A Thousand Days of Lapis Lazuli:
Mt. Mizugaki, Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan
A PALE LIGHT APPEARS to glow within the burnished granite of the Moai Face on Mt. Mizugaki–as if reflecting the earth’s own memories of distant time. All around, crags of various shapes and sizes rise above the remnants of a primeval forest and the unceasing flow of brooks, nurtured by the passage of centuries. Moss-covered boulders spread beneath variegated shades of granite: grey, orange, white. In the deep stillness of this interwoven scene, I’ve felt the illusion that I’ve entered a landscape painting and surrendered entirely to its beauty.
I grew up in eastern Japan, surrounded by mountains. Today, I live just two hours away from Mizugaki by car. Before I arrived here, I’d seen photos of the strange rock face, and I’d imagined its outlines countless times. But the real cliff was far more enormous than I’d foreseen. When I first stood in its presence, I felt my heart beat fast. For a moment, I was frozen in place, unable to move. The sky was blue. The wind swayed the trees. When I think back to that time, now, I find I can’t describe it in words. Communicating with the rock–perhaps such a phrase would be fitting.
THERE ARE DIFFERENT OPINIONS regarding the origin of the name Mizugaki, but one theory supposes that it refers to a kind of Japanese enclosure that marked the boundaries of Shinto shrines. Long ago, according to legends, the Buddhist monk Kobo-Daishi identified this peak in the Okuchichibu Mountains as sacred ground, and he inscribed Sanskrit characters in the granite bedrock of one of its caves.
At 2230 meters, Mizugaki is on a smaller scale than the big mountains abroad, but its stone faces are sheer, with few lines of weakness. Three hundred meters high, the tallest one is called Toichimen-iwa, the “Rock of the Eleven-Faced Kannon Bodhisattva, or the Goddess of Mercy”–an allusion to the way its walls spread in multiple directions. According to climbing historian Tsunemichi Ikeda, Buddhist priests had long made pilgrimages to the mountain, scrambling to the tops of pinnacles and giving them religious names. In the 1920s, climbers visited briefly, but Mizugaki seemed too diminutive for them, and they continued north to the larger rocks of the Hida Mountains. At first, Japanese alpinists relied only on pitons for direct aid on harder sections. Yet by the late 1950s, the use of expansion bolts spread from Europe to Japan. Influenced by the 1960s direttissime in the Alps, Japanese climbers started drilling bolt ladders on sheer, smooth walls in many areas, including Mizugaki.
Then, during the mid-1970s, Japanese climbers visited Yosemite, where they discovered the ways that free climbing allowed them to face steep rock on more equal terms. They returned to Toichimen-iwa and explored routes that became symbols of a new era, developing a virtuoso style and an ideal of “no bolts and no falls.” In 1980 Tomoyoshi Omata established Haru Urara, “Bright Spring,” as an aid route, using primarily nuts. Four years later, Naoki Toda made the first free ascent, with bolts only at belays. The climb represents a monument to the history of Japanese free climbing. To this day, the ethos of its pioneers has a powerful influence on visitors, and Toichimen-iwa resembles a place of pilgrimage for climbers.
FOR A LONG TIME, local climbers dreamed of making a free ascent of the Moai Face. Guidebook writer Naoya Naito, who has established many routes on Mizugaki, described the wall as a “luminous entity,” as if some strong force radiated from its surface. But he found it too daunting to try, and its stone remained unmarked even by chalk.
Early last summer, thoughts of the wall increased daily in my mind until I felt as if someone were calling me. On July 20, 2015, I rope-soloed an existing route to the terrace below the Moai Face. I was captivated by the flowing contours of its skyline, though it soon became clear the skyline wasn’t the summit. As dusk fell, I fixated on the faint cracks before me. After about ten meters, they vanished into smooth twilit stone, and I had no idea where I could find a weakness in the wall beyond. At the same time, I felt exultant: I was now one step closer to entering this untracked realm.
Five days later, a friend and I ascended the battered, rusted bolt ladders of a nearby aid route, Minami Kaikisen, observing the wall as we went. I had hoped to climb the Moai Face ground up, without pre-inspection. But when I looked at photos taken from a distant view, no clear cracks appeared between the center and the top. It was possible that I’d have to continue for tens of meters without any protection. I couldn’t see the whole line from Minami Kaikisen, and I knew that even if I gave in to exploring and cleaning the Moai Face on rappel, there was still a chance that it couldn’t be completed without bolts.
When I spoke with some of the elders in the local climbing community, they told me that drilling bolts would be disrespectful to my predecessors. No matter how I thought about it, I became obsessed by the idea that this ancient stone had remained unmarred for so long. Still wondering whether I should give up and entrust the Moai Face to future climbers, I resolved to become stronger mentally and physically–and then to return.
