The Three Ridges – Maehotaka Kitaone

The North ridge of Maehotakadake

The North ridge of Maehotakadake


I stood like paralyzed, thoughts running through my head. By the sound of it, some pretty big animal had just passed the trail several meters in front of me, but I could not see it over the wild vegetation. One more was heading right in my direction. The noise of dry branches crackling, the leafs rustling loudly in the early morning silence as the thing forced its way through the bushes… Could it possibly be a bear? Two of them? Mind wanted to do something, but body would not listen and I just stood there in anticipation. I could not stand the tension any more as the noise was becoming louder and closer. Finally, a grey horned creature came out from the shrubs three meters to my left.
Just a medium-sized kamoshika. It stared at me for a few seconds frozen still, then in a blink of an eye turned right and in one mighty jump disappeared in the forest again. For a good fifteen seconds I listened to the distant rumble as it galloped down the hill somewhere to the Kamikouchi valley.

This was my last chance to climb the Maehotaka North ridge this summer and I was determined to see it through.
At first I was planning to do it with one cold bivouac on the way, but four days on Tsurugi made me tired enough not to seek such hardships if they are avoidable and I opted for single day challenge in the end.
That ment roughly 3600 meters of total elevation change, over 10 hours of regular course time on marked trails, plus the whole North ridge climb itself, all in one day from my tent in Konashidaira campground, where the Hiking in Japan group meeting took place the day earlier.

Morning on the Panorama course

Morning on the Panorama course


I managed to reach the Byobu no col on top of the Panorama course in three hours, half the map time. Maybe I could try a record climb, I thought. Without even stopping there I continued straight up the ridge, to the point where the Karasawa route turns right for the descent and the real climb begins. It was just eight in the morning when I left the trail for good and started breaking my way to the Happou, Peak 8, through the dense vegetation.
Immediately I noticed the faintly visible trail we followed in July, when we first attempted this route together with Rebouffat, Tomomi and Junpee, turned almost invisible during the two summer months, overgrown heavily with trees, bushes and grass. Getting through cost me lots of energy and I started feeling the effect of five days spent in the mountains.
In fact I felt exhausted. The day I rested in a great company of many new friends down in the valley didn’t seem enough to recuperate. My legs were heavy and every hard step upwards through the stubborn haimatsu hurt. The most terrifying were the painful signs of disagreement in my right knee tendon. Should the injury from Komagatake reappear here… Well, I braced myself.

It took me an hour to get to the Happou. From here the spectacular view of the whole ridge presented itself to me again. Early autumn coolness was already playing with the colors of the grass and leafs on the bushes around. Scene that was all green just a few months ago was now little by little turning yellow. It was beautiful!

On Happou

On Happou


The overgrown haimatsu gave me hell again between the Peaks 8 and 7. It took me another hour to scale the short distance separating them. I was really tired and just wanted to get to the place we escaped from the last time, to finally be able to climb something new. Peak 6, the Roppou, was still the biggest unknown on this climb.
Karasawa from the North ridge

Karasawa from the North ridge


Roppou from P7

Roppou from P7


At last I abseiled the low cliff in the middle of the P7-6 ridge and when I climbed up its opposite side, the Roppou revealed itself to me and it was as splendid as I remembered it.
Without any delay I scrambled the low rocky section leading to it and my returning enthusiasm seemed to help to wash most of the tiredness away.

Peak 6 turned out easy in the end. It looks sharp and difficult, but in fact there is a trail zigzagging through the rocks and almost no climbing is necessary. One big stone horn, by the way visible from the other peaks around the Karasawa curl as well as down from Kamikouchi, stands right by the trail and could be easily climbed if one wanted. It would make for a super cool photograph, that is if there was anybody to press the shutter for me.

The  rock horn on P6

The rock horn on P6


Next came the famous 5,6 col. Most parties start the Kita one by climbing here from Karasawa. Many even camp here, although there is hardly any place to pitch a tent and the whole place is rather uninspiring. Easy scramble got me to the top of Peak 5 in just 17 minutes.
5,6 no col

5,6 no col


P4

P4


Peak 4 is where the fun begins on this route. Two thirds of it are still just an easy scramble up a steep ridgeline, but the last third offers some enjoyable climbing if one wishes to go for it. There was another party on the Yonhou when I saw it from P5. To my luck, when I reached them just about at the end of the second third of the climb, they started traversing to the left to avoid the climbing part of P4.
“Why does anybody even bother to come here if they don’t mean to climb it properly”, I thought.
Anyway, they were out of the way now and I was thus spared of confronting them and trying to get over to the front.

By climbing diagonally to the right I got back to the sharp ridge line, where a vertical rock barricaded further way. On its left side, two parallel fist-wide cracks, about three meters long, marked the natural way diagonally back to the left over a steep slab.
I jammed my boots in the lower crack while holding with my hands to the upper one and step by step got myself to another platform. This was real fun! This was how I imagine easy, safe and enjoyable climbing.

The parallel cracks

The parallel cracks


While standing on the platform, an incredibly tempting chimney led the most beautiful line straight up over my head. It was a little bit less than body wide, slightly overhanging and steeply diagonal again. Two cracks inside suggested a good opportunities for fist-jamming and plentiful cam placements. It looked challenging, but not overly so and the diagonal inclination would make for a really fun and unusual positions and moves.
If only I had a belayer! I tried to jam myself in, just for fun, but it was evidently too risky for a free solo attempt and I had to give up.
Instead, I climbed a rather exposed diagonal traverse above the two-crack slab back to the Karasawa side of the mountain and from there it was easy all the way to the top of P4 again.
The diagonal chimney

