April 2014 – Shodoshima and the Big toe

Oyayubi iwa in all its splendor!

Oyayubi iwa in all its splendor!


For the last couple of months I haven’t had a chance to get anywhere to the big mountains, but we kept ourselves quite busy on local crags with my company friends, building up skills on the rock, practicing various multi-pitch and alpine techniques and in the process, we also naturally started threading some plans together. Yoshida-san, the man responsible for climbing gear in our company, once again proved to be a great source of knowledge about Japans’s free climbing areas as well as initiator of this year’s spring climbing trip to the lovely island of Shodoshima.
Although the island sits just a couple of hours ride by ferry from Kobe, it possesses remarkably distinct atmosphere. Just the moment I set foot on the Sakatekou pier and saw the cliffs behind, it felt more like I had just been transported somewhere to the Bora Bora in the Pacific. It reminded me of how few I have seen from Japan’s spectacular natural variety and how much more there is, still waiting to be explored. And then there was the pleasant sweet and sour smell of shoyu, along with olives, the main product Shodoshima is famous for.

Our company consisted of eight members on this trip, out of which six were climbers forming three rope parties.
I was sharing the rope with Asahi Rebouffat, climbing on the front line. “The Wild boys”, as we started calling ourselves because of the same Wild Country T-shirt both of us wore.
Seki-san with Suzuki-chan formed the second party. Seki-san turned out to be the man of all skills, showing remarkable talent for all kind of activities, from cooking to playing music by the campfire. Just by the looks he is kind young father and family guy, but among us, he was the only one able to climb 5.11 and still make it look like the most natural thing.
Yoshida-san with Yuki-chan were securing the tail.

Our party

Our party


The first day’s climbing objective was about 120 meters high cliff called Oyayubi-iwa, meaning The Big toe rock. Just the moment I first glimpsed it from the car made my heart jump. But in a pleasant way. It was a mixture of excitement, uneasiness, expectation and worry.
Sheer vertical face, seemingly impossible to climb. It looked magnificent! I have always been dreaming about being able to challenge something like this.
Hello Oyayubi!

Hello Oyayubi!


Everyone is trying to imagine the route

Everyone is trying to imagine the route


Funny and stupid as it was, we messed up the approach so bad, that we technically climbed to the top of the mountain without even encountering a single rock on the way. Well, the views were nice and it was awkwardly funny, but one could not but wonder how such a huge navigation fail could had happened. Anyway, we had time and in the end all was well. 30 minutes later we were all preparing ourselves to start climbing at the base of the wall.
How could we mess the approach this much is beyond comprehension.

How could we mess the approach this much is beyond comprehension.


The route was called ‘Akai kurakku’ aka the Red crack and it was supposed to be five pitches of continuous 5.9 grade.
Leaving for the first pitch on Oyayubi. (Photo by Seki)

Leaving for the first pitch on Oyayubi.
(Photo by Seki)


Asahi-san led the first, about 30 meters long pitch through a diagonal crack giving name to this route and then over easier terrain to the first belay point. I joined him moments later, gave him the only one backpack we carried and took the lead for the second pitch.
First I wanted to start traversing diagonally to the left, where I could see a long diagonal crack looking like a way forward, but for some reason I gave up on the idea and started climbing straight up over a small outward-leaning slab, where I could see some old ring bolts. Just some 6 meters higher, I knew this was leading nowhere and I had to traverse to the left anyway. But this time there were no steps. Just a tiny 5 centimeters wide ledge, barricaded in the middle by an outward bulging rock drum.
My heart was not beating how scared I was while making the long step to the other side, last piece of protection 3 meters bellow, holds consisting of bare vertical flakes one coud only push to the side. But I did not fall off and after another 10 meters traversing further to the left I cut the pitch on a secure perch among some bushes.
The second pitch section of the wall. (Photo taken while descending)

The second pitch section of the wall. (Photo taken while descending)


Asahi approaching the second belay.

Asahi approaching the second belay.


