May 2015 – Point of no return

For a brief moment I stood frozen in my tracks. The movement in the bamboo grass just 10 meters further sounded too heavy for a bird or a monkey, too cumbersome for kamoshika…
Could it be…
The next moment black broad head of a bear poked out of the vegetation.

I’ve heard countless stories of bear sightings before and once in a while I have come upon bear tracks on my own adventures in Japan, but this was the first time to meet one of the legendary creatures face to face.

The bear stared at me expressionless, not letting a single clue for its moods or intentions to be recognised.

The bears are no merciless killing predators. They are no huge fearsome beasts like Hollywood films portray them and cases of hikers being attacked are extremely rare. The specimen facing me was my waist-high on its four feet. Not particularly huge animal, but still its thick neck and strong paws were a clear signal that fighting such an animal would be foolish at best.

Truth to be told, I felt very ill at ease. After all, this was mid October, the important time when bears have to eat a lot in order to be able to survive winter.

Very quickly I surveyed my surroundings. I found myself on the property of the Yaridaira mountain hut. This late in the season, the hut was abandoned and sealed shut. Not a chance to get inside without some form of brute force.
Fortunately, the staff leaves one shack with trapdoor a couple of meters above ground level open to be used as shelter in winter.
The bear stood by the hut water source, a small stream flowing from the neighboring hillside. It stared at me without the slightest movement.

I tried to keep as calm as possible as I started talking to the bear to make a non-threatening impression.
The bear stood still.
“You have to hide inside the shelter”, was the only thought resonating through my head.
The problem was the shelter stood between me and the bear.
I moved slowly towards the small door and the bear.
Suddenly the bear broke the eye contact, lowered its head and moved. Towards me.
I hesitated for a moment, but soon forced myself to walk again. This was no time to linger. Three more steps brought me to the small iron staircase leading to the shelter door.
I don’t even know how I got it in my hand so suddenly, but I used my ice axe to tap the iron handrail of the staircase and make a strong sound. “Keep your distance buddy!”
The bear stopped and continued watching me. I climbed the staircase to the door. “Damn”, I thought as I found the door to be locked with a knot of fat wire.
Monitoring the bear with my peripheral vision I started untangling the improvised lock.
It felt like ages with the beast watching just 7 meters away from the side, but finally I managed to let the door free and slipped into the darkness inside.

Immediately I opened one narrow window and looked outside, just in time to get a glimpse of the bear climbing slowly through the bamboo grass up the hill somewhere towards Minamidake.

That day I was originaly aiming for the infamous Takidani couloir and the Mecca of alpine climbing on the Hotaka massif, the Kita Hotaka buttress. The mountain thought differently though and a thin layer of verglass on the rock around the first big waterfall in the couloir repelled my attack that autumn. I ended up climbing the Minamidake and traversing the famous Daikiretto towards Kita Hotaka and Karasawadake, which in itself with the first seasonal snows was a nice experience.


Takitani waterfall in October 2014

Only 6 months later, in early May, I was back to get my revenge on the waterfall and test my teeth on the 800 meters high climb out of the couloir to the lofty summit of the rockiest mountain in the massif.

As usually, I was pushing the envelope of my courage, not searching for any detailed information in advance, bringing just 12 point crampons, double axe and a bivy sack. No harness, no rope, no tent, no sleeping bag. Light and fast climbing in the purest form.

Leaving straight from work the previous day, I spent the night on a public toilet in Takayama city in order to catch the first morning Shin Hotaka bound bus. How many times have I ridden that line already.

On the approach I ran into wide snowfield covering the bottom of the valley. Winter had not yet said its last words, but the weather was nice.
Upon reaching the entrance into the Takitani gorge I was pleased to find the snowfield in good conditions. Though the surface was wild broken, the snow was hard and stable, so I managed to walk over it all the way to the first grand waterfall.


Takitani and Kita Hotaka buttress in May 2015

Circumventing it from the right, as one sketch I saw on the web suggested, was out of question due to the fact there is nothing but wet, vertical wall and dirty, gruesome chimney I wouldn’t dare venture into even if it was the only way possible. Instead I focused on the 15 meter broken wall to the left. It was a mess of a blocky wall. Wet from the constant spray coming from the neighboring waterfall, overgrown with vegetation in cracks and on ledges… but it seemed plentiful in usable holds, climbable.

