THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY

© Christopher Earls Brennen

KITADAKE RAIN

``... nearly every one who tries his powers
touches the walls of his being...''

From ``Third Study. Backlog Studies'' by Charles Warner

Though I cannot recall exactly when I first met Yoichiro Matsumoto, I do know I recognized early that this was a very accomplished but very private man who had taught himself to interact with the world despite a natural reluctance to do so. Perhaps because of his diminutive stature he possessed an intense drive for perfection and a compulsive determination to succeed, I suspect not for the recognition it would bring but rather for the security of controlling his environment. This is a story about Yoi and about myself and the elemental way in which relationships can undergo transformations in the face of adversity. The stage on which the play took place was the second highest mountain in Japan. Much less well known than the taller Fuji, Kitadake (translated "North Peak") in the Southern Alps of Japan is much steeper and more demanding than its larger sister. The 10474ft summit (the highest non-volcanic peak in Japan) sees only serious mountaineers and far fewer visitors than crowd the summit of Fuji.

Yoi and I had become professional friends during years of attending the same academic symposia and conferences. We had worked in overlapping areas of scientific research and so developed the respectful relationship that naturally derives from the mix of cooperation and rivalry inherent in such a scientific community. His work was (and is) characterized by considerable insight into physical principles combined with great mathematical agility but most of all by Herculean effort and intense drive. Moreover, in the international business of scientific research, it is essential to acquire more than proficient skill at the English language both in verbal and in written communications. Yoi's natural shyness was a drawback in this respect, but he had through great effort develop excellent verbal and writing skills. He was also meticulous in the way in which he dressed. And so the impression that this well-dressed, well-spoken, and supremely composed little man would exude was the epitamy of elegance. At the same time the body language said "private - stay your distance". Some of this was, of course, a part of his Japanese culture; but there was also a compulsive self-protection mechanism at work. I developed considerable respect for Yoi and his work and called him a friend. He had been very kind to me during a number of visits to Japan and I had spent many enjoyable days at his institution, the University of Tokyo. We had even day-hiked together in Tanzawa Quasi-National Park. However it was not possible for me to claim I had ever seen beneath his shell.

In the summer of 1999, I was once again bound for Japan to visit several universities, to present a number of scientific talks and to revisit old friends. I had a free weekend and Yoi had volunteered to arrange a weekend hike for me since my predeliction for such activity was now well known among my professional friends. It was rumored that several of his students would be accompanying us and that we would be climbing Kitadake. I did not pay too much attention to the plan since, knowing Yoi's perfectionism, I was sure that the arrangements would be precise and meticulous. But I did come well-equipped with my own hiking gear and so was prepared for almost all eventualities when Yoi and I got together on the afternoon of Friday, July 2, 1999, on the campus of Tokyo University. There I also met the other two hikers, a graduate student of Yoi's by the name of Nobuhiro Yamanishi and a former student called Toshiyuki Hasegawa. I had met Yamanishi several years previously; he had spent some years during his youth living in San Francisco and so spoke excellent English.

In the late afternoon, we loaded all our gear into Hasegawa's new station wagon and set off for the South Alps. On the super highway leading out of Toyko and amid the hectic Friday afternoon traffic, the conversation naturally turned to Kitadake, the mountain ahead of us. From past conversations, I knew that Matsumoto had been a very active and determined mountaineer in his youth. I had also heard brief reference to a major accident he had experienced in those days. I now learnt that the accident had occurred on the slopes of Kitadake. Yoi had been close to the summit of Kitadake when he had fallen nearly 100ft down a steep rocky slope, severely injuring himself. His fellow climbers had sought help from the mountain hut (``Katano-koya'') not far away at the 10000ft level and Yoi had been stretchered back to that hut. Fortunately it was equipped with a telephone that was used to contact Yoi's father. By pulling some special strings within the Japanese military, the senior Matsumoto arranged a helicopter evacuation for his son. The helicopter landed on a narrow platform beside the mountain hut and carried Yoi to much needed medical attention. Now, in the darkness of the back of Hasegawa's car, I got the impression that Yoi had unfinished business with Kitadake.

We drove due east, pausing for dinner in a roadside restaurant and then pressed on in the summer darkness. Leaving the super highway at Kofu, a short drive on surface streets brought us to the base of the precipitous South Alps and we began to climb up a steep shallow valley. The tortuous road passed several resorts before arriving at our destination, a traditional Japanese ryokan and hot springs resort known as the ``South Alps Hot Springs Onsen Hotel" ("Ashiyasu Onsen"). After check in we deposited our gear in our tatami room before seeking out the onsen or hot springs. It is a Japanese tradition that I now thoroughly enjoy. Then we laid out our bedding and went to sleep.