Soon after bringing him up and swapping the backpack, Rebouffat disappeared somewhere above, leading the third pitch. He pushed it far and high, over 50 meters. Fortunately we were climbing on 60 meter ropes. Although I was just following, I didn’t like this pitch. It was a bad slab, old and covered with dirty dry, slippery lichen, which seemed just happy to always fall in ones eyes when touching any holds above head. And I desperately needed to go ‘sanban’, a word we use at work, meaning one goes to the restrooms.
Fortunately the belay point was on a wide terrace with lots of bushes to the side and I was thus saved.
Leaving for the third pitch. Seki-san tachi on the second belay perch.

Leaving for the third pitch. Seki-san tachi on the second belay perch.


On the third belay terrace.

On the third belay terrace.


Fourth pitch was mine to lead again. We were on a kante right now, kind of rock ridge, and after climbing just a bit up, I saw it would be possible to follow it probably all the way to the summit, but something inside, a hunch, told me I should check the face behind the corner to my left. The mistake I made right here was of thinking about it just as a check and placing one short quickdraw in such a bad way, that it produced immense rope drag from there on. Look over the corner revealed a band of flakes and holds, that led me in one long traverse right to the middle of the face. When I saw the next belay point, I was screaming with joy and enthusiasm. It was a meter wide ledge in space. Up and down there was nothing but blank vertical walls with immense exposure. Dreaming about the big walls of the world, for me it felt like standing on a portaledge somewhere in the middle of El Capitain.
No communication was possible with Rebouffat, who was now long way behind several corners and it took him a while to join me. Later he told me he had problems unclipping the damned short draw, because I was pulling too much on the ropes and he had no way to tell me. It is always unpleasant for the second to follow on a traverse, because if the leader pulls, you get pulled out of your holds.
Rebouffat coming from behind corner to the 'El Capitain' ledge

Rebouffat coming from behind corner to the ‘El Capitain’ ledge


In the end we reunited on this ledge safely and took our time to enjoy the atmosphere, peeking over the precipice and discussing the next move.
Asahi-san led the last pitch up and further to the left, finishing the climb over the eastern kante. Our topo suggested another 40 meters to the top, but in fact less than 20 meters remained.
Scanning the last pitch.

Scanning the last pitch.


On the summit we moved to the edge of the wall, resting and watching Seki-san with Suzuki-chan finishing the fourth and fifth pitch. There were no signs of Yoshida-santachi to be seen or heard. The situation from Seppikosan in autumn was repeating itself. We tried to establish communication via the short-wavelength transceivers we carried, but to no avail. After two hours waiting and getting cold, Asahi and I decided to descend and have a look at the face from below.
Seki-Suzuki party climbing pitch 4

Seki-Suzuki party climbing pitch 4


On the summit, trying to communicate with Yoshida-Yuki party.

On the summit, trying to communicate with Yoshida-Yuki party.


They were still fighting at the end of their fourth pitch, now seven hours on the wall already. As it turned out, Yoshida-san didn’t have enough draws and after using up all of them he had to lower down to retrieve some in order to climb back up and continue.
Together with Rebouffat, we stayed watching over them and waiting, while Seki-santachi went forward to establish the camp near the Yoshida city and prepare extremely delicious curry rice for us.
Yoshida-san with Yuki-chan are still on the wall.

Yoshida-san with Yuki-chan are still on the wall.


In the end all of us reunited safe and unharmed, ready for the next day’s adventures.
Seki-san with his wife and Suzuki-chan prepared fabulous curry rice for everyone.

Seki-san with his wife and Suzuki-chan prepared fabulous curry rice for everyone.


We left the camp early with Rebouffat and the sunrise saw us already uncoiling ropes below the Yoshida dam. The whole ‘Yoshida no iwaba’ area offers countless opportunities for one pitch sports climbing, but this morning, we were up to the ‘Manki firippu’ route, 4 pitches of slabs and one squeeze in chimney.
The day dawned beautiful and we were blessed to climb in fantastic morning light. The route suited our respective styles perfectly. I let Asahi lead the lower pitch over the slab, because that is the type of terrain he enjoys, and kept the chimney for myself. We had our 60 meter ropes and thus were able to cut the route into two pitches. Well, funny thing is that the official second pitch starts with the crux in the shape of steep, round and smooth slab, but doesn’t offer even a single bolt for protection all the way to the next belay point. I was glad Asahi went first.
Asahi leading the first pitch of the 'Monkey filip' in splendid morning light.

