Alpine Shooting in Winter (2)

Yuga Kurita Mount Fuji from Southern Alps Akaishi Mountains Mount Eboshidake Nikon_4E04130
Nikon D800E w/ AF-S Nikkor 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G ED

This is the second part of the story. Read it after the first part.

It was snowing at the top of Mount Eboshidake. It was very windy too. I could barely see a thing. I went down. But after 40 minutes of walk, the sky suddenly cleared up and I got direct sunlight for the first time in the mountain. I debated myself whether to go back to the summit to shoot Fuji or go down to the parking lot. The time was 1:00PM. It was almost midwinter. The sun sets much earlier than summer. I only had 3 and a half hours of daylight. Going back to the top and shooting Fuji with sunset means I would have to stay near the summit for a night. I wavered in my decision. I decided to leave the mountain just 40 minutes ago. Once you decide to go home and think about relaxing in a hot bath, it isn’t easy to determine to go back into the snowstorm.  The sky may turn back to grey while I’m climbing.  I looked up. Thin clouds were moving fast. Sometimes they turned into rainbow colours by the sunlight.

Yuga Kurita Rainbow Clouds Southern Alps_DSC0756
Nikon D5300 w/ AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G 


I made a decision to go back to the top and shoot Fuji.Years ago, I would hate my life because I knew I didn’t live fully. I gotta break down the status quo.  I wanted to challenge my limits.

My My Hey Hey
Rock and roll is here to stay
It’s better to burn out
Than to fade away
My My Hey Hey

I sang “My My Hey Hey” by Neil Young while going back to the top. The song was devoted to Johnny Rotten. But, for our generation, it became famous when Kurt Cobain quoted the lyrics in his suicide note. When I was young, adult people told me you would listen to Enka when you are old. No way! I’ll keep rocking till I die. Because I already walked the footpath twice today, it was quite easy to reach back to the top. It is hardest when you are the first one and have to create a path towards the top. Let’s respect pioneers in every field.

Yuga Kurita Mount Fuji Southern Alps December_DSC0766
Nikon D5300 w/ AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G

WOW! Fuji came into my sight when I reached the ridge leading to the summit.  I took out my Nikon D5300 from the waist pouch in a rush and took this shot. You never know when Fuji will hide again. I dumped my backpack and also took out my D800E from it to shoot wide angles shots. After all the hustle, I finally saw Fuji. Thank God! I sat down and gazed at Fuji for a while.

Yuga Kurita Mount Fuji Southern Alps December_4E04136
Nikon D800E w/ AF-S Nikkor 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G ED

After experimenting with all compositions I wanted to capture, I moved to the top of Mt. Eboshidake. I could see Mt. Shiomi (3,047m) located just next. But the top of Mt. Shiomi was hidden by clouds. Clouds came in front of me to block Mt. Fuji from my view while I was standing on the top. Still I could see Mt. Ogouchidake and the bothie near the summit. I thought I would be able to reach there by sunset. I put my D800E into the backpack and left the top of Mt. Eboshidake.

After walking for a minute, I was hit by a very strong wind. I managed to resist the wind and waited for the wind to die down. 5 seconds, 10 seconds, 30 seconds, 1 minute… What!? It never gets weaker. I concluded that winds are very strong on this alpine ridge today. It was not a temporal phenomenon. I immediately gave up my plan to go to Mt. Ogouchidake and stay at the bothie. I love challenging my limits but I don’t wanna do suicidal acts. These are different things, right? I determined to stay at Mt. Eboshidake to shoot sunset and make a bivouac near the summit. I’ll shoot Fuji from Mt. Ogouchidake when the conditions are better.

Yuga Kurita Bivouac Southern Alps KIMG0100
Kyocera Tough Smartphone TORQUE

I found a place where I could avoid strong winds near the summit and prepared for a bivouac. I set my Outdoor Research Alpine Bivy, and put my Mont-Bell sleeping bag in it. I tied the bivy to a nearby tree with a rope. I also used my Black Diamond Ice Axe to peg down the bivy. I prefer a bivy to a tent because I want to sleep near the shooting points.  It has better wind resistance and requires less flat space. I can walk just by 25m from this place to shoot Fuji. Although the wind was much weaker than the summit, still a relatively strong wind blew at times.

