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The wheels on the old-fashioned train clanked to a stop.
Doai Station on the Japan Railways Joetsu Line was in the far north tip of Gunma Prefecture. The platform was in a deep underground tunnel, with 486 steps to climb to reach daylight. Perhaps “scale” would have been a better word than “climb,” given how much his legs were having to work. It was fair to say that the ascent of Mount Tanigawa began right here.
Kazumasa Yuuki began to feel pain as the tips of his toes pressed against his climbing boots. Pain-free, it would have been enough of a challenge to get to the top of the steps in one go. He reached the landing at the three hundredth step (the number was painted on it) and took a breather. He was struck by the same thought he’d had all those years before. He was being tested; maybe this was what separated the men from the boys. But if climbing stairs was enough to leave him out of breath, perhaps he didn’t have what it took to make an assault on Devil’s Mountain. Seventeen years ago, the excesses of a newspaper reporter’s lifestyle had left him struggling for breath; now, his fifty-seven years on this earth were taking their toll on his heart rate.
He was going to climb the Tsuitate rock face.
He felt his determination beginning to waver, but Kyoichiro Anzai’s twinkling eyes were still there in the back of his mind. He could still hear him, too—particularly one phrase that the veteran rock climber had casually dropped into conversation: “I climb up to step down.”
Yuuki raised his head and began once again to climb the stairs.
“I climb up to step down.” He had always wondered about the meaning of this riddle. He believed he had the solution, but the only person who knew the definitive answer wasn’t around anymore to ask.
Ground level at last. He stood a moment, bathed in the gentle early autumn sunshine. It had just turned two in the afternoon, and the wind felt a little cold on his cheek. Takasaki City, farther south in Gunma Prefecture, where Yuuki had lived most of his life, was nothing like this. The temperature and the way the air smelled were completely different here.
He set off walking north along Route 291, leaving the red, pointed roof of the station building behind him. He passed over a level crossing, through a snow-break tunnel, and then, on his right, was a large swath of lawn. Doai Cemetery.
He glanced at the monument put up by the local people of the village of Minakami. It bore the names of all 779 climbers who had lost their lives on Mount Tanigawa. The nickname Devil’s Mountain only began to convey its gruesome history. Other popular nicknames were Gravestone Mountain or Man-Eating Mountain. It was part of a two-thousand-meter mountain range, and nowhere on earth was there a deadlier peak. One reason was its location. It marked the border between two prefectures, and the weather there was notorious for changing with no warning; the results were often fatal. But the real reasons for Mount Tanigawa’s reputation were its infamous vertical rock faces.
It was all about being the first to conquer an unclimbed rock face, and rivalry was fierce. In the early days, the most extreme climbers poured into this area like a tsunami, craving the challenge and the kudos. When the underground station was first built, they used to run at full speed up all 486 steps. Every minute—every second—counted in the competition to scale the rock walls. They climbed with abandon, and fell with the same abandon. The more the word went around that Tanigawa was a treacherously difficult mountain, the more adrenaline-pumped these young, passionate climbers became, and the list of names on the monument grew longer.
But one of the Ichinokurasawa rock faces, Tsuitate, remained unconquered; for years it had been among rock climbers a synonym for “impossible” or “the ultimate challenge.” As time passed, equipment was improved, climbing skills became more sophisticated, and a dozen or so climbing routes were marked out on the Tsuitate face. Needless to say, it took the sacrifice of many more lives to accomplish this.
The Worst of the Worst—the nickname given to Tsuitate.
“Hey, Yuu. Let’s take a shot at Tsuitate!”
Anzai had brought Yuuki to check out the Tsuitate face. It was Anzai, too, who had taught Yuuki everything he knew about climbing. Seventeen years ago, Yuuki and Anzai were supposed to have attached their climbing ropes and made their assault on the mountain.
But their plans had been thwarted. The night before they were due to set out, a Japan Airlines jumbo jet had crashed into the mountains near Uenomura, Gunma Prefecture. In an instant, 520 lives were lost. Yuuki had been put in charge of coverage of the crash at the local North Kanto Times, so, as it turned out, he’d done battle with a completely different “Gravestone Mountain.”
And Anzai— Sensing activity ahead, Yuuki looked up to see that he had almost reached the Doaiguchi ropeway terminal. The square in front of the station and the nearby parking lot were bustling with day-trippers. Ignoring the souvenir stalls, he continued along the old road until he spotted the Climbing Information Center. He glanced at his watch. It wasn’t quite three o’clock. He had a little time to wait, so he sat down on one of the benches inside. He was approached by a cheerful-looking man wearing an armband that identified him as a guide.
“Hello there. Which route are you planning to take?”
“We’re going to set up camp at Ichinokurasawa, then climb the Tsuitate face tomorrow.”
As he spoke, Yuuki unzipped his waist pouch and produced his climbing permit. He’d submitted his application by mail about ten days previously, and it had been returned to him approved and stamped.
“Tsuitate, huh?” the guide muttered, looking down at the permit. The first thing he must have spotted was Yuuki’s age. Then the section giving details of his experience raised an eyebrow. In preparation for this ascent, Yuuki had been rock climbing many times at the Haruna and Myogi ski resorts, but he had no serious climbing experience under his belt. The guide was finding it increasingly difficult to maintain his cheerful expression, but just as he was about to say something, a tall young man walked through the door and greeted Yuuki with a bow.
