The Thawing of the White Horse

The Ushiro Tateyama Range from Korenge Dake

The Ushiro Tateyama Range from Korenge Dake

I’m used to this now. My ascension snowshoes are set with the extra heel support bar up and I am stepping up through snow that has been melting in the May sun, re-frozen at night, crushed in the morning by hundreds of feet, and is melting again. It’s a slippery slush in some places and hard and crusty in others. The slushy places tend to be brown and the hard places white, but it’s not always so. My feet can slide out from beneath me anywhere as dirty crushed ice skids out from under the pressure of my feet. Or the icy surface is too hard even for the crampons on my snowshoes to grip well and my feet scratch across the snow as they slide. Just about everyone around me has crampons. I have been thinking to buy crampons for over a year now but apparently good crampons mean getting expensive winter boots too and I don’t have the money. So I go with my leather hiking boots and snowshoes. I can make it up. I know it.

I have been up this route before, back in August of 2003. It was a rainy day and I quickly got miserably wet as I hiked up from the cable car station at Tsugaike Nature Park to Tenguhara, a plateau of volcanic boulders above the wetland at Tsugaike. The trail climbed up through a vibrant and rich forest green and at Tenguhara there had been white flowers blooming between lava rock and muddy puddles. Now I am climbing straight up the slope where only the tops of a few trees are sticking up through the snow. At Tenguhara I see a forest of treetops in brownish snow. Above are more volcanic rocks, the boulders of Shirouma Norikuradake, an oddity in the Ushiro Tateyama Range of the Kita (North) Alps of Japan. All mountains in this range are basically igneous rock but formed below the surface of from volcanoes of long ago. Norikura’s rocks look geologically fresh but there is no distinct cone to indicate the crater that spewed out these pockmarked black rocks. Perhaps the crater was in Shirouma Ohike, the big pond just over the mound of Norikura’s boulder field.

A pair of ptarmigan is waiting for me as I leave the snow at last at Norikura and start hopping over boulders, trying to avoid the plants and muddy earth. Oike is a white basin – there will be no pond until mid-June perhaps. The lodge here is buried save for the apex of the roofs of the three buildings. Someone has built a wall of snow blocks around his tent for protection against the wind that is blowing in from across the unobstructed flats of the frozen and snow-covered pond. I choose a spot for my tent next to the top of the second floor of one of the lodge buildings. I didn’t come prepared to build an igloo or anything but I know wind protection is wise. Last year I left my tent anchored with pegs in the icy snow on Hou-Ouzan and came back from a day’s exploring on the mountain to find my tent had been blown ten metres and was blocking the path from the mountain to the tent site. I use a snowshoe to hack out blocks and chunks of snow and ice and make a low wall. Squatting behind it is like a magic switch has been thrown and the wind has stopped. I set up my tent and realize that the tent stands higher than the wall. I just have to hope the weight of my belongings will be enough to keep the tent from blowing away… this time.

Camp at the Oike Sansou

Camp at the Oike Sansou

Once the wall is ready the best of the afternoon light is gone. I came here to the Ushiro Tateyama Range to shoot the mountains and the thawing white cover of winter in twilight. Recently I have been trying to get good sunrise and sunset photos and have been ignoring twilight, a time of day I used to love photographing. This time I plan to be ready for capturing the light on the snow. However, the sky is so hazy that the sun just becomes a blur, a smudge, and then disappears before reaching the horizon. I climb up to the first high point above the pond and watch as the evening fades in the clouds and haze without any great display of colour. At last I return to camp and eat and prepare for the next day.

