© Christopher Earls Brennen

Hike C1. Kurodake, Hokkaido


Most hikers have an unwritten list of mountains that they would like to climb. And Mount Fuji is on many of those lists because of the hallowed place it occupies in the Japanese culture and mythology. The Japanese regard the symmetry of its nearly perfect conical shape as implying a sacred origin and the number of paintings, view points and photographs that celebrate views of Fuji are numberless. Yet this same monotonous symmetry makes the hike up Mount Fuji somewhat boring. The Japanese have a saying that everyone should climb Fuji once but only a fool would climb it twice. What makes the hike even less enjoyable is that, for the few summer months when the snow is gone, there is an almost unbroken queue of people trudging up to the summit.

Yet, despite all this, when I went to Japan for a couple of months in the spring of 1993, one of my private objectives was to get to the top of Fuji-san. When I mentioned this plan in a letter to my principal host, Professor Akira Shima of Tohuku University, he replied that this would not be possible because ``Mt. Fuji is closed''. It seems that the Japanese, who love rules and usually obey them without question, had long ago established ``a season'' for climbing Fuji that begins on July 1. I, being singularly unimpressed by arbitrary rules, still thought I might be able to sneak away some weekend and attempt the climb. It seems, however, that my reputation had preceded me for it became clear that Shima and my other hosts had arranged a schedule that did not have the two successive free days that would be necessary for the attempt. And so my ambitions were thwarted. Of course, it must also be added that during the month of April when I would be within striking distance of the mountain, the depth of snow and the severity of the weather make it foolish for anyone to attempt the climb and particularly foolhardy to try to do it alone. Nevertheless, I felt some sense of frustration especially since I had come well-equipped for the snow. Early the previous winter I had purchased crampons (spiked frames you strap to your boots) and had practised snow climbing with them on the slopes of Mount Baldy in California.

During the first month and a half of my stay in Japan I did have the opportunity to climb a number of mountains in central and southern Japan. Almost always some fellow academic accompanied me. Thus I climbed To-no-dake (4892ft) in Tanzawa Quasi-National Park with my friend, Yoichiro Matsumoto, of Tokyo University. And with another friend, Yoshi Tsujimoto of Osaka University, I climbed two very interesting and very different mountains. One day during ``Golden Week'' we drove to the village of Dorogawa in the wilderness area south of Osaka and climbed the sacred mountain of Sanjo-go-take (5640ft) also commonly known as Omine-san. We encountered many shamanistic pilgrims or ``Yamabushi'' whose sect requires them to make the pilgrimage to this summit at least once a year. Near the summit the trail was lined with stone memorials and the air was filled with chanting and incense. Later, during a visit to the beautiful island of Yakushima south of Kyushu, we negotiated our way past a large group of Japanese macaques and through fantastic semi-tropical forest and meadows with crystal streams on our way to the magnificent 6007ft summit known as Kuromi-dake. These climbs were very enjoyable and interesting but not exceptionally challenging. I still harboured a desire to climb a really challenging mountain, to escape from my caperones and, perhaps, to demonstrate that I could have climbed Fuji anyway if I had been given a chance. Call it Irish stubbornness.


In late May, I travelled to the relatively remote northern island of Hokkaido. Because of the severity of the winters this island was only settled about 150 years ago by the Japanese or ``Yamoto'' who displaced the native inhabitants known as the Ainu. The island is still sparsely populated and that population is almost entirely confined to the flat valleys between the snow-covered mountain ranges. Consequently the government has been able to set aside large sections of the most beautiful mountains as National Parks. Moreover, the people of Hokkaido, descendants of frontiersmen, have a better developed sense of personal liberties. As a result I was allowed to travel to the outback on my own to visit the largest national park in Japan, the rugged wilderness known as Daisetsu-zan National Park. Specifically, I travelled first by train and then by bus to a small mountain village called Sounkyo (at 43o43.61'N 142o56.84'E and an elevation of 2080ft) that lies in a deep gorge in Daisetsuzan National Park. High above the rim of the gorge is a range of towering, snow-covered peaks and the most dramatic of these is the spectacular 6509ft peak known as Kurodake or ``the black peak''. The name was clearly motivated by the basalt cliffs that surround three sides of the summit and stand out in stark contrast to the snow-field on the fourth side. In its shape, Kurodake is often likened to the Matterhorn though, in all honesty, it is much less steep than that fabled alpine landmark. Kurodake and the other peaks of this range are inaccessible except for a brief period in the late summer when the snow dwindles to patches. Then, when most of the snow has melted, Kurodake is easy to climb. But in late May it is very clear that to all intents and purposes ``Mt. Kurodake is closed''.

However, no one was there to stop me. Moreover, in an effort to draw tourists to this remote place, the local authorities had very recently constructed a cable car that climbs from Sounkyo up to the rim of the gorge and provides a substantial start in climbing Kurodake.


