The Three Ridges – Kitakama

The Kitakama ridge in all its beauty

The Kitakama ridge in all its beauty

What the hell are we doing here?! For the last hour I have been breaking trail through jungle and now through thick mess of body high bamboo-grass on very steep slope, vertical walls of rock looming further above.
My altimeter shows 2175 meters. It seems to be stuck on that elevation. No matter how hard we try, our progress is terribly laborious and slow. But although I feel tired, Carolyn is much worse off. Her approach shoes have no grip on this slippery terrain and she is constantly sliding back down. I am feeling very sorry for bringing her here, but there is nothing we can do now, just move.
The stillness of our surroundings is disturbed only by our panting and occasional curses.
“This can’t be the right way!” Carolyn shouts at me. “There was nothing about this in the guide!”
“Where the fuck is the trail! It was here just a moment ago”, I am thinking to myself.
“I am sorry Carolyn, I’ve lost the trail. I don’t know where we are supposed to go.”
“It’s five o’clock. We won’t make it to the top before dark”, she replies.
“That’s why we are going down immediately!”
“All the way down?” I hear her ask in a kind of little voice.
“No, just to the river.”
We will have to bivouac here, there is no question about that.
“Follow the Kitakama couloir up to where it forks, and make sure you take the right-hand gully. The left hand is a death trap, people have died in there.” the words from Chris’s blog keep resonating in my head.

11 hours earlier I met Carolyn down in Kamikouchi. She is a nice girl. It is always a pleasure to have a nice girl as a climbing partner, right? And boy, is she a fast walker! It doesn’t happen to me often that I wouldn’t be up to my partner’s speed, nor when the partner is an asian-sized woman, but with Carolyn, I admit I was sweating on her heels, while she was running light like a gazelle, despite her heavy pack.

Before noon we were already on the Minamata col, way ahead of map time.
The way down the other side, and with it the true start of our variation route was right in front of us, marked with a banner saying that the Kitakama ridge is a serious business. Inexperienced mountaineers keep away! Two men were looking out from picture printed on the banner, one of them 75 years old. Apparently they started on the climb earlier in the season and were never seen again.

The descent to the Kitakamasawa deai, kind of a base camp for this climb, turned out to be long and tiring march inside bouldery riverbed. But splendid blue sky with picturesque clouds was bright and high above us and so was Yari and the whole length of the Kitakama ridge. I kept looking left while walking, imagining things that are awaiting us there on the rocks tomorrow.

In the base camp two men were already settled for the night and soon after three more Koreans turned up.
“There goes my hope for a solitary climb”, I thought.

The Koreans discussing the way up at the Kitakamasawa deai

The Koreans discussing the way up at the Kitakamasawa deai

Looking up to the ridge, one could clearly see the gully shooting straight up to a place called the Kitakama col. It looked so close and easy to reach. Carolyn produced her guide notes and pointed out that we should leave some two and half hours to get there. As I thought, we can make it today. It was just a bit after two in the afternoon and while body was tired, mind wanted to go.
“Do we go for it?” I asked Carolyn.
“I don’t know, up till here it was already tough enough”, she replied and added:
“If I go, I’m going to take it easy and slowly.”
“Even if it takes us three hours, still it wouldn’t be any problem. Lets go!”
And so was decided. The moment we leave the valley, there would be no more water all the way until Yari-sansou hut at the top of the mountain. Carolyn stuffed three liters of the liquid into her pack and I took even more. After that we sat off.

I think there are two reasons for why we had missed the fork and with it the correct way up to the col. The first being that I didn’t notice the information about it being just some ten minutes into the gully and was expecting it much higher. The second was that the bouldering up the river was simply so much fun that I had lost focus on the bigger scale route finding.

The place for our bivouac is a tiny saddle in the middle of the couloir, between the slope and one huge boulder, on both sides falling steeply to the snowfield surrounding us. It is just wide enough for one person to lay on without sliding to either side and long enough for the two of us to brace our feet against each other and get a reasonably comfortable resting position.
Carolyn puts her tent right on the saddle and I prepare my bivvy on the remaining space. By some sort of providence I erect a kind of tarp over the bivvy, something I don’t usually do in such a good weather, utilizing my space blanket and some old branch as a pole to support it. As soon as we are set up to make some food, first real meal in the day, it starts to rain.
I make myself as comfortable as I can under my roof, which is nothing to brag about to be honest. I can only lay with my legs bent to the right angle and feet braced against Carolyn’s inside her tent to keep me from sliding from my position. On both sides I am completely unprotected against sliding to the snowfield below and then to some bergschrund lower still.
The rain continues all night long and I’m getting very little sleep, terrified by the thought of shifting out of balance and hurtling down the snowfield, helpless in my nylon bivvy bag. I’m getting muscle cramps from the inability to stretch my legs. It is a bad night, the only positive thing being that I’m somehow managing to keep myself warm and dry.

