Thursday, July 4, 2013

Haddo Peak - A Long Day

I just posted an old photo of Moraine Lake on my blog ( and it reminded me of a trip some friends and I made to Lake Louise a few years ago. Five of us rented a van and spent a week trundling up and down the icefields parkway, climbing various peaks and frequently turning around before reaching the top. Back in Lake Louise we were sitting around Bill Peyto's Cafe and thinking what we might get up to, and one of us suggested Haddo Peak. It was supposed to be really easy, and we were looking for something fun and relaxing to do, a nice day out in the mountains. The guidebook called it an ideal route for beginners, straightforward, etc. etc. The descent over the far side into Paradise Valley was supposed to be a breeze, and a nice pleasant hike out. Sounded perfect. We started out at dawn from the Lake Louise parking lot and hiked up towards Saddleback pass. Early in the morning we angled up to Fairview Mountain and ended up on the summit just by following the trail. We hadn't really meant to go all the way to the top, so we had to drop down the ridge and cut over into surprise valley. It put us a little behind schedule, but the views were nice. It took a while to pick our way up Surprise Valley to the glacier. From the foot of the glacier it was supposed to be a straight easy climb up. It wasn't, really. The glacier has receded a lot over the years, and sections of it are now very steep. It was bare ice when we climbed it. We only had about four ice screws between four of us, so we picked our way up pretty slowly, my friend Dwight on lead. We anchored off our ice axes and a screw, sending the rest of the gear up on the next lead. We had to pitch it out; under the conditions the route was a bit technical. On the second last pitch we found ourselves on a thin slab of ice with lots of water running underneath. We anchored at the top of the ice sheet by shoving a picket between the rock and the ice. The rock was totally rotten, crumbling to the touch. It would have been nice to leave the ice and get on solid rock, but that broken limestone would have been suicidal. The last pitch was basically vertical ice, and we climbed with classic alpine axes. Fortunately Dwight led it solidly and the rest of us made it with a bit of encouragement. The time had just flown and after ticking off the summit of Haddo Peak we decided against bagging Aberdeen as well, even though it was just over the col a couple hundred meters. We still had to get down! There was a really steep scree slope that dropped off into nothingness below us. Supposedly you can "drop down from almost anywhere along the ridge" but I've since learned that there've been a number of fatal accidents involving people who took that advice. The proper descent is over the back of Aberdeen, further up Paradise Valley. We picked our way down anyhow. It was very slow, meticulous downclimbing. Some of us were more comfortable than others with it. As long as I could see where I was going, I felt okay. Sliding down a scree slope towards a drop off, hoping you can stop if you have to, is a little unnerving though. Fortunately the scree runout funnelled us into a chimney that we could downclimb, and a traverse ended up at some slings... an obvious rappel station. We took the rappell, but our rope didn't reach the bottom. Markus had a short 15 meter piece of rope in his pack, so with that, he extended the rap and we all made it down after passing the knot laboriously. It was well into evening by the time we got past all the downclimbing. Once we got to non technical terrain we still had a lot of descending to do. It just seemed to go on forever, steeply descending the alpine slopes above Paradise Valley. Night fell around us as we plodded down and down with knee-jarring steps. Out in front, I stumbled onto the trail, a line of brownish sand faintly visible against the scrub brush and grass. Now we only had to hike out on the trail, or so we thought. We needed to get back to our van at Lake Louise, and I knew we needed to cut over Saddleback pass to get there. The fork in the trail was a long time coming. After many kilometers of walking in the dark, we found it and cut off towards Lake Louise. The trail climbed up steeply for a long way through densely wooded ravines. We kept going up and up in the dark, getting very thirsty. Our headlamps were dim circles of light that picked up the occasional fallen tree across the trail. I was confident in our position but at some point, everyone else mutinied. We had a group huddle and the consensus was to turn around and go back. The others felt we were just climbing back up into the mountains where we didn't want to go. We'd already climbed up from Paradise Valley for almost two hours, and I was sure we were approaching Saddleback, which would then be a quick hike down to the parking lot at the Lake. But I was voted down, so we all turned around. At that point it all turned into a death march. We were truly shagged, dehydrated, wobbling around on sore legs and feeling miserable. All of us went into survival mode and stumbled on in silence. We stuck together though... there were warning signs for grizzly bears all over the place. Hours later we found ourselves at the Paradise Valley trailhead along the Moraine Lake road, where we laid down for a while. Then we took to the road and walked four abreast straight down the middle of it, into the night. I thought I recalled this road being 13km long. Getting to Lake Louise along this road would take forever. There was nothing to do but keep walking. Behind us the lights of a vehicle approached. It was almost 3AM, and the sound startled us. We turned around and waved like crazy people. A pickup truck pulled up, some dude on his way back from closing time at the bar. He quickly offered us a lift back to the Lake. We piled in the back and all I remember is the drone of the tires and the gentle sway of the truck, looking up at the night sky as we slipped down the smooth pavement of that winding road under a blanket of stars.