We rose at 3.00am for Yoi had determined on a very early start for reasons that were never completely clear to me. We arranged our gear and packed our backpacks preparing for a two day hike. Then we took to the road in darkness, continuing up the narrow winding road as it switchbacked on up the steep and shallow valley. I learned later that this well-known scenic route is called the South Alps Super Rindo Road. As it neared the ridge-top it proceeded through a very narrow, misty tunnel and emerged into the next valley - the Norogawa valley, a larger but equally precipitous gorge. The road continued north high on the east side of this gorge, winding tortuously in and out of side gorges and plunging frequently into narrow tunnels. Proceeding upstream, the road eventually reached the main river and its terminus at the small resort of Hirogawara (``Wide River Place'') at an elevation of 5000ft. We parked near a small inn and, because of the rain, prepared our breakfast in the shelter of its porch.

As we were making our way from the overnight hotel to Hirogawara, it became clear to me that my hosts (and in particular, Yoi Matsumoto) were quite concerned that the rain that had already begun and that was forecast to continue over the weekend would force the authorities to close the Super Rindo Road. In fact we had passed the open gate on the road near the top of the first steep valley. And so the fear of not reaching Hirogawara had passed. However, it was now replaced by the fear that the road would be closed when we returned from our hike on Sunday afternoon. I soon realized that the consequences of the road closing were beginning to prey on Yoi's mind. On Monday, I was scheduled to give an important lecture at another university in Tokyo and if Yoi's arrangements were to cause me to fail to show up for that engagement he would suffer considerable embarrassment and "loss of face". Each time it began to rain harder I could see additional anguish pass across his face.

After breakfast (about 5.15am) we set out on our hike despite the heavy rain. Like the others, I was reasonably well equipped for this eventuality though my Gore-tex trousers were old and beginning to be porous. The fulsome river that we crossed by footbridge was an ominous sign for the future. But the forest of beech, fir, spruce and hemlock was fresh and green and beautiful and it was a pleasure to be on the trail again despite the rain. We travelled up the right bank for about 10min before recrossing the river and arriving at a trail fork (5480ft) at 5.50am. Here we consulted the maps and talked with another hiker who had paused to rest during his descent. The conclusion was that the trail up the valley may have suffered considerable slide damage during the recent downpours and so we should take the right fork up the steep lateral ridge above us. It was a long tough climb up a steep, tree covered ridge that seemed to be held together by a profusion of tree roots. These provided an almost continuous supply of handholds and footholds though, in places, the slope was so steep that a rudimentary human-made ladder had been installed along the trail. Finally, about 7000ft the trail levelled out and contoured to the left along the side of the ridge. After passing above several ominous landslide tracks, we arrived at the Shirane-oike-koya (7200ft) at 7.40am.

Until quite recently a large log hut had formed the central structure of the encampment on this shoulder of the mountain. However, several years ago a landslide had wiped out the log hut; now a small temporary shelter serves while the larger hut is being rebuilt. Smaller huts are clustered around the main building and serve as storage, latrines, etc. A tarpaulin shelter in front of the temporary shelter provided us with some relief from the continuing rain. From that vantage point we had a clear view of the steep snow chutes to the south that extended up to the summit ridge of Kitadake. One original plan had been to climb one of these chutes and for that reason I had brought my crampons. In the miserable weather we had encountered that plan had been abandoned.

Soon we set out again and after a few yards passed the small pond that gives its name to this shelter. Several small tents were pitched near the edge of the pond; they looked quite forlorn. But the rain had begun to ease, perhaps because we were climbing through it. The trail switchbacked steeply up the landslide track where the trees were smaller and less dense. Nearing the head of the track, the trail contoured to the right and climbed the steep slope toward the apex of the ridge that would take us to the summit. About 2000ft above Shirane-oike, we arrived at a trail junction where another trail joined from the left. This was the tree-line elevation and from here to the top the landscape was mostly jumbled rock. A short distance beyond the trail junction we achieved the ridge and the trail turned left to follow its apex. Now the wind was much more intense, gusting to about 40mph. At least the rain was minor.

