NOVEMBER 2008 – SEPTEMBER 2009
The last eleven weren’t giving up without a fight. I’d climbed 89 of Japan’s 100 most revered mountains with barely a bobble. I was like a mountaineering gladiator. I showed up at trail heads of mountains the length of the land and slayed them where they stood. Sure, some had a go at me, they fought back. Ibuki for one, right out of the blocks, was all set to crush my aspirations before I’d even begun. “This upstart from the flattest continent on the planet reckons he can just walk in here and start knocking us off.” I wavered. I was giddy on my feet. It was certainly a contest but somehow I prevailed.
I guess Poroshiri in early June of ’07 had better plans, colluding with the higuma, the weather and a river gorged with ice melt. Sure, okay, Poro had me. I turned tail, but I was too far away from home at that stage to relent completely. Let’s just say I was forced to regroup and after that debacle I went on a rampage bagging peaks throughout the North at will, before returning to Poro and knocking her off without a hint of resistance.
With twenty-three down after Poroshiri, Nasu, in the southern reaches of Tohoku stuck her head in the clouds and summoned up a fierce thunderstorm. Talked into surrender by a clerk at Nasu’s Visitor Centre, I returned the following day and swiftly waylaid the mountain as it basked in the sunshine. It was a blip, but I’ll concede, Nasu did get the better of me. After that, I returned to my swashbuckling ways, through Greater Kanto, where only Hira-ga-take and Echigo-koma riled up and left scars on my psyche before succumbing beneath the relentless onward march of my boots. From there, I was off into the Alps and beyond.
Odaigahara – set to be the 90th to fall – had other plans. At that point, in late 2008, my head wasn’t in the mountain game. My days and nights were consumed with thoughts of home and Mum as she battled with cancer. When I turned up at the bus depot in Matsuzaka City in Mie, the woman behind the counter spied my pack and asked if I was bound for Odai. When I replied with a hearty “That’s right,” she said there was no trail to the top through the Osugi Gorge anymore. I said I’d be fine. She said I wouldn’t. I’d heard of the typhoon that had washed out part of the course a couple of years before but imagined I could still scramble up it somehow, after all, I was well on my way to conquering a hundred mountains. Even Asama and Daisen had wilted! What the hell could Odai throw at me? Well, apparently it had already thrown down a hefty chunk of itself crushing bridges across gaping drops and obliterating trail. I should’ve looked into it more. The lady convinced me I’d be wasting my time. Gutted, I turned tail but it didn’t really matter at that point…
In 2009 I returned to Japan a lost soul. My mother was gone and every day hurt. I worked during the week, hit the bars on the weekend or bludged at home, in the cold, old concrete flat. The mountains were snow bound, but faintly, as winter fell away and the sakura bloomed, I heard their call yet again. Soon it would be time to finish what I’d started. I really wanted to climb Odai-ga-hara via the Osugi Gorge so, although it was accessible by other routes – a road to the top even – I would hold out to see if my desired course would reopen over the summer.
Big mountains remained on my hit list. Thoughts turned to trying my hand at a snow trek, so I set my sights on a North Alps traverse from Kuro-dake around to Yakushi-dake during the May Golden Week break. It was a plan that in hindsight…no it wasn’t a plan it was madness, pure and simple. A scatter brained scheme dreamt up on my sofa after ingesting too many kerosene heater fumes one night. There I was, a winter hiking amateur gunning for peaks flirting with 3000 metres and blanketed in a snow pack on the thaw. Within a week of my departure hiking parties began perishing in the region I was headed for. Swept away in avalanches, succumbing to cold. I didn’t snap out of my delusion until I was well on my way up the steep trail to Kuro-dake, snaking through the forests above the Takase Dam. Overhead, through trees still leafless from the winter, the mountains shone a blinding white. All those leaves, fallen from the trees, formed a loose layer beneath the thick layer of snow and ice on the trail. My crampons were desperately inadequate, their teeth barely penetrated the snow and when they did they became clogged with sodden leaf matter lying beneath. There were only two of us making our way up that trail and the bloke I’d shared a taxi with to the start of the hike had crampons that looked like they’d been forged from dragon’s teeth. I think I must have been some hundred metres above a gaping gorge on a thin sliver of a track, when the snow and leaf matter beneath my feet lost traction with the earth. My legs were swept out from under me in slow motion and I skittered into the maw of a snow lined sawa, only saving myself from doom by reaching up for a branch passing by as I headed for thin air. I dragged myself out of the jaws of death and pushed on. The other fella was long gone up the trail. And down I went again, mere minutes after my last brush with doom. Another branch clutched with all I was worth, another view of nothing just beyond my feet. That was it. I hollered up to the fella ahead, wherever he