The somewhat light and fast approach to navigating the main river of Honshu’s Northern Alps
Just to watch the video was to be intimidated. As if heralding an approaching bomber, an ultra-bass drone emanated from the powerful speakers of Sawa Control’s stereo system. That was the noise of the river as it drove its roiling waters through the canyon. On-screen, helmeted figures bobbed in the water, fighting to make headway against the buffeting current. “Yes, we had some bother getting round that corner,” my host admitted.
Five of the usual suspects had just come back from the Kurobe, the river that drains the corrugated heart of Honshu’s Northern Alps. They’d gone into the valley on a mid-August day of soaking rain. Reaching the first campsite, they were dismayed to find the river rolling brown, in full flood. The next day dawned clear – the video showed puffy cumulus clouds sailing in a blue sky – but the river still slid by too quickly for a crossing to be made.
Soon other groups joined them at the campsite on the gravel bank, including one from a large electrical company. By the third day, the stream had turned from brown to green, allowing the sawa-nauts to set out. A division of labour was established: Sawa Control would head the swimming pitches, while Yamada-san would lead climbs where stretches of white water had to be bypassed.
The first of those difficult passages started with a two-hour climb over a buttress, followed by a four-pitch abseil down to another stretch of churning water. Sawa control solved this impasse by diving across the main channel with a rope, like a human rescue rocket, and then hauling everyone else and their packs across one by one. This got them to an island of shingle, from which they extracted themselves by another “scary roped crossing”.
By now, all the groups had merged into a giant convoy of 17 people, slowing progress. The second day started better, with upstream swimming through a series of pools fed by sun-lit waterfalls cascading down the cliffs. They stopped for lunch on avalanche debris at the foot of Yakushi-dake. Then an unstructured situation started to develop.
In the afternoon, another set of rapids forced the sawa-nauts to climb over a buttress. Scrambling up a slimy gully, a solo expeditioner grabbed a rotten piece of old fixed rope to steady himself. When it snapped, he fell 15 metres back to the river, but managed not to knock himself out or drown. The joint leaders decided to cut the day short and camp at Tateishi-daira, slightly downstream from a landmark rock pillar. That evening, another soloist started to show signs of appendicitis.
The last day in the river was less stressful, as water levels continued to sink. Even so, the hut at Yakushi-sawa, the first escape route with a path back to civilisation, was not reached until noon. The man with appendicitis made it to the Taroyama hut, some hours further on, where a helicopter came to meet him. Sawa Control’s team came down to the road-head at 5.30pm, ready to start the overnight journey by taxi and train back to Tokyo.
Sawa Control switched off the video, which we’d been watching at the big house in Takanawa. “We didn’t have time to get to the source,” he said, “so we’ll have to go back,” he said. I looked up, alerted by that ‘we’. From what I’d seen in the video, they’d been lucky to bring back the the same number of people that went in. And now he was talking about another trip. Clearly, the man was hooked.
One day, I avow, “Kurobe Capture” will become as integral a part of the psychological literature as the Stockholm Syndrome. Remember you read it here first. The condition was described nearly a century ago by Kanmuri Matsujirō (1883-1970), alpine pioneer and scion of an old-established family of pawnbrokers.
“My first glimpse into the amethystine depths of the Kurobe, from the summit of Tateyama, took my breath away,” Kanmuri writes in “A journey into the Kurobe” (黒部川の紀行). “We’d made the first ascent of Hayatsuki Ridge to the summit of Tsurugi, and then followed the ridgeline along to the top of Ōnanji, at 3,015 metres the highest of Tateyama’s summits.”
“As I scanned the mountain panorama, somewhat fatigued, the green thread of the Kurobe valley seemed to draw my gaze down into the depths. Far below, tucked away under cliffs, deep pools of a shimmering azure snapped into focus. What on earth is this place, I wondered, as I stood and gazed at those limpid waters. A priest, who’d just come up beside me, explained that we were looking at the mouth of O-yama-dani, adding that this was the only stretch of the Kurobe that could be seen from here.”
“That summer, we went down from Tateyama to Daira, then followed the river as far as Higashi-zawa. Then we climbed Aka-ushi-dake, proceeded to Yari and so to Kami-kochi, but all the time I was regretting that we couldn’t take a closer look at those limpid pools.”
And that was how the river captured Kanmuri. Over the next decade, he made foray on foray into the valley, recording his adventures in a two-volume work entitled simply “Kurobe”.
