By Patrick Sharbaugh
June 20, 2008
The world we know is but a fraction of the world that exists.
Virtually every speck of living matter on earth exists in a sliver of habitable space on the planet’s surface just a few thousand meters thick, an organic film as diaphanous as a soap bubble. This is true of human beings above all. Except in rare places, we occupy only the sweetest spots in the most pleasant, mild, agreeable corners of this gossamer fabric. Every artifact of our species’ brief tenure on this planet - cities, factories, suburbs, farms, telecommunication networks, skyscrapers, sports arenas, interstate highways and the entire din of all humanity in its chattering billions - occupies the merest scintilla of the earth’s surface and atmosphere, a fraction of real estate so insubstantial you could walk in a straight line from the top to the bottom in just a few minutes, if such a thing were possible.
Beyond the whisper of its skin we inhabit, the world is a tumultuous place, feral and untamed, as primitive and raw as if just emerged from a mold, still ragged at the seams. The closer you move to the edge of this boundary, the further back in time you seem to travel. Out at the furthest fringes, the world looks as it must have in its distant youth, primal and new.
At the moment, I find it difficult not to think about this, as the evidence for it is all around me. I’m 2,800 meters high at the tip of the Southern Japanese Alps, on a small rocky ledge of a knife-edged, snow-covered ridgeline that hangs like a slender saddle between the peaks of Houou and Jisodake, surrounded by a sky so saturated with deepening blue it seems almost to drip. I’m thinking also about the 13 hours hike between me and the trailhead, far below, from which I started up this mountain two days before, and I consider the setting sun behind Mt. Kitadake just to the west, Japan’s second-highest peak, looming like a snow-shrouded battleship.
While all this thinking is going on, my body is occupied with its own more urgent mission: gathering, in the failing light, what little firewood can be found at this altitude and calculating the odds that starting a campfire is even possible, given the circumstances. My mind, molten and sluggish with cold, slides between two opposite extremes: the mountain and the inexpressible beauty of the spreading sunset on one hand, and on the other the reality of my situation - stranded, exhausted, feet soaking wet and frozen through, at the top of a mountain covered in two meters of snow, with darkness coming on, the wind picking up, and already freezing temperatures quickly heading south.
Part of me is aware that if I do not manage to get a fire going, I stand a fair chance of losing some or all of my toes, even with a tent and a sleeping bag. Maybe worse. Far below, it’s the end of April and spring is in full bloom. Here, though, it’s still winter in all the ways that matter. On the way up, I struggled through forests whose leafless trees were buried in snow to the height of a grown man, sinking up to my thigh with every fourth step. The sky up here looks clear enough at twilight, but at 2,800 meters, nothing can be ruled out with certainty.
Despite, or perhaps because of, my situation, another part of my mind prefers not to dwell on these depressing facts, to instead marvel at the power and the patience of the forces that hurled these trillion tons of rock up from the bottom of the sea and thrust them into the sky; to blink at the snowflake-fringed millimeter of ice that seems to have locked two rocks the size of buildings together in a balletic embrace; to thrill at the miracle of an ancient, gnarled tree, branches blown sideways like windswept hair, clinging to a rock on which it is bent nearly perpendicular; or to be moved by the sight of mighty Fuji, sleeping since its last cataclysmic eruption exactly 300 years ago, hanging above the clouds 70 kilometers distant like a mirage, a majestic white city floating in the sky. The entire spectacle of the Southern Alps in all its vastness lies spread out beyond and below me, as if I’ve been placed at its very center by divine purpose.
If I have to go tonight, I think, there are worse places that it could happen.
Japan is a nation made of mountains. Fully 73 percent of the total land mass on the four main islands is mountainous. Much of it is also volcanic. With more than 75 active volcanoes and an estimated 1,000 earthquakes each year, Japan is, quite literally, a hotbed of underground activity, one of the busiest on earth. The same forces that created picture-perfect Fuji, subject of a million postcards, also killed more than 6,000 people in Kobe in 1995 during the Great Hanshin Earthquake and power the tens of thousands of natural hot spring spas, or onsen, that dot the nation. This is not a coincidence; it’s textbook geology.
Like too many puzzle-pieces in a bowl of milk, the many sections of our planet’s crust float about a sub-surface of still-molten rock, continuously adrift, jostling and nudging each other for limited real estate. Japan is located exactly at the place where two drifting chunks of the earth’s surface known as the Pacific and Philippine Tectonic Plates meet and dive under a third, the Eurasian Plate. This violent but stupifyingly slow struggle first pushed a rocky, bald crescent of seabed up out of the water at the edge of the Asian continental mainland somewhere between 15 and 20 million years ago. A few million years later, the process created a slight depression west of the spot where the three plates meet, which eventually flooded, creating the Sea of Japan and beginning the slow separation of the island nation from the rest of the continent, a process that continues to this day. Though that will eventually change.
Stretching north and south across the nation’s slender, curved midsection, the Japanese Alps provide some of the most scenic, and forbidding, geologic landscapes on earth. They’re actually the confluence of three ancient mountain ranges in the middle of Honshu, Japan’s largest island: the Hida, Kisho, and Akaishi Mountains. The name “Alps” isn’t a native appellation, but a localized derivation of the famous European range’s name popularized by an itinerant English missionary and mountaineer named Walter Weston in the early 20th century. What the locals call Nihon Arupusu are neither as numerous nor as tall as their western namesakes. Where Japan counts 13 peaks that rise above the 3,000-meter mark, the European Alps boast nearly 100, with Mont Blanc topping out at 4,808 meters to Fuji’s 3,776. (And Fuji, technically, isn’t even part of the Japan Alps, just a close neighbor.)
