Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Haute route (2)

Continued: a chain of cause-and-effect on Japan's high-level ski traverse leads to a bar in Shinjuku

4-5 May: The weather trapped us at Sugoroku for two days. We were now a select company – only seven ski-mountaineers remained en route, from the twenty of so who had set out from Tateyama. Two fast skiers had managed to steal a day’s march at Sugo – and had probably reached Kamikochi by now – but the rest had dropped out at Taro, which affords an escape route down to Toyama.

That left our own trio, and two other pairs: there were two younger men, Sugiyama and Morita – who made planetariums for a living. Then there were Ninomiya, the warden of a hut on northern Yatsugatake, and his companion, a stocky individual who wore a perpetual grin and braided his hair into a somewhat samurai-like pigtail. He introduced himself as Yamada, the owner of a bar called “Wadachi” in Shinjuku. We should drop in sometime…

Yamada had once climbed with the late Hasegawa Tsuneo – we’d met the super-alpinist the summer before he was avalanched in the Himalaya – and the bar-keeper was now carrying the ice-axe that Hasegawa had used on his solo winter ascent of the Matterhorn’s north face.

6 May: a break in the weather – or, at least, a higher cloud-base – let us make a late start up the Nishikama, the western ridge leading up to Yarigatake. A long undulating snow arête led us to the base of the final upswing. Before we got there, the clouds came down again.

When the ridge narrowed, we had to take off our skis and carry them. Some way past the Io Nokkoshi col, we became aware of a low hum – our ski-tips were buzzing with static electricity. Fortunately, no lightning bolt followed, but we moved into a hollow until the charged-up cloud passed by.

Conditions on the steep part of the Nishikama were full. We kept left, close to the edge, to avoid losing the way in the driving mist and snow. Caspar went ahead, route-finding, while Sue and I followed on the rope. It would have been all too easy to walk, Hermann Buhl-like, over an edge. We arrived at the Yari hut at 3.30pm, after five and a half hours en route.

Sugiyama and Morita, who’d arrived earlier, had stood outside for half an hour blowing their whistles to guide us in. We went out immediately to perform the same office for Yamada and Ninomiya, who were somewhere behind. Unfortunately, they’d drifted right of track and came up to the col via the gully that the hut uses as a rubbish tip, their crampons spiking through old tin cans and plastic bags.

7 May: on a bright morning, Caspar and I went out to climb Yari. We clambered onto the summit to find Yamada taking a photo of Hasegawa Tsuneo’s ice-axe, which he’d propped up against the frosted-up summit shrine. Then, very carefully, we all down-climbed the icy rocks back to the hut.

For almost the last time, we snapped our boots into our ski-bindings and looked down Yari-sawa. Below our ski-tips, a snowy highway swooped down into the Kami-kochi valley. Or perhaps an icy highway. Yamada fell at the first turn and tumbled, head first, down the steep stretch, missing the rocks by a few yards. Perhaps Hasegawa’s ice-axe was looking after him.

Caspar managed to ski down the troublesome slope, but Sue and I walked down on crampons, carrying our skis: the wind had burnished an ice-crust to a marble-like hardness. Further down, the spring breeze had softened the snow and we skied onwards to the Yarisawa lodge. A kamoshika was grazing on a grassy slope above us as we started the long walk-out to Kami-kochi.

Back in Tokyo, we wasted no time in visiting Yamada in his bar. Finding it took all the navigational skills we’d honed on the Haute Route and more. In time, this became a routine. But Yamada's bar would never be easy to find. You’d head into the narrow defile that leads between the Seibu Shinjuku station and the badlands of Kabukicho. Then, confused, you’d stop and look at the laconic set of coordinates – “2−45−6” – on the scruffy bit of paper in your hand. Surely there was no bar here?

And then you’d notice a steep flight of stairs leading down into the earth at your feet, like the rabbit’s hole in Alice in Wonderland. You’d catch sight of the sign lurking in the shadows below you – “Wadachi” – done like an old-style station nameplate in white-on-brown lettering. You’d push through the heavy door and step, so it seemed, into a brightly lit mountain hut – dark-timbered beams, a traditional wooden sled doing double duty as a table, the walls hung with photos of expeditions and mountains and alpinists, present and past. A signed portrait of Hasegawa Tsuneo beamed down from a place of honour over the bar.

And from behind the counter, out would step Yamada with his big grin – “Let me shake the hand of the man who skied the Haute Route (or Mt Vinson, or Manaslu as the case might be),” he’d say. And then he and his wife would get to work behind the bar on their famous cuisine.

Wadachi became a fixture with us. It was our Mermaid Tavern, or perhaps the clubroom of an unofficial Alpine Club. Sawa Control even took his business associates there. After we left Japan, we dropped in on Wadachi every time we revisited Tokyo.

Many years later, I happened to pass through Shinjuku on a grey December evening. There was just time for a beer at Wadachi before going on to the next appointment. I found my way to the building at “2−45−6”. Yet something was wrong: the station sign was missing. Then I saw a workman in tan overalls crouching on the steps down to the basement – but why should he be unscrewing the bannister rail?

Gnawed by foreboding, I ran down the steps and pushed open the door. No bright lights; the room was lit only a single bulb. Yamada-san did not step out from behind the bar. He was standing as if bemused in the middle of the room, surrounded by boxes. The wooden sled had vanished; the old skis and ice-axes taken down from the walls. Hasegawa was gone too, leaving a dusty rectangle on the wall.

The grin came back to Yamada’s face as he stepped forward to greet me. Wadachi was closing, he explained. The long recession had deprived the salarymen of their expense accounts or even their jobs. Mountaineers were feeling the pinch too. His wife had been ill. Ends would no longer meet. I noticed a glint in his eye as he added, still smiling: “After thirty-one years, we thought it was time to pack it in.”