I once asked an alpinist I admired about the difference between a sport route and an alpine route. Looking back, I’m embarrassed at how ill-mannered a question that was: if I’d properly observed and understood his climbing, I would have already known the answer. But the alpinist replied with a serious expression: “Whether it is still possible to cross the line between the places you can return from and the ones you can’t…. Something like that.”
At the sound of these words, I felt a powerful shock–and a sense of yearning.
AUGUST 1: ALONE BEFORE DAWN, I made my way to Mt. Mizugaki. Lit by my headlamp, dewdrops glittered in the clear, cold air. I pushed my way through the dense foliage of the primeval forest to the summit of Toichimen. The forecast predicted evening showers. After a moment of indecision, I started rappelling, searching for fissures or protrusions in the upper Moai Face–and finding only a few. I tried placing a cam in one granite pocket, but it looked as though it would slide back out.
I was still in the middle of the wall when clouds drifted from the other side of the mountain to enshroud me. Thunder roared through the fog. Hail pounded amid cloudbursts of rain. I retreated, fairly beaten, the raw power of nature stark in my mind.
Back at the top of the Moai Face, I attached a fixed rope to a tree at the end of Pitch 4, and I began cleaning and examining possible lines. For Pitch 1, I decided to free climb part of Minami Kaikisen. To reach the new terrain of Pitches 2 through 4, I would pass by the “Swallow’s Cave”–a mysterious place of dark and crumbling rock with such an intimidating atmosphere even swallows might have trouble alighting on it. From Pitches 5 to 7, I would follow the classic Bergere route to the summit. At first, I mostly concentrated on the center of the Moai Face. One of the cruxes on Pitch 2 appeared to be a crystal traverse with a key hold lacking. Much of the brown, weathered rock was fragile, and I knew I’d need a lot of psychological endurance to withstand the runouts. The idea of venturing willingly into a space with so much uncertainty seemed surreal and terrifying.
I tried looking for other ways, but this was the route I wanted to climb. To put it more concretely, this line was the line that reflected in my eyes when I first gazed up at the wall: a glimmer of bronze on grey that beckoned me. A true line, I believe, isn’t something that humans construct for themselves, but rather a task to which we’re summoned.
Until about half a year ago, I was a “boulderer,” entirely absorbed in the simplicity of the experience and the minimal reliance on tools. I’d begun to wonder whether I’d missed something of the essence of climbing–the risk and adventure–in favor of that game. I felt confined by the rigidity of separate genres: bouldering, trad, alpinism. Whatever the style, I wanted to experience the way that all forms of vertical movement were entwined.
SEPTEMBER: EACH MORNING after the autumn rains, the dawn arrived later. The edges of the leaves turned faint yellows and reds. My heart brightened with their colors. By then, I’d found a solution to the crystal traverse. At the next crux on Pitch 2, I had to jump from a thin flake for two meters to a large jug hold. Since the two cams I’d set in the flake seemed unlikely to hold, this leap required perfect cooperation between mind and body.
On some days, Yusuke Sato joined me. He later told me that when he learned I planned to climb the Moai Face without bolts, he assumed it would take me five years, “if things went well.” At first, he said, he found the dangers dumbfounding, but when I burst into tears at the top of Pitch 3, he decided: I want to try this kind of climbing too.
On September 13, I headed to the base of the wall with Satoru Hagihara. The one time I’d tried Pitch 2 on toprope, I’d been unable to complete it. If I’d spent some time rehearsing the moves, I could reduce the risks. Yet I was longing for more unrestricted climbing. On my first redpoint attempt, I fell four meters before the crystal traverse, until a small cam stopped me. Second try: by now it was raining a little, but the wall was overhanging, so it didn’t get wet. As the wind blew through the cooling air, I could hardly believe it was September. Maybe something about the fall unleashed my body and mind. Whatever the case, I entered a kind of flow state. I knew from experience that it wouldn’t last long.
Each time I moved, I grew a little closer to completing the ascent. Gradually, however, my fear also grew. Soon, I couldn’t turn back: I was near the end of a six-meter runout, too tired to feel the holds. Damn! No way can I fall here. I reached for a large flake, and before I knew what was happening, my body flew ten meters through the air and was thrown hard against the slab. I limped back to my car with a sprained ankle. And yet, even the injury seemed preferable to the dullness I’d felt in the past when I rehearsed problems countless times until I knew all the details of a route and the sensations of each move. This time, right at that threshold between adventure and recklessness, I could feel the reality of the moment I sought.
AT THE HOSPITAL, I learned that the damage to the deltoid ligament of my ankle was severe. Nonetheless, by September 22, I dragged myself back to the wall alone, trying to keep the weight off my injury. I was able to get both rock shoes on, and most of my foot functioned, so I convinced myself it was almost OK to climb.