The diagonal chimney


There I finally saw the real challenge of this climb, the three pitch route up the Peak 3. It was jammed with people! All the way from the 3,4 col to the top of P3, there were climbers scattered along the line, their colorful clothes and ropes shining bright in the grey of the rocks. There were !fourteen! of them in two groups and they all had to come from Karasawa this morning.
“Good god”, I thought and sat down on the P4 to have some snack and to study the line as they climbed.
“There goes my speed record.” It was 10:40 when I got here.
Watching the line and seeing how slowly the climbers move, I started having doubts about my decision to come here just with a self-belay, one sling and a few carabiners. This part was a real climbing, definitely much more serious than anything on the Kitakama or the Yatsumine. I got scared a bit.
P3, all three pitches visible

P3, all three pitches visible


In order to secure my spot in front of the group I overtook on the Yonhou, I descended down to the col and climbed just a bit up to the place, where a five-member party was waiting for the first party to get up.
I was thinking if I should try to ask them to give me a belay from the top. Few times I tried to get into conversation by making some friendly comments about our situation, but never got more than a single-word answer. Maybe they thought about me as some bighead show-off, climbing here alone and kept their distance. I was on my own and the fact that most of them had their rock shoes ready was not making me feel easier.

The first party had nine members, all of them older than me and my wife together, and they were seriously slow.
We were sitting there on the rocky steps mostly in silence, getting cold and some of us sleepy. I felt like falling to sleep a couple of times and when one of the guys started burning one cigarette after another right next to me, I climbed down a few meters, found myself a safe rock I could not fall of, huddled myself leaning to the wall and closed my eyes.
Time went by.

The waiting

The waiting


I couldn’t fall to sleep fully. All the time I was half aware of the cold, the sound of the wind, of the shouts on the wall above.
Apparently one old lady got stuck at the crux of the climb for about an hour and nobody could move her up or down.
“So step into the sling and use that to get yourself higher”, somebody finally shouted.
“I can do that?” a frightened voice replied.
I wanted to face-palm myself. I am a beginner myself, but should such people really be up here?
Things seemed to move a bit up there, but not much has changed.
The group I overtook earlier arrived in the meantime and made themselves comfortable down in the col too. I fell to sleep again.

When I woke up 30 minutes later, the party in front of me was already moving. Their leader had climbed the first pitch already and was now bringing them up, to my surprise, three of them at once on two ropes. I was keeping on their tail, just in case I would need some assistance.

The first ten meters were a bit exposed, but rich in holds and not too difficult, first over some protruding boulders, then in a kind of wide opening chimney or just a corner. The following section turned out to be the crux.
I watched the previous party get through. In a few minutes they disappeared behind an edge on the top and it was my time to climb. Suddenly I was all alone, even out of view of the next party at the col below.

Middle party at the crux

Middle party at the crux


Two mostly featureless walls were forming an almost vertical, three meters high, corner-like chimney here with a wide crack at the back. At about half the height there were two old pitons driven into the right wall. The corner was topped with a chockstone.
I split my hands and legs onto the opposite walls and did a few short steps up. Balancing on three points of contact I managed to clip myself into one of the pegs, but it didn’t feel much more reassuring. The higher I was, the smoother the walls were. I managed to move my legs higher, but it was difficult to straddle in the corner, because the walls were scissoring too wide to apply enough pressure to feel secure. Just half a meter was missing to reach to the chockstone when my self-belay went taut. I could do nothing else than unclip myself. Now I felt seriously vulnerable. One of my boots loses its grip on the wall and that would be the end of it. I was afraid, but also intensely focused and thus there was not much space for emotions in my head. To help myself out, I clipped the only sling I had into the now free piton and in a terrifyingly time-consuming manoeuvre of untangling it with my foot I forced my right boot into it. Stepping in, I reached as far as I could to the chockstone and found there a secure hold to get myself to the top. There I clipped into another piton. I could feel the adrenaline being slowly flushed out of my body as I stood there, the stepping sling now totally out of my reach.
Should I leave it behind? The next party would surely bring it up as they would be passing this place. There was no sign of them. I didn’t want to give it up, at least not without trying! I stretched myself as far as I could on the taut self-belay, trusting myself completely to the strength of one old peg, but it was not enough. I needed forty more centimeters at least. Then I remembered my accessory cord tied into a loop I use as an autostop for rappeling hanging from my harness. I clipped that one into the peg and the self-belay sling into its other side. Then I stretched myself down over the precipice again. It worked! I got my sling back and clipped it quickly into the harness before pulling myself up again.

At the beginning of the next pitch I found the others again, waiting for their leader to secure an anchor further up. It was a steep gully, 15 meters high and finished by a few bouldery moves. But this one did not look difficult at all.
After all the time we were sitting down there together, one of the girls in the party asked me: “You are climbing alone? Without a rope?”
And what were you thinking??
“Yes”, I said. Was there anything else I could reply?
“Heee!Sugoooi!”, was the reaction.
“The next part seems like anyone should be able to do it without ropes. Would it be too bad if I went ahead?” I asked them, worried not to interfere with their ropework.
“Go ahead”, one of the men replied.
And so I did. As expected, it was easy and I was up in a moment, making sure not to touch any of their ropes as I climbed along. When I passed the leader at the end of the pitch, I heard him say into to the radio: “Why is the foreigner here?!”
“Shitsureishimashita”, came the reply.

The beginning of pitch 2

The beginning of pitch 2


Pitch 2 from above

Pitch 2 from above


On the last pitch I found the party of the elders. They seemed trembling while moving over the rocks, slow in everything they were doing. But also smiling and strangely peaceful.
“Douzo”, said the old lady with a big scarf around her head under the helmet, in a soft voice more suiting to a delicate geisha than a mountaineer, as she was moving off the way to let me pass. I felt like it would be safer if she just stayed in her position and let me find my way around, but I couldn’t feel any resentment against them now. They seemed too surreal in this place, high above the world of men.
The beginning of pitch 3

The beginning of pitch 3


Okuhotakadake

Okuhotakadake


Peak 3 was behind me and Peak 2 followed soon after. The flat summit of Maehotaka was right in front of me, a few people watching as I climbed down to the last col. Some people abseil here, but it is just about 5 meters of very steep, but also rich-in-holds rock wall.

