15 January: while driving us into the foothills of the Hakusan range, the Sensei debriefs me on my solo visit to Adatara. She isn’t impressed by my route-finding expedients: “You know,” she says, “you can’t rely on following tracks in a whiteout – even your own footprints could be snowed over in half an hour.”
There's no time to reply – heck, she’s right – as we’ve reached the trailhead for Toritate-yama (1,308 metres). Except for us, the carpark is empty on this grey Monday morning, and snow is already swirling down. Yesterday, under skies of a flawless winter blue, probably a hundred people skied and snowshoed up this mountain.
“Well, at least we’ll have a trail to follow,” I say to the Sensei as we put our snowshoes on. And, indeed, something like a trench seems to lead off through a deserted holiday village and up into the forest. Half an hour later, we are still following the trench, now lightly snowed over, as it takes us across a plateau towards the summit slopes of Toritate.
Next, a wide track zig-zags up through the trees. Although there’s still a trench to show us the way, the going becomes harder as we gain height and the snow deepens. So I’m glad to hear voices behind us; they must belong to the three men who arrived by car at the trailhead just as we left. Surely we’ll be able to hand over the lead soon…
The track ends, and we start climbing a ridge. The wind gets up, as it must ever since Daniel Bernoulli of Basel (1700-1782) discovered his effect, driving the snowflakes into our face – these aren’t the fine spicules that sand-blasted me on Adatara a few days ago, but crisply formed and quite substantial six-pointed snow crystals, courtesy of the Japan Sea coast's maritime climate. So they sting.
Now the trench we've relied on fades into nothing – overnight, the wind and snow have effaced the tracks of a hundred people. The Sensei makes no comment: I suspect that, as a professional teacher, she is thinking that this will be a heuristic experience for me. So I weave an erratic path between the trees, feeling out the firmer footing left in the snow compacted by yesterday’s hordes.
The local mountaineering term 猛ラッセル (mō rasseru) floats to mind, mō as in frenetic, rasseru as in the Russell Car & Snow Plow Company, incorporated in the state of Maine in 1893. As the firm's brochure proudly stated, “Russell snow plows have now been most successfully used in all kinds of snow, both East and West … they should not be confounded with the many other kinds of snow plows that have proven more or less inefficient when hard work was to be done …”
|Russelling the way it used to be
Image: courtesy of the Glenbough Archives
Anxious not to be confounded as more or less inefficient when hard work is to be done, I russell my way frenetically onwards through the drifts. Yet my efforts seem to be all but nugatory. At this rate, we'll be lucky to make the summit at all – where are the three young guys behind us, I wonder. Their voices seem to have faded out.
After administering a heuristic dose of the mochi treatment, the mountain gives us a break. Higher up, the wind has blasted the snow into a firm crust, into which the steel teeth of our snowshoes bite eagerly. The summit is a snowy pate, open, treeless – we pay it the briefest of visits, as there is no view to admire. “Now all we have to do is follow our tracks home,” I’m tempted to say, but think better of it.
In the car park, we meet the trio who had been following us up. One of them had started to get exposure – something to do with his jacket getting soaked through and then freezing – and had completely lost awareness. He was still looking a bit dazed, but his companions had managed to bring him down safely.