March 2016 – Climb into the mind

It was supposed to be the last climb of the season. The mountaineering masterpiece. The culmination of everything I have learned and done in the mountains up till this point. The myth shattering feat, proving my point of pure alpinism, unhindered by man-made rules and paradigms.

Except that it wasn’t meant to be.

One might say it was just that the weather didn’t cooperate, the conditions were not right. But as I am sitting on the Hashimoto city bound train, the worm of doubts and what-ifs keeps biting deep into my mind.

What if I pushed upwards instead of turning around? Could I be victorious?
What if the snowing was really only in lower elevations and the climb proper was in perfect condition? Did I just freak out and lose a rare opportunity?

Or was backing out a good call? Would I be in trouble or even dead now, if I climbed on?

I will never know. As they say, the mountain will always be there. Good mountaineer is not necessarily the one who makes it to the top, but the one who always makes it back home.

On the 29th of February 2016, Takayama city was putting on winter coats once again due to a heavy snowfall. The yellow glow of old style street lights and the dark wooden facades of the traditional merchant houses went well together with the whiteness of the countless snowflakes flowing through the air ever so softly and silent.
In all their beauty, they also marked a dark omen though.

The 1st of March dawned strikingly cold, but undeniably beautiful in the Northern Japanese Alps. 20 centimetres of fresh snow were covering the landscape as one pristine white blanket. The mountaineer inside me was concerned. I had a lot of avalanche terrain to cover today. One warning light was definitely up.

As I was going through the last gear adjustments before setting forth, I found another big problem. I had forgotten to buy gas canister for my stove the day before, consequently leaving me without a means to melt snow and make water in the wild. I can manage, I thought. As long as I carry enough water from the beginning and somehow keep it from freezing, with careful rationing and some planned dehydration I should be fine for the two to three days I was going to stay on the mountain.
I ditched the stove into the snow by the road, getting rid of its dead weight, planning on picking it up on the way back.
Another warning light was up nonetheless.

IMG_2912

The beauty of the route after the snowfall.

 

You see, while preparing for an cutting edge alpine climb, one doesn’t plan to stay comfortable. Everything is subordinated to the lowest weight possible. There are very little spares and just in case items. Speed and ease of movement are paramount.

Couple hours into the trip I reached the Shiradesawa deai and for the first time got an unobscured view of my goal, the lofty Gendarme.

No mountain far around has so much appeal. The dramatic lines, the striking features… when you see it looming high above yourself, shining in sunlight against blue sky… if this sight doesn’t make you pause and stare at awe, you are no mountaineer.

I had climbed the most prominent feature on the mountain, the Hida ridge, in autumn 2015. It was an incredibly enjoyable climb of mild grade on very good rock and unquestionably one of the highlights of last year. But since I first saw it some years ago, I knew that I have to do this route in winter to do it full justice.

It is a big climb, serious in a couple of aspects. The approach is treacherous and covers a lot of avalanche territory, the rocky ridge is long and totally exposed to the elements and when you get up to what is considered one of the most, if not the most difficult summit in the Alps, you are still just half way, with descent even more complicated than the ascent.

My plan was for the first day to climb up to 2200 meters, a halfway point in the face where the rocky terrain and the Hida ridge proper begins, bivouac there, start early the next morning, summit the Gendarme until noon and then climb uninterrupted through the rest of the day and the next night to the south along the 2900 meters high ridgeline all the way to Nishi Hotaka, to descend from there using the ropeway on the third day.

Normal, reasonable attempt would take a lot of gear, a couple more days of schedule and a preparation the scale of a mini-expedition. To make this plan work, I had to go really light. From the beginning I set my trusty 30 liter pack to be the limit. -6°C rated down sleeping bag, ultralight bag cover and tarp, mattress, down pants, synthetic insulated alpine parka, some spare gloves, goggles, balaclava and other necessary small items and last but not least, half litre thermos bottle, a pack of hi-tech energy gels and foods, along with some high calorie bean pan and dehydrated rice. Other than that, all clothing and gear like crampons and dual axes, is usually worn or carried in hands, not adding any bulk to the pack. No ropes, no protection, no snowshoes… and as it turned out to be, not even a stove.

Such a plan is a hard thing to talk about beforehand and honestly, even afterwards, especially if it fails, because it can cause a lot of controversy.
Non-climbers probably cannot understand, but couple of days before the climb, you are sick in your guts, feeling there is a realistic chance you may not make it back. Such times always make me pause a bit in life, enjoy the small daily stuff like commuting, eating, morning chat with wife a bit more vividly, be a bit more pleasant to others…
One asks himself constantly, how the fuck can this even be worth it. The question is a hard one, not answerable through reason. You know it is foolish, and yet you have to go, otherwise you would be giving up on what you are passionate about in life. You cannot prevent yourself from following your true passions and at the same time say that you truly live. Denial of ones dreams equates denial of living itself.

Once my friend and senpai both in life and mountaineering told me: “Maybe for you, your climbing is a way how to express yourself.”
I don’t think anybody has ever grasped it more truthfully, myself included. The mountains are my canvas and through climbing I create my art which I am shy to show to the world, but deep down want the world to see.

And so I was there, looking up towards the mountain, half scared, half hypnotised by its calling.
Given the fresh snow situation, the loss of stove and my overal mood, I was constantly in doubt if this is even a serious attempt. Half of me was expecting to reach the steep gorge of upper Shiradesawa, give up there due to avalanche hazard, return to Shinhotaka ropeway and enjoy some time on Nishi Hotakadake instead.
Yet every time I was in doubt, the white and jagged summit of Gendarme poked somewhere through the trees, feeling a bit closer again and again, calling my name, not letting me turn around.

IMG_2920

IMG_2918

As expected, the upper steep gorge was heavily snowed up, with plastic sticky snow crotch deep, extremely difficult to move through. It felt like trying to walk through thick honey, every step sinking in so easily, yet utterly difficult to move out again. On a few occasions I even crawled over the surface of the snow in order to overcome some especially deep sections.
The thought of impeding avalanche was at the front of my mind all the time. I know the ripping sound when an avalanche breaks away and I was expecting to hear it every moment. In snow this heavy, one would be cemented in and totally helpless even in the smallest slide.

It may sound silly, but the game of mind is the true challenge of adventurous mountaineering. Inside the gorge, waist deep in snow with difficulties ahead, I reached a point where the string of will broke in my head and I physically turned around and started backtracking. Then I stopped and looked up through the gorge and towards the shining Hida ridge one more time. Somehow I reached to pick up the lost courage and the will, returned to the last highpoint and forced a couple more meters forward.
I think this was the turning point at witch I managed to get over the barier holding me back and committed to the climb fully.

IMG_2924

Where I almost turned around. The Shiradesawa gorge is much steeper than it looks. Down there in the sawa I refilled my bottle for the last time. Just for scale, down climbing into the sawa leaves the surrounding snowpack standing taller than an adult man.  

 

As if by magic, the walking became easier soon afterwards. At the last point where the running water of Shiradesawa could be reached within the snowfield I drank as much as I could, filled up my 1 liter soft reservoir and entered the narrowest part of the gorge. I knew why walking here became easier. Underneath the fresh layer of snow, this was a huge field of avalanche debris, frozen hard.
For the next two hours, I kept meandering over the snow in search of hard surface to walk on, very positively surprised that the otherwise until spring unclimbable Tengusawa following after breaking away from Shiradesawa was in the same condition, almost walkable. Perhaps this was a convenient side of this year’s mild winter, that the steep alpine snowfields are smaller and freeze harder.

IMG_2930

The tracks may seem ridiculous, but they led me over the frozen parts, dodging the deep snow.

 

Five o’clock in the afternoon went around as I reached the top of Tengusawa. From there one has to climb 400 meters of elevation change over sparsely forested system of shallow ridges and gullies of up to 55 degrees in inclination.
This is where I got seriously scared. I could not comprehend how the snow can stick to the slopes and not slide down when I am breaking through it. At the lower parts, there were some long slabs of verglas I could use to frontpoint up relatively safely, but as the day turned dark and into night, as the trees became more and more sparse with the altitude, there was nothing to protect me. The snow was powder on top of icy crust with deep overfrozen loose grainy snow underneath. The progress was painfully slow. Break the crust with the axes, clear the excessive snow, consolidate it with knees, step up one tiny step and repeat. These 400 meters of elevation took me 4 hours of nonstop work, always feeling vulnerable and under threat.
Loose spindrift was falling from above over the slopes and over my head as I chose one place supported by two close standing trees as my bivy spot and started hacking into the 45 degree slope in order to create a ledge. In an amusing moment I suddenly realized there is a small cornice less then 2 meters to the right from where I stopped digging, with a huge drop off deep into an iced gully below. A couple of trees seemed to be supporting the cornice and I wasn’t too concerned.
I covered the ledge with my tarp secured on six points to the axes, poles and the trees, and finally, by half past nine at night, I slipped inside my sleeping bag. One troublesome feature of this setup I found out very soon was that although the tarp lay flush with the snow, the spindrift could still get inside through a gap opened by the wind sweeping the slope from above. There was nothing I could, or was willing to do about it.

IMG_2932

Everything I wanted to prevent from freezing I stuffed inside the sleeping bag. The water, wet socks and gloves…
Even without the stove, fortunately the dehydrated rice can be, given enough time, rehydrated and made edible even with just plain cold water. I mixed it with some curry and stuffed it inside my jacket to warm up at least a bit. In the meantime I ate one of the bean pan and dozed off, waking up about an hour later, when all was nice and ready to eat. All in all, the lack of stove didn’t bother me at all.

IMG_2933

Cosy, isn’t it?

 

What did bother me more and more were the conditions though. At night, ferocious winds picked up high on the mountain. Every once in a while, a gust of immense proportions came sweeping down the side of the mountain, roaring like a heavy freight train coming closer and closer, then with a thunderous rumble sweeping over my fragile bivy, pushing the spindrift everywhere inside my gear and even my sleeping bag. The whole snowpack was shaking every time such a gust came and honestly, I was freaking out. All I could think of was getting the fuck out of there. Although I built the ledge over two trees, preventing me from sliding down no matter what, I didn’t think well enough to protect myself in case something came sliding from above. Not that there would be much I could do anyway, but the idea of being swept from above, inside my sleeping bag, totally helpless, was frightening beyond measure.
I have never experienced anything like it and, seriously, don’t know how to judge the situation. The roar of the wind as it was coming and the shaking of the snowpack made me feel like an avalanche coming from above is a certain thing, but in fact, I have no proof that anything had fallen anywhere. I don’t even think anything fell as even the next day, I couldn’t see any debris or marks of a slide anywhere.

