ON THE ROCKS

OCTOBER 2008

#89 – TSURUGI-DAKE

tsurugi-dake (6 of 12)So the story goes that Tsurugi-dake, the magnificent culmination at the north-western tip of the Japanese Alps, was the last of the country’s major peaks to be scaled.  Many had attempted but were turned away no doubt because of the terrain or the weather or a combination of both.  But as similar stories relating to Japan’s high, inaccessible peaks went, the climbing party on Tsurugi, a government survey team, who successfully reached the summit in the summer of 1907, were surprised to find a couple of relics up there scattered amongst the rocks: the head of spear and a priest’s staff.  The mountain mystics, or at least one of those ancient men of cloth, had beaten them to it.

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Walter Weston, on his adventures in the high Japanese mountains at the end of the nineteenth century, led by reluctant hunters into those remote regions would often pop out of the creeping pine on to some remote peak and spot a little weather beaten shrine sitting there.  Fukada-san in his hundred mountain tome regaled stories along similar lines.  Supposed pioneers upstaged by mountain mystics seemed to be a recurring theme in his writings.  Men driven to the hills by forces that outstripped such base needs as personal glory or cartographical conundrums.

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Ever since those early forays into the rugged reaches of the Japanese Alps multitudes have flocked to the mountains and Tsurugi certainly attracts its fair share of modern day devotees.  They come at it from all directions these days.  There’s a forested trail from the north-west, a mountaineer’s course up from the north-east and routes traversing ice clogged valleys snaking out of the Kurobe Gorge.  Most climb from the south and in the summers backlogs of hikers cum climbers jam the trails and chains and ladders up Tsurugi-dake.  I’d heard these stories and deferred my alpine aspirations to the autumn months.

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As darkness began engulfing the world on the day I’d summited Tateyama, I clambered down from my vantage point in the creeping pine above the Tsurugi Gozen Hut in time for dinner to be served.  Tsurugi filled the view north, its spires turning a deep purple as the evening took hold above a plunging valley that empties into Tsurugi sawa, an ice choked ravine plunging down to the mighty Kurobe River via the mountain’s south-eastern reaches.

Having had my fill of mountain fare served up with sweet sake and after a bit of a yarn with my fellow diners, I bid them sweet dreams and retired for the night, lost in a tangle of thoughts of home and mountains.  On paper the following day’s climb was to be the most nerve jangling yet.  That’s what all the books said.  Chains slung across gaping drops, precarious hand and foot holds where one slip meant certain doom, this supposedly wasn’t a climb for the fearful.

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The only way to sort fact from fiction was to get out there and tackle the monster – or be eaten by it.  Up early and breakfasted the next day, I left most of my gear at the hut and walked out into the chilly early morning air.  Skies overhead were clear.  The cloud that had swept in the evening before had swept away again.  Sunlight danced on the thousands of crags that combined to form Tsurugi-dake.  I strode down into the head of the valley and made my way directly for the mountain past swathes of creeping pine and patches of ice that had outlasted the summer heat.

As I walked I tried to spot the trail up into the sharp folds and creases of rock.  Only when I stood virtually at the beginning of the climb proper could I make out the course and after a bit of scrambling across the last hold outs of thick vegetation I found myself at the bottom of a long, vertical, boulder filled cleft, the largest boulder of them all, something the size of a large truck or even a small house, perched way up at the very top in an ominously uncomfortable looking position.  If that thing decided to dislodge itself it was taking everything in its path with it.  At times like these that my mind always liked to remind me I was hiking in the land of earthquakes.  I ran the gauntlet.  Or clambered up it rather, and then scrambled out the moment I found little arrows painted on the rock directing me so.  For me, that was the worst of it – my fate, more or less, put back in my own hands.

tsurugi-dake (4 of 12)tsurugi-dake (7 of 12)I climbed up to Mae-tsurugi, a satellite peak sitting directly before the main peak and traipsed across the chain lined drops and up the ladders and metal bars impaled in rock face.  The hairy bits were few and far between.  I felt I’d been up worse in my time in the mountains of Japan and was left wanting a little more of a thrill as I took the final steps towards the summit.

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Up there the views were unsurpassed.  I could virtually see my entire morning’s climb, and the day before’s too, with Tateyama rising to the south and beyond that the cavalcade of mountains comprising the North Alps ran on forever: Yari and the Hotakas, Norikura and Ontake, even Fuji-san poked its head out of the distant clouds far off to the south.

White fluffy cloud was drifting in from the west and higher cloud smeared itself across the clear blue skies overhead.  I sat in the rocks and enjoyed the views.  I’d had the mountain to myself on the entire climb.  Half an hour or so later some others from the hut arrived and their rambunctious little round headed leader directed them into their positions around the mountaintop shrine for a photograph.  It had been a splendid climb and the half dozen of us up there basked in our feat.

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With the cloud filling in the gaps in the mountains to our west, lapping against the ridgelines and threatening to break their banks and spill down into Tsurugi-sawa, I decided to head back down.

Back at the hut I collected my gear and took a steep path down to Murodo.  Feelings of triumph tempered by my lingering despair.  Closed for the season, I jumped the ropes at Jigoku-dani and strolled the empty walkways snaking through a tumultuous world of steaming sulfur vents, bubbling pools and luridly hued earth.  I’d walked into my own personal Hell.  When I’d be escaping, I had no idea.

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