November 2014 – Tough enough

I have always been a fitness freak. Sometimes a bit lazy, a little relaxed one, but still deep into it.
The first sport I have tried was volleyball. But being a very shy, introverted child, I soon realized that group sports are not for me.
At high school I used to represent the institution in high jump, shot put and sometimes relay running, a strange mix of disciplines suggesting the indecision of my focus. I have never really trained systematically for any of these disciplines, except right prior to the events. Needles to say I have never excelled in any of them.

Sports which one does to reach some score, some lap time, were never of much interest to me. For me, sport was not about achieving something in the finish line. Not about points, goals or seconds. I don’t like the word sport. It implies doing something for leisure, a game. I don’t like games. I am serious about my training and fitness, be it for good or bad.

Where I’ve always came alive was while pushing myself on the edge of my physical capability for a sustained period of time. I used to get into the zone while cycling, climbing the long hills of Czech highlands, overcoming the muscular pain, imagining my legs are a machine, pistons pushing in a steady rhythm no matter the inclination. Feeling the muscles fire brought me pleasure.

I used to enjoy pumping iron too. While at university, there was a time I used to be in the gym up to six days a week and then exercising at home on the seventh. But being of naturally skinny composure, my body never bulked up into any great extent. I managed to achieve a respectable strength to weight ratio though, doing up to 80 push up and 24 pull up sets.
To learn to use that power efficiently, I then added a bit of gymnastics, parcour and finally muay thai. Muay thai was a big deal to me. As with all exercise, I didn’t want to just play with it. I chose that fighting style because it was the most punishing one around. The trainer leading the gym was a former third on a world championship, having an aura of J. C. Van Damme coolness and Dolph Lundgren brutality surrounding him. I loved the trainings. I loved the sensation afterwards, muscles on fire and exhausted, body beaten, but overall pumped up and feeling I could rip the world apart.
Yet still, I never were particularly good in fighting on a competition level. Being a phlegmatic by nature, my body dynamics and reflexes never reached the speed necessary to excel, to achieve the elegant flow of movement. And I didn’t want to beat another people. For me it has always been about beating myself.

Then there was mountaineering. My patents took me to the Slovakian Tatras first when I was 6 years old. I remember just glimpses from that trip, but they say I was complaining on the way up and only came alive and enthusiastic when the first rock and chain parts came.

In my early teenage years we used to climb all over the Italian Dolomites every summer. No real roped climbing, just via ferrata, but for me as a young boy, being able to climb the “per esperti”, black marked, hard routes, was the ultimate satisfaction. The faces we scaled there were sometimes over 800 meters high. Being fortunate to experience such routes leaves me disappointed every time I get to some of the supposedly big and difficult buttresses in Japan.
I don’t mean to be cocky. There is a lot of stuff in Japan I cannot climb, but honestly, in scale and grandeur there can be no comparison.

Yet it was right here, in Japanese mountains, when I became independent and free to do things my own way, where I might have found my potential to excel.
I realized that although I might not be the brightest, the fastest or the most muscular, I have a gift of being able to suffer more than anybody else and genuinely enjoy it, not losing high spirit. I may not be that good at dynamic body movement coordination, but I have no doubt about my endurance, the ability to push hard longer.
I have so many plans for huge traverses, so many winter projects. I have trouble finding partners, because not many people are willing to do what I do, be it for the schedules or the generally adventurous style of mountaineering I am pursuing. For me this is just the beginning though. I want to develop a monster fitness. I want to climb the mountains in a way people say is impossible. It might mean less margin for error and more failures, but that is the way I feel natural and necessary. I cannot conform into the traditional, slow, super prudent Japanese style of mountaineering some people are trying to push me into.

Minimum gear, maximum freedom. Since August 2014 on the Kitadake buttress and then the one day assault of Chinne on Mount Tsurugi in September, lighter, faster, ultra simple, adventurous style became an obsession for me.

In late November I found myself on a traverse of Mount Kasa with only my trusted 30 liter pack, bivy and sleeping bag, down jacket, Jetboil… that’s about it.

The trip started with a night spent on the well known public toilet in Takayama city as usual, followed by the morning ride with the Shin Hotaka bound bus. A routine already.

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First glimpse of the peak

 

Kasagatake is a beautiful mountain parallel to the more famous Yari-Hotaka massif in the Northern Japanese Alps. It is lower in height by a few hundred meters, but carries a huge potential for hard mixed routes with its towering rock spires and couloirs on the eastern side. I especially wanted to have a look at the approach route to the Shakujou iwa, a big rock wall scalable as a trad multipitch climb both in winter, as well as during the dry season. That ment climbing the old, long route.
My plan was to bivouac hidden on the sheltered side of the Kasagatake mountain hut, right beyond the summit.
The route is really long. Long in summer and ridiculous to think about as a day climb in winter.
The weather was dubious in the morning, gray clouds covering all the mountains, threatening with imminent snow, but gradually turned better and later to fantastic as the dusk closed in.
While there was no snow down in the valley, with rising altitude, the snowpack turned from lovely puffy white blanket covering the landscape down around the Shakujou iwa, into a hideously morale crushing windswept, crust-covered slab snow on the ridgeline. This early in the season, it was not the depth of the snow that caused me trouble. It was the icy crust covering it. I kept breaking through about a knee-deep on every single step, turning the progress into one endless exhausting slog.
I had been marching for a whole day without any significant breaks when the setting sun started painting the three thousand meters high massif on the other side of the valley yellow and red.
The chain of mountains starting with Mt. Yari up north and ending with the Nishi Hotaka down south is a spectacular sight enjoyable both from the east and the west. If you asked me, I would say it looks more magnificent from the western, Kasagatake side. Now the leaving bad weather in combination with the low sun turned the whole scene into one breathtaking theatre of warm evening colours.

