Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Sucker hunch

In Japanese river climbing, unusual challenges demand special solutions

Surly and turbid was the mood of the Tamba River, swollen by the June rains. A sneak eddy had already taken down N-san. He bobbed up again, but not his spectacles, alas.

Now, on a gravel shoal ahead, Sawa Control was setting up a belay. “You can do this,” he said, handing me the wet end of the rope. This time, though, he would be wrong.

Flailing my way across the foaming pool was no problem – but, upstream, where the gorge narrowed, the current speeded up. As Mr Micawber might have said, had Charles Dickens been more into river climbing, “Swimming speed, two knots; flow rate, three knots: result, ignominy.”

Climbing round the impasse didn’t appeal; the gorge was sheer. As for hauling oneself upstream, no crack or hold came to hand on those slimy walls of chert. Try as we might, the river kept flushing us back into that foaming pool. Eventually, we had to give up – we’d come back when there was less water.

Back at home, reading a ‘how-to’ book, I realised we’d lacked a vital piece of kit. That’s right; the humble drain unblocker. Slap one onto a hopelessly smooth wall (see right) and you can haul yourself forward against raging torrents of moving water. Indeed, the slimier the rock, the better it sticks.

For really critical passages, you might even consider a brace of them - one in each hand, like ice-climbing tools (only cheaper). But don’t forget to lanyard your unblockers to your belt. In strong currents, as any sawa-naut will tell you, there’s a sucker borne away every minute …


Yoshikawa Eiichi, Sawa nobori: nyumon to gaido, Yama to keikoku, 1990 (black-and-white photo is from this book)

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