Thursday, July 4, 2013
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.