Asahi leading the first pitch of the ‘Monkey filip’ in splendid morning light.


My pitch was all on removable protection and I was very excited about it. Not often do I get chance to place my friends, rocks and hexes into such a beautiful cracks like here. It started with a gradually steepening broken slab, then came the difficult block of about 2,5 meters high, almost blank rock, which I eventually flanked over the right corner and finally the chimney. The description said a ‘squeeze in chimney’, but most of the time I climbed on the outer side of it. Several horizontal cracks along the way served well as protection placements. Where the chimney ended with a roof, I followed one crack to the right and topped out without any problems, quite secure, happy and excited.
The next pitch is mine.

The next pitch is mine.


Finnishing off the chimney. (Photo by Asahi)

Finnishing off the chimney. (Photo by Asahi)


Yoshida city from the top of the 'Monkey filip'

Yoshida city from the top of the ‘Monkey filip’


The last hex didn't want to go out.

The last hex didn’t want to go out.


When Asahi joined me, we rappeled down to the road by the dam and sat there in the morning sunshine, watching the others, who came in the meantime, climb.
The day turned lazy and only after lunch did we return back to the iwaba to play a bit more on some 5.10a graded rock.
Mixed nuts? No, these are the real Rocks!

Mixed nuts? No, these are the real Rocks!


Yuki-chan on the crux of the slab.

Yuki-chan on the crux of the slab.


I left Shodoshima with lots of positive emotions. The trip was succesful, the members fun, the island beautiful, the weather clear, the dinner and lunch fantastic, the night outside calm and warm… it all felt much longer than just two days.
All the return journey on the ferry we sat on the deck with Yuki-chan, talking for hours while watching the sun set over the Seto sea.
I certainly hope to come back some day, if only to hear the ‘Futari wo musubu’ song on the Jumbo Ferry.
Sunset over the Akashi Kaikyo Ohashi.

Sunset over the Akashi Kaikyo Ohashi.

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

Step Outside

Video

Unable to go to the mountains, I used one beautiful sunny afternoon to make a video compilation from trips throughout 2013.
So far people seem to like it. I hope you will enjoy it too!
It is very sad watching it and knowing that I might not be able to stay in this wonderful country for more than a next couple of months.

Bits and pieces

Climbing day on Gozaishodake

Climbing day on Gozaishodake


It has been a long time since I wrote something and I am sorry for that. Frankly, things have not been easy lately. Not in personal life, not in business. Getting to the big hills has become more and more difficult.
Apart from one short trip to Mt. Houken in the Central Alps this January, I have been mainly just keeping up fitness on the small hills around Osaka and practicing climbing technique at local crags. Just trying to keep together the bits and pieces, so to speak.

I had one bigger project in mind for the beginning of 2014, but then I probably freaked out and put up various excuses, until I finally got it out of my head. Perhaps it was really not wise nor safe to attempt the Hayatsuki ridge of Mount Tsurugi, solo, in full winter. I don’t know. If the conditions were reasonable, I am sure I could have pulled it off, but since I am still missing on some crucial gear like serious winter mountaineering boots, I let prudence and safety win this time the battle with desire for adventure in my heart.

Tsurugidake - Hayatsuki ridge

Tsurugidake – Hayatsuki ridge


Instead we climbed the Houken with Katou-san, but that was way too short and easy to be really satisfactory in any way.
And so the best part of that trip turned out to be the night in the open at the eve of the climb itself. The cold winter air flowing through my nose smelled so good as I was laying there in silence, the stars flowing through the sky ever so slowly and peacefully. How long has it been since I felt like this. I let my mind drift aimlessly through the night, sleepless, not sad, not happy, just at peace.
Senjoujiki curl

Senjoujiki curl


Looking down from Houkendake summit. Katou-san is on the way up.

Looking down from Houkendake summit. Katou-san is on the way up.