Ten minutes before one o’clock in the afternoon I stood on the summit of Maehotakadake. The North ridge alpine classic was behind me and with it the whole Three Ridges summer project fell into place. I made it and the moment was emotional suddenly. The summit was cool and quiet. Clouds were coming in after a whole week of flawless weather. How magical! My heart was smiling.
Over thirty minutes I spent sitting there, answering questions of the hikers who came here by the normal route or just relaxing by myself.

On the summit of Maehotakadake

On the summit of Maehotakadake


The Kitaone from the summit

The Kitaone from the summit


On the way down I went in a leisurely pace. No more speed records. The early autumn colors above Dakesawa looked so beautiful and I was enjoying every step of it. The mountaineering part was over and I was simply happy about being in such a fantastic nature.
Descent to Dakesawa

Descent to Dakesawa


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At four o’clock I arrived back to the “Hiking in Japan autumn meeting” campground in Konashidaira. I was by far not the only one who had had a long day today. Several members did the whole Maeho-Okuho traverse by the normal route, which is a good deal longer than my route was. Others went up the Yakedake. That evening everybody was enjoying well deserved rest around the campfire, sharing funny stories, having fantastic dinner of tortilla with several types of curry and loads of pasta. The atmosphere was very free and relaxing. Thank you everyone!
Few members of the Hiking in Japan group

Few members of the Hiking in Japan group

After successful week in the mountains, I was ready to go home.

You can watch a short clip from this climb on vimeo:
Maehotaka short movie

The Three Ridges – Yatsumine

The whole length of Yatsumine with Chinne and the Sannomado col in the middle right

The whole length of Yatsumine with Chinne and the Sannomado col in the middle right


If you would imagine Mount Tsurugi as a fortress and its main summit with all the buttresses as the citadel, the Yatsumine ridge would have to be its fortification walls. Sharp, jagged and hostile, thing build to repel any attacker just by the sight itself.
For mountaineer however, it is a sight of unparalleled beauty.

Being spoiled by many trips to the Italian Dolomites, Japanese Alps were always missing something in my eyes. There are no solitary wild rocky spires towering many hundreds of meters above the valleys below, no vertical walls shooting all the way to the sky from peaceful grassy plains.
Japanese mountains are stretching over hundreds of kilometers in endless chains of ridges and seemingly undistinguished peaks. They have their indisputable beauty, but not the kind rock climber is looking for. Except for Tsurugi. Or at least sort of.
“If only we had more mountains like Tsurugi in Japan”, once I heard a mountaineer complain.

I didn’t know much about the mountain until recently. Only that they call it the hardest mountain that can be climbed and that it’s vicinity used to be the last blank space on the map of Japan until quite modern history.
Then I heard about the Yatsumine ridge, when Chris White attempted it last winter. It was supposed to be the most challenging one from the famous three, a climb for the big boys only.
Pictures were showing real climbers on vertical walls, all climbing on double ropes, scary void underfoot.
I was going through the photographs with my new, shiny single rope and trad rack beside me, guts twisted inside my belly.
“Would you dare?”
I was burning to find out.

Tsurugi had one more mystery that had been creeping on my mind for many months. On Google Earth, when you zoom just a bit north from the main summit, one small photograph will appear. On this photograph, there is a climber scaling a sharp rocky pillar, serious grade, and in the background one more fantastic rock needle stands erect.
“Chinne and Cleopatra Needle”, reads the title. Chinne, Chinne, for a long time this Tibetan-like name had been back on my mind. Until once I wrote it into the search window in my web browser.
That instant the whole of my ideas about japanese mountains was shattered to pieces.
The formation of sharp rocky pillars and pinnacles that appeared on the screen was more like a piece taken somewhere from the Aiguille du Chamonix and the most grandiose of them all, the flawless spur falling deep into the Sannomado col was Chinne. Never have I seen anything like this in Japan.
I had to see this on my own eyes. I had to climb it!

The old picture I saw on the internet. Top of Yatsumine, Cleopatra Needle, Chinne and the Gendarme

The old picture I saw on the internet. Top of Yatsumine, Cleopatra Needle, Chinne and the Gendarme


The problem was I had very few experience and very few capable partners. If only there was someone to lead, I would so love to follow on this route. Rebouffat has been there, he has done it. Sly smile appeared on his face and his eyes were lit with sparkles when he was telling me about the 13 pitches of climbing it took them to scale this piece of rock. But he had no time.
Carolyn was interested, but after consultations with her sangakukai, she backed off. According to them we were not ready for even the Yatsumine and there could be no thoughts about Chinne.
The only person crazy enough that I could count on was the unbeatable New Zealander Isobel, but her conditions were that I would lead it all. I knew I was not yet ready for such a thing, but deep down the desire to try was stronger than prudent reason and I accepted at once.

The weather played to our cards perfectly. Huge typhoon passed over Japan just the day before our departure, wrecking havoc wherever it moved, but also cleaning the air and presenting us with bright blue sky and a forecast of whole week of sunny weather.

With the rope, ambitious climbing rack and food for five days packed, my rucksack weighted over 25 Kg. At first it was a terrible burden to carry, but quite soon I got somehow ‘acclimatized’ for it and all went well. We were set to begin and it was bound to be a massive adventure.

I was awaken from my dream soon enough. We made our way from Murodo through Raichousawa and Tsurugisawa down to the Choujiroutani deai in a reasonable time, but on the way, Isobel sprained her ankle and felt extremely tired. She had a hard day of traveling with Japan Railways turned to ditch by the typhoon behind, so there was nothing to be held against her. I just thought she will sleep out of it, but when I saw her collapse on her inflatable pad right between some boulders and go to sleep without looking left or right, I knew it is not good.
I set up my tent on a huge flat boulder, two corners of the tent hanging over the edge above the snowfield. There was a scary crack in the rock right underneath my sleeping body and I woke up a few times during the night in terror, seeing myself tumbling down the snow together with tons of shattered stone in my dreams.
I offered Isobel to pitch her tent next to mine, but she was using its fly sheet as a bivvy and refused, saying she’s just fine.