Dangling from the rope, I swayed to and fro, gazing at the upper face. Small furrows appeared on what I’d thought was a completely blank surface. A faint line seemed to lead toward the end of the rock. I wondered whether it was right for me to continue in my leave-no-trace style if it left ambiguities for those who followed. What if someone got lost? Would a few bolts serve as guideposts, clarifying the line? Which is the simpler style, after all?
In my discussions with older climbers, all of them emphasized one notion: The most important thing is to interpret what you want to express through the creation of that route. I was starting to realize just how serious a matter it was to create a route. Nine out of ten of my elders told me that if I could climb the line boltless, there was no need to place bolts. The guidance that you give other people–in the end, does it really help? Is the excessive sharing of information a positive thing for future climbers?
Wherever first ascensionists go, the line they select is entirely up to them. A line drawn on a map will be clear to at least some degree, but if other people have different viewpoints, and they see a more logical path, then that’s the way they should go. Whether we’re on a big mountain or a small boulder, leaving traces of our passage takes away from the imaginations of those who follow. If we keep the cliffs pristine instead, a climber decades later can share something of the personal experiences of the past.
At least, that’s what I now think.
IN OCTOBER, I KEPT LIMPING to and from the wall. Under deep blue skies, the leaves faded to shades of brown. From time to time, fierce winds blew. Only a month and a half remained until winter would arrive, and the area would become too cold for climbing. Despite my impatience, I found that being forced to walk more slowly on my injured leg helped calm my emotions. Until then, I’d been having a one-sided conversation with the rock, without listening to its own voice–or to the voices of the natural world that surrounded me. Now, instead of seeming like a hardship, the approach became a source of joy. My soul won’t break, though my bones might, I thought. Persevere.
All summer, evening rains had left part of the Swallow’s Cave wet, but the clear October days dried the narrow passage that led beyond it, and I was able to redpoint Pitch 1 safely. As I spent more time on the wall, I felt I could carry on ever-deeper dialogues with its rock. Often, I thought about the mountain’s role in the adventure. I’d heard other people say that “by confronting the challenges of climbing, we expose our hidden nature, and we learn to be completely honest with ourselves.” The resolves, the compromises, the longings needed to reach that point–aren’t those all reflections of our existence as we have lived it?
It was a compromise and a sign of incompleteness that I finally decided to drill two bolts for the anchors of the third and fourth pitch. Several of my elders agreed this act was necessary. Nonetheless, if someone can eventually climb this wall without using my bolted belays, I’ll support their removal. The choice about these bolts, entrusted to future climbers, is part of a larger process of communication across different eras, a connection that is one of the appeals of our pursuit.
On October 12, I got through Pitch 4 with only three points of protection. I was using offset cams, sliders and nuts, placing them in pockets dispersed around the face. If I slipped, I knew there was no guarantee they would hold. After a twenty-meter runout, just as I was about to leap for the next hold, I briefly lost my balance. If I’d actually fallen there…. I pictured myself landing on Yusuke, who was directly below me at the belay, possibly even killing him. Well, we won’t let that happen again, I convinced myself, though I knew nothing was certain.
OCTOBER 17: ALTHOUGH THE FORECAST called for rain, I’d become too immersed even to see the drops. Between brief showers, Yusuke and I took turns trying the third pitch. To me, this part was the most frightening of all: about eight meters into a ten-meter runout, I had to lunge again, and at the very apex of my reach, cling on to tiny, sloping holds. Around 8 p.m., a deep darkness enveloped us. Without any moonlight, we had only the beams of our two headlamps. As we began to descend, the words One more time almost came out, but I stopped myself. If I’d been alone, I might have kept going. I felt instinctively, however, that trying again that night wouldn’t have ended well. As though I’d seen the “third man” that explorers sometimes imagine on high peaks or polar wastelands, I sensed the presence of some invisible force.
A day later, I’d finished a clean redpoint lead of every pitch. I owe my gratitude to my partners Yusuke Sato, Satoru Hagihara and Naoya Naito, who came to watch over me. I was in such a serene state of mind that afterward I remembered little, and I’ve had to rely on Naito’s words. “I’d never before seen a line that possessed such a fearsomeness that made my hair stand on end and a beauty that seized my soul,” he recounted. As I moved up the dazzling granite, he heard me let out a series of roars, reaching a crescendo when I completed the two-meter lunge and later when I crawled to the final belay. “Done,” I said, and I burst into sobs, unable to climb anymore.
I didn’t know whether I could get to the end of the route, but unquestionably, there in the photos was a figure who had succeeded. After so much disbelief, I’d constructed a line on the Moai Face without placing any bolts apart from the belays. For the most part, future climbers could still encounter the same vast and unmarked stone. The evening sky, during our descent, was, always, an unchanging lapis lazuli.