I went home and consulted the guidebook. “Every sawa climber aspires to an ascent of the Kurobe River’s Upper Corridor,” I read. “You’ll need all-round sawa technique, experience and stamina to cope with the deep passages, ledges, and tussles with the water … comprehensive mountaineering know-how is called for, particularly good judgement of water levels and weather, as well as the ability to advance confidently in fast-moving currents.” The route carried a grade of IV+ on a scale of five.
Forewarned, we went about our preparations. As it would be just the two of us, we opted for light and fast. Our club president lent us a bivvy tent, barely more than a flysheet, and we aimed to swim rather than climb, keeping the hardware to a minimum. On the same reckoning, we dispensed with helmets – they drag your head down when they fill with water – and we’d make do with a lightweight, 30-metre rope.
We left Tokyo on a late September evening and reached Ogisawa, the tunnel bus terminal, in time for a few hours of sleep. Next morning, we had a four-hour walk up the west bank of the Kurobe reservoir, the not-so-light packs swaying on our shoulders. We had to get to Daira by noon, or miss the ferry across the lake; there is only one sailing a day and there is no path around the head of the lake.
Arriving by the appointed hour, we found ourselves the only passengers on this surprisingly rugged vessel. The ferryman was taciturn as a Charon, but, unlike his classical prototype, performed his office for free.
The path continues along the lake’s east bank as far as the junction with Higashi-zawa. There we eased our packs to the ground and changed into sawa gear – fibre-pile climbing clothes over wetsuits, climbing harness over all – and switched our hiking boots for wading shoes, soled with a brillo pad-like material. Ahead, a field of sun-bleached boulders receded into the main river valley, stretching away like the gravelled approaches to some grand shrine.
Hardly believing our luck in the weather and the water level, we moved forward, speaking in low voices as if we feared that somebody might overhear us. As the boulder field narrowed, we splashed into the water. The first crossing was uneventful, the water coming barely to our knees. As we rounded the first bend, the great cliff of Shimo-no-Kuro Pinga loomed ahead, the afternoon sun throwing its slanting layers of rock into crisp relief.
In the cliff’s shadow, the gravel bar narrowed away, forcing us into the first deep rock pool. Now the chill of meltwater seeped under our wet suits but, as we waded in deeper, the river obligingly lifted the burden of our packs. Stashed within them, inside a heavy-duty polythene liner, the opening sealed off with a heavy-duty rubber band (bring a spare!), our gear was now helping to buoy us up. We found it best to swim side or back-stroke. Swim on your front, and the pack’s weight pushes your face under water.
Now rocky walls rose overhead on both sides as we moved deeper into the Upper Corridor. We waded through shady defiles, beckoned by the golden afternoon light filtering through the trees ahead. Small grey fish darted away from our feet in the shallows. We started to relax; we were on schedule.
“In the Kurobe’s upper reaches, the rock walls are seamed with ridges and wrinkles that run up, sideways, and aslant where the rock masses come together,” noted Kanmuri. “This gives the valley a somewhat immature appearance as compared with the vast, steep-angled walls of the lower gorge which form continuous cliffs. If the Upper Corridor can be likened to a fortress thrown up by a youth, then the Lower Corridor projects the gravitas of a man in his prime…”
An interesting observation, but we had no time for aesthetic reflections. The golden afternoon light had faded by the time that we had swum, walked, and edged along ledges to the end of the rocky channel. We were out in the open again, but the bulk of Yakushi cut off the sun and an evening chill started to rise.
Sawa Control consulted the map. “I’m sure it was around here somewhere,” he said. Whether it was or not, we had to find a flat and dry place to camp soon. For a moment, I thought of climbing higher to get a view, but stopped myself just in time. Around here, the river has thrown up steep banks of loose shingle topped with massive and unstable boulders. Even in fine weather, the Kurobe offers plenty of scope for an industrial-strength accident.
There was no need to worry about the campsite. Still with daylight in hand, we reached the one that Sawa Control had set his heart on. It did not disappoint – a huge gravel terrace, several metres above the waterline, with space for a hundred tents. Splashing up out of the water, we dropped our packs onto dry ground, shivering now as the breeze found our damp clothing.
We pitched our yellow flysheet, collected some branches of grey and desiccated wood that the river had deposited, lit a fire, and pumped up the MSR ready to cook supper. This Sawa Control had wisely offered to provide. Now he reached into his pack and extracted not the packet of freeze-dried dust that I’d expected but a generous vat of home-made stew. Next emerged a chunky glass bottle of Armagnac. “You don’t want to take this light and fast approach too far,” he said with a smile.