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Nine Heavens, One Hundred and Thirty Six Hells

“There, there, there’s nothing to be afraid of.” I said, pressing my cheek to her face and feeling her warmth in the morning sun. She shook angrily again in the wind, and spat another volley of pea-sized ice and rocks at me. Mount Tsurugi was not afraid. Her anger abated for a second and the staccato assault on my helmet went quiet. I clipped into the fixed chain that leads up the cliff before the summit. I then take a wrong turn and end up shuffling along a granite edge, a leg and hundreds of metres of air each side, feeling scared and stupid. They say the man who can climb Tsurugi in winter can climb any mountain on earth. Yes, I thought, but he has to get down first. Then before me is the pyramid of the summit, covered with snow, and dotted with black rocks. Daylight is short this time of year, and I had set a firm turnaround time of noon no matter how close to the top I was. I stood at the summit with six minutes to spare. In 1907 a geographical expedition climbed Tsurugi for the first time in living memory and found religious metal items and ashes that dated from the Heian period, a thousand years before. I wondered how they did it. I’d climbed up to Mt Bessan the afternoon before, leaving the tourists behind in the valley. Perfect weather, and mine the only footprints in the snow. The typhoon that had blown through a few days before had dropped several feet of snow on the mountain, and anything standing bore a comb of ice on its leeward side. I pitched the tent and contemplated Tsurugi’s snowy head. Saturday started bright and clear. The Tsurugi-zawa valley and Tsurugi itself were, as far as I could tell, deserted. I kept expecting to meet someone coming from the opposite direction, or to see a climber coming over the crest of Mt Bessan, but none appeared. In the distance the sun glinted from the roof of the north Alps – Shirouma, Karamatsu, Goryu and Kashima. The climb was long and exhausting; the snow had a crust which supported my weight for just and instant before collapsing and burying me up to my knees, again and again and again. The mini summit before Tsurugi, Mae-tsurugi, was a 50 degree wall of ice on one side and a half-ice half-snow concoction on the other. I slipped, self arrested, and slipped again before my axe dug itself back into the snow. Saturday morning, I could be in Starbucks on Kotto-doori. But is that life? Most of the fixed chains were buried. Some I dug out with a fight, but the final one was impossible to extract. I gave up on it and simply tied my rope to its anchor and rappelled down, tying it off to a boulder at the bottom and trusting that I wouldn’t need it again on the last peak. The route back from the summit left time for introspection, the usual cataloging of mistakes and experiences to learn from. A raicho, the white ptarmigan grouse that live in these hills and are said to be messengers of the gods, flew overhead and marked out my path back to camp. I sat dazed in the tent. Every action required enormous willpower and energy. I melted snow to drink and devoured all the food I could find before falling into my sleeping back and zippering out the world. The down filling had not yet warmed up so my hands and feet were cold, but my face was hot with sun and wind burn. I slept like the dead until the alarm clicked at 4:30am and told me to go and climb Mt Tateyama, one of the 3 holy mountains of Japan. The ridge from Mt Bessan to the bottom of Tateyama snakes in a lazy S shape. Its northern edge was heavy with corniced snow, fluted and sculpted by the wind into impossibly smooth shapes, like an icy Guggenheim way up here in the mountains. A mental note to stay on the south side and with only the raicho for company I set out again. Just below the crest of Tateyama I saw my first human in two days. Scuttling and slipping down the slope above me, axe gripped in his downhill hand, I moved out of his line of fall. Just in case. I said my prayers at the Oyama shrine, 3003 metres up with Mt Fuji rising in the distance. Then down the back of the mountain and towards the hotel at the bottom, where crowds of Japanese and Chinese tourists snapped photos of the snowy peaks in the winter sun. In Buddhist lore, the mountains of this area are said to represent the nine paradises while the sulfurous valley below represents the 136 hells. “It’s so beautiful. I do hope heaven really is like that.” said one elderly lady as we passed. Did she really wish heaven to be a blasted snowscape, minus ten degrees, nothing to eat and all alone? I jumped in the onsen hot spring and followed it with a cold beer at the Hell Valley mountain hut. Frankly, hell has a lot going for it.

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