What kept me from descending during the night was, more than my courage or anything else, the cold and my unwillingness to get up and pack everything. Once the gust of wind managed to rip the tarp from its anchor above my head and a huge amount of spindrift covered me and everything on the ledge in snow. At night, huddling inside the bag, you don’t immediately realize what had just happened, but even when you do, rather than getting up and doing something about it, you just huddle even deeper and wish it would somehow go away. Which it of course doesn’t, so finally you have to get up and do something.

Morning temperature, verified by the upper station of Shin Hotaka ropeway at about the same elevation was -15°C. Although by midnight my mattress was effectively buried by the spindrift and in the morning I was laying almost directly on snow, the cold was not unbearable, which I find satisfying. Always grateful for my choice of double-boots as a winter footwear, when I slipped into the solid frozen over-boots with crampons attached from the previous day, my feet were immediately comfortable and dry. It is these small things which make staying in the cold less of a hassle that I find ever so important while preparing for an alpine climb. Everything must be as simple and as hassle-free as possible.

When the sun rose high enough to see the surroundings the next morning and I saw it was cloudy and snowing, obviously the only thing to do was an immediate descent.

So I failed. Or was forced to retreat. Whatever. The attempt was over. Reading the lines as I write them, retreat seems like an obvious choice indeed, but was it really necessary? Or more than that, what would have happened, if I decided to push forward? I turned around just a couple hundred meters from the beginning of the rocky ridge, free of an avalanche danger.

And was there real avalanche danger in the first place? As I said, I cannot confirm a single debris field on the way down. Maybe I was just too scared and definitely too unexperienced to judge the snowpack correctly.

The conditions of the Hida ridge itself remain a question mark. It was snowing all the way down to the valley, but somehow, above the clouds, I have a feeling the peaks had a good weather all along.

Again, I will never know. Without achieving anything, this winter is over for me. Coming March and April, I promised my lovely wife to welcome spring together. Maybe do a bike trip somewhere again. Maybe go to Yakushima next month.

With this winter over, the dreams of the Gendarme Hida ridge, the Houkendake west face, the Kitadake buttress, the Tsurugidake Komado ridge, the Kashima Yarigatake Tengu ridge, and newly, the Orendani on Kaikomagatake… those climbs remain dreams. Some of them for the next winter, hopefully.

All that could be done

The day after tomorrow I will be marching towards Mt. Yari, the 3000 meters high pyramidal peak in the Northern Alps every hillwalker in Japan craves for.

I am not happy at all.

Since autumn, somehow, together with a couple of friends from work, we had been discussing a plan to go together on some major winter climb.
My first proposal was the Komado ridge of Mt. Tsurugi. The last big ridge on the mountain I haven’t been to as of yet. A major route indeed, but unfortunately this proposal was immediately swept under the table marked as too ambitious.

Instead the standard route up the Hayatsuki ridge was offered. Without any real alpine climbing, but still a big snow climb, I accepted. Four friends, two tents, it may be a bit slow and not my style, but heck with it, why not for once.

Last month we climbed Mt. Shiomi in the Southern Alps as a group training. It was an experience that made me remember why I enjoy climbing alone or in a team of two so much.
There is so much waiting for someone, so much group politics…

Japanese have been known for huge group climbing for decades.
I don’t want to reason with an age old tradition, probably originating from the collective mentality of the nation, as well as the general toughness of winter in the high ranges of Japan and relative weakness of an individual.
I am in no place to judge or argue with the knowledge of the veterans of winter climbing here. I just cannot stand it. The superfluous order, the leadership.

And then we had a group meeting with an unwelcome outcome. The chances of summiting with just four days of time, travel included, were considered too low to potentially waist precious time on without achieving anything and the Tsurugi plan was abandoned altogether.

Thus the Yarigatake trip came to be.

As I am writing this, posts from friends pop up on social media, announcing success on thrilling climbs. Tony Grant finally finnished the famous Orendani ice climb, Jost Kobusch came to visit Japan and climbed Tsurugi in one 33 hour push!

And I am stuck on Yari with rare and precious four days of free time…

Now, not to make it sound too pussy, I am sure I will enjoy the trip. It is just… all the waisted potential!

November 2014 – Tough enough

I have always been a fitness freak. Sometimes a bit lazy, a little relaxed one, but still deep into it.
The first sport I have tried was volleyball. But being a very shy, introverted child, I soon realized that group sports are not for me.
At high school I used to represent the institution in high jump, shot put and sometimes relay running, a strange mix of disciplines suggesting the indecision of my focus. I have never really trained systematically for any of these disciplines, except right prior to the events. Needles to say I have never excelled in any of them.

Sports which one does to reach some score, some lap time, were never of much interest to me. For me, sport was not about achieving something in the finish line. Not about points, goals or seconds. I don’t like the word sport. It implies doing something for leisure, a game. I don’t like games. I am serious about my training and fitness, be it for good or bad.

Where I’ve always came alive was while pushing myself on the edge of my physical capability for a sustained period of time. I used to get into the zone while cycling, climbing the long hills of Czech highlands, overcoming the muscular pain, imagining my legs are a machine, pistons pushing in a steady rhythm no matter the inclination. Feeling the muscles fire brought me pleasure.

I used to enjoy pumping iron too. While at university, there was a time I used to be in the gym up to six days a week and then exercising at home on the seventh. But being of naturally skinny composure, my body never bulked up into any great extent. I managed to achieve a respectable strength to weight ratio though, doing up to 80 push up and 24 pull up sets.
To learn to use that power efficiently, I then added a bit of gymnastics, parcour and finally muay thai. Muay thai was a big deal to me. As with all exercise, I didn’t want to just play with it. I chose that fighting style because it was the most punishing one around. The trainer leading the gym was a former third on a world championship, having an aura of J. C. Van Damme coolness and Dolph Lundgren brutality surrounding him. I loved the trainings. I loved the sensation afterwards, muscles on fire and exhausted, body beaten, but overall pumped up and feeling I could rip the world apart.
Yet still, I never were particularly good in fighting on a competition level. Being a phlegmatic by nature, my body dynamics and reflexes never reached the speed necessary to excel, to achieve the elegant flow of movement. And I didn’t want to beat another people. For me it has always been about beating myself.

Then there was mountaineering. My patents took me to the Slovakian Tatras first when I was 6 years old. I remember just glimpses from that trip, but they say I was complaining on the way up and only came alive and enthusiastic when the first rock and chain parts came.

In my early teenage years we used to climb all over the Italian Dolomites every summer. No real roped climbing, just via ferrata, but for me as a young boy, being able to climb the “per esperti”, black marked, hard routes, was the ultimate satisfaction. The faces we scaled there were sometimes over 800 meters high. Being fortunate to experience such routes leaves me disappointed every time I get to some of the supposedly big and difficult buttresses in Japan.
I don’t mean to be cocky. There is a lot of stuff in Japan I cannot climb, but honestly, in scale and grandeur there can be no comparison.

Yet it was right here, in Japanese mountains, when I became independent and free to do things my own way, where I might have found my potential to excel.
I realized that although I might not be the brightest, the fastest or the most muscular, I have a gift of being able to suffer more than anybody else and genuinely enjoy it, not losing high spirit. I may not be that good at dynamic body movement coordination, but I have no doubt about my endurance, the ability to push hard longer.
I have so many plans for huge traverses, so many winter projects. I have trouble finding partners, because not many people are willing to do what I do, be it for the schedules or the generally adventurous style of mountaineering I am pursuing. For me this is just the beginning though. I want to develop a monster fitness. I want to climb the mountains in a way people say is impossible. It might mean less margin for error and more failures, but that is the way I feel natural and necessary. I cannot conform into the traditional, slow, super prudent Japanese style of mountaineering some people are trying to push me into.

Minimum gear, maximum freedom. Since August 2014 on the Kitadake buttress and then the one day assault of Chinne on Mount Tsurugi in September, lighter, faster, ultra simple, adventurous style became an obsession for me.

In late November I found myself on a traverse of Mount Kasa with only my trusted 30 liter pack, bivy and sleeping bag, down jacket, Jetboil… that’s about it.

The trip started with a night spent on the well known public toilet in Takayama city as usual, followed by the morning ride with the Shin Hotaka bound bus. A routine already.

IMG_1676

First glimpse of the peak

 

Kasagatake is a beautiful mountain parallel to the more famous Yari-Hotaka massif in the Northern Japanese Alps. It is lower in height by a few hundred meters, but carries a huge potential for hard mixed routes with its towering rock spires and couloirs on the eastern side. I especially wanted to have a look at the approach route to the Shakujou iwa, a big rock wall scalable as a trad multipitch climb both in winter, as well as during the dry season. That ment climbing the old, long route.
My plan was to bivouac hidden on the sheltered side of the Kasagatake mountain hut, right beyond the summit.
The route is really long. Long in summer and ridiculous to think about as a day climb in winter.
The weather was dubious in the morning, gray clouds covering all the mountains, threatening with imminent snow, but gradually turned better and later to fantastic as the dusk closed in.
While there was no snow down in the valley, with rising altitude, the snowpack turned from lovely puffy white blanket covering the landscape down around the Shakujou iwa, into a hideously morale crushing windswept, crust-covered slab snow on the ridgeline. This early in the season, it was not the depth of the snow that caused me trouble. It was the icy crust covering it. I kept breaking through about a knee-deep on every single step, turning the progress into one endless exhausting slog.
I had been marching for a whole day without any significant breaks when the setting sun started painting the three thousand meters high massif on the other side of the valley yellow and red.
The chain of mountains starting with Mt. Yari up north and ending with the Nishi Hotaka down south is a spectacular sight enjoyable both from the east and the west. If you asked me, I would say it looks more magnificent from the western, Kasagatake side. Now the leaving bad weather in combination with the low sun turned the whole scene into one breathtaking theatre of warm evening colours.

IMG_1688

Yari – Hotaka massif

 

IMG_1695

Evening beauty

And then the sun set, pulling all the warmth somewhere far away over the sea and China. Strong wind took its place and immediately the temperature plummeted several degrees deeper into the negative territory.
Exhausted, the summit towering a couple hundred meters further and higher still, exposed and unprotected on the open barren ridge above the tree line in the last minutes of evening light, I was fucked.

 

I started considering the options. How does one bivouac on a steep plain of frozen snow, without enough depth or structure to dig even the most basic trench? The freezing wind hit my face once again. Staying here was not an option.
Going back down the ridge line to a place suitable for bivy was possible, but that would mean losing the chance for summit, as I only had time for descent the next day.
If only I could reach the hut on the other side of the summit…
I had to push myself up and forward. Suddenly I had an adventure once again. I kept climbing in the dark. Forward, up and higher, sometimes on all four in order to spread my body weight and thus prevent myself from breaking through the crust. I don’t know how long it took before I reached the last rocky section before the true summit, but I felt pretty much at the edge of my strength.
The summit was a desolate place. Dark, windy, cold, with only a ruin of a small shrine half buried in the snow. My only thought aimed at the hut. But there was none to be seen. Or to be precise, no way for it to be seen. The summit was a small round plateau with 360 degrees of possible descent directions.