The best of the sunset over Norikura Dake

The best of the sunset over Yukikura Dake

My alarm goes at 3AM and I am out on the snow before 3:30. The sky is actually mostly cloudy and there is no twilight or sunrise. My destination for the day is the summit of Shiroumadake – 2,932 metres and the highest peak in the range. The name means White Horse Mountain – 白馬岳 – but even though it is the officially gazetted name it is not the original name. Formerly it was known as Shirouma Mountain using the Kanji 代馬, the name of a kind of work horse. In the spring when the snow melts the rocks that emerge make the shape of the Shirouma. But when the government officials came to record the name of the village they mistook the name for 白馬 – Shirouma – the same pronunciation but different meaning. Furthermore, the village name was then recorded by alternate readings of the Kanji and became known as Hakuba. Now the village is Hakuba and the mountain is Shirouma, different pronunciation but the same Kanji.

Scratching my snowshoes’ crampons on the frosty snow, I have to get up Korengedake first, which is no problem. It takes me a long time though because the view over the range and the North Alps is something spectacular. Stretching out before me are the all the mountains I know and have climbed before: Shiroumadake, Shakushidake, Shirouma Yarigatake, Karamatsudake, Goryudake, and Kashima Yarigatake. Beyond these peaks I can see several mountains in the Tateyama/Tsurugi Range, the Yari/Hotaka Range, and the Ura and Omote Ginza Lines. There are few places in Japan where you can see high snowy peaks beyond the high snowy peaks.

Glorious view in early May

Glorious view in early May

My neighbours in the tent with the snow wall greet me and I talk excitedly about the view. Later a man on his way down stops to chat with me and tells me he has climbed 90 of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains. He’s excited to hear I am from Canada and keeps talking but I can’t keep from noticing the big green stalactite in his left nostril. His nose has been running and building up a collection like green candle wax.

It’s a long walk with me stopping frequently to capture the spot lighting on the mountains as the sun begins shooting stray beams through the thin cloud cover. Some people who passed me before are on their way down again. At last I tackle the final rise and get up to the summit of Shiroumadake. It’s no surprise but I still find it amazing how many seniors and retirees – men and women – I can see on the summits of Japanese mountains, even in early spring when there is still ice and snow. Below the steep drop of snow off to the north of the summit climbing parties are taking turns coming up from the more challenging route below the east face, where ropes and ice picks are necessary.

A climbing party below the summit

A climbing party below the summit

A climber nearing the summit

A climber nearing the summit

The view is grand as one would expect. All the main peaks of the North Alps can be checked off one by one, looking across the chains of mountain peaks. I take my time, relaxing, photographing, eating and drinking. I am in no hurry. I visit the lodge below to see if I can find a toilet and I am surprised a little to discover that the lodge is open and people have stayed the night, even though much of the buildings are still under snow. The returning to the summit I overhear a trio of climbers discussing the peaks. I look at what there are looking at and realize they have mistaken Tsurugidake for Yarigatake. Why is it that the foreigner always has to correct the natives? I point out where Yari is and tell them which are Tsurugi and Tateyama and where Kasagatake is. They become more excited.

At last I prepare to head down at 1:15. Clouds have started to appear in the valleys below the high peaks and I have to think that if they build up I might not be able to see my way back to my tent. On the way down I get one last shot of Shirouma before the summit disappears from view. That evening at the tent there is not sunset and no twilight again. I snooze and eat dinner and try to sleep through until 3:30AM. Again I am up and on the go shortly after waking but the clouds are worse today. Once more I get no twilight and no sunrise. Ptarmigan come to watch me on the first rise from Oike, before going up Korenge. It’s amazing to see how they can land flapping and come in straight down or lift straight up over a cornice to land. Alpine accentors – small alpine birds from the sparrow family – have also been busy hoping about on the snow and rocks looking for seeds or bugs maybe? There are plenty of bugs crawling about here and there on the snow.

I decide to pack up early then and head back down. Once more I navigate the boulders of Norikura and then try to find my way back down the slush to Tenguhara. Here the clouds come up from below and soon everything becomes a grey and white world with the dark shapes of treetops jutting through the snow. I debate whether or not to keep moving and descend in the clouds or wait to see if the clouds will clear. Spotting a red marker with a yellow arrow I decide to try to follow these down. It’s amazing to look into a world of grey mist and barely be able to distinguish anything at first and then a few steps later to be able to see trees that were not visible a moment before. The clouds begin clearing away like smoke from an extinguished fire and the landscape re-emerges from the fog. I can finally see around below again. With a final look over the mountains I ride the cable car and gondola back down. The snow looks brown in many places. Only on the higher peaks is it still mostly white.

