At first I was planning to do a solo ascent of the Kitadake buttress somewhere between the Golden week and the rainy season. I wanted to go in spring, while there is still snow up on the mountain. I wanted it to be more… alpine.
But then, just for the peace of mind of those around me, I asked Sakato-san, a company colleague with extensive alpine experience, if he would like to join.
Although he agreed on the spot at first, after giving it a thought he didn’t seem to like the idea of using one whole day just to approach the mountain and one more to get out of there after the climb. There is no bus connection to Hirogawara this early in the season and the road is closed to private transport, but I didn’t mind walking and thus considered the matter to be settled on solo solution after all.
And then he said: “Let’s go to Mount Tanigawa instead.”
“Tanigawadake”, I thought. “The legendary mountain where some 700 climbers lost their lives till this day. Arguably the grimmest mountain in the world. The mountain where two climbers once died hanging on their ropes in such inaccessible spot, that a squad of army sharpshooters had to be called for, who then kept on firing at the face until one of them hit the rope and the bodies fell down…”
How could I decline such a proposal.
The sheer number of lives lost on the mountain is staggering and doesn’t have parallel anywhere in the world. The Eiger North face, K2, Annapurna, all pale in comparison with their scores of 50 or 60 souls. What makes these the deadliest mountains in the world are not the total numbers of lives they claimed, but the ratios at which they do so. For Annapurna, out of every 10 climbers who make it to the top, 4 die trying. It is said that up to 8000 people lost their lives on Mont Blanc in Europe, but that is an estimate for the whole massif, counting hundreds of aiguilles and many of the hardest faces in the Alps. On Tanigawadake, majority of climbers who never came back home died in the comparably tiny area of the Ichinokurasawa valley.
Nowadays, the Ichinokurasawa is not a place where climbers would go to die though. Most of the tragedies happened during the early days of Japanese alpinism, when brave lads tackled its faces with hemp ropes, home-made aiders and 70 kilograms of forged steel-mongery on their backs. They were the tough boys, doing things we would deem impossible today, but their victories were hard-won and the roads to them paved with many great talents lost forever.
We were not aiming at any of the hard, aided routes. Our goal were the most frequented “beginner” routes up the southern and central spur to the Eboshi-iwa. These two routes are generally rated as reasonable IV, with only one pitch of grade V on each.
The original plan was to climb one by one in two consecutive days, but with the monsoon front right on our heels, there was no time for leisure. At the eve of the climb, decision had been made to start at 03:00 and do it all in one day.
Pitch black darkness ruled that cloudy night. There was no moon, no stars to shine upon the way and only the narrow beams of our head torches penetrated the ink in front of our eyes.
Dim early morning light came to our aid just as we stepped onto the mighty snowfield at the bottom of the Ichinokurasawa. Fresh, cool breeze was blowing from the upper parts along its bottom, providing a welcomed refreshment on this otherwise too warm and humid morning. The whole place was shrouded in mists and had a mystical atmosphere to it. Here and there, black rocky spurs unveiled themselves, giving out glimpses of the magnificence around, only to disappear just as quickly, keeping me in anticipation of thing that were yet to come.
Leaving the snowfield behind, we scrambled up the slabby Tail ridge until nothing less than the impressive Tsuitate-iwa took a stand in our way. The headwall to the right was vertical and scary as it rose in its blackness up into the mists. Very severe in my eyes. It was somewhere up there, where the two stranded climbers died in their ropes. As frightened as I was just looking at it, somewhere deep inside a spark of hope and desire to be able to get up there some day burned a mark into my mind.
On its far left side, two ring bolts at the beginning of a sharply rising ridge marked the beginning of the Central spur route up to the Eboshi-iwa.
Grade IV, cracks and breaks filled with grass, it didn’t look particularly easy. With a promise of coming back here later today, we turned behind the corner to the left and traversed over a system of ledges to the Southern spur terrace, where our first climb was supposed to begin.
I formed a rope party with Kawaguchi-san, while Sakato-san and Tsujinaka-san tied in together as party number two.
