Taking the slow way to the summit of Mae-Hodaka, Japan Northern Alps
“I had never deliberately kicked a situation into the full-tilt boogie. The other side had always taken care of that readily enough.” (Heaven’s Prisoners, James Lee Burke)
In the orange gloom of the tent, I looked up from the book – Andy’s book, to be precise, but he was asleep. “The full-tilt boogie”: encountered half-way up one of Japan’s highest mountains, the phrase had a resonance. We’d come here to boogie, certainly. But, like most weekend alpinists, we’d rather not escalate matters as far as the full-tilt boogie-woogie.
On May Morning, we’d heaved absurdly heavy packs to our shoulders and staggered through the bare groves of Kami-kochi. Awaiting us was a gully choked with avalanche debris. Our Koflach boots slipped off frozen divots or plunged us knee-deep in hidden holes. We meant to take the longest possible route to the summit of Mae-Hodaka, a local 3,000er, hauling with us tent, cooker, sleeping bags, crampons, axe; everything, to adapt a Japanese advertising tagline, for beautiful climbing life.
The object was not, of course, to have fun – not even Type III fun. For this was a “gasshuku”, a Golden Week spring mountaineering training camp. Fittingly, the spur we were climbing was named for Keio, an elite private university with a famous mountaineering club. Back in the 1930s, the Keio lads helped to pioneer full-tilt, expedition-style climbing in Japan. They came this way in mid-winter 1938, hauling a ten-man tent (below) which they pitched with the aid of hewn-off tree branches.
The German and British expeditions of the early 1930s – among them, Nanga Parbat ’32 and Everest ‘33 - had galvanised the student climbers of Japan. Imanishi Kinji and his crew were early off the mark, founding the Academic Alpine Club of Kyoto in 1931 specifically to pursue Himalayan ventures. As a start, they had to master a new set of techniques – setting climbing camps progressively higher up the mountain until the summit was in reach.
The AACK’s first experiment with this “polar method”, as they called it, was a two-week expedition to Mt Fuji over the 1931 year-end. They divided into climbing and support teams, put four camps on the mountain, and spent several days on the frozen and wind-blasted summit. Keio was quick to get in on the act: the following winter, they went to Nishi-Hodaka. Later, they tackled Tsurugi, Yari, and Kita-Hodaka, all in mid-winter. These “gasshuku” had but a single aim: to train for the Himalaya.
In the winter of 1934/35, the Kyoto club made a first winter ascent of the ferociously cold Mt Pekto (above), on the Korean-Chinese border. That was the cue for a whole series of student expeditions to the most frigid corners of the Japanese empire – the Kurile islands, Sakhalin, northeast China, and the high mountains of Taiwan. In the end, it was neither Kyoto nor Keio but the Rikkyo University men who bagged Japan’s first major Himalayan summit, Nanda Kot, in 1936.
Now we were following in the postholes of these expeditionary pioneers. Gasping like Himalayan climbers, we reached a flatter spot on Keio Ridge. “That’ll do,” said our leader – a Keio man – although the clouds had cleared and it was hardly past noon. We were granted a brief pause before the reason for the early stop was revealed: “Now we’ll dig a tent platform here,” said Yamada-san, unpacking his shovel and indicating a spot hull-down, off the ridge.
As every expeditioner should be, our leader was thorough. Instead of merely checking the forecast, he’d phoned the meteorological agency for a personal consultation. Tomorrow’s front, he’d been advised, would stop us climbing and we’d better be well encamped. Thus briefed, we shovelled with a will. By evening, the tent was embedded so deeply into the snowslope that a hurricane couldn’t have shifted it.
We woke on May 2 to a gentle sussuration on the orange flysheet – light snowfall that later turned to the pitter-patter of sleet. We festered in our sleeping bags, snoozing or reading. Around noon, there was a muffled curse from Andy: his sleeping bag had soaked up a puddle that had formed in a corner of the tent.