“I’m sorry I’m late.”
“What, you’re young Anzai’s climbing buddy?” said the guide, his tone softening. Any trace of his earlier anxiety vanished, and he stood up and left.
Yuuki gave a wry smile, and the young ace of the local mountaineering club flashed him a grin in return.
When Rintaro Anzai smiled, he was the embodiment of youth. It was hard to believe he had already turned thirty. He’d inherited his father’s large, twinkling eyes, but his shyness and modesty had come from his mother. Anzai senior had once confided in Yuuki that his son was supposed to have been named Rentaro, not Rintaro. If you’d put his family name and the first part of his given name together (Anzai Ren) it would have sounded like the German anseilen, which, in the climbing world, means tying on the rope.
“But the wife saw through that one right away,” he’d said wistfully.
“Yuuki-san, any news of Jun?” Rintaro asked.
“I haven’t managed to get in touch with him.”
Yuuki couldn’t look Rintaro in the eyes. His son, Jun, had an apartment in Tokyo. Yuuki had left a message on his voice mail to let him know about today’s plan, but Jun hadn’t called back.
“So it’ll be just the two of us. That was the plan in the first place, anyway.”
“All right. So how shall we do this? We could stay the night here, if you like?”
“No, I’d prefer to get up to where the rivers meet at Ichinokurasawa and pitch the tents. It’s been so long. I’m looking forward to seeing it again.”
Rintaro nodded, clearly pleased by Yuuki’s enthusiastic response, and started to check the equipment.
Yuuki watched him in admiration. He’d known Rintaro since he was thirteen years old. The boy had grown up into a sturdy young man, both physically and mentally. Most important, he’d been raised to be kind and honest.
Two months ago, Rintaro had been standing alone in the parking lot of a funeral hall in Maebashi. He was silently watching the trail of smoke rising from the square chimney of the crematorium. His eyes were wet but he didn’t let himself cry. Yuuki had come up and patted him on the shoulder.
“Looks like Dad headed north after all,” Rintaro had mumbled, still looking up at the sky.
“Great. Let’s go.”
They left the information center and set out along the shaded, zigzagging trail. The slope was still gentle. The tall beech woods that lined the route made the air seem dense. There was a noise in the undergrowth, and a wild monkey warily crossed the trail ahead of them.
Rintaro walked ahead in silence and Yuuki simply followed. After a while, they arrived at the Ichinokurasawa intersection. Immediately Yuuki realized that his memory had failed him. Back then the rock face had taken him by surprise, appearing out of nowhere. All that had stuck in his mind was the impact of that moment.
He was caught off guard again today. Rintaro, walking in the middle of the track, suddenly moved over to the right, opening up the view for Yuuki. He caught his breath and stopped dead.
A fortress of rock towered darkly before him. It was still quite far off, but overwhelming, looming over everything else in his field of vision. The ridge cut a straight line through the air, leaving nothing but a narrow sliver of sky above. It wasn’t what he’d call a magnificent view; it was too oppressive for that. Ichinokurasawa wouldn’t let mere mortals in. Yuuki was struck by the thought that Nature had constructed this rampart for that very purpose.
Tsuitate. It stood there, the main gate protecting these giant castle walls. A painfully sharp vertical rock face like a hanging screen or a wall. It looked as if it had been folded vertically over and over, producing a series of overhangs, or “roofs.” The rock itself had a brutal countenance, worthy of its nickname the Worst of the Worst.
Yuuki gave voice to his misgivings. “I don’t know if I can do this.”
Rintaro’s response was brief. “Sure you can.”
The younger man set off down toward the dry riverbed, presumably searching for a good location to pitch their tents. But Yuuki couldn’t move. His body was seized by the fear he’d felt almost two decades before.
And that time they’d only been checking out the climbing route. This time they were actually doing it.
The two Gravestone Mountains merged in his mind. He felt the same excitement as seventeen years ago rush through him.
It had been a plane crash of unprecedented proportions. An out-of-control Japan Airlines plane, Flight 123, had strayed into Gunma Prefecture. Yuuki had also changed course that day. He’d been drifting along, leading a life that was not healthy for him, not making any effort to improve it. But the monotony of his daily routine had been turned completely upside down by that accident. Those seven days on the newsroom floor, dealing with something huge. Every agonizing minute that ticked by had brought a new self-awareness and, consequently, his life had veered off on another course.
Yuuki looked up at the Tsuitate face defiantly.
Elevation: 330 meters—I’m going to haul myself up a vertical cliff face the height of Tokyo Tower.
“I climb up to step down.”
He could see the look in Anzai’s eyes. Months before, even with his body covered in tubes, held captive in a bed, his eyes had twinkled.
He’d climbed this, Kyoichiro Anzai. Suddenly Yuuki’s vision blurred. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and slowly exhaled. He listened once again to Anzai’s voice in his head. Yuuki had to climb the mountain. He needed to know what these last seventeen years had been about.
August 12, 1985. That was the day it had all started.
Copyright © 2003 by Hideo Yokoyama
Translation copyright © 2018 by Louise Heal Kawai