Partly this is because the European Alps have been at the business of being mountains for a lot longer than the upstarts in Japan. A hundred million years ago, during the late Cretaceous era, when dinosaurs still ruled a very different earth, the tectonic plate on which Africa sits switched directions in mid-drift and started moving northeast toward the Eurasian Plate - the same chunk of the planet’s crust that sits at Japan’s western elbow. This slow, implacable journey pushed up the floor of what was then the Tethys Sea between Africa and Eurasia into folds and pleats, the same way a bed sheet would if you pushed at it along a mattress. Eventually the Eurasian Plate lost this sumo-style battle of giants, and began ducking beneath the African Plate, which caused the sedimentary folds of the Tethys Sea floor to rise up out of the water, the buckling and heaving progenitors of today’s European Alps: precisely the same sort of volcanic island arcs that formed Japan more recently.
Most of the modern detail we see in the European Alps, however, is not the result of such stately forces but of a much more mercurial process, relatively speaking: glaciation. During the last two million years, the European Alps have been scooped, shoveled and pinched by the actions of at least five major ice ages.
Japan’s Alps, on the other hand, have never seen any sort of glaciation, not being connected to any major continental landmass. The mountains here are still dead ringers for those coughed up by the earth 100 million years ago. The forces that have continued to shape them since then, earthquakes and volcanoes, are the casually catastrophic master engineers behind every continent, ocean, sea, plain, savannah, and mountain range on earth.
Climbing Mt. Houou, the most southeasterly of the Japan Alps, was not a notion I cooked up on my own. I’m no seasoned mountain climber; the marshy tongue of the southeastern U.S. coast I grew up in was called the Lowcountry for a reason. There, the single-span suspension bridge across the Cooper River was the highest point for a hundred miles in every direction. Of hiking I’ve experienced a fair amount, but of the Up that real mountain ranges are made of, I know virtually nothing. It was an idea I latched onto when my friend Will Banff announced to me that he planned to spend his 10-day Golden Week holiday in April-May climbing five closely situated peaks in the Southern Alps, beginning with Houou. Determined to experience as much of Japan as I could while I’m living here, I casually told him to count me in. We’d climbed a smaller peak together the previous November - 1,500-meter Arashimadake in my former home of Fukui Prefecture - and I’d managed the day-long trip to the snow-crusted summit and back to the trailhead in jeans and workboots, though just barely. Houou is nearly twice as high as Arashimadake, though, and I’d never done a multiple-day traverse of anything more demanding than an overnighter up at Yosemite Falls.
But, as Will said, you have to start somewhere. And he knows what he’s talking about. Last year, this Aussie-born farm boy from Brisbane, now an English-teacher, set out on a sabbatical from work to do something unexpected, outrageous, and slightly foolhardy: climb 100 of Japan’s biggest mountains, a challenge known among mountain-climbers as the Hyakumeizan. This he expected to do alone and with no previous climbing experience. In six months.
Of the tens of thousands of mountains in Japan, a relative handful have particular significance - either as sacred peaks, like Fuji and its volcanic cousin Hakusan on the opposite side of the Alps, or as natural monuments celebrated for special historical, aesthetic, or mythological appeal. In 1964, a native novelist and amateur mountaineer named Kyūya Fukada published a little-noticed book titled 100 Famous Japanese Mountains, in which he praised in a series of essays exactly five score of Japan’s total inventory, all based on three criteria, which he identified as “grace, history and individuality.” As it happens, all 100 are also rather tall.
Fukada was hardly the first to aggregate a list of celebrated mountains in Japan; famous bunjinga painter Tani Bunchō assembled a collection of maps and paintings of what he considered the 90 most notable peaks in the late days of the Edo period 200 years previous. And scholars and art lovers have been aaahing over single-subject collections like 19th-century woodblock print artist Katsushika Hokusai’s famous series 36 Views of Mt. Fuji for decades. But Fukada’s book became an overnight hit when, years after its publication, Japanese Crown Prince Naruhito Kōtaishi, also an amateur mountaineer, mentioned it and observed it was a dream of his to reach the summit of every mountain on the list.
Since then, the Hyakumeizan has become a must-do for serious native climbers (many of whom are either retired or, apparently, independently wealthy). It’s attracted attention from plenty of foreigners, as well. In 1997, two New Zealand men made headlines when they managed to reach the summits of all 100 in just 78 days.
Will’s goal, however, wasn’t about romance or spectacle or speed or media attention, but was rooted in more pedestrian aims. After watching an extended drought wreak slow havoc on his family’s farm, he’d decided on a move to Japan. He’d returned to university in Australia, graduated, and did time as a taxi driver in Brisbane. After four and a half years teaching English to Japanese schoolkids in Osaka, he decided he was ready for something new. A hundred of Japan’s tallest mountains seemed just the thing.
When I met Will during an otherwise dull, damp sightseeing trip to Nagano last October, he was waiting out a spot of rain as he prepared for his ascent of numbers 52-54 on his list. He looked gaunt and skeletal, like a man who’d been in a forced labor camp for several months. Over lunch in a sushi restaurant, I watched him wolf down 10 plates of sushi and a bowl of noodles. As soon as we’d finished he was talking about dinner.
Will had begun climbing his hundred - the Hyakumeizan specifiesno particular order - the previous June in Hokkaido, Japan’s big northern island. Hokkaido, home to nine of the 100, is to the rest of Japan a lot like what Alaska is to America: vast, remote, comparatively undeveloped, all but unpopulated outside of the few bigger cities, choked with mountains, and very, very cold. Will had hoped to get the northernmost nine out of the way first, as they’d be the first to become inaccessible with snow come winter. In early June, though, Will had found the trails to which he needed access - all of which were situated in riverbeds - underwater, as the rivers were swollen with spring snowmelt.
With luck and great effort, he’d managed to reach a single peak. Afterward, he wisely decided to double back down to northern Honshu, where another two dozen hills awaited him. There, he threw himself into the enterprise with everything he had - which included little more than a first-rate tent and sleeping bag, a big backpack, waterproof hiking boots, lightweight cold-weather gear, a telescoping hiking pole, and as much determination as was necessary to keep going.
