It was supposed to be the last climb of the season. The mountaineering masterpiece. The culmination of everything I have learned and done in the mountains up till this point. The myth shattering feat, proving my point of pure alpinism, unhindered by man-made rules and paradigms.
Except that it wasn’t meant to be.
One might say it was just that the weather didn’t cooperate, the conditions were not right. But as I am sitting on the Hashimoto city bound train, the worm of doubts and what-ifs keeps biting deep into my mind.
What if I pushed upwards instead of turning around? Could I be victorious?
What if the snowing was really only in lower elevations and the climb proper was in perfect condition? Did I just freak out and lose a rare opportunity?
Or was backing out a good call? Would I be in trouble or even dead now, if I climbed on?
I will never know. As they say, the mountain will always be there. Good mountaineer is not necessarily the one who makes it to the top, but the one who always makes it back home.
On the 29th of February 2016, Takayama city was putting on winter coats once again due to a heavy snowfall. The yellow glow of old style street lights and the dark wooden facades of the traditional merchant houses went well together with the whiteness of the countless snowflakes flowing through the air ever so softly and silent.
In all their beauty, they also marked a dark omen though.
The 1st of March dawned strikingly cold, but undeniably beautiful in the Northern Japanese Alps. 20 centimetres of fresh snow were covering the landscape as one pristine white blanket. The mountaineer inside me was concerned. I had a lot of avalanche terrain to cover today. One warning light was definitely up.
As I was going through the last gear adjustments before setting forth, I found another big problem. I had forgotten to buy gas canister for my stove the day before, consequently leaving me without a means to melt snow and make water in the wild. I can manage, I thought. As long as I carry enough water from the beginning and somehow keep it from freezing, with careful rationing and some planned dehydration I should be fine for the two to three days I was going to stay on the mountain.
I ditched the stove into the snow by the road, getting rid of its dead weight, planning on picking it up on the way back.
Another warning light was up nonetheless.
You see, while preparing for an cutting edge alpine climb, one doesn’t plan to stay comfortable. Everything is subordinated to the lowest weight possible. There are very little spares and just in case items. Speed and ease of movement are paramount.
Couple hours into the trip I reached the Shiradesawa deai and for the first time got an unobscured view of my goal, the lofty Gendarme.
No mountain far around has so much appeal. The dramatic lines, the striking features… when you see it looming high above yourself, shining in sunlight against blue sky… if this sight doesn’t make you pause and stare at awe, you are no mountaineer.
I had climbed the most prominent feature on the mountain, the Hida ridge, in autumn 2015. It was an incredibly enjoyable climb of mild grade on very good rock and unquestionably one of the highlights of last year. But since I first saw it some years ago, I knew that I have to do this route in winter to do it full justice.
It is a big climb, serious in a couple of aspects. The approach is treacherous and covers a lot of avalanche territory, the rocky ridge is long and totally exposed to the elements and when you get up to what is considered one of the most, if not the most difficult summit in the Alps, you are still just half way, with descent even more complicated than the ascent.
My plan was for the first day to climb up to 2200 meters, a halfway point in the face where the rocky terrain and the Hida ridge proper begins, bivouac there, start early the next morning, summit the Gendarme until noon and then climb uninterrupted through the rest of the day and the next night to the south along the 2900 meters high ridgeline all the way to Nishi Hotaka, to descend from there using the ropeway on the third day.
Normal, reasonable attempt would take a lot of gear, a couple more days of schedule and a preparation the scale of a mini-expedition. To make this plan work, I had to go really light. From the beginning I set my trusty 30 liter pack to be the limit. -6°C rated down sleeping bag, ultralight bag cover and tarp, mattress, down pants, synthetic insulated alpine parka, some spare gloves, goggles, balaclava and other necessary small items and last but not least, half litre thermos bottle, a pack of hi-tech energy gels and foods, along with some high calorie bean pan and dehydrated rice. Other than that, all clothing and gear like crampons and dual axes, is usually worn or carried in hands, not adding any bulk to the pack. No ropes, no protection, no snowshoes… and as it turned out to be, not even a stove.
Such a plan is a hard thing to talk about beforehand and honestly, even afterwards, especially if it fails, because it can cause a lot of controversy.