In the winter of 1994, I set off with three strangers for the snow-bound peaks of Yatsugatake. To climb Aka-dake in winter was a real mountaineering objective, and I wanted experience on real alpine routes. My Japanese climbing partner, Kitoh-san, had worked it out for me to get a ride with an acquaintance of his, and so long as I was self-sufficient and not too much trouble I could tag along for the climb. These three guys were old friends. Climbing Aka-dake together was a bonding event for them, and I was very much the outsider. I couldn't speak the language very well, I had no idea who these guys were, and I was about 20 years younger then they were. They made a few awkward attempts at talking to me, but as we trundled down the highway under the glow of the magnesium lights, they fell to conversing amongst themselves and ignored me. It was just a bit too cool to drift off to sleep, so I stayed awake as our driver navigated the dark mountain roads and pressed on into the night. At last we came to a place where we couldn't drive any further. The snow was deep, and more than once I thought we might have gotten stuck, but eventually we made it to a widening in the road and a gated track where we parked. I shivered in the black cold and nervously tried to get ready quickly, putting on all my layers of warm clothes and gore-tex, mits, hat, boots, gators... and making sure I'd put everything in my pack and secured it well. We didn't hang around. The three guys set off almost immediately along the snow-choked trail. The driver, who was Kitoh-san's friend, was kind enough to explain to me that we had some walking to do before we camped. I said I understood and followed. After several kilometers of difficult walking, we arrived at the base of Yatsu-ga-take in the dead of night. A sliver of moon had thankfully appeared and shed just enough light on the snowy terrace to show a few other tents nestled into the deep powder. A muffled silence hung over everything. I followed suit and stamped out a level platform for my tent, then set it up as quickly as possible, trying to keep moving for warmth. A few minutes later I was inside, with my headlamp hanging from the ridgepole, casting a dim circle of light over my stove and aluminum pot. I tried to bring the icy water to a boil. For dinner, I'd brought instant noodles, the best no-nonsense quick-fix meal a bachelor with no cooking talent could think of. I finally did get a boiling hot pot of ramen, but the inside of my tent was getting a bit clammy. I leaned forward to zip open the fly and as I did so, I upset the pot and stove. I'm lucky I didn't set my whole tent on fire, but I made a mess in the tent, soaked my wool socks and scalded my feet. After cleaning things up, what remained of my ramen was cold. I choked it down with a gulp of icy water and a granola bar. There were two little holes in the floor of my tent where the hot burner of the stove had made contact. There was nothing to do but try to sleep, so I crawled into my sleeping bag. It was very cold. We were camping out in the middle of a deep freeze. I could hear my three companions in their big dome-tent a few yards away from me. I could hear them talking through the walls of my tent... the thin nylon walls that were not keeping out any of the bitter cold. From their conversation I could tell what they were having for supper. They passed around beers. They had rice cakes. They had thin-sliced bbq beef. They had potatoes. After a while they opened a bottle of sake. There were three of them in that tent having a great time, and I lay there in the dark listening to the feast going on, getting colder and colder. I woke up suddenly and realized I was really cold. Things in the next tent over were quiet now. My sleeping bag just was not warming up, and in spite of two layers of fleece, heavy socks, and a hat, my -12C sack was not adequate for the plummeting temperature. I started to work out contingencies. First, I would plan on staying awake and doing half-sit-ups and massaging my feet to stay warm. If that failed I might be able to get some warmth by lighting my stove... if I could avoid asphyxiating myself. If things got truly out of control I would have to plow over to the other tent and disrupt the blissful slumber of my boozy pals and tell them I was about to die so please move over and let me get in. None of these scenarios was very comforting. I was shivering, and really seriously wondering if the situation was about to become an emergency. A soft thump sounded outside my tent door. "Darren! Are you awake?" "Y-y-ess-s-s-s", I said. "Are you cold?" "It's *&^% cold", I said. "Do you have any heat packs?" I replied that I did. In Japan, in the winter, every corner store has boxes and boxes full of these little hand-warmers; paper-like envelopes with a sandy mixture that, when shaken up, gives off warmth for nearly an hour. It doesn't really get that cold in most of Japan, but everybody goes around with their pockets full of these heat packs in winter in Japan. "Put one down the back of your pants!" said the voice. "Put one under your hat, and put one in your socks." "Okay", I said, "Thanks, I'll do it." There was another soft thump, and a slow z-z-z-zip as the guy got back in his tent. In my sad condition, freezing and alone in my tiny tent with a belly full of cold ramen, I had started to take a pretty dim view of the three Japanese. I was pretty sure if they got up in the morning and found that I had turned into a big round-eyed popsicle they would just carry on right up the mountain and back down to their SUV without ever a second thought. I quietly cursed them as I shook up the only three heat-packs I had and shoved one under my hat, one in my left sock, and one between my frozen butt-cheeks. Amazingly, within about 5 minutes I was as snug and toasty warm as you can imagine. My body responded to the encouragement of a little outside help and began to kick off some serious heat of its own. My sleeping bag finally warmed up and with a soft envelope of relative heat surrounding me, I drifted off to sleep like a baby. I slept deeply, in complete comfort, until the early morning light seeped through the ochre walls of my Moss tent and the sound of climbing gear getting sorted jolted me into action. For breakfast, I didn't have a lot, just a couple of oranges. Overnight, they had frozen as hard and solid as little golf balls. The neck of my water bottle was clogged with ice, too, and I had to pick at it with my ice axe to get a few frigid sips. Not wanting to fall behind, I wolfed down my last granola bar and dug through my pack for my crampons, harness, and helmet. This is what I had come to Yatsugatake for. Packs hoisted, ice axes in hand, we looked up at Aka-dake and started to climb.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Southern Appalachians, North Carolina, USA

Toyohashi Alpine Club
Southern Appalachians
North Carolina, USA
Tuesday 25th - Thursday 27th September, 1996
Report by: Iain Williams

Like so many good trips this one quickly came out of the blue.  The purpose of my visit to the US was to catch up with John, who I taught with in Toyohashi plus climbed Fuji with, and to run a 10km road race. My knowledge of North American mountains is not what it should be and my knowledge of the Appalachians prior to my visit was non-existent.

Whilst staying with John in Atlanta we formulated a plan to do a couple of the nearest peaks. We set off from Atlanta on a warm humid Tuesday lunchtime. Our first port of call was Tallulah Gorge in NE Georgia at the southern end of the Appalachians. The drive up there was very pleasant even though we were on the wrong side of the road. Before heading down into the gorge we registered ourselves in the local visitor's centre. We were told that the descent was about 700ft and steeper than 45'. It was then a short drive back to a small well hidden car park. After moaning about the car park we commenced our descent. It was very steep and very rocky. Shoes with good grip were definitely the order of the day.

