March 2013 – Double victory

Nakahashi kun and Kishida san on the approach

Nakahashi kun and Kishida san on the approach


For a long time I have been dreaming about climbing Kitadake, the highest mountain in Southern Alps and the second highest peak in Japan, in winter. When the chance to take several days off together with three other guys from company came in March, I immediately proposed this idea to them. It would take one tremendously long approach day over the Kitasawa pass down to the base of the mountain, then one day to climb up to the summit and down again and one more day to get back to the car and all the way to Osaka. None of us being truly accomplished mountaineer, they seemed to share none of my enthusiasm for such an undertaking. They found it too hard, too uncertain. Why not climb Senjougatake instead? Little disappointed, I agreed and comforted myself with an idea that I can take it as a reconnaissance for my own attempt latter on. When our work schedules took definite form, myself and my good friend Kouji, the only one who was up to try anything, ended up with full four days free together, while Kishida san and Nakahashi kun with three.

And then I had the idea… The wildest dream! We shall climb all together the Senjougatake and there part our ways. While the other two will go back down again, Kouji and myself will continue on the Senjou summit ridge and do the full circle over Ainodake, itself another three thousander, to Kitadake and descend by the original line of ascent. A truly ambitious plan indeed.
But as it always happens when the time to go comes by, somebody moves house or gets married or whatever else. This time it was my partner Kouji and with him out, my plan was in ruins. I would love to do it solo, but after all it was probably overambitious and after insisting of the others, I set on climbing Kai-komagatake instead, being a beautifully shaped and worthy mountain too, but with considerably fewer difficulties along the way.

And so it happened that one cloudy March day I found myself on the final ridge of Kai-komagatake together with the little but strong Nakahashi-kun. Kishida-san, not feeling in the best shape today, has turned around already. The steep and rocky southern ridge is classical winter hike on mixed ground of easy difficulty and although the weather is not really on our side, we are both having a good time. At least it is not raining. Short sections of steep snow ridges are taking part with enjoyable scrambling as we are climbing up and up through the clouds. Finally the steep slope gives in and we are standing next to the summit marker and a small shrine.
Since we got here in good time, we take a whole hour on the summit to rest, enjoy it all and perhaps even see some views, that is if the clouds would be so kind to let us. And surely here and there, they do seem to break and we get glimpses of the surrounding valleys. Looking up one can even see blue color through the mist, but when we start on the way down it is as cloudy as ever.

Leading the way up Kai-Komagatake

Leading the way up Kai-Komagatake


Tomomi on Kai-Koma

Tomomi on Kai-Koma


The final slopes of Kai-Koma

The final slopes of Kai-Koma


Kai-Komagatake summit

Kai-Komagatake summit


Where we came up

Where we came up


From the Komatsumine we decide to take the straight ridge line back down to the Kitasawa pass. In the morning we came here by the second trail ascending from the east over the Sensui pass. Why not explore all the options, right?
Easier said than done though. There are no markings on the trail, at least not where we expect the trail to be. Here and there we feel like we are actually following in someone’s tracks, but always end up being led into deep forest, certainly not on the right way. If what we are following truly are human tracks, they must be of somebody who was as lost as we are. Lost might not be the best word. We know where to go, we are on a ridge after all and it means following it straight down. Just the going is difficult in deep wet snow and in thick forest. I am cutting the way forward through low and dry branches with my ice axe, worried that I will tear my new and expensive alpine jacket on the sharp edges everywhere around. At one point we get to a cliff on our right side, which enables us to triangulate our position on the map as precisely as the cloudy weather allows.
Lost and found

Lost and found


After few more minutes we find a colorful ribbon attached to a tree and with it our way down. From here it goes very fast. We are running in long strides down the steep slope, sliding in the snow, from one ribbon to the next, always taking the shortest way possible. We even manage to hit our camp location directly from above, saving us a long detour over the top of Kitasawa pass.
When Kishida-san sees us, he cannot believe we arrived so fast. Rest of the day is spend attending to our stomachs and tired bodies.

