My Classroom: the Mountainside

I suppose eventually every mountaineer finds himself in trouble. That trouble may be serious and life-threatening or it may just be minor but very inconvenient.

When I lived in Canada, I believed that winter mountains were very dangerous and that slipping outside of bounds on the ski runs was a recipe for disaster. Every year the news reported stories of people who were rescued after having spent three or four days lost in a fogged-in ravine after having fallen over a cliff. Sometimes these people came back in a zipped up bag.

After coming to Japan, I learned that winter mountaineering was quite a normal form of recreation and leaving the ski grounds for higher elevations was indeed common. I made my first winter foray with an experienced outdoorsman while staying in a nearby lodge. My following attempts to enjoy winter mountain scenery all kept me near lodges or places with many people around. Then came this most recent trip.

Over the days of March 28th and 29th, I visited the Sanpuku Touge (三伏峠)area of the South Alps. I had been up there once before in November of 2006 and had climbed Shiomidake (塩見岳). This time I would come up to the pass from the Shiokawa (塩川)side. The weather reports all week had called for rain and sun on Sunday and good weather on Monday. I had visions of capturing Shiomidake in all its winter glory in the early twilight hours. Saturday night, however, as I sat in a McD’s in Komagane, the weather report had changed and promised rain and more rain in Ina City, the closest city to my destination in the mountains.

The following morning I set out on the road up to the Shiokawa Sansou under an overcast sky but with the sun attempting to shine through. Sometimes the light was bright enough to see shadows on the ground. I was in good spirits and tackled the trail with more stamina than I had expected.

The route was marked with signs dividing the total distance into tens. At the lodge, the first sign read 0/10, and then 20 minutes down the path was 1/10, and later 2/10 and so on. From the lodge to 4/10 I encountered no snow and a little ice on the trail only. Between 4/10 and 5/10 there were some icy patches that made me stop to take out the small crampons at 5/10. From 5/10 to 6/10 there were some large icy patches to cross, and at 7/10 snow covered the trail completely. Here also it began snowing lightly. I met three people on their way down and used their footsteps to get up in the snow. I tried switching to snowshoes when the snow got deeper but it was too difficult to walk on the steep slopes because of the hard crusty snow cover.

I made it to the lodge in decent time, I reckoned, but when I went to the winter/emergency shelter I found the door was frozen shut.

The entrance to the winter/emergency shelter at Sanpuku Pass

I knew about the shelter and with my previous experience using this kind of shelter I hadn’t anticipated any troubles. I tried to clear away the snow and chip away the ice with one stalk but to no avail. The door would not budge. And I had no tent!

Overlooking the tent site and the view to Shiomidake (when it’s not cloudy) there was a thick mass of snow covering the shelter roof. At the bottom were two holes. Feeling like a rattlesnake in a prairie dog’s burrow, I crept on my belly inside one and found someone had excavated a large snow cave about 4 metres long, 1 metre wide, and 80cm high. I dragged my pack inside and here was where I spent the night. The ceiling was a little low but it was comfortable enough.

Inside the snowcave

The weather outside my burrow

In the morning the snow continued and there was no dawn shoot. But by 8 o’clock the sun shone in through the holes and I saw blue sky outside. I quickly finished breakfast and set out for some photography. Though the sky was still largely covered in clouds to the south, to the east and north the sky was mostly clear. I caught a moment’s glimpse of Shiomidake, which I was prepared to capture on film but not with the compact digital. The trees were beautiful in their robes of fresh powder frosting. A short photo session ensued before the clouds surrounded the sun and covered the sky again.

Sanpukuyama from the tent site at Sanpuku Pass

It was still early, so I put on the snowshoes and made the short hike up to Sanpukuyama (三伏山). It was rather windy on the ridge and the snow had blown into a sharp fluffy crest with icy snow hidden under the powder. I sometimes slid backwards into the trees and had to walk sideways and kick my feet in. From Sanpukuyama I was able to shoot a number of scenes of sunlight shining on cloudy snowy mountain faces. The going was never too rushed. I would dash to one scene and shoot a few views and then look around for another potential moment of excitement.

Looking southeast from Sanpukuyama

At last the clouds covered all fun again, and Shiomi, ever bashful and secretive, never promised to show her face after the morning shots from the lodge. I went back to pack up and by noon I was ready to head down.

Ready to go - my pack and stalks outside the entrance to the snowcave

The sun had gone and snow was falling again. At first the tracks in the snow were still recognizable in some places, but very difficult to find in others. I made it as far as the junction, where the summer route intersected with the winter route, and a little further before the trail became more difficult to distinguish. Finding a train of subtle depressions resembling a pair of footprints, I tried to keep in sight of them as I went through the forest. There were no coloured ribbons on the trees here. Did the footprint maker know where he was going?

The footprints were often difficult to see and a couple of times I slipped down the slope. Then at one chute leading into a ravine, my feet shot sideways and I went down about 20 metres. When I tried to get up and move I slipped again and went deeper into the ravine. I stopped myself once by crashing into a small tree and getting my left leg bashed and caught between two prongs (a pain that would last for the next few days). The third time I slid down I used the powder snow to scoop and brake by spreading my limbs. It was just before the ravine became much steeper. I got up and stomped down a secure place in the snow and checked my guidebook. If I had fallen here on the map, then I should be right here, I thought. All I had to do was climb up to the ridge and I would find the trail again soon.