On top of Houkendake

On top of Houkendake


Katou-san

Katou-san


The normal hiking routes seem to be slowly losing their appeal to me. I dream about the real climbs, mixed terrain, steeper ridges, spurs and faces… and altitude.
I know I am total newbie in all of that, but the fire keeps burning me!

Jizoudake east

View from Jizoudake over the walls of Mt. Seppiko

View from Jizoudake over the walls of Mt. Seppiko


I knew I had just led my longest and hardest pitch when I saw the blood on the carabiners while setting up the anchor. Just a cut on thumb, but I didn’t notice it at all in the midst of intense focus on the climbing.

With Asahi Rebouffat, we have already climbed the easy 6 pitch south-eastern spur of the Jizoudake, the smaller subsidiary peak of mount Seppiko. Only the last short slab wall posed some challenge with its almost vertical inclination and about 5.9 grade.

The sixth pitch of the first route.

The sixth pitch of the first route.


From the top we moved back down under the mighty north-eastern wall, where Yoshida-san, our company senpai, showed us the next route. The thing is you do not know how mighty the wall is until you see it from distance.
Well, I had not seen it from distance when I accepted the proposition to lead the first pitch.

Line of bolts was shooting to the sky in one straight line above, but even before I was able to reach the first one, I knew this thing is beyond my level. All the holds were pointing in the wrong direction, like tiles on a roof. An incredibly steep roof.
I gave up on the bolted route and traversed just a few meters above ground to the left, where the craggy surface seemed more in my favor. Some two meters higher I clipped the first quickdraw into an old ring-bolt. Initially this gave me some feeling of security, but I knew well enough how false a feeling that was. These rusty pins can not be trusted.
I was having doubts about the whole thing. Part of me wanted to be lowered down, apologize and ask someone else to lead. The other half was unwilling to give up despite the fear gripping me. I continued, nervously looking for another piton or bolt to aim for. Most of the available hand holds were vertical, asking for some side pressure in order to be used. Feet had to do with the tiles.
One more rusty peg further on served me as another psychological protection and above it I reached kind of horizontal break in the wall, where I could at last stand without too much exertion.
Several meters higher I could see yet another bolt, but it was being used by a party climbing different route further to the left. I could not aim there. I was too much off-route and had to get back to the right to our intended line of ascent somehow. I had to do with the horizontal break, sometimes turning into a few centimeters wide ledge. It was the most fearsomely looking traverse, without any protection.
Once more I thought about retreat, but it was too late. There was no way down from here.

I do not remember the exact details of the steps that followed, but I do remember the emotions. Or to be precise, the strange lack of any. My brain stopped perceiving its wider surroundings as well as time. My friends and their voices were lost to me in the depth below and even the precipice somehow lost its significance in my mind. All I had was focused on the wall, on the step I was taking and the next. I was surprised how my feet were able to hold onto the rock. It was like if the wall had its own gravity, which held not only my body, but also all of my consciousness.

In the middle of the traverse, after what felt like an eternity, another bolt came to my aid. Move after move, one more insecure than the other, I was climbing further over a concave feature on the wall until a wide corner appeared on my right.
I got in and clipped one of the ropes into a nail-like bolt. An unsuccessful try to get back onto the rugged concave rocks got me locked in the corner. To get further up, I had to force my way over its featureless sides.
Fortunately there were more ring-bolts on the way, which I used as holds on one occasion. Slowly I was making progress.

“Five meters of rope! Find someplace to cut the pitch!” the shouts of Rebouffat reached me from the depths.
I knew I have used most of the ropes length already. My friends down there seemed tiny and the drag caused by my Z-shaped line was immense. But there was no way I could cut the pitch in any position like this if I didn’t reach the set of bolts I was hypnotizing for some time already further up.
“Kuso!” came out of my mouth spontaneously, even though I was convinced the rope will suffice.
The last few meters I climbed quite confidently, but the moment I clipped my self-belay into the two bombproof Petzl bolts and all the mental pressure was relieved felt exhilarating.
Then I noticed the blood marks on my gear. It didn’t bother me at all though. I made it!

Asahi Rebouffat approaching the first hanging belay.

