Uncertain ski-touring on a short but active Japanese stratovolcano
March 27, 1994: As we'd heard Yake-dake was going to blow – the savants, with their tiltmeters and seismographs, had picked up murmurings from somewhere beneath – we decided to pay a farewell visit. If one believed the Japan Times, there was no time to waste, so Caspar and I clamped our touring-skis on top of the weatherbeaten Subaru and took off from Shinjuku in the graveyard hours. It was still dark when we raised the neon signs of the Matsumoto love hotels.
Yake-dake, the Burning Mountain, is the only volcano in Japan’s Northern Alps. At 2,458 metres, it is rather lower than the surrounding alpine peaks. Yet, as Fukada Kyūya writes in his One Hundred Mountains of Japan, its singular character more than makes up for its stature. “No other mountain in the range can puff smoke from its summit,” he points out.
Indeed, Yake-dake has puffed more than enough smoke to lend the Japan Times article a whiff of credibility. It notched up 23 eruptions between 1907 and 1939, and another in 1962-1963. This is after all the mountain that, at a stroke, transformed the scenery of the Azusa river, when an eruption created Taishō Pond. As Fukada comments, “some people may like to persuade themselves of nature's stability by quoting the Chinese poem about the mountains and rivers remaining unchanged as civilisation crumbles. Yet this dramatic shift in the scenery hints at the enormous forces lurking within our little volcano.”
Today, though, we were more worried about the weather. As we turned off the motorway, a few flakes of snow whipped through the arc of the headlights. We parked the Subaru at Sawando and skied onwards into the gloom of a winter dawn. Staggering out of the iced-up tunnel into Kami-kōchi, we found a low-hanging blanket of cloud had expropriated the famous view. Kami-kōchi in winter is refreshingly empty: no tour buses, no tartan-skirted guides, no tourists, indeed nobody except for ourselves. Route-planning was simple too: we had no avalanche forecast, no guidebook, and no trails to distract us. All we had to go on was a mimeographed map published by a shadowy organization called the Ski Alpinism Research Association. This authority suggested that we should go left rather than right.
As for the weather forecast in those pre-internet days, there was only the fading memory of last night's TV report. Fortunately, the weather did not seem to be getting worse, so we found our way to the foot of the ridge indicated by the Research Association. This is the one that comes down on the left-hand side of Yake-dake as you look up at it. At first, the slope was so steep that we climbed straight up among the beech trees, skis strapped to our packs. After a few hundred feet, the angle eased, and we put our skis on.
For a moment, the clouds thinned and the bare branches cast faint shadows on the snow. The beech wood gave way to a grove of dake-kanba and then we came out on a broad open flank, the ridge above fading into the clouds. It is barely a thousand metres from valley floor to Yake-dake's summit, but the way the ridgeline vanished in the mists suggested infinite distances. At every step, the skis sank deep into the new snow, and I called to Caspar to stay well back just in case. Just how new was this snow? Or, to re-phrase that question, were we feeling lucky? To avoid tempting fate (this was before we had those battery-powered amulets that ward off avalanches), we edged uphill and away from the deep erosion gully on the right that looked keen to receive us if the slope went.
We continued to study the snow situation intensively. Caspar took over the lead and the trench-breaking. We reached the ridge, hauling ourselves out of quicksand onto wind-blasted crust. Some rocks loomed out of the murk and suddenly we were at the crater rim, in sunshine and above the flying clouds.
Apart from our own eyrie, only the very tops of the Hodaka massif rose above the heaving sea of vapour. No sign of steam from the crater below, or perhaps the stiff wind was shredding the plumes into invisibility. We hastily downed a cheese sandwich (no time for a brew) and stripped the climbing skins off the skis.
On the broad slope below, avalanche danger was forgotten. For myself, I was too busy trying to stay upright in that cement-like snow.Every time a ski dived too deep, and those times were many, a boot popped out of the Silvretta bindings and I measured my length in the white smother. The grey light didn't help. Caspar, meanwhile, was yee-hah-ing his way down in a series of forceful turns. It was not difficult to tell who had been brought up on skis.
My companion disappeared into the dake-kanba grove and just at that moment the afternoon sun broke through the mists, turning the silvery husk of the birch trees into gold. I took out the camera: yes, just right -the ski tracks wandering between those gnarled trunks into the wood's blue depths. All that is special about ski alpinism in Japan summed up in a single image. By the time we were balancing our way from rock to rock across the Azusa River, the skies were clear again. We looked back and saw the mountain for the first time that day, our ski tracks like a clumsy signature on a flawless composition.
Nihon Hyakumeizan by Fukada Kyūya, translated as One Hundred Mountains of Japan
Kami-kōchi Shizen Handbook, Jiyukokuminsha 1994.)
Map: Area Map: Kami-kōchi or national 1:25,000 series.
Related post: Seasons of a stratovolcano: Yake-dake in autumn