Next morning, we moved on under a grey sky. Now we were on the main crest, heading for Mae-Hodaka along its north ridge. The way was narrow; the drops on both sides sizeable; we concentrated on our footwork. When we paused, which was often, we looked down a breathtaking sweep of snow into the great glacial scoop of Karesawa. There, like a sprinkling of pixels, a virtual town of multi-coloured tentage had been established by the Golden Week climbing hordes.
Mostly, we boogied, unroped, until brought up short by an icy runnel that led upwards through a vertiginous grove of dake-kamba. This called for some full-tilt cramponing, kicking hard into the grey and rippled ice. Fragments spalled away from the steel points, jostling and tumbling down the gully. Then we were over the big hump in the ridge and climbing down into Go-roku col.
This time, care was called for when digging a platform for our tent, and even more so when shovelling snow into our cooking pot. Go-roku col is, it appears, a popular place. Expeditioners on Everest and Denali know the problem well.
A clear, cold morning on May 4 made for firm, crisp snow. Our crampons bit well into the creaking styrofoam. For an hour, Caspar and I boogied higher on the steepening ridge, now on the left of the crest, now on the right, as rocks and cornices dictated. Yamada and Andy were somewhere ahead. Here and there we made belays of the boot-axe variety, more for practice than from necessity. Once we waited on a shadowed ledge while a traffic jam of climbers cleared itself.
We came to the last tower. I hadn’t expected any difficulties here: in summer, a cleft in the rock is climbed by pressing a boot sole onto each face and so ratcheting oneself higher. That technique doesn’t work so well in crampons, especially when the rock is slathered in a film of glassy ice. I extended a tentative set of front-points, tried to move them higher – until, with a chalk-on-slate screech, the crampon sheared through the ice-film and dropped me back into the snow.
Behind, Caspar was driving his axe deeper into the snow in search of a firmer belay. And well he might. What next? I looked round the side of the ridge; a vertiginous sweep of snow falling hundreds of metres – no hope there. Then it had to be the chimney. Perhaps, with a bit of luck, I could reach that rusty piton, five metres up, without becoming unstuck… Could it be, I wondered, that matters were about to escalate into the full-tilt boogie-woogie? Before the question could be answered, a rope’s end whacked into the snow at my feet. “Thought you might need a bit of help,” Andy called from above.
That evening, we camped for the last time, in a pine grove down in the valley. Yamada-san was cooking; we’d taken it in turns. First course was a seaweed and tuna salad, the fish from a generously sized can. Hmm, I thought, our leader had scraped and teetered his way up that icy chimney weighed down with half a tent and a stock of sundry canned goods too. How did he do that?
I never found out the answer, because courtesy obliged us to entertain our neighbours, two girls from Yokohama. They’d pitched a tent beside their steeds, a brace of fearsomely rugged and mud-spattered Africa Twin trail bikes. Apparently, they worked the elevators in a department store. Always be extra polite to department store lift attendants: you never know what they get up to at weekends.
Historical photos and outline history of student "gasshuku" of the 1930s are from 目で見る日本登山史, 山と溪谷社 (編集) (Yama-to-Keikoku-sha: Illustrated History of Japanese Mountaineering)
In the Taishō period, Hodaka became the arena for alpine and winter climbing. In the seminary of mountaineering skills formed by its four three-thousanders, the youthful elite of the university mountaineering clubs then in the forefront of mountaineering endeavour vied to open up new routes ... By the outbreak of the second world war, most of Hodaka's ridges, faces, and gullies had been explored. As Matsukata Saburō wrote, "Some nook or corner of the mountain still concealed a narrow ledge, a dance floor for a tengu, defended by sheer precipices on three sides and backed by a cliff, inaccessible to all but the true alpine adept. And, if you could only get there, the edelweiss would be blooming in sheets all around. Those were the kind of day-dreams we indulged in." Yet only a mountain on the sheer scale of Hodaka could harbour dreams like these.
From Nihon Hyakumeizan by Fukada Kyūya - in translation as "One Hundred Mountains of Japan"