A narrow path into the deep blue sky of the Japan Alps
We would have been amazed, Tim and I, if we'd known that folks once doubted whether Japan had "Alps". I mean, what could be more alpine than that dome floating above us, blindingly white, like a miniature Mt Blanc? Or that arete whip-sawing its way down to this snowy knife-edge …
snow ridge on Shirouma the previous weekend, we'd decided to follow up with Yatsu-mine on Tsurugi, an altogether more rugged proposition.
So we'd hiked in from Tateyama two days ago and pitched our tent in Tsurugi-sawa on snow stained yellow by the dust that drifts in from China on the spring winds. Although we'd left the cherry trees blooming at the mountain's foot, up here, winter was making a convincing last stand. A snow shower pattered onto our flysheet next morning, keeping us tent-bound. Snow ptarmigans croaked in the distance as I snoozed and Tim read an alarmingly graphic book about a slave revolt. At noon, we switched on our radio and heard the NHK announcer promising us a "satsuki-bare" tomorrow – a perfect May day.
At 6am, we climbed onto the col between Peaks Two and Three. From here, we could see a serried array of gendarmes and towers blocking our way to the summit. Yatsu-mine was dubbed by Uji Chōjirō himself – the guide who led the government surveyors on the first modern ascent of Tsurugi in 1907. Whether the ridge really does have eight peaks, as the name suggests, is uncertain. Right now, the tossing crests gleamed so brightly in the spring sun - yesterday's fresh snow had covered up the Chinese dust - that we could hardly count them. Hastily, we put on our sunglasses.
We didn't pause long: this climb had better be finished before the sun got too high. Two abseils on faded in-situ slings took us down to the col between Peaks Five and Six. The climb up the face of Peak Six took a steep snow-wall, but conditions were better than the previous week.
Friday, April 20, 2012
Treading the eightfold ridge
Yatsu-mine must have looked even airier to its pioneers. Nothing quite like this had ever been climbed in Japan when a party from Waseda University ventured here in July 1923. Quite possibly they compared it with the Mittelegi Ridge (below) on the Eiger, which Maki Yuko (left) had climbed two years before. This was the epoch-making first ascent that galvanised student mountaineers into tackling higher, more difficult routes all over the Japan Alps.
As we stepped onto its final peaklet, the plains of Toyama rose into sight, and beyond them the glittering sheen of the Japan Sea. From Tsurugi, you look out westwards into a limitless blue distance - there's nothing higher until you get to the Urals. Or maybe even the Himalaya. We gazed into the blue and thought about that infinity of mountains to climb. Above our heads, alpine swifts and swallows carved the air. And now the clouds were starting to drift up from the valley.
Yama to Keikoku magazine, March 1994, Classic routes of Japan series no 12, Yatsu-mine main ridge. (剣岳八ツ峰主稜）