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Shaken up – part 3

8:08am

After the tears dry I pull myself together and look through class materials, knowing that I will have no need for these today but convincing myself that taking my mind of the unfolding catastrophe will somehow help.

8:30am

The first administrative staff arrive at school but are unable to give an answer to our inquiries regarding class cancellations. The waiting game begins.

8:35am

The first aftershock rumbles through the building sending our rattled nerves closer to the edge.

8:45am

Still no official word from the administration, but I know that classes will eventually be cancelled. It’s just a matter of whether it will be announced before first period commences at 9am

8:55am

Not a peep from the higher-ups, so I head to my classroom to find 10 brave students sitting still in class. They were the lucky ones, having either walked from their nearby dwellings or having made an earlier train before the rumbling begins. One student confesses that he was sitting in the classroom having breakfast when the quake hit.

9:00am

As class ‘officially begins’, I plug in the laptop and stream NHK on the flat screen TV. I offer the following instructions:

1) There will be no class today. Please work on tasks from other courses or contact your friends and family on Line.

2) If a strong aftershock occurs, duck under your desk and move away from the windows.

9:10am

An announcement over the loudspeaker confirms that morning classes have been cancelled. Morning classes only. I leave everything in my classroom and head back to the teachers lounge to await further instruction. All train lines have been indefinitely suspended.

10:45am

I am informed that all classes have been cancelled. With no trains in operation, I head to the cafeteria for an early lunch and to weigh the options.

11:30am

Still no movement on the trains, so I do a bit of navigating on Google Maps and make a breakthrough discovery. My house is directly over the mountain behind the school. There is no trail to speak of, but a network of paved roads will lead me through the greenery home. Old man Google says it’s a 15km walk. So the journey begins.

(To be continued)

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Shaken up – part 2

8:00am

As my heart rate returns to an under-par golf score I take a few unsteady steps to the convenience store and step inside. Merchandise is strewn about the floors, punctured cans of toppled coffee forming a small lake in the far aisle in which a few pre-packaged loaves of bread stay afloat. I step over the mess, grab a 2-liter bottle of water, and head to the register. A shell-shocked employee rings me up, her upper lip quivering as an unsteady voice announces my total. I hand over the coins and step aside, sheepishly slipping away instead of offering to assist in the cleanup.

8:05am

I arrive at school and immediately plug in the laptop to get a read of the situation. National broadcaster NHK has set up a live stream on their site, so I clicke the feed to find the epicenter relatively close to my current position – hence the violent jolt and disheveled state of things. I abandon my fruitless pursuit to ring my wife and opt for a text message, which seems to go through. A prompt reply ensures that everything is fine on her end. A few other teachers have somehow made it to school as we ponder about class cancellations. The office won’t open for another half an hour, so there is nothing to do but watch the news and wait. The first reports of fatalities come in as helicopters send down images of damage and destruction. A busted water mane in Tatatsuki city sends up a geyser of water 10 meters in height. Rescuers frantically try to lift a concrete block wall that has crushed a 9-year-old girl on her way to school. Reminders that any one of us could go at any time without warning.

(To be continued)

 

 

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Is there a more scenic ridge in the Minami Alps than the sandy granite boulders of the Hō-ō mountains? Some may favor the loftier heights of the Akaishi mountains and their distinctive deposits of red chert and green limestone, but what Hō-ō lacks in altitude it more than makes up for in scenery.

The mountains sit snugly against the Kofu basin, soaking up the fine rays of sunshine which often grace the Yamanashi prefectural capital. After a period of rainy weather, it is indeed the Hō-ō mountains that make the earliest return to fair weather skies. It’s not too common for it to be sunny here while the rest of the Minami Alps lie caked in cloud and mist.

The mountain is most often referred to at the Hō-ō Sanzan, or the Three Peaks of the Phoenix. Named after the trio of Buddhist deities of healing (Yakushi), compassion (Kannon), and hell (Jizō), a full traverse of all three mountains in as a day-trip may very well conjure up the feelings of all three deities. Regardless, you will find a few trail runners in recent years who opt for the 27km return route from Yashajin-tōge. Those with a enlightened sense of sanity will want to break up the arduous journey by overnighting at either Minami-Omuro or Yakushidake mountain huts.