The next day, Senjougatake is the target on our radar. My two companions decide to aim just for the lower peak of Kosenjou and let me go faster alone for the true summit. We start together to get on the same trailhead, than I am leaving them behind and go on my own pace, they following in my footsteps. Because I want to make sure to really create enough of distance and time advantage for myself, I am going as hard as I can sustain with very few breaks. It is no reckless wild chase, I actually love to ascend in this style, getting up very fast and than enjoy the heights for prolonged time.
Weather is great today, sky being clear blue above. Soon I get my first glimpses of the surroundings as the forest loses some of its thickness with elevation. Yesterday’s Kai-koma stands sharp against the sky, north-east over the Kitasawa pass. I can’t wait to get a good view on Kita and Ainodake ridge line in the opposite direction. But that side seems to be a bit cloudy.
After crossing the tree line, snow changes to perfectly smooth and hard white surface, very easy to walk on, twelve spikes of my crampons getting just the right purchase. Wind got much stronger here too, so at about two-thirds of the summit slope of Kosenjoudake I stop to put on my alpine jacket and some more sun protection after the experience of terrible sunburn on Goryu few weeks back. At that point I see that my two friends have already reached the low part of the same slope too and now are waving to me gestures of greetings. How is this possible when I went that fast? They seem so close behind. I start off in a pace of a possessed madman and soon find myself standing on the top of Kosenjou. Here I spend some time taking pictures and looking around. Northern views are truly splendid, without a single cloud spoiling anything. I can even see the unmistakable massif of Minami Yatsugadake clearly, with Mount Iou, Yoko and Aka, the trio which I traversed at night two months ago. Southern views, on the other hand, are cloudy. There is a big octopus-like cloud, wriggling in the Senjougatake curl, having the summit firm in grip of its long tentacles. Even Kitadake seems too shy to show itself all naked, only the peak and base being visible, long wide patch of mist covering the central part.
It is still quite early and my friends must be here in a moment. We can all go together further on towards the summit, I am thinking to myself. But as I keep waiting and nobody comes, suddenly I realize the octopus of cloud had disappeared and I am looking all and clear at the summit. In that moment I give up further waiting and swoop on the knife ridge leading along the edge of the curl. I am running in huge strides the first, down sloping part, reaching a kind of col in a minute. From here it is the same, steep, but perfectly smooth and hard snow up and up again. And so I climb.

Looking down on Kosenjou with Kai-Koma in the background

Looking down on Kosenjou with Kai-Koma in the background


At this point I can see the other two have already reached Kosenjou and are playing there. But how long can they keep waiting on one place before getting unbearable cold in this wind? They have to get back to Osaka today, while I have one more day. We were talking about the possibility I might stay one more night, but would they really leave without me? The thoughts now press heavily on my mind and I am trying to climb as fast as possible.
Finally I have reached the highest point on the rim of the Senjougatake curl. Altimeter shows 3003 meters above sea level, but the mountain still has one unpleasant surprise in its sleeve. To get to the true summit, only 30 meters higher, one must first descend a good deal down to a col and then climb up again on the other side. Looking back down, I cannot see anyone on the Kosenjou any more. They have left already for the descent and suddenly I feel infinitely alone and weak. The gusts of wind are punching me with sudden and terrible force and I feel like I have lost the time and will to climb further. Taking one last handheld summit picture, picking up one small stone as I always do, I turn around for the descent.
On the summit of Kosenjou

On the summit of Kosenjou


Back on the Kosenjou I stop to admire the scenery one last time. Kitadake and Ainodake are now all clear and visible, with the top of Mount Fuji protruding behind. The mountains have been nice to me today and I feel grateful and very lucky. Two great summits in two days with friends makes for a memory not to be forgotten.
The royal couple of Japanese mountains

