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Thief in the Fortress

The sound of my footsteps echoes across the empty Hayakawa Valley. No other footprints in the snow, no signs of life ahead or behind. I really am all alone here. A hundred square miles of wilderness. Population density: one.

“Pttac pttac,” the sound of rockfall from above, and I dive for cover. Close into the cliff, I pull the heavy winter pack up and over the back of my neck and cinch the helmet a little tighter. Forty feet away, a volley of grapefruit-sized rocks scars the fresh snow. I am very alone up here.

“Sorry, this is as far as I can go,” the driver says, as the taxi rolls to a stop. I’d hoped he’d be able to take me as far as the Yashajin-toge Pass. We’d made it to Ashiyasu, the last hamlet in the Hayakawa River valley before reaching the walls of the South Alps, but the wheels of the taxi were starting to skitter on the pre-dawn ice.

The walk-in to the bottom of the mountain was already long; this would add another 10 kilometers to it. In the cold and dark, I watch the tail lights of the taxi trace their way back toward civilization.

On long summer weekends, the flanks of these mountains throng with people. Buses whisk them smartly from Kofu Station, up to Ashiyasu and through the tunnel at Yashijin, then safely to the start of the pleasant climb from Hiragawara or Kitazawa-toge. It’s hard to imagine, as I walk through the night on these icy roads, that such things exist.

A small signpost marks the beginning of the old approach trail, the one they used before the road was built. I cut up, through the forest, intersecting the road at intervals. As the dawn breaks, the small car park in front of the Yashajin Tunnel appears. The snow is ankle deep, and the tunnel is barricaded for the winter.

Kitadake, the second highest mountain in Japan after Fuji, sits within these walls like the keep of a leviathan castle. The Hayakawa River spills around its foot, like an impassable moat, while Mt. Aino, Senjo, Kai-koma and the Hou-ou-sanzan range spiral out around it. Formidable defenses, but with a small chink at Yashajin, where the range dips just enough that a determined burglar might steal his way in.

The storms of the previous week have left a thick cover of snow on the ground, but also coated every branch and twig with a jacket of ice. In the early morning light, they shine like chandeliers. A troop of monkeys screech at my approach before they crash through the trees, sending shards of ice smashing to the ground, filling the forest with the sound of breaking glass.

The map marks the route from the saddle of Yashajin down to the road below as a dismal dotted line. In reality, it is non-existent; landslide and disuse has all but torn it from the mountainside, and slick ice is all that remains.

I pull out the rope and gingerly rappel down from tree to tree, emerging at last at the interior road on the other side of the Yashajin Tunnel and into the sunlight again. Then along the road and through its tunnels, each one as cold and dark as a meat locker. A few kilometers further on, I cut up and over the icy slabs of Mt. Karasu-no-zumi, down again to the lower road that snakes along the very bottom of the Hayakawa Valley.

Finally I’m there: The foot of the Bokonzawa Ridge that should take me to Kitadake’s summit. Ten hours of work to get here, and the climb hasn’t even begun. The siren-like call of a deer down by the river snaps me out of my melancholy.

Shouldering the pack once more, I put one foot in front of the other and start to chew away at the mountainside again. It’s dark by the time I reach the shattered hut and frozen lake, where I dig a cave in the snow and huddle down for a few short hours of sleep.

At 1 a.m. I wriggle out of the snow hole and shiver for a moment in the cold night air. The moon is no more than a faint glow beyond the ridge. The only light spills from my headlamp. A meter wide pool against the snow. I follow it up and through the trees. It’s deep enough for snowshoes here.

I carve a knee-high, and then thigh-high, trail. The ridge steepens. I’m swimming through the snow now, gaining a few feet then slipping back down again. Six hours later, I flop onto the hard ice of the crest of Bokonzawa-no-kashira. Brew some coffee, watch the sun breach the horizon and stain the mountains blood red, pink and then bronze.

From here, the summit of Kitadake looks close enough to touch. I dig another snow hole, stash my excess gear and mark it on the GPS. Under a flawless blue sky, I make good time across the hard ice of the ridge, the ironmongery at my hips beating a hard rhythm in the thin air. The snow hangs impossibly fluted and perfect across the face of Kitadake’s eastern flank, the infamous buttress. I’m so close now, but as I crest a small knoll, what I see stops me in my tracks.

I’d heard tales of the Happonba, the eight rocky spires that crown the knife-edge just above the Bokonzawa col. Each year they take another life or two; four people fell to their deaths here on a winter ascent a couple of years ago.

Cornices of snow cling thickly to the rocks, some lying to the left and some to the right, testament to the variability of the winds that blow up from the cols on either side. It looks desperate. I watch the spires for 20 minutes, wondering if I should go back or call it quits.

Instead, crablike, with axes and front points buried in the snow, I inch out and around the first spire across the 60-degree ice. Then up to the tip of the next spire. It’s a vertical kilometer fall on each side and 30 centimeters in between. The exposure starts to play on my mind; I’m confident, but one wrong step in a thousand would see me swirling off and onto the rocks and ice below.

I bang in a piton, fasten the rope and start rappelling slowly over and around the spires. The wind dies, the sun beats down, and rivulets of sweat trickle down my spine. After an hour of careful work, I’m on the other side, and Kitadake fills my eyes.

Before long I’m back on my front points again, hauling myself up, over the mountain’s southern shoulder and onto the hard ice of its western flank. Here too, the ground falls away for an unforgiving kilometer or more. I test each placement before committing to it. A slip here would be unthinkable.

Then, quite suddenly, there’s nowhere left to climb. I bash the ice from the face of the summit marker. It reads simply, “3,192m Kita-dake.” The mountains of the Minami and Chuo Alps crowd around, each clad in the grandest of their mid-winter finery. Not a soul moves on any of them. I’ve stolen the secret that lies at the heart of their ranges.

To the east, Fuji sits serenely above a sea of clouds, but my eye is drawn to the wisps of vapor starting to rise from the Hayakawa Valley below. The day is still bright and cloudless above, but the weather is starting to turn, and this is no place for a thief to be caught by a storm.

I retrace my steps with great caution. Back at the Happonba, I clip the ascender to the rope I’d left and weave back over the spires. They seem easy now. Was I too cautious before? The answer comes in a flash; the cornice I’m standing on crumbles away and drops into the shadows of the col below, and I’m falling with it.

An eternity later, the rope jerks tight, and the icy maw of the col stretches away beneath my crampons which scramble desperately for purchase before I regain my composure. It’s a moment that will wake me in a cold sweat on many nights in the months that follow.

At the snow hole at Bokonzawa, the cloud has already moved in, and the temperature is minus-22 and falling. There’s no telling what the weather will do the next day, but there will be no sunset shots this evening.

I decide to abandon the high camp and make my way down to the previous night’s snow hole in the safety of the forests below. If nothing else, it cuts a few hours from the next day’s walk out. Slipping and skidding through the deep powder, I make it back and collapse into my sleeping bag 19 hours after setting out.

The business hotel in Kofu boasts a proper onsen (hot spring) on its roof. I lie back in its waters, and my head starts to spin, as the cold beer makes its way through me. I inventory the damage. Knuckles bruised and throbbing from being bashed against the ice. There’s a mysterious puncture wound in my right thigh. Another toenail lost; every muscle aches.

Small prices to pay for the treasure I’d gained. 

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