When I went to check her in the morning, I found she erected just the tent body between the boulders during the night to make herself warmer. Long hours of rest didn’t help a bit and Isobel was in no state to continue further.
“You really are not lucky for partners”, she started to apologize to me. “I’m sorry, but you will have to play by yourself. I am looking forward to see what you will do”, she said.
“I am afraid of what I will do”, I said.
I didn’t know if I can let her go alone to the hut a bit down the snowfield. I didn’t want the same situation like with Carolyn a month earlier. I felt responsible.
“I can make it 30 minutes to the hut!” Isobel said in a shogun tone. “Even if it takes me 4 hours I’ll just go there and make them call me a helicopter.”

And so we parted our ways. At first I felt a bit disappointed for myself, because losing a partner meant no chance for Chinne and even the Yatsumine was in doubt. Then I thought about how much more disappointed Isobel has to be and suddenly saw that there was nothing bad on my situation at all. The sun was shining bright and the sky was blue.

Three climbers descending the Choujiroutani snowfield

Three climbers descending the Choujiroutani snowfield


The snowfield in Choujiroutani is steep and scary this late in the season. Signs of great forces being at work here can be seen everywhere around. Massive snow blocks collapsing as the meltwater keeps digging its icy tunnels deep below, long cracks providing me a look into the depths underfoot, stones and boulders fallen from the steep slabs above laying on the surface in the middle of craters they created during the impact. The most unnerving phase is always the transition between the snow and rock, when you can see the deep caves which had melted around the bedrock.

Fortunately it didn’t take too long before the oppressive walls around me started to open up into a beautiful valley, framed by the Genjirou ridge on the left side, Yatsumine on the right side and big, broken pillars of the head ridge finishing the frame in the front together with the summit of Tsurugi itself. The sight reminded me a lot of Karasawa, only this was much more beautiful in its unspoiled serenity. Sometimes I could see a tiny character or two appear far up on the peak of Tsurugi, but that was as close as normal hikers come to this place.
Right in the middle of this spectacle lies the Kuma no iwa, a grassy platform with tremendous views through and beyond the valley. There was place to pitch at least ten tents, but I was alone. The loneliness felt liberating.

While setting up my camp I was already planning what to do with such a fine day. I hadn’t yet gained full confidence to attempt the Yatsumine, but the Genjirou ridge seemed accessible and the calling of Tsurugi summit irresistible.

The line I spied should have led me through a gully to the ridge, right at the upper base of Nihou, the second of two huge rock masses forming the iconic shape of Genjirou ridge. But as it usually goes, soon after traversing the scree slopes leading from my tent to the base of the ridge, I got caught in climbing so enjoyable, that I abandoned my planned route and started improvising, picking the line that looks the most beautiful and also challenging. I was scrambling on an edge of reasonably angled rocky spire and as I did, the terrain was becoming steeper and steeper and the holds looser and looser. The line I took was really the best looking there was, but it brought me to a point where I was thinking about it as the limit of what I find mentally comfortable without any belay.
A group of climbers who had just abseiled from the Nihou were watching me curiously and even gave me a short applause when I reached the point they sat down for a snack. We exchanged a few words and I continued on my own.

The way I climbed from Kuma no iwa to the top of Tsurugi over the final part of Genjirou ridge

The way I climbed from Kuma no iwa to the top of Tsurugi over the final part of Genjirou ridge


The Yatsumine from Genjirou ridge

The Yatsumine from Genjirou ridge


One hour after leaving my base camp at the Kuma no iwa, I was already standing on the top of Mount Tsurugi, the best mountain we have in the whole of Japanese Alps. The sun was burning mercifully, it was just before noon and the views were spectacular.
Most of the time on top I spent studying the Yatsumine ridge and surrounding playing possibilities. The climb up to Genjirou reawakened the sense for joy of climbing in my body and it was already decided that I will climb Yatsumine the next day.
Lively Tsurugidake summit

Lively Tsurugidake summit


But before that I took the pleasure of following the main ridge from Tsurugi summit to the Head of Yatsumine, the highest peak of the whole Yatsumine ridge above the Sannomado col.
An “X” character on the Tsurugi summit marks this part of the mountain as “expert climbers only” territory, but it is nothing too serious.
Several routes can be made out along the ridge. Some traversing below the big rocky spires on the eastern side, others, more adventurous, climbing straight over the tops, always keeping on the highest crest.
I chose the second option of course and I can tell you, the views from the rim along the way are incredible! Although the eastern side is steep and the views very beautiful with all the famous mountains like Goryu, Kashima-Yari and Harinoki forming an amazing horizon, it is the western and north-western views that blew my mind.
Right from your feet the mountain just breaks straight down and falls super steeply for hundreds of meters before breaking once more into a brutal maze of deep rocky gorges between the Hayatsuki, Tsurugi and Komado ridges. The whole scene resembles a massive crushing mill. Your eyes have no friendly spot to rest upon in the mass of dead rock and I felt like looking into a whirlpool of stone, sucking me and the whole mountain somewhere deep down below the crust of the Earth. They call the small valleys with a few puffing sulfurous springs below Tateyama the Jikokutani, the “Hell valley”. No no, what I was looking at right now was the real Jikokutani!
Just a few kilometers further to the north-west, almost 3000 meters lower, the land flattens and you can see the Toyama city on the shore of the Sea of Japan. I was wondering if Grace Yamaholic, the extraordinarily committed Brazilian climber living there is looking up at me right now. This is her mountain and I am climbing in her spirit.