The royal couple of Japanese mountains


While descending further down, I keep turning my head up towards the beauty of Kitadake, grand and splendid in its shape under the limitless sky, so still, waiting. And when it finally disappears behind the horizon completely, I keep smiling, for I know that I shall return some day to fulfill one lasting dream.
The wildest dream.
Kita - Aino panorama

Kita – Aino panorama

March 2013 – Retreat from Goryu

Kashima-Yari - Goryu panorama

Kashima-Yari – Goryu panorama


Progress up to Kotoumiyama is painfully slow and laborious in the melting snow. The temperature is certainly well above zero and evidence of the season turning to spring can be seen everywhere. Slopes around showing deep scars after being swept by avalanches, sometimes all the way to the bare ground. Huge cornices half broken, deep and fearful cracks opening along their sides. I keep breaking through up to my thighs into the slushy snow, only to get myself up and fall again after one or two steps. How I envy the older man passing me on snowshoes which I do not possess. But what advantage he has over me with his snowshoes I make up for with my youth and endurance. We keep walking more or less together for several hours. The weather is magnificent, just a few clouds torn by the sharp crests of the mountain giants in strong contrast to an azure sky. Two of the finest Japanese mountains are dominating above everything right in front of my eyes.
The Goryu with its huge buttress, stocky in constitution, mean brute so attractive to mountaineers in its ugliness, stands here in striking contrast to the grace and elegance of the high, unbroken and unspoiled white walls of Kashima-Yarigadake, like a great white swan standing next to an angry bulldog, both bound by a fantastically looking chain of ridge. This is the finest winter mountain panorama I have seen here in Japan and I already know, that some day I have to come back here to do the full traverse.
Splendid north-east face of Kashima-Yarigatake

Splendid north-east face of Kashima-Yarigatake


Goryu buttress, the brute

Goryu buttress, the brute


As the day advances to noon and the temperature keeps rising, I am becoming more and more concerned about the snow conditions. Occasionally I can see or hear an avalanche on the slopes of neighboring ridge, something that makes me nervous as I myself cannot avoid crossing pretty steep slopes, some of which already have a lot of cracks in them. I cannot distinguish if I am more scared by the real danger, or by the awareness of my inability to objectively judge the level of risk I am taking.
So I try to move as close to the trees as possible to reduce the risk of triggering an avalanche, but at the same time not too close, for there are big holes hidden where the snow melts around generally warmer objects.
At one point I arrive at a place where a huge cornice is hanging from the unseen steep ridge bellow. Very close to it on the windward slope I can see a line of cracks where the heavy layer of snow seems ready to slide down. Some thirty meters further on, there is one place where such a slide has already occurred, ripping down the snow to the bare ground. The way over this particular place obviously lays higher over the cornice than I would like. I am trying to cross it with the most cautious steps I can manage, but still keep sinking into the wet snow like if there were air pockets beneath. Two thirds into the length of this cornice I break through the snow up to my crotch into something, which is obviously an open space. As I try to move and get myself out, the snow under me breaks and I’m in up to my chest, holding with my stretched arms to the lips of the now unmistakable huge hidden crevasse-like crack of the cornice, nothing solid to hold my feet upon. I become quite desperate, bury the shaft of my ice axe deep into the snow and pull myself up, stretched on the surface of the snow to maximize my weight distribution on the snow. On all four and terrified I run away from this place back to the last safe place. That’s it! I am not going a damn step further!
I am walking here and there in front of this place, puzzled, trying to get my plans and disappointment in one line. I have not yet even started the climb proper. How can I give it up here? But I am not going back onto the cornice. What should I do?
Later on the older man comes on his snowshoes. When I tell him what had just happened to me, he just states emotionless: “Let’s see”, and off he goes right up on the cornice, well above the crack, a line that I find exceptionally risky. If it broke completely now…
But he makes it to the other side all well. Am I being over-cautious or did he just had a lucky day in rolling the dice against death? I do not know. But still I do not want to go back there. Instead I climb back a bit to the Nakatoumiyama, which commands great views of the mountain panorama and start preparing my bed for tonight. I dig just a trench, kind of grave-like hole in the snow and cover it by sheet of space blanket. While laying down I can see the top part of Kashima-Yari through the entrance opening. Truly bedroom with a million dollar view. I spend the rest of the day playing around, enjoying the scenery, and making food. Then, watching the sun disappear behind the summit of Goryu, I prepare myself for an early bed.
Living on the Nakatoumiyama