I climbed up through a tangle of snow-covered undergrowth and fallen trees but only reached a view to another ridge. Where was the trail? I called out in case anyone walking the trails would here me. I moved on and crossed another ravine. It was a slow process of climbing up steep icy slopes and crossing more chutes. When I had another view of the valley I checked the book again. It seemed that if I had actually fallen in a different spot I may have misunderstood where I was and where I needed to go. I surmised that I had come way off course and had to reach the next main ridge back beyond the ravine into which I had fallen. In any case, I had to get down to the river below where I knew the trail was. I decided that the trail must be across the two ravines before me and somewhere in a wood of larch trees.

From here I took a long time climbing down the first ravine and nearly freezing my fingers solid while gripping ice-coated roots and trying to get down a 2-metre rocky drop. It was an unnerving situation, knowing my feet should find support somewhere out of sight below but not being able to see where. I had to count on the strength of the root I was clutching while I raised and lowered myself, my boot toe probing the airspace below me. Had I dropped by design or by accident and landed on the steep slope at the side of the ravine I could expect a serious tumble backwards toward the rocks and icy water.

At last I found my foothold and descended, quickly removing my gloves and warming up my numb fingers under my arms. When the pain subsided, I slung my pack back on and entered the ravine, crossing the water below a waterfall. I paused a moment to think how beautiful the ice would seem if I were on the right course, and then climbed up the opposite slope, taking care not to slip in the icy mud. I crossed another ravine and at last I found myself entering the larch forest. The sun had set and I was following deer footprints through the woods. The going was tough with lots of deadwood obstructing any perceived path through the forest. When I at last reached where I expected the trail would be, I found no trail, only a steep slope down to the sound of water from below.

Here I took a break and tried to heat my vegetable juice, which was half frozen with ice crystals. I looked around a little for the trail but couldn’t see it. Was I going to spend a night on the mountain here in the forest with no tent or shelter? I had warm enough gear along. I looked at my stove and found the gas had gone out. Drinking icy juice was not a good idea with nightfall upon me, so I tucked my juice bottle inside my jacket and hoped my body heat would keep it from freezing.

It seemed that I had two choices: find a comfortable spot to spread out my ground mat and sleeping bag, or keep on heading down the mountain. I thought constantly of my wife, who was by now surely expecting a text message from me soon, saying I was heading home. She knows I sometimes I come down later than planned if I find a good spot for photography, but still it was about 7:30PM by now. I decided that I was not tired and would be fine to keep going. If my route brought me to another cliff I might decide then to give it up for the night.

Winding through the trees and with my headlamp on, I continued to find deer tracks or short paths that were perhaps once used by the people who had cut down the larch trees – I saw many stumps that had been sawed through. I found so many false paths that I hardly noticed when I reached the riverbank. Then it dawned on me where I was and that there was a clear and wide white ribbon of space stretched out between the trees before me. It ran unobstructed both left and right and disappeared into the trees on either side. A couple of hours ago I expected to be delirious with joy once I had found the trail, but by now I was used to managing without it. Shining my light at the tree trunks, I found a pink ribbon and shrugged, “It looks like this is it.” Now all I had to do was walk back to the car.

I had reached the trail at around 9 o’clock and made it to the Shiokawa Sansou by 10:20. I drank my vegetable juice and toasted the full moon, which was shining down from a clearing sky. I laughed at my sore legs as I squatted to stretch the tired muscles. My left shin was tender from bashing into a rock while climbing down the ravine and my left thigh was very sore where it had hit the tree. I was not yet exhausted though. Weary in the flesh perhaps, yes, but my mind celebrated with a swig from my bottle and a smirk at Luna: “I made it.”

Back at the car, I found my phone battery had died. But I was relatively fine. I drove back to Komagane and found a McDonald’s with an outlet under one table, where I plugged in my phone for charging. After a short meal I sent a message to my wife and told her I was only just ready to leave Nagano. She was a little worried, especially once she realized the time was past midnight. But I was OK. I was just heading back from another hike in the Alps.

Looking at the map a few days later I realized a couple of things. First, I came down and met the path at the river, not on the ridge. It seemed my original guess had been correct, that I had slid down the west side of the ridge. When I later supposed that I had slid down the east side, I had then made the mistake of thinking I had to cross the two ravines in order to find the trail on the ridge with the larch trees. Actually, I had unnecessarily crossed over to that ridge. The real trail had been up the steep ravine behind me. But instead of climbing that ridge I had crossed over two smaller ridges on the side of the main ridge.

A little more common sense might have saved me the seven-hour adventure on the mountainside. First, I should have climbed back up the slope to where I last was certain of the trail. It might have taken an extra hour or so but it would have been much quicker in the end. Obviously, having a more detailed map and a GPS with me would also have helped me find out where I was when I first stopped my sliding down the ravine chute. Not having an ice axe – something I have seriously been thinking about buying recently – was also part of the problem as I could have arrested my fall much sooner and also kept it handy in case of further slippage. And of course, there is the issue of not yet having the proper crampons for this kind of winter outing. I think with the season coming to an end it would be wise for me to invest in some of this required winter equipment.

Fresh powder and sunlight at Sanpuku Pass

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One response to “My Classroom: the Mountainside

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

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