The Climber Within

When I was 12 years old, I went to a week-long summer camp event – five days and one weekend overnight. On the first day I caught sight of a beautiful blonde girl about my age or a year older. Throughout the week, any chance I got I tried to get near her to interact with her. On the last day she sat in front of me on the bus and I managed to spark up an animated conversation with her. Her stop was one stop before mine and mine was the last stop. As we neared her stop I tried to sum up the courage to ask for her phone number. But I did not. And she disembarked and summarily went out of my life.

Twenty-nine years later I doubt that getting her phone number would have made any big difference in my life now. But from that experience I learned (in retrospect years later) that when the time is now you have to act. Otherwise you watch the pretty blonde walk away and out of your life.

Grass and shadows at Yunoko

February 11, 2012. My 41st birthday. My wife has begrudgingly agreed to let me out of the house, even though I say that if it were not a national holiday I would be at work until late anyway. There’s no climbing mountains or photographing landscapes when out with the family, only shooting pictures of the kids. Last year I went out only twice and this year I’d like visit the mountains at least three times. My wife complains that I am free while she is stuck minding the children. But I don’t feel free knowing there is great pressure for me to make the most out of this single day. The question that has nagged me since I realized I would get a three-day weekend was whether this should be a photography outing with the possibility of a climb or a climbing outing with some photography. Last year’s trips to Tateshinayama and Ryogamisan produced few usable images because I was on the move most of the time. My submissions to Yama-to-Keikoku calendars have produced no published winners in the last three years and I have run out of “fresh” material to submit. And I gave my stock agency all my work from 2008 to 2011 that they had not yet received. In short, I have next to nothing in fresh material, and a hike to the summit means making fewer photographs, therefore, I should choose the spend time photographing over climbing in order to have photographs to submit. That’s the logic, anyway.

My target terrain is the area known as Oku Nikko. Beyond Chuzenjiko (Lake Chuzenji) and between the mountains of Nantaisan and Nikko Shiranesan lies the wetland of Senjogahara and the steaming hot spring-fed lake of Yunoko. This was where I have decided to spend my day, keeping the possibility of climbing Nantaisan seriously up front. I left home at 3:30 and arrived at Senjogahara well before sunrise. The weather report said temperatures would be between -9 and -5 degrees in Nikko, but I am quite a bit above the city, at over 1,300 metres. The air is pretty chill and even with a few layers of clothing on and a woollen hat covered by a hood I feel the cold. I set up my 4×5 camera on the viewing deck and use a bench as a Stairmaster to keep myself warm inside while waiting for sunrise. When the light does appear, it is to either side of my composition. It seems the sun is rising behind Nantaisan which looms behind me. I manage a few shots in 35mm and one composition in 4×5 before packing it in. Now what? Climb Nantaisan or head over to Yunoko?

Winter beauty at Yunoko

It is not yet 8 A.M. and so I drive to Yunoko. In the background, a white mountaintop draws my attention. I feel the compulsion to get up there! Imagine the photographs to be captured with snowbound trees in the foreground and the rockier parts of the mountain coated in thick white. I approach the ski run with snowshoes in hand. Is there a way to go up the mountain from the ski run? A sign says that there is, but I imagine the slow climb in the snow and the time it will take and figure that I would be better off trying to shoot more photographs. Instead I decide to walk around Yunoko and shoot the sunlight in the steam coming off the lake. But the route around the lake is closed due to heavy snow.

I return to Senjogahara and seek out a good viewpoint of the mountains east and southeast. The snowshoes come on and I follow a cross country trail to a promising spot where I then leave the trail and began pushing deep holes into the soft snow.

Senjogahara with the trunk of Nantaisan on the right

I struggle with the scenery. It is beautiful but not coming together for me in the viewfinder. It’s hard work getting the right composition in 4×5. I tramp about in the snow, scouting for a better foreground, at last returning to the trail. Somewhere there is a great scene here but I can’t find it. By now it is nearing noon. I had said that if I were to attempt Nantaisan I would start at 10:00 o’clock at the latest. It is already too late and I am still not feeling that I have found that special place where I can easily lose myself and emerge with a heap of satisfactorily exposed film. At last I stomp down a depression in the snow just of the trail and shoot Nantaisan as seen from between two white birch trees.

Wind blowing through trees at Yunoko

Not sure what they were doing but they were carrying what looked like oxygen tanks and making holes in the ice

From Lake Chuzenji, Nantaisan looks like a neat conical heap of a mountain. It doesn’t look very high because the lake is at about half the elevation of the mountain. Simply, the mountain fails to inspire me to climb it. However, from this other view at Senjogahara, I can see how the volcanic crater had burst apart with a stream of lava on one side. From this view the mountain looks exciting. I am starting to feel a strong urge to get up on Nantaisan; the long arm of one side of the broken crater looks totally accessible. By now I have also learned to distinguish which peak is the summit of Oku Shiranesan. This mountain too, of which I knew nothing prior to coming, is looking very attractive in its mantle of white. But a winter mountain is not something one climbs as a quick jaunt up and down. It’s a project that takes hours. It takes three times longer to climb a route in winter than it does in summer. That much I know is sensible calculating. I am not going to get up very far on Shiranesan, and Nantaisan was said to be a short but gruelling climb. I have to remind myself that this is a photography outing by my own choosing and that climbing will have to wait for another day.