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Yari – Hotaka massif

 

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Evening beauty

And then the sun set, pulling all the warmth somewhere far away over the sea and China. Strong wind took its place and immediately the temperature plummeted several degrees deeper into the negative territory.
Exhausted, the summit towering a couple hundred meters further and higher still, exposed and unprotected on the open barren ridge above the tree line in the last minutes of evening light, I was fucked.

 

I started considering the options. How does one bivouac on a steep plain of frozen snow, without enough depth or structure to dig even the most basic trench? The freezing wind hit my face once again. Staying here was not an option.
Going back down the ridge line to a place suitable for bivy was possible, but that would mean losing the chance for summit, as I only had time for descent the next day.
If only I could reach the hut on the other side of the summit…
I had to push myself up and forward. Suddenly I had an adventure once again. I kept climbing in the dark. Forward, up and higher, sometimes on all four in order to spread my body weight and thus prevent myself from breaking through the crust. I don’t know how long it took before I reached the last rocky section before the true summit, but I felt pretty much at the edge of my strength.
The summit was a desolate place. Dark, windy, cold, with only a ruin of a small shrine half buried in the snow. My only thought aimed at the hut. But there was none to be seen. Or to be precise, no way for it to be seen. The summit was a small round plateau with 360 degrees of possible descent directions.

All tries to pierce the darkness with the beam of my headtorch were of no avail. There was nothing but steep rock and snow to be seen before the light was swallowed by the night.
A slight mistake in the direction of descent could be fatal at this point.

Now I was really fucked. I must have been carrying a map and compass, I guess. If really necessary, I would probably be able to descend to the hut just by the lead of these two instruments, but now I was too tired and too cold to fiddle with them and grabbed my shovel instead.
The ruined summit shrine turned out to be the perfect shelter, consisting of three walls with opening on the leeward side. I dug out just enough snow to curl myself inside, covered the top with my ultralight flysheet and slipped inside into the three season sleeping bag I use in winter.
Next I grabbed the package of dry rice, but before being able to do anything with it I passed out, totally exhausted.

I woke up some hours later, rejuvenated enough to work the stove and cook some simple curry. Then I slept again, indifferent to the howling wind and cold coming from the stars above.

The next day dawned beautiful. There is nothing better than waking up on top of the mountain.

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Bivy on the summit of Kasagatake

 

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Morning gold

 

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Along the ridgeline

 

Descending the Kasadake shindo turned out to be the other half of the ordeal, not at all easier than the ascent.
First of all, I had never been here before and didn’t know the route. After jumping down a cornice onto a snow slope I found myself on a steep huge plateau, free of trees or any other landmarks. The thousand vertical meters long way down might had been anywhere.

Then there were the snow conditions. The snow on this side of the mountain was at least thigh deep already, wet from the direct morning sunshine and felt frighteningly unstable. I was sliding and running as fast as I could towards safer features, terrified by the thoughts I might be avalanched here as the snow was ripping horizontally around my legs.
But the worst of all was the never before experienced level of fatigue making me feel like if I were pulling a truck tire roped to my waist all the time. I don’t know what kind of indisposition had struck my body on this trip, or if I were so much out of condition, but I dreaded every meter in the deep snow that did not lead down.
A couple of times I was seriously thinking about taking a plunge into some of the deeply snowed up steep gullies breaking from the plateau and sliding with the snow straight down to the valley. Only sanity made me reconsider the action and continue the search for any sign of the correct way. Then, at last, I glimpsed a string of red tape tied onto a tree branch. Without the slightest hesitation, I half walked, half slid down the steep slope towards it. Then there was another. And one more further down. Without doubt, I was on the right way, heading straight from one mark to the other through the crotch deep snow, forgoing switchbacking completely in order to save energy. I kept stumbling down over big buried boulders and fallen tree trunks.

Thousand vertical meters, that is how high the Kasagatake Shindo is. Deep under the snow, surely unclimbable without investing in a couple of days at least. Exhausted, dehydrated, in hurry to catch the return bus, I once had to stop and take a forced break, feeling like I might vomit any time.
Upon reaching the valley, I refilled the bottle with a crystal clear meltwater, sipping on it while walking the last kilometers along the forest road back to the Shin Hotaka ropeway station.
As usually, I was the odd existence there, a beaten foreigner with dirty boots, repacking the gear of winter war on a sun lit patch of grass, enjoying the bewildered looks of all the tourists.

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Kasagatake from the Shindou

 

The mountain was shining white and bright, fierce, unconquered, much stronger than a punny man can imagine. The fact it let me rest on its very top proves only that I was at mercy that day.

Trying to breathe deep and calm next to the open window on the bus, the mountains were slowly disappearing behind as I was pushing back the sick feeling in my guts. Soon I fell deep into sleep.

This trip made me reach deep inside on both days, turning what was supposed to be an example of the free and simple style that is my obsession into the physically most demanding short adventure I have ever done.
But after all, that is where I thrive. That is where I feel I have done something and the trip was worth it.

This one was tough enough, but definitely worth it!

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2 thoughts on “November 2014 – Tough enough

  1. I finally came round to reading this. Awesome adventure and loved the night on the summit. The photos are spectacular, especially the dawn shots. Makes me long to go back for some cold season climbing and photography.

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