In Death’s Shadow

Two days after a blizzard covered the North Alps with snow, very little snow remains due to very warm days.

One of the most memorable trips I ever had in the North Alps was in mid-October, 2006. I had planned to climb Kasagatake and was hoping to leave after work that Saturday evening, but a typhoon blew through, causing a kindergarten sports day event I was to attend to be postponed until the following day. The sun beat down harshly from clear blue skies, and the wind whipped up dust clouds from the athletic field and violently assaulted parasols and tarpaulin coverings. When the event was over, I leapt into my rental car and with all my gear packed and loaded I was off to Gifu.

I took a two-hour rest in the car somewhere near the Gifu border and arrived in the parking lot near the Shinhotaka Cable Car shortly before dawn. The skies above were heavily overcast and the evidence of a downpour showed in the large muddy puddles and the turbulence of the river. By dawn, however, the clouds were clearing and the moon appeared, shining its ghostly light on the white mountaintops. There was a good coating of fresh snow up there, something I had neither anticipated nor prepared for.

Around seven o’clock I stood with fully loaded pack before the check-in house, where hikers and climbers can get the latest trail condition and weather updates, and where they fill out their itinerary sheets. An NHK news truck was parked nearby, and a reporter was standing mic in hand before a camera. Overhead, a news chopper circled the mountains. I asked about the conditions up to Kasagatake and was immediately asked if I had crampons. I said I didn’t and was told to forget about going up then. From the previous day, 40cm of snow had fallen on the higher peaks above. At best I could try to reach Kagamidaira – the Mirror Flats – but beyond that it was unlikely that I could go further. Well, I could at least get somewhere then. I would go to Kagamidaira and take it from there.

The sky cleared beautifully, and as I climbed I had views of Nishione, Yarigatake, Nishi Hotakadake, and eventually even the rest of the Hotakas. The vegetation changed to vivid colours of orange and yellow, with some flecks of red here and there. The autumn scenery was highlighted by the lingering snow which both grew thicker as I gained elevation and melted under the warm sun. Kagamidaira was phenomenally beautiful and the photos I captured of great rocky snow-covered peaks reflected in blue pools with snow and autumn leaves around still stand out as some of my favourites. Japanese people who have seen some of those photos have said that it doesn’t look like Japan.

I found I could press on to the Sugoroku tent site because the snow was melting rapidly. That evening the clouds crept back in, and I busied myself with my tent. When sunlight burst through the clouds for a final fiery display, I was almost totally unprepared and missed the view of Yarigatake from Momizawadake. Three years later I would see a photo captured from Momizawa in 6×7 and enlarged to 3’x4’ size of an orange Yarigatake with snow and shadow – the view that I had missed on that very day.

With nightfall, I went into the lodge at Sugoroku and it was there that I first heard the news. A party of four and two individuals had become lost in the snow on the Hotakas. Apparently, the typhoon had blown through and was quickly followed by a cold air mass sneaking in from Siberia. When the rapidly advancing cold air collided with the moist warm air of the typhoon, a blizzard had ensued, creating whiteout conditions on the mountains. The news reported that four of the missing had been rescued but two were found dead. One survivor was interviewed and he said that he had been at the Gendarme when the blizzard struck. Desperately, he had tried to set up his tent in the wind and snow, crazy as it seemed to be doing so on such an exposed ridge. But it may have saved his life as attempting to return to the Hotaka Lodge could have been his demise. I later learned that over on Shiroumadake, two more parties had become lost in the blizzard. A foreigner who had managed to reach a hut on the mountain tells on a web site how he and his companions had saved two middle-aged women from hypothermia. The next morning, while the news helicopter was flying around Hotakadake, rescue helicopters removed two frozen bodies from Shiroumadake.

It struck me as surreal that I had climbed up to witness such breathtaking scenery created by the blizzard coming in the prime of autumn while four bodies were being removed from that scenery. Three years later, I returned to the same location, and as I climbed up to Kagamidaira I looked back to the Gendarme and noticed the sunlight glaring from something in the rocks. What could it be? Then I recalled that only a month earlier, a helicopter had lost control and crashed into the base of the Gendarme. Three more people had died. That bright light – glaring like a beacon from the dark andesite – was a lighthouse signal to all who turned their heads that way: Death was here.

The following day I went all the way to Suishodake, and at the new hut built a short jaunt from the final run up to the peak, there were three new Jizo statues standing on some rocks just above the hut. Two young Japanese climbers told me that during the construction of the new hut, one helicopter had crashed and its three occupants had died.

The shadow of death is all over the Alps and the mountains of Japan. Many people I have met have told me of friends lost in the mountains. Every year I hear news reports of people falling to their deaths, getting lost in storms and bad weather and being found dead later, or even some older people who die of cardiac arrest while climbing. When my wife and I crossed the Dai Kiretto between the Hotakas and Yarigatake, my wife’s phone suddenly received a message near the base of the climb up to Kita Hotaka. It was strange because her phone was out of signal range and turned off too. The message was from her sister, telling her to be careful because two days before someone had fallen in the North Alps and died. We heard the next day that the accident had occurred exactly on the climb up to Kita Hotaka from the Dai Kiretto, right about where my wife’s phone had received the message about the news from her sister.

The reason for this post is simply a reflection on stories I have heard and read about people who have parted soul from body in the very mountains that I enjoy climbing and photographing. As I wrote above, there have been times when I have stood in awe of the beauty that was visited by Death only days or even hours before me. I have walked in the shadow of Death’s leaving, blissfully unaware at first of the unwanted visitor before me who departed with the company of a fellow mountain-lover or two. Each story is a reminder that even the simplest of mountaineering undertakings requires prudence and caution, and even the most prudent and cautious may still add to the death toll statistics.

The mountains are beautiful yet deadly. But then again, there are worse places to die.

A sign on the route down Utsugidake in the Central Alps

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