Progress up to Kotoumiyama is painfully slow and laborious in the melting snow. The temperature is certainly well above zero and evidence of the season turning to spring can be seen everywhere. Slopes around showing deep scars after being swept by avalanches, sometimes all the way to the bare ground. Huge cornices half broken, deep and fearful cracks opening along their sides. I keep breaking through up to my thighs into the slushy snow, only to get myself up and fall again after one or two steps. How I envy the older man passing me on snowshoes which I do not possess. But what advantage he has over me with his snowshoes I make up for with my youth and endurance. We keep walking more or less together for several hours. The weather is magnificent, just a few clouds torn by the sharp crests of the mountain giants in strong contrast to an azure sky. Two of the finest Japanese mountains are dominating above everything right in front of my eyes.
The Goryu with its huge buttress, stocky in constitution, mean brute so attractive to mountaineers in its ugliness, stands here in striking contrast to the grace and elegance of the high, unbroken and unspoiled white walls of Kashima-Yarigadake, like a great white swan standing next to an angry bulldog, both bound by a fantastically looking chain of ridge. This is the finest winter mountain panorama I have seen here in Japan and I already know, that some day I have to come back here to do the full traverse.
As the day advances to noon and the temperature keeps rising, I am becoming more and more concerned about the snow conditions. Occasionally I can see or hear an avalanche on the slopes of neighboring ridge, something that makes me nervous as I myself cannot avoid crossing pretty steep slopes, some of which already have a lot of cracks in them. I cannot distinguish if I am more scared by the real danger, or by the awareness of my inability to objectively judge the level of risk I am taking.
So I try to move as close to the trees as possible to reduce the risk of triggering an avalanche, but at the same time not too close, for there are big holes hidden where the snow melts around generally warmer objects.
At one point I arrive at a place where a huge cornice is hanging from the unseen steep ridge bellow. Very close to it on the windward slope I can see a line of cracks where the heavy layer of snow seems ready to slide down. Some thirty meters further on, there is one place where such a slide has already occurred, ripping down the snow to the bare ground. The way over this particular place obviously lays higher over the cornice than I would like. I am trying to cross it with the most cautious steps I can manage, but still keep sinking into the wet snow like if there were air pockets beneath. Two thirds into the length of this cornice I break through the snow up to my crotch into something, which is obviously an open space. As I try to move and get myself out, the snow under me breaks and I’m in up to my chest, holding with my stretched arms to the lips of the now unmistakable huge hidden crevasse-like crack of the cornice, nothing solid to hold my feet upon. I become quite desperate, bury the shaft of my ice axe deep into the snow and pull myself up, stretched on the surface of the snow to maximize my weight distribution on the snow. On all four and terrified I run away from this place back to the last safe place. That’s it! I am not going a damn step further!
I am walking here and there in front of this place, puzzled, trying to get my plans and disappointment in one line. I have not yet even started the climb proper. How can I give it up here? But I am not going back onto the cornice. What should I do?
Later on the older man comes on his snowshoes. When I tell him what had just happened to me, he just states emotionless: “Let’s see”, and off he goes right up on the cornice, well above the crack, a line that I find exceptionally risky. If it broke completely now…
But he makes it to the other side all well. Am I being over-cautious or did he just had a lucky day in rolling the dice against death? I do not know. But still I do not want to go back there. Instead I climb back a bit to the Nakatoumiyama, which commands great views of the mountain panorama and start preparing my bed for tonight. I dig just a trench, kind of grave-like hole in the snow and cover it by sheet of space blanket. While laying down I can see the top part of Kashima-Yari through the entrance opening. Truly bedroom with a million dollar view. I spend the rest of the day playing around, enjoying the scenery, and making food. Then, watching the sun disappear behind the summit of Goryu, I prepare myself for an early bed.
At night it finally gets cold and the snow gets a chance to refreeze. As usually I wake up around midnight and cannot sleep any more. That happens to me in the mountains all the time. Calling of nature makes me get up for a moment, but the sky is now overcast with mist and almost no stars can be seen, so I am happy to burry myself in the down filling of my sleeping bag as soon as the bodily necessities are dealt with.
Morning’s first light sees me already preparing for the day. I leave most of the gear in the bivouac and set off over the frozen snow surface back towards the place of my yesterday’s defeat. Where I had lots of trouble walking in the wet and heavy snow yesterday, today I am able to pass easily, pleased with the crunching sound of hard frozen snow underneath my crampons. The hopes are high for the cornice and indeed I am able to cross it safely this time. This gives me a needed punch of self-confidence and I fasten my pace at once. Turnaround time is set to 9 am. I do not want to risk being trapped on the mountain after noon, when the snow will become soft and scary again.
The distance to Goryu is shortening rapidly. Soon I pass tent of the ojiisan from yesterday on the Ootoumiyama and we exchange a good morning. On the way to the curl under Goryu and its smaller sibling Shiratake I traverse over several places, which will surely get pretty nasty in the afternoon, namely one gigantic cornice with long and wide crack along its side just bellow Nishitoumiyama. It looks so dubious that it makes me hesitate for a while. But the snow is still hard enough and I make my move.
The steep slope from here to the top of Shiratake I crampon up on the limit of my lung capacity. So much I want to be done with it that I literally run up, covering the last three hundred vertical meters in around twenty minutes.
At half past eight I finally get to glance at the other side down the mountains, but to my disappointment, visibility is not good due to somehow misty air and I cannot see Mount Tsurugi from here. But I made it to the summit of Shiratake and that is enough. There is no wind on the summit. All is silent and completely lifeless, like if I had reached some forgotten corner of the prehistoric Earth. Even the light seems dead flat without a single shadow, the sky hidden behind some kind of thin layer of mist. All feels so dull and emotionless, the summit of Goryu looking unattractive, boxy mass of stone. Even the otherwise graceful Kashima-Yari, when seen from here, has changed from pure swan into ugly double-headed hydra.
I am standing on the summit for good thirty minutes, enjoying the strange sensation of emptiness. Then, gradually becoming conscious of the reality down on the long ridges leading back into human world, I leave this place to its nothingness and start on the descend.
For more than one hour I have been sitting on the terrace of the Alps360 restaurant in the Hakuba Goryu ski resort, eyes fixed up on the Goryu buttress, having difficulty in believing that just a few hours ago, I was standing up there. When you first approach a mountain, you don’t see it as it really is. You see it through the eyes of your dream. When you return from it afterward and look back, you see it completely differently. You see it in the light of the adventure experienced there. And I love this feeling. I love looking back and living through all the emotions again. I love how it is totally inner thing, impossible to reproduce for anyone else. I love how when you return between people, everyone is minding their own business. They see you, but don’t notice anything unusual. Only you know that you have just been beyond the world of men, to the edge of the world.