Yuga Kurita Mount Fuji Southern Alps December_4E04174
Nikon D800E w/ AF-S Nikkor 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G ED

Sometimes, clouds blocked Fuji from my view but Fuji showed up again at dusk. Alpenglow turned the white mountains wall pink.  Only those who climbed high mountains in winter can see it.

Yuga Kurita Southern Alps Sunset_DSC0799
Nikon D5300 w/ AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G

I turned back and was surprised at the burning sky. It felt as if I was watching Jupiter from Io. After shooting the sunset, Fuji hid behind clouds. I gave up shooting at night and crawled into my bivy sack. It will be a long night. It was still 6:00PM.

Well, my bivy sack may look like a plastic coffin. You may think  it is impossible to sleep in such but it is possible if you are tired enough to sleep like a corpse. I set an alarm for every two hours to briefly check out the conditions so I knew it started to snow at night. I anticipated that it would stop by sunrise and I would be able to shoot Fuji in the morning.  I stayed in the bivy till 5 O’clock in the morning. It was a mistake.

When I opened the zipper of the bivy, a lot of snow came into it. I managed to get out of the bivy and saw that my backpack was buried in snow. It snowed heavily. The mountains have had at least 50cm (20 inches) of snow and it was still snowing. I regret to tell you but I took no photograph on this day (Dec. 4), because I was on the verge of being lost. Not a single photo. I didn’t even use my smartphone to take a photo since it also served as the GPS receiver and map. I didn’t want to waste battery for activities not contributing to my survival.

Since it was snowing, I gave up shooting Fuji in the morning and started pack up my backpack. It was freezing. The temperature was almost -20 Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit). I tried to do it quickly but I felt I was all thumbs. My brain didn’t work very efficiently. It took two hours for me to get ready to leave there. When I woke up, it was pitch-dark. But the black world had already turned dark grey. The sun already rose but thick clouds blocked the sunlight and I didn’t get any direct sunlight on this day.

They say that descending is more difficult than ascending in winter mountains. I confirmed it is true particularly when it is heavily snowing!  If it hadn’t snowed, I could’ve easily retrace my own footsteps. But they were all gone. The snow was waist-high and deeper in some places. I needed to spend a minute to move ahead 10 meters.  I lost sight of the footpath. Everything was white. I slid down a steep slope to the dale. Then, I headed to the Sanpuku pass using the compass and GPS.

Don’t panic! I remembered the wise phrase written on the cover of my favourite book, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” In a desperate situation, those who are panicking die first. Well, even if you don’t panic, still you might die. But there’s much more probability of survival. “Don’t worry. You have a towel too.” I encouraged myself.  If I arrive at the Sanpuku pass, I’m sure I won’t die. I can stay there for another night and go down tomorrow. According to the map on my Android smartphone, the Sanpuku pass is near. But I couldn’t see anything that I saw on my way to the summit. All that I could do was trust the compass and GPS.

I felt a deep sense of relief when I saw fences protecting alpine plants. I remembered that I saw them when climbing. I also saw a wooden sign board. I hate seeing artificial objects in mountains. But this time, it was a relief to see them. I was returning back to the trail. In summer, you can reach the Sanpuku pass by 5 minutes from here. But now the snow and my backpack is so heavy that I needed to spend another 30 minutes. It was already 1 O’Clock in the afternoon when I eventually arrived at the Sanpuku pass. But it was an immense relief. At least, I’m not gonna be a missing person.

I entered the winter hut at the Sanpuku pass and cooked ramen. If the weather had been calm, I’d have took a break outside. I had to put off the crampons, gaiters and shoes, and then, had to put them on again when leaving the hut. While eating ramen, I noticed that I got a huge blister on my left foot. When I did a trial fitting at a shoe shop, my winter shoes (La Sportiva Nepal EVO GTX)  fitted perfectly with my feet. I wanted more affordable ones but I chose them since they fitted best. You never know how well your shoes work for you unless you actually use them in mountains. The shoelaces were easily undone. I had to lace up the shoes many times in the mountain. Later, I realised they easily came loose because I didn’t put the tongues in the right way. I should’ve shook them down in lower mountains before using them in the Southern Alps. Then, I could probably avoid the problems. I joined a photowalk held at Mt. Takao just before coming here. I thought Nepal EVO was an overkill for Takao-san and wore Mont-Bell’s hiking shoes. After I came back home, I searched on how to lace up shoes firmly and found this video on YouTube.