Following the steepening ridge for about 30min, we finally (at 10.40am) reached the Katano-koya or Shoulder Hut (9720ft) on a slight projection from the side of the mountain. The wind howled quite fiercely and we were beginning to chill and so it was a relief and pleasure to take refuge inside the warm and dark hut. The entry area was floored in stone and a short corridor between a makeshift store and the kitchen led to the central area surrounding an old rusty, wood-burning stove. There were benches immediately around the stove with an access space around the benches. The rest of the space around and behind the center space was a platform raised about 2ft above the stone floor. In the interior this was covered in tatami mats for sleeping space. Nearer the stove space it was covered in tarpaulin to allow hikers to place their wet gear on it. Moreover several smaller kerosene stoves up on the raised flooring provided additional warmth. A staircase led to an attic space and an additional sleeping area. The windows of the hut were small and mostly blocked off. The walls were covered in a makeshift collection of hiking maps, photographs, newspaper articles and other mementoes. It was a rustic, warm and pleasant refuge. Two men, one of whom was the owner (or operator), sat around the hot rusty stove and chatted amiably. We shed our wet outer garments and hung them up to drip and dry before joining them on the benches around the stove. Once we were warmed we set up our lunch and, as we ate, tried to decide what to do. Whether to plan to spend the night in the hut or to descend during this same day. My fellow hikers were inclined to descend - they feared the continuing rain would cause the closure of the Super Rindo Road thus trapping us, possibly for days. They wanted to get down the road while it was still open. But that would mean a very long day of hiking. We had to make the decision here in the hut in order to know what to do about the few dry clothes each of us had in reserve. The decision was made to descend and so we put on our dry clothing.

At 11.55am we emerged from the hut and set off for the summit, leaving our packs at the shelter. Emerging into the bleak day, we were glad to find the rain and wind had eased a little. The ascent route followed the sharp rocky ridge and, in places, required climbing over loose and exposed rock. The surrounding clouds blocked off all of the view that, I was told, could be spectacular on a clear day. We passed the tops of several snow chutes on the left.

On the summit of Kitadake

At 12.25pm we arrived at the 10474ft summit of Kitadake, marked by several official signs, a number of cairns and a small Jizo statue adorned with the usual, red-cloth offerings. Having labored so hard against the elements we all felt considerable elation and congratulated each other while we took photographs through the mist and the fierce wind. I particularly enjoyed the unusually unrestrained delight on the faces of my hosts.

But we could not afford to dally and soon headed down again, reaching the Katano-koya hut at 1.05pm. There we could not resist another rest in the warm but now crowded interior of the hut; a large group of hikers, male and female, were drying out as we did before striking out for the summit. After about 10min we gathered ourselves, hoisted our packs and set off down the mountain. Yoi was still strong and led most of the way down the seeemingly endless switchbacks on the descent to the Shirane-oike hut. The rain was not heavy and the wind eased once we dropped below the summit ridge. About 2.55pm we reached Oike-koya and paused only briefly for I especially did not want to allow my legs to stiffen. And so we headed on to the top of the steep, root-woven descent ridge. Here it was harder going and necessary to downclimb the roots and ladders with care. Moreover, it began to rain hard so that not only did the trail become a stream in places, but it was hard to keep the rain out of one's eyes. I pressed on ahead as the others began to weaken with exhaustion. After all, we had been hiking almost continously for almost 11hrs in quite adverse conditions on a rugged trail. When we finally reached the bottom of the steep ridge, the trail to Hirogawara was truly a river and I was entirely focussed on reaching the shelter at the end of the trail.

The others were now out of earshot and I paused for some minutes at a picnic shelter to allow them to catch up. I could see the car at the trailhead just about 50yds ahead. As Yoi approached, I was deeply struck by his body language and facial expression. Struggling to put one foot in front of the other, he was truly at the end of his resources - and at the end of his ability to hide it. His eyes met mine as he expressed an admiration for my strength. For the first time in our relationship, he exhibited a sincerity free of reserve. In that moment we gained a mutual respect that, I doubt, we would have achieved under any other circumstance. He accepted for the first time my physical strength and resolve, the attribute I had long accepted and admired in him. And I saw for the first time in him, a willingness to show his own frailty and humanity. I felt an affection for him that would not have been possible before. It was a special moment with an irreversible impact.

But it all passed in a moment, and we trudged on to Hirogawara as the rain poured down. It was 5.00pm and we had been hiking almost continously for about 12hrs. After some debate we decided that any attempt to dry ourselves at the trailhead inn would be futile and so we tried to load our gear and ourselves into the car without soaking the interior.

As we drove back along the Super Rindo Road, waterfalls raged all around us and the whole landscape seemed to be in liquid motion. Arriving at the tunnel, we could not help feeling fortunate that we had escaped before the road was closed. Emerging from the tunnel, we descended toward the South Alps Hot Springs Onsen Hotel where we had awakened that morning. The rain eased somewhat and so both the weather and our spirits lightened as we pulled into the parking lot. The hotel management were kind enough to allow us to use the hot springs once more and so we dug out the few dry clothes that remained and repaired to onsen. After such a physical ordeal, the baths were truly delightful and we lingered long before packing up and beginning our journey back to Tokyo. When we finally parted in front of my hotel amidst the neon of Shinjuku, we exchanged the kind of special goodbyes that only occur at the end of shared ordeals.

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Last updated 7/30/99.
Christopher E. Brennen