Someday, will someone look up at the same sky.…
NOT LONG AFTERWARD, I started thinking absentmindedly about returning to make a continuous, one-day ascent from the ground. I had no desire to attempt such a dangerous climb twice. I knew the importance of distinguishing our motivations. Do we establish our climbs for other people–or for our own satisfaction? “I believe that the creation of a route and the completion of a route are separate,” an elder climber told me. “This may well be the difference between the public and the private.”
When I heard these words, I wondered: When a climber has redpointed each pitch separately, what is the significance of the line as a multipitch route? A gloom settled in my heart. For six months, I harbored unanswerable questions like those of a Zen koan. I believed that climbing was a means to connect the dots between the ground and the summit to form an uninterrupted line. But did I need to go that far myself, or could I bequeath the task to future climbers?
On April 23, 2016, I arrived at my own answer. The night before, Yusuke and I slept near the Swallow’s Cave, enfolded in the silence of the mountain. And in the early morning, a bird seemed to fly out, calming my heart. By the end of that day, together, Yusuke and I completed our single-push ascent, with no lead falls. It felt almost like a poem, bursts of intense experience, only hinted at through simple words:
Pitch 1: 5.12 R Sato
Pitch 2: 5.13c R Sato
Pitch 3: 5.14a R Kurakami
Pitch 4: 5.13d R/X Kurakami
Pitch 5: 5.10b Sato
Pitch 6: 3rd Kurakami
Pitch 7: 5.8 Kurakami
I think I will leave the challenge of a single-push solo ascent as a challenge for the next generation.
I BORROWED THE NAME of the route, Senjitsu no Ruri, “A thousand days of lapis lazuli,” from Sennichi no Ruri, the masterpiece of one of my favorite writers, Maruyama Kenji. In this thousand-page novel, Kenji allots one day for each page, and he writes of both living and nonliving things, of a young man and a bird, of the wind and the night. Instead of telling the story through the first-person point of view of the protagonist, he relies on a thousand diverse narrators from the background–portraying numerous multifaceted characters, perspectives and stories within the larger, slower plot.
It is a difficult book to read half-heartedly or quickly, and it would be harder still, to become well versed in its complex and densely layered worldview. Nonetheless, I felt as though my own memories of climbing overlapped with the plot and form of his novel, composing a thousand daily lives, a thousand gemlike mysteries. The route represented the culmination of ten years of my life: all the training I’d steadily accumulated through bouldering and traditional climbing, as well as the time I’d spent practicing the diverse styles of my predecessors’ lines.
What I wish to discuss here is neither an affirmation of my history nor the claims of ethics. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m criticizing all bolted routes. Instead, I’m asking the question: What does it mean to explore a new route in the present day? In the famous 1967 essay, “Games Climbers Play,” Lito Tejada-Flores divided climbing into seven categories and explained the rules of each, depending on the severity of the conditions and the level of commitment. At the lowest end of the scale, for bouldering or cragging, the restrictions increase in order to preserve the challenges of the “game.” I believe that when you can apply those strict rules to the higher-ranking categories–such as long rock routes or big walls–a superb and essential form of art arises.
At first glance, the various modern genres of climbing may appear different; over time, they fill this or that gap, in accordance with an individual’s aspirations, until they eventually merge into a continuous experience. From this perspective–apart from the practical nuances–the division between bouldering, multipitch climbing and alpinism holds no deep meaning. Within the intricate geography of Mt. Mizugaki, there are many nooks and crannies, containing everything from small, compact boulders to long, secret traditional lines. And if we could collect all the experiences that past climbers have amassed from the early days up to now, even just within this one small peak, we still could discover new and unimagined inner realms. All too often, as Naito says, “We have forgotten the most valuable thing, and are consumed by frivolities such as what climbs and how many and which grades.” The essence of our pursuit lies deeper than such forms of measurement. Whether it’s possible to cross the line into places from which one can no longer return–even that idea can signify more than just physical runouts.
Three months have passed since those long days of enduring pouring rain or blazing heat, of limping to and from the rock wall, of carrying gratitude and respect for my predecessors and communicating with the rock. I believe that our society is not something that we leave behind when we venture up a mountain or a wall; routes and culture must be tied together. The rock we climb is a mirror, and in it, we see the silent reflections of dialogues that have taken place between climbers across many decades–and also within ourselves. Out of all this action and conversation, something greater emerges that is transmitted from generation to generation, forming a kind of collective intelligence, an influence that might still flicker across great spans of time and space, mere fragments of dreams of the billions of lives that come into the world–and leave the world.
–Keita Kurakami, Saitama Prefecture, Japan, translated from the Japanese by Elise Choi.