Once at the bottom we found ourselves beside a rocky pool surrounded by the gorges near vertical walls. There was a 20m rock slide leading into the pool. A man was swimming around while his partner watched. Within minutes we were in the water eyeing the rock slide. Before long and after consultation with the other bloke we were on the slippy rock sliding into the water below. Excellent fun. After getting dressed we walked down the gorge for a short distance and saw some fine high granite walls that swept down to us. They were very impressive but were weeping too much for rock climbing. Finding pro would have been testing. We walked on a little further on a sandy track through some small trees. John remarked that he wasn't keen to meet any snakes. Walking behind him I immediately spotted a perfectly shaped, dead, black, leafless branch and quickly threw it down beside where he was walking. It had the desired effect. John sprung to the right in horror while I laughed at the expression on his face. I learnt this little piece of knavishness from Wyane Daly who did the same to me on Ishimaki just after we really had seen a snake.

Climbing back out of the gorge was a real sweat producing exercise and I was glad it wasn't any longer than 700ft, John even more so.  Back in the car we drove on up to a paper mill town called Canton for dinner at the local Pizza Hut. After the pizza we crossed the car park to a MacD's for an ice cream. Standing in the queue we were behind a mother with her two young kids. John whispered to me that the kids had real redneck accents which amused me. The mother also heard John and wasn't so amused and gave him a dirty stare.  Unfortunately she never threw a cheeseburger at him.

The plan for the next day was to do Grandfather Mountain (1818m) which was about 2 hours NE of where we were. Our guidebook described it as strenuous and dangerous with not too much of an elevation gain. It sounded good although the name didn't do much in the way o striking fear into our hearts. That morning we stopped for breakfast just outside Asheville in a Waffle House before heading up through the mountains.

Again the drive was very scenic and in many ways it reminded me of Japan, although I don't think this impressed John. The mountains were of a similar height and were covered in thick forest, all be it, of a more deciduous variety. We drove high on to the mountain whereupon we came to the gates and forked out $9 each entrance fee. Ouch! The mountain was on private land. It was then up to the top car park where we parked and got ready.

The weather didn't look too great. There was a lot of cloud around and rain was forecast for later in the day. This didn't have the usual effect on me. It was great to be where I was. We headed off into the forested mountainside in search of our summit. We passed a few people of the pure tourist variety and then the track started to descend. In front of us we could see the first of the summits that we were to encounter. The climb up to it didn't look too tough and before not too long we found ourselves sweating and steadily ascending. In the guidebook we were warned of rock pitches on ladders and dangerous ground. As we hiked up we met a man who had turned back after encountering the ladders. He didn't like them and had decided to plump for the easier route. This sounded interesting. We arrived at the ladders and moved up without any problems. If they hadn't been there it would have been an easy rock climb. Once on flat ground we found ourselves standing below a rocky tor with a ladder tied to the side of it. We climbed on to the top and took a few photos. We were standing atop of Macrea Peak (1810m).

The mountain was made up of several peaks. We had to climb three of them with the third one being the highest. Leaving Macrea we marched on and down towards the next one. We were on a ridge and in amongst cloud which did nothing to enhance the impressive surroundings. Nevertheless I was enjoying it. I'm sure I could also feel some effect from the altitude, I'm surprised to say. Not being very high I wasn't too happy with how I felt. As we approached th next peak we climbed up some more ladders and we then entered what was called the chute, a steep rocky gully. At the top of the chute we found ourselves on top of Attic Window Peak (1813m) where there was a couple sitting down. The bloke was clearly a mountain man, out to try and impress his woman. I found it quite amusing listening to him. We were also a bit on the tired side so took a 5 minute chocolate and water break.

As we set off John was looking a bit worn out and the thought of descending and ascending again wasn't a pleasant one for him. As we scrambled down we went off track and followed a sign post to an old Indian cave. The outside was a huge ceiling. If we'd had headtorches it would have been interesting to have a look in the small interior. Leaving the cave we made out way along the ridge which was now flatter and friendlier and headed up to Calloway Peak (1818m). As we both hiked up through the trees I think we were both thinking I hope its not too far. It wasn't, and we were soon on a large flat top in amongst bushes, small trees and long grass. In trying to find the top we were not the proud recipients of the "22B Baker St Award" for summit finding. After about 5 minutes of careful thought, consulting the map and realising that the track descended in both directions we arrived at the conclusion that we were actually on top of Grandfather Mountain (1818m). Worn out after straining our powers of deduction we took a break and some photos before heading back.

The trek back to the car park was pretty much the same and we moved at a leisurely pace. It never rained on us but it came very close. Climbing down all the ladders was done with ease and about 2 hours later we were back at the car park. Next to the car park was the "mile high" swinging bridge. We had a look around before jumping into the car and driving back down the steep wiggly waggly road which Forrest Gump ran up in the movie. The cloud still blocked out any good views.

Our next plan was to drive down to Mt. Mitchell, the highest mountain on the east side of the US. Our route took us down the Blue Ridge Parkway, a very scenic route on a beautifully smooth road that was devoid of any commercial traffic. The views from the road were extremely picturesque and I was very impressed. About an hour later we were driving up Mt. Mitchell and back into the cloud. The road terminated in a large car park, surrounded by some rather poor looking trees. The trees on the upper slopes of the mountain have allegedly died from air pollution. It did seem strange to us that only these trees had been affected and none lower down or on the adjacent mountains. Mt. Mitchell was my kind of mountain though. From the car it was a 200m walk up to the top (2037m). After effortlessly conquering it we did the usual photo shoot and headed back down to the car with hungry rumbling stomachs. Our mission was now to head into Asheville for a feast and to find a motel. This we did and had a well earnt meal in an Olive Garden followed by a swim, video and a good night's sleep in the Holiday Inn.