Most Hyakumeizan baggers opt for an ascent of Mt. Kannon, the highest mountain in the range, while adventure seekers prefer the vertical climb to the top of the obelisk, Hō-ō’s unofficial symbol and a rock outcrop that make it clearly identifiable from the summits of Yamanashi’s surrounding peaks.

The photo used on the calendar was supplied by Naresh Deora, an Indian hiker who splits time between Tokyo and Kofu. He is currently attempting to climb the Yamanashi Hyakumeizan, a collection of 100 peaks located within the prefectural borders. If successful, he will be the second foreigner (behind Julian and his amazing border terrier Hana) to complete the mountains. At the time of writing Naresh has currently finished 73 of the 100.

Trekkers typically start at Yashijin-tōge on the long gentle slog to Yakushi, Kannon and Jizo, where several option await. Most turn right and head down to one of the hot springs flanking the eastern foothills. Others continue along the ridge over to Kai-koma, a tough ridge of undulating track that will take a full day to navigate. This the route I chose back in 2005 during my first visit to the mountain range. Last year, I made a return visit to assess trail conditions for a forthcoming guidebook that I am co-authoring. The publisher needed clear-weather photos and the weather fairies delivered, possibly bringing me the best weather I have ever had in the Minami Alps.

On that traverse over to Kai-koma, the first major peak along the ridge is none other than Takamine, a peak just one meter lower than Mt. Yakushi but just as impressive. Amazingly, this mountain was not included in the Hō-ō triumvirate, perhaps because Japan likes to group things together by threes and not fours. Thus, a deity was not enshrined here and the rather mundane name of ‘tall peak’ put in its place. If given the chance, I would suggest offering the mountain to Dainichi, the Buddha representing emptiness.

 

 

 

 

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Shaken up – part 1

7:56am

I push the button next to the door of the Kizu-bound JR train – those self-service buttons on rural trains that only allow those in the know to exit the train. The doors open and I glide onto the platform, swimming through throngs of high school students funneling through the ticket gates. My ticket is swallowed by the wicket machinery, and allows passage via a narrow flight of stairs to the north-south corridor of route 22. Descending down to street level, I turn left along the narrow shoulder to my usual stance at the broad intersection. From here I can hop through the pedestrian crossing and directly into the convenience store, avoiding the rush of students following pursuit. It’s a perfect plan, and part of my usual Monday morning routine to kick off yet another busy week.

7:58am

I stand at the front of the pack, like a marathon runner taking position at the starting gates. Suddenly, I am pushed from behind and instinctively lurch forward into the middle of the road. The asphalt thrusts upward, throwing me off my stance. I scurry over across the street, against the light, along with around 50 other students who are escaping from the terrifying sound of screeching metal and the unmistakable ping of electric wires. Screams of panic fill the air – I turn around and glance up at the pedestrian overpass swaying with panic-striken kids holding onto the railing for dear life. Directly behind me, the wall of students patiently waiting for the red light is replaced by an undulating wall of scaffolding, teetering on the edge of collapse. Is this what pushed me from behind?

7:59am

Hands on my knees, I pant for air and wait for my redlining heart beat to subside. I watch as the power lines continue to sway, always among the last things to stop moving during a seismic event. Reality starts to set in – this was a quake, and quite a strong one at that.

(To be continued)

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The Togakushi highlands are an oft-overlooked section of northern Nagano prefecture offering a unique mix of nature and culture. The Togakushi range is dominated by the pyramidal peak of Takazuma, one of the Hyakumeizan, while the lower jagged ridge of Mt. Togakushi is relegated to 200meizan status.

The cliffs of Togakushi make for a stunning backdrop against the green pastures of the farmlands sitting snugly at the foot of the range. Troupes of wild monkeys can sometimes be seen foraging through the long grass in search of sustenance.

Rough igneous rock soars skyward as a reminder to Togakushi’s tumultuous past. Fossilized sea shells scattered along the summit plateau suggest subaqueous origins, a massive underwater volcano violently thrusting itself up to a height of nearly 2000 metres.

The climbing routes starts from the upper precincts of Togakushi Shrine, itself reached via a 2km corridor flanked by towering cryptomeria trees that make for a picturesque backdrop if you can manage to find a brief break in the large crowds that march like a holy procession.

From the the shrine a narrow path rises through native beech forests to the base of the cliff face. Fixed chains lead climbers through a maze of crumbly rock to an exposed knife edge ridge, which for once actually lives up to its name.

