Face expressions of all present on top of mount Tsurugi that early autumn noon suggested more something in the lines of ghost sighting, rather than witnessing one gaijin striding over the summit without even slowing his pace. Well, he did take one quick picture, just as a formality, but apart from that, everything suggested he must have been out of his mind, not realizing he had already reached the highest point of one of the most sought-after mountains in Japan. And without even raising an eyebrow, he crossed right over the brass plate reading “Danger beyond this point. Expert climbers only”, cemented onto the stone at the other side of the summit.
He must have been mad, that was without a doubt. Otherwise he wouldn’t be planning something as outrageous as climbing the mighty Chinne in one day. Something as scandalous as doing it alone. No space for polemics, no defence… this guy was nuts and everyone around knew it.
Only the notorious Yamaholic was his accomplice in crime, giving him a ride to the Tateyama station in the middle of previous night.
Two hikers from Kanto reported seeing him at 11:16 on the dangerous ‘Kani no tatebai’ section of the climb, moving fast, avoiding any contact with the security chains provided. He passed them on the rocks and was gone.
Four member party of climbers from Gunma had just abseiled from their successful ascent of the Yatsumine, when he passed them at 12:34. According to their account, he was heading for the San no mado col. Mustering all of their english abilities, they advised him to put on his helmet, trying to be polite. Allegedly, his response was a bit grumpy. He seemed more concerned about whether there is still some snowfield left in the col. Obviously he was short on water supplies. But to their relief, he did put on the helmet before entering the loose scree gully.
Another two climbers, this time from Nagoya, arrived at the col from the Ike no tan, just in time to see this young lunatic lad prepare his rope for the climb below the first crack. They were camping in the col for the night and having the whole of the Chinne left ridgeline lined up in front of their shelters, they could give us the most detailed and complete description of the events that followed.
All alpine routes on Tsurugi were busy that day and the cliffs of Yatsumine, Chinne, as well as the Cleopatra Needle echoed with shouts of colorful climbing parties, dotting the otherwise mostly grey, vertically oriented landscape. But by two o’clock, they were all just about at the climaxes of their respectable climbs, while the foreigner was only scaling his first pitch.
Was he aware the route can take around five hours, depending on the skills of the party? Was he prepared for the possibility of having to bivouac on the climb? His 30 liter backpack didn’t suggest he was carrying much camping gear. To the horror of all the onlookers, he obviously didn’t carry even rock shoes, as he started climbing in his mountain boots. Reckless gaijin amateur!
In fact the foreigner did all his choices deliberately, taking all the risk factors into consideration. In fact he was quite proud of his smallish backpack and felt all the basic emergency survival needs were covered. In his mind, he didn’t come here to be comfortable.
But he did feel the disconcertingly drastic change in pace as he went from fast alpine approach to the first roped climbing pitch. Though vertical, the first chimney proved quite easy with mostly secure holds, but still the procedure of climbing to the belay ledge, abseiling back down, cleaning the protection and climbing back up was taking considerable time.
One short traverse to the left revealed the second pitch, starting with a wide gap between the face and one huge rock flake. Almost vertical again, the grade seemed similar to the previous pitch, but the flake promised some really good holds and the foreigner dared to proceed rope free to save himself the hassle. It went well.
He was climbing confidently over the next few easy pitches, spiraling the lower buttress up and around, to the overgrown shoulder above.
From the shoulder, 70 meters high rock face rises dominantly to the sky, blocking all other horizons. The foreigner jumped onto it with excitement and vigor. He was climbing a straight line, caring little for the old pegs popping from the cracks here and there, for he was still proceeding rope-free, enjoying the movement on every step upwards. The rock was friendly to him, rough, with lots of grain. The holds and steps felt secure. In just 12 minutes, he topped out onto the sharp ridge connected with the Central band at half the height of Chinne, only one short pitch separating him from the terrace and the crux section of the route.
The view that opened up in front of him made a deep impression on the foreigner. He knew it from pictures, but nothing can beat the real thing. The spire of Chinne thrusts into the sky like a middle finger into the face of gravity and the tower of Cleopatra Needle is not far off.
This was supposed to be the test piece. Grade V with overhang in the alpine, hundreds of meters above the snowfields of San no mado col and in mountain boots.
His mind was calm though. Perhaps it was because he has already accumulated some experience after all and was now looking at it not through the eyes of emotion, but through calculating reason. Studying the spire rising from his feet, he was visualizing the sequence of moves.
“Just to get to the overhang is tough enough”, the words he had read in one account resounded in his mind. But he had an idea already.
