A brush with death in the Yatsugatake Mountains

by Oscar Boyd

Staff Writer

While Tokyo basks in the warmth of early spring and enjoys its first wave of cherry blossoms, late March in more northerly and mountainous parts of Japan is a snowier affair that lends itself to a spot of spring mountaineering.

I joined an expedition guided by David Niehoff of Kanto Adventures to climb Mount Aka, a 2,899 meter behemoth on the southern border of Nagano Prefecture. Part of the Yatsugatake Mountain Range, it is flanked to the west by Mount Amida and to the north by Mount Yoko. Together, the three peaks appear as a set of crooked bottom teeth, rising with an obstinate inelegance from the gummy, red earth that gives Mount Aka its name.

The trek starts at 6 a.m. on a Saturday, allowing us a warm-up hike to the top of Mount Io (2,760 meters). From the road, we follow a pretty, snow-covered path that meanders over a tributary of the Kami River. I feel far removed from Tokyo, and with the open sky comes a sense of relaxation that is spoiled only slightly by a lyricless version of “Winter Wonderland” that repeats in my head ad nauseam.

We set up camp at Akadake Kosen Cabin, which sits in a valley at the base of Mount Aka. It is an overly luxurious (yes, it has heated toilet seats) yet surprisingly reasonable lodge where guests dine on teppanyaki steak in the evening for just ¥2,000. Happy with a more brutal approach, we choose to cook keema curry for dinner (no regrets) and sleep in a tent beneath a freezing sky (some regrets), feet triple-wrapped in socks.

At 7 a.m. on the Sunday, we leave for the summit; a late start, but we’d put in much of the legwork the previous day and there are but 700 vertical meters to the summit. My cold feet are happy to be working and, with the rising sun, warmth spreads into my extremities.

The path to the top starts with a shallow climb through a forest. Half a meter of snow had fallen two nights previously and it is still soft underfoot, with a crisp top layer that needs breaking. Following the Bunzaburo trail, we exit the forest onto a ridge that leads us up Mount Aka’s west shoulder. The weather is glorious, with zero cloud cover, a gentle breeze and snow that, though prone to avalanche from the previous days’ fall, seems solid enough beneath our crampon-equipped feet. The main danger comes from the sun, which threatens to burn us all.

We are joined on the mountain by other groups making the most of the weather. There are short bottlenecks on narrow sections, but generally the progression is smooth.

As we get higher, all changes. The wind picks up and, by the time we are on the summit approach, it is ferocious, gusting above 100 kph. In a brief moment of calm, we dare a few steps forward, but the wind returns with a vengeance and the call comes down the line: “Turn around. It is too dangerous.”

So we descend, put out to have made it so far and to have not reached the summit. But the decision is the right one. As we reach the lodge, three helicopters begin to circle above the mountain; seven have fallen on neighboring Mount Amida.

An hour passes as we pack down our camp and the helicopters continue their rescue. The drone of the blades is distracting and forces our attention to the sky. Eventually, four climbers are airlifted with injuries to hospital; the remaining three are found in cardiopulmonary arrest, tragically killed by the fall.

I return to Tokyo feeling somber. Death was carried on that wind.