Somewhere out there, an alpine winter was bearing down upon me. A frozen tsunami set to bury the mountains in a treacherous winter blanket of snow and ice. I was worried, scared even.

Rain spilled out of heavy, grey skies over Takayama.  I skulked around the cramped, gloomy station precinct, overrun with tourist types arriving and departing from the town dubbed as ‘Little Kyoto.’

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The rains hung around into the night and although Saturday dawned bright, dark skies, bordering on black, hung over the Alps.  And all day they refused to lighten.  I’d been watching them out of the corner of my eye as Patrick (who’d dropped in for a weekend tour of Takayama) and I strolled from site to site in soft fall sunlight.  The grim reality of what was going on up there wouldn’t reveal itself fully until the following morning.

I left early Sunday for the hills, leaving Patrick to head back to his house in Fukui.  It was time to hit the bigguns in earnest; from Kasa-ga-take the Umbrella Peak to Yari-ga-take, the Spear and then across the dreaded Daikiretto and up onto the spires crowning the Hotaka massif.

“It should be fine up there,” Tommy said, as I laced up my boots in his entranceway.

And indeed it was. Dazzlingly so.

Standing at the bus stop I looked grimly up at the soaring peaks surrounding me.  They rose like a wall of white out of the leafless forests, searing a line against brilliant sky blue sky. I had nowhere near the amount of experience needed to hike for prolonged spells in conditions such as those.  Conditions that were only going to become more dire over the ensuing weeks.  I was defeated. I knew it there and then and it stung. It hurt, like nothing else had hurt.

But, I had to see it first hand.

That line I dared not cross.

Summoning an immense force of will, I pushed myself to climb up to the snow line on Kasa. One last effort before throwing in the towel. With shoulders bearing the weight of a heavy pack and a couple of tons of disappointment, I took to the trail. After hours of effort the tree line thinned out.  The sky overhead remained a mockingly brilliant, cloudless blue.  Norikura and Yake-dake out to the south sported their own crowns of white and there, across the valley, ran the jagged line of knife edged rock, linking Yari to the Hotakas.  That was the no go zone. Zettai, zutto.  I was stupid enough to want to keep going, but not stupid enough to actually do it.

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I came to a field of boulders below the ridgeline curling around to Kasa and met the snow. An inch thick, it cloaked the ground and flat topped boulders, as it slowly melted in the sunlight.  Stepping up onto the ridgeline itself and peering across an abruptly disappearing cirque of whiteness to Kasa, the snow suddenly turned knee deep. A trio of hikers strolled towards me from this world of glittering white and I quizzed them about the trail onwards. Their carefully considered opinion was that I turn around there and then. The trail around to Kasa was not fit for hiking any longer that season. To me the terrain didn’t appear to be all that threatening, snow clad though it was. According to my map the route around to the summit was not across ground that was overly perilous so, with plenty of daylight to play with, I decided to push on a little further. Bugger coming back up there if I didn’t have to. It was slow going.  The trudge through the fresh snow ate up the hours.

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A hut sat on some level ground just below the summit. The place was solidly boarded up for the winter. A cold wind whipped at my neck and ears. The sun was heading for the horizon. There, in the hut’s forecourt the snow was hard, windblasted to some extent. I peed into it, to test its depth. Solid, but still about a foot deep. Too deep for tent pegs.  A couple of picnic table tops rose just out of the snow and appeared to be just the right size to pitch my tent on.  I scrounged about for a rock and went about banging my tent pegs into the gaps between the table top boards, setting up some pretty solid anchor points. The temperature began to drop faster than the sun and a blustery wind picked up strength. I started to shiver as I unfurled the tent from my pack and realised I had to get in out of the elements. I tore off my gloves in frustration as I fumbled with the poles.  The fibres of the tent becoming so much more taught and uncooperative in the cold conditions. My fingers froze. I wondered about frostbite and forced the poles into their respective brace positions in the tent corners, slung in my gear, stacking it on the windward side to bolster my shelter against the gusts, jumped in after it and zipped up shut. Safe and sound, I slipped into my sleeping bag and rubbed the warmth back into my tingling fingers. Crikeys, that was cold. I scoffed down a carton of Pringles and then a pack of chocolate almonds that had turned as hard as stones in the icy conditions.

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As the light faded, the winds weakened and I poked my head out of my tent and surveyed the scene. The summit lay a couple of hundred yards above me up a gentle, sloping stretch of open ground. The windblasted snow took on an orange hue as the sun dropped to the horizon. Across the valley, solitary ridgetop lights shone from the huts nestled in the crags between Yari and Hotaka.  I didn’t envy anyone who had to make their way down from those precarious vantage points over the next few days after they all shut up shop for the year. Kasa’s summit could wait for the morning. Alone on the mountain, I zipped the tent shut and settled down for a long night’s sleep.

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Awakened by the first smidgin of dawn’s light, I lay in my sleeping bag savouring my last morning on the trail. Warm, I shut my eyes not wanting the feeling to end.  When the light grew stronger, I eventually rugged up and hauled myself out of the tent.  Before summiting, I broke down camp beneath clear skies. The tent pegs were hell to remove. I snapped one off with a rock trying to dislodge it. Maybe the thing’s still up there to this day, jammed into a gap in one of the tables. Standing over a reassembled pack of gear, the sensation of aloneness a solitary soul feels at daybreak on top of a mountain swept over me. My pained spirit calmed. I stepped off the table top, snow crunching under foot and slowly ambled up the final yards to Kasa’s summit.

On top, I sat amongst the neat stone cairns erected there and stared out at the alpine vistas. Yari and the Hotakas, Yake-dake having a morning smoke, Norikura and Ontake-san beyond that.  Melancholy swept in. It had been a good run. Sixty some mountains in around five months.  Who was I to complain?  I’d seen more of Japan than a lot of Japanese probably see.  I’d tested myself more than ever before and had that so called adventure of a lifetime.

I whiled away the time up there and then turned and headed down.  Down to my gear resting on the table, down to the line in the snow where the trail split and headed north towards Sugoroku, and then down off the mountain, to a bus, to Takayama and Tommy’s temple.

Ah, the irony: at last done in by the weather on The Umbrella Peak…

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One thought on “THE LINE IN THE SNOW

  1. Wow, what an epic ascent on one of the ‘toughies’. Looks like the decision to ignore the old hikers advice to abort the mission was a wise one indeed.

    Sitting on the edge of my seat wondering if you’ll descent directly to Kagami-daira from Sugoroku or head towards Yari just a bit, you know, “just to have a bit of a look”

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