Afterward, he’d returned to Hokkaido and knocked out the remaining eight. When I met Will, he was at the top of his game, both mentally and physically: lean, focused, lithe as a mountain goat, and hungry to get back up on the mountains.
Over beers and another big meal that evening in Nagano, he’d told me about those first 51: the sweeping vistas, the brushes with despair, the moments of solitary triumph, the smell of the air at the top of the world, the people he’d encountered, too outrageous not to be real, and the profound sense of accomplishment he felt as having made it this far. I was enthralled. It was, I felt, exactly the sort of thing I wanted to be doing, and I thought nothing would make me happier than to be able to drop everything and join up with him for the remaining 49. I would have, too, had I had the freedom and the money. In my world, though, those two are mutually exclusive; you can have a little, sometimes even more than a little, of either one, but never of both.
It’s not a cheap hobby, mountain climbing. Top-quality gear, which you want nothing less than for this sort of thing, is also top dollar, but at least that’s a one-time expense. The real money begins to add up in travel expenses and all of the evenings when you’re neither on a mountain cooling your heels in a tent nor home in your own bed. Hotels, ryokans, and hostels, even in remote Japan, are not to be found for Southeastern Asia prices. This is one of the most expensive countries in the world, even when you’re climbing mountains. Without a car, the only other reasonable way to get from one place to another is by train - less expensive than flying but still not cheap by any stretch. And when you’re criss-crossing the entire island nation of Japan from one end to the other … it’s no wonder that the majority of Hyakumeizan climbers are either retired or the Crown Prince of Japan.
I kept in close touch with Will after we both left Nagano, and I followed his steady progress through the fifties, sixties, and into the start of the seventies. Then one weekend late in October, we met up in a little mountain town in the northern Alps called Takayama, ringed by an imposing squadron of 2,800-meter-plus targets. After a day of sightseeing in gorgeous fall weather, Will left the following morning, aiming for a summit of nearby Kasagatake, planning to follow it with a traverse - a hike laterally across the tops of the mountains to another nearby peak instead of returning to the base and having to go all the way up again - to Yarigadake and Hotakadake, both well upward of 3,000 meters.
We’d each had a glimpse of Kasagatake on the train ride in, and noticed that it had appeared to be capped with a lot of white. Snow, we’d wondered? Or sunlit rock? Not having seen it before, we couldn’t be certain. “Can’t be snow this early in the year,” Will had concluded, “not that much, anyway. Got to be rock.”
At the time, I was nursing a painfully inflamed bone spur on my heel, aggravated after a misstep on some stairs back home, so I had to settle for a day trip to nearby Kamikochi Valley. Nestled in the Hida Mountains of Nagano Prefecture’s northern Alps, Kamikochi is nothing if not scenic, often dubbed Japan’s Yosemite, though it’s not as extensive. All brilliant blues, greens, and whites, the valley is flanked at its southern end by Yakedake, a 2,455-meter active volcano Will had already been up, and at its northern end by his two final destinations that trip: Hotakadake and Yarigadake. The two peaks provided stunning backdrops to the valley - a broad riverbed of age-whitened stones through which the Azusa River snuck, as blue as if the sky had reached down and dragged a finger across the earth. Hobbling through the landscape of Kamikochi, with the alabaster faces of Hotakadake and Yarigadake staring down at me - there was no mistaking the snow on those two - it was difficult not to feel envious of Will. Alpinist-missionary Walter Weston had called Kamikochi the most pleasant site of any he’d explored in the Japan Alps, and the scenery that day, ablaze in autumn foliage, was suitably stunning. But I wanted to be Up There, snow or no.
The next morning, back at the ryokan in Takayama, I woke to an email message Will had sent from his phone while on Kasagatake the previous evening.
“The hills are alive,” it started, quoting a running joke of ours, “but I won’t be if I continue. It most definitely is snow, and things are most definitely prolonged into next year. I’m trying to come to terms with that fact, camped on top of a picnic table out of the foot-and-a-half-deep snow. I can do this mountain, but those other two you saw today are full of chains and ladders and knife-edge ridges. Alas, Tateyama and Tsurugi are too. I’m back down tomorrow to Takayama.“
The following day, Will wrote to me again: “A lack of a neutralising gene for my active self-preservation gene is really the one thing I need to continue with these Alps at the moment. Don’t think they’re available at any outdoor store I’ve seen. It’s all about knocking off peaks and creating a streamlined final push for weekends and holidays next spring/summer now.“
Will had headed south after the setback at Kamikochi to knock off the handful of peaks in Shikoku, Kyushu and western Honshu that he could be sure weren’t buried beneath snow yet. Now, everything remaining on his list lay north in the Alps.
After four months off the mountains, Will had gained almost 20 pounds. Worse, spring brought with it a savage attack on his allergies, which exacerbated an existing sinus condition. His head, as he put it, was “full of green goo.” A visit to a local doctor left him with a fully vacuumed rhinal cavity and a medicine cabinet full of drugs, but no real relief. In the days before the trip, he seemed to spend as much time coughing, blowing his nose, and hacking up green goo as he did breathing. It wasn’t a good sign, but he didn’t want to waste the opportunity available to us with Golden Week - a series of four national holidays so close together that the whole country simply takes the week off - and so we pressed forward.
Houou sits at the very bottom tip of the Southern Alps. The mountaintop is actually three peaks quite close together, the middle one being the official highest point, at 2,840 meters. To reach it, one must travel over at least one of the other two. Climbing up from the south, the peak is separated from the first, lower crown by a narrow, vertiginous ridge about 300 meters long, as if the mountain wishes to get a good, long look at any who dare to approach it.
