MY ICE PROBLEM & HOW I GOT OFF IT

JUNE 2007

003: IWAKI-SAN

“And what the absolute arse puckering fuck was Lonely Planet on about?”

“The best season for hiking Iwaki-san is from early June until late October,” it said as I re-read the course description on the bus ride out through the apple groves of Aomori towards Iwaki-san. “During (this) season no special equipment is needed,” it plainly stated.

Well, it was a big, fat, five-star bollocks to that. My crampons were what was needed, and right then I felt they were quite special indeed – and I suppose they did too, nestled cosily in my pack back at the hotel at the foot of the bloody mountain. I then recalled the guidebook noting that the gully I was in was “highly avalanche-prone,” and I wondered how long it would be before a Bible and a truckload of dumb luck was going to be specially required equipment as well.

“None of this snow should be here,” I gasped, parch-mouthed.

I was supposed to be climbing through a “dry riverbed” that sported “an aluminium ladder to assist ascent.”

Entrance to gully with the summit still in view.

One thing was certain: this was not the place to be hanging around in. I spied a dry stick of bamboo lying on the ice. Leaning out from my tree branch I grasped it and snapped it into a pair of six-inch lengths. Manoeuvring onto all fours once more, I stabbed the hardened sticks into the ice like rabid psychopath plunging a pair of steak knives into the back of his sleeping victim. The ice wall flirted with vertical. I kicked footholds into the slippery surface. On that hot and humid June afternoon, my gloveless fingers burned coldly as they gripped the bamboo sunk deep into the ice. Lashes of fire, sparked into life on Yotei-zan, were reigniting inside my right knee as I kicked into the ice. I sputtered and growled like a junkyard dog in an exasperating exercise of mind over matter. I was simultaneously scared as hell and furious at my ill-preparedness. I despised being there. I wished I could be anywhere else but was damned if I was turning back at that point. My heart threatened to beat itself out of my chest, and the sound of blood coursing through my head had me looking up into the whiteness for hovering helicopters. I strained to locate targets to focus my thoughts: 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 ice pack melting miniature craters. When cloud offered fleeting glimpses of my wider surroundings, I scoured the wall of scrub that bordered the gully for a piece of pink tape or some other marker indicating a trail to freedom.

Nothing.

With each thrust of my spikes and kick and scrape of my boots, I waited for the ice to come apart and send me into the frigid torrent beneath. I was gripped by a 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. “At least I had the damn guidebook in my day pack,” I simmered darkly. “If I get stuck up here, I’ll start a fire with the fuckin’ thing.”

The delicate tickle of a mountain breeze arrested my wavering thoughts and I methodically stabbed and kicked my way higher, deeper into the swirling curtain of white. Soon it gathered enough strength to push the cloud a little higher and I caught glimpses, silhouettes at least, of enormous outcrops soaring high above me on the mountain. Wisps of mist rose off the ice 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 waved at me in the breeze. I paused and hung my head in relief and blubbered a “Thank you” to the good Lord. I hadn’t spoken to the bloke in years, at least not in any respectful manner, but I couldn’t help thinking he was up there somewhere keeping an eye on me that afternoon.

It soon dawned on me that I could stand. The rush of water beneath ice was no more. Leaning forward, I began a slow trudge upward, spitting globs of thickening spag into the snow. An occasional loss of traction had me back down on my haunches stabbing my bamboo sprigs into the ice. The gully narrowed, choking vegetation closed in on either side, the ice levelled out and the cloud, harnessed at last by the winds, finally loosened its grip on the mountain. A stone path emerged from beneath the snow at my feet, and I slumped down onto a big square rock at the side of the trail, too dumbstruck to laugh or cry.

Excerpt from “TOZAN – A Japanese Mountain Odyssey” Willie’s forthcoming madcapped mountain memoir.

2 thoughts on “MY ICE PROBLEM & HOW I GOT OFF IT

  1. I just climbed Iwaki the last Sunday of June. Gorgeous weather and blue skies (but hot and humid), but I climbed the same course you did. The Hyakusawa Course is explicitly labeled on trekking maps as a “sekkei”, or a traverse over an ice field, in this case the gorge where O-sawa flows, which has an ice field until mid-July at the earliest. Bloody wonderful fun, though I love pounding up steep ice fields without crampons (no irony, it is fun and challenging). It’s a damned beautiful course though, and the views from the gully are nice, but the summit has amazing views, on top of how bloody gorgeous the mountain itself is from a distance. It’s a great, meaty day hike with a half dozen course options and a presence for a hundred kilometers in every direction.

    Lonely Planet was probably refering to the Dake course, which is mostly snow free by early June in a normal year. You can also drive practically to the top of that course starting in June, and even take a chairlift from that parking lot even closer to the summit. I climbed the first year in Japan just off a few blog and online English language resources, but it was nothing but close calls and almost being lost and no reference materials, so I bought trekking map almanacs, Japanese-language itinerary guides and mountain area guides. Weather makes quite a difference; you rank Iwate very highly and Iwaki very lowly, but I rank Iwate towards the middle, as I climbed it in a cloud bank and the summit had freezing 70km/hr winds that nearly pushed me off my feet as I trudged my way to the high point, and Iwaki was nearly ideal hiking weather and ranks at least in my in my top 20 percentile.

    • Thanks for the comment. Weather makes all the difference. I give Iwaki a hard time and I’m sure a revisit in perfect conditions would be wonderful. That icy gully would probably be a doddle too, now I have a few more mountains under my belt.

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