March 2014 – The central couloir

Inamuragatake and Dainichi yama with the central couloir clearly visible

Inamuragatake and Dainichi yama with the central couloir clearly visible


The conditions were perfect. At least for a week the temperature had been hovering around -10C with very little precipitation and the snow was compact and hard. All the steep ravines we traversed along the way up and down Mt. Hakkyo looked like an Olympic bobsled race track on steroids. If the central gully cutting through the western face of Mt. Inamura was in the same state, it would make for a perfect fast ascent, front pointing some 400 meters of elevation change from the river below.
Two days later I was sitting on the early morning Kintetsu Yoshino line, heading back into the heart of the Omine mountains. The weather forecast was promising one last day of splendid weather before the warm front kicks in and destroys it all.
The bus arrived rumbling loud in front of the Shimoichiguchi station, armed to the teeth with its heavy and well-worn snow chains.
I knew it was supposed to be snowing the day before, but this much? Two days ago the Tenkawa village was all in spring mood. As the bus drove deeper and higher into the mountains, I was getting more and more nervous.
This was my seventh time visiting the Omine mountains and every time I was fascinated by the cliffs of the Inamuragatake and Dainichi yama. I had been eyeing the central gully for some time already, but always thought about it as a two day thing. The decision to go for it now and in just one day was spontaneous and on the shortest notice. With only 7 hours between the first and last bus of the day, moving fast was primary and I took only the barest minimum of gear necessary to withstand a bivouac in case something went wrong.
As soon as the bus arrived in Tenkawa-Kawaai I broke into vigorous stride, heading for the Route 309 and the Shirokura valley, out of civilization and the prying eyes of the locals. I didn’t want anyone to ask me where I was heading. I knew they would consider me reckless and I knew they would be right in that matter. I just can’t help myself.
The sky was marvelously blue and it was warm down in the valley as I kept ascending along the Kawasako river. Where there was grass just two days ago, 10 centimeters thick layer of snow was covering everything. And it was all melting in the heat of the morning sunshine. On many places I was traversing landslide debris on the road, which although, or maybe exactly because of it being quite common thing in the steep mountains of Nara prefecture in springtime, was making me a bit jumpy. The danger of the whole mountain falling apart as you are scrambling up its steep slopes while it is melting is real and there were rattling sounds of stones falling down onto the road to be heard around as a proof of it.
Some construction workers cleaning the debris asked my point of destination eventually and so I told them its the Dainichi.
“There’s still hell lot of snow back there,” one of them said.
“The more the snow, the more the fun,” I replied as I was striding along.
In fact I was quite concerned about all of it.
Along with the last marks of human presence I left behind also the sunshine as I took a left turn from the R309 and entered the Shirokura valley. Huge icicles were hanging from the rocky walls in the canyon and progress became much more laborious in the now shin-deep snow. Here and there I could sense presence of monkeys around. I did not really see them, but there were tracks in the snow and I could hear movement in the trees around.
And than I saw it. Bang! Still some 800 meters higher, rugged and inaccessible, plastered with snow, the western cliffs of the Inamuragatake and Dainichiyama appeared in the distance, barricading the end of the Iwamoto gorge forking to the east from the Shirokura valley.
Inamuragatake and Dainichi yama seen from the Mitarai valley

Inamuragatake and Dainichi yama seen from the Shirokura valley


I was hoping to carve my path through this gorge, which eventually ended in the form of the Inamuragatake central gully. I don’t know if anyone has ever attempted an ascent here before, but because it seems such a natural way to the foot of the mountain, I think it is quite likely other climbers ventured to the gorge before.
I took my first break at the entrance to the gorge. Steep rocky slopes on both sides were framing a narrow gate through which a small river flew.
This is where the real adventure begins, I thought as I was pushing some energy-filled edibles down my throat. Just as I put on my tough waterproof pants and an alpine jacket, barrage of melting snow fell on my neck from the trees above.
That is what you are into from now. I knew I will be hot, dressed to my nose in Gore-Tex, but I also knew I will get really wet throughout the climb and so it was a necessity.
On with the crampons, ice axe in hand, I descended from the road into the riverbed.
The end of the road and the entrance to the Iwamoto gorge