If you’re coming at Houou from the north, you must first bypass the third peak, a remarkable rock formation named Jisudake but popularly known as the Obelisk. A knife-like protrusion of black rock emerging vertically from the granite point behind it, the Obelisk looks weirdly unnatural, more like the work of an artist or architect than of random geologic forces in utter chaos. Because of its inexplicable beauty and its nearness to Houou’s peak, the Obelisk is a popular side-trip even for those coming to Houou from the south, if they have daylight to spare.
Once at the top, we’d have an unbeatable view of the local topography: Kitadake, Japan’s second highest peak, immediately to the west, once-volcanic Yatsugatake in the far distant east, and northwest of us a conjoined pair of Hyakumeizan clubmembers: Kaikomagadake and Senjodake - none of them under 3,000 meters. If we were lucky and the sky was clear, we might even glimpse distant Fuji-san, Will said, as it lies directly south of the Alps.
The planned itinerary, presented to me a week prior to the trip on a piece of notebook paper, was to reach the top of Houou by mid-morning of the second day, Monday. From there, we’d set off on a traverse northwest, with a short stop at the Obelisk along the way. Allowing a day to reach the intersection where the northwest-leading ridgeline meets the perpendicular thrust along which Kaikomagadake and Senjodake lay at opposite ends, we’d spend a leisurely two days traveling to each respective peak, first northeast and then backtracking southwest, finally descending on the sixth day and catching a bus back to Kofu for a hotel, a warm shower, and a hot meal.
This was the theory, anyway.
We left Osaka Saturday evening on a redeye bus bound for Kofu, an eight-hour trip that dumped us, bleary-eyed, at the lonely terminal at 6:25 am the following morning.
During the trip I slept hardly at all, not just because I was in an uncomfortable seat on a bus but because I was deeply concerned that I wasn’t outfitted for the climb and the conditions I was heading into. Will had 76 of these mountains under his belt, and he’d seen every kind of weather they could throw at him, but his experience with heavy snow was limited at best. Even so, he was equipped for almost anything. He had a lightweight, warm weatherproof jacket and pants, telescoping hiking poles, thermal underwear, heavy winter gloves, wool socks, a sleeping bag rated at -6º C, a head glove, heavy waterproof hiking boots, and crampons. Until a few days before, I’d had only a 15-year-old sleeping bag and a pair of Timberland boots with the word “waterproof” written inside. I was now carrying much of the most critical equipment I expected to need, but I feared I still wasn’t fully prepared. I had no thermal underwear, no hiking poles, and my boots had never been tested in deep snow. My gloves were lightweight at best, and my thick winter socks, warm enough in the comfort of home, were cotton, not wool.
One of my adult students at the school is a retired former CEO of a Japanese food manufacturing company named Mr. Miyamoto. Fabulously wealthy, he now spends most of his time traveling the world. He’s also been up almost every mountain of note in the U.S., Europe, Peru, Africa, the Himalayan range, and, of course, Japan. He’d hiked the Hyakumeizan years before, and when he’d discovered in my class that Will and I were planning a summit of Houou in late April, he’d furrowed his brow.
“Lots of snow,” he’d said. “Two meters. You will need snowshoes.”
My eyes had widened.
“Do you have eisen?” he’d asked. Eisen, better known as crampons, are spiked harnesses that strap on to boots for walking in snow and ice. I’d known I’d need a pair, but they were just one item the a long list of things I’d expected to purchase before the trip.
“I have eisen I will bring to you,” he’d said after a moment, jotting down a note. “You have a compass, yes?”
“Well, actually…,” I’d started.
“You don’t have a compass?” He’d shook his head and made another note.
Compasses are something of a touchy point for Will. When he and I had been creating a packing list, I’d mentioned a compass and he’d scoffed.
“That’s the first thing everyone wants to know, ‘Do you have a compass?’ I don’t need a compass,” he’d said, “because I have a map.”
I’d mentioned, carefully, that I’d always thought compasses were sort of, well, fundamental to hiking trips up remote alpine mountain peaks. Like first-aid kits, for example, and flares, that sort of thing.
Will didn’t carry first-aid kits or flares, either.
“All that stuff is fine to have if you plan to get lost,” he said. “But I don’t plan to get lost. That’s because I have a map,” he’d said, brandishing his detailed topographical map of the Southern Alps.
“What about snowshoes,” I’d asked?
“Just more to carry,” he’d said. “We’ll be fine. There won’t be that much snow. The Japanese are famous for being risk-averse and overpreparing.”
The next day, Mr. Miyamoto had stopped by the school with a pair of crampons, a compass, and a handy little flashlight that straps onto your head.
“Be careful,” he’d said, handing me the bag. “The mountains are not afraid of you. They do not care about you even this much” and he’d snapped his fingers. “You are nothing to them.”
At the trailhead, as I adjusted my pack, there was a small crowd. I watched two young Japanese hikers who’d ridden up from Kofu on the bus with us stretch their legs and smoke cigarettes. Most of the people were there to climb up to the first scenic overlook a short but steep hike away, enjoy lunch in the presence of snowy Kitadake, and then head back down.
It took us an hour to reach the overlook with the rest of the daytrippers. We lingered over a small lunch we’d brought with us and continued on. Once we left the crowds behind, we were alone on the path. We reached our first snow an hour later. To this point, the going had been steep but smooth, a well-traveled dirt trail winding upward through a sparse, dimly-lit forest of pine and scrub bamboo. But now, with the towering white wall of Kitadake on our left and the sun well into the sky, the trail took on a completely different aspect: dark-green conifers mingled with leafless birch trees, translucent sheets of bark the color and thickness of vellum peeling off their trunks, like ancient papyri stood upright. Brilliant sunlight pulsed through the tree canopy in waves of emerald neon, spackling the forest floor and suffusing beards of hoary green moss with an unearthly glow.