All tries to pierce the darkness with the beam of my headtorch were of no avail. There was nothing but steep rock and snow to be seen before the light was swallowed by the night.
A slight mistake in the direction of descent could be fatal at this point.

Now I was really fucked. I must have been carrying a map and compass, I guess. If really necessary, I would probably be able to descend to the hut just by the lead of these two instruments, but now I was too tired and too cold to fiddle with them and grabbed my shovel instead.
The ruined summit shrine turned out to be the perfect shelter, consisting of three walls with opening on the leeward side. I dug out just enough snow to curl myself inside, covered the top with my ultralight flysheet and slipped inside into the three season sleeping bag I use in winter.
Next I grabbed the package of dry rice, but before being able to do anything with it I passed out, totally exhausted.

I woke up some hours later, rejuvenated enough to work the stove and cook some simple curry. Then I slept again, indifferent to the howling wind and cold coming from the stars above.

The next day dawned beautiful. There is nothing better than waking up on top of the mountain.

IMG_1697

Bivy on the summit of Kasagatake

 

IMG_1699

Morning gold

 

IMG_1702

Along the ridgeline

 

Descending the Kasadake shindo turned out to be the other half of the ordeal, not at all easier than the ascent.
First of all, I had never been here before and didn’t know the route. After jumping down a cornice onto a snow slope I found myself on a steep huge plateau, free of trees or any other landmarks. The thousand vertical meters long way down might had been anywhere.

Then there were the snow conditions. The snow on this side of the mountain was at least thigh deep already, wet from the direct morning sunshine and felt frighteningly unstable. I was sliding and running as fast as I could towards safer features, terrified by the thoughts I might be avalanched here as the snow was ripping horizontally around my legs.
But the worst of all was the never before experienced level of fatigue making me feel like if I were pulling a truck tire roped to my waist all the time. I don’t know what kind of indisposition had struck my body on this trip, or if I were so much out of condition, but I dreaded every meter in the deep snow that did not lead down.
A couple of times I was seriously thinking about taking a plunge into some of the deeply snowed up steep gullies breaking from the plateau and sliding with the snow straight down to the valley. Only sanity made me reconsider the action and continue the search for any sign of the correct way. Then, at last, I glimpsed a string of red tape tied onto a tree branch. Without the slightest hesitation, I half walked, half slid down the steep slope towards it. Then there was another. And one more further down. Without doubt, I was on the right way, heading straight from one mark to the other through the crotch deep snow, forgoing switchbacking completely in order to save energy. I kept stumbling down over big buried boulders and fallen tree trunks.

Thousand vertical meters, that is how high the Kasagatake Shindo is. Deep under the snow, surely unclimbable without investing in a couple of days at least. Exhausted, dehydrated, in hurry to catch the return bus, I once had to stop and take a forced break, feeling like I might vomit any time.
Upon reaching the valley, I refilled the bottle with a crystal clear meltwater, sipping on it while walking the last kilometers along the forest road back to the Shin Hotaka ropeway station.
As usually, I was the odd existence there, a beaten foreigner with dirty boots, repacking the gear of winter war on a sun lit patch of grass, enjoying the bewildered looks of all the tourists.

IMG_1704

Kasagatake from the Shindou

 

The mountain was shining white and bright, fierce, unconquered, much stronger than a punny man can imagine. The fact it let me rest on its very top proves only that I was at mercy that day.

Trying to breathe deep and calm next to the open window on the bus, the mountains were slowly disappearing behind as I was pushing back the sick feeling in my guts. Soon I fell deep into sleep.

This trip made me reach deep inside on both days, turning what was supposed to be an example of the free and simple style that is my obsession into the physically most demanding short adventure I have ever done.
But after all, that is where I thrive. That is where I feel I have done something and the trip was worth it.

This one was tough enough, but definitely worth it!

May 2015 – Point of no return

For a brief moment I stood frozen in my tracks. The movement in the bamboo grass just 10 meters further sounded too heavy for a bird or a monkey, too cumbersome for kamoshika…
Could it be…
The next moment black broad head of a bear poked out of the vegetation.

I’ve heard countless stories of bear sightings before and once in a while I have come upon bear tracks on my own adventures in Japan, but this was the first time to meet one of the legendary creatures face to face.

The bear stared at me expressionless, not letting a single clue for its moods or intentions to be recognised.

The bears are no merciless killing predators. They are no huge fearsome beasts like Hollywood films portray them and cases of hikers being attacked are extremely rare. The specimen facing me was my waist-high on its four feet. Not particularly huge animal, but still its thick neck and strong paws were a clear signal that fighting such an animal would be foolish at best.

Truth to be told, I felt very ill at ease. After all, this was mid October, the important time when bears have to eat a lot in order to be able to survive winter.

Very quickly I surveyed my surroundings. I found myself on the property of the Yaridaira mountain hut. This late in the season, the hut was abandoned and sealed shut. Not a chance to get inside without some form of brute force.
Fortunately, the staff leaves one shack with trapdoor a couple of meters above ground level open to be used as shelter in winter.
The bear stood by the hut water source, a small stream flowing from the neighboring hillside. It stared at me without the slightest movement.

I tried to keep as calm as possible as I started talking to the bear to make a non-threatening impression.
The bear stood still.
“You have to hide inside the shelter”, was the only thought resonating through my head.
The problem was the shelter stood between me and the bear.
I moved slowly towards the small door and the bear.
Suddenly the bear broke the eye contact, lowered its head and moved. Towards me.
I hesitated for a moment, but soon forced myself to walk again. This was no time to linger. Three more steps brought me to the small iron staircase leading to the shelter door.
I don’t even know how I got it in my hand so suddenly, but I used my ice axe to tap the iron handrail of the staircase and make a strong sound. “Keep your distance buddy!”
The bear stopped and continued watching me. I climbed the staircase to the door. “Damn”, I thought as I found the door to be locked with a knot of fat wire.
Monitoring the bear with my peripheral vision I started untangling the improvised lock.
It felt like ages with the beast watching just 7 meters away from the side, but finally I managed to let the door free and slipped into the darkness inside.

Immediately I opened one narrow window and looked outside, just in time to get a glimpse of the bear climbing slowly through the bamboo grass up the hill somewhere towards Minamidake.

That day I was originaly aiming for the infamous Takidani couloir and the Mecca of alpine climbing on the Hotaka massif, the Kita Hotaka buttress. The mountain thought differently though and a thin layer of verglass on the rock around the first big waterfall in the couloir repelled my attack that autumn. I ended up climbing the Minamidake and traversing the famous Daikiretto towards Kita Hotaka and Karasawadake, which in itself with the first seasonal snows was a nice experience.

IMG_1479

Takitani waterfall in October 2014

Only 6 months later, in early May, I was back to get my revenge on the waterfall and test my teeth on the 800 meters high climb out of the couloir to the lofty summit of the rockiest mountain in the massif.

As usually, I was pushing the envelope of my courage, not searching for any detailed information in advance, bringing just 12 point crampons, double axe and a bivy sack. No harness, no rope, no tent, no sleeping bag. Light and fast climbing in the purest form.

Leaving straight from work the previous day, I spent the night on a public toilet in Takayama city in order to catch the first morning Shin Hotaka bound bus. How many times have I ridden that line already.

On the approach I ran into wide snowfield covering the bottom of the valley. Winter had not yet said its last words, but the weather was nice.
Upon reaching the entrance into the Takitani gorge I was pleased to find the snowfield in good conditions. Though the surface was wild broken, the snow was hard and stable, so I managed to walk over it all the way to the first grand waterfall.

IMG_2365

Takitani and Kita Hotaka buttress in May 2015

Circumventing it from the right, as one sketch I saw on the web suggested, was out of question due to the fact there is nothing but wet, vertical wall and dirty, gruesome chimney I wouldn’t dare venture into even if it was the only way possible. Instead I focused on the 15 meter broken wall to the left. It was a mess of a blocky wall. Wet from the constant spray coming from the neighboring waterfall, overgrown with vegetation in cracks and on ledges… but it seemed plentiful in usable holds, climbable.

To reach the wall I had to tackle one beast of a bergschrund. It was not terribly wide, but definitely scary, at least 10 meters deep scar separating the mountain from the twisted snowfield below. Never have I seen deeper schrund in Japan. Not even on Tsurugi.

The only option to cross it was a place with collapsed rim, now forming a feeble snow bridge over the threatening jaws. I stepped onto this 60 centimeter wide block of snow with held breath and heart in my neck. It held. Next step brought me onto the rock face.

IMG_2367

The waterfall and the wall

I found myself a bit off route, inside a corner to the left.
Closer to the roaring waterfall, I glimpsed an old hanging rope. Getting to it was not that difficult, first climbing straight up a couple of meters over some grade III face and then traversing horizontal ledge system sideways.
The rope was of no use, except as a trail marker, being prehistoric, thin, fuzzy and covered in lichen.
The face was broken into four blocks stacked on top of each other, with cracks and ledges separating each block like bricks. The route marked by the rope followed a vertical finger crack, first bit of it slightly overhanging, before reaching the next ledge level.
I tested the finger lock in the crack. The grip was reasonable, but otherwise being a blank rock, there were no footholds whatsoever on the overhanging part. Spans between usable features turned out to be bigger than they looked from the snowfield. No rope, no protection, no go.

I backtracked my way over the horizontal ledges back into the corner to look for a different way.
Ice cold stream of water was flowing over the next section of the face, numbing my fingers, soaking my sleeves as I reached forward to grasp the next hold, rumbled over my mountain boots as I edged carefully on the inch wide steps.
Dirty runout led me atop the next blocky section, successfully around and past the crack.