The end of the road and the entrance to the Iwamoto gorge


Waterfall at the beginning of the Iwamoto gorge

Waterfall at the beginning of the Iwamoto gorge


Iwamoto gorge

Iwamoto gorge


Right from the start I had to confront one small cascading waterfall, balancing precariously on the snow caped rocks. I could not help but wonder if my journey is destined to end right here with a cold bath, unsure if the next muffin of snow in the river hides a real rock or just a thin layer of ice beneath. Once I was forced to do one real leap of faith, jumping over the water along an unclimbable slab onto a narrow snowed up ledge. Perhaps it would be a good thing, to fall into the water and have an excuse to give up and go home, I was thinking.
But soon enough the gorge broadened a bit and I was making my way forward traversing the slopes along the river, once to the left, once to the right, as the natural meandering of the flow forced me too. The snow was still about shin-deep and the progress still laborious, but at least it didn’t feel dangerous in any way.
Then the canyon narrowed again and breaking the trail among the big boulders along the river became too tiring, so I decided to try to climb a bit towards the Miosu ridge on my right hand side and keep traversing higher over the slopes. This tactic worked quite well and I was moving up and forward in a good pace. The only place worth mentioning was one small icefall I traversed right in the middle over a ledge on which it formed a cascade. On the few occasions when I was able to glimpse the riverbed down below, I saw only rugged and inhospitable terrain and therefore abandoned all thoughts of returning there. Instead I started looking for possible ways up to the ridge line. And then I came across the first gully.
Climbing snowed up gullies is always great fun. Usually they shoot straight up, are super steep and accumulate great amount of snow, thus making a worthy foe in the battle with verticality. Also quite importantly, they are usually free of trees.
I ascended some 80 meters in this gully before it broadened and disappeared, leaving me to continue on my traverse. I battled my way through several strips of dense and formidable vegetation before reaching another inviting ravine. This one was tougher though. It was longer, took me higher and in the upper sections led over a series of iced and snowed up rocky steps, requiring some careful work on the front points. All in all adventurous, but still great fun.
One and half hour had passed since I entered the Iwamoto gorge. It was now quater to twelve and the day was marvelous. When I turned around, I could see the river deep down with all of the early spring black and white landscape shining crisp and clear under the flawless blue sky. My target peaks were not visible from here, but what bothered me more was the fact the ravine ended up totally overgrown with impenetrable bushes.
End of the second gully led me to these bushes

End of the second gully led me to these bushes


There was nothing to do but battle my way through and when I say battle, I mean battle. One always tries to have as little as possible impact on the nature, but in cases like this, brute force, lots of pushing, pulling and hard steps in hard boots have to be called to aid. At least it was not like in summer, when one ends up bruised and crawled upon by innumerable insects, looking like he has just brawled the amazing Spiderman himself.
Eventually I topped out on a kind of sharp and mildly corniced shoulder, projecting from the Miosu ridge. The walls of Mt. Inamura and Dainichi were now almost at reach, but the way forward looked rugged and treacherous.
The traverses led over steeper terrain, the vegetation was thicker, the snow was deeper. I seriously started to worry about time. Was it even possible to make it to the last bus in the afternoon? I took very little time, if any, for breaks.
Once a ray of sunlight penetrated through the trees in almost perfect alignment with the inclination of the slope, creating a magical sight which gripped my attention like a magnet grips the attention of a compass pointer. I climbed vigorously straight up to the sunlight and there I finally reached the top of the ridge. If there were any witnesses to comment, they would describe hearing one loud roar echoing through the valleys, expressing one man’s animal joy of one tiny but important achievement on his pointless quest.
Sunshine over the top of Miosu ridge