The effect was almost supernatural, at once both eerie and calming. No wonder the Japanese character is so freighted with mysticism. For centuries, people here have ordered their lives according to spirits called kami that reside in every living and nonliving thing. Each waterfall, rock, tree, flower, beast of the forest and breath of wind in the air contains a kami, according to the Shinto religion, as does the mountain they all inhabit. And all of it, from the humblest spring to the mightiest fist of rock, is sacred. Looking about me, I could feel the kami crowding in among the rocks and trees, ghosts of the world itself, whispering to me in a forgotten language dreams of millennia past.
We stopped at a felled tree for a bite and a gulp of water and to strap on the crampons and snow-proof gaiters we each carried in our packs. Will, who’d been hacking non-stop since we left the base and had left a trail of green goo across the mountainside behind us, helped himself to a handful of allergy and sinus pills, washing them down with spring water collected from the hut at the overlook.
We continued up the path through quickly deepening snow. Soon, the only evidence of the trail was an occasional red swatch flickering from a tree branch and the footprints of what seemed to be a half dozen or so souls who’d gone before us since the last snowfall, which must have been weeks earlier.
We proceeded along a tree-enclosed ridgeline, as if through a forested tunnel, for another hour and a half before suddenly bursting out of the dense forest onto a broadly sloped expanse open to the sky. It was a Christmas postcard of a setting: the tops of thousands of fir trees struggled out of a cradle of snow, draped across the mountain like a white velvet fleece.
The snow was softer here, and deeper, definitely deeper than on the forest path, but beyond that we couldn’t be sure. Moving forward became increasingly difficult; with every fourth or fifth step, we put a foot down and sank into the snow up to our thigh. It quickly became a special kind of torture to take a leaden step, founder, crash awkwardly into the ground, wrench the leg out cursing and continue forward, only to have to go through the same exhausting ordeal again just a few steps later. Within 45 minutes we were soaked through, blowing like steam engines, and the 40-lb. packs we wore, heavy to begin with, had begun to feel like they were filling up with stones. When we came to a signpost along the trail, normally head-high, and found ourselves standing atop snow that covered all but its topmost four or five centimeters, Will and I shared a long glance.
At one point I stopped to catch my breath, heaving, forehead resting on the birch sapling I’d requisitioned as a hiking stick to take the weight of the pack off my shoulders for a few precious moments, and I looked back at Will. A straightforward march up a mountain, laden with a week’s worth of camping gear, I could handle, but this was not what I’d signed up for.
And then I saw it.
Perfectly conical, shining like a lantern, close enough to touch, Fuji hung in the sky above Will’s shoulder. Even from this distance I could clearly see the ancient scars on its sides, the top of the cone as flat as if smashed by a great hammer, clouds luffing at its base.
Seeing my face, Will turned to look behind him. “Ah,” he said after a moment. “It’s something, isn’t it?”
Not knowing what to say, I said nothing.
We both stared in silence for the better part of a minute. Finally, Will turned and began walking again. “You never forget the first time,” he said.
Since ancient times, Fuji-san, as locals refer to it, has been revered as a sacred mountain. One Shinto sect worships Fuji as a deity, its kami an animus lord among spirits. The name, depending on who you ask, either means “without equal” or “never-ending.” Ticking in at 3,776 meters, Fuji is the highest point in Japan, beating out neighboring old-timer Kitadake, looming just to our left, by about 600 meters.
While the Japanese Alps are a product of slow tectonic activity over tens of millions of years, Fuji owes its origin to an entirely different, and much more recent, process. Like Mt. Saint Helens, the Philippines’ Mayon and Pinatubo, Indonesia’s Krakatoa, and countless others along the Pacific’s so-called Ring of Fire which it comprises, Fuji is a stratovolcano - a high, steep cone-shaped structure built up over thousands of years by successive outpourings of lava. Forming almost exactly like a zit on an adolescent forehead, stratovolcanoes sit atop a pressurized magma chamber, which pops its top when the pressure from all that rising molten rock reaches a critical mass, sending lava coursing down the mountain to cool and harden before spreading too far. The result is a series of concentric rings built layer upon ancient layer, almost always in a neat, circular, nicely photogenic dome shape.
When stratovolcanoes blow, as they must do periodically, they pull out all the stops, as it were. Krakatoa’s eruption in 1883, thought to have been the greatest explosion in recorded history, rocked boats as far away as the English Channel, sent tsunamis charging inland as distant as South Africa, and created a shock wave so powerful it traveled around the globe five times. The amount of material belched into the atmosphere by Krakatoa changed the climate of the planet for five years, during which average global temperatures fell by as much as 3.3 degrees Fahrenheit, setting off a mini-ice age, and spectacular sunsets became an everyday occurrence.
At the time of that eruption, Krakatoa was 2,000 meters high, about 47 percent smaller than Fuji is today.
The size of the volcano’s cone above ground is of little consequence, however; what really matters is what lies beneath. Fuji’s eruptions during Japan’s populated history have been steady but less catastrophic. Sixteen eruptions have been recorded since 781; the last one occurred on December 16, 1707 and continued until January 1, 1708, releasing little lava but spewing an estimated 800 million cubic meters of volcanic ash as far away as Edo - modern-day Tokyo - 100 kilometers away. The snow-covered slope in the Southern Alps from which I found myself looking back on Fuji would have been knee-deep in cinders and ash this month 300 years ago.
But Fuji is only one of many modern reminders of Japan’s volcanic temperament, and a young one at that, dating back less than a million years. The current cone formed atop two previous versions only about 10,000 years ago - at just about the same time as the last global ice age was drawing to a close and humanity was emerging blinking from their caves into the bright dawn of civilization.
