe, watching the sun, the source of all life, spreading its fiery wings over the world. Then comes the grand finale when the whole of the south face of Akadake, now right before me, turns burning red in the rays of the sunrise.
Sunrise theatre

Sunrise theatre


Until now I thought what a bad idea it was to start on this climb so early, covering more than half of it in complete darkness. Now I came to understanding, that right here and now I am experiencing something very special, that would otherwise be impossible under given circumstances. I cannot tear my eyes from this spectacle until much later on, when it is already all new and bright day.
When I start moving again, all becomes easy and straightforward. Along the ridge with great views on both sides I march towards the last bastion of the whole Yatsugadake range, the beautifully carved peak of Akadake. Climbing along its north ridge is steep, but thanks to the still firm snow cover, all goes easily. It is still cold and windy, but the mountains now don’t seem to be alienated from human beings, no environment beyond survival. They feel friendly now, showing me just their best sides, putting nothing of an obstacle in my way.
Akadake summit

Akadake summit


I am spending quite a long time on the Akadake summit. There is no reason to hurry and the unlimited panorama views are breathtaking. Minami Alps with dominating pyramids of Kitadake and Kai-komagatake to the southwest and the long range of Kita Alps, starting around Kamikouchi with the Hotakas and Yari, far to the northwest, where I can faintly make out the shapes of Kashima-Yari, Goryu and finally mount Shirouma. Directly to the north I can admire the view towards Yoko and Ioudake, Akadake kousen hut also visible deep in the basin bellow, the whole length of the trail I passed on the way up here.
When the time to go down comes, I make a slight routefinding error when I start descending seemingly on a ridge right behind the summit shrine, ending in the midst of the huge Akadake buttress. Certainly not this way, I am thinking to myself. And in that moment I remember words of advice from one of my colleagues, whose expertise I hold in a lot of respect for he had been on Kanchenjunga. “Dont descend right behind the shrine, because although it seems like a trail, it will lead you to the cliffs. The correct route leads little further to the south and will turn in your direction further on.” Yes, how simple.
View towards Minami Alps from Akadake buttress

View towards Minami Alps from Akadake buttress


During the descend I take a notice of quite a commotion on the summit of Ioudake. Could that possibly be the rest of my group, whose aim was to reach just that flat peak before returning back to Osaka? It must be them. I try to wave my hands, knowing there is no chance at all for anyone to recognise such gestures over such a distance. But if somebody was looking for me…
On the last part of descend to our camp I enjoy the snowy wood country in a leisurely walk. When I reach my tent and stretch myself flat inside, it is around half past nine in the morning and I am absolutely happy, a little red tinted stone from the top of Akadake in my hand, a memento for both the battle with darkness and the overwhelming peace of one of the most magnificent natural phenomenon I have ever experienced.
Daidoshin and walls of Yokodake

Daidoshin and walls of Yokodake

Click the following link to watch a short movie from this adventure on vimeo:
Yatsugadake movie

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January 2013 – Through clouds into heaven

It is already noon but no sooner could I get all the way to the Shin-hotaka ropeway from Osaka, leaving the world of busy morning commuters behind. It is cold and the air is clear, but the forecasted heavy front is surely right on my heels. There is no time to lose here, so I am letting the gondola whisk me some thousand meters up and with my usual restlessness off I go out the station and on to the trail. Thanks to the numerous visitors, the trail between the ropeway and the Shin-hotaka Sansou hut is well marked and easy to walk on, snow being compressed by many boots before me. After checking in the hut for the night, first time for me to do such thing here in Japan, reorganizing my bag and leisurely walking outside, taking pictures of all those familiar mountains around, I find myself with a few hours to spare before the dinner will be served. What else is there to do than try to go as far as I can towards the peaks of Nishihotaka itself? Surely I cannot resist the temptation to make at least reconnaissance for the next day’s climb.

Nishihotaka Sansou hut

Nishihotaka Sansou hut


So off I go again, in quick tempo, covering the distance and elevation change in good time. The wind is strong here, making all footmarks disappear immediately under half meter of powdery snow dunes. Breaking the trail takes some energy, but as soon as I get to shooting distance from the “doppyou”, the first well recognizable rock formation on the ridge, going becomes easy again. The wind has been so strong here, that the ridge is swept to bare stones, glued together with hard snow and ice. My turnaround time is 4:00 pm and at 3:45 I am standing on the top of doppyou. From here the ridge turns into a sharp crest, ascending abruptly to some of the most magnificent summits of the Japanese Northern Alps. Right in front of me stands proud and mighty duo of perfectly conical peaks, calling to me with their treacherous voices like two beautiful succubi, almost irresistible song of desire to climb them at once. This is of course the Pyramid peak and behind it the summit of Nishihotaka. Further behind, little to the right, I can see Oku and Maehotaka, a huge faces of rock and snow, falling deep into the Kamikouchi valley, 1200 meters straight down from where I stand. No matter how much I wish to, I will go no further today. It is just a reconnaissance after all and I was not expecting to get this far anyway. But above all, the sky is now sealed shut by impenetrable featureless cloud ceiling of metallic color. So the whirlwind of bad weather, which has been slowly making its way up over Japan the last day or two has finally caught up with me.
Kamikouchi valley