was, letting him know I was heading back down. No reply. I hollered again. Still silence. Well, he had better gear than I. Quietly wishing him good luck I retreated. Before I reached the broad river bed at the foot of the trail he was by my side. Those mountains could wait. We slowly trudged away back down river, heads hanging in defeat. Then from out of the blue, beneath skies crystal clear, a crack as crisp as a cattle whip’s yet louder than a lightning bolt’s cut through the silence of our retreat. Spinning around instantly we saw the narrow gorge we were climbing fill with pirouetting boulders the size of trucks flung far out off mountainside into the narrow sliver of blue between the towering walls of the ravine. A thunderous rumble echoed down over us as the deluge of snow and rock shot debris into the trees across the gap into places where we had both been climbing some half an hour before. We turned away once more, awestruck, no need for acknowledgement between us of how fortunate we had been. Very soon after Golden Week in 2009 Pig Flu paranoia swept the globe. Humanity was doomed! Sound the alarms! Buy tissues! When it supposedly hit our corner of Kansai, Head Office ordered all branches of its English schools be shut for a week – boarded up and barricaded even. Ominously all employees were advised to stock up with supplies and remain in lock down in their houses. I imagine most of us headed for the bars. With an extra week off I headed for the hills. No one else seemed to be in much of a panic. The roads were still full. Shops still busy. Whatever, I had mountains on my mind. The Central Alps were less diabolically snow bound than the North Alps at that time of year. As soon as I could, I got to the station, my pack, laden with winter gear and food, slung over my shoulders. I headed for the Kiso Valley deep in the mountains beyond Nagoya and arrived at Kuramoto Station, situated directly below Utsugi-dake late in the evening. The plan was to spend the night there in that tiny little wooden shed, squeezed beneath soaring peaks to one side and a highway and bounding Kiso River on the other, then hit the heights the next day. At about ten thirty or eleven I received a phone call from my boss ordering me back to work the next morning. Easy for her to say, she thought I was a ten minute train ride away. It seemed Head Office had had a change of heart. Probably thinking it’d be better to corral the teachers into the workplace where they could be kept an eye on.
The mountains were winning. Spring had ended in failure and summer was well on its way. Reinforcements were required and by June I knew I could rely on an extra pair of boots to get this Hyakumeizan lark back on track. Patrick’s year of exile was up and he returned to the Land of the Rising Sun exactly a year to the day of his deportation – or as he liked to put it: Invitation to Leave. Having spent the first months of his Japanese life in the drab old town of Fukui, not too far north of Osaka, he had developed an inkling to climb the magnificent mountain of Haku-san that rose to a crater laked crescendo not far from his former home away from home. The chance to get up the mountain was too good to pass up now he was back in country for a couple of weeks.
Bus runs to the main trail up Haku-san had yet to commence for the season, so ogling the map, I thought we could spare a few days and hike in from Shirakawa-go, the World Heritage listed town on the Gifu side of the mountain. All looked good on waterproofed, contour lined paper. In reality the hiking times had been calculated by a masochist. We were the first to admit we usually strayed slightly behind the times the maps estimated. In my calculations I always added on half hours of leeway to section times that are supposedly already over estimated so people won’t find themselves caught out in the hills. I guess someone never told the Haku-san map maker that. There came a point on the trail, as the snow dappled summit of Haku-san came into view across a plunging valley and laughed as we longingly stared up at her from beneath creased brows, that we realised our efforts were in vain. I’d already taken time off work to head out there. Calling in from the trail saying I’d like to hit them up for another paid holiday wasn’t worth the grief. I may as well have been requesting to yank one of my boss’s wisdom teeth, without anesthetic. We walked out to an emergency hut that was advertised as two hours and a bit away, but turned out to be well over three and collapsed in a heap on its dark, stained floor. Haku-san would have to wait.
Summer struck with all its usual humidity laden vengeance and, taking more time off, I spent a couple of weeks tour guiding my Old Man and Lil Sis around the ridges. Life became a drag after that. As summer waned, I faced a future that looked all too familiar to my recent past. The itches on my feet became unbearable. I wanted to hit the hills one more time. The way I’d done it the first time round. I knew all too well that up in the Alps not only had summer already waned, it had wilted and autumn was in full swing. I had no desire to drag this thing out across the wasteland of another long winter, strewn with thoughts of missed opportunity. So I quit work on a whim, gave them a couple of weeks notice and headed back to the hills one more time…