Non-climbers probably cannot understand, but couple of days before the climb, you are sick in your guts, feeling there is a realistic chance you may not make it back. Such times always make me pause a bit in life, enjoy the small daily stuff like commuting, eating, morning chat with wife a bit more vividly, be a bit more pleasant to others…
One asks himself constantly, how the fuck can this even be worth it. The question is a hard one, not answerable through reason. You know it is foolish, and yet you have to go, otherwise you would be giving up on what you are passionate about in life. You cannot prevent yourself from following your true passions and at the same time say that you truly live. Denial of ones dreams equates denial of living itself.
Once my friend and senpai both in life and mountaineering told me: “Maybe for you, your climbing is a way how to express yourself.”
I don’t think anybody has ever grasped it more truthfully, myself included. The mountains are my canvas and through climbing I create my art which I am shy to show to the world, but deep down want the world to see.
And so I was there, looking up towards the mountain, half scared, half hypnotised by its calling.
Given the fresh snow situation, the loss of stove and my overal mood, I was constantly in doubt if this is even a serious attempt. Half of me was expecting to reach the steep gorge of upper Shiradesawa, give up there due to avalanche hazard, return to Shinhotaka ropeway and enjoy some time on Nishi Hotakadake instead.
Yet every time I was in doubt, the white and jagged summit of Gendarme poked somewhere through the trees, feeling a bit closer again and again, calling my name, not letting me turn around.
As expected, the upper steep gorge was heavily snowed up, with plastic sticky snow crotch deep, extremely difficult to move through. It felt like trying to walk through thick honey, every step sinking in so easily, yet utterly difficult to move out again. On a few occasions I even crawled over the surface of the snow in order to overcome some especially deep sections.
The thought of impeding avalanche was at the front of my mind all the time. I know the ripping sound when an avalanche breaks away and I was expecting to hear it every moment. In snow this heavy, one would be cemented in and totally helpless even in the smallest slide.
It may sound silly, but the game of mind is the true challenge of adventurous mountaineering. Inside the gorge, waist deep in snow with difficulties ahead, I reached a point where the string of will broke in my head and I physically turned around and started backtracking. Then I stopped and looked up through the gorge and towards the shining Hida ridge one more time. Somehow I reached to pick up the lost courage and the will, returned to the last highpoint and forced a couple more meters forward.
I think this was the turning point at witch I managed to get over the barier holding me back and committed to the climb fully.
As if by magic, the walking became easier soon afterwards. At the last point where the running water of Shiradesawa could be reached within the snowfield I drank as much as I could, filled up my 1 liter soft reservoir and entered the narrowest part of the gorge. I knew why walking here became easier. Underneath the fresh layer of snow, this was a huge field of avalanche debris, frozen hard.
For the next two hours, I kept meandering over the snow in search of hard surface to walk on, very positively surprised that the otherwise until spring unclimbable Tengusawa following after breaking away from Shiradesawa was in the same condition, almost walkable. Perhaps this was a convenient side of this year’s mild winter, that the steep alpine snowfields are smaller and freeze harder.
Five o’clock in the afternoon went around as I reached the top of Tengusawa. From there one has to climb 400 meters of elevation change over sparsely forested system of shallow ridges and gullies of up to 55 degrees in inclination.
This is where I got seriously scared. I could not comprehend how the snow can stick to the slopes and not slide down when I am breaking through it. At the lower parts, there were some long slabs of verglas I could use to frontpoint up relatively safely, but as the day turned dark and into night, as the trees became more and more sparse with the altitude, there was nothing to protect me. The snow was powder on top of icy crust with deep overfrozen loose grainy snow underneath. The progress was painfully slow. Break the crust with the axes, clear the excessive snow, consolidate it with knees, step up one tiny step and repeat. These 400 meters of elevation took me 4 hours of nonstop work, always feeling vulnerable and under threat.
Loose spindrift was falling from above over the slopes and over my head as I chose one place supported by two close standing trees as my bivy spot and started hacking into the 45 degree slope in order to create a ledge. In an amusing moment I suddenly realized there is a small cornice less then 2 meters to the right from where I stopped digging, with a huge drop off deep into an iced gully below. A couple of trees seemed to be supporting the cornice and I wasn’t too concerned.