Ice at Ryuzu Falls

I go to visit Ryuzu Falls and shoot ice formations on the rocks. It is engaging photography and I experiment with multiple exposures while turning the focusing ring. Sunlight glittering off the ice formations becomes constellations of light in my viewfinder. But it is while running up the steps to the next terrace of the falls that it occurs to me that I am getting exercise for the first time today. As my heart pumps I feel the joy of physical exercise. I don’t like exercising for the purpose of exercising but getting a workout while climbing is a pleasure. Again I look back to Nantaisan.

Ice at Chuzenjiko

The last hour of my visit is spent around Lake Chuzenji just driving and exploring and looking back at the mountains. The wind here is viciously Hibernian. Water from the lake is freezing on the dock pilings. I look at the two mountains and consider how it would be to climb one on one day and the other the next day over a weekend. If I were a single man without a family I could come back the next week or later in the month. But these two mountains will have to wait longer for me.

Shiranesan from Chuzenjiko

Once down from the spaghetti noodle road of Irohazaka, I catch glimpses of Nantaisan in my mirror. Whenever I completed a hike in the past, I would always look back at the mountain whose summit I had just visited as much as possible while walking or driving away. But there is no sense of accomplishment when I looked at Nantaisan. I had not been to the summit and I was unable to content myself by thinking that I had chosen to make this a photo outing. I wonder what views I might have captured from the summit of Nantai. This was more than just photography. I needed to feel I had at least attempted to climb a mountain. But why was that so important? Twenty years ago it was all about getting the photographs. In the last few years, however, it has become more about reaching the top. The mountain is a challenge to climb. It does not care one way or another about who climbs it. But for someone like me, a mountain – a least one of these minor league proportions – offers me a chance to challenge myself, to climb over my own internal mountains. To reach the summit means that I have beaten any voices inside me that whined about physical strain, exerted muscles, a heavy pack, or cold wind. Life is not a beach. It is a mountain. And every time I reach a summit I feel satisfaction with myself. “I did it again!”

But I didn’t do it this time and more than ever I feel I have to get back to Nantaisan and Shiranesan. And so it has me thinking – though I have always maintained that I don’t need to climb all 100 Hyakumeizan, there’s nothing wrong with trying to climb more. Climbing them gives me an opportunity to visit mountains outside of the Alps upon which I focused nearly all my photographic efforts in the last few years. I have climbed 31 of the 100 by now. Could I reach 50 by the age of 50? That would mean 2 or 3 mountains a year over the next 9 years. Totally possible. I could make a list and begin planning. I could still expect to get lots of photographs. Hmm… The big question is what would the wife think? And is it fair for me to think of solely my own personal ambitions while she stays home minding the often difficult-to-handle children? At least with photography I can say I am working. But then again, the money earned from photography has until now gone towards paying for photography. Could I possibly get some good stories to write about as a climber? I sure think so.

It seems that somehow over the recent years, I have grown beyond just hiking and photographing. Now I really need to get up mountains. I can’t look at an attractive mountain without thinking how I would get to the summit. Somehow a climber has grown within. I don’t need to play in the big leagues. Even the little league summits can help me enjoy life more.

Nantaisan from Chuzenjiko

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4 responses to “The Climber Within

  1. I know just how you feel about that urge to climb. I find myself in the same situation every time I head out to a new place.

    Looks like you had stunning weather, which is a rarity for that part of Japan. If you do decide to make a return trip, I recommend late autumn when you may catch the first snowfalls combined with the glorious autumn colors.

    If you only had time to climb one peak, I would recommend choosing Oku-shirane over Nantai. Nantai is a conical volcano, but Shirane has pristine volcanic lakes and much better views.

  2. Hi, Wes. Thanks so much for your comment. I have already made a tentative plan to tackle both peaks in September, too early for autumn colours and snow but, provided that the wife is in agreement, a buddy and I will have a two-day weekend at the same time and we are thinking to try for both peaks. But if we can do only one, or if I decide or have to go later in the year, your advice about Shirane is sound from what I can tell. Peaks around peaks with lakes in between – or ponds anyway – sound lovely and very photogenic.

  3. Senjogahara and snow are a magical combination. Hiked it one time in early spring and in misty conditions — it was absolutely ethereal and very different from summer time. At the end, we reached Yumoto the wind picked and it was bitter could. Didn’t know about the onsen at that time or I would have used it.

    • Thanks MDinMA. It’s a great place for hiking in winter. I’m looking forward to getting back again. Next time, the onsen perhaps?

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