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.”


Kittie Howard said...

I felt a sense of sadness. I know you'll savor the memories in that glass.

TonyG said...

Thanks Project H, I really enjoyed reading this story :)

Iainhw said...

I like the shot of Yari.
As I was reading I was thinking I must visit that bar sometime but sadly won't be able to.
Rereading part 1 I realised you are the only person I know who has taken a bearing in Japan.

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Kittie, Tony, Iain - thanks for reading. Yes, there are memories in that glass, best washed down with a fine malt. As for the bearing (taken on the southern ridge of Yakushi), it proved spectacularly misleading. To this day, I insist that a fox was at work or perhaps an underground lode of magnetic ore. But - blush - perhaps I just followed a reciprocal course or read the compass wrong .... :(

wes said...

gripping account of one of the best traverses in the Kita Alps.

I'm intrigued by Yari hut. I guess in those days the hut was closed even during Golden Week? These days you'll find hundreds of people attempting the spear in early May. Times are a-changing.

Iainhw said...

I was interested in the reference to the Hasegawa ice axe. I too have one of these axes, though not owned by Hasegawa. They are a quality piece of kit, handmade by trained sword maker, Futamura Yoshiichi with bespoke forged steel.

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Iain, thanks for reading - that sounds like an ice axe with a patrican background. I wouldn't be surprised if the metal is very superior. The best pair of crampons I've ever had were made by Kajitax ....