#3 – IWAKI-SAN
Things were looking pretty bad, though I could barely see a thing.
No, I lie. Things were looking bloody awful and all I could see was white.
Alone, exhausted, right knee on fire, I was marooned in thick cloud high up on Iwaki-san, a 1600 metre volcano rising out of the Tsugaru Plain, the northernmost of the Tohoku Hyakumeizan. I sat in the top branches of a flimsy little tree. Its uppermost limbs barely poking out of the ice in a snow choked gully sporting a gradient steeper than that of the roof of your local temple. I felt like a shipwreck victim clinging to a lump of driftwood. Cast away, in the middle of the ocean, under a thick blanket of sea fog. An ocean permanently set at an angle of something verging on 60 or 70 degrees. The gully was hemmed in at the sides by an impenetrable tangle of brush. Head high bamboo grass, gnarly, stunted, windswept trees and choking swathes of creeping pine, its stubby branches twisted by the elements into knots of bristly green. Trailblazing through that stuff, to put it simply, was an impossibility. There was no easy escape from the situation into which I’d climbed up into out of the lush, sun dappled forests a couple of hundred metres below me, somewhere beyond the white.
I had entered another world. A gushing torrent of melt water churned down the mountainside beneath the ice, exacerbating the feeling of peril hanging over me. I couldn’t see above me more than a few metres and I couldn’t see down much further than that either. Though having scaled the ice to that point I knew it was perilously steep. One slip would send me to my doom, careening down the slope like a drunken bobsledder, hurtling into broken ice and splintered tree branches at a hundred shits a minute.
What the hell was I thinking taking on these mountains?
“What kind of fool trades a comfortable existence laced with birds and booze for all this exhaustion, misery and stupidity.”
And what the fuck was Lonely Planet thinking?
“The best season for hiking Iwaki-san is from early June until late October,” it said as I reread the course description on the bus ride out through the apple groves of Aomori to the trailhead at Hyakuzawa Onsen. “During (this) season no special equipment is needed,” it confidently informed me.
Well, it was a big, fat, five star bollocks to that. My crampons were what was needed and, recalling how the book had also matter-of-factly referred to the gully as “highly avalanche prone,” I wondered if it was going to be long before a Bible and a truckload of dumb luck were going to be required as well.
“None of this snow should be here.”
I was supposed to be clambering up a “dry river bed” with “an aluminium ladder to assist (my) ascent.”
Well, Mr Lonely Planet, dry river bed it was not. Very fucking far from it. Perched there in the tree, said ladder and river bed buried somewhere below me under rapidly melting snow pack I shuddered, thinking of my crampons, also somewhere below me – about a thousand fucking metres below me, stashed safely in my pack in the bloody hotel.
Cramponless, I made do with a pair of bamboo twigs to “assist (my) ascent” instead. As the ice wall flirted with vertical, I stabbed them into the hard, slippery whiteness like rabid psychopath plunging a pair of steak knives into the back of his sleeping victim. On that hot and humid June afternoon my fingers burned with cold as they gripped the bamboo pegs sunk deep into the ice. Lashes of fire were reigniting inside my right knee as I kicked footholds into the ice wall. I sputtered and growled like a junkyard dog with terminal gut rot in an exasperating exercise of mind over matter. I was scared as hell, I despised being there, wished I could be anywhere else, but I was damned if I was turning back at that point. Through the white haze of fear and fury I convinced myself that heading upwards was the only way off that ice. My heart threatened to beat itself out of my chest and the sound of blood coursing through my head, feeling as though it was about to pop a gasket, had me looking up into the whiteness for helicopters. I strained to locate targets to head for. The next twig, leaf or indentation in the snow a few metres ahead. I’d drag and kick my way up to them and pause, hot droplets of sweat falling into the snow and melting miniature craters in the ice. When the cloud taunted me with a wider glimpse of my surrounds, I scoured the wall of scrub that bordered the gully for a piece of pink tape or some other marker indicating a departing trail. I was gripped by paranoia that I’d miss the one vital sign that would get me off the ice and go on clambering upwards into a dead end and be lost overnight on the mountain. I heaved myself upwards expecting, with each thrust of my bamboo spikes and kick and scrape of my boots, the ice under me to come apart and dump me into the churning torrent beneath it.
I was at wits end when I reached that tree. I clung to its leafless branches for a good twenty minutes dwelling on my predicament and sucking on my water. “At least I’ve got the damn guidebook with me,” I simmered darkly. “If I get stuck up here tonight I can start a fire with the fucking thing.”
The Hyakumeizan suddenly meant nothing. I was ready to walk away. Clamber away. Taking on that ice with a couple of twigs was insanity and I had ninety-seven chances remaining to end up in similarly dire situations.
“To Hell with all this,” I muttered darkly. If I got off that mountain in one piece I was done with the whole business. Pissing off to Thailand and lying on the beach until Christmas was a much more sensible plan. “Maybe Vietnam. Rent a bungalow on the shores of the South China Sea…”
A light breeze brought my wandering mind back to the perils of the situation at hand. I slipped on my day pack, gave the burning knee a rub and hauled myself out of the spindly refuge and back onto the ice. Head down, arse up I slowly, methodically stabbed and kicked my way higher, deeper into the curtain of white. The breeze continued to waft across the mountain in ebbs and flows and finally began pushing the cloud higher up ahead of me. I began to catch glimpses, silhouettes through the thinning white, of huge outcrops rising out of the vegetation above me. Wisps of mist rose off the ice ahead of me and then I spotted it, a tiny flicker of brilliant pink amidst the monotone. Attached to the top of a thin bamboo stick poking a metre or so out of the ice. A pink piece of tape waving to me in the breeze. I hung my head in relief and blubbered a “Thank you” to God. I hadn’t spoken to the Bloke in years, and I’d probably abused him just about as much my guidebook on the way up that little patch of ice, but can’t help thinking He was up there keeping an eye on me that afternoon.
It soon dawned on me that I could stand. The churning waters were no more. Leaning forward I began to trudge up the ice instead of crawl on all fours. An occasional loss of traction had me back down on my haunches stabbing my bamboo into the ice. Plodding on, spitting globs of thickening spag into the snow, the vegetation closed in on either side of me, the ice levelled out completely and the clouds, harnessed at last by the wind, finally loosened their grip on the mountain. A stone path appeared from beneath the snow at my feet and I slumped down onto a big square rock at the side of the trail, too stunned to laugh or cry…
Needless to say, I got to the top and the adventure continued. Vietnam and Thailand would have to wait. I shot Lonely Planet an email regarding the state of the trail up Iwaki-san in June and in their long awaited 2nd Edition of Hiking In Japan there is mention of the lingering snows on the mountain.
Hiking In Japan, Lonely Planet Publications, 1st Edition, 2001, pp 298-299