After this gravity-defying walkway the route opens up to the summit plateau, where it’s an easy stroll along the ridge over the summit and down to a saddle marking the entrance to Mt. Takazuma. Hyakumeizan hunters can typically be found resting in front of a bomb shelter of an emergency hut perched directly on top of this junction. Crowds often grow here, with peakbaggers giving Togakushi a miss in favor of Takazuma’s impressive pyramidal tower, a castle keep of sorts.

Unobstructed vistas all the way down to Mt. Fuji can be found on rare days of fair weather and good visibility. Most visitors are cursed with that all-too-familiar blanket of fog.

It’s easy to become enamored with the sheer beauty of the place, well deserving as its spot on the May page of the wall calendar. Observant folks will also recognize the cover shot of the calendar as no other than Togakushi’s kagami-ike (lit: mirror lake). From this angle Togakushi looks split in two, with jagged peaks rising both to the left and right of the lake shores. The left peak is Nishidake, whose rocky spire actually rises higher than the summit of Mt. Togakushi itself. Perhaps it is time to pay this ‘Western Peak’ a visit.

 

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Another autumn had arrived, almost as swiftly as the one that felt like it had just passed. The meant another meeting of the mountaineering minds in the form of our annual gathering. I think it was Paul who had mentioned Hakuba as a possible place for our rotating event, and with the Banff Mountain Film Festival passing through the area in late September, it seemed like a natural match.

Rie, Paul, Hisao and I all met in Nagoya for the 3-1/2 hour drive to Lake Aoki on the southern edge of the ski mecca of Hakuba. With Rie behind the wheel, it was a delightful drive fueled by the intense competition of our 4-way Name that Tune battle. Paul connected his phone to the car stereo and set thematic playlists on random while we all fought for the envious title of champion. The rules were simple: 1 point each for the Artist and the Song Title, followed by an extra point if you could name the movie in which it appeared. Points could be split between several people, and the first person to reach 25 points was crowned winner. We kick off the proceedings with the 80s, with Paul and I neck-and-neck to the very end. He won by just a point while we moved onto the 70s and 90s, where I was schooled pretty heavily.

Upon reaching the lakeside campground in the mid-afteroon, we were delighted to see that Naresh, Bjorn, Miguel, and Eri had already settled into camp. Miguel brought along his inflatable kayak along with a separate blow-up sofa that we all took turns inadvertently bouncing off of. In a move rarely seen in the past 5 gatherings, I set to work in the kitchen, cooking up some chicken and pasta that left the others flabbergasted. Usually in my role of host, I somehow manage to slip away during the busy prep work of dinner, but here I was taking the lead and actually serving other people for once. I have to admit that I wanted to get everyone stuffed and satisfied before we headed up to Iwatake ski resort for the main event. Miguel’s homemade moussaka was a big hit to say the list, and served as a delectable delicacy for our humbled minds and curious stomachs. Meanwhile, Viviana’s video chat from Austria made us feel nostalgic for the old days when she was stilling based here in Japan. Shortly after, we all gathered in front of Michal’s memorial tarp for group photo antics.

As the sun receded towards the horizon, we bought firewood and rented a foldable stove and waited to see if Ed would arrive in time for the film festival. He was running a bit behind schedule, so he agreed to meet us at the campsite afterwards as the 7 of us crammed into Naresh’s minivan for the 20-minute ride to the Banff Mountain Film Festival. This annual film festival tours the world, and every year reaches Japan’s shores in the busy autumn season. However, there is usually only one outdoor showing in Japan, with the other dozen or so viewings relegated to a stuffy indoor theater. It seems silly to watch mountaineering films in the warm comforts of the theater instead of natural surroundings in the open air, which is why we all decided to descend onto the dew-covered slopes of Iwatake. The pre-show festivities were already in full swing upon arrival, with a live DJ spinning some smooth house tunes and a half dozen food and beverage vendors spread out in front of the ski lodge. A slackline even made a guest appearance as Paul rubbed elbows with a few school children who were using the contraption as a makeshift trampoline.

The festival started promptly, and upon entry we were all presented a free gift from the masters of headgear over at Buff, the main sponsor of the event. We all received different designs, with the lucky ones the recipient of a 100% merino wool head wrap, which retails for just over 5000 yen. Considering that entry to the festival is only 1500 yen, we all considered ourselves ahead of the game, even for us unlucky few that were given 100% cotton head garments in lieu of the high-quality sheep hair. A drone flew over the crowd to shoot a promotional video for Buff, and we were all encouraged to show off our gifts.