As he spoke, he seemed to be casting about for something. His eye lit on a cabinet that was still attached to the wall. “These whisky glasses,” he said, reaching for them. “One is for you, and please take the other two to England, for Sue and Sawa Control. Please give them my regards.”

Friday, October 12, 2012

Haute route (1)

A chain of cause-and-effect on Japan’s longest high-level ski traverse

Excuse me, before we get going, while I pour myself a whisky. This glass? You’ve noticed how it’s engraved with “Wadachi” in hiragana, and next you’ll be asking how it got here, all the way from Shinjuku …

28 April: Like many a Japanese mountaineering tale, this one opens with an overloaded figure clomping through the world’s busiest station. I made the 11.20pm “donko” with a minute to spare. Sue and Caspar were already aboard the late-night slow train with battered blue cars – the one that stops at every halt between Tokyo and the Shinshū highlands, spilling out first sozzled salarymen and then sleep-deprived mountaineers. We braced ourselves across the hard seats for a long and smoke-ridden journey.

29 April: after being spilled out at dawn onto the deserted platform of Shinano Ōmachi, we took the taxi up to Ogisawa. Here we boarded the tunnel bus through to the Tateyama cable car.

By 10am, we were 3,000 metres higher and ¥6,000 poorer. Now we could toss our skis onto the snow, snap our Koflachs into the beaten-up Silvretta 404 bindings and haul ferry-weight packs to our shoulders. Then we shuffled our boards into the uphill track and headed out towards the gap in the caldera rim. Our J-Haute Route was under way.

Purists might object that Japan’s longest high-level ski traverse lacks the grandeur of its European original. And, admittedly, you won’t meet with glaciers or the Matterhorn in the Northern Alps of Shinshū. As if to compensate, the storms here are wilder and the gaps between refuges longer. As for escape routes, they are far and few between.

For now, the skies were blue. Harassed by a lively spring wind, we came up to the breche on Tateyama’s caldera rim. Somewhere in the southward haze lurked Yarigatake’s spear, separated from us by sixty-odd kilometres of high, snowy ridgelines. It was a view that demanded our respect and got it.

The Haute Route was quick to claim its first victims. While stripping off his climbing skins, Caspar let drop a ski that ran away several hundred yards. Minutes later, on this first downhill run, I pitched headfirst into the gloppy snow, smashing my favourite sunglasses. Sue slid sedately downslope; she’d done this before.

The weather closed in as we climbed the opposite slope, buffeting us with knock-down gusts on the ridge above Zaratoge. We found our way through driving billows of grey mist to the Goshikigahara hut, on its tilting plateau of ancient lava.

30 April: J-Haute Routers should, if they can, make a one-day dash from Goshikigahara that vaults them over the giant bulk of Yakushi to Tarōdaira. For that is where the next open hut awaits. For us, though, this was never going to work. Clouds were tumbling low as we left the hut at 5am, and the snow hadn’t frozen.

Labouring through the slop, we tackled the first of three intermediate peaks on our route. Where the ridge narrowed down, we added the skis to our loads, tying them onto the packs in an A-shape, or towing them behind on a lanyard. By mid-morning, we’d had enough. Postholing our way on foot to the top of the third peak, we saw Yakushi’s north ridge swallowed up by the racing clouds; no way forward there.

We’d prepared for this scenario in our planning session. If we had to stop short of the next hut, we’d bivouac – for which purpose we were carrying camping gear as well as shovels and snow-saws for carving out a snowhole. But snowholing didn’t look too attractive under these lowering skies. And the snow was sodden and grey.

At this point, we came up on the hut at Sugo col – still buried to its eaves in snow, of course, and shuttered for the winter. Except, it seemed, for one window that stood open. We heard voices within; a Japanese party was already in residence. I crawled into the narrow gap between roof and snow and made enquiry; yes, there was still plenty of room.

1 May: snow, wind, and rain. We festered in the hut’s dark-timbered gloom, firing up the Epigas stove for an occasional brew. It was good not to be huddling in a dripping snowhole. The wind was warm, suggesting that the weather wasn’t going to improve.

2 May: we followed ski-tracks up the broad ridge to Yakushi’s summit at almost 3,000 metres. But what worked well on the way up betrayed us on the way down. Still in cloud, Caspar short-swung his way elegantly into the wrong gully, following an errant pair of ski-tracks. We discovered their perfidiousness when we met a solo Japanese ski-mountaineer carrying his skis back up the slope.

At this point, I pulled out map and compass, took a bearing, and led the party – including the errant soloist – masterfully into another wrong gully. We’d just realized our mistake when, like a magician sweeping a silk cloth from a table, the clouds parted to reveal the hut. We reached it an hour after everyone else.

In the evening, a member of the local mountain rescue party came to our room to sample our brandy and offer some of his Suntory in return. Somehow the talk turned to the Great Waterfall of Tsurugi, which his team had visited the year before. Unfortunately, the river had swept away one of the party on their return journey.

3 May: setting out at 5.30am, we skinned up Kitanomata, traversed a long hillside, then climbed to 2,840 metres up the steep reverse slope of Kurobegoro. The east side of this mountain encloses a huge scoop, carved by an ancient glacier into a shape like that of Ben Nevis or the Snowdon horseshoe.

We skied down the face of this giant bowl, then contoured round to the valley under a pale blue sky, heading for Mitsumata-renge, our next mountain. As we climbed again, we looked back towards Tateyama: the distant peaks faded into the yellow haze of dust blown in from the Yangtze plains. Soon after we reached the hut at Sugoroku, in mid-afternoon, the clouds closed in again ...