Kawaguchi-san was good climbing partner. We had climbed together five exciting pitches on the Shihi-iwa of Mount Komochi the day before and I especially appreciated the fact we were able to go through the rope work almost without shouting any signals. All felt just natural. When I needed a slack, it was there. When I needed the rope tighter, it was tighter, but never overly so. When I was ready to pull up the rope at the end of a pitch, one word was enough. I wonder if he could say the same about our cooperation and my belay.
I volunteered to lead the first pitch. From below it didn’t look that bad. Broken grassy face, then a chimney behind a small corner, altogether 30 meters.
For some reason I’m always having hard time with the first pitch of the day and as it turned out, today was no exception. The face part was quite easy, but immediately I could see the difference between true alpine climbing and multi-pitch free climbing I had been doing till this day. The protection was scarce and just in the form of old rusty pegs, left by previous parties climbing here who knows how many seasons ago. The rock was broken and often felt wobbly, not rising much confidence in any of the holds. It was clear that one simply must not peel off here, for the length of fall would be considerable and one would surely end up pretty messed up bouncing over the rocks.
I made it to the bottom of the chimney. There my personal crux of this climb awaited me. To get into the chimney, one had to overcome an overhanging step with no sound holds for the hands. In the morning misty weather, the chimney was wet and muddy. The last protection was now quite far below and to make it worse, the ropes dragged heavily over the corner.
I trusted my well-being into a small protruding rock, which might have held or might have popped out as well, and pulled myself up over the hollow section. As scary as the move felt, the rock held. Two more moves at the edge of losing balance and I was secure in the chimney, clipped into a sound piton.
The rest of the chimney was much easier with good steps.
Kawaguchi-san led the second pitch, 25 meters grade IV, over broken, grassy face, quite steep and exposed, but without any difficult places in particular.
Next came a short section of scramble in bamboo grass, grade II, which we covered with ropes coiled on our shoulders.
How I hate walking in rock shoes like this. How I wish I were able to climb everything in mountain boots or just some mid-cut approach shoes, which I hope to get one day.
Third pitch was mine, short, 20 meters, easy grade III, climbing up around a big and sharp overhanging rock feature to the crest of the southern arête.
Next pitch seemed easy enough to climb without belay, more horizontal than vertical, just 20 meters of grade III scramble. But Kawaguchi-san led it after all, reasoning with that way being faster than coiling the ropes again.
Fifth pitch offered two variations. First was to climb the crest of the arête directly, which seemed too easy and so I chose the second one, traversing further below it and getting up inside a wide, steep, broken corner. 30 meters, grade IV.
The corner was close to vertical and seriously unstable. The holds were well placed, but nothing seemed to be really secure. Whatever I touched could also be moved.
This brittleness of rock is probably the one biggest factor responsible for many of the accidents and fatalities in the Ichinokurasawa. Blocks of rock the size of a truck have been observed breaking loose and tumbling over the lower slabs in an avalanche of rubble and dust. Several times during the climb we were able to hear such a rockfall, although definitely of much smaller proportions. It is a fascinating sensation, listening to the thunderous rumbling of the mountain falling apart, without being able to actually see it because of all the mist around. I wasn’t worried though, for we were on an arête and the rocks were falling through the gullies.
Without any better options, I decided the holds will have to hold. Very carefully I moved upwards, realizing I’m actually enjoying it. Five pitches into the climb, all nervousness was long gone.
When I reached the next belay, I called back to Kawaguchi-san to ask how long the next pitch was. There was very little protection between us and the line was straight, so the ropes were still following me freely. I was excited and wanted to climb on.
“20 meters, but it is the crux pitch. You better cut it there”, came the reply. And so I did.
Grade V, face. The fog was now so thick, that just on those 20 meters Kawaguchi-san disappeared from my sight. True alpine conditions. As a follow, I didn’t find the pitch that difficult, but leading it would definitely feel different. Close to vertical, bad protection, I did not regret leaving it to my partner.
And then the shocking realization came to me. This was it. According to Kawaguchi-san, from here it was supposed to be about 200 meters of nontechnical climbing over half muddy, half rocky slope through bamboo grass to the Eboshi-iwa and from there through a gully to the top of the Ichinokurasawadake, the sister peak of the Tanigawadake itself.
