On the Roof of Japan

I arrived at work after the Golden Week holidays and was handed a box. It was my Grivel g10 wide crampons that I had ordered, as recommended by i-cjw. I had hoped to take them with me on my latest outing to the North Alps but alas, the delivery was scheduled for ten days after I ordered them and they arrived too late.

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I know I had been sleeping because I had been dreaming. But it had been a hard night of trying to catch some winks sitting almost straight up in a coach that had left Tokyo at 11PM the night before. It’s dawn now. Yakedake seems suddenly right outside my window, very near and very large. Clouds hang around the mountaintops. The air is misty and cool, the landscape grey and bleak. Dirty snow melting below the ash-coloured erosion-scoured grooves of Yakedake gives the impression that the volcano erupted only a few weeks ago. Coming up to Kamikochi, the Hotakas loom hugely over the valley. With mists still clinging to the high summits and fresh snow gleaming white, I realize that photographs never truly can convey the immensity of these mountains. The clouds slowly clear away and I feel as though I have arrived a little early for the party that Nature is about to throw for everyone. The weather forecast for the next three days predicts only sun and some clouds. No rain!

I have lots of time. I only need to reach the Karasawa Cirque today and it’s no later than 6:20 when I start off from the bus loop. At the Kappa Bridge I drop my pack on a picnic table bench and fish out my camera bag. I take my time shooting the mountains with their white mantle. Without my Grivel crampons, I brought snowshoes, but felt a little foolish when I saw none of the other hikers had snowshoes. Now, that fresh snow makes me feel slightly vindicated.

The season is late this year. Nine years ago I came during the Golden Week holidays. It poured rain the day my girlfriend and I arrived. The green leaves were just opening and the snow was nearly all melted. I remember seeing a turtle in the ponds near Tokusawa and the mountain toads mating furiously in the huge puddles near the Tokusawa campsite, long gelatinous tubercles of black eggs twisted and ropy in the churning brown water. This year there is still snow beside the trail, there are no opening buds yet, and there are no turtles or mountain toads. The forest floor is only just wiping the sleep of snow grit from its eyes.

It’s a familiar walk to Yoko-O and the mountain views are spectacular as always. The gradual ascent to the Karasawa Cirque takes me over well-trampled snow and offers views of Byobuiwa – the great glacier-carved rock face – and Kita Hotakadake. The snow becomes deeper and softer and I begin making post holes. It’s time to switch to snowshoes. They work wonderfully. I join the ranks of climbers and hikers making their pilgrimage to the snow-filled bowl of the Karasawa Cirque.

There are over 200 tents at the campsite. I quickly mark off my space and begin levelling off a slope so that I can have an even tent floor and a protective wall to keep the wind from blowing my tent away. My tent is bigger than I thought and I have to dig more than anticipated. I’ll be sure to get one of those small shovels for next year. That evening, clouds that covered the sky over Oku Hotakadake, Karasawadake, and Kita Hotakadake catch the setting sunlight and the sky looks beautiful.

I am up at 1:00 AM and eat a light breakfast and prepare my outdoor clothes. It’s not below freezing here but close. By 1:40 I am on my way up Kita Hotaka. Partway up, however, I realize I won’t reach the summit in time for sunrise. There’s a tempting ridge nearby that could get me a view of Hotaka and Yarigatake. I try to get up but the slope is getting steeper and steeper. Crampons would really come in handy now, I think to myself.

Looking back I can see the horizon has turned orange. Sunrise is coming soon. I need more time to get up this ridge. I have a decent view of Mae and Oku Hotaka but the greed of having a shot at Yarigatake as well has me trying for the top of the ridge. There are some rocks up ahead. If I can just reach them I can clamber up to the top of the ridge. The problem is that there is ice just below the snow at the base of the rocks.

I turn and suddenly the mountains are glowing orange. Damn! Like the dog that wanted both pieces of meat (or bones) I am now caught with the unfortunate prospect of totally missing the morning alpine glow. I should have stopped and set up. I begin trampling down the snow with my snowshoes, trying to make a platform on which I can drop my pack and set up my tripod. Stomp, stomp, stomp. There’s just enough space for me to squat and shoot. But it’s too late. The sun must have gone behind a cloud. The light fades. I get a couple of shots with some very faint orange glow on the snow, a bluish sky with a hint of orange and pink on the horizon, and the moon over Oku Hotaka in a thin veil of cloud. I wait for the glorious dawn light to return but it doesn’t. Later only diffused white sunlight shines through.

I now consider going back down to the main route up Kita Hotaka but the top of the ridge seems so near. Taking off the snowshoes and putting on my small crampons, I kick my boots into the snow and get up to the rocks, then go back to retrieve my pack. The last reach to the rocks is tricky but I expect that once I am on the rocks I will feel in control much more. But I am not. The grade of the slope when viewed from below has deceived my perception of the true nature of the angle. I am near the top of a minor cirque and the grade is about 150% here or more. Furthermore, the rocks have ice around them and in the cracks. It’s not easy getting a good grip and for a minute or two I am hanging on with no place to move.