To reach the wall I had to tackle one beast of a bergschrund. It was not terribly wide, but definitely scary, at least 10 meters deep scar separating the mountain from the twisted snowfield below. Never have I seen deeper schrund in Japan. Not even on Tsurugi.

The only option to cross it was a place with collapsed rim, now forming a feeble snow bridge over the threatening jaws. I stepped onto this 60 centimeter wide block of snow with held breath and heart in my neck. It held. Next step brought me onto the rock face.


The waterfall and the wall

I found myself a bit off route, inside a corner to the left.
Closer to the roaring waterfall, I glimpsed an old hanging rope. Getting to it was not that difficult, first climbing straight up a couple of meters over some grade III face and then traversing horizontal ledge system sideways.
The rope was of no use, except as a trail marker, being prehistoric, thin, fuzzy and covered in lichen.
The face was broken into four blocks stacked on top of each other, with cracks and ledges separating each block like bricks. The route marked by the rope followed a vertical finger crack, first bit of it slightly overhanging, before reaching the next ledge level.
I tested the finger lock in the crack. The grip was reasonable, but otherwise being a blank rock, there were no footholds whatsoever on the overhanging part. Spans between usable features turned out to be bigger than they looked from the snowfield. No rope, no protection, no go.

I backtracked my way over the horizontal ledges back into the corner to look for a different way.
Ice cold stream of water was flowing over the next section of the face, numbing my fingers, soaking my sleeves as I reached forward to grasp the next hold, rumbled over my mountain boots as I edged carefully on the inch wide steps.
Dirty runout led me atop the next blocky section, successfully around and past the crack.

The obvious way forward led straight up through a shallow corner, more muddy than rocky, overgrown in grass. Again, a string of rope hanged along the line, not a bit more trustworthy than the one before.
I grabbed on a rock hold protruding from the mud. It moved alarmingly. Then I tried a small bush, pulling it out completely, revealing a hollow space behind the mud wall, with deep cracks in the bedrock.
A wave of shiver went through my body as I realized the whole 30 meter wall is really just a thousand tons of boulders piled precariously on top of each other.
The whole thing suddenly felt frighteningly unstable.
I looked down to the snowfield, now at least ten meters below. If something were to give way, I would plummet straight into the schrund, deep under the ice. Nobody would ever find my body. I was not afraid of falling off due to my incapability to hold onto something. I was afraid the whole think might crumble with me clinging to it.
For a moment I thought about backing out.
Now, without a rope, abseiling from here was impossible and down climbing the previous two sections seemed too scary to even think about.
The point of no return. I get up the buttress or…

I grabbed the string of rope, another bush and placed my boot on a rock hold. I hoped somehow all the holds will be worth more than the sum of each part.
I was off the stable ground, bellow me an airy drop and the jaws of the shrund.
The holds started weakening. It was now or never.
Paradoxically the most untrustworthy hold, the rotten rope, proved to be the strongest part of the corner. At one moment I pulled on it with about 60 percent of my bodyweight, praying for it being strong enough, just so that i could reach for a loose rock laying on a puff of grass. Pushing the rock downwards into the muddy grass, I was able to create just enough friction to hold myself onto the mountain.
With that move I mantled up onto the top of the third block.
Cursing just for myself, not having fun at all, I then crawled over the vertical mud field to the single one reassuringly stable tree rooted to the top of the fourth block, to a wide ledge marking the end of the wall from where a short traverse rightward brought me back to the snowfield above the waterfall.

I stood victorious over the waterfall, where, as my guide friend Onishi kun later commented, no guide would take a client any more.
But I was far from the top of the mountain.
Here the snowfield became much steeper, more crevassed, the walls gripping the couloir narrower and higher. If there was any of the frequent spring rockfalls anywhere on the buttress higher up, all would be funnelled through here.

