‘Baka’. It’s Japanese for stupid. Early March 2005, walking into the Kyogoku Lawsons convenience store a little after daybreak frozen to the marrow, up to my ankles in blood and frostbite, I knew I was going to be hearing baka a lot. But being in civilization again, I knew I was still alive, and being called baka wasn’t going to wipe the beaming smile off my face for being so.
The plan had been to climb Mt Yotei, the local semi-dormant volcano, on the Saturday, set up camp on the ridge, live a little decadently basking in the amazing views with some cheese and olives, before an exploration of the crater rim and then bed. We would wake up before dawn on top of the world to catch the sunrise from the peak on film, then ski down the caldera, climb out, pack up, and ski home.
We checked the weather report and avalanche conditions before heading out: blue skies expected until late Sunday, with a storm front expected to hit after dark (long after we would be safely off the mountain), warm conditions and moderate instability in the snow pack for both afternoons. At any rate Jonn, my Canadian friend, was a veteran of the Rocky Mountains and comparatively, Mt Yotei isn’t really much more than a little hill with a hole at the top.
Saturday morning and we arrive at the trail head on the Kyogoku side, which when you look at Yoteizan from Hirafu, is the ridge on your left. We skin up through beautiful birch trees and blue skies. The weather is even hotter than predicted and I’m down to a T-shirt within minutes.
After about two hours we break clear of the tree line and although the sun is still hot, the altitude keeps the ground cold and the snow gradually turns to ice. Soon we can no longer use the skins so we pack them and the skis away and begin to kick step our way up over the ice and around the pockets of wind-blown powder. For some people, ski-mountaineering is as much about the climb as the ride down. To be honest, I am not one of those people. Without the thrill of the descent as the dangling carrot – and here puritans might scoff – I probably wouldn’t bother. My passion is the ride down through untracked at break-neck speed, with just you, your friends, and the mountain.
Eventually we make it to the top. The sky is still looking positively Mediterranean it’s so blue. Not a cloud in sight in any direction and not a breath of wind. After we find a nice perch overlooking the crater we crack open the cheese and other delicacies that others might claim weren’t worth the weight. I can safely say however that sun-dried tomatoes, olives, and artichokes on a cracker never tasted so good.
This is about when our luck starts to turn.
We fall asleep, waking not long before sun down. We notice dark clouds far off to the west and set up camp. At that altitude and at that exposure, anything you plan on sleeping in should be very well protected and secured. A snow cave is best. What convinced us to do such a mediocre job of securing our tent to some exposed rocks and barricading it with a flimsy wall we dug out of snow and hoarfrost, I will never know. Whatever it was, it was obviously foolish and the start of a chain reaction of peril that had us fighting for our lives.
The dark clouds are still a long way off and after a brief discussion we decide to explore the crater rim. We haven’t gone more than 200 metres across the jagged ridge when we become painfully aware of our dire situation. The wind has come up strong and we are very suddenly in danger of being blown either into the crater or off the edge of the rim down the valleys and cliffs on the other side. We clamber back and by the time we reach the tent, one of the tie downs has snapped under the strain, and one has come loose of its anchor and is flapping about. The clouds have closed in around us and the wind is so strong it’s hard to stand. We manage to get the tent anchored. Inside things seem pretty calm again and after a bit of a nervous chuckle we set up the stove and start making tea.
A few hours later we’ve settled into our sleeping bags with the full mountain storm raging around us, gusts harmlessly knocking at the sides of the tent. It seems we’re safe. I get to sleep. But soon I’m woken by something akin to cannon fire. The tent lurches out towards the edge of the platform we set it up on. I look at Jonn and he has his nervous smile back again. He doesn’t say anything. Another blast of wind accompanied by cannon fire and we’re sent sprawling as the tent gets airborne, lands and drags further out over the ledge despite our weight. Frantically we claw at the snow through the fabric of the floor. Instinctively we dive towards the windward side and plant it to the ground.
“Now what?” yells Jonn. Right on cue, another gust hits us from the other direction and sends us spinning. “We gotta get out there and get this thing tied down somehow!” He’s yelling in my ear. I unzip the hatch a fraction and poke my nose and an eye outside. For the first time I realise there’s a good chance I won’t live to see dawn. It’s pitch black, but there are flecks of grey streaming past and around. Shards of ice, like bits of broken crockery, are tearing overhead. The snow sucks down over the rim, then another round of cannon fire as compressed gale force wind blows everything back out again. It’s everything I imagine a tornado to be, but on top of a mountain.
“I don’t think we’re going to get much sleep tonight, eh?” Jonn says. I grin back at him. The adrenaline is up and I can feel the mania setting in telling me to enjoy it.
“So, should we start thinking about abandoning ship?”
Jonn looks at me and shouts, “No, mate, we don’t want to do that. We’ve at least got some kind of shelter here. I don’t like our chances of climbing down with packs on.”
“What if we ski down?”
“Last resort. Our best bet is to stay put. Descending through this in the dark, in the middle of a storm of this magnitude is suicide.”