From the end of the ridge, right before it breaks into a huge, steep scree gully falling to the Sannomado col, I caught sight of the Chinne for the first time.
You see it from rear-side angle here and the shape is very different from how I had glimpsed it for the first time on the internet. But I have seen many photographs since and knew what to expect. When seen from the Yatsumine side, the Chinne most resembles the disc of circular saw driven half into the mountain. From the Sannomado side, it looks like a giant tooth, which eventually gave it the name. Chinne is just Japanese pronunciation of German word Zinne, the tooth.
Being one who had grown to love mountains in the Dolomites, I was pleased with how this rock structure resembled the famous Zinnen in Italy, although the scale is totally different of course.

From right to left, Yatsumine Head, second peak, Chinne with its western wall and hardly recognizable Gendarme

From right to left, Yatsumine Head, second peak, Chinne with its western wall and hardly recognizable Gendarme


Satisfied with seeing it all this up close and knowing tomorrow’s weather should be this amazing again, I embarked on the scree descent back to Kuma no iwa and my tent.
View from my camp on the Kuma no iwa

View from my camp on the Kuma no iwa


It is really an awesome place to camp, the Kuma no iwa. Splendid views, mountain stream 10 seconds walk from my tent, green grass and blue sky… who could ever wish for more?
I had loads of time to make myself comfortable that evening. While eating my dinner I kept studying the Yatsumine. A,B,C and D, all the faces of peak 6, the Roppou, were lined up in front of me. C face should be the easiest. The slab is a bit easier sloping than the other three and seems to offer plenty of holds. The line of ascent is easily recognizable. How I’d like to try it. Maybe some day when I have a partner.
D face looked totally unclimbable to me, starting off with a huge, smooth overhang and never becoming less than vertical. I don’t even dare thinking about attempting something like that.

When the sun set in the afternoon I saw a figure ascending the snowfield slowly towards me.
I won’t be here all alone after all, I thought.
Half an hour later the older man crossed from the snowfield to the solid ground and I went to greet him.
“I’ve been here last week, but the weather was terrible. Now the weather is great, so I came back”, he said.
“And where are you headed”, I asked him.
“Tomorrow I plan to climb the Yatsumine. I have done the lower half last time and now I want to finish it off”, he replied.
“Great, I’m planning the same”, I said.
“So we will be seeing each other”, he spoke. “But these old bones are not so fast any more and you will probably be back down the time I make it to the top!”

The night turned out cold in my light sleeping bag. The moonlight was so bright that I didn’t have to use my headlamp at all and the air was dry. No dew fell that night.

By 5 o’clock we were both up and getting ready. But there was still no sign of the dawn to be seen and it was dark, so we decided to postpone our start.
By 6 AM we were standing on the tight 5,6 col, cold in the shade of peak five’s western face.
I let Kono-san go first. He knew the route and in fact was not slow at all at the beginning.
The route starts by easy climbing in a kind of shallow gully in the middle of the head wall, but traverses out of it to the right very soon after. From here on human-caused erosion and abrasion on the rock showed us the right way.
The Roppou soon eased off and turned first into simple scramble, then into walk up almost all the way to its top.
Kono-san was lagging behind a bit now, but I decided to wait for him and adjust my pace to leisure mode, so that we could climb together. It was a spectacular morning again, the route ahead was not so long and while walking as a party, we could at least take pictures of one another.
The remaining three peaks and many other smaller ones with all the saddles were lined up in front of us. The lean and graceful spire of the Cleopatra Needle was shining in the morning light and behind it the black mass of the Chinne with its circular, jagged rim was drawing my attention constantly.
From the Roppou, the first down climb came. Many abseil slings and cord loops could be found at the top, but we decided it was reasonable enough to climb down, both of us lazy to unpack the rope. It was easy.

Somewhere on Peak 6

Somewhere on Peak 6


Yatsumine, Cleopatra Needle and Chinne from Peak 6

Yatsumine, Cleopatra Needle and Chinne from Peak 6


When I was reading notes about this climb at home, everybody was talking about multiple abseils and multiple tiring ups and downs.

Well, let me be the one who breaks the myth of Yatsumine right now and tell you straight away that the whole climb unquestionably is very enjoyable, but also very easy. There is no place where using ropes would be strictly necessary. All the points where abseiling is possible are also down climbable without particular risk. Note that I am talking only about the upper half of Yatsumine in perfect summer conditions. But also note that we climbed all the peaks along the way. All the time I was leading the most exposed crest line, never traversed under any peak, for which there would be possibility if one were in distress. We were climbing in a leisurely pace and still it took us just two and half hours to reach the final summit of the Yatsumine Head.
I was hoping that I am going for a bit challenging climb, but no. Yatsumine from 5,6 col in summer is simply still just a variation route, not a real climb.

Although all of this is true, it is still probably the most beautiful route I have climbed in Japan to this day. The climbing might be easy, but at least it is sustained and a lot of fun. It never turned hard enough for me to be afraid and thus really was just a pure pleasure.

There was one place I knew from the photographs that scared me. One photograph that made me doubt my readiness all the time. The one I noted once already. A man standing on a boot-wide narrow ledge, smooth, featureless, vertical slabs both up and below. Totally like a picture taken out of some adventures of Walter Bonatti. ‘Traverse on the Yatsumine Head wall’, the title stated simply. That is some serious exposure, I thought. That must take real balls to climb.
When we came there, I had to laugh. Those suckers! They took the picture in a way that it looks like Alex Hannold standing high on the ledge of Half Dome, while in fact it is just a few meters above ground and there is another wall right behind your back! Well, it still is the most vertical bit on the whole route, but there are in fact many holds and it feels quite secure. Secure enough for Kono-san and myself to hand our cameras to each other and try taking similarly cool looking shots. Only in our case, with the sunshine and our wide smiles, they look much less menacing.

