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Archive for September, 2016

Maybe it was the report from NHK about the Ootō mountains that concerned me. With an annual rainfall average of 4000 mm, the mountain range tucked away in central Wakayama Prefecture is only slightly drier than Odaigahara, one of Kansai’s wettest places. The frequent rains and high humidity provide the perfect habitat for the yamahiru, or Japanese mountain leech. Trip reports from other bloggers recommended that hikers best avoid the Ootō mountains during the warm summer months. Perhaps Ayako and I were tempting fate with our plan for an early June ascent, but with only 4 mountains left on the list, it was now or never.

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Ayako picked me up at Gobo station just before 10am as the last of the morning mists were starting to burn off for the day. The asphalt still lay heavy from the overnight rains as she pointed the car east, away from the coastal sea spray and deep into the heart of Wakayama Prefecture. Most guidebooks recommend an ascent from the east through a narrow gorge that follows the headwaters of the Koza river, but this access route required an additional two hours of driving, time that we simply could not afford to lose. My map showed an alternative approach up the northern face of the massif, a straight shot along a winding forest road just off of route 371. It was this same junction that we passed back in March on our maiden ascent of Hansamine. It took nearly two hours of navigating an incredibly twisted and thin slice of concrete to reach an unmarked gate that led to the start of the hike.

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We stepped out into the refreshingly brisk air, sorting through kit between bites of rice balls and energy bars. We’d need those calories for the 700-meter vertical elevation gain spread out over just a couple of kilometers. The clouds still hung tightly to the ridge somewhere high above us, but a rise in the pressure on my barometer indicated a favorable window for the afternoon climb. The first part of the approach was along an abandoned forest road following a swift-moving mountain stream. The path terminated at a pair of cryptomeria trees estimated to be over half a century in age. Between the gap in the trees a small shrine has been erected, along with a signpost indicating that the towering cedar has been selected as one of the ‘100 Forest Giants of Japan‘.

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The path started just opposite this old growth relic. I took the lead, tramping through the soft cedar needles still damp from the incessant rains of late. With my trekking pole gripped tightly in my left hand, I reached the first switchback, no more than 15 meters away from the forest road. In that short space of time, barely 30 seconds by my watch, a mountain leech had jumared up my trekking pole and latched onto my left index finger. It was tiny, less than the length of a toothpick, but the grip it had on my cuticle required the force of both the thumb and index finger of my right hand to remove the blood-sucking creature. Fortunately it had only latched on to the nail and had not started extracting blood.

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Ayako jumped back in surprise as I flicked the leech back to the forest floor. It was early in the season, and the segmented worms has just awoken from their winter slumber, eager for a taste of fresh blood. “If we run into any more then we’ll turn around”, I proclaimed, setting her mind at ease ever so slightly. Constant vigilance is required to spot the mountain leeches. They can not only climb up your trekking poles and trousers but they can also abseil from the foliage above, landing on your neck for a vampire-esque attack. Such sustained scanning is exhausting, but I was determined not to let out unwanted guests get the upper hand.

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Tightening the dials on my boa laces, I tucked my hiking pants snug against my boots, creating a makeshift gaiter that would hopefully keep the leeches from getting inside my shoes. The system seemed to work, for a few hundred meters higher up the valley, I caught another leech in mid-ascent of my thigh and easily plucked it off my beige hiking pants. I decided not to disclose my discovery to Ayako, hoping that we’d be out of the leech zone once we breached the ridge. It was a steady climb of about an hour before we did reach the ridge. Just before topping out a leech had dropped from a branch above and landed on my arm, I made quick work of it before it could gain purchase.

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We took our first break when the contours flattened out, near an unnamed peak that the map simply calls ‘849’ in reference to its altitude. The crux of the climb was over, or so we thought. Even though we only had 300 meters of vertical elevation, the first thing the trail did was to drop 100 vertical meters to a saddle, where we greeted the northern face of the mountain head on. It was an improvised scramble up a root-infested spur for the better part of an hour. The only saving grace in the slog were the vistas opening up directly in back – the low-lying cloud had finally risen.

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In spite of the pitch, the route was clearly marked with red tape affixed to the trees, and it was simply a matter of using the exposed roots as a natural staircase to inch our way towards the summit plateau. At the top of the rise we reached an unmarked junction, where our alternative path merged with the main path on the true ridge of the Ootō range. After dropping to a saddle, we faced one final, steep climb through a network of net and wire fences erected to keep the deer at bay.