Asahi Rebouffat approaching the first hanging belay.


This was the first time for me to operate in a hanging belay position and I was enjoying the adventure mixed with occasional feelings of uneasiness.
After bringing up Rebouffat, it was his turn to take on the lead.

The difference in our abilities was remarkable. The second pitch was short, but led over some sections of pretty smooth, vertical steps. Although he was using quickdraws as a support while moving around bolts, he was able to overcome all of the difficulties quite quickly and efficiently.

The short second pitch.

The short second pitch.


I wish I had tried harder to climb it clean as a second. One feels so much safer and at ease with the ropes above. But as soon as I started using aid to get over the most difficult spots, I just couldn’t get myself to stop.
At the end of pitch 2

At the end of pitch 2


On the second belay, we spent some time discussing out options.
The route proper went straight up to the summit, rising with total verticality over smooth, wrinkled wall. There was no way I could lead it. Maybe Asahi could make it if he used aid, but even he considered it to be too much.
The other option was to continue diagonally further right and get to the summit by climbing the right kante on the edge of the wall.
I gave up in the end and asked my partner to go first on the last pitch also.
Soon he disappeared from my sight.

Time went by while I was paying out the rope patiently. When I shouted the signal for approaching the end of the rope, all turned still. For a long time. Wearing only one long sleeve T-shirt, I was getting seriously cold. Two hours have past since we started on this route and as the sun was nearing the horizon, the warm autumn afternoon had changed into a chilly evening.

Rebouffat was shouting something down to me, but I could not understand the meaning over the rocks separating us. Did he want me to disassemble the belay, or did he run into difficulties and wanted me to give him good belay? I was missing the crucial detail. After some time when nothing happened, I asked him to pull up the slack in the ropes. Slowly he pulled up the rest of the 50 meter one, but over 10 meters of the 60 meter line were still sitting coiled on my thigh.
“The green one, pull up the green one!” I shouted up.
In reply came three blows of whistle, meaning for me to climb.
For some time more I demanded him taking up the slack, until I accepted the fact there has to be some problem on the way and he is unable to manipulate the second rope.
Finally I recoiled it on my shoulders, tied it off onto the harness and signaled “climbing”.

The last pitch was not difficult, but the slack rope was getting in my way all the time as I had to put more and more coils onto it as I was moving up.
Finally I reached him and a short walk got us to the summit of Jizoudake for the second time today.

Yoshida-san with Yuki-chan were still on the wall and we hurried down to see how they were doing. Asahi was half expecting them to be abseiling of the face in retreat because of the difficulty, but that didn’t turn up to be the case. While Asahi went to the base of the wall to retrieve some luggage, I went to search for a vantage point from where we could watch the situation.

When I found such a place on a huge boulder and first saw the wall flat in front of me, my heart jumped.
We have just climbed that?!
If somebody had showed me the wall from here and told me to climb it, I would have said he was crazy. The idea of leading half of it would have seemed totally out of reality.

The striking north-east face of Jizoudake. Yoshida-san leading, Yuki-chan on the first belay.

The striking north-east face of Jizoudake. Yoshida-san leading, Yuki-chan on the first belay.


I watched Yuki-chan stand on the belay spot where I finished my first pitch, while Yoshida-san was securing the anchors at the second belay. Than he brought her up. She seemed quick and climbing with confidence. More than myself, probably. Definitely no reason for retreat here.

Than Asahi came and as we watched the other two climbing further, he produced the crags topo out of his pack.
The first pitch: 5.10b
The second pitch: 5.10c
The last pitch we avoided: 5.11
Our escape line up to the right kante was not graded.

5.10c

5.10c


“Damn!” I thought. I’m glad nobody told me all of this in advance, otherwise I would have never agreed to lead such a thing!
Truth has to be said, the most difficult part of the first pitch was probably the one I avoided right at the beginning and I don’t believe I was leading true 5.10b, but considering this was my first proper uninterrupted multi-pitch, it felt like a great achievement nonetheless.
Early autumn colors around Seppikosan

Early autumn colors around Seppikosan

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


IMG_7214
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