55 Hours in Mexico, a short film created by Outdoor Research, kicked off the festival documenting a weekend assault of Mexico’s Orizaba, the third highest mountain in North America . That was followed up by Doing it Scared, an inspirational tale of a British climber overcoming a disability to tackle a spire that was the cause of his crippling accident. When We Were Knights, the tragic story of a fallen wingsuit diver, brought tears to everyone’s eyes while Young Guns showed off two teenage prodigies that are now treading new ground in the realm of Sport Climbing. After a brief intermission, the second half of the festival commenced with Danny MacAskill showing us all that anything is possible and impossible on a mountain bike. Next up came a backcountry ski mission to Alaska where a handful of gravity defiers swooped down near-vertical walls of powder snow to the gasps and yelps of the snow-hungry locals here in Hakuba. The evening ended with the Reel Rock classic A Line Across the Sky following Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold’s traverse of the Fitzroy massif in Patagonia. By the time the show was finished, our jaws were sore from having them hanging nonstop in gaped misbelief while watching the truly inspiring footage.

Once back at camp, we set up the campfire and told stories until well past our bedtime. We brought Michal’s photo over from his memorial tarp that we had erected in the campsite. This tarp was given to me by his widow and I vowed to carry on his memory for as long as we continue to hold these annual gatherings. Ed fired up his drone to show us the horsepower but we held off on the surveillance footage for the time being.

 

The next morning dawned bright and clear, with pleasant early-autumn skies. After a brief visit down to the lakeshore to catch up with Justin, we spend most of the morning trying to finish our leftover food between turns in the kayak. Miguel’s moussaka and Bjorn’s pancakes kept our stomachs filled to capacity, with sips of coffee and chai thrown in for good measure. Paul tried very hard into coaxing me into a climb to Yari onsen, but I just wasn’t feeling up for it. The weeks of exhaustion from climbing four major peaks in the Minami Alps had caught up with me, and I needed a proper rest to fully recover. Regretfully, I had to turn down the very tempting offer to accompany him and we all ended up heading back to Nagoya, but not before stopping off at an onsen and indulging on the Kurobe dam curry. We also had a rematch of Name That Tune, with songs from the 50s that I had once again lost by mixing up Elvis and the Beatles and calling the new group ‘Beavis’. Miguel and Eri headed back to Kobe, Naresh back to Tokyo, Ed on his way to Ueda, and before we knew it another gathering had come to an end, but not before some obligatory lakeside drone photos.

 

This year’s gathering was very small compared to the ones in the past. It’s a tough call: have it in a touristy place such as Kamikochi and several dozen will show up, but host it in a far-off place that you need to go out of your way to find and only the most dedicated and hardcore attend. I think I know which one I prefer.

 

 

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The Calendar Footage

Now that the official Hiking in Japan wall calendar has been released, I’m starting a new monthly series on the Tozan Tales about each mountain that made the final cut. Those in possession of the calendar can get some interesting ‘behind the scenes’ footage while learning more about some of Japan’s lesser-known summits. There’s still time to procure one if you’re looking for a great holiday gift. An added bonus is that you can start using the calendar immediately, since the first month is December 2017.

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The Gathering V

It’d been a rough summer for everyone, especially when the news trickled down from the slopes of the Eiger. We’d lost one of our own, a member of our extended family who had attended the second and fourth meetings of the mountaineering minds. I knew this one would be for Michal, but where would be the best place? Back at Kamikochi, where I first had the pleasure of meeting him? Or a return to Suzuka, which turned out to be our very last encounter?

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The answer, it turned out, proved to be none-of-the-above, as Rie put forth a location in southern Nagano by the name of Jimbagatayama. The 1400-meter summit affords views of both the Minami and Chuo Alps, two places that were like a second home to our fallen hero. Rie, Miguel, Eri, Paul, Naresh, Tomomi and I settled on a date in early November and commenced with the all-important preparation.