Early in the morning, I took the first cable car to the top station (at about 43o42.66'N 142o56.40'E and an elevation of 4180ft) about 2100ft above Sounkyo and sneaked off onto the surrounding snowfield. No one kept any special watch for no one would dream of doing such a thing since ``Mt. Kurodake was closed''. After about a quarter of a mile I was out of sight of the top station and turned toward the mountain. The first hour and a half of the climb was fairly straightforward. My crampons made climbing in the snow quite easy and I made steady progress up the snowfield that led toward the summit. But toward the end of the second hour, the slope began to get quite steep. I progressed by digging in the toe spikes of my crampons and using my gloved hands to maintain my stance. Only occasionally did I encounter snow into which I sank to my waist. But as I neared the summit, the snow began to get very deep and the mist began to thicken. I began to fear an inadvertant encounter with the edge of the black cliffs. Eventually, despite my stubbornness, I had to conclude that it was too dangerous to continue. Though I felt that the summit might be only a few yards further, it would have been extremely foolhardy to continue. And so I turned around.


It was only then that I realized the true precariousness of my position. Climbing a steep, snow-covered slope is one matter. Trying to descend is quite another matter entirely. It was much more difficult to secure a firm foothold when descending than when ascending. I barely inched my way down the slope. There were several moments when only the slimmest margin separated me from a life-threatening slide down the mountain. And it took many minutes to recover my nerve after those moments. I would breathly very deeply to regain my composure and then take another small step. It also occurred to me that I definitely did not want to die on that mountain and that I very much wanted to see my wife and children again. Eventually, I made it to the lower slopes where I could have confidence in my ability to stop any slide. Then I made rapid progress walking down the snowfield, retracing my steps in the snow. The hours of daylight were rapidly dwindling as I sneaked back into the cable car station. I half-expected an official ``unwelcoming'' reception party. But no one seemed to have noted my long absence and I caught the last descending cable car to the base station.

An odd sort of euphoria came over me once I reached the safety of the cable car. Perhaps it was the oft-described, heightened appreciation of life that seems to follow any brush with death. Perhaps the accumulated adrenalin provides a natural narcotic. I know I thought especially of Doreen and my children. And, for the moment, I lost that sense of purpose that usually governs my travels. At the base station, I lingered somewhat aimlessly amid the souvenir stands. It occurred to me that I had bought very little for my wife and children. Yet, like most souvenir stands, there was little here that was worth buying and I would normally have passed straight on. But, for reasons I still do not fully understand, my attention was transfixed by one particular object, a bright pink baseball cap proclaiming ``Hokkaido''. Acting on impulse, I bought this garish hat, imagining that I would give it to my eldest daughter. Perhaps it was that the cap reflected the fluoresence of my life at that moment.

And so I still had not overcome the kind of challenge I had sought. I had failed to climb Mt. Kurodake; I had discovered that indeed ``Mt. Kurodake was closed''. And yet I now understood why I felt such resentment when I heard that phrase. Mountains are wild and free and dangerous and beautiful. They are never conquered; one merely trespasses upon them for a brief moment in time. For anyone to arbitrarily declare that a mountain is closed seemed an insult to that spirit and to its reflection in my soul. I felt some measure of satisfaction that I was stopped by my own fraility and not by some arbitrary rule. Some measure of joy for having experienced the wild beauty of that mountain at that particular moment in time. And some measure of pride that the moment was mine alone.

Moreover, I was to find out just how close I did, in fact, come to conquering Kurodake. I stayed the night in Sounkyo and the next morning dawned bright and beautiful, sunny and clear. I had a couple of hours before my bus left and so I decided to ride the cable car again in order to take some photographs of Kurodake from that vantage point. I was rewarded with a magnificent view from the observation deck on the roof of the top station. Kurodake and the other neighbouring peaks rose majestically above me, shining in the morning sun. The observation deck was also equipped with the standard telescopes one often finds in such locations and so I idly focussed one of these on the summit of Kurodake (at 43o41.81'N 142o55.23'E and an elevation of 6509ft). And there, clear as day, were my tracks in the snow in the otherwise pristine snowfield. They led directly up toward the summit and came to a halt only a few yards from the peak. Though I did not know it at the time, a small effort would have placed me at the top. There were no other tracks in the snow near the summit. Clearly I had been the first person to attempt to climb Kurodake that year.

Someday I will return to Japan during late July or August. I will catch the bus from Tokyo to the Fifth Station more than half-way up Fuji and I will follow hundreds of others as they make their way up the well-worn trail to the summit of that symbolic mountain. Maybe, like many others, I will climb in the dark in order to enjoy the beauty of the sunrise. No doubt I shall feel some sense of accomplishment. But it will not come close to the raw power of my experience on Kurodake and my elation at seeing my footprints reach toward the summit of that mountain. Perhaps I am crazy.

Last updated 9/1/00.
Christopher E. Brennen