The obvious way forward led straight up through a shallow corner, more muddy than rocky, overgrown in grass. Again, a string of rope hanged along the line, not a bit more trustworthy than the one before.
I grabbed on a rock hold protruding from the mud. It moved alarmingly. Then I tried a small bush, pulling it out completely, revealing a hollow space behind the mud wall, with deep cracks in the bedrock.
A wave of shiver went through my body as I realized the whole 30 meter wall is really just a thousand tons of boulders piled precariously on top of each other.
The whole thing suddenly felt frighteningly unstable.
I looked down to the snowfield, now at least ten meters below. If something were to give way, I would plummet straight into the schrund, deep under the ice. Nobody would ever find my body. I was not afraid of falling off due to my incapability to hold onto something. I was afraid the whole think might crumble with me clinging to it.
For a moment I thought about backing out.
Now, without a rope, abseiling from here was impossible and down climbing the previous two sections seemed too scary to even think about.
The point of no return. I get up the buttress or…

I grabbed the string of rope, another bush and placed my boot on a rock hold. I hoped somehow all the holds will be worth more than the sum of each part.
I was off the stable ground, bellow me an airy drop and the jaws of the shrund.
The holds started weakening. It was now or never.
Paradoxically the most untrustworthy hold, the rotten rope, proved to be the strongest part of the corner. At one moment I pulled on it with about 60 percent of my bodyweight, praying for it being strong enough, just so that i could reach for a loose rock laying on a puff of grass. Pushing the rock downwards into the muddy grass, I was able to create just enough friction to hold myself onto the mountain.
With that move I mantled up onto the top of the third block.
Cursing just for myself, not having fun at all, I then crawled over the vertical mud field to the single one reassuringly stable tree rooted to the top of the fourth block, to a wide ledge marking the end of the wall from where a short traverse rightward brought me back to the snowfield above the waterfall.

I stood victorious over the waterfall, where, as my guide friend Onishi kun later commented, no guide would take a client any more.
But I was far from the top of the mountain.
Here the snowfield became much steeper, more crevassed, the walls gripping the couloir narrower and higher. If there was any of the frequent spring rockfalls anywhere on the buttress higher up, all would be funnelled through here.

Yet I was calm by now, even relaxing, moving steadily over and around the crevasses, untill the couloir broadened and started splitting into several others, divided by the separate ridges of the Kita Hotaka buttress.
I chose the ‘Dai 2 one’, alas the second ridge, which was a straight rocky line all the way to the summit. This was not supposed to be a difficult route. ‘Takitani nyumon’, the first route to try to get the feeling for the buttress. That was exactly what I was after. Get firsthand experience of the area without pushing into anything too difficult without rope.

IMG_2373

The Kita Hotaka butterss

Although the Dome crowns the mountain impressively and the lines are jagged enough, I couldn’t help feeling a bit underwhelmed and disappointed with the real scale of the buttress. This is supposed to be one of the biggest and baddest we have in Japan. The playground for the real boys. Yet no single real vertical line is longer than about 150 meters.
I tried to capture the buttress looking menacing, but it simply isn’t really.

The climb over the second ridge was smooth and pretty much uneventful, mostly being grade II and III with only a couple exposed moves of higher difficulty. Facing west, It was basically free of snow and warm enough to feel like any other summer alpine climb. I was pleased with my sense for orientation, finding both a perfect approach to the ridge and the route itself without any mistakes.

IMG_2383

The second ridge and the Dome

 

IMG_2382

Looking back

IMG_2381

IMG_2388

IMG_2392

On top of the second ridge

 

IMG_1542

On top of Kita Hotaka buttress in October 2014

Soon I was walking over the rocky summit ridgeline of the Kita Hotakadake, 3000 meters high in the spring sky.

From the summit I traversed to the top of Mount Karasawa, where I had found the awesome bivy spot half a year ago. The summit is nothing but a pile of rocks, falling abruptly to the east in one sweeping precipice.
Right by the precipice on the northeastern side, there is a wide ledge, shaded from wind by the summit itself. It is a naturally perfect bivy spot with splendid views, 3100 meters above the Pacific. One of the highest bivy spots in Japan.

IMG_2395

IMG_2393

Mae and Oku Hotaka

 

IMG_1571.jpg

The splendid bivy spot on top of Karasawadake in October 2014

In October I just had to clear away some of the early snow, attach the tarp and I was sat.
Now in May, the work was harder. The accumulated snow had already crystalized into ice through the process of periodical melting and refreezing and I was now hacking on it with my axe in order to make some form of usable platform to rest on. I played with it, using the time till dusk to make an ergonomic, comfortable seat. Before I could finnish the sculpting, the day had turned into night.

I managed to get a couple of hours of sleep before the creeping cold reached the inner parts of my body, rendering sleeping impossible.

I have always admired stories of the early mountaineers, freezing their asses on the coldest faces of the Alps at night. I consider these bivouacs to be an all important part of the experience. Something to be embraced rather than avoided. For me, bivouacs on the forbidden places high up there are a sacred time, a meditation. Or at least that is the idea and the lasting memory. Reality of the moment very often turns out to be quite different though.

I had a down jacket and pants, together with a bivy bag, but no tent and no sleeping bag. By midnight I was seriously cold. Colder than anything I had ever experienced. Cold beyond cold, body numb, half paralysed.
I carried no instrument to verify the facts, but forecasted temperature for 3000 meters was -9 centigrade that night.

One hour later, I lost my patience and determination to endure, packed the bivy kit and started walking down from the summit, just to warm up a bit by the movement. Rising from the cover of the ledge, I was met by an arctic wind sweeping the summit, turning even walking into freezing torture.

15 minutes of stumble down from the summit I reached the Hotaka sanso mountain hut. I would have continued down the snowfield to Shin Hotaka, but the uncertainty of its state and crevasse condition in this season made me postpone the descent into the morning hours.

For the time being, I sheltered myself inside the hut’s lavatory area, yeah again, where the temperature must have been above freezing for there was liquid water. That didn’t help me that much though. In a state of half awakening, half unconsciousness my body kept shivering violently through the next two hours before the dawn sky brightened enough to make the descent safe.

Nothing comes close to the enlightened feelings rejuvenating you when you reach the green lowland after freezing through the night. When the spring sunrays stab through you, filling your body with warmth. When you walk, dumb smiling, between all the clueless chinese tourists lining for the Hotaka ropeway, fighting their cumbersome and totally expendable plastic suitcases over the staircase.
When you turn around for the last time, look back at the shining mountain and ask yourself: “Was it worth all the struggle?”

”Hell yeah. It was awesome!“

IMG_2405

September 2014 – The longest day

Splendid Tsurugidake

Splendid Tsurugidake

Face expressions of all present on top of mount Tsurugi that early autumn noon suggested more something in the lines of ghost sighting, rather than witnessing one gaijin striding over the summit without even slowing his pace. Well, he did take one quick picture, just as a formality, but apart from that, everything suggested he must have been out of his mind, not realizing he had already reached the highest point of one of the most sought-after mountains in Japan. And without even raising an eyebrow, he crossed right over the brass plate reading “Danger beyond this point. Expert climbers only”, cemented onto the stone at the other side of the summit.

He must have been mad, that was without a doubt. Otherwise he wouldn’t be planning something as outrageous as climbing the mighty Chinne in one day. Something as scandalous as doing it alone. No space for polemics, no defence… this guy was nuts and everyone around knew it.

Only the notorious Yamaholic was his accomplice in crime, giving him a ride to the Tateyama station in the middle of previous night.

Two hikers from Kanto reported seeing him at 11:16 on the dangerous ‘Kani no tatebai’ section of the climb, moving fast, avoiding any contact with the security chains provided. He passed them on the rocks and was gone.

Four member party of climbers from Gunma had just abseiled from their successful ascent of the Yatsumine, when he passed them at 12:34. According to their account, he was heading for the San no mado col. Mustering all of their english abilities, they advised him to put on his helmet, trying to be polite. Allegedly, his response was a bit grumpy. He seemed more concerned about whether there is still some snowfield left in the col. Obviously he was short on water supplies. But to their relief, he did put on the helmet before entering the loose scree gully.

Mist in the San no mado col

Mist in the San no mado col

Another two climbers, this time from Nagoya, arrived at the col from the Ike no tan, just in time to see this young lunatic lad prepare his rope for the climb below the first crack. They were camping in the col for the night and having the whole of the Chinne left ridgeline lined up in front of their shelters, they could give us the most detailed and complete description of the events that followed.

All alpine routes on Tsurugi were busy that day and the cliffs of Yatsumine, Chinne, as well as the Cleopatra Needle echoed with shouts of colorful climbing parties, dotting the otherwise mostly grey, vertically oriented landscape. But by two o’clock, they were all just about at the climaxes of their respectable climbs, while the foreigner was only scaling his first pitch.
Was he aware the route can take around five hours, depending on the skills of the party? Was he prepared for the possibility of having to bivouac on the climb? His 30 liter backpack didn’t suggest he was carrying much camping gear. To the horror of all the onlookers, he obviously didn’t carry even rock shoes, as he started climbing in his mountain boots. Reckless gaijin amateur!

In fact the foreigner did all his choices deliberately, taking all the risk factors into consideration. In fact he was quite proud of his smallish backpack and felt all the basic emergency survival needs were covered. In his mind, he didn’t come here to be comfortable.
But he did feel the disconcertingly drastic change in pace as he went from fast alpine approach to the first roped climbing pitch. Though vertical, the first chimney proved quite easy with mostly secure holds, but still the procedure of climbing to the belay ledge, abseiling back down, cleaning the protection and climbing back up was taking considerable time.

One short traverse to the left revealed the second pitch, starting with a wide gap between the face and one huge rock flake. Almost vertical again, the grade seemed similar to the previous pitch, but the flake promised some really good holds and the foreigner dared to proceed rope free to save himself the hassle. It went well.

The second pitch

The second pitch

He was climbing confidently over the next few easy pitches, spiraling the lower buttress up and around, to the overgrown shoulder above.

From the shoulder, 70 meters high rock face rises dominantly to the sky, blocking all other horizons. The foreigner jumped onto it with excitement and vigor. He was climbing a straight line, caring little for the old pegs popping from the cracks here and there, for he was still proceeding rope-free, enjoying the movement on every step upwards. The rock was friendly to him, rough, with lots of grain. The holds and steps felt secure. In just 12 minutes, he topped out onto the sharp ridge connected with the Central band at half the height of Chinne, only one short pitch separating him from the terrace and the crux section of the route.

The 70 meter face

The 70 meter face

Looking back

Looking back

The view that opened up in front of him made a deep impression on the foreigner. He knew it from pictures, but nothing can beat the real thing. The spire of Chinne thrusts into the sky like a middle finger into the face of gravity and the tower of Cleopatra Needle is not far off.

Chinnne and Cleopatra Needle

Chinnne and Cleopatra Needle

This was supposed to be the test piece. Grade V with overhang in the alpine, hundreds of meters above the snowfields of San no mado col and in mountain boots.

Ready for the crux pitch?

Ready for the crux pitch?

His mind was calm though. Perhaps it was because he has already accumulated some experience after all and was now looking at it not through the eyes of emotion, but through calculating reason. Studying the spire rising from his feet, he was visualizing the sequence of moves.
“Just to get to the overhang is tough enough”, the words he had read in one account resounded in his mind. But he had an idea already.
Big boulder dotted with old pitons served him as a belayer. He made sure this one was strong and well equalized. Then he approached the spire and touched it’s rock. It was now half past three.