Yet I was calm by now, even relaxing, moving steadily over and around the crevasses, untill the couloir broadened and started splitting into several others, divided by the separate ridges of the Kita Hotaka buttress.
I chose the ‘Dai 2 one’, alas the second ridge, which was a straight rocky line all the way to the summit. This was not supposed to be a difficult route. ‘Takitani nyumon’, the first route to try to get the feeling for the buttress. That was exactly what I was after. Get firsthand experience of the area without pushing into anything too difficult without rope.


The Kita Hotaka butterss

Although the Dome crowns the mountain impressively and the lines are jagged enough, I couldn’t help feeling a bit underwhelmed and disappointed with the real scale of the buttress. This is supposed to be one of the biggest and baddest we have in Japan. The playground for the real boys. Yet no single real vertical line is longer than about 150 meters.
I tried to capture the buttress looking menacing, but it simply isn’t really.

The climb over the second ridge was smooth and pretty much uneventful, mostly being grade II and III with only a couple exposed moves of higher difficulty. Facing west, It was basically free of snow and warm enough to feel like any other summer alpine climb. I was pleased with my sense for orientation, finding both a perfect approach to the ridge and the route itself without any mistakes.


The second ridge and the Dome



Looking back




On top of the second ridge



On top of Kita Hotaka buttress in October 2014

Soon I was walking over the rocky summit ridgeline of the Kita Hotakadake, 3000 meters high in the spring sky.

From the summit I traversed to the top of Mount Karasawa, where I had found the awesome bivy spot half a year ago. The summit is nothing but a pile of rocks, falling abruptly to the east in one sweeping precipice.
Right by the precipice on the northeastern side, there is a wide ledge, shaded from wind by the summit itself. It is a naturally perfect bivy spot with splendid views, 3100 meters above the Pacific. One of the highest bivy spots in Japan.



Mae and Oku Hotaka



The splendid bivy spot on top of Karasawadake in October 2014

In October I just had to clear away some of the early snow, attach the tarp and I was sat.
Now in May, the work was harder. The accumulated snow had already crystalized into ice through the process of periodical melting and refreezing and I was now hacking on it with my axe in order to make some form of usable platform to rest on. I played with it, using the time till dusk to make an ergonomic, comfortable seat. Before I could finnish the sculpting, the day had turned into night.

I managed to get a couple of hours of sleep before the creeping cold reached the inner parts of my body, rendering sleeping impossible.

I have always admired stories of the early mountaineers, freezing their asses on the coldest faces of the Alps at night. I consider these bivouacs to be an all important part of the experience. Something to be embraced rather than avoided. For me, bivouacs on the forbidden places high up there are a sacred time, a meditation. Or at least that is the idea and the lasting memory. Reality of the moment very often turns out to be quite different though.

I had a down jacket and pants, together with a bivy bag, but no tent and no sleeping bag. By midnight I was seriously cold. Colder than anything I had ever experienced. Cold beyond cold, body numb, half paralysed.
I carried no instrument to verify the facts, but forecasted temperature for 3000 meters was -9 centigrade that night.

One hour later, I lost my patience and determination to endure, packed the bivy kit and started walking down from the summit, just to warm up a bit by the movement. Rising from the cover of the ledge, I was met by an arctic wind sweeping the summit, turning even walking into freezing torture.

15 minutes of stumble down from the summit I reached the Hotaka sanso mountain hut. I would have continued down the snowfield to Shin Hotaka, but the uncertainty of its state and crevasse condition in this season made me postpone the descent into the morning hours.

For the time being, I sheltered myself inside the hut’s lavatory area, yeah again, where the temperature must have been above freezing for there was liquid water. That didn’t help me that much though. In a state of half awakening, half unconsciousness my body kept shivering violently through the next two hours before the dawn sky brightened enough to make the descent safe.

Nothing comes close to the enlightened feelings rejuvenating you when you reach the green lowland after freezing through the night. When the spring sunrays stab through you, filling your body with warmth. When you walk, dumb smiling, between all the clueless chinese tourists lining for the Hotaka ropeway, fighting their cumbersome and totally expendable plastic suitcases over the staircase.
When you turn around for the last time, look back at the shining mountain and ask yourself: “Was it worth all the struggle?”

”Hell yeah. It was awesome!“