Our bivvy spot on the small col

Our bivvy spot on the small col

The dawn comes to my rescue at last and with it even the rain stops. I’m spending long time standing on the boulder, watching the running clouds in the valley and stretching my hurting limbs.
When Carolyn wakes up, she notes that she twisted her ankle yesterday on the approach and it doesn’t feel too good. We are not in a hurry anywhere. It is now obvious we are in the wrong gully and will have to go down. But not until the friendly rays of sunshine hit us and bring some life back to our cold and stiff bodies.

By 9.30 I am back down at the river fork, looking up the right gully to the Kitakama col above. How could we miss this place yesterday is beyond me. Carolyn is lagging behind a bit, the ankle is giving her lots of trouble.
“I can’t put my weight on it. It would be dangerous to try something technical like this”, she says.
Can it be that another good chance for a variation route will slip right through my fingers here? I am fighting with my own thoughts. Could I possibly ask her to go back alone? That’s not what we do in the mountains.
“Can you do it by yourself”, she asks.
Thanks Carolyn! And sorry!
“I don’t know”, I say. “But definitely want to try!”
“I’ll try to get to the col too and decide there”, she says in the end.

While climbing up, I keep turning around to watch for Carolyn. We are further and further apart, but every time she just waves at me and shouts: “It’s ok, just go!”

By 11.30 I finally reach the col and meet there the Korean party from yesterday. It turns out they had to bivouac on the way to the col, reached it this morning, continued a bit up the Kitakama, but found themselves in too bad shape and were now retreating. I could see why that was the case. One of them was a 71 years old grandfather and he was in such a bad state, where the others had to help him put on his daypack and helmet.
What bothered me more was that there was no sight of Carolyn down in the gully. I decide to wait until noon, then I have to move. The guide said it takes 8 hours from here to the top of Yari. I know I can cut something from it by going alone, but am not sure how much.
Restless, I eat some chocolate, organize my pack and keep looking at the watch. It is 12 o’clock. I have to move. I feel desperate that I cannot say anything to Carolyn, so at least write a short message for her to leave behind.
In that moment I hear an emergency whistle. It’s the Koreans. I asked them to let me know when they meet Carolyn on the way.
“Carolyn!” I call down the gully.
“I think you should go, no time!” sounds back to me.
Thank you girl! I hope you are all right!

I shoulder my heavy pack and get moving at once.
At first the trail is clearly visible in the bushes of haimatsu. It climbs steeply along the ridge until at one point it breaks out of the tree line and right in front of me the massive bastion of the Doppyou peak reveals itself. Its grey walls are impressive indeed and make me wonder for a while about the severities awaiting me.

The walls of Doppyou

The walls of Doppyou

I start flanking the big walls on the right over a series of descending ledges, but let myself be misled off route, too low onto a scree slope below the walls from where there seems to be no way further. A belt of vertical wall barricades the way back up, showing just two places of weakness where I could strike. One is a wide corner on an easier angled slab and the second kind of short chimney. I aim for the chimney and thus get to the first piece of real climbing.
It is not difficult, just a bit airy and therefore scary. As soon as I get up I find myself on a steep slope of terribly rotten rock. Balancing on dubious holds, I am breaking whole flakes of rock free just by sliding my hands over the surface. It is pretty unnerving place, but fortunately quite short and soon I find myself on another ledge.
The first chimney

The first chimney

An old piton is driven deep into the rock in front of a rock bulge partly barricading the way further. I have seen this place in the pictures. It should be one of the scarier points on the road. Now it seems easy in comparison with the part that preceded this. Just one move leaning above the abyss and it is over.
Few more ledges lead me to the top of the Doppyou.
Narrow ledge

Narrow ledge

Doppyou is the iconic place, from where you can, for the first time on this climb, see the whole length of the ridge in front of yourself. Rocky spires lined like a grey jagged teeth with the final pyramid of Yari itself dominating above all else around.
Yari summit in the distance

Yari summit in the distance

On the Doppyou

On the Doppyou

I do not stay here for too long. Just snap a few pictures and continue on along the ridge, making my way over and around the line of smaller and bigger rocky pinacles. Scrambling over the many small saddles on the Kitakama ridge, few times I reach a cliff which seems unclimbable and would ask for an abseil to descend directly, but under further inspection of the surroundings, there is always some reasonable way down little to the side, so I do not bother with unpacking the rope. The challenge lies in trying to stay as much as possible up on the ridge, while not ending in too difficult terrain. There are many ledges on the western side of the ridge allowing for quite easy traversing under the rocky spires looming above.
Presently I come to an end of such a ledge with two pegs driven to the vertical rock and connected by some old cord. It seems like a standard rappel anchor and sure enough, there is possibility to traverse further over easier sloping slabs just a few meters down. I eye the way down curiously. There are many small serrated holds all the way down and it doesn’t seem any difficult. Too lazy to set up my rope for some three meters abseil I start to climb down.
Just as the anchor gets out of my reach I realize the trap I descended into. The holds are extremely brittle and nothing feels solid under both my boots and fingers. The slab is just about one meter further down, but if I dislodged the holds I am standing on, I would most probably not be able to catch balance after hitting it and would tumble over it to the steep scree below. As carefully as I can, slowly I shift my balance to the side and lower down, taking care not to disturb anything on the wall. Two steps further I am standing on firm rock again, safe.