Tvaverse on the Yatsumine Head

Tvaverse on the Yatsumine Head


After summiting the Head of Yatsumine I immediately climbed the second peak to the right to take some more pictures. The view from there is truly marvelous. The long line of sharp peaks forming the Yatsumine against morning light on the right, Cleopatra Needle right below me and Chinne on the left is a sight to behold. Deep down I could see the Sannomado snowfield falling over thousand meters to the valley of Tsurugisawa.
Just climbed the second peak

Just climbed the second peak


Cleopatra Needle and Yatsumine from the second peak

Cleopatra Needle and Yatsumine from the second peak


One twenty meter rappel got me down again and I climbed the Head back to Kono-san to say some formal farewell. He was continuing up to the summit of Tsurugi by the way I came down the day earlier. My own plan was to continue north and traverse Chinne and the Gendarme before returning back from the Sannomado col. I wanted to see Chinne really up close.

I climbed back down and traversed left underneath the second peak. When the view to the east opened up to me again, I found myself standing right above the Cleopatra Needle. It is not too high from this side, just around 12 to 15 meters. What struck me was that there was a faintly visible path leading to it and the pillar itself didn’t seem that hard. I concluded that was worthy of exploration.
“This has to be the route climbers use to get down from the climb”, I thought. “Surely, it is not a route worthy of such a beautiful pinnacle, but imagine, just to get a look from there! How cool would that be to have some pictures from the top of Cleopatra Needle”, my egoistic self was talking to me. I climb mountains because it gives me so much joy, but we all do have that inner desire for recognition when we manage something outstanding, no?
At the base of the pinnacle I found one narrow grassy ledge and from the end of it I could see the diagonal serration of the rock formed a natural line of holds going seemingly all the way up, to the point where the wall eased off. From there nothing would stand between me and the peak!
I gave it a shot.

This was a game completely different from the Yatsumine. This wall spent most of its lifetime in the shade. The rock was harsh, covered with bone dry, sharp lichen. And it was vertical. But still the holds seemed plentiful and the moves were not difficult.
I followed the natural line diagonally to the right, move after move, meter after meter. Until my line of holds started to be oppressed by overhanging bulges from above. An old peg, rusty, but still solid-looking, was driven all the way into a tiny crack under the bulge and I clipped in with my self-belay. That gave me some kind of false feeling of security to follow with the next move, lean out over the bulge and reach to the next hold above it. As I tried to stand up to the new stance, the self-belay came taut, too short to allow me to erect myself completely in my new position.
“Crap”, I thought, half standing, half squatting, the rock pushing me out of balance over the precipice. I reached to unclip myself with my left hand, the right one clenching the solid hold above in a steel vice grip. If I’d let go, I would have to learn how to fly really fast. I didn’t let go. Unclipped, I stood up to get into balance. Now I wanted to get to the top just so that I could abseil on the rope and didn’t have to climb the scary moves down. The wall was easing off just some meter and half above my hand. I was almost there! But the rock separating me from safety was bulging again and with just a fingertip holds. Very severe. I was not mentally ready to commit that much. Not without a belayer down below.
I realized I had climbed a little too much to the right and the lowest place where the wall was leaning back was actually just about two meters to my left now. But again, the rock in between was too difficult for me to tackle.

Very carefully I started repeating the moves which got me up here, only this time backwards. Grab a tiny flake underneath the bulge, lean back and slide down to my previous step, clip in the self-belay… safe for the moment. Grab a solid hold, let one leg down over another bulge, unclip, make sure I don’t step on the wobbly stone, always maintain three points of contact… this way I got down the next series of moves to somewhat easier ground.
I tried a few more angles, just in case there was some secret way to the lowest point of the summit I missed on my diagonal line on the right. Vertical, pieces protruding to overhanging, no way I would try that without proper belay. There was nothing more I could do here. Little by little I climbed back down the remaining bit and returned to the ridge line going to Chinne.
All in all, just two or three moves from the peak I decided it was not worth the risk. Cleopatra was demanding just a bit more than I was willing to give.

My unfinished line up the Cleopatra

My unfinished line up the Cleopatra


Compared with Cleopatra Needle, getting to the top of Chinne was a mere walk in a park. Just a short length of easy scrambling and I was looking down the whole height of its north face. I wish I knew how many meters that was, but the sense of exposure while moving over the saw like teeth of the summit ridge is unparalleled to anything I have experienced in Japan.
It is truly spectacularly narrow ridge, on both sides falling down with almost perfect verticality. The northern wall may in fact be less than two hundred meters high, but the mountain simply ends with it and further there is nothing but steep gullies falling down over 1000 meters to the Tsurugisawa valley.
I was moving very carefully along the knife ridge. There was not much wind that day, but still I kept my guard, just in case some rogue gust would try to sneak behind and push me off-balance.
Airy Chinne ridgeline

Airy Chinne ridgeline


Serious doubts were boiling in my head about our courage and willingness to climb this thing even if Isobel were here. It looked so much over and beyond anything I have ever done. Part of it might had been the perspective. Every big climb looks impossible when seen from above. The pitches itself should not be too technically difficult. Nothing I wouldn’t do at the crags around Osaka. The real difficulty is the psychological one.
Anyway, while standing on the top I didn’t feel any disappointment that we couldn’t attempt the climb. The mountain will be here for us to have another try.

What I focused my attention from now on was the Gendarme, the last shark tooth shaped peak above the Sannomado col. Positioned right underneath the Chinne, it commands great view all over its north face.
I could see it right below my feet, no more than hundred meters lower. The puzzle was getting there. All suggested my best bet would be traversing along the west wall of Chinne, where a wide system of ledges was opening the way. By all means I wanted to avoid descending all the way to the big gully leading to the Sannomado col, because I would probably not be able to climb back up from there.