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On Friday, November 4th, I boarded an early evening train to Nagoya to crash on Paul’s floor. Being based in Chubu would save an early morning train ride at the crack of dawn and allowed the two of us to catch up since last hiking together during Golden Week. Paul was busy preparing two pots of chili in the kitchen and I jumped right in to offer assistance. Between stirs of the simmering chili pot, Paul told me a little about his trip to Kyrgyzstan and his other recent mountaineering endeavors. He set up the computer as we accessed Michal’s Vimeo account and downloaded all of his self-shot and edited videos for use at the next day’s event.

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Rie showed up at our door at 7am the following morning. Paul shared some banana cake that the Yamaholic had sent him in thanks for the laptop he’d sent to her. Unfortunately, the Yamaholic would be unable to attend this year’s gathering, but her presence was felt with every bite of our morning meal.  We loaded the kit into the back of Rie’s car and sped off to the bakery to pick up focaccia sandwiches and other finger bites from a local bakery. Before heading to Nagano, we needed to help Rie recce the highest mountain in Kasugai city for an upcoming school excursion. Never underestimate a 400 meter mountain. What looked like a small hill from the parking lot turned out to be a lot tougher than initially thought. The trail climbs to the ridge and then follows the Tokai Shizen Hodo for a while before topping out on the summit of Mt. Miroku, which afforded hazy vistas of Ontake and Hakusan.

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Once back at the car, we drove under Enasan and into Nagano Prefecture towards Jimbagata. Due to a bit of miscommunication, we detoured slightly to Komagane to pick up Joseph, who just managed to squeeze into the back seat among all of our warm weather camping gear. Rie navigated the tight switchbacks of the forest road with ease, as we pulled into the barricaded path to the campground entrance. Miguel had warned us on an earlier message that parking would be extremely limited due to construction on part of the campground. The Hiking in Japan members sprung into action, and with everyone’s assistance we had our cache of gear hauled into camp. Shelters were set up on an attractive stretch of grass on the edge of the plateau.

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While the weather still held, I gathered up the troops for the short walk to the summit of Jimbagata, where we admired the views and gathered around the lens for a group photo. En route I ran into Ian Kerr, a fellow hiking enthusiast and fellow member of the Hiking in Japan group who happened to be on the mountain by chance. He gladly joined us on the summit and we had an opportunity to chat a bit about the mountains. With over 1700 members of the Facebook community, you’re bound to run into fellow armchair mountaineers wherever you go.

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The panoramic views coaxed us into peak-dropping, as our fingers pointed to mountains on the horizon. The entire Minami and Chuo Alps were visible from our perch, sans Hououzan and Kai-koma, which were concealed behind the broad flank of Mt. Senjo. Members eventually trickled back down to camp in order to commence meal preparations. Tomomi had yet to arrive, so we couldn’t start the campfire since we were waiting for her portable fireplace to arrive – open fires are not permitted on the plateau in order to preserve the delicate ecosystem. An emergency hut stands adjacent to the tent sites, and it would make for a great refuge in foul weather if not for the scaffolding surrounding its sturdy walls. The hut is currently undergoing renovations, and rumor has it that the new hut will be staffed and will charge for future accommodation.

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The sun began to drop behind the Chuo Alps, which sent us all into a frenzy to catch the alpenglow on the Minami Alps. Naresh broke out his camera, as Paul contemplated doing a time lapse shot, but decided that the scenery was too good to capture with just one shot. Just at the brilliant hues of crimson and ochre reached their climax, my phone vibrated with news that Tomomi and Midori had arrived. I dropped back down to the campsite and recruited a few members to help us all ferry the supplies to camp. Since the regular parking lot was closed for renovations, it was a long walk of about 8 minutes from the temporary lot to the campsite, but we all pitched in without the slightest bit of hesitation. Alastair had to regretfully head back to Lake Suwa for a soccer game the following morning, which must have been a difficult decision as the celebration was just getting started.

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By now our small camp was thriving with activity. Guacamole was being prepared by Bjorn and company, while Rie cooked savory garlic ajillo over the campstove. Paul stirred the chili while Miguel got started on the campfire. Tomomi and Baku mixed the greek salad as Midori broke out the bottles of Nagano wine for all of us to sample. The drop of the sun behind the horizon sent the temperatures plummeting, which in turn sent us all scrambling for extra layers of clothing and jostling for a smoke-free space around the campfire. The wind kept changing directions, so we all had our bouts of smoke inhalation. When the fiery coals built up enough, Tomomi stuck the dutch oven on the fire while Paul set up the laptop. We streamed Michal’s videos and reflected on the inspiration he provided to us all. I had brought a framed photo of Michal that Paul set up in an empty chair. It still felt like a dream to us, like Michal was just out on a holiday and would be back any day now. Three months is still too early to get over the loss of a loved one, but we knew that Michal would still want us to carry on, to live life to the fullest and to spend quality time with like-minded outdoor enthusiasts. When I first set up the Hiking in Japan community on Facebook, I truly thought it would just be a way to promote my website. Little did I know that it would take on a life of its own and would serve as a catalyst to bring a core group of hikers together to share their experiences and create everlasting memories.