Although I struggled in the snow for several hours, I wasn’t too tired. I debated whether to keep walking down or stay at the hut for another night. I could say that it was already 1:30PM and it was still 1:30PM and both were true. When I was climbing, the amount of snow dramatically increased around this place. I thought it meant that I could walk faster after passing this place. The hut had no window and was very cold. I thought it was even colder than the outside. All that I could do in this place was lie down in my sleeping bag. I had just been in my sleeping bag for 11 hours last night. It was still too early for me to do it again.

I decided to keep walking down. I expected it would be impossible to walk back to my car before it gets dark. But it would be an easy way if I could manage to reach the end of the forest road.

Kyocera Tough Smartphone TORQUE

I’m proud of the fact that I’m an optimist. But, as far as this trip is concerned, it caused me to make a mistake. The amount of the snow was roughly the same even after passing the Sanpuku Toge. Planked paths are useful when climbing mountains in summer. But they are dangerous in snowy winter. Snow completely covered them so you never see gaps between steps. You may fall down if you put your foot on the wrong place. I spent a lot of time to walk over them. There was, however, not much risk of losing sight of the footpath after passing the Sanpuku pass. I just couldn’t tell what was under the snow, rocks, the roots of trees or the ground. I couldn’t walk fast. When I arrived at the watering place, it already got dark, although I haven’t even reached half the way. I originally planned to reach the end of the forest road by now. I gave a bitter laugh to my own optimistic plan. But the water tasted well. By the way, this photo was taken on my way up. It was completely buried in the snow and I had to dig it from the snow.

Again I debated whether to keep walking down with a headlight or make a bivouac at this place. Then I noticed that my gloves were wet. My ISUKA Weathertech gloves are supposed to be waterproof. I tested them with tap water and they worked as advertised. But I had trudged through snow for 8 hours. It probably exceeded the max water pressure resistance. I brought several gloves but I made all of them wet except for red fleece mittens by Mont-Bell. I should’ve changed the gloves at this point but I was careless enough to keep wearing the wet gloves for some more hours and ended up getting frostbite. They are getting better now but still some of my fingers are numb while I’m writing this blog post now.

I made another mistake. I left the summit wearing my down parka under the hardshell because it was freezing. Sweat came out of my body made it wet. It now has much less thermal performance. You should never walk winter mountains wearing down clothes. Making clothes wet in high winter mountains where the temperature never goes up the freezing point causes fatal problems. My sleeping bag was also a little wet due to dew condensation at night. I’m not gonna freeze to death if I make a bivouac here. But I can imagine it would be a freezing night. I determined to keep walking with a headlight. I was tired but didn’t want to sleep there. Fortunately, I’m used to darkness since I shoot starscapes often.

I kept walking down to about 2300 meters. But the amount of snow didn’t change much. I began to worry about my car. I hoped it wasn’t buried by snow and the winter gate of the forest road leading to the parking lot was not closed. Still, I know I will be relieved when I arrive at my car. I have water, a gas cartridge and down vest in the car. Since The passenger seat can be folded completely flat.  It would be much more comfortable than making a bivouac around here.

My headlight ran out of the batteries and started to dim at a a col at 2200m. I always carry a spare headlight and spare batteries for serious mountaineering. When I determined to specialise in Mount Fuji and moved from Tokyo to Fujiyoshida, I started to climb mountains around Fujisan. The first mountain I climbed as a photographer was Mount Shakushi (1596m) in my neighbourhood. It is not a low mountain but my house is located at nearly 800m high. So the difference is only 800m. I thought it would be very easy. I climbed it without carrying rainwear or headlight. It was much tougher than expected, at least for me at that time. I picked up a broken branch to use it as a walking stick. When I finally reached the summit, it suddenly started to rain.  The sun went down while I was walking down in rain. But I forgot to bring a headlight so I had to struggle through pitch darkness using my iPhone as a flashlight.  Since then, I always carry rainwear and a headlight. It was a good lesson. You need such a bitter experience before attempting serious mountaineering. I searched my waist bag to take out the spare headlight to no avail. I dumped my backpack and looked for it but still I couldn’t find the headlight. Damn, it’s a pitch-dark night. What to do? I remembered the wise phrase “Don’t Panic.” and took a deep breath. Now I noticed the moon is bright tonight. Everything is gonna be all right, I murmured. I put my hands into the pockets of my Mont-bell synthetic insulation jacked that I wore inside the down parka and found the spare headlight and battery.