At last I find a way up the rocks but at the top there is only more thinly covered ice and still several metres to the top of the ridge. I finally acquiesce and decide I have wasted enough time here. Slipping and falling here would be a very rough tumble back down. With some difficulty I get back to my platform and then work my way down in boots and small crampons. It goes quickly. The ground levels out to a much more comfortable grade at about 7:00. With so much time I decide to just go for the top. It’s not hard. There are so many boot prints that I just pick a good set and follow them. I stop partway for some photographs and then keep going. At last I reach the summit of Kita Hotakadake.

The tent village in the Karasawa Cirque

Having missed the sunrise shoot, I decide to stay a night in the hut. That way I figure I will get the sunset and sunrise shots that every mountain photographer wants. But it’s only 11AM and I have time to kill. I scout the views, eat something, and then just sit and relax with Yarigatake and the North Alps spread out before me. I doze a little, only to be woken by snow sliding off the roof of the hut and hammering me in the back!

Suddenly I see a familiar face. It’s an acquaintance from the All Japan Alpine Photography Association. He published a book of Mont Blanc photos through Yama-to-Keikoku Publishing and his work regularly appears in that company’s calendars. He has come with his wife and some other members of the association I haven’t met yet. We chat in the hut for a while and I discover that another member is also a member of the Society for Scientific Photography, of which I too am a member. In addition, his office is one station away from where I work. Small country.

Snow steps from the summit of Kita Hotakadake to the hut

Outside again I see another familiar face. “Peter-san,” a friendly voice calls out. Wrapped in a hood, a jolly face with glasses and white beard stubble beams at me. “Kumasawa desu.” Ah, Mr. Kumasawa! We first met in January last year in Nishizawa Ravine in Yamanashi. We had both been out photographing and were walking back to the parking lot together when I struck up conversation with him. He too is a member of AJAP and we met for the second time last year in September at the AJAP exhibition. He was quick to spot me up here on Kita Hotaka.

Yarigatake and the North Alps

In the late afternoon, I check out the views. The light is nice and I decide to get some shots. I want to be ready for sunset but I know that nothing is ever promised except the next day in nature and so I shoot a few scenes in 4×5, as well as with my 250mm lens on the 645 camera and a few 35mm shots to boot. Before dinner, the summit of the mountain is already filling up with tripods. The best spot is taken. I decide to shot from in front of the hut because it’s not as crowded and there is almost no wind – good conditions for large format camera set-up.

After dinner the sun slips into a soft haze. The warm glow everyone hopes for doesn’t come. At last an orange daystar fades in the haze and there is no alpine glow. That leaves the next morning only!

I stay in the hut dinning area and chat with other people until 9. There are lots of interesting and funny people. One woman has been climbing for only 7 years but she has done 91 of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains. Another guy is a real card. He looks like a native of the South American jungles but he insists he is Japanese. He is full of jokes and quick wit.

I am tired but it’s hard to sleep with all the activity going on. People are snoring or getting up and coming back to bed. It’s too noisy for me.

At 4AM I get up and quickly head outside. The sky is dark and without stars or moon. It’s calm in front of the hut but dark turbulent clouds are rushing over the mountaintops. It looks as though a serious rain storm is moving in. I suddenly wish I was camping down below at Tokusawa and not way up here with 8 to 9 hours to go to the bus stop. But as the sky lightens it seems there will be no rain. The clouds just continue to blow over the peaks, tilting about 25 degrees upwards as they come over the Yarigatake Massif. I decide to shoot some scenes anyway because mountains moments are not only sunrises and sunsets but also these foreboding dark skies as well.

From breakfast and on the day wraps step by step. I pack up and head back down to my camp in the Karasawa Cirque. On the way someone comes running past and asks if anyone has a cell phone with a signal. Someone above has fallen and possibly broken his right leg. The guy is down the mountain with amazing speed. I am trying very hard not to posthole and possible break a leg myself.

When I pass the lodge in the cirque a rescue crew of two is ready to go up. About an hour and a half after the guy first asked for a cell phone, the rescue chopper comes in. Many people in the camp site are watching and snapping away as the chopper comes in to land near the Karasawa Hut. I pack up and begin heading down in snowshoes.

The sun is beating down now, the clouds all dispersed. The snow is slushy and dirty looking. It looks really different from two days ago when it was still fresh on top. It’s a slippery route down and at last I remove the snowshoes and just stomp through the slush, my boots now soaked through anyway. It’s easy going from Yoko-O and even with short breaks I make it back to Kamikochi with 40 minutes to spare before the bus departs.

I missed the best light and then when I was in the right place at the right time the light didn’t come. But looking at the digital snapshots I feel quite pleased with my accomplishment. The snow-covered mountains are becoming less daunting as I go up and come down each time without discouraging incident. With my new crampons I am eager for the season to start again at the end of this year.

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