Sunshine over the top of Miosu ridge


The Miosu ridge

The Miosu ridge


The cliffs

The cliffs


I kept getting stuck in the holes hidden by the snowdrift covering innumerable broken trunks as I was literally running over the ridge line. Gradually the ridge steepened and rocks became more frequent, letting me know I am closing in to the walls. The difficult part was knowing where to leave the ridge and start traversing into the central gully. I could see hardly anything over the snow plastered vegetation, resembling some white horror abominations and so I just kept climbing the ridge until the inevitable came. Gradually steepening scramble ended with a rock towering in front of me, blocking any possible way higher. To the south it was breaking into a sheer drop of at least 50 meters and so I started traversing along its base to the left, only the branches of the all-present bushes stopping me from sliding down the steep slopes underfoot.
Impenetrable frozen vegetation

Impenetrable frozen vegetation


Finally I reached it, one steep, vegetation-free gully filled with deep fluffy snow. This was my way up.
I have to admit I was extremely scared stepping into the gully. It was so steep, that while standing upright, the snow in front of my body was well up to my stomach and it was all so loose, that I felt like it all has to break into an avalanche every moment I make a move. And so I was breaking the trail as close as possible to the trees and bushes, offering at least some possibility to grab something in an instant.
To my horror, after buckets of energy and time waisted, the gully ended with another wall barricading any possible way higher. I was climbing a wrong gully and the central couloir was still a bit further. I had to retrace my steps down this gully and find a way to traverse further on, both of which was quite scary proposal. Apart from the physical risks, the time loss was now really pressing on my mind. I was planning 3 o’clock to be the latest time I should reach the summit or turn around and head down. It was now 14:26 and I was at the top of a wrong gully. Retreat was no option from here as that would be more difficult than finishing the climb.
The wrong gully. Picture doesn't show the steepness.

The wrong gully


I did something like a careful run or glissade down the gully, losing precious elevation in the process, until a point where traverse further to the right seemed feasible.
IMG_9115
After a short battle with the frosted vegetation I reached the next couloir.
This time there was no doubt, or at least I wanted to believe so, that this is the great central couloir of the Inamuragatake. It was wider, falling deeper down and seemed to be leading all the way to the horizon without any further breaks. The loose snow was as scary as before and I kept following the ‘keep close to the trees’ tactics. After four and half hours almost nonstop on the go and breaking the trail, I was now getting seriously tired, but as Ueli Steck said, ‘now you have to get out of your body, give it everything you can get’, I pushed up and forward in an unbroken, well-defined rhythm. After all, these highly physical moments are one of the things I love so much on the mountains.
One last rocky step I overcame by totally relying on single ice axe placement, one last little cornice saw me swimming belly deep in the snow and I topped out of the gully onto a broad wind slab, just about 20 meters south from the summit platform. It was 14:44 when I stood on top of the Inamuragatake.
IMG_9121
Hakkyo from the top of Inamuragatake

Hakkyo from the top of Inamuragatake


Dainichi yama from the top of Inamuragatake

Dainichi yama from the top of Inamuragatake


It was cold, but windless and the sky was unusually clear. The half circle of mountains from Sanjogatake over Daifugen to Hakkyo was bathing and shining in the afternoon sunlight and to the northwest, Mt. Kongo dominated the mountain chain surrounding Osaka. Seven times I have been here already, but never saw the air so clear. Amazing thing was that I could see even glimpses of some districts of Osaka and the tip of what I am sure was the Harukas tower, the tallest building in Japan. And further behind, even Mt. Rokko was faintly visible, framing the horizon on one side, while bit to the left I could recognize the Seto naikai and Awaji island. What a day to be in the mountains!
Sanjougatake