I also took off the crampons from the shoes at this place. The slopes were not too steep anymore.  I thought it would be easier to walk without them. But it was a mistake. I fell down dozen times after taking them off.

I was almost crying at midnight. Each time I fell down, I took it out on trees and rocks. Now I think I was stupid but when I was experiencing this, I had no room to breathe. I went as far as I could go and was facing my limits. Just then, I reached the end of the forrest road. According to the map (山と高原地図 I recommend you to get this map and check out the Japanese words written on it in advance if you want to do serious mountaineering without a guide in Japan), it takes 40 minutes from here to the parking lot. I know it is not applied to me. It snowed heavily, my backpack is massive, and I’m completely exhausted. Still, walking down this road is much easier compared to the snowy, slippery footpath I had just been.

Kyocera Tough Smartphone TORQUE

I summoned up my last ounce of strength and walked down the forrest road. Since the car is near, I didn’t want to sleep on the road. At 3:30AM, I finally arrived at the parking lot. I wanted to drive down to a lower place as It was still snowing. But I couldn’t do anything but collapse into the flat seat due to the extreme fatigue. I left the summit of Mt. Eboshidake at 8:00AM and now it is 3:30AM next day. I took some breaks on my way but I walked at least 18 hours. It sounded crazy. I bet even the Israelites led by Moses didn’t walk this much on a single day. I just broke my record of longest walk I made at Mt. Akaishidake weeks ago. In my twenties, I was a backpacker and walked a lot. I hadn’t done any trekking even while I was in Nepal though. Back then, I tried to change the status quo and go beyond my limits. Looking back, I guess my limits weren’t high. Still I tried hard to change my life. In my thirties, I tried to create something great as a recording artist and failed, meanwhile I succeeded to make a living as a freelance translator under severe economic conditions. I succeeded to survive in the capitalism world but failed to achieve anything remarkable as a creator in my thirties. I’m 43 years old. I challenged myself in the mountains and am content of the result. Now I want to challenge myself as a creator. It’s better to burn out than to fade away. I want to burn out as an artist rather than as an alpinist.

According to the map, it takes only about 3 hours from the top of Mt. Eboshidake to the parking lot in summer. I expected that it wouldn’t take more than two times even when it was snowing. I was ignorant and stupid but learned a good lesson.

The parking lot is located at 1650m high. The temperature went below -10 Celsius (14F) but I slept very well thanks to the Mont-Bell sleeping bag and Thermarest sleeping pad (RidgeRest SoLite / Solar) I recommend them for those who often sleep in their cars in winter.  It was pitch-dark when I arrived at the car. I took the above photo after waking up.

Nikon D5300 w/ AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G

I felt secure for the first time after leaving the summit when I reached Route 152 after driving down the snowy, frozen, slippery forrest road. I parked the car in front of a public restroom to do the deed and saw a cool signboard saying “Deer Eater” in Japanese. It looked fascinating but I wasn’t hungry at all. I headed for Takabocchi to shoot Fujisan. I noticed that some of my fingers were numb while driving to Takabocchi. I placed them in front of the outlets of the air conditioner. I should’ve gone straight to a hot spring before going to another shooting location. I felt as if I cut my nails too short. I didn’t know that the feeling was the sign of frostbite. Wether or not you notice the sign of frostbite, it is a good idea to go straight to hot springs when you come down from a mountain in winter. Now I’m planning my next mountaineering expedition. I’m making a plan according to the weather forecast. I’m addicted to mountaineering. No human beings around me, away from the human society, I get something I’ve always wanted.

Yuga Kurita Rainbow Clouds Southern Alps_DSC0756
Nikon D5300 w/ AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G 


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