Silent belayer

Silent belayer

Both hands grabbed the edge of the spire, boots found a corner to lock into and in a layback move he was off the ground. Actually he found this part of the spire to be quite reasonable. The holds were good and felt just about enough in count. He clipped in one draw, then second and soon arrived below the hang. Having to pay out the rope between the moves, he was proceeding slowly.
Apart from one old piton, small Friend was utilized to further protect the hang.

The two Nagoya climbers were standing by their camp, holding their breath, dinner getting cold in the dishes, as they were watching every move of the solitary foreigner perched high onto the edge of the mountain. As far as they could say, he had used aid to overcome the hang. First grabbing on one sling, later stepping into it. Above the hang, they could see him taking a selfie, celebrating success on the crux move. Only they knew what he didn’t, that it was too early to celebrate success.

Above the hang

Above the hang

The foreigner thought he will be able to cut the pitch above the hang and retrieve his gear. Left with only one quickdraw, to his horror, he found himself in very steep and shallow corner with only one rusty piton and a daring line to climb.
For the next 40 minutes this terror continued, as he was climbing in snail’s pace, moving his one draw from piton to piton, petrified by the thought that if one of those pegs failed, there would be no protection all the way down to the hang. And since he had already climbed twice the length of the pitch from ground to the hang, frankly, the protection was as good as none.
He knew this sensation all too well. Technically the moves were not so hard. If his mind was calm, he would be able to climb this without much fuss. But solo climbing in the high mountains is a different ballgame. The experience is all that much intense. Yet exactly that was what he was coming for.
The liberation came 25 meters into the pitch in a form of two reasonably sound pegs quite close together, which the foreigner, desperate by the torment, reinforced with one more Friend. The equalization was not perfect, but enough to trust it with the weight of one’s life.
When he abseiled down, it was 16:30 and the day was just about to leave.

Now back up!

Now back up!

Jummaring back up was a slow and exhausting business, asking for a lot of patience. With only one small Ropeman ascender the foreigner was moving in 30-40 centimeter long steps. Step into the loop, stand up, move and brake the Reverso, sit into the harness, move the Ropeman… the sequence was repeating itself.

Arriving back at his poor belay, the foreigner revamped the anchor in order to be able to withstand an upwards pull. Then he started climbing again. Two or three meters higher, when he was ready to clip into the next piece of protection, he realized how poor decision it had been to let the rope hang free below. He thought the climbing will be easier without its weight in his pack. In fact the weight of the rope was now pulling tight on the clove hitch on his HMS carabiner, rendering it almost impossible to manage with only one hand. An absolutely crucial requirement for climbing.
Holding onto the protection, he tried to adjust the flow of the rope by clipping it with a carabiner onto one shoulder strap of his backpack in such a way, that it would come over his shoulder, the same way as if the rope was feeding from the pack like normally. The effect of this was disastrous. The weight of the rope was pulling the pack brutally onto one side, making it impossible to focus on anything else than its viciousness.
With the rope now presenting one more enemy to battle, the foreigner was clambering higher ever slower.

Long pitch

Long pitch

In the meantime, the sun setting on the other side of the mountain started painting the sky with colors of dusk. As fast as the light of the day was leaving, the cold of the night was coming to take its place.

Dusk is coming.

Dusk is coming.

At 18:17, just as the two climbers from Nagoya were finishing their preparations for the night, they glimpsed a flickering light high up on the spur. It was the foreigner, by now more than ten hours on the move, battling tirelessly on the sharp end. He has by now overcame the hardest pitches, but the Chinne still held few of its last defences.

No easy way out

No easy way out

With night on his neck, the foreigner was desperate to reach the top of the spur. The solo climbing rope-work was so time-consuming and mentally exhausting, that he prayed in his mind for not having to take the rope out single one more time. He remembered the gravity-defying sharp summit ridge waiting for him. He was imagining it behind every corner. But the spur was rising higher and higher. Seventy meters higher, to be precise. What he was doing here was very bold climbing. Or, as someone else would say, very reckless, irresponsible climbing. Beyond the standard grade III, acceptable rope-free.
Though the passing of time felt very slow to him, in a striking contrast to the previous pitches, he covered the last 70 meters in just about ten minutes. Ten minutes in which all surroundings had turned from gloomy dusk into pitch black.

Summit ridgeline reached!

Summit ridgeline reached!

Now back on familiar ground, he was stumbling through the darkness over the scree slopes, up the gully leading to the Hoppono ridgeline. This familiarity with the environment and the general winding of the Hoppono route did him great service. He was moving slowly and steadily while climbing and traversing the endless ledges on the way back to the Tsurugi summit. The weariness had come to him at last. The only thing he could see were rocks and rocks again, moving fast in the narrow cone of his headlamp searching for the right way all around. This narrow and always changing vision was making him dizzy. Only constant small sips on water from his camelbak seemed to be effective in countering this dizziness.
“What would happen if I ran out of water”, the thoughts ran through his head. He knew he had to keep moving. No matter how slowly. As soon as he would stop walking, the cold would get to him. He had enough clothing and gear to sit out the night if necessary, but it would be one hell of a bad, cold, sleepless night.

At one point he had a glimpse of bright light coming from about the same elevation as he was, far to the north-east.
“That must be the hut on top of Mount Shirouma”, he thought. And with the sight, the idea to try to seek shelter in the Tsurugi-sanso hut came to his mind. It was the closest hut, situated right in a pass below the Besan ridge. Coming here straight from work over the last night, with only short few hours of sleep, the vision of warm futon felt tempting beyond measure. One more sleepless night in the cold would be too much torture.

Back on the top of Tsurugi

20:13, back on the top of Tsurugi

The descent felt endless. Hours after hours of searching for the white and yellow markings, the guiding angels sleeping on the stones.
With every meter he descended, the clouds grew thicker, the gasps of wind stronger, the air colder. Millions of tiny frozen dropplets of haze were dancing in the beam of his light, rustling as they were hitting the thin wind-breaking nylon shell he was wearing.
Tendons in his hips were whining in pain with every upwards step as he was climbing the last small peak in the fifteenth hour on feet practically without break.
Then the warm, yellow glow of the mountain hut windows appeared quite near and in the next couple of minutes, right as the clock hands rolled over 11 at night, he stepped through the front sliding door into the dimly lit structure.

The corridors were silent and empty, the front counter locked. The scent of sleep could be felt inside the building. Suddenly a torpid female figure appeared, plodding along the back wall of the front hall, only to disappear in the rest room, without even noticing the late guest. He went on with his business of reorganizing the backpack and putting on another layer of clothing. A big gasoline stove stood in the middle of the hall, but it was dead cold.
After a brief look around, with nobody to be found, the foreigner eventually laid down on one of the wooden benches in the corridor in order to get some sleep. Unfortunately not much of it could be gained. There was a steady breeze of cold air flowing through the corridor and the bench felt cold as ice. It was the same situation like the previous night, when he tried to sleep on a bench in front of the Tateyama ropeway station, only to be kept awake all the precious few hours by the coldness of the base. He didn’t bring any matt on purpose, expecting to spend the night outside, where any other position than sitting hunched up on the rope somewhere between rocks would be impossible anyway. Now he was paying the price for that decision by the second night with close to none good sleep. Sitting on the rope, bent double, half unconscious, he somehow went through the night, until at around 3 AM a party of early risers descended from the sleeping floor in order to start on their way to climb to the top of Tsurugi for the sunrise.
“My room is empty now. You can go there if you want”, one of them spoke to the foreigner. Now he was the torpid figure, plodding up the stairs. He collapsed onto the tatami and immediately slept dead.

When he woke up three hours later, the wooden room was shining gold, lit by the rays of morning sunlight entering through the single east facing window. Through the window he glimpsed a sight of golden autumn landscape covered in delicate layer of hoarfrost melting into dew, glittering marvelously in the low angle sunshine. The sky was flawless blue and the air was crisp and chilly outside.
The hut was now steaming with action, everybody getting ready for a new day full of adventures. As he descended into the front hall, a lively, smiling young lady from the hut’s staff greeted him with a loud “Ohayou gozaimasu”. The foreigner explained to her his story and how he got here briefly, asking if he should pay something. She smiled beautifully, raised one finger to her mouth and said: “Let that be our secret.” She was a fairy that crosses the path of every weary adventurer at some point in time. Like the first good meal, no matter how simple, blows even the most luxurious dinner out of water after days spent in languish in the open, like the first warm bath feels almost like reincarnation after nights spent in the arctic cold of winter mountains, seeing a smile of a lovely young lady has the same special and magical impact on the heart of a young man, bringing him uncomplicated joy into the moment.

Morning hoarfrost

Morning hoarfrost


How glad he was that he decided to postpone his return to Murodo to this day. How glorious the mountains looked! He was walking slowly on his return journey, embracing the strokes of cool winds, revering the miraculous sanctuary which nature is.
Morning Tsurugi

Morning Tsurugi


Countless times the foreigner kept looking back at the mountain that has given him so much. The relationship between him and the mountain had changed. No more desire, no more superficial lust. An intimate knowledge had turned all those emotions into gratitude, respect and love. He has now stood on the summit four times already, climbed all the routes he wanted to climb. “Is there a reason to come back again”, he was asking himself. “Yes”, was the eventual answer. To visit an old friend. To climb here in winter…

Gratitude

Gratitude

Down to Murodo

Down to Murodo

Raichousawa

Raichousawa

August 2014 – The Buttress

Kitadake buttressI didn’t mind waiting for the 3 o’clock, Hirogawara bound bus in Kofu. I had no idea if I’d still be in Japan in three weeks time and the moment felt like someone had just pressed a pause button on the tape of my life. I was present, aware of all things around me, bit sad and sentimental, but at peace within. I pushed all the risk and safety related worries out of my head. I stopped counting the expenditures. If this was my last shot at doing something I’m really passionate about, I was determined to get the most out of it.

 Forehead leaning onto the Thermarest attached to the backpack on my lap, more asleep than conscious, to me the rocking of a small bus on a mountain road felt distant and comforting. Until at one point I raised my head and saw the night had turned into bright new day. The bus arrived at the Hirogawara bus terminal.

A handful of nuts mixed with oats, dried fruits and chocolate served me as a breakfast. Actually, a pack of this ‘trail mix’ was the only food I was carrying, together with 2,5 liters of pure water. Plain water is all I ever drink anyway. Ultralight, or ultra-simple was the motto of this trip. Apart from several layers of protective and insulating clothing, I had no spares. No stove, no cooking utensils, no tent, no shelter. Just a bivy bag, a mat and an alpine down jacket.

This simple style is something that feels the most natural to me. Something I am working on and developing with every new purchase. How paradoxical it sounds, buying stuff in order to be able to get away with less stuff.