Far to our north, the outline of a huge peak rose, too distant to make out in detail. It was bounded on either side by a line of much lower crowns, a ragged crumble of rock receding into obscurity. The big peak was Yatsugatake, once a massive volcano, now a sleeping shoulder of the Alps. At some point in Japan’s youth, Yatsugatake was ten times the size of the titan in the distance. Its last eruption was so massive it blew a hole in the earth 30 kilometers wide. The lesser peaks surrounding it now are all that remain of the original monster. In Japanese mythology, Yatsugatake was an old kami when Fuji was very young. According to legend, one day Fuji grew big enough to challenge Yatsugatake to a battle for supremacy of the Alps.
I walk with my head down, eyes on the snow in front of me. Every step is a considered judgment, a flurry of mental calculus: do I step into one of the crampon-pocked bootprints in front of me? Or strike courageously out on my own a few centimeters to either side, putting my faith in virgin snow? Logic tells me the snow in the prints is packed tighter, but I’ve found, disastrously and repeatedly, that this is not always so. Some of the prints are mere depressions. A centimeter away, another plunges half a meter or more.
But all of this furious mental activity happens in the background, just below the level of consciousness. My waking brain is too numb with exhaustion to manage it; I exist in a tunnel of dim white awareness, cognizant only of the need to keep placing one foot in front of the other until I must stop, rest against my stick, then continue on again, retreating into my tunnel.
The icy edges of the bootprints leading me on are tinted with a faint electric blue.
Sometimes when I pause for a moment, I bring my head up to look around me, and I am color-struck. The world is saturated with whites, greens, blues, and blacks. After a moment, I bend my face to the snow again, lift a foot, and disappear. Somewhere in my head, wheels begin turning again - appraising, assaying, considering.
I leave my own trail of blue-tinted bootprints behind me, a perforated path of exhaustion that is as much down as Up.
Will’s map was sprinkled with the icons for tiny mountain huts, called goya, throughout the Japan Alps, crude but comfy oases of warmth and shelter tended by men and women for whom civilization is too strong a drug. Most of the huts open in the spring and close down each winter, but we didn’t know for certain if any were yet open on Houou. It would be a relief to have a roof and a wood stove and a tatami-mat floor on which to lay our sleeping bags. But we’d packed Will’s tent and a butane camping stove just in case.
The Minamiomuro Goya was, supposedly, five and a half hours hike from the overlook we’d left far below at the start of the day. Will’s map had obviously been created with either superhumans or summer hikers in mind, or perhaps for those wise enough to carry snowshoes. After seven and a half hours of dragging ourselves up the first part of the mountain, we caught a whiff of smoke on the wind and, with daylight fading, finally descended into a small vale where a crude wooden shack lay more than half buried in snow. We mumbled a greeting to a handful other exhausted hikers, hung our equipment to dry above the line of boots just inside the door, unfurled our sleeping bags on a square of floor, and were asleep in minutes.
A dismayingly short time later, I was woken by road construction-levels of noise: a thunderous din of snoring from the other hikers in the hut and, next to me, irregular explosions of coughing and throat-clearing from Will. This continued all night.
We were the last ones out the following morning. We roused ourselves at 8 am, after 13 hours in which neither of us got more than a few minutes of decent sleep, and found the place empty, deserted but for two goya tenders, one of whom was Aya, a pretty young Japanese girl who told me she’d worked there from April to November every year for five years. She hikes in and out by herself. “I carry 20 kilos,” she said. “It’s no problem.”
Aya told me that Houou, in Japanese, means phoenix. “But a special kind of phoenix,” she said with a hint of a smile, “a Japanese phoenix, one that never died.”
This year, Aya continued, had been a particularly harsh winter on Houou. “Very, very many snow,” she said. “Up to top is difficult.”
Will’s map told us we were 300 vertical meters from the uppermost peak - in the warped version of time it followed, this was supposed to be a two-hour-and-15 minute climb. We knew better. An hour after setting out on a steep uphill path through another heavily forested landscape, we passed another hiker staggering down the mountain from the direction of the top. “Houou?” he asked breathlessly, pausing in his descent.
“Hai,” we nodded.
He nodded back. “Long way,” he said bitterly, then continued past.
Eventually, we reached a crest where the birch and firs ended abruptly, ceding the mountain entirely to a landscape of stunted, leafless trees whose pale branches, burnished bright gold in the morning sun, grasped like exposed capillary systems at the sky. The terrain had become rockier, and the bootprint-punctured trail began to wind around an obstacle course of huge abutments, antidiluvian sedimentary layers twisting through them in graceful curves of Cretaceous-era epiphany: prehistoric foraminifera, diatoms, and echinoderms, as thick as chalk. With a brush of my glove, I dislodged a crust of hundred-million-year-old seabed, littered with the microscopic fossilized remains of creatures so perfectly suited to that long-ago environment that their modern-day descendents at the bottom of the same oceans have hardly changed at all: products of an evolution with nothing to do, just fiddling around.
Two hours after setting out, the view opened up, bereft of the heavy foliage that had accompanied us to this point. The South Alps revealed themselves to us in rolling waves of blue, receding into the haze of distance to the east and west. To our left, Kitadake continued its mute watch over us, a silent, city-sized wall of granite and snow at our shoulder. It was there when Japan rose dripping out of the sea, and it will be there when she returns.
The snow here was closer to the ground, which broke through in patches of gravelly rock in places, and occasionally we encountered small rock cairns, simple shrines to the powerful kami that resides in Houou. We crested a rise and spotted, far below, the blue-and orange-painted tin roof of another goya peeping out of the snow, pointing the way up the first of the mountain’s three peaks. We scrabbled down and took a short break inside next to the wood stove. We wolfed a snack of nuts and chocolate, and I peeled off my soaking wet, freezing socks. I borrowed a bowlful of heavenly hot water from the hut’s public thermos and sat with my frozen toes in it, first one foot and then the other, until I could feel them again.
