Sunday, November 9, 2008

寒山の御嶽山 Cold mountain, Ontake-san

I'll be leaving Otaki in March of next year, and I'm not sure if I'll have a chance to climb Ontake-san on the other side of winter. I've wanted to see san-no-ike (三ノ池), Ontake's third pond, since I arrived here in Otaki. So, though it was late in the season, on Halloween day I decided to give it a go. This is the Ontake-san that had peaked out at me the morning of the previous day. . .irresistable.

I had been busy until about 10:00 that morning, but should have gone--the weather was perfect. Instead I kept my eyes on the weather forecasts and decided that the next day would be best for an ascent; I could get an early start.

I was climbing the road to Ta-no-hara 田の原 by about 5:30 the next morning. When I reached the clearings of Ontake 2240's ski hills I could gaze clearly at the first stirrings of the morning swelling up behind the Kiso Range.
At Ta-no-hara I climbed from my car and took in my first breaths of the cool air there. I looked up at Ontake-san. The mountain was exquisite.
Eager to get climbing, I tightened my boots and quickly hefted my pack. My worshiper's bell, that I had inherited from the summit on a previous ascent, rang out, cracking the solitude of the cold air. Just below the treeline the sun spilled over the Kiso Range and flooded the landscape with it's warmth and light.

Above the treeline I gained views of the hills and valleys below, with just enough time to see the wall of clouds about to smack into Ontake-san. In my head--and just a bit outside of my head-- I cursed the weather forecasters of the world.

"Keep going". . ."retreat". . ."wait a few minutes". . ."fuck"--my head was a snowstorm of thoughts. I wasn't so concerned with bad weather on the mountain; I knew my way at least as far as the summit. The fear that was nagging me was of snow down below. I had come in a small "k-car" (660cc engine) with no snow tires; THAT was the descent I was worried about. However, always a captive of the lure of the mountain I kept moving upward, promising myself that I'd turn back if the weather didn't let up.

I made it to the Otaki summit in about an hour and a half. There I encountered a frozen world. Everything was still within the stone walls of the shrine, but stepping out towards Ken-ga-mine 剣ヶ峰, Ontake's true summit, I was smacked by wind coursing up from the southwest.
Below I had insincerely promised myself that if upon reaching the Otaki summit the weather had not cleared I would head down the mountain. The weather had not cleared, but the mountain beckoned. I began making my way across Ontake's southeasern face, but encountered deep snow and knew that a fall would send me hurling down the mountain towards Hyakkentaki 百間滝. From here I knew the climb to the true summit at ken-ga-mine would be short and I was familiar with the route, so I took off skyward. I arrived at the summit within about 30 minutes. The weather had not changed and the top of Ontake-san was blustering.

Though it was freezing cold and somewhat cumbersome to move around I forced myself to eat some of the onigiri I had brought. The balls of rice were cold and stiff, but I gobbled them down gleefully. Hot tea would have been wonderful, but I settled for cold water. I ended my quick meal with a piece of chocolate that took ages to melt in my mouth.

I started down from the summit with the intention to descend back to the parking lot at Ta-no-hara, but was drawn off course by the distant call of Ontake's third pond, san-no-ike--my original goal for the day. According to local legend, long ago Ontake was home to only one pond, within which dwelled a dragon who remained undisturbed within it's depths. The dragon was awoken by a curious traveler who peered into the pond. The dragon was angered and thrashed about in the pond, scattering it's waters and giving birth to five ponds within which were born five dragons of different colors. Those dragons are said to live in the ponds to this day.

Before long I had reached ni-no-ike (二ノ池), the second pond, which was frozen solid. I walked along it's edge, searching for a trail sign that could lead me in the direction of san-no-ike. The wooden signs, however, were all covered with thick layers of blown snow and ice, making them difficult to read.

Eventually I did find the trail leading towards san-no-ike. The weather was still no good, but it made little sense to turn back at this point. I encountered some deeper snow and the trail became harder and harder to decipher in the frozen landscape. Slipping and stumbling down a small drop I spotted a ptarmigan (raichou 雷鳥) puffed up on a snow bank in front of me; I fumbled for my camera and luckily got a shot off before the bird took flight, cutting the air with it's strange song of clicks.

Another 30 minutes or so of stumbling over snow covered rocks I began up a small rise. At the top I encountered a small shrine covered in wind blown snow; it looked as though time had stopped in the middle of some molecular event where the shrine's very form was exploding into space. I was intrigued, and just a little disturbed, by the abstract beauty of the scene.
Just beyond the shrine a steep slope opened up to the east. Looking down I could see through the clouds a dark oblong form. I brushed the snow from a nearby sign and confirmed that the form below me was san-no-ike. The descent to the pond seemed a bit precarious, but I was prepared to make my way down for a better view. However, just as I was about to start the climb down, the clouds began to lift and san-no-ike came into full view. Soon I could see the pond clearly and I was perfectly content to enjoy the scene from above.
Wrapped in the contentment of having attained my goal, I was able now to begin my descent. The thick clouds that had blanketed Ontake's crown through the morning had now retreated and the peaks of the Kiso Range stood like sentinels overlooking the valley below. I gazed at the peaks as I stumbled my way back through the mine-field of slippery stones and snow drifts, retracing, as I best I could, my footsteps from before. In a valley to my right I spotted a thick bank of clouds lurking like a shark; I quickened my pace.
I stopped only briefly at the former sight of the Ontake Fire Festival and gave a bow to the frozen buddhas and gods there. The mountain is their realm and I admire their diligent meditation that will continue despite the icy winds of winter. For me, the world lay below. . .and so I left that place and began my descent.


Chris ( said...

Looks like you had a fantastic climb. That photo of the snow-blasted torii in particular is, as you say, disturbingly beautiful. There's a word for those snow formations that escapes me for the minute - ebi something or other (as they resemble so many prawn tails glued to the rocks). Ontake has been on my list to climb for some time. Your photos have inspired me to give it a shot, maybe next March one the snow compacts down a bit.

KenElwood said...

Hi Taintus,

Thanks for sharing. From the pictures it looks like you were on a different planet !

Interestingly, I was gazing up at Ontake-san just this morning, and thinking about kindred souls who might be up there.


kelli alicia said...

Elder C-

thanks for the beautiful photos - you are making me look forward to getting back to my own snowy corner of the world this christmas. Hoping to do some snowshoeing in NH in January.

Been trying to send you pics of the new addition to the anthro department....little Mr. Phoenix Masakazu Reith! Are you not checking the old email account?

miss you guys. Send some news! and try not to die in a snowstorm on the mountaintop, ok?

Wes said...

congrats on finding the 3rd pond in less than ideal conditions. I couldn't find any of the lakes during an early June ascent, as I was met with sleet and zero visibility. Ondake is one of the more bashful peaks around.

Jen said...

Hey cousin,

Wow! I loved reading this. You're such a good writer. I'm accustomed to climbing in the snow in wilderness areas in the West, but I cant imagine encountering a shrine. What a trip.I'm glad you didn't fall into that great deep snow and turn into one of those frozen buddhas.

Thanks for sharing.

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Many thanks for this account - fascinating to see and read how the mountain looks in that cusp between autumn and mid-winter. Very austere.... I agree with CJW: the photo of the frosted-up shrine is a masterpiece in abstraction.