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Such fencework seems overkill, but the western and southern faces of the summit plateau have been destroyed by the deer, who have killed the trees by stripping them of bark. In addition, they’ve eaten all the seedlings, which prevents any new trees from growing in these grassy areas. Unheeded, these open areas allow more sunlight, wind, and heat to penetrate the summit plateau, which is causing stress on the beech, fir, and hemlock trees that still keep a watchful eye on the forest floor. Such post-war cedar plantations failed to penetrate the upper reaches of the massif, thanks in no small part to the Taisho-era government, who back in 1924 designated the Ootō mountains as a protected forest.

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The destruction of the trees on the summit did have one positive effect, however, as visitors can now get a bird’s eye view of the entire Ootō range. Peering over the fence, I could follow the contours of the ridge all the way over to Mt. Hōshi, just one of three remaining mountains on the Kansai 100 list. If I had more time I could simply work my way over there, but with the leech season in full swing, it seemed better to wait.

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On the return descent back to the car, the afternoon heat had dried the trail, sending the leeches back into the burrows on the bottom of the forest floor, so the blood-suckers were nowhere in sight. Peak #97 of the 100 was now in the books, and with just a trio of peaks standing in my way, I now had a clear shot of finishing before the end of the year.

 

 

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Dreaming in Clouds

“It was supposed to be the last climb of the season. The mountaineering masterpiece. The culmination of everything I have learned and done in the mountains up till this point. The myth shattering feat, proving my point of pure alpinism, unhindered by man-made rules and paradigms.

Except that it wasn’t meant to be.”

– Michal Vojta, March 2016

Thought the above words were written about a winter ascent of the Gendarme in the Kita Alps, they could apply to any one of Michal Vojta’s outstanding achievements in which he continued to up the ante. Whether it be the frozen southern face of Mt. Inamura in the Omine mountains, or the impossibly long day-climb of Chinne on the Tsurugi massif, Michal was always pushing the boundaries to the extreme limit, for the ultimate thrill and satisfaction.

Yet, the 29-year old Czech native never boasted about his achievements, at least not publicly. He let his phenomenal self-shot and self-edited videos do the talking for him. The most recent video dates from May and shows the direction in which the budding mountaineer was heading:

You could easily spend an afternoon with his video channel on autoplay, living vicariously through his thrilling climbs and pioneering ascents. He preferred going solo instead of roping up in a team. A bad experience from Ichinokurasawa on Tanigawa-dake sealed the deal. Instead of having to follow the orders of the senpai and seeing his opinion continually ignored because he was the kohai, Michal favored the flexibility and freedom of going to the mountains alone, where the only direction came from inside, the mind providing the voice of reason instead of the stubbornness of a team leader.

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I first met Michal soon after my winter mountaineering accident in the spring of 2013. Tomomi, Nao, Ted, Miguel and I embarked on the famed Rock Garden walk in Kobe and we invited him along for the climb. Having not heard back from him, we assumed that he’d be unable to attend, but at the Kazafuki-iwa lookout, there he stood, alongside his Vietnamese wife Thuy, welcoming us with open arms and tagging along for the descent back down to Okamoto station. We all came to know Michal from the Hiking in Japan community on Facebook for which he was one of the earliest members, and it was a pleasure to put a face with a name so to speak, getting to know someone in the physical, as opposed to cyber, form.

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A few months later, Michal joined us for the 2nd Hiking in Japan gathering in Kamikochi. He showed up a day early on Friday evening and sat with us around the campfire, sharing a bit of details about his life. He had come to Japan from The Czech Republic to study Japanese, landing a part-time job at Montbell to both earn an income and surround himself with like-minded outdoor enthusiasts. He was soft-spoken, preferring to sit back and absorb the conversation and always seemed to know when to chime in with an insightful comment. He was as elusive in his thoughts and feelings as he was in his climbing plans, and as he left the campfire, his only words were “I have to get up early tomorrow.”

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Little did we know he was about to climb the northern ridge of Mae-hotaka, along a spiny route scaling 7 different peaks before reaching the apex of the 3090-meter mountain. From there he descended via Dakesawa and slithered back into camp, joining the festivities as if he had just stepped off the bus. He was a keen observer and listener, shooting footage of the event ala James Benning.