I started the next day with a swim which was followed by a longish drive south to Whiteside Mountain (1503m). Again the drive was very scenic and enjoyable. The guidebook said Whiteside was easy and would take only a couple of hours. It was also a popular rock climbing destination and its name came from the white granite cliffs that surrounded it. In the car park the weather didn't look at all promising. Our route was a loop basically going around the top of the mountain, taking in the high point, through damp woodland. Because of cloud, views were nonexistent. It wasn't a climb, we walked and talked about war and never realised when we passed over the highest point. Most of the route ws in the trees with one exposed section where the wind was rather strong. On that stretch we managed to see the upper sections of one of the cliffs. Unfortunately that was all we saw in the way of views. We were back at the car before we knew it and driving south towards Atlanta.

The other memorable excursions on the trip happened on the first weekend. The Saturday afternoon after the race we drove out to Stone Mountain with my father. Stone Mountain is supposedly the largest outcrop of granite in North America and in my opinion was not unlike Ayres Rock. The three of us hiked up to the top, had a coke, sat on a slope and watched some small looking golfers playing some interesting water holes well below. As impressive as the rock was I didn't spot any interesting routes for climbing. It was an interesting place though, one side of the rock had a huge engraving of three Civil War generals (sorry John but I can't remember all their names).

The following morning we were up at 5:30, which must have been hell for John as it was his second early morning in a row but was no problem for me as my body was on English time. We drove north just into Tennessee. It was an interesting drive for me. Once it got light it was very misty and rural. It felt like a damp misty morning in England. The nearer we got to our destination the hillier it got. John's plan was to take me white water rafting and it was a damn good one. Stopping at the first rafting establishment we got in with a group for a cheap $25 each. A bus took us up a road that ran beside the river. We were slightly downstream from where the Olympic kayaking events had taken place a few months earlier. The valley was full of trees and the early morning mist was still clinging to them. The drive of the bus, John whispered to me had a strong redneck accent, again it was very amusing to listen to. Once off the bus we carried our blue inflatable down to the water with three others plus guide, received a few dos and don'ts and set off. Going down through the rapids and bubbling water between the large rounded boulders was excellent fun. The slowly lifting mist and steep tree clad valley sides also added to the experience. We also had a long drift down a calm stretch where I jumped in and floated down. It was very relaxing. The sun by then had started to break through, clearing the mist and giving us blue sky patches and a little extra warmth. Back on board we went down through some more white water and ended up getting thrown out which came as a real surprise as the rapids there were small and we'd been through much bigger drops. We swam to the side and regrouped and set off again on the prowl for John's paddle which he had so carelessly and thoughtlessly lost. As we neared the end I was feeling quite cold and when we finally got back to the car it was nice to put some dry clothes back on. It had been great fun and a totally unexpected pleasure. We spent the rest of the day driving around the mountain roads of NE Georgia.

All in all my experiences in and around Georgia were excellent. John made some first class suggestions as to what we should do. I just hope that when he gets to the UK I can better him as a host and guide. It's good to know that the Southern USA branch of the Toyohashi Alpine Club is in good hands.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Midi - Plan Traverse

Toyohashi Alpine Club
Mountaineering in Europe
Midi - Plan Traverse (3673m)
19th August, 2000
Party: Iain Williams, Adrian Engelbrecht , Jack Brindle
Report by Iain Williams

This was our third climb of the week and it turned out to be a lot of fun. Earlier in the week we had met Jack, on his own, on the Aiguille du Tour and had enjoyed several lazy lunches with him over the following days. He had climbed and skied extensively in the area and was an interesting source of info. We though it would be good to do a route together so over another lazy lunch we made plans to meet up at the telepherique station the following morning in time to get the first cable car up to the Aiguille du Midi. 

Adrian and myself managed to get ourselves up and out of the campsite on time. The weather for the day was forecast to be ok for the morning with storms in the afternoon. Our plan was to traverse from the Aiguille du Midi across to the Aiguille du Plan and then return on the same route being back down in Chamonix in the middle of the afternoon enjoying a beer or two. We met Jack, bought our tickets and then waited, with a ton of other climbers, eating breakfast of oranges, muesli bars and chocolate. 

The ride up was the usual squash and once at the top we went in search of loos and then got kitted up in the cold damp rocky tunnels of the Midi station complex. Outside the wind was blowing coldly and strongly. I put on plenty of clothing and felt a bit apprehensive. By the time we got going for real it was about 7:15. We plodded out of the tunnel entrance onto the snow. There were many parties heading out and down the ridge, some going our way and some heading down the ridge and breaking off to the right. The initial descent was pretty steep but the snow was good and the steps large. On our left the ridge fell away steeply down to Chamonix. Our route soon flattened off and we plodded along with Jack at the front and myself at the rear. The route rose and fell keeping to the snowy crest of the ridge. At times we had the odd awkward step down to contend with but generally it was easy going. We then started a steep descent down onto the Col du Plan. 

From here the route got more interesting. We left the ridge and skirted off to the left onto a dirty steep snow face. After going a short distance, Jack gave the order to turn around. He was having problems with one of his crampons and wasn't too keen on reversing the section later in the day. Back on the col he said he'd leave us and head back to the Midi station. We then went back onto the steep ground with Adrian in the lead. We front pointed our way round and below some crumbly rock. Above us was an English youth anchored to the rock. We waited for him to move on. Time ticked away so Adrian put in a screw while we waited. Eventually we gave up waiting and climbed up to the rock and carefully traversed along it before front pointing back up on to the ridge. It was a good section despite the dithering English youths. We left the screw in place with the intention of using and collecting it on our return. 