I retraced my steps back from the summit of Chinne to a point where a narrow canyon connected the eastern and western side of the massif. It really is a curiosity that such a feature is there, because it makes the transition so much easier.
From the end of it, exactly as expected, an abseil route led to the gully, while another footprints seemed to follow a ledge in my desired direction. The summit rim of Gendarme was visible from here. It was not far.
The first ledge was an easy one, horizontally crossing in the shadow of Chinne west wall. Then I started climbing down over a series of totally broken steep rocky steps. That was a tricky business, because nothing seemed to be holding in its place. Small stones were sliding under my soles and even the big boulders were mostly wobbly. But with some care and time, I got another ten or so meters lower.
From here I could finally walk another ledge and have a look around the corner to the north face. My heart was shivering with a mixture of happiness, adventure and uneasiness. I was imagining how it must feel to be standing on some great granite wall back home in the European Alps.
From here, the descent was so steep and unstable, the bedrock covered with loose dirt, stones and shallow rooted grass and other low alpine flora, that anything else than an abseil would be madness.
But where to anchor an abseil here? There seemed to be only one possibility, one I didn’t have much trust in. On the far left of the slope, right by the edge of the cliff falling several tens of meters to the gully, there was one old piton protruding from a stone block. Thin layer of rust was covering it already and it was not hundred percent firm in its position. But at least it was in all the way to the eye.
I cut off a length of cord, just enough to tie an abseil loop from the peg and secured it with double fisherman knot. My feet were sliding constantly on the low haimatsu hanging over the steep terrain as I was recoiling the rope. I had to keep changing my stance and sometimes to work with just one hand in order to stabilize myself. Finally I had the rope neatly coiled and tossed. I was ready to go.
Slowly I weighted the peg, then gave it a few tugs. It was flexing a bit, but otherwise felt solid. As swiftly and smoothly as possible I abseiled about 25 meters lower, safe. Shower of small stones went around me as I pulled the rope down.

On the descent to the Gendarme

On the descent to the Gendarme


Now I was standing on the edge of a completely vertical precipice, part of the Chinne north face actually. The Gendarme massif seemed to be connected here in right angle to the face, but the two peaks were separate in fact, a narrow canyon dug deep in between.
I wished so much I could just jump over it, but that was of course impossible, and so I moved all the way to the left, where the depth of the canyon was the lowest and prepared myself for another abseil.
One sturdy rock horn was the only natural anchor available. The thing that scared me here were the razor-sharp edges on everything around. I tied off the horn, trying in vain to adjust the cord in such a way, where it wouldn’t sit on anything that could potentially cut it. The next bad thing was the rope itself bending over the sharp edge of the canyon wall. But there was nothing I could do better I knew about.
I was scared during this abseil and wanted it to end very fast. On the way down, I passed one huge rock flake peeling from the wall, just about two centimeters thick and at least two meters high, looking like it must fall down if anything just touched it. I did all I could not to disturb it in its acrobatic stance.
Some 20 meters lower I landed on solid ground again, happy that the ride was over. The steep canyon was basically one great funnel through which the mountain was shedding all its unnecessary weight. Fortunately it was opening up right ahead and with it, the last bit of easy climbing to the summit rim of the Gendarme.

I made it, I was there, back in the sunlight after what felt like an eternity in the shade of the oppressive Chinne west face.
On the summit I sat down to rest and eat some snack, the north face looming high above me. It was a beautifully silent place and beautifully timeless moment. Just myself and the wall standing beside me, like a giant and an ant.
The sky was bright blue without a single cloud, the sunshine merciful again. I wasn’t watching time at all. It was still early so I didn’t care. And when the compulsion to move came, I left this place to its silence again.

On top of Gendarme, watching the North face

On top of Gendarme, watching the North face


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The narrow canyon down between the two rock giants felt like a magic door with its brutality and coldness when I came out of it onto the big, sunlit scree gully behind. I was back in the world of men and that too felt good.

When I got back to Kuma no iwa base camp, it was just two in the afternoon. Emotionally tired to attempt any other climb, feeling like my job here was done for the time being and remembering the cold and quite unpleasant night before, I decided to take a few hours rest and then walk down the Choujiroutani snowfield to the hut where Isobel went. I wanted to know if she got out of there alright.

Time to go down. Kita one is waiting

Time to go down. Kita one is waiting


The snowfield was as scary as the day before. Maybe this time even more, because it had changed during just one day! One particularly massive snow bridge was now laying in the depths shattered to bright white pieces. On another place at least 50 meter crack appeared in the snow. The moment I stood back on normal trail felt relieving.

Not long after, the hut came into view. With its low structure and bare stone walls it most resembled a barbarian keep somewhere from the early Middle Ages, sitting nicely by the river. I was wondering if Isobel would still be there.
As soon as the hut owner saw me, he started:
“You are the foreigner, the Czech guy…”
“Yes I am. The white woman from yesterday, where is she? Was she alright?”
“Oh, she went back to Tsurugisawa and Murodo. The ankle looked quite fine. But you climbed the Yatsumine. We were more worried about you!”
“Me? Come on. I had a great time!”
So Isobel didn’t tell them anything about her bad shape after all. She must had gotten better to walk back on her own, I thought.

The next morning, just as the peaks high above got lit by the first rays of golden sunlight, I shouldered my heavy pack again and marched towards the mountain pass to the south-west,
from where I wanted to descend to the Kuranosuke valley and follow the river all the way to the mighty Kurobe dam. That was my escape plan from these remote lands.

I don’t know how to put it. The route is terrible, but it is also very picturesque and beautiful. Should I advise you not to take it, you would miss a lot of good, but know that if you do take it, you will suffer badly, especially if you would be carrying over 20 Kg of cumbersome luggage. If nothing else, the low branches and thick vegetation will make you swear in all languages you know. And you won’t forget the waterlogged trail!
You just have to see for yourself and make your own adventure.

I sat on the trolley bus, letting myself be carried through the depths of the mountains towards another adventure of my own.

There was one last mountain to be climbed!

You can watch a short movie from this adventure on vimeo here:
Tsurugidake short movie

What happened in July?