As the winter snows settled on the archipelago, I was invited on an ascent of Mt. Sanjō in the Omine mountains. Although I could not embark on the snowy climb, I did join Michal, Thuy, and a few other friends for a Nepalese dinner before heading back to Michal’s apartment near Nagai Park for tea. The cozy apartment and Thuy’s warm hospitality made me feel right at home, and although I could not join the hike, I could share the sense of excitement that draws Michal to the higher and more challenging peaks in Japan.

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As the wintry snow gave way to the first thaws of spring 2015, I noticed less and less activity on Michal’s brilliant blog Dreams in Clouds. His honest writing style comes straight from the heart, and is remarkable in its fluidity considering English is not his native tongue. Not one to be too nosy or intrusive, I let things play out, hoping that my Czech companion would hopefully find the time and inspiration to upload another bit of prose. Sure enough, in the autumn I received an invitation to Michal’s wedding with his new bride Moeko. It seems that the relationship with Thuy had gone sour, and the chaos of a broken relationship, blossoming love, and visa woes took precedence over climbing adventures and blog posts.

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Unable to attend the ceremony, I sent my regards and an invitation of my own to the Hiking in Japan gathering in the Suzuka mountains of Mie Prefecture, just one week after his wedding ceremony. With such a hectic schedule, I had my doubts as to whether the newlywed would be able to attend. After arriving at the campsite, I headed up the trail towards the summit of Mt. Nyūdō with a couple of companions, and halfway up the steep slopes, a lone figure descended from the ridge above. It was Michal, smiling in the early afternoon sun after a morning ascent of Mt. Kama and a long loop along the ridge back down to the campsite. I gave a high five, congratulating him on his mammoth climb and told him to save me a place around the campfire that evening.

Once settled back into camp, Michal opened up, telling a gut-wrenching story about his early winter ascent of Mt. Kasa, having arrived on the summit after nightfall and passing out immediately after digging out an improvised bivy directly under the summit shrine. The following day was a hair-raising drop through avalanche terrain down the Kasa Shindō route back to Shin-hodaka hot spring. He ended his story with a phrase that still sticks with me to this day. Even though the climb was filled with perilous moments, “it really was the best time”, as laugher erupted around the campfire. Such was the influence of Michal’s innate story-telling prowess that not a single camper was left without awe and respect.

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At the conclusion of the gathering, Michal and I shared a bus and train back to Osaka, where he did open up a bit to me about the changes in his life. Again, I did not pry into his personal affairs, allowing him to divulge as much or as little as he saw fit. “I’m planning a challenging climb next year”, he stated, not divulging any details of his intentions. Perhaps he preferred it this way, not wanting his friends or loved ones to worry too much about his safety and instead just enjoying his wonderful blog posts and captivating videos upon completion of his epic ascents.

“Well, both winter and spring are very dangerous. I also do not have enough experience to manage the risk safely. I risk a lot and that makes me scared. And yet I cannot give up. Risk is like a drug. I get used to it and I need more to give me the same feeling of challenge. If I do not stop, some day the risk will be bigger than i can manage and I will have an accident. I love life so much. I do not want to bring myself to the edge of life and death.”

– Michal Vojta, July 2016

In late August, just one week shy of his 30th birthday, Michal embarked on his mountaineering masterpiece. It was supposed to be the culmination of everything that he had learned and done up until this point. It was supposed to prove his point of pure alpinism, unhindered by man-made rules and paradigms.

Except that it wasn’t meant to be.

On the 25th of August, 2016, Michal reached the summit of the Eiger via the western flank of the mountain. It was a solo climb of the iconic peak in the Swiss Alps, a mountain that perhaps he had on his radar since childhood. Shortly after summiting, while crossing a snowfield high up on the western ridge, he lost his footing, sliding nearly 150 meters down the perilous slopes. He did not survive that tumble.

The following day, after failing to report back to his accommodation, a rescue helicopter was sent out and recovered his body. News of this tragic event spread like wildfire through the Japanese climbing community, and with no witnesses to the accident, it has left more questions than answers.

Was this his magnum opus, a final climb before reaching the age of 30 and finally calming his appetite for pushing the boundaries? Or would his summiting of the mighty Eiger only continue to feed his endless yearning to walk the fine line?

Michal is survived by his wife Moeko and his family back in Brno. His influence on the hiking community here in Japan will not be forgotten, and on every mountain I climb from here on out, I’ll be thinking of you Michal Vojta, as you live in your eternal dream in the clouds.

 

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