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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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!
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