A thermometer inside the hut read 0º C.
My face was tender with sunburn, and I imagined it must be bright red. Will and I shared a tube of sunblock, but I could already feel it was too late.
We set out half an hour later. The hut’s tender waved us out. “Careful,” he said. “Very much snow, all melting. Very dangerous. It worry avalanche. Stay on the trail, daijobu, neh?”
There seemed to be fewer hours of daylight somehow, up so high, as though we weren’t in subtropical Japan but in some far northern Scandanavian country. Even the nature of the light was different: a paler, more suffuse kind of sunlight, stretched thin, all white and no yellow. Perhaps it was a result of the absence of anything green; the landscape here was dominated by blacks and grays and brilliant whites, though the sky was bursting with blue.
We reached the top of the first crown - Yakushidake, 2,780 meters.
Finally, there it was: the peak itself, directly in front of us. But between us and it lay 300 meters of snowy ridgeline, a meter or so wide, falling off on either side at 30-degree angles to a steep slope of stunted, angular trees like an army of wooden skeletons on one side, and on the other, a graveyard of sharp rocks the size of cars, the mountainside dropping off in both directions beyond sight. The snow on the ridge was deep and soft. A thin line of footprints wavered unsteadily along the narrow ridgeline, disappearing over a rise in the middle. I stepped forward.
The wind gusted lightly, but not enough to make me worry about being blown off. I placed each foot slowly and carefully, more fully awake than I’d been since leaving Osaka. A few times I took a step, stumbled in a soft patch, and immediately dropped to my knee or backside with the other leg rather than try to remain upright. There was no rush, no need to hurry. It was right there. Behind me, I could hear Will doing the same.
We both stopped in the middle, alive with exhilaration, 3,000 meters of blue sky between us and the rest of the world. Will moved forward, slipping past me toward the final rocky rise. It was his peak, not mine.
We lingered at the top, savoring the view and feeling no need to hurry on. Shortly before arriving, we’d decided that, with snow conditions being what they were and Will’s sinus conditions being what they were, it was best not to try for the traverse to Kaikomagadake and Senjodake. Instead, we’d decided to spend the night at a goya that Will’s map told us was nearby below, then continue to the bottom in the morning. Somewhere between the summit we’re standing on and the Obelisk - we could see it easily from the top, a great black fin breaking the surface of the mountain a kilometer and a half distant - we’d find a trail splitting off, heading down. The map said that from the fork the hut was an hour away, but we meant to give ourselves at least twice that much time to be safe. Even so, there was ample time to stretch our legs and take in the view. It was 2:45 pm, and the panorama at our feet was not something we wished to walk away from soon.
The top of a mountain in the Southern Alps is otherworldly - in the most literal, alienating sense of the word. In its brutal starkness, its seeming inhospitability to any kind of life, it felt like a world that human beings shouldn’t, couldn’t, possibly exist in, let alone walk blithely across. But for a few small rock cairns, there wasn’t a single sign of humanity’s presence on the earth to be seen anywhere. One might as easily have stepped through an invisible portal and into another geologic time period altogether. A thousand, a million, even ten million years ago, the view would have looked almost exactly the same, apart from a few details. Fuji, still hanging in the sky to the south, would be a shadow of its modern self. Yatsugatake, still whole and much closer in the east, would tower above everything, the power of a million nuclear bombs building in its belly, its kami awaiting its fateful, legendary confrontation with Fuji.
Three thousand meters above sea level is an environment that’s as far removed from everyday existence as a desert or jungle. It’s more like the kind of world in which our earliest ancestors lived out their short, brutal lives for hundreds of thousands of years: virginal, violent, and profoundly alive. When you go up, you slough off the skin of civilization and enter the past.
The arc of azure sky above was as smooth and flawless as the earth below it was chaotic: all black and white angles, an epic scramble of living rock in unspeakable disarray.
It was the most beautiful sight I’d ever beheld.
Will was poring over his map, the sun low in the sky behind him, and I was waiting patiently nearby, trying not to think about how cold my feet were, how heavy my pack was. We were standing a few meters below the lip of the kilometer-long ridgeline connecting Houou’s middle peak to the Obelisk, halfway between the two. Below us, a steep decline lead downward into the yawning mouth of a gully, ending who knows where.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck. You bloody bastard fucking piece of shit cocksucking map.”
These were not comforting words. They certainly weren’t the words I was hoping to hear. Those words would have been, “Aha, the trail is just over there.” But instead, I was being treated to the entire Australian lexicon of oaths and expletives, which is extensive. Behind us, the sun was dropping at an alarming rate.
Thirty minutes earlier, not having come across our expected split in the trail, we’d been on the verge of becoming genuinely anxious. Then, standing at the top of an outrageously steep decline pincushioned with leafless dwarf trees, we’d spotted a double line of bootprints at the bottom far below. The tracks split off from the main trail we were following, which led toward the Obelisk, and ran down into the gully. “There it is,” Will had said. “No worries.”
Relieved, we’d tossed our hiking sticks down the slope before us and clambored down, half sliding, half falling, reaching the bottom intact but shaken, glad we hadn’t encountered anything so steep on our way up. It wasn’t a hill that seemed remotely possible to get up without iceaxes. We weren’t carrying iceaxes.
We’d started down the tracks, but right away something felt odd. Why did the trail lead down into an enclosed gully instead of following the top of a ridgeline down? We’d had little time to wonder. After 50 meters, the tracks had come to an abrupt end.
The second set of bootprints were those of someone who’d come this far for a look, then turned around and returned to the trail.
We’d become genuinely anxious.
At that point we still had at least 90 minutes of daylight remaining to us, still enough time to reach the hut from the trail leading down, we reckoned, assuming the map was correct this one time. And assuming we could find the trail leading down quickly. It was possible we’d somehow passed it without noticing. If nobody had used it in several weeks, there wouldn’t be any bootprints marking it, and we might easily have walked right by it without catching sight of a tiny red swatch.