Big boulder dotted with old pitons served him as a belayer. He made sure this one was strong and well equalized. Then he approached the spire and touched it’s rock. It was now half past three.
Both hands grabbed the edge of the spire, boots found a corner to lock into and in a layback move he was off the ground. Actually he found this part of the spire to be quite reasonable. The holds were good and felt just about enough in count. He clipped in one draw, then second and soon arrived below the hang. Having to pay out the rope between the moves, he was proceeding slowly.
Apart from one old piton, small Friend was utilized to further protect the hang.
The two Nagoya climbers were standing by their camp, holding their breath, dinner getting cold in the dishes, as they were watching every move of the solitary foreigner perched high onto the edge of the mountain. As far as they could say, he had used aid to overcome the hang. First grabbing on one sling, later stepping into it. Above the hang, they could see him taking a selfie, celebrating success on the crux move. Only they knew what he didn’t, that it was too early to celebrate success.
The foreigner thought he will be able to cut the pitch above the hang and retrieve his gear. Left with only one quickdraw, to his horror, he found himself in very steep and shallow corner with only one rusty piton and a daring line to climb.
For the next 40 minutes this terror continued, as he was climbing in snail’s pace, moving his one draw from piton to piton, petrified by the thought that if one of those pegs failed, there would be no protection all the way down to the hang. And since he had already climbed twice the length of the pitch from ground to the hang, frankly, the protection was as good as none.
He knew this sensation all too well. Technically the moves were not so hard. If his mind was calm, he would be able to climb this without much fuss. But solo climbing in the high mountains is a different ballgame. The experience is all that much intense. Yet exactly that was what he was coming for.
The liberation came 25 meters into the pitch in a form of two reasonably sound pegs quite close together, which the foreigner, desperate by the torment, reinforced with one more Friend. The equalization was not perfect, but enough to trust it with the weight of one’s life.
When he abseiled down, it was 16:30 and the day was just about to leave.
Jummaring back up was a slow and exhausting business, asking for a lot of patience. With only one small Ropeman ascender the foreigner was moving in 30-40 centimeter long steps. Step into the loop, stand up, move and brake the Reverso, sit into the harness, move the Ropeman… the sequence was repeating itself.
Arriving back at his poor belay, the foreigner revamped the anchor in order to be able to withstand an upwards pull. Then he started climbing again. Two or three meters higher, when he was ready to clip into the next piece of protection, he realized how poor decision it had been to let the rope hang free below. He thought the climbing will be easier without its weight in his pack. In fact the weight of the rope was now pulling tight on the clove hitch on his HMS carabiner, rendering it almost impossible to manage with only one hand. An absolutely crucial requirement for climbing.
Holding onto the protection, he tried to adjust the flow of the rope by clipping it with a carabiner onto one shoulder strap of his backpack in such a way, that it would come over his shoulder, the same way as if the rope was feeding from the pack like normally. The effect of this was disastrous. The weight of the rope was pulling the pack brutally onto one side, making it impossible to focus on anything else than its viciousness.
With the rope now presenting one more enemy to battle, the foreigner was clambering higher ever slower.
In the meantime, the sun setting on the other side of the mountain started painting the sky with colors of dusk. As fast as the light of the day was leaving, the cold of the night was coming to take its place.
At 18:17, just as the two climbers from Nagoya were finishing their preparations for the night, they glimpsed a flickering light high up on the spur. It was the foreigner, by now more than ten hours on the move, battling tirelessly on the sharp end. He has by now overcame the hardest pitches, but the Chinne still held few of its last defences.
With night on his neck, the foreigner was desperate to reach the top of the spur. The solo climbing rope-work was so time-consuming and mentally exhausting, that he prayed in his mind for not having to take the rope out single one more time. He remembered the gravity-defying sharp summit ridge waiting for him. He was imagining it behind every corner. But the spur was rising higher and higher. Seventy meters higher, to be precise. What he was doing here was very bold climbing. Or, as someone else would say, very reckless, irresponsible climbing. Beyond the standard grade III, acceptable rope-free.
Though the passing of time felt very slow to him, in a striking contrast to the previous pitches, he covered the last 70 meters in just about ten minutes. Ten minutes in which all surroundings had turned from gloomy dusk into pitch black.
Now back on familiar ground, he was stumbling through the darkness over the scree slopes, up the gully leading to the Hoppono ridgeline. This familiarity with the environment and the general winding of the Hoppono route did him great service. He was moving slowly and steadily while climbing and traversing the endless ledges on the way back to the Tsurugi summit. The weariness had come to him at last. The only thing he could see were rocks and rocks again, moving fast in the narrow cone of his headlamp searching for the right way all around. This narrow and always changing vision was making him dizzy. Only constant small sips on water from his camelbak seemed to be effective in countering this dizziness.