Living on the Nakatoumiyama


At night it finally gets cold and the snow gets a chance to refreeze. As usually I wake up around midnight and cannot sleep any more. That happens to me in the mountains all the time. Calling of nature makes me get up for a moment, but the sky is now overcast with mist and almost no stars can be seen, so I am happy to burry myself in the down filling of my sleeping bag as soon as the bodily necessities are dealt with.
Sunrise en bivouac

Sunrise en bivouac


Morning’s first light sees me already preparing for the day. I leave most of the gear in the bivouac and set off over the frozen snow surface back towards the place of my yesterday’s defeat. Where I had lots of trouble walking in the wet and heavy snow yesterday, today I am able to pass easily, pleased with the crunching sound of hard frozen snow underneath my crampons. The hopes are high for the cornice and indeed I am able to cross it safely this time. This gives me a needed punch of self-confidence and I fasten my pace at once. Turnaround time is set to 9 am. I do not want to risk being trapped on the mountain after noon, when the snow will become soft and scary again.
The distance to Goryu is shortening rapidly. Soon I pass tent of the ojiisan from yesterday on the Ootoumiyama and we exchange a good morning. On the way to the curl under Goryu and its smaller sibling Shiratake I traverse over several places, which will surely get pretty nasty in the afternoon, namely one gigantic cornice with long and wide crack along its side just bellow Nishitoumiyama. It looks so dubious that it makes me hesitate for a while. But the snow is still hard enough and I make my move.
Huge and scary cornice under Nishitoumiyama

Huge and scary cornice under Nishitoumiyama


The steep slope from here to the top of Shiratake I crampon up on the limit of my lung capacity. So much I want to be done with it that I literally run up, covering the last three hundred vertical meters in around twenty minutes.
Goryu summit from the final slopes of Shiratake

Goryu summit from the final slopes of Shiratake


At half past eight I finally get to glance at the other side down the mountains, but to my disappointment, visibility is not good due to somehow misty air and I cannot see Mount Tsurugi from here. But I made it to the summit of Shiratake and that is enough. There is no wind on the summit. All is silent and completely lifeless, like if I had reached some forgotten corner of the prehistoric Earth. Even the light seems dead flat without a single shadow, the sky hidden behind some kind of thin layer of mist. All feels so dull and emotionless, the summit of Goryu looking unattractive, boxy mass of stone. Even the otherwise graceful Kashima-Yari, when seen from here, has changed from pure swan into ugly double-headed hydra.
I am standing on the summit for good thirty minutes, enjoying the strange sensation of emptiness. Then, gradually becoming conscious of the reality down on the long ridges leading back into human world, I leave this place to its nothingness and start on the descend.
Lonelyness of Shiratake summit

Lonelyness of Shiratake summit


For more than one hour I have been sitting on the terrace of the Alps360 restaurant in the Hakuba Goryu ski resort, eyes fixed up on the Goryu buttress, having difficulty in believing that just a few hours ago, I was standing up there. When you first approach a mountain, you don’t see it as it really is. You see it through the eyes of your dream. When you return from it afterward and look back, you see it completely differently. You see it in the light of the adventure experienced there. And I love this feeling. I love looking back and living through all the emotions again. I love how it is totally inner thing, impossible to reproduce for anyone else. I love how when you return between people, everyone is minding their own business. They see you, but don’t notice anything unusual. Only you know that you have just been beyond the world of men, to the edge of the world.
Beaten down by snow conditions

Beaten down by snow conditions