We continued along the snowy ridge for a short distance before descending onto another col. It was then a scramble up some loose rocky terrain to regain more snowy ridge. We then came to a cliff section. As we only had one rope we needed two abseils to get down. I decided to leave my crampons on and on the first ab slipped sideways banging my bare elbow on the warm brown granite. A nice bloody gash appeared, not liking the sight of blood I successfully did my best to block it out of my mind. The second ab deposited us onto a steep snow slope, which really didn't feel too secure. We got ourselves roped up and then carefully headed across the steep slope. After a few steps Adrian stopped briefly. There was then a loud soft thud behind me. My immediate thought was someone had fallen but on turning around I saw a large flat rock tumbling quickly down the slope taking plenty of soft snow with it. Looking up at the cliff, we thought where the hell did that come from. It had fallen a long way out from the secure looking cliff above. We didn't dwell on our close call and moved carefully and swiftly across the slope, thinking that at any moment it might avalanche. Thoughts of returning were not filling me with joy. 

I felt some relief once we got back on the crest of the ridge. The rocky summit was now very close. We slowly plodded up to the base of the rock. We met another party of four who had just abseiled down and had caught their rope whilst pulling it down. We had a quick search for the easiest line up and then Adrian took the lead and shot up. The climbing was easy and fun. The next pitch I took the lead and stopped just below the summit to avoid rope drag. Adrian finished the last 10ft off with an elegant mantle move and we were then on the small flat rocky summit. As usual the views were awesome. We had the usual photo shoot and then took a good break and discussed how to return. We decided the snow was now too soft to safely return the way we'd come and that the safest option was to descend the steep crevasse ridden Envers du Plan glacier down to the Requin hut, plod along and down the Mer de Glace and then take the train from Montenvers back down to Chamonix. As we sat there some small birds joined us. They had their heads back, beaks open and were calling out for food. I found the situation a little unsettling. 

We sorted the rope and abed off. Not learning from the party we saw earlier, we also got our rope jammed as we pulled it down. Adrian did a nifty little climb to retrieve it.
At the top of the steep snow slope, on the Col Sup du Plan, the adrenaline started flowing. I set off in front, at first facing out, and then opted to face in kicking good steps as we slowly descended. As we neared the bottom we came to a steep rimaye with snow covered crevasse below. Foolishly I tried to front point down it and swung my ax in to the soft snow for some support. Not surprisingly the head just slipped through the snow and I fell a couple of feet before Adrian held me on the rope. He then slowly lowered me on to the snow bridge where my left leg instantly sank up to my groin. Panicking like mad I tried to scramble out and off the snow bridge. It was hard work but eventually I got out and slumped down onto more solid snow breathing heavily with my heart thumping. I then belayed Adrian down and across while he made short and easy work of the obstacle. We took a short break. As we sat there soft slushy snow was pouring down the slope across to our right. 

We quickly got going and enjoyed some flat terrain before the glacier started to drop steeply down. Our route took as around some huge gaping crevasses, often on steep narrow bridges around and across them. At times we had to descend steeply between large yawning drops. I found the descent mentally taxing and was happy to get out of the thick of the crevasses and onto easier terrain. As we neared the hut cloud was rolling in and rain was looking very likely. It had taken us 2 hrs to get down. We took our packs off and sorted out the rope and our gear. The guardian came out to us to find out where we'd come from. We downed a couple of cokes while the guardian explained how we should descend the Mer de Glace to return to Montenvers. We had an hour and half to get down if we were to catch the last train. 

We set off at pace in some light drizzle and descended down onto the large flat dry glacier. We took a line heading down and across to the right. This was what I thought the guardian had instructed. After skirting round a heavily crevassed section we found ourselves on the rubbley moraine on the wrong side. It soon became apparent we were way off course. We slowly plodded up and down the moraine trying to find evidence of a track, occasionally spotting the odd cairn. It was miserable hard work, we were both tired and the chances of making the train were quickly disappearing. Eventually we left the rubble and headed back on to the glacier. We crossed some fast flowing streams, falling in to one would have been curtains, and carried on heading down and across. Adrian slowly pulled away from me. I felt totally beat. We had missed the last train and I really didn't want to hike all the way back down to Chamonix. A few times I stopped and bent down to drink from small pools on the glacier. The water was beautifully refreshing and chilled. As we neared the end of the glacier we found route markers. It was then a steep climb up some metal ladders onto a well worn track above. 

The hike back down to Chamonix took about an hour and a half. It was quite pleasant being back in the trees and off the snow. I regretted not filling my water bottle whilst on the glacier. As we neared Chamonix it was nearly dark. Once back on the tarmac roads we headed for the station and stopped at a cafe for a couple of cans of cold coke. They tasted great. It was then a quick march back to the campsite before the shower room closed at 9:30. It had been a long day, we had climbed only a few hundred metres but descended close on 3000m and covered about 17km. It was also the first peak I had climbed where my start point was higher than the summit. After a clean a shower and a change of clothes we headed back into town for a mighty feed but when the food arrived we discovered we really didn't have an appetite and only managed to force down a plate of pasta. All in all it was a fine day on a route that seemed to have a bit of everything.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Hotaka-dake (3095m), Kita Alps, Japan

Toyohashi Alpine Club - Mountaineering in Japan
Mt Hodaka, Kita Alps, Japan
Report by Darren DeRidder
July 1993

My first experience in the mountains of Japan was in the North (or "Kita") Alps, on Mount Hotaka. It is several years ago now that I first went to Kamikochi and wandered up into the valleys, into alpine cirques and across the airy ridges. But I still remember quite clearly what an impression it made on me, and I think it's fair to say that the experience had a real impact on the future course of my outdoor life. Since that time I have been to many places around the world for the love of being high up in the mountains, but the Japan Alps were where I really started getting serious about climbing big mountains, starting with Mount Hotaka.

I had been quite active in rock climbing in Japan for several months and that is primarily the reason why I became interested in the Japan Alps. My friend told me that they were very beautiful and that many people visited the Japan Alps to go hiking and climbing during the summer. Speaking to some of my Japanese climbing partners about the alps, I was told that they were in fact very beautiful and that a trip to the alps would be well worth-while. Whether or not I could actually do any rock-climbing there was unclear, but simply to hike in the mountains was a very attractive prospect. And, I was told, it was definitely possible to climb right to the very top of some significant summits as trails had been prepared all along the way.

