A SIGN OF THINGS TO COME

OCTOBER 2007

#62 – KASHIMA-YARI-GA-TAKE

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Two long, bloodcurdling hollerings cut through the still of the afternoon.  Dreamy half sleep shattered, I sat straight up.  Someone!  A man!  Adrenalin pumped, mouth dry.  And then a third.  ‘Ooooii!’  Where was it coming from?  From back the way I’d come?  Blue sky wheeled overhead.  I waited for a few seconds.  Nothing.  I took to the chains laced through silver eyes bolted into the rock face and rounded the buttress at the north end of the Kiretto gap.

‘Hellooo!’  I shouted, scouring the scene…nothing.

‘Konnichiwaa!’ …that didn’t work either.

You could plummet off a hundred spots around there and be swallowed by the sawas forever.  I stood on the rocks, spires and crags thrust heavenward around me, half in a daydream, clutching a chain and remaining still, listening for any further sign of life.  Only the breeze dared reply.  Echoes could have bounced off a thousand surfaces.  Could they have even sailed down from the summit of Kashima-yari herself.  The massive twin peaked mountain that soared into the blue yonder somewhere above me to my south?  I climbed back, around and down, to the hut.

The Kiretto Hut sits precariously in a tiny nook along the rugged ridge between Goryu-dake and Kashima-yari-ga-take.  I stood before its shuttered-for-winter facade.  At either end of the building jagged buttresses of rock cut angular lines against blue sky. There was only space here for the hut and the path passing before it.  All was silent, save for the whisper of a breeze and the odd clatter of a stone loosing its purchase on near vertical ground.  I’d been sunning myself on a wooden bench retrieved from the hut’s sheltered entrance way, since arriving in the early afternoon, when those howls had rent the tranquility of the moment asunder.  kashimayari 02

I returned to my half slumber on the bench and soaked up the sun’s warmth, wondering how many more chances for a sunbathe I’d have in the mountains that season.  I relived the fantastic scramble down off Goryu to that point, the clamber over monstrous hulks of rock, perching in nooks and peering into ice filled ravines, their ultimate depths hidden by cloud lapping at the ramparts of the mountains.  At times eagles would effortlessly appear out of the white sea and drift overhead.  I scrambled alone beyond Goryu.  A sole figure cutting a teetering silhouette high in the crags of the Kita Alps.

Had someone else followed in my footsteps that day?  I’ll never know.  I waited, but no one came.

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Later, as clouds massed across the Kurobe at Tsurugi’s shoulders, I cleared another bench and rickety, wooden table from the hut’s entrance, salvaged a sheet of ply from a wood pile and laid it flat on the concrete step.  A handy bit of insulation against cold  concrete.  Overhead, beyond the spires and gargoyles of rock, horse tails sailed before being swept away by the leopard skin patterns of altocumulus.

I laid out the tent on the plywood, slipped inside, flexed and slid the poles into place.  It was a cozy little shelter for the night.  Cloud drifted in over the hut and filled the valley.  The world turned white and all who had ventured out into the mountains that day were swallowed.  Whether scaling the ridges or huddling in tents or around their huts’ oil heaters, they peer out into the silent blanket of nothingness.  Photographers, hunting their last snapshot before sundown, bow their heads.  Stragglers stare through the drifting mists for the next ensign of paint splashed in red and yellow circles on the rock.  Unseen birds twitter in the brushpine.  A solitary stone slides and tumbles.  Nearing the huts, high on the ridges, the stragglers make out the voices of those already home.  Laughter and remarks on the day past, on the sudden chill in the air.  A beer can cracks.  Others respond, ‘Otsukaresama!  Kampaiii.’  The distant rush of ice melt in sawa.

I awoke around midnight – some ungodly hour – warm; wrapped in layers of clothing and sleeping bag.  Feet as toasty as my body.  Wind buffeted the tent, a spattering rattle on the roof accompanied the gusts.

‘Rain,’ my heart sunk.  Alone in a no man’s land, high in the hills.  I dreaded the thought of scaling slippery, wet rock face.  I need to take a leak.  Slipped on my headlamp and squeezed out of the tent and copped a face full of gritty, pebble like snow.

‘Bloody hell,’ I gasped.  The world was coated in white.  From glorious autumn to terrifying winter in a matter of hours.  Getting up Kashima-yari was abruptly one of the  least of my concerns.  Surely it was a sign I’d left things too late.

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A tumultuous sleep ensued and I rose, my spirit and the mountains mired in cloud.  I slowly packed, replaced the benches and table and climbed into the snow spattered rocks.  Up ladders and chains, over thin, metal trestles trussed across gaps, my knuckles became as white as the snow.  But it was wonderful, thrilling, an exhilarating climb that took me up and out of the clouds and onto the frost and ice coated peaks of Kashima-yari.

From there the way on became benign and I strolled through sunlight and cloud to the hut above Ogisawa.  Settling down at a table as the wind blew cold I munched on some chips until an old couple, the only other two hikers there, took pity on the scrawny looking fella who’d showed up and shared their lunch.

I walked back into autumn on the trail down to Ogisawa, the brilliant tones of reds and yellows heralded my triumphant hike from Shirouma-dake and took my mind off things to come.   Autumn was still at its height but on the train ride back to Matsumoto a wintry dread lurked in my heart.

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