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After an hour or so, Tomomi took the dutch oven off the fire and opened the lid to reveal baked chicken, potatoes, onions that were cooked to perfection. Just as in the previous four gatherings, we had way more food than could possibly be finished by us all, but it’s much better to be over-prepared than to come up short-handed. We barely had room for Smores, but a few token sandwiches were made with Naresh’s jumbo-sized marshmallows. Viviana made a guest appearance via Skype while we passed the phone around. With bellies threatening to burst, several of us left the comfort of the campfire to re-climb the summit of Jimbagata in search of meteors. The Leonids were just beginning their annual celestial display, and with the sunken crescent moon, the stargazing conditions were prime. We craned our necks and managed to see a dozen or so of the shooting stars over the course of 90 minutes or so. Paul was particularly apt at finding the streaking light as I always seemed to be looking in the wrong part of the sky. Still, we had fun trying to play with the camera settings to capture the night spectacle.

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Sometime after midnight, we all retreated to the warmths of our sleeping bags. I collapsed almost immediately, and the next morning I was one of the last to rise. The sleeping bag was much too warm to squirm out of to enjoy the sunrise, so I laid under the tarp while the early risers prepared breakfast and stoked the fire back to life. Joseph set up a coffee bar in the corner of the sheltered cooking area while Miguel and Rie made hot panini sandwiches. Bjorn worked the griddle magic and passed fresh pancakes around to all. Eri cooked scrambled eggs over the campfire. Everyone was pitching in to cook something except me. I was selfishly wondering around in a bit of a daze, too exhausted and clumsy to be able to lend anyone a hand, something for which I regret. Naresh made fresh chai for everyone until being interrupted by an urgent telephone call. He had a serious, troubled look on his face. I sensed that he had just been the recipient of some bad news.  It turns out he had a family emergency and needed to get back to Tokyo as early as possible. We rearranged for Bjorn and family to ride with Midori while I helped Naresh gather his belongings and saw him off as he sped back to Tokyo.

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The first rays of warm sunshine filtered through the campsite, which put us all in a bit of a lazy trance. We were all having way too much fun and didn’t want it to end. The cleanup began slowly at first, as we all put off the inevitable. We managed to break down camp shortly before noon and posed for one last group photo before disbanding. Paul, Rie, and I headed back to Nagoya but not before stopping on the banks of the Tenryu river for one final glimpse of the Chuo Alps. Miguel and Rie also stopped by, as Paul brought back our juvenile spirit by showing us the best way to roll down a grass embankment.

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All in all it was another successful event, that never would have been possible without everyone’s assistance and support. I tend to put off making a decision about the annual gathering until the last minute, too distracted and sidetracked by other things going on in my life. In an effort to amend this, Paul suggest we make a decision about the 2017 gathering while we had the momentum.  With the Banff Mountain Film Festival making its tour of Japan in September, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to tether our annual gathering to this unique collection of film shorts. And since Hakuba hosts the festival in a rare open-air theater, it seemed like our next gathering was just destined to stay in Nagano. And so it goes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Finding time

Things have been a bit quiet here on the blog, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been busy. Michal’s tragic passing caught me off guard and literally took the wind out of my creative sails. I owe it to him to continue exploring the hidden depths of this land and to continue reporting on those summit cloaked in obscurity.

In the meantime, I continue work on an exciting guidebook project on the Japan Alps, and will create a new ‘behind the scenes’ series about it here on Tozan Tales. The last 6 months have involved revisiting a few long-lost alpine peaks, as well as exploring the surround hills in search of that perfect vista. I leave you with an image from one of those missions, which would undoubtedly make Peter Skov proud.

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Mt. Warusawa (L) and Mt. Akaishi (R), as seen from Mt. Jimbagata

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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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