On the way to Gendarme, before the Umanose

On the way to Gendarme, before the Umanose


The whole of July was rainy in the Japanese Alps, except for just a few rare days. I was lucky to be there on such a day at the end of the month, aiming for the most classic of the alpine classics in the Kamikouchi area, the North ridge of the Maehotakadake.
We were looking forward to this route a lot with Asahi “Rebouffat”, but then Nakahashi-kun and Suginaka-kun came to ask us to take them along. And foolishly we did. They are great guys, no doubt about that. Funny to hang around with, both of them with good level of fittness and lots of experience in the outdoors, but neither of them has done any much climbing. We knew that and thus the blame for this failed attempt lies solely on us. But there is no reason to be dramatic. Nothing special happened, which is also part of the reason I didn’t post anything earlier.

We started in Kamikouchi, ascended the Panorama course up to the beginning of the North ridge and climbed it from there over the Peak 8 and 7 to the col before Peak 6. This is the bushy section of the climb, most of the time non technical, consisting of breaking the way through thick haimatsu with occasional scrambling over not difficult rocks. I enjoyed it. Every other rocky section was making me more and more excited. But it was also making us slower and slower. I was leading the way, setting the rope where necessary, while Rebouffat was explaining the other two how to ascend it.

On the Happou (Peak 8)

On the Happou (Peak 8)


Rebouffat handling the rope

Rebouffat handling the rope


Abseiling down to the 7,6 col

Abseiling down to the 7,6 col


I knew it is not good. If they are nervous on these scrambling parts, how could we possibly take them to the exposed, climbing ones higher up between the Peak 4 and 1. And so my excitement was cooled down fast when we arrived at the 7,6 col. The Roppou (Peak 6) was thrusting up in front of us in a violent and sharp line to the sky. It made us wonder why most of the climbing parties skip this part and climb up to the 5,6 col from Karasawa below. Why nobody mentions this? Is it because of some hidden severities there? Looking at the wild crest rising from the col, I had my doubts.
“This is full fat alpine climbing”, said Rebouffat. “I didn’t expect anything like this today.”
Sure, we thought the first day will be mostly non technical, all the way to the 5,6 col. But now it was 4 o’clock and scaling this would probably take us quite some time.
“We are not ready for this”, said Nakahashi-kun. “Sorry Maiku!”
Roppou (Peak 6) and further

Roppou (Peak 6) and further


I was battling the wish to go on by myself and let them descend to Karasawa. I was burning to go. But at the same time I knew I am inexperienced and had my doubts about the risk and safety of such a decision. Rebouffat was the most experienced of us and I knew he would not leave the two. For him it was still just going to have some adventure with friends. For me it was the route that mattered and partners were there just to elevate safety of the whole undertaking. In my heart I know I am a solo climber.
All their eyes looking up at me, I could see them filled with worry. Fuck it, I thought.
“I am going down with you. The mountain won’t run away”, I said.
Descending to Karasawa

Descending to Karasawa


The night at Karasawa was very peaceful. My friends stuffed themselves in a two person tent, while I was laying outside on the snow in my bivvy bag. The sky was full of stars, I could see the Milky way and the black silhouette of the Kita one clearly cut against it.
By 2 o’clock I was back on my feet and slowly getting ready to move on.
“If you come with me up Okuhotaka, you can still easily make it down to Kamikouchi through Dakesawa for the bus today”, I said to Rebouffat.
“No”, he replied. “We will just go down today.”
I couldn’t comprehend such a decision. The sky is clear, the weather forecast for the day is sunny for the first time in a month. And yet there is someone who let go of such a chance. Each to his own, but we are simply different., I thought.
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The North ridge of Maehotakadake

The North ridge of Maehotakadake


The sunrise was spectacular. See it many times and it doesn’t fail to amaze me over and over again.
I was pretty much alone on the top of Okuhotakadake, the third highest peak in Japan. The weather was flawless. Clear visibility all over the Alps down to Mount Fuji on one side and Mount Haku on the other. From all the mountains I have climbed in Japan, this view I love the most.
View towards Yari

View towards Yari


View towards the Minami Alps

View towards the Minami Alps


In the morning cool breeze, under the golden light of the still young sun, I started the walk in the sky towards the Gendarme. I always wanted to do this route, probably the most feared of the normal routes in the Alps.
The knife ridges around the notorious Umanose were transcending the border between heaven and earth. People say it is dangerous and hard place. I felt it was liberating and completely safe.
On the way to the Gendarme I keep looking for my own ways, resolved never to touch any chain or ladder on the trail. I am climbing at leisure pace, not in haste anywhere. This is not an adventure, this is just pure pleasure.
The top of Gendarme sees me by 7.20 in the morning. The words of George Mallory keep resonating in my head.
“Is this the summit crowning the day? How cool and how quiet. Have we vanquished an enemy, none but ourselves.”
The Gendarme, one fine peak

The Gendarme, one fine peak


Kamikouchi seen from Gendarme

Kamikouchi seen from Gendarme


The Okuho-Nishiho ridge is a long one, climbing up and down over many peaks lined up between these two mountains. Enjoying the route as much as I did, I felt happy when I finally reached the Nishihotaka summit. At last I got to the place I couldn’t reach in January because of insufficient time.
Towards Nishihotaka

Towards Nishihotaka


Yarigatake, Okuhotakadake, Maehotakadake

Yarigatake, Okuhotakadake, Maehotakadake


The same day I made it down to Kamikouchi and spent there one more night sheltered by roof of a pergola built on a small meadow. It was a bad night. Heavy rain was constantly eating off my piece of dry space under the roof and the whole place was swarming with mosquitoes, spiders and various kinds of pretty scary insects of huge sizes. I was zipped to my chin in my waterproof set to prevent the bites, but it was too warm to sleep in the sleeping bag and so I was just sitting there and watching the night and the rains pass by. Until the tiredness of the long days and two more or less sleepless nights before overtook me and my body fell flat on the mat, indifferent to the creepy little things coming to check my face any more. I was sleeping the sleep of the dead.
The last day morning

The last day morning


You can watch a short movie from this trip at Vimeo:
Hotaka movie