About now, as I reach to put my ski boots back on, another blast hits. This time though, it doesn’t relent. As we sit there doubled over with the tent pushing our faces into the floor, we suddenly hear a ripping sound. The wind stops for just a moment. We grimace at each other then the next gust hits us. Within seconds I’m staring up at the night sky and driving snow.
The next few minutes are chaos as everything that isn’t held down or strong enough to hold itself down is blown off the side of the mountain. I take a metal shovel to the back of the head and through my subsequent haze, see one of my brand new skis disappear into oblivion. There go my hopes of skiing down. The wind rests for a second. I grab what I can and try to stuff my frozen feet into my boots. I’ve been in socks till now and they are caked in snow and ice and my feet hardly fit in for the snow already blown into the boots. With a vicious screech I jam my last boot on, grab my pack and turn to Jonn. If ever we really had a choice, there was now, irrevocably, only one option left: get off the mountain.
For the first hundred feet or so we negotiate a slightly inclined ledge, but it ends in a very steep ridge of rock and ice that is our path home. Jonn backs over the edge. Momentarily the lamp shines in my face and then he’s gone, and I’m enveloped in blackness again. I turn on my hands and feet and follow Jonn over, no more than five or so steps behind. What a waste, I think, after climbing all the way up here just to have to climb back down again.
Another blast shoots out of the crater, across the ledge and hits me square in the chest. I’m ripped off the ridge and suddenly I’m in mid air, free falling. Time slows, and the enormity of my predicament becomes all too apparent. Jonn’s screaming my name. I crash onto ice and bounce off the ridge into a steep chute of hard, wind-packed snow and ice. I hurtle down headfirst on my back, looking up the mountain where Jonn’s light and shouts quickly disappear. After sliding about 100 metres, I come to rest on a slight ledge of fine, wind blown snow. I’m okay. Unbelievably, I’m okay. But I can’t see a thing. I crawl forward blindly on my hands and hear the unmistakeable ‘whump’ of unstable snow breaking underneath me. Best stay put. I have no light so all I can do is wait and hope I see Jonn as he climbs down past me. Icicles form in my nostrils and off my eyelashes and I start getting sleepy. I try to think warm thoughts and wave my arms in circles to both stay awake and get warmer blood flowing to the extremities. It is a battle I am quickly losing but I dare not move without being able to see what I’m up against, knowing only a foot in the wrong direction could be grisly.
Finally, out of the darkness, Jonn’s ghostly glow begins to take shape. He can’t hear me because of the wind, even though he is now within ten metres of me, and of course can’t see me because I don’t have a light. Miraculously, he has climbed right down on top of me. I crawl up and, grabbing him in a huge hug, scare the life out of him.
“I thought you were dead,” he cries, frozen tears stuck across his face.
“N-n-nah, I w-was jus sick-gov w-walking, thought I’d catch the rickshaw.”
“You realise how lucky you are? Oh man, I really thought you were dead.”
With John’s light we peer over the ledge I stopped on, but we can’t see the bottom.
We regain awareness we’re still a long way from Kansas. We down climb. The process becomes routine and finally I gain some hope. The wall of night is now occasionally shattered by lightning, which affords brief, terrifying glimpses of our surroundings. Jonn sets off ahead, delicately picking his way across the steep face, each lightning strike revealing numerous, deep fracture lines in the snow above. No words are spoken between us. I kick a boot repeatedly into the ice to make a toe-hold, shift my weight down half a foot or so to the new leg, then do it again. Then again. And again thousands of times over. Occasionally a delicious, warm, sleepy feeling comes over me and it’s so nice. It would be so wonderful to close my eyes and take a nap. Just a little one. Alarm bells ring, I jerk awake, and bash the next foot hold into the side of the mountain.
Finally we climb our way out under the storm and down into the cover below the tree line. I can see the storm still raging above, but it’s distant and I’m confident the worst is over. Here it’s calm and the slope is gentler. For about a kilometre everything is so easy. There’s almost a spring in my step as the air warms and the snow turns to rain. I begin to thaw as we eat up the distance. We’re practically bounding. But in our rush we head down the wrong contour. The snow pack turns completely isothermic in just a few paces. Suddenly, every step sends us post-holing up to our waists. Lost, frustrated and exhausted, I do the only thing that is left for a sane person to do. I lie down face first on the snow and try to swim. When that fails, I get back up and clamber on again. We’re post holing with every step so it takes hours to gain a few hundred metres. Yet somehow we manage.
Eventually, miraculously, we fall out on to a farming road from where we can see the heavenly blue glow of the Kyogoku Lawsons. It can’t be further than a kilometre away… and has chocolate and hot stuff.
By the time we get there, dawn has broken. Unfortunately, the lone staff member doesn’t have time to drive two zombies who have dripped water, mud and blood (which is leaking out of my boots) over his erstwhile spotless floor to Jonn’s house. He did give us some free chocolate and hot stuff in exchange for our story though, for which he is eternally a major beneficiary in my will.
Clumping back to Jonn’s from the Lawsons still in our ski boots, towards the main street of Kyogoku , the sun is shining on our faces from across the distant hills over the town and people are starting their day. We have spent 24 hours on the mountain, the last 10 just trying to survive. As I glance back at Yoteizan I notice the Lawsons clerk watching us, and I know exactly what he’s thinking – baka.