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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2 thoughts on “January 2013 – The dark traverse

  1. Oh dear you are a complete fool ! How can you with all your rationality attempt a walk like that by night! Jesus, you might have died on that ledge! Otherwise it must have been quite a beautiful scenery in the light of the dawn but walking in the mountains by night is still a way too dangerous to my sense… You’d rather buy some sleeping pills rather than getting up at midnight 🙂

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