Normally I would be the type of person to shun the use of trails when climbing to the summit of a mountain, especially a trail that had fixed chains and ladders on the difficult sections. It seems to me to be a violation of the natural state of such a place. It also encourages people who lack the right skills and experience to go into potentially dangerous mountain terrain. The number of accidents that occur in the Japan Alps during high season is alarming.

In any case, the plans were laid, the reservations made at the mountain huts. I bought maps and charted a course which allowed us an extra day just in case we were held up for some reason. And at the start of Golden Week holidays, we got on an overnight bus and rode up to Kamikochi.  Didn't sleep much on the bus, the seats being small and the road being roundabout. Almost everyone on the bus appeared to be going hiking. Backpacks were crammed in the carriage underneath and in the overhead bins. Everyone was wearing outdoor clothing: knickers, wool socks, caps, leather boots, and so on. People seemed to be a little excited or tense, like this was the start of a big adventure. We rolled into Kamikochi early in the morning, unloaded our things, and stood there wondering where we were and what there was to do.

Kamikochi is probably the main mountaineering base in Japan. It is a very commercialized, tourist-oriented little town with hostels, gift shops, and a big bus terminal. The Azusa river flows right past the town and a scenic footbridge crosses the river. The trail up the Azusa valley and the higher peaks follows alongside the river upstream. Early in the morning, nothing much was happening. The shops were closed and it was quite cool outside. We used the restrooms, filled up our canteens with water from a fountain, then shouldered our backpacks and walked along the trail. We would be staying at a minshuku (Japanese guesthouse) a few kilometers past Kamikochi on the first day.

Day one was thus spent walking to the minshuku, checking in, and then doing some easy hiking on the mostly level trails back towards Kamikochi, stopping at Taisho-Ike and other viewpoints along the way. Taisho Ike is a pond which was formed recently when a small man-made dam was placed across the riverbed. Dead trees which were flooded by the rising waters stick up out of the shallow pond. In the early morning mist this is a mysterious looking place. The Japanese see this as a very romantic place. Personally, what I saw looked like a man-made pond with a bunch of dead trees sticking up out of it, but the pictures I've seen of Taisho Ike in early morning mist are indeed lovely.

It was on the way back to the Minshuku that my friend asked me about my walking style. "Do you put your heel down first or your toe down first?" she asked. Apparently she had been hiking all day by putting her toe down first. When she switched to putting her heel down first it made a great difference. Apparently many Japanese women actually walk this way. It might be because they are used to wearing high heels or because Japanese people have worn "geta" (wooden shoes) for centuries. With our walking technique sorted out we continued back to the Minshuki, going pretty slowly. I started wondering wether we would actually see the top of Mt. Hotaka.

The second day was spent going up from the Azusa valley into Karasawa, a cwm on the South-East side of the Hotaka massif. It is more than halfway between Kamikochi and the summit in both elevation and distance, and is quite a hike. At Karasawa there is a large camping area and two huts which accomodate hikers from Spring thru Autumn. At times the trail was rather muddy and narrow, and we found ourselves stuck behing long queues of slow-moving hikers. If nothing else, they helped us not to push our pace too quickly. My friend suddenly decided, however, that further progress was impossible until a full lunch had been served.  My lunch plan of granola bars, dried fruit and gorp didn't cut it, apparently, so we ground to a halt and an argument ensued.  Fortunately, a kindly "Ojisan" (older man) came walking by and struck up a conversation.  The granola bars probably kicked in at that point and my friend was able to be coaxed into accompanying the older gentleman along the last few kilometers of steeply climbing trail.  I had no experience with people suffering from low blood sugar and couldn't really understand the reason for the delay.  Nearing Karasawa the path steepened and became a chore to ascend. I took both packs and went ahead to the hut to check in. We had made it in reasonable time and enjoyed the rest of the evening quite a lot, having a nice meal at the hut and visiting with other friendly hikers from all over, including one fellow from Alaska with a huge pair of boots and a collection of hiking yarns to match.

The campsite at Karasawa was amazing. Being Golden Week, there were an incredible number of people out for hiking in the North Alps. Karasawa and the summit of Hotaka must certainly be one of the most popular mountain areas in Japan. There were hundreds of tents pitched on the rocky ground, all different colors. The whole valley was very colorful because of all the tents. Higher up there is a permanent snow-field and some people were actually skiing down or hiking across it.

The hut was even more of a shock. We were shown into a room and assigned a spot to sleep on the floor. Futons had been laid out, but there must have been three or four people crammed into the space of a single tatami mat. All you could do was to lay sideways, squished between two other people. It was really impossible to sleep.

The next day it was raining. Most of the people left to go back down. Few people came up from below because of the weather. The hut emptied out. Because I had planned an extra day, we decided to pass the day in the hut and take our chances the following day in climbing Mt. Hotaka. It was quite nice to sit in the hut and chat with the few other hikers who remained. Several of them had a lot of experience and interesting stories to relate. We went outside to hike up the trail a short ways and get some fresh air when the rain stopped for a short time. Again we had a good dinner in the hut and because there were far fewer guests in the hut that night, we had a small side room which we shared with only a couple other hikers, and we were able to sleep well.

I awoke early in the morning, just before dawn, as is usual in the mountains. Faint light was creeping in, and in the quite hut I could hear the masses of air circulating in the valley outside, somewhat like the sound a seashell makes when you hold it to your ear. Soon the lights went on and everyone got up for breakfast. Although there was mist rising up into the cwm and visibility was poor, we decided to climb up, together with the kindly "ojisan" we had met before. Allowing him to set the pace, I found, was a very effective way of keeping the friend from complaining about the hike. As a trio we made our way up the switchbacking trail to the summit ridge, following a line of other hikers. Near the summit block a steep section was besieged with fixed iron ladders and chains. A fellow with straw sandals and a big straw hat, who must have been pretending to be a Yamabushi (mountain monk), swarmed past us as we climbed the ladder, creating a bit of a fright and causing me to curse the general assembly of hikers for their generally insensitive behavior.