Once for a moment I was able to get a glimpse of the sharp features of the Eboshi- iwa through the mist further up there, but otherwise there was no way of telling where have we climbed. I felt a bit disappointed by it. Yesterday Kawaguchi-san was talking about 400 vertical meters and 12 pitches on the rock. Perhaps he ment both the routes combined.
For a moment I tried to argue we could go to the summit, just because we were here already and it was still early in the morning. But I was made understood very quickly, that such a thing would not happen. There are no views so there is no sense in it and it would be just risky. My three partners didn’t even pretend there might be something like a discussion.
We’we done the route, we’re going down. Period!
I comforted myself with thoughts of the Central spur still waiting for us and agreed.
While climbing in two parties is generally considered slow, I liked the system we employed while rappelling down the mountain, using all four of our ropes. When four of us abseiled on the same two ropes tied together, one party started preparing the next abseil with the remaining two, while the other party pulled and coiled the first two ropes. This way all went fast and smooth. Well, not so smooth. Once the rope got caught over the rocks and Kawaguchi-san had to climb 20 meters back up before he was able to pull it down. But that also is an important experience one has to accumulate.
Another interesting moment on the descent was when one less experienced member of another party rappelling above us dropped his belay device and, because his guide was already down, apparently didn’t know what to do. Amusingly the falling device bounced several times on the way down, the sharp clinking resounded in the mountain silence, and stopped in its fall right next to us. There was a moment of noisy commotion up there as they were shouting directions at each other, but in the end all of them got down safe and sound.
The lower we descended, the better the weather became. As the day was advancing towards noon, the morning mists were lifting up and patches of, lets say non-cloudy sky, because it was really hazy the last couple of days and one could not talk about blue even when the sky was clear, appeared, even letting some sunshine through. The clouds were now covering only the upper parts of the mountain.
As we were approaching the Central spur on the way down, I expressed my excitement and desire to climb it as planned.
“What for? One can’t see anything, it’s no use”, Tsujinaka-san replied.
“Come on”, I insisted. “The weather is improving. We could climb at least three pitches before hitting the clouds.”
“If you don’t climb it to the top, don’t climb at all. That is just dangerous.”
“Why is it so dangerous”, desperate thoughts were running through my mind. “We could always abseil back down, the rock is now dry and the weather is evidently improving! Nobody was expressing any doubts in the morning when the conditions were much worse.”
I swallowed it all. I could see there was no use in reasoning about it.
But in the end, while resting on the small plateau below the spur, I tried one last time.
“It is still just 10:20 and we have plenty of time. The weather is turning nice. We could just take a rest here, have a noon nap for one or two hours and see if the clouds lift even further, right?”
“What?” was the only answer, followed by silence. Then slowly, they started descending down the Tail ridge, back into the valley.
I felt like being here really just to the count, my opinion totally ignored.
Sure enough, even before we got down to the snowfield, the whole Tsuitate-iwa and with it the whole length of the Central spur was clear of clouds, bathing in the warmth and light of the day.
I don’t mean to say bad things about others. They are all good people and I am sure it was all just one big misunderstanding. They probably didn’t know how I felt. Even when I partially let out my frustration on the way back to Osaka, when they refused to exit the highway near Osaka, because it would be “inconvenient” for them, and brought me all the way to the eastern side of Kobe in such a time, that I had to sprint to catch the last day’s train to get home. I am not even mentioning the fact the train all the way there is way too expensive and they refused to pick me up closer to Osaka even on the day of departure.
There are things I feel very grateful for of course. Getting the chance to even get there and having the opportunity to climb in one of the most iconic areas where the history of japanese alpinism has been written. Having the guidance of Kawaguchi-san.
Perhaps I was just disappointed, because there wasn’t enough adventure for me. I thrive in situations where the way forward is unknown and the outcome of the undertaking uncertain.
Here we just went there, all was planned and served to me without any input on my side, we simply climbed it and that was it.
As I am more and more certain, the way for me is really in solo climbing, in places others don’t go, getting to experience the whole of the adventure.
You can see a video from this trip on my Vimeo account. It features also a short part from the 5 pitch, 5.8 graded Shishi-iwa on Mt. Komochi, which was really enjoyable bit of climbing!