Kamikouchi valley


The view towards Pyramid peak as seen from Doppyou

The view towards Pyramid peak as seen from Doppyou


Minami Alps and Mount Fuji

Minami Alps and Mount Fuji


The night is terrible! 7 men snoring like if they were to scare off the devil himself, I can hardly get few hours of sleep. For some time I am creeping through the empty corridors between toilets and the living quarters, listening to the monstrous roar coming from every room, sleepless spectre in the darkness. I swear to myself to never ever again sleep in the hut! It doesn’t seem to be too windy outside, but fluffy fat snowflakes are falling in abundance.

The second day dawned slowly and into dim gloom of white landscape shrouded in clouds. Some fifty centimeters of fresh snow have fallen so far and there seems to be no change to be expected today. I have severe doubts about whether it will be possible to make an attempt at all. At the same time I regret yesterday’s early retreat from the mountain. The map time was talking about an hour to reach the hut from doppyou. I was down in 15 minutes! What a waste! I could have had climbed at least to the Pyramid peak. Now there is nothing left to do but wait a bit more until all hope fades away with the flow of hours, then descend back to civilization and run for meeting with one of my Japanese friends. Tomorrow we are to climb Ontake together. Maybe we will have more luck there. In the meantime, I shall at least go out, play in the snow around the hut and see how the conditions have changed. Outside it is snowing as heavily as the whole night before, strong gusts of wind punishing everyone for choosing to be on the mountain in the midst of a hurricane. I barely make it twenty meters uphill from the hut, breaking trail chest deep in powder snow, when to my horror, the length of the slope right before me cracks and starts sliding. It stops as fast as it started. No harm could be done, but in such unstable conditions, there is no point in even trying to go anywhere.
Five minutes after leaving the hut I am inside again, confessing my quick defeat to other visitors and the hut owner. Next time I am leaving the hut, it is ment to be for good, carriing my pack fully loaded for the descend. But what are my eyes seeing, a group of guys breaking the trail upwards, already beyond the point where I triggered the slide just a moment ago. This cannot be! If they go, I shall have one more try also! In a minute I am on their backs. “Nice weather, yeah!” we shout to each other, words carried away by the wind. “We saw you yesterday evening heading to the mountain. We were worried, you know. But you climbed really fast! Please, go ahead!”
And so I find myself breaking the trail once more. But today it is all different. Tons of new snow, carried by the ferocious winds, being shifted from one dune to another. Sometimes I find myself standing on a crust of hard frozen snow, moving forward easily, sometimes it breaks and sends me down to my crotch in gypsum like substance. Most of the time I battle through knee to waist deep snow dunes, clearing the way with my axe, pushing up and forward, enjoying the fight tremendously. By this time we have reached the wide and unprotectd ridge, blasted by the typhoon-like winds.
It is all quite a scene to behold. The snow is not falling from above. It is carried horizontally along the surface of the snow, raging around us in torrents of a weather gone completely mad. Six of us started on the climb this day. Four gave up in the process and went back to the hut. I am left with the last of my companinons, who’s face I do not know, being hiden under balaclava and snow goggles all the time. We communicate just by gestures. The wind is too strong and steals the words from our mouths. I know there is nothing to be gained here. It would be nice to reach the doppyou one more time, but that would be it. The way further is out of the question. The higher we get, the thicker the clouds grow. We are taking long pauses to stare into the complete white, searching for small red markers attached to bamboo poles along the right line of asscent. As we reach one, the process is repeated, until we cannot find anything any more. We are in a whiteout. Fifteen meters from us the ground and air becomes unrecognizable. There is no point in going further. It would be too easy to lose the way down if we did. My altimeter shows 2605 meters, just hundred or so bellow the doppyou as we turn around. There is no need to feel disappointed when you know you are making the right decision. Apart from that, I had a great time fighting through the midst of a snowstorm.

Late in the afternoon, I am sitting alone in a snug restaurant in Takayama city. Warm and well fed, the blizzard up in the mountains being no more than a memory felt inside my worn body. I left my two day open bus ticket at the bus terminal, so that anyone still possibly going to the mountains today can pick it up and feel a bit lucky. With train ticket for the meeting point with my friend in pocket, I text him to check the situation. “The highway is a snow hell, jammed with cars. I cannot make it there. Sorry.” Just wait a moment! But tomorrow’s forecast is clear weather! I still have one more free day! I cannot go home like this! Without second thought, I run back to the train station, return the ticket, run to the bus terminal, hoping that… Yes! It is still there! My open bus ticket. Lucky that the Japanese are too reserved to use such thing even when they can. Today’s last bus takes me through the night back to the lap of snow gods.