Sanjougatake


I couldn’t take much time to enjoy the scenery though. In just two hours I had to be back down in Tenkawa.
This being my first time on this mountain, I had no idea where the normal route was supposed to go and so I just followed the ridge to the north and over the Dainichi Kiretto. Immediately I knew that the trouble is by far not yet over. The terrain was steep and difficult to navigate properly. The powdery snow cornices were often up to my crotch deep. At least I was now going downward. Saving as much energy as I could, I was plunge stepping down and forward between the trees, traversing the steep slopes until I stood in a narrow col under the gigantic tooth of the Dainichi yama. Here I hesitated a little. Should I push it to the summit also? It did not seem impossibly steep. But no, there was no time to spare any more. That is the official reason. In fact I simply felt too exhausted.
IMG_9125
The Dainichi traverse was supposed to be the feared bit, the one for which climbers bring their ice axes and twelve-point crampons here in winter. But that about sums up my knowledge about this place. I had no idea at what elevation I was supposed to make the traverse, but at the col I found a short piece of chain frozen hard into the snow and thought that had to be the right way.
Route finding didn’t pose the biggest problem in the end, as I ended simply traversing beneath the rock face. Problem was the steepness of the slopes I was traversing and the amount of snow laying on them. I could barely stand upright without sliding down in the soft snow which was now up to my chest on the mountain side and about thigh deep on the other. My left hand was constantly buried deep in the snow, searching for at least some purchase for the axe. It was all so lose that this time I was sure that if I don’t get out of there as soon as possible, it will all slide with me into somewhere bad.
At one point a deep ripping sound coming from behind made me turn around and what I saw chilled me to the bone. Several meters long and about 10 centimeters wide scar appeared in the snow above the trail I just broke.
I was so tense that I didn’t take a single picture on the whole traverse. I didn’t even look behind when it was over and aimed straight onto the Kuromoji ridge over witch I planned to descend back to the Shirokura valley.
Fortunately there were marks tied onto the trees to follow, so I could switch off my head and just keep running in a mindless state further and further down. Once on the descent, my foot got stuck between some cut trees or roots and as I was right in the dynamic of the forward movement, I fell flat on my face into the fluffy snow. It must have looked so comically, that I laughed myself. Apart from this event and one point where I lost my way and walked right into a deer, resting in the high susuki grass, the descent was pretty immemorable. I had no energy left to enjoy the surroundings and I was in a hurry, so it turned just into a means to an end.
When I reached my own tracks from the morning down in the Shirokura valley, I felt just happy. I had a great adventure and escaped unharmed.
Meeting my own tracks. I was safe!

Meeting my own tracks. I was safe!


The time was tight and I kept running, first through the shin-deep snow, then on the now dry R309, just to be at the bus station at 17:07 for the last bus. At 17:00 I arrived, but to my horror found out I remembered the schedule incorrectly and the bus was already gone. Fortunately the villagers in Tenkawa are the best and an arrangement could be made for me to join a ride with one local road engineer on his way home from a day at work.
I even managed to get back to Osaka just in time for dinner with a lovely girl.
Tired but happy down in Tenkawa

Tired but happy down in Tenkawa

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3 thoughts on “March 2014 – The central couloir

  1. leaving apart the dangers of melting snow and its potential to slip and fall – which by the way I can’t imagine how it can keep not happening while the dangerous places seem to proliferate on each of your journeys! – it seems like a huge physical challenge. The distance, the big elevation, the deep snow, the various barriers/obstacles such as impenetrable vegetation or rocks, the warmth of the sunshine and the heavy clothes, the extremely ambitious time limit and thus the high speed of pace and very few breaks… All that combined make its feasability actually quite doubtful! I am proud you finally made it just 4 minutes before the supposedly scheduled bus .-) I think you are ready for a triathlon or an iron man trial =)

    • Herman Buhl and Lionel Terray, two of the greatest mountaineers of the old times, in their respective books wrote that the most important and difficult thing in life of young and bold starting climber is to survive the first three years, before he accumulates enough experience to give him the proper sense of conditions and risk in the mountains.
      I think I understand what they ment. I see what I am lacking, and yet there is no way I can help myself.
      Both of them died in the mountains in their prime, considered the best in the business.

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