I covered the ledge with my tarp secured on six points to the axes, poles and the trees, and finally, by half past nine at night, I slipped inside my sleeping bag. One troublesome feature of this setup I found out very soon was that although the tarp lay flush with the snow, the spindrift could still get inside through a gap opened by the wind sweeping the slope from above. There was nothing I could, or was willing to do about it.
Everything I wanted to prevent from freezing I stuffed inside the sleeping bag. The water, wet socks and gloves…
Even without the stove, fortunately the dehydrated rice can be, given enough time, rehydrated and made edible even with just plain cold water. I mixed it with some curry and stuffed it inside my jacket to warm up at least a bit. In the meantime I ate one of the bean pan and dozed off, waking up about an hour later, when all was nice and ready to eat. All in all, the lack of stove didn’t bother me at all.
What did bother me more and more were the conditions though. At night, ferocious winds picked up high on the mountain. Every once in a while, a gust of immense proportions came sweeping down the side of the mountain, roaring like a heavy freight train coming closer and closer, then with a thunderous rumble sweeping over my fragile bivy, pushing the spindrift everywhere inside my gear and even my sleeping bag. The whole snowpack was shaking every time such a gust came and honestly, I was freaking out. All I could think of was getting the fuck out of there. Although I built the ledge over two trees, preventing me from sliding down no matter what, I didn’t think well enough to protect myself in case something came sliding from above. Not that there would be much I could do anyway, but the idea of being swept from above, inside my sleeping bag, totally helpless, was frightening beyond measure.
I have never experienced anything like it and, seriously, don’t know how to judge the situation. The roar of the wind as it was coming and the shaking of the snowpack made me feel like an avalanche coming from above is a certain thing, but in fact, I have no proof that anything had fallen anywhere. I don’t even think anything fell as even the next day, I couldn’t see any debris or marks of a slide anywhere.
What kept me from descending during the night was, more than my courage or anything else, the cold and my unwillingness to get up and pack everything. Once the gust of wind managed to rip the tarp from its anchor above my head and a huge amount of spindrift covered me and everything on the ledge in snow. At night, huddling inside the bag, you don’t immediately realize what had just happened, but even when you do, rather than getting up and doing something about it, you just huddle even deeper and wish it would somehow go away. Which it of course doesn’t, so finally you have to get up and do something.
Morning temperature, verified by the upper station of Shin Hotaka ropeway at about the same elevation was -15°C. Although by midnight my mattress was effectively buried by the spindrift and in the morning I was laying almost directly on snow, the cold was not unbearable, which I find satisfying. Always grateful for my choice of double-boots as a winter footwear, when I slipped into the solid frozen over-boots with crampons attached from the previous day, my feet were immediately comfortable and dry. It is these small things which make staying in the cold less of a hassle that I find ever so important while preparing for an alpine climb. Everything must be as simple and as hassle-free as possible.
When the sun rose high enough to see the surroundings the next morning and I saw it was cloudy and snowing, obviously the only thing to do was an immediate descent.
So I failed. Or was forced to retreat. Whatever. The attempt was over. Reading the lines as I write them, retreat seems like an obvious choice indeed, but was it really necessary? Or more than that, what would have happened, if I decided to push forward? I turned around just a couple hundred meters from the beginning of the rocky ridge, free of an avalanche danger.
And was there real avalanche danger in the first place? As I said, I cannot confirm a single debris field on the way down. Maybe I was just too scared and definitely too unexperienced to judge the snowpack correctly.
The conditions of the Hida ridge itself remain a question mark. It was snowing all the way down to the valley, but somehow, above the clouds, I have a feeling the peaks had a good weather all along.
Again, I will never know. Without achieving anything, this winter is over for me. Coming March and April, I promised my lovely wife to welcome spring together. Maybe do a bike trip somewhere again. Maybe go to Yakushima next month.
With this winter over, the dreams of the Gendarme Hida ridge, the Houkendake west face, the Kitadake buttress, the Tsurugidake Komado ridge, the Kashima Yarigatake Tengu ridge, and newly, the Orendani on Kaikomagatake… those climbs remain dreams. Some of them for the next winter, hopefully.