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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”