On the other hand, it might still be before us. Going back was not an option. Not up that slope, not without an iceaxe. Going forward would send us still higher up into an obstacle course of sharp rocks and steep drops, not exactly the best conditions for an amble at dusk. We had time remaining to exercise exactly one option, and it needed to be the right one. My feet, soaked through from having spent much of the morning and afternoon half a meter deep in snow - the people at Timberland and I obviously had different understandings of the word “waterproof” - had lost all feeling long ago. I could walk on them, but I didn’t want to have to have to think about spending another 12 hours this way.
“If we go down, we’ll eventually reach the hut,” Will said. “It’s just down here,” he pointed at a spot on the map. “Anyway, we’re sure as hell not going to find it on this bloody ridge.”
How will we know where the hut is once we’ve reached the bottom of the gully, I wondered? How will we know where we are? The sun would be well down and behind the mountain by that point. We’ll have no idea where we are in relation to the trail. I decided not to say anything about these concerns. Will has a lot more mountaineering experience than I do. I also decided not to mention anything remotely related to a compass.
We started down the gully, but it was far too steep to follow straight down. At Will’s suggestion, we angled down one side toward a ridge of flanking fir trees. It was slow going; the snow was soft and very deep down there. But we slogged along, pushing into the trees, stabbing forward with our sticks to prevent a headlong tumble down the slope, and keeping a watchful eye for a more level bit of ground to follow. It wasn’t too bad, sheltered from the quickening wind above, surrounded by a fragrant forest of pine. In fact, I began to think it was quite pleasant, my toes and present circumstances notwithstanding.
Thirty minutes later, we stood at the edge of a deep ravine. The gully jumped a five-meter cliff and continued on in the gathering darkness below. The sun was still in the sky, but it was on the other side of the mountain now. Dusk would come quickly here.
Going down would have meant committing fully to our course. There’d be no coming back up, not this way. We had an hour of daylight left at the most.
“We’re not going to find the hut before dark,” I said. “Maybe we should pitch the tent and stay here for the night.”
Will said nothing for a long time. He just stood looking down at the ravine, then back up the way we’d come.
“We have to go back up,” he finally said.
He had to be kidding, I thought. Up? It’d taken us 30 minutes to get down here without killing ourselves.
“We can’t stay down here,” he said.
“I’m thinking about an avalanche.”
As soon as the word left his mouth, I understood.
Between us and the ridge above lay untold millions of tons of densely packed, thawing snow. One tiny tremor, of which Japan experiences hundreds each year, could send the whole mass crashing down on top of us. The gully would act like a gigantic funnel. We wouldn’t have a flicker of hope of surviving.
The murderous struggle back up the rift required everything we had. I tapped reserves of energy I’d have sworn couldn’t possibly exist. We spent 40 minutes clawing, hauling, and scrabbling our way back to exactly the same spot on the same ridge we’d left 70 minutes earlier.
At the top, we both lay heaving in the snow, spent beyond words. My feet were lumpen blocks of fleshy ice. Above us, the purpling sky was pinpricked with stars. The crest of Kitadake was afire, backlit by the last of the day’s remaining light. I pulled myself upright. It wasn’t over yet.
In Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire,” the unnamed protagonist, lacking the necessary measure of respect for the Yukon winter, finds himself on nature’s unforgiving side when he makes a series of small but collectively deadly blunders during an overland trip in minus-75-degree weather. In the story, Nature itself is the antagonist - the foe against which the Man is pitted. Neither good nor bad, neither righteous nor wicked, Nature simply is.
I am thinking about this story. For some reason, it’s stuck with me ever since I first read it in some high school English class. In the story, as you might guess, the Man does not manage to build a fire. Instead, he freezes to death.
There’s very little firewood to be found up here. While Will sets up the tent on a patch of exposed rocky ground, I scavenge as much dry bracken as I can from the gnarled wooden fists that pass for trees on the ledge and the surrounding rocks. I use the headlamp Mr. Miyamoto gave me to pick my way over the snow, grasping at anything that looks like it might burn.
Before leaving Osaka, I’d packed a sliver of the resin-saturated heart of pine that my father calls fat lighter. I don’t know why; I hadn’t expected to need a campfire. I dig for it in the darkness with fingers as clumsy and senseless as mittens. I find it at last, way down at the bottom, wrapped in a cellophane bag with a butane lighter. I swaddle the precious splinter in a clump of black moss I’d discovered lurking in the crook of one of the fists, and say a quick prayer to the kami of this mountain, the phoenix that does not die. Let me be as you are, great Houou, I whisper. Not to die, but to find strength and nobility in the fire. I figure a little flattery can’t hurt.
A few minutes later, after several unsuccessful attempts, a curl of smoke emerges from somewhere in the bundle’s depths, more felt than seen. I blow on it gently, gently, until the orange smudge inside erupts dancing from the moss. I lay it on a patch of gravel, and, as tenderly as nursing a baby bird with an eyedropper, feed it twigs and bits of bark, willing it into existence. The flame grows, and my toes tingle numbly in anticipation.
“Hm,” he grunts. “That’s a nice little fire.” He takes off his boots, sets them to dry as close as he dares, and gets comfortable.
“I think we passed the trail,” he says.
“Someone’ll be by in the morning on their way to the Obelisk. What do you bet.”
“We’ll ask them.”
“We’re not lost,” he says, smiling.
“I know exactly where we are.”
“I know,” I say, smiling back. “So do I.”
My feet, bare to the night sky, steam in warm delight. The fire spits and pops, smoke ribboning into the air before being scooped up by the wind sluicing over the ledge behind us and carried away into the void. Beyond, the world is primal and new.
The author maintains a blog at http://psharbaugh.wordpress.com
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