Leaving even a sleeping bag behind for an alpine climb was new to me, but I was eager to try it out after seeing Ryusuke getting away with it last month on Tsurugi. By far the heaviest burden in my backpack was the climbing gear and 50 meters of 9 mm Millet rope. I even dared not bringing rock-shoes with me this time. A bit risky decision, but again, my ideal of pure climbing is all in one footwear from approach to the top.

Going through the preparations quickly and in silence, I was trying to keep as low profile as a single gaijin in a group of Japanese can. I didn’t want the attention of the authorities, to be asked about my destination, itinerary and the tozan todoke. Striding confidently through the tozanguchi gate, I greeted the elderly official inside with big smile and a nod. And I was gone.
IMG_1126

Trouble with alpine climbing in Japan lies in the general need to battle wild bushes and endless haimatsu conifers in order to just get to the beginning of every climb. Not so on Kitadake. One of the regular hiking courses traverses right below the buttress, making the approach work pleasantly easy business. The buttress itself is about 600 meters high top to bottom, one of a kind in Japan, massive behemoth consisting of four or five distinct rocky spurs. The classic route follows the iconic fourth spur, 400 meters long climb on rock of up to grade V.

My feelings about this route were mixed. I was burning with excitement, eager to get my hands on the rock. At first, I even thought it to be shame to only climb two thirds of the buttress and kept looking for a line which would cover the whole length. But when I really got to see it with my own eyes, it was obvious the fourth spur was the way to go. The dominant, perfect line. Then there were pure worries and fear. This was to be my first big solo alpine climb and to brave grade V in mountain boots on such a long route sounded nuts even in my own head. Part of me was looking for an excuse not to embark on this climb. Perhaps the weather would turn too cloudy and I could simply walk the hiking course all the way to the top. Excitement and fear, the cocktail of emotions, always present on my climbs.

The weather turned out splendid, even too good perhaps and the summer sun kept scorching me all the way from Hirogawara to the base of the climb. The sunshine was too intense to even sit somewhere for a break. Thanks to that I completed the approach in less than half the map time. The uppermost parts of the buttress were hidden in a cloud sticking to the mountain, but that didn’t concern me much. Such clouds are common and the forecast was good.

One party was gearing up for climbing when I arrived at the Otaki gully where the proper climbing begins, but as it turned out, they were not aiming at the same route and we were thus saved the hassle of deciding who climbs first, who climbs faster. One more party could be seen higher up on the Pyramid face, but I didn’t meet them during the day.

Approaching the Kitadake buttress

Approaching the Kitadake buttress

Another party at the base

Another party at the base

Just by the sight of it, I gave up climbing the lower gully direct and traversed the first diagonal ledge to a small ridge on the left. Some 30 meters higher I entered the upper gully and climbed another 25 or so meters to the level of the big traverse band on the Pyramid face. So far it was all grade III climbing, easy enough to proceed rope-free. The Pyramid face was towering above me, forbidding and severe. Slab after slab, divided by thin bands of grass. The most obvious way of getting to the right side of the face, where the proper arête and the line of ascent lies, led traversing over 20 meters long, outward-sloping, scree covered ledge, shaded by overhanging rock. At the beginning, the band divided into two vertically separate ledges. At first I tried the upper one, seemingly less traveled one, climbing carefully over extremely brittle rock. It ended in pretty exposed terrain with little space for maneuvering, so I decided to turn around. The lower ledge was much easier to traverse. The only element of concern was the scree. The party I met earlier was now climbing some 30 meters lower, straight in the fall line of anything I could potentially dislodge. I proceeded with utmost caution.

The couloir and the traverse band over the Pyramid face

The couloir and the traverse band over the Pyramid face

The traverse band

The traverse band

Once finished with the traverse, a crack I was familiar with from photographs appeared in front of me. Rupture in a smooth, almost vertical slab, it looked like the perfect crack, fun to jam ones fists into. But now when I saw it in real, for a solo climber like myself, its appeal faded quickly. It was wider than my biggest Friend, bare of any pegs or bolts. I had nothing to throw at it and was not at all excited about the prospect of climbing it free using just my hands and smearing. One unsuccessful attempt at a lichen covered face to the left bore no fruits either. Finally, to the right the rocks were a bit overgrown and there I managed to make my way past the crack with confidence. A confidence, which led me to one of the biggest misjudgments in climbing so far.

The first crack

The first crack


Looking upwards from the small terrace on which I stood, the rock face was steep, but rich in cracks and holds, seemingly no more than grade III again. I decided to continue rope free. About 6 meters higher I got into precarious position. Good steps were gone, good holds scarce. There was just one 4-5 centimeters wide crack right in front of me and any move forward felt quite committing.
Here I didn't know yet, how frightening the section above will be.

Here I didn’t know yet, how frightening the section above will be.

Every climber has an individual comfort zone in which he feels secure to climb rope free. For me right now, that is when I have at least one bomber hold at all times. A hold, which I can confidently count on even in case some another pops out underneath my feet. My climbing style is based around this. I am trying to move fluently, not shock-load anything, test everything. I don’t make a move unless I am sure I can hold myself even in case something goes wrong. In my analytical mind, I am constantly imagining how the next move could go wrong, what forces would be at play and how to counter them. It may sound like negative or pessimistic way of thinking, but it is not. It is logical, calculative and it keeps me alive. I would never jump onto a difficult move I am unsure about, telling myself ‘I can do this, I can do this’. That is stupid. If I cannot be sure about the next move, there has to be protection in place in case something doesn’t go as planned.

This was such a moment, but there was no protection in place. Light panicky sensation went through my body, releasing a dose of adrenalin on its way. I was quite high on exposed rock and turning around was not possible. Quickly, I clipped one double sling into my harness, produced the Friend #3 and placed it high up in the crack. Then I clipped myself into it with the sling. I tried to continue climbing, but the move felt too insecure and the panic was paralyzing me. I grabbed one more Friend and pushed it into the crack. After releasing the trigger, one of the cams rotated around the axle missing the rock and jammed. Damn, I thought. The crack was wider inside than outside, making it difficult for anything to fit. Adjusting it as good as was possible, I managed to make a working placement after all. One short sling was not enough, so I extended it with one more draw.

Then I moved higher, as much as the slings allowed me. My new position was even more exposed than the previous one. On the left side, I had one good under hold about waist height and one good foothold right below it. On the right, my boot was just smearing, although on reasonably sloped piece of rock. My right hand was free to work with. At first I moved the upper Friend to my new level, only this time the placement was not so secure. Whatever I did, the inner cams were at the edge of their span. I lowered my body as low as I was able, trying to reach the second Friend, but in wain. Feeling too vulnerable, I tried to place a third Friend in a thinner part of the crack higher, but it was still too small. So I chose one small Rock and placed it even deeper into the crack. It took some trying and fiddling, but it seemed to hold. With a sling and another draw I created an equalized anchor between it and the Friend. Honestly, it was a mess.

Once more I tried to reach the lower Friend, stretching my shoulder and arm as much as I was able. I could grab it, but couldn’t pull it out in the proper direction and it jammed again. When I stood up again, my left hand was pumped, calfs hurting, it was a difficult situation to calm my mind in. I switched hands on the under hold, braced my shoulder against an overhanging rock, moved the feet a bit to relax them and looked down. Suddenly I realized I am no longer shadowed by the bushes. I was now almost 100 meters above the base of the climb and at least double that from the snowfield below. I could see the other party climbing deep below as well as people on the regular trail climbing up to the Happonba col. Some of them were looking in my direction. I felt very exposed and vulnerable. I didn’t want anyone to watch me right now. It had been at least 20 minutes since I started this pitch and my hands and fingers felt weak and stiff. Then the tunnel vision of intense focus took me over again and I was back at work.

I unclipped the lower friend from my harness and let it hang there, collected all my courage and energy and made the next series of moves. It went all right and I reached easier ground at last. About my head high, the  face was leaning back a bit and there were solid holds. I took apart the protection, but again, unable to retrieve the Rock, I left it hanging in its place. Then finally, I was able to climb the easy runout to the next ledge.

There I could rest and breathe freely again. There I could digest the lesson I’d just received. It’s not that the climbing would be too difficult. It was just over my threshold of confidence while unprotected. It was a place, where had my fingers slipped in the jam or boots on the smear, a fall would be inevitable. That scared and paralyzed me. From there on, wherever I was not 100% sure I can climb the pitch by looking at it, I set up the roped belay.

But first I had to retrieve the gear I had left behind. Rope was called to work for the first time and one short rappel saw me picking up the dead from the battlefield. At one point, while unclipping all the slings from each other, maybe because my mind was half preoccupied by holding myself mid rappel above an abyss, I let go of one quickdraw, thinking it is still attached to another sling on the other side. It was in fact attached to another draw, but that one was loose. I heard a clinking sound of something hitting the rock, but thought it to be the Rock I had still attached to myself and let go of at the same time. I realized the unfortunate loss only another pitch or two higher, when I had reached the fourth spur terrace. It was too late to start any search and rescue. I was too far, left with only three alpine draws. And the real climbing was all just to begin.

After reaching safe ground. You can still see my slings left inside the crack.

After reaching safe ground, ready to abseil to retrieve my gear which you can still see left inside the crack.

Starting from the terrace, one of the crux pitches of this climb begins. 6 meter tall dihedral with a finger crack and quite smooth walls, grade V-, followed by 60 meters of grade III climbing over the upper part of the Pyramid face, up to its Head. I set up the anchor on two ring bolts and went on testing the walls. Unable to make any use of the crack in my boots, I had very little to hold onto. It didn’t seem impossible, but very daring indeed. I ended up traversing along the wall far to the right, where the route seemed at least one grade easier and climbed past the dihedral onto the ridge above. There I created another anchor and abseiled back down to the terrace, retrieving the draws and Rocks I’d used.

The first kakushin.

The first kakushin.

That is the catch with roped solo climbing. And for some, one of its beauties also. Once you successfully climb a pitch, you still have to abseil down again to pick up the gear and release the lower anchor. Then climb or jumar back up again, meaning you’re covering the distance twice. Since I was now technically on top rope, I had another go on the dihedral. I managed to step and hold onto it, make several more moves, getting me to about a half its height, after which I gave in to the calling of my body to take it easy, grabbed the rope and pulled myself up onto easier ground.

After abseiling down.

After abseiling down.

Ready to climb back up.

Ready to climb back up.

The remaining 60 meters to the Head, along with the next pitch circumventing and ascending it from the right were fun and pleasant climbing over broken slabs with thin bands of grass, easy enough to do rope-free again.

The fun and easy face to the Pyramid head.

The fun and easy face to the Pyramid head.