At about 9:00 pm I watch the bus disappear into darkness. After that all is silent, just a soft whisper of falling snow on the ground can be heard and slight cold felt as its flakes melt on my face. I remember a few spots around here where one could bivouac under roof and be at least a bit sheltered. Like a ghost I make my way unseen into a public toilet nearby. What a great place! Not even a five star hotel could make me happier! I have all the luxury in the room for handicapped people. Toilet, sink with running water, enough space to lay down fully stretched… But something is suspicious here. The lights are on and there is even a small heater running. There were no footprints in the deep snow outside leading here, but surely someone will come sooner or later to turn it all off. Then I will be found and given what I am doing here, what can possibly be the result? Just as I managed to doze off, sounds approaching from the snow outside make me awake at once. I am laying with my eyes wide open, staring into the complete darkness around, not daring to move or breath.
This is it! Now I am about to be found! All kinds of possible conversation scenarios are running through my head. But nothing happens. All is silent again. Same thing happens several times during the night. Despite my warm sleeping bag and small heater close to my feet, I cannot get rid of shivers all night long. Maybe it is the stress of this situation combined with two days of exhausting snow slogging. The night flows slowly on.

At 4:00 am I am back on my feet, boiling water for morning noodle soup and into my thermos bottle, getting ready for full out attempt on the mountain one last time. When I look out of my night’s hideout, thirty centimeters of fresh snow are covering everything again. And the sounds during the night, that had to be the heavy plastic curtain at the door, moving in the strong gusts of wind. The weather doesn’t seem twice optimistic. Promised clear sky somehow must have forgotten to come here because at this point it is still snowing lightly. One hour before the ropeway starts operation, its employees come to clean the fresh snow. Having nothing to do, I volunteer to help. “Can you do it?” asks the obaachan. “Sure I can,” I reply. “Clearing snow around house used to be my winter job back in Czech.” “You are a good person,” she says. “No, everyone would do the same, right?”

Finally the time to get going comes! I dump all unnecessary stuff in a locker and set off at once. Thermometer shows -16 centigrade, but I do not mind. I am moving fast and get warm quickly. First difficulties show up right away. The corridor that used to be the trail is completely snowed up. I immediately find myself breaking the trail sometimes up to my armpits in snow, working the axe in front of my body, kneeing the snow to create steps, sometimes feeling like swimming. It is hard work, but even that I do not mind. Today is my day. I do not even stop by the hut to take a break. In fact I am happy nobody sees me go by.
The steep hump right behind the hut up to the ridge turns out to be the most exhausting bit. It is so much snowed up, that no matter how much I dig and compress the snow around, I just keep sinking down. These ten meters in length and about four meters of elevation change cost me good ten minutes. One cannot imagine how hard and frustrating such effort can be. But also how rewarding when all the work is done.

On the ridge, crust of sparkling frozen snow covers everything and I keep breaking through which makes progress laborious. Sometimes I continue on my knees and hands, just to spread my body weight over bigger area. In depth, the snow glows bright blue. Quite the opposite from the sky. In fact I can see no sky at all, everything still being enveloped in thick clouds. But I’m not losing hope. I know that it will take climbing just a little higher and… in that moment it happens. The cloud breaks and right in front of me a spectacle worth all those three day’s efforts reveals itself like if I have just went through a magical gate into completely different world. Shining bright and beautiful, plastered with infinitely white snow, sharp fang of the world above men, the Pyramid peak and Nishihotaka, those two succubi waiting for me all the time, floating in the sea of clouds bellow and all around, showing off all their grandeur, stand right before me. To the west, an island of Kasagatake, graceful in its length, to the south and east endless horizon of white blankets under perfectly blue sky, with just the peak of Norikuradake protruding through.

Nishihotaka doppyou and Kasagatake

Nishihotaka doppyou and Kasagatake


Doppyou from above

Doppyou from above


I am flying over the snow, rocks and ice, smiling wide, insensitive to the arctic cold and wind. After crossing doppyou, I keep well to the left on mixed ground, avoiding the cornices on the eastern side. Crampons and axe are biting into the soft ice with pleasant crunches, one step after another, now over a series of short knife ridges, with both sides falling out of sight deep into abomination of the clouds, now steeply up the last spur of Pyramid peak. On the top I rest. My time is up. If I am to return all the way to Osaka tonight, I should go no further. It is a hard decision to make, but after a while I pick up a small stone from the snow, souvenir marking the highest point reached, and for a few more minutes savour the moment.
Nishihotaka from the summit of Pyramid peak

Nishihotaka from the summit of Pyramid peak


In heaven

In heaven


I love being in the world above clouds, in complete silence, when all the noise of our human world is shut off by the cloudy blankets. People keep asking me why I want to climb alone. It is for moments like these, when there is nothing to spoil the tranquility, the happiness of solitude in my own world, literally in heaven.

IMG_3961a

Click the following link to watch a short movie from this adventure on vimeo:
Nishihotaka movie