Around this place I catch up with an older guy on the way and when we get close enough I realize he is one of those we met yesterday down at the Kitakamasawa deai. We exchange a few words and continue each on our own, but from this point on almost always at a visible distance from each other. Although we are not going together in any sense, his presence gives me kind of feeling of security. I am not totally on my own in this.

Mr. Takatani on one of the "airy" spots

Mr. Takatani on one of the “airy” spots

Traversing over the ledges below the rocky crest of the Kitakama ridge on the western side soon starts to feel a bit too easy and I am eying possibilities for a way up again. A small, steep couloir serves the purpose well. It is choked with broken rocks and scree and climbing it up is uncomfortable and tiring, but fortunately it doesn’t take too long before I get to a short chimney which gets me back onto solid rock. Rather than chimney it is just an off-width in a wide corner, but easy to handle and soon I top it onto another ledge, right below the ridge crest.
From here it doesn’t take too long before I emerge up onto the last col underneath the Yari summit pyramid.

It is a wide, comfortable space and many bivvy spots can be found here, shielded from the wind by big boulders and rock walls, built by previous parties on their way up. Rusty cans of very old vintage can be found between the rocks. I sit down here for a few minutes break and to get something down my throat. Four hours ago I left the Kitakama col and now have no doubt that I will make it to the top before dark. In fact I am thinking about spending the night here to avoid the bustling Yari-sansou hut on the other side of the peak and its camping fees. I don’t carry a tent anyway, so why not spend one more romantic night on this great place and finish the climb early in the morning before going down for my bus back home tomorrow? I have my bivvy gear, enough water and food so there should be no problem… except for the weather.
The whole day was generally sunny and pleasant, with very light winds. But not any more. Now I am sitting here in clouds and it gets chilly while not moving. The Yari summit is playing ‘peek a boo’ with me, shrouding itself in the clouds. Yesterday night it started raining quite heavily out of the blue and I wouldn’t be surprised to be rained upon second time tonight.
“How much harder would the last pieces of climbing become if I had to get over them in rain”, I keep asking myself.
Then Mr. Takatani turns up at the col and says:
“You want to stay here? Oh, you are tougher than me then. I had enough of it already and am short on food. Tonight I’m staying in the hut with a beer, so if you would like to continue and stay at the campsite there, you can use my tent.”
“Really”, I think to myself. “Well, I am not fancying one more bivvy in rain in fact, so I would be grateful! Let’s finish it together!”

On the Yari pyramid

On the Yari pyramid

The summit pyramid is one huge pile of boulders, bigger than it seems. There is no clear way up, so as always I keep searching for the most beautiful line of ascent. Directly over the sharp edge above the north-east face of the mountain I keep climbing up, often turning around to wait for Mr. Takatani. The boulders around us grow bigger and steeper and with them the route somehow defines itself without too much thinking about it on my side. Old pegs are protruding from the rock here and there, totally unnecessary, but good assurance that I am on the correct route.
Now a black gate formed by towering rocks marks the way to the summit. I climb through it on the left side, straight up inside a wide crack, rich in holds. Without any protection, it is a bit thrilling sensation, but I know I won’t fall here. It is not difficult.
Into the black gate for the summit

Into the black gate for the summit

In the black gate

In the black gate

Then the last chimney, some four meters high. At first I climb on the outer side, then wedge myself in for a moment to change direction. With the pack on my back it is cramped, but again, the holds are plentiful and the objective difficulty low. Soon I am stepping out of it, just a sharp rim separating me from the real top of the mountain. I can even see the roof of the small shrine standing there and hear some voices. Few more pulls and pushes with my tired limbs get me to the summit and as a recognition of this achievement I am awarded by an applause of the six elders sitting there.
“Look at him, climbing the Kitakama ridge and all by himself. I have seen it in TV, but never on my own eyes!”
It feels good to be the star for a moment.
Mr. Takatani working his way up in the final chimney

Mr. Takatani working his way up in the final chimney

Soon after Mr. Takatani turns up to be awarded in the same way. We shake hands, ask for some pictures and soon after start down the ladders to the Yari-sansou hut.
There are no views today, but I don’t mind at all. I have seen the views from Yari in all their glory before. Today I was here for the journey, not the summit.
And so it ended. The route I had been dreaming about for so long was now behind me. It was a great route and a great experience. It might not had lived up to my expectations of a challenge, a real climb, but maybe that is something to be glad for, not to be disappointed about.

In the end I want to thank Mr. Takatani one more time for the tent! How comfortable it felt in comparison to the previous night, hunched up in my rainy bivouac!
And sorry Carolyn for leaving you behind! It was bothering me all along until David wrote to me you made it up with the Japanaese the day later! I hope we will meet again on some other climb!

You can watch a short movie from this adventure on Vimeo:
Kitakama short movie