“You’re kidding, right?”
“Nope, there’s no early train, I just called them. Best we can hope for is the 6:24, which puts us in Kamikochi at 8:30” said the OE.
It was going to be tight. The map shows ten and a half hours from Kamikochi to the top of Yari-ga-take, and that’s in good weather. In early May, the snow lies still deep in the Yari valley, the slushy remains of the season peppered with avalanche debris sometimes a few meters high.
Under a peerless blue sky we set out from Kappabashi bridge, through the early morning haze and forests just beginning to sprout new green again. A troop of wild monkeys coo softly to each other as they graze the new buds. A few hours further on, the path steepens and the foliage gives way again to a wild, late-winter landscape. The walls of the valley look neatly combed where small avalanches and snow runs have gouged their innumerable paths.
A small huddle of brightly coloured tents sit at the entrance to the valley, a group of Chinese students lazing around them and soaking up the midday sun. The OE, of course, speaks fluent mandarin. It seems they climbed to the summit early that morning; ominously, they tell us that the going is getting slushy underfoot.
Shortly after the Oomagari, the dog-leg turn in the valley, Yari’s summit drifts into sight, a perfect obsidian pyramid still streak with rivulets of late-season snow and ice. So close you could reach out and touch it, deceptively close and taunting. Thankfully, the snow is in better condition than we had expected, and greets each cramponed kick with a solid grasp.
We’re soon well ahead of the map, and the sun is still high in the sky as we start the final, steep ascent to Yari’s shoulder and the safety of the hut. I find my rhythm, kick-step-breath, and motor up the final slope, and from the top watch the OE patiently kick up it in his own pace. In the shade of the hut I shiver, and it is only then that I realise I’m still just wearing a t-shirt.
In the gloom of the following morning, we turn out of the hut at 4am to climb to the summit. The snow lies plastered across the face of the pinnacle, over the chains and the ladders that usually bedeck the mountain in kinder seasons. Warily eyeing the drop at our feet, we make our way up the most promising route to the small shrine which marks the summit. The sun rises wearily through a sea of clouds, lighting Fuji’s flanks to the south and catching the peaks of the Alps along their length. We steel ourselves for the long descent, and make our way towards the hot spring and beer that inevitably mark the end of every good trip.
The Yari valley marks the epicenter of Japanese alpinism. Its roots lie in the mountain priests and the hunters who first explored its depths, one in search of food for the soul, the other in search of sustenance for the body. Our climb fed our friendship.