By now I’d entered the sticky cloud and could not see much around. Good old alpine conditions. The spur had changed into a knife ridge, with steep slabs falling to the mists on the left side and broken, brittle cliffs cutting the right side. There was one of the huge gullies of the buttress to my right and I wanted to see it. I wanted to see the Great chimney and the overhanging face of the Central spur. I wanted to see the scenes on which true climbing heroism takes place. But the cloud thought otherwise.

Looking into the D-gully.

Looking into the D-gully.

The true crux of the climb was now looming above me. The 5 meter, grade V, wide and smooth corner with a crack in the face of the Matchbox, a huge boxy rock sitting high up on the spur, the highlight of this climb. No way around this time. Climbing this free would be 5.10a perhaps. I can just about lead 5.10a on sport routes in rock shoes, so for me at this point, this was going to be full aided pitch. Fortunately there were plenty of pitons driven into the crack and the progress turned easier than I thought. It was fun in fact, not scary at all. The pitons were in close intervals, so I was able to pay out only short amounts of rope on every step, feeling secure.

The second kakushin.

The second kakushin.

After assembling the anchor, I preclipped one draw and stepped onto the face. There was just about one wrinkle I could place the tip of my left boot on and not much else. I clipped another draw and the rope into the next piton, adjusted one more sling and placed my right boot into it. Pushing outward to the sides on tiny holds with my fingers, I stepped up on the sling and quickly clipped in the third draw. Then I had to employ some acrobatics to reach back down and pick up the first draw, because I had used all three already. Pulling on the upper draw, I got myself to the upper edge of the face and clipped the last draw. The runout onto a steep ridge was the scariest and most insecure part of the pitch, without any more protection.

The routine of building an upper anchor, abseiling down, releasing everything, climbing back up and coiling the rope into the pack in order to be payed out again started feeling fast and natural. The progress felt good.

Rope coiled and ready to be payed out again.

Rope coiled and ready to be payed out again.

Short bit of climbing over the ridge got me to the top of the Matchbox, from where it is necessary to abseil to the steep face on the left. The abseil seems short, but that is only an illusion caused by the steepness of the buttress. Somehow the face seems to be running away under your feet as you are trying to reach it.

The abseil from the Matchbox.

The abseil from the Matchbox.

Cured by the previous frightening experience, I clipped myself into an anchor on two bolts down on the face. The slabs above me didn’t look particularly easy. There was a huge crack between the face and the wall of the Matchbox, but I was unable to utilize it to my advantage. Tiny steps and bands were all I could work with. Since I had only three draws at my disposal, the first one I actually placed was already quite high from the anchor. I was now standing on a 3 – 5 centimeters wide ledge and above me, the slab was so smooth I couldn’t find any remotely secure holds. To the right, the huge crack had quite jagged edge. I couldn’t reach it anyhow, but I remembered one method Walter Bonatti used on his first ascent of the Dru when there was no other way forward. I had one 240 centimeters long sling in my kit, which could be used like a lasso.

It took me number of throws, trying to catch any of the rock features into the sling, but in the end the technique worked! I got strong enough purchase and managed to pull myself over the blank section of the slab.

The slabs along the Matchbox.

The slabs along the Matchbox.

The Bonatti technique.

The Bonatti technique.

From there on all got a bit easier again and I finished the pitch another 20 or so meters higher on the face. Some topos on the internet grade this section as IV, some as III. I do not know. It was not IV hard, but also not a straight III easy. Anyway, the routine could not be cheated. Abseil, release the anchor and up once more the whole length.
IMG_1179

The Matchbox below.

The Matchbox below.

It was another 20 or more meters of free climbing over the face onto a rock shoulder at the edge of the C-gully. One razor-sharp traverse over the shoulder led me right onto some slabs below the final wall. I was hesitant for a moment about whether to protect the traverse or not. I was not too fond of the hassle, but in the end I decided to use the rope. The catch with traverses is that you cannot abseil them on the way back and have to climb them three times altogether, while protecting yourself is complicated. The actual climbing turned out quite easy and secure, but still the work took me at least 20 minutes before I could start planning the next pitch.

The face to the shoulder.

The face to the shoulder.

The razor traverse.

The razor traverse.

The slabs below the last wall.

The slabs below the last wall.

There it was, right above me. The chimney in the final vertical wall. IV+ grade, slightly overhanging inside… and decorated with beautifully blossoming alpine flora. While setting up the anchor, I was overwhelmed by the environment surrounding me. The buttress was falling down into the mists below my feet for hundreds of meters. The walls around felt dark and cold. My hands had that earthly smell. Body was tired. I was having a real alpine experience like I had always desired. I was totally in joy in this place.

The last chimney.

The last chimney.

Ready for the last test piece, I clipped into the first red bolt and entered the chimney. Squeezing in, I clipped another draw above on the right. Fortunately the protection was good. The next move up forced me into lean backwards position. The walls of the chimney were wet and slippery and clipping the third draw was a battle in the cramped space. It may sound straight enough, but trust me, paying out the rope, moving the clove hitch on your carabiner while feeling the other hand you are hanging on loosing strength and fingers their grip on the wet surface is not simple. It is quite an adrenalin experience in fact. My boots were very uncooperative on the slippery holds and the arms soon got pumped. I grabbed the highest sling to pull myself onto and finally reached an easier stance. From there it was quite easy. And that was it. I was at the top of the last pitch. Well, almost it. Remember, there is still the rappel and one more turn on the way up.

Above the chimney.

Above the chimney.

It was half past four when I packed the rope and started climbing to the true Kitadake summit. The normal route leads straight up to the ridgeline, where it joins with the trekking path and climbs for the last 10 or 15 minutes to the summit. I didn’t want to follow this route. I wanted to stay on the buttress until the end and immediately started traversing to the right, where the central ridge creates the spine of the mountain.

Traversing towards the central ridge.

Traversing towards the central ridge.

Swallowed by the fog, I was wandering over the steep grassy slopes, up and higher, into a gully surrounded by black walls, never certain about what will come next. There I ran out of water and the fatigue caught me. It was a long day already. Lots of elevation gained and lost and gained again. Suddenly I saw a strange long loop of weary rope hanging from the wall of the central ridge, swinging deathly in the fog. It resembled a lure for a stranded climber. Lifeless piece of ancient cord, definitely weak and impossible to trust. The walls from which it hanged were dark and difficult. There was no way I would follow such route.

The dead rope.

The dead rope.

Fatigue

Fatigue

I kept climbing steadily along the ridge, until the walls leaned back enough for me to be able to climb them free. Little by little I traversed to the right and higher onto the ridge, until all of a sudden, I glimpsed shades of blue in the fog above. A horizon could be seen straight up. Wave of new energy pushed me forward and the next moment I arrived from the buttress straight onto the summit of Mount Kita. And what a fascinating view awaited me there! What a reward! While the buttress side of the mountain was enveloped in clouds, the western side was clear and right in the golden hour!

Kitadake summit.

Kitadake summit.

I was alone at the top, enjoying the magical evening. Standing atop the second highest mountain in Japan, I had no intentions of leaving. The colors of blue slowly turned into gold, then orange, until finally the sun disappeared behind the Chuo Alps completely.
IMG_1219 IMG_1227 IMG_1231 IMG_1236 IMG_1244 IMG_1252

Ainodake

Ainodake

Senjougatake

Senjougatake


The summit bivy.

The summit bivy.


It was the cold that woke me several hours later as I lied on the wooden bench in my bivy bag. As I opened my eyes, there was the whole vastness of the universe expanding above, filling all of my vision. Thousands and thousands of stars that were shining upon this land in the days of the samurai, that are shining upon me now and that will shine without the slightest change even when our days are long gone.

Hours went by and with it the heavenly river flew through the night sky. For this I go to the mountains. Those who have not experienced this cannot understand. The state, where spiritual experience overshadows all bodily discomforts.

My bivy spot.

My bivy spot.

IMG_1264

Senjougatake again.

Senjougatake again.

Kaikoma and Yatsugadake

Kaikoma and Yatsugadake

Morning Mount Fuji

Morning Mount Fuji

Bussy Mount Kita

Bussy Mount Kita

The buttress.

The buttress.

Kitadake buttress seen from Hirogawara.

June 2014 – The misty Mount Tanigawa

Ichinokurasawa

Ichinokurasawa


At first I was planning to do a solo ascent of the Kitadake buttress somewhere between the Golden week and the rainy season. I wanted to go in spring, while there is still snow up on the mountain. I wanted it to be more… alpine.
But then, just for the peace of mind of those around me, I asked Sakato-san, a company colleague with extensive alpine experience, if he would like to join.
Although he agreed on the spot at first, after giving it a thought he didn’t seem to like the idea of using one whole day just to approach the mountain and one more to get out of there after the climb. There is no bus connection to Hirogawara this early in the season and the road is closed to private transport, but I didn’t mind walking and thus considered the matter to be settled on solo solution after all.
And then he said: “Let’s go to Mount Tanigawa instead.”
“Tanigawadake”, I thought. “The legendary mountain where some 700 climbers lost their lives till this day. Arguably the grimmest mountain in the world. The mountain where two climbers once died hanging on their ropes in such inaccessible spot, that a squad of army sharpshooters had to be called for, who then kept on firing at the face until one of them hit the rope and the bodies fell down…”
How could I decline such a proposal.

The sheer number of lives lost on the mountain is staggering and doesn’t have parallel anywhere in the world. The Eiger North face, K2, Annapurna, all pale in comparison with their scores of 50 or 60 souls. What makes these the deadliest mountains in the world are not the total numbers of lives they claimed, but the ratios at which they do so. For Annapurna, out of every 10 climbers who make it to the top, 4 die trying. It is said that up to 8000 people lost their lives on Mont Blanc in Europe, but that is an estimate for the whole massif, counting hundreds of aiguilles and many of the hardest faces in the Alps. On Tanigawadake, majority of climbers who never came back home died in the comparably tiny area of the Ichinokurasawa valley.
Nowadays, the Ichinokurasawa is not a place where climbers would go to die though. Most of the tragedies happened during the early days of Japanese alpinism, when brave lads tackled its faces with hemp ropes, home-made aiders and 70 kilograms of forged steel-mongery on their backs. They were the tough boys, doing things we would deem impossible today, but their victories were hard-won and the roads to them paved with many great talents lost forever.

We were not aiming at any of the hard, aided routes. Our goal were the most frequented “beginner” routes up the southern and central spur to the Eboshi-iwa. These two routes are generally rated as reasonable IV, with only one pitch of grade V on each.
The original plan was to climb one by one in two consecutive days, but with the monsoon front right on our heels, there was no time for leisure. At the eve of the climb, decision had been made to start at 03:00 and do it all in one day.