For more photos please see my Flickr page.

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8 responses to “The Thawing of the White Horse

  1. Great report and photos, sounds like you had a lot of fun up there. I smiled at the mention of the climbers confusing Yari and Tsurugi, a familiar overheard conversation… The East Face looks great as ever – it’s on my list of climbs for next winter.

    On crampons, you don’t need winter boots for them (unless you especially want to get automatics, which you just step into – nice, I admit, but not vital). Leather boots will be fine with 10 or 12 points with a toe-bail, like the Grivel G10 Wides – OK, you won’t be front-pointing up 90 degree ice in them, but they will be more than adequate on mixed snow and ice slopes. My wife has even used G10s with her flexible Columbia 3-season boots, no problem. The store clerks will try to convince you otherwise, however.

    If you do get crampons, make sure you go to your neighbourhood hardware store and get a Y300 metal file though. It amazes (and annoys) me to see so many expensive crampons on the mountains that are as blunt as cheese…

  2. Chris, thanks for the advice on the crampons and sorry it has taken me so long to reply to your comment. I read it the day after you posted it.

    I’ll definitely be checking out the Grivel G10 Wides for next winter then. I could still use some boots that are better at keeping water out but as long as I can get the crampons for now that will do for next winter.

    You know, the east face looked daunting at first until I watched other climbers and thought about it. As long as you take it step by step and focus on what you are doing it think it doesn’t seem so bad.

  3. I, too, was frustrated by damp boots – all the more so because they were supposed to be waterproof. And then I realised; the damp was coming from the inside, as I was soaking my boot in sweat. You might find you’re having the same issue.
    This winter, my big revelation had been the use of VBL technology to give me a warm, dry climb. In the cold (and it does need to be cold), I now wear very thin woolen undersocks, a plastic bag over them, and then my thick outer-sock. Feet get stinky, but not as sweaty as you might imagine, and both boot and outer-sock stay bone dry and warm. You just have to be really careful to take a spare pair of undersocks for night, and clean and dry your feet well, or you will end up with trench foot….

  4. I was wondering if something like that would work, putting plastic in between. But I was worried about my feet not being able to breathe and ending up with feet that stink even more than usual. I might give it a go next winter.

    Btw, I posted comments on your last three posts but two of my comments were rather long and they disappeared. Is there a word limit or something?

  5. I’d definitely look into it. Your feet sweat quite a lot less than you might imagine with bags around them, as the humidity inhibits sweat production (apparently – google for Vapor Barrier Liner to see all the arguments for and against). Feet definitely smellier, but much, much warmer – and careful cleaning each night mitigates the effects.

    Apologies for the issues with the blog comments – I will be looking into this (there’s no word limit that I know of, but I’ll run some tests).

  6. Aha – Chris I thought I might find you here 🙂

    Both – The disappearing comments might be Akismet? Even with it not enabled I found that it was still filtering comments on mine (and Peewiglet found exactly the same thing I seem to recall…).

    Peter – Agree with Chris that you don’t need thumping great boots for crampons! In fact I’d argue that you don’t need boots at all if using Kahtoola crampons.

    People with far more experience than I consider them good enough up to about a Scottish Grade 1 (like *PTC and a friend of mine who’s a mountain guide for example!)

  7. RedYeti (love the name), it was Chris who first got me on to WordPress. I was a regular commenter on his photos on Flickr and from there I began reading his blog.

    Thank you for the advice about the crampons. I will definitely be looking into everything you and Chris suggested. I want to do more winter climbing but without crampons there are limits. The links are appreciated too. I’ll be clicking away shortly!

  8. Pingback: Links to Trip Reports « Project: Sanmyaku

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