A chain of cause-and-effect on Japan’s longest high-level ski traverse
Excuse me, before we get going, while I pour myself a whisky. This glass? You’ve noticed how it’s engraved with “Wadachi” in hiragana, and next you’ll be asking how it got here, all the way from Shinjuku …
29 April: after being spilled out at dawn onto the deserted platform of Shinano Ōmachi, we took the taxi up to Ogisawa. Here we boarded the tunnel bus through to the Tateyama cable car.
For now, the skies were blue. Harassed by a lively spring wind, we came up to the breche on Tateyama’s caldera rim. Somewhere in the southward haze lurked Yarigatake’s spear, separated from us by sixty-odd kilometres of high, snowy ridgelines. It was a view that demanded our respect and got it.
The weather closed in as we climbed the opposite slope, buffeting us with knock-down gusts on the ridge above Zaratoge. We found our way through driving billows of grey mist to the Goshikigahara hut, on its tilting plateau of ancient lava.
We’d prepared for this scenario in our planning session. If we had to stop short of the next hut, we’d bivouac – for which purpose we were carrying camping gear as well as shovels and snow-saws for carving out a snowhole. But snowholing didn’t look too attractive under these lowering skies. And the snow was sodden and grey.
At this point, we came up on the hut at Sugo col – still buried to its eaves in snow, of course, and shuttered for the winter. Except, it seemed, for one window that stood open. We heard voices within; a Japanese party was already in residence. I crawled into the narrow gap between roof and snow and made enquiry; yes, there was still plenty of room.
2 May: we followed ski-tracks up the broad ridge to Yakushi’s summit at almost 3,000 metres. But what worked well on the way up betrayed us on the way down. Still in cloud, Caspar short-swung his way elegantly into the wrong gully, following an errant pair of ski-tracks. We discovered their perfidiousness when we met a solo Japanese ski-mountaineer carrying his skis back up the slope.
At this point, I pulled out map and compass, took a bearing, and led the party – including the errant soloist – masterfully into another wrong gully. We’d just realized our mistake when, like a magician sweeping a silk cloth from a table, the clouds parted to reveal the hut. We reached it an hour after everyone else.
In the evening, a member of the local mountain rescue party came to our room to sample our brandy and offer some of his Suntory in return. Somehow the talk turned to the Great Waterfall of Tsurugi, which his team had visited the year before. Unfortunately, the river had swept away one of the party on their return journey.
We skied down the face of this giant bowl, then contoured round to the valley under a pale blue sky, heading for Mitsumata-renge, our next mountain. As we climbed again, we looked back towards Tateyama: the distant peaks faded into the yellow haze of dust blown in from the Yangtze plains. Soon after we reached the hut at Sugoroku, in mid-afternoon, the clouds closed in again ...