Pitch black darkness ruled that cloudy night. There was no moon, no stars to shine upon the way and only the narrow beams of our head torches penetrated the ink in front of our eyes.
Dim early morning light came to our aid just as we stepped onto the mighty snowfield at the bottom of the Ichinokurasawa. Fresh, cool breeze was blowing from the upper parts along its bottom, providing a welcomed refreshment on this otherwise too warm and humid morning. The whole place was shrouded in mists and had a mystical atmosphere to it. Here and there, black rocky spurs unveiled themselves, giving out glimpses of the magnificence around, only to disappear just as quickly, keeping me in anticipation of thing that were yet to come.

Approaching the Tail ridge on the Tanigawadake snowfield.

Approaching the Tail ridge on the Tanigawadake snowfield.


Leaving the snowfield behind, we scrambled up the slabby Tail ridge until nothing less than the impressive Tsuitate-iwa took a stand in our way. The headwall to the right was vertical and scary as it rose in its blackness up into the mists. Very severe in my eyes. It was somewhere up there, where the two stranded climbers died in their ropes. As frightened as I was just looking at it, somewhere deep inside a spark of hope and desire to be able to get up there some day burned a mark into my mind.
On its far left side, two ring bolts at the beginning of a sharply rising ridge marked the beginning of the Central spur route up to the Eboshi-iwa.
Grade IV, cracks and breaks filled with grass, it didn’t look particularly easy. With a promise of coming back here later today, we turned behind the corner to the left and traversed over a system of ledges to the Southern spur terrace, where our first climb was supposed to begin.

I formed a rope party with Kawaguchi-san, while Sakato-san and Tsujinaka-san tied in together as party number two.
Kawaguchi-san was good climbing partner. We had climbed together five exciting pitches on the Shihi-iwa of Mount Komochi the day before and I especially appreciated the fact we were able to go through the rope work almost without shouting any signals. All felt just natural. When I needed a slack, it was there. When I needed the rope tighter, it was tighter, but never overly so. When I was ready to pull up the rope at the end of a pitch, one word was enough. I wonder if he could say the same about our cooperation and my belay.

Kawaguchi-san looking up the first pitch from the Southern spur terrace.

Kawaguchi-san looking up the first pitch from the Southern spur terrace.


I volunteered to lead the first pitch. From below it didn’t look that bad. Broken grassy face, then a chimney behind a small corner, altogether 30 meters.
For some reason I’m always having hard time with the first pitch of the day and as it turned out, today was no exception. The face part was quite easy, but immediately I could see the difference between true alpine climbing and multi-pitch free climbing I had been doing till this day. The protection was scarce and just in the form of old rusty pegs, left by previous parties climbing here who knows how many seasons ago. The rock was broken and often felt wobbly, not rising much confidence in any of the holds. It was clear that one simply must not peel off here, for the length of fall would be considerable and one would surely end up pretty messed up bouncing over the rocks.
I made it to the bottom of the chimney. There my personal crux of this climb awaited me. To get into the chimney, one had to overcome an overhanging step with no sound holds for the hands. In the morning misty weather, the chimney was wet and muddy. The last protection was now quite far below and to make it worse, the ropes dragged heavily over the corner.
I trusted my well-being into a small protruding rock, which might have held or might have popped out as well, and pulled myself up over the hollow section. As scary as the move felt, the rock held. Two more moves at the edge of losing balance and I was secure in the chimney, clipped into a sound piton.
The rest of the chimney was much easier with good steps.

Kawaguchi-san led the second pitch, 25 meters grade IV, over broken, grassy face, quite steep and exposed, but without any difficult places in particular.
Next came a short section of scramble in bamboo grass, grade II, which we covered with ropes coiled on our shoulders.
How I hate walking in rock shoes like this. How I wish I were able to climb everything in mountain boots or just some mid-cut approach shoes, which I hope to get one day.

Third pitch was mine, short, 20 meters, easy grade III, climbing up around a big and sharp overhanging rock feature to the crest of the southern arête.

Next pitch seemed easy enough to climb without belay, more horizontal than vertical, just 20 meters of grade III scramble. But Kawaguchi-san led it after all, reasoning with that way being faster than coiling the ropes again.

The easy grade III fourth pitch.

The easy grade III fourth pitch.


Fifth pitch offered two variations. First was to climb the crest of the arête directly, which seemed too easy and so I chose the second one, traversing further below it and getting up inside a wide, steep, broken corner. 30 meters, grade IV.
The corner was close to vertical and seriously unstable. The holds were well placed, but nothing seemed to be really secure. Whatever I touched could also be moved.

This brittleness of rock is probably the one biggest factor responsible for many of the accidents and fatalities in the Ichinokurasawa. Blocks of rock the size of a truck have been observed breaking loose and tumbling over the lower slabs in an avalanche of rubble and dust. Several times during the climb we were able to hear such a rockfall, although definitely of much smaller proportions. It is a fascinating sensation, listening to the thunderous rumbling of the mountain falling apart, without being able to actually see it because of all the mist around. I wasn’t worried though, for we were on an arête and the rocks were falling through the gullies.

Without any better options, I decided the holds will have to hold. Very carefully I moved upwards, realizing I’m actually enjoying it. Five pitches into the climb, all nervousness was long gone.
When I reached the next belay, I called back to Kawaguchi-san to ask how long the next pitch was. There was very little protection between us and the line was straight, so the ropes were still following me freely. I was excited and wanted to climb on.
“20 meters, but it is the crux pitch. You better cut it there”, came the reply. And so I did.

Finishing the fifth pitch. Up onto the Southern arête.

Finishing the fifth pitch. Up onto the Southern arête.


Grade V, face. The fog was now so thick, that just on those 20 meters Kawaguchi-san disappeared from my sight. True alpine conditions. As a follow, I didn’t find the pitch that difficult, but leading it would definitely feel different. Close to vertical, bad protection, I did not regret leaving it to my partner.
Sakato-san leading the last pitch.

Sakato-san leading the last pitch.


And then the shocking realization came to me. This was it. According to Kawaguchi-san, from here it was supposed to be about 200 meters of nontechnical climbing over half muddy, half rocky slope through bamboo grass to the Eboshi-iwa and from there through a gully to the top of the Ichinokurasawadake, the sister peak of the Tanigawadake itself.
Once for a moment I was able to get a glimpse of the sharp features of the Eboshi- iwa through the mist further up there, but otherwise there was no way of telling where have we climbed. I felt a bit disappointed by it. Yesterday Kawaguchi-san was talking about 400 vertical meters and 12 pitches on the rock. Perhaps he ment both the routes combined.
For a moment I tried to argue we could go to the summit, just because we were here already and it was still early in the morning. But I was made understood very quickly, that such a thing would not happen. There are no views so there is no sense in it and it would be just risky. My three partners didn’t even pretend there might be something like a discussion.
We’we done the route, we’re going down. Period!
I comforted myself with thoughts of the Central spur still waiting for us and agreed.

While climbing in two parties is generally considered slow, I liked the system we employed while rappelling down the mountain, using all four of our ropes. When four of us abseiled on the same two ropes tied together, one party started preparing the next abseil with the remaining two, while the other party pulled and coiled the first two ropes. This way all went fast and smooth. Well, not so smooth. Once the rope got caught over the rocks and Kawaguchi-san had to climb 20 meters back up before he was able to pull it down. But that also is an important experience one has to accumulate.
IMG_0275
Another interesting moment on the descent was when one less experienced member of another party rappelling above us dropped his belay device and, because his guide was already down, apparently didn’t know what to do. Amusingly the falling device bounced several times on the way down, the sharp clinking resounded in the mountain silence, and stopped in its fall right next to us. There was a moment of noisy commotion up there as they were shouting directions at each other, but in the end all of them got down safe and sound.

The lower we descended, the better the weather became. As the day was advancing towards noon, the morning mists were lifting up and patches of, lets say non-cloudy sky, because it was really hazy the last couple of days and one could not talk about blue even when the sky was clear, appeared, even letting some sunshine through. The clouds were now covering only the upper parts of the mountain.

As we were approaching the Central spur on the way down, I expressed my excitement and desire to climb it as planned.
“What for? One can’t see anything, it’s no use”, Tsujinaka-san replied.
“Come on”, I insisted. “The weather is improving. We could climb at least three pitches before hitting the clouds.”
“If you don’t climb it to the top, don’t climb at all. That is just dangerous.”
“Why is it so dangerous”, desperate thoughts were running through my mind. “We could always abseil back down, the rock is now dry and the weather is evidently improving! Nobody was expressing any doubts in the morning when the conditions were much worse.”
I swallowed it all. I could see there was no use in reasoning about it.
But in the end, while resting on the small plateau below the spur, I tried one last time.
“It is still just 10:20 and we have plenty of time. The weather is turning nice. We could just take a rest here, have a noon nap for one or two hours and see if the clouds lift even further, right?”
“What?” was the only answer, followed by silence. Then slowly, they started descending down the Tail ridge, back into the valley.
I felt like being here really just to the count, my opinion totally ignored.

Resting below the Central ridge.

Resting below the Central ridge.


Down the length of the Tail ridge

Down the length of the Tail ridge


Sure enough, even before we got down to the snowfield, the whole Tsuitate-iwa and with it the whole length of the Central spur was clear of clouds, bathing in the warmth and light of the day.
Tsuitate-iwa, from now on all cloud free. The Southern and Central ridges are both visible, forming the left edge.

Tsuitate iwa, from now on all cloud free. The Southern and Central ridges are both visible, forming the left edge.


No summit picture, so this has to do instead.

No summit picture, so this has to do instead.


I don’t mean to say bad things about others. They are all good people and I am sure it was all just one big misunderstanding. They probably didn’t know how I felt. Even when I partially let out my frustration on the way back to Osaka, when they refused to exit the highway near Osaka, because it would be “inconvenient” for them, and brought me all the way to the eastern side of Kobe in such a time, that I had to sprint to catch the last day’s train to get home. I am not even mentioning the fact the train all the way there is way too expensive and they refused to pick me up closer to Osaka even on the day of departure.

There are things I feel very grateful for of course. Getting the chance to even get there and having the opportunity to climb in one of the most iconic areas where the history of japanese alpinism has been written. Having the guidance of Kawaguchi-san.

Perhaps I was just disappointed, because there wasn’t enough adventure for me. I thrive in situations where the way forward is unknown and the outcome of the undertaking uncertain.
Here we just went there, all was planned and served to me without any input on my side, we simply climbed it and that was it.
As I am more and more certain, the way for me is really in solo climbing, in places others don’t go, getting to experience the whole of the adventure.

You can see a video from this trip on my Vimeo account. It features also a short part from the 5 pitch, 5.8 graded Shishi-iwa on Mt. Komochi, which was really enjoyable bit of climbing!