All along the way the path had been strewn with garbage left by hikers. A lot of the older Japanese women on the trail would move very slowly and talk very loudly. The crowds and the noise ruined the serenity of such a beautiful place, unfortunately.  In general I wasn't too impressed by the majority of hikers on the trail, although the ones who were friendly enough to speak to me were quite well mannered and seemed to care about keeping the environment free of trash. I decided that on the descent I would pick up litter along the way and collect it in a plastic bag.

Just after the steep section with the ladders, we arrived at the summit. It was a great feeling to be standing at over 3000 metres on top of one of Japan's highest mountains. As we climbed the weather had improved dramatically so that on the summit we were surrounded by impressive views all around under a clear, deep blue sky. At the summit we asked someone to take a picture of the three of us standing by the summit cairn and holding the signboard which says Oku-Hotaka-Dake and the elevation of the peak.

The mountain is called Hotaka or Hodaka, depending on the context, and this particular peak, the highest point of the Hotaka massif, is called Oku-Hotaka-Dake, meaning "Far Hotaka Peak" I think. There are other peaks along the ridge bearing the name "Hotaka" or "Hodaka" as well. The next point of interest along our route was "Mai-Hotaka-Dake" or "Front Hotaka Peak". Somewhat lower in elevation, it is situated to the south of it's higher neighbor. The trail from this point forward was mostly downhill, so the going was easier. There were only a few sections where the trail crossed steep rocky slopes, and these were passed by careful down-climbing or with the help of fixed chains to use as handholds.

Although the trial itself did not pass over the summit of Mai-Hotaka-Dake, it was not a long way to the summit and so laying our packs down, the Ojisan and I sprinted up to the summit just for the fun of it. The climbing was a bit more technical and crossed some rather steep rock, at which point I was glad to have some rock climbing experience. Although it was never difficult, it could have been a little frightening in one or two spots for an inexperienced scrambler. The detour didn't take long at all and we were rewarded with good views, warm sunshine and a good summit photo at the top.

Back on the trail again we proceeded at our own paces to Dakesawa, where there is another hut. It was  quiet and not too crowded, as it seemed many people were descending all the way to Kamikochi. We had hiked enough for one day however and retired into the hut to enjoy a good meal. It had begun to rain lightly so we were also glad for the shelter, even though it was rather cool inside.  Very few Japanese buildings have central heating, and a damp chill is an ever present feature of most houses throughout the cooler months.  The building was an interesting structure with many traditional Japanese features, and I would have been quite interested in poking around in all the rooms and corners, but I stayed in the main areas so as not to disturb people.

The following day we returned to Kamikochi. There were very few other people on the trail, and since our Ojisan friend had continued on to Kamikochi the previous night, we hiked as a two-some back down the path towards our original starting point. The trail down from Dakesawa was steep and less used that the trail to Karasawa, but it was not hard to follow. We arrived back at the minshuku near Kamikochi by late afternoon and thoroughly enjoyed a nice hot bath and a good dinner before a good nights rest in our own bunk beds. The following morning we walked the short distance back to Kamikochi along the wide flat trail and met our bus back to Nagoya.

For the most part, the trip had been quite enjoyable and successful. I was intrigued by the North Alps and the many different peaks I had glimpsed. Having been there once I was now determined to return and climb Yari-ga-take, a peak at the far end of the Yare-Hotaka massif which is the third highest mountain in Japan and which is known for its pyramid-shaped summit block. It is sometime referred to as the "Matterhorn of Japan" because of the pyramid-shaped summit block, but in fact the steep summit block is quite small in comparison to the rest of the mountain, which is mostly a long hike up a steep valley to the crest of a ridge. I did indeed return to Kamikochi soon afterwards, but that is another story.

Since climbing Hotaka I have climbed many of the other high mountains of the North, Central, and South ranges of the Japan Alps. Yet for quite some time, Mount Hodaka in the North Alps remained the standard to which I compared the other mountain adventures I have undertaken there. It was certainly one of the most beautiful settings that I had the priveledge to visit in Japan.

(photo by jlhopes)

Kita-dake (3192m), Toyama, Japan

Toyohashi Alpine Club - Mountaineering in Japan
Kita-dake, Toyama Prefecture
Report by Darren DeRidder
Party: solo climb
October, 1993

The wind was cold. It blew up from behind me, from down in the gully below, and curled up around inside my collar. Even with my fleece and gore-tex on, it was cold climbing in the shadow of the ridge. The chunk-chunk sound of my footsteps broke the silence as I slowly and laboriously raised one cramponed boot after the other and kicked into the ice and frozen snow. My mountaineering ax scratched against the stones as I poked it down into the snow, and the forged steel adz and pick felt like a block of ice in my wool-gloved hand. "Don't stop!", I told myself, "Just keep going, even if its slow." So I kept on, one foot in front of the other, barely moving forward it seemed.

A person came down from above, moving quickly over the snow and ice. Probably one of the staff of the mountain hut over the ridge. I was surprised to see another person here. This gully was more direct than the trail which cut across the base of the buttress, but it was also too late in the season to be free of ice, hence the crampons and ice pick. I'd been walking alone like this for the last couple of hours. "Well, at least I must be going in the right direction," I thought.