“What would happen if I ran out of water”, the thoughts ran through his head. He knew he had to keep moving. No matter how slowly. As soon as he would stop walking, the cold would get to him. He had enough clothing and gear to sit out the night if necessary, but it would be one hell of a bad, cold, sleepless night.
At one point he had a glimpse of bright light coming from about the same elevation as he was, far to the north-east.
“That must be the hut on top of Mount Shirouma”, he thought. And with the sight, the idea to try to seek shelter in the Tsurugi-sanso hut came to his mind. It was the closest hut, situated right in a pass below the Besan ridge. Coming here straight from work over the last night, with only short few hours of sleep, the vision of warm futon felt tempting beyond measure. One more sleepless night in the cold would be too much torture.
The descent felt endless. Hours after hours of searching for the white and yellow markings, the guiding angels sleeping on the stones.
With every meter he descended, the clouds grew thicker, the gasps of wind stronger, the air colder. Millions of tiny frozen dropplets of haze were dancing in the beam of his light, rustling as they were hitting the thin wind-breaking nylon shell he was wearing.
Tendons in his hips were whining in pain with every upwards step as he was climbing the last small peak in the fifteenth hour on feet practically without break.
Then the warm, yellow glow of the mountain hut windows appeared quite near and in the next couple of minutes, right as the clock hands rolled over 11 at night, he stepped through the front sliding door into the dimly lit structure.
The corridors were silent and empty, the front counter locked. The scent of sleep could be felt inside the building. Suddenly a torpid female figure appeared, plodding along the back wall of the front hall, only to disappear in the rest room, without even noticing the late guest. He went on with his business of reorganizing the backpack and putting on another layer of clothing. A big gasoline stove stood in the middle of the hall, but it was dead cold.
After a brief look around, with nobody to be found, the foreigner eventually laid down on one of the wooden benches in the corridor in order to get some sleep. Unfortunately not much of it could be gained. There was a steady breeze of cold air flowing through the corridor and the bench felt cold as ice. It was the same situation like the previous night, when he tried to sleep on a bench in front of the Tateyama ropeway station, only to be kept awake all the precious few hours by the coldness of the base. He didn’t bring any matt on purpose, expecting to spend the night outside, where any other position than sitting hunched up on the rope somewhere between rocks would be impossible anyway. Now he was paying the price for that decision by the second night with close to none good sleep. Sitting on the rope, bent double, half unconscious, he somehow went through the night, until at around 3 AM a party of early risers descended from the sleeping floor in order to start on their way to climb to the top of Tsurugi for the sunrise.
“My room is empty now. You can go there if you want”, one of them spoke to the foreigner. Now he was the torpid figure, plodding up the stairs. He collapsed onto the tatami and immediately slept dead.
When he woke up three hours later, the wooden room was shining gold, lit by the rays of morning sunlight entering through the single east facing window. Through the window he glimpsed a sight of golden autumn landscape covered in delicate layer of hoarfrost melting into dew, glittering marvelously in the low angle sunshine. The sky was flawless blue and the air was crisp and chilly outside.
The hut was now steaming with action, everybody getting ready for a new day full of adventures. As he descended into the front hall, a lively, smiling young lady from the hut’s staff greeted him with a loud “Ohayou gozaimasu”. The foreigner explained to her his story and how he got here briefly, asking if he should pay something. She smiled beautifully, raised one finger to her mouth and said: “Let that be our secret.” She was a fairy that crosses the path of every weary adventurer at some point in time. Like the first good meal, no matter how simple, blows even the most luxurious dinner out of water after days spent in languish in the open, like the first warm bath feels almost like reincarnation after nights spent in the arctic cold of winter mountains, seeing a smile of a lovely young lady has the same special and magical impact on the heart of a young man, bringing him uncomplicated joy into the moment.
How glad he was that he decided to postpone his return to Murodo to this day. How glorious the mountains looked! He was walking slowly on his return journey, embracing the strokes of cool winds, revering the miraculous sanctuary which nature is.
Countless times the foreigner kept looking back at the mountain that has given him so much. The relationship between him and the mountain had changed. No more desire, no more superficial lust. An intimate knowledge had turned all those emotions into gratitude, respect and love. He has now stood on the summit four times already, climbed all the routes he wanted to climb. “Is there a reason to come back again”, he was asking himself. “Yes”, was the eventual answer. To visit an old friend. To climb here in winter…