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