The plan was to get up this gully and onto the ridge, then skirt the summit block of Kita-dake and head for the hut on the opposite shoulder of the mountain, then climb up and over the top in the morning. This had been suggested to me by a couple I met beside the stream down lower, where I stopped for a rest. I agreed; the route up the gully was quicker and it was the one I had originally planned on using, but to try for the summit yet today and then make it down to the hut on the eastern side would be cutting it too close. I had left work the night before, outfitted in my climbing gear, carrying my backpack, with my bemused coworkers looking on. I left my shirt and tie and shoes in a bundle in the staff room. There was something else I had left in food. I had only a couple of Calorie-Mate bars along. I thought maybe I could get some food at the hut.

Slow and steady plodding got me on top of the ridge. I looked down the other side of the mountain for the first time, and saw the hills and valleys stretching out below. The wind was picking up and some clouds moving in. I wanted to get to the hut as soon as possible. My watch wasn't working; it was too cold and the batteries wouldn't function. I didn't know how much time I had left.

Once on the ridge I lost all sense of orientation and became completely lost. This was complicated by the fact that there were only two ways to go: up or down. Actually, a signboard in Japanese was the source of my confusion. I shouldn't have attempted to read it and just gone by my map. In the end, I pulled out the map and in an instant saw the situation exactly. All I needed to do was orient the map properly, with the gully behind me, and the summit on the right, and I could tell that I needed to continue on towards the summit before veering off to the left for the shoulder hut. As I walked along, skirting the summit block, the wind rose in it's intensity until even balancing was tricky. I was also feeling very tired. About that time a fellow came walking past me at a very brisk pace, and I exchanged a few words with him. He worked at the hut and was on his way there. He recommended the lower of two possible trails since the one that ran along the true crest of the ridge was more exposed to the wind. I followed his advice and took the lower trail. Even so, the wind was very strong, and very cold.

Ahead I could see the hut. Finally I made it. The large wooden sliding doors were all shut, and there was no-one around outside. I heaved the door open and stepped into the "boot room". There was another door into the lobby of the hut, which was heated with a kerosene stove. After being in several mountain huts, I've come to enjoy the smell and the warmth of those kerosene stoves, and the atmosphere inside the huts, when they aren't overcrowded. It definitely wasn't overcrowded at this time of year. It was late October and this was the last weekend the hut would be open. Not that it mattered...I was staying in my tent. Actually, if I'd been a week later, I wouldn't have been robbed $8 for the tent site! I thought about finding a reasonably level spot elsewhere to camp, but with the fierce wind, the spot I chose, just below rise and surrounded by low pine scrub, provided much needed shelter. Still, setting up the tent was a struggle as the wind whipped the fabric back and forth in my hands.

At the front desk in the hut, I asked about getting some food. The fellow pointed out some instant noodles at the souvenir counter. They were also expensive. $6 for a cup of instant noodles. Well, I was cold and hungry. I forked over my yen, and got handed the dry bowl of instant noodles. No, there wasn't any hot water for them. I would have to make that myself. ..."Oh, you don't have a stove? Well, O.K., just this once... we'll give you some hot water. No, you can't eat your noodles inside, you have to go outside..."

Unimpressed, I went back out into the boot room and put on my ski jacket under my goretex. The noodles were good. Best I've tasted. I'd made it to the hut much earlier than I thought. My clock still wasn't working, but the only thing to do was to secure the fly on my tent, lash things down to some rocks, and get in my sleeping bag. It was going to be cold. I was tired and sleep came quickly. Through the night, the wind battered my tent and I woke in alarm several times as it shook in the freezing gusts. Each time, I went back to sleep, assured that my tent was still on solid, level ground.

I awoke to faint morning light coming through the walls of my tent. Ice crystals that had formed inside my tent from condensation drifted down onto my face and dusted my sleeping bag. I heard some noise outside. People were getting an early start. I dove out for a look at what the morning looked like. Poking my head outside, I was greeting with a stunning sight. Mount Fuji, previously hidden by cloud, was now clearly visible, and loomed large on the horizon, rising out of a sea a mist and cloud, the sky behind was ablaze with the glow of a sunrise about to happen. I grabbed my camera, but it was frozen. I tried warming the battery in my armpit, but the sun had already risen above the horizon by the time I got it going.

After packing up in a hurry, I moved along towards the summit. Again there was a cold wind although it wasn't as fierce as the previous afternoon. Ahead of me a man in a yellow jacket was making his way along the ridge towards the summit. I tried to keep up with his pace, but with all my camping gear in my pack I had a hard time. In a few places the trail was exposed and offered some interesting situations, but as with nearly all Japanese Alps, these tricky spots had been festooned with cables and chains for hanging on to, making it completely simple to pass.

I moved slowly up the summit block and then all at once I found myself walking out onto the small flat area at the top. There were several people here enjoying the fruits of their labours, namely taking in the views. The fellow in the yellow coat happened to be a photographer and he was kind enough to take my photo at the summit beside the jumbled collection of signposts marking the summit.

I descended the opposite ridge on the east side. There was quite a bit more snow here and once again I put on crampons for part of the way down to the second hut. At the hut there was a large balcony overlooking the valley and the snow gulley I had climbed up the day before. Taking water from a large ice-topped barrel of rain-water beside the hut, I leaned against the railing and enjoyed the scenery while I having a drink. What I really wanted was some food, but it would be only a few more hours down to the trailhead.

At the hut I struck up a conversation with a friendly Japanese fellow who happened to be an ice climber. We decided to go down together and talked along the way. He offered me some granola bars and when he found out I didn't have any food, he gave me a couple more. This particular trail was very rugged and very steep. Parts of it were washed out, and there was a lot of scrambling over fallen trees and roots. I couldn't imagine trying to come up this way and was very glad for having chosen the snow gulley for my ascent.

Before long we were back at Hirogawara waiting for the bus. Private cars are not allowed this far. From there it was back to the train station in Kofu, where I had slept in a heated cubicle on the train platform with a couple old Japanese men two night before, waiting for 6:00am train after having taken the overnighter from Nagoya. Being the second highest mountain in Japan, Kita-dake was a good climb to have done, I thought.