September 2014 – The longest day

Splendid Tsurugidake

Splendid Tsurugidake

Face expressions of all present on top of mount Tsurugi that early autumn noon suggested more something in the lines of ghost sighting, rather than witnessing one gaijin striding over the summit without even slowing his pace. Well, he did take one quick picture, just as a formality, but apart from that, everything suggested he must have been out of his mind, not realizing he had already reached the highest point of one of the most sought-after mountains in Japan. And without even raising an eyebrow, he crossed right over the brass plate reading “Danger beyond this point. Expert climbers only”, cemented onto the stone at the other side of the summit.

He must have been mad, that was without a doubt. Otherwise he wouldn’t be planning something as outrageous as climbing the mighty Chinne in one day. Something as scandalous as doing it alone. No space for polemics, no defence… this guy was nuts and everyone around knew it.

Only the notorious Yamaholic was his accomplice in crime, giving him a ride to the Tateyama station in the middle of previous night.

Two hikers from Kanto reported seeing him at 11:16 on the dangerous ‘Kani no tatebai’ section of the climb, moving fast, avoiding any contact with the security chains provided. He passed them on the rocks and was gone.

Four member party of climbers from Gunma had just abseiled from their successful ascent of the Yatsumine, when he passed them at 12:34. According to their account, he was heading for the San no mado col. Mustering all of their english abilities, they advised him to put on his helmet, trying to be polite. Allegedly, his response was a bit grumpy. He seemed more concerned about whether there is still some snowfield left in the col. Obviously he was short on water supplies. But to their relief, he did put on the helmet before entering the loose scree gully.

Mist in the San no mado col

Mist in the San no mado col

Another two climbers, this time from Nagoya, arrived at the col from the Ike no tan, just in time to see this young lunatic lad prepare his rope for the climb below the first crack. They were camping in the col for the night and having the whole of the Chinne left ridgeline lined up in front of their shelters, they could give us the most detailed and complete description of the events that followed.

All alpine routes on Tsurugi were busy that day and the cliffs of Yatsumine, Chinne, as well as the Cleopatra Needle echoed with shouts of colorful climbing parties, dotting the otherwise mostly grey, vertically oriented landscape. But by two o’clock, they were all just about at the climaxes of their respectable climbs, while the foreigner was only scaling his first pitch.
Was he aware the route can take around five hours, depending on the skills of the party? Was he prepared for the possibility of having to bivouac on the climb? His 30 liter backpack didn’t suggest he was carrying much camping gear. To the horror of all the onlookers, he obviously didn’t carry even rock shoes, as he started climbing in his mountain boots. Reckless gaijin amateur!

In fact the foreigner did all his choices deliberately, taking all the risk factors into consideration. In fact he was quite proud of his smallish backpack and felt all the basic emergency survival needs were covered. In his mind, he didn’t come here to be comfortable.
But he did feel the disconcertingly drastic change in pace as he went from fast alpine approach to the first roped climbing pitch. Though vertical, the first chimney proved quite easy with mostly secure holds, but still the procedure of climbing to the belay ledge, abseiling back down, cleaning the protection and climbing back up was taking considerable time.

One short traverse to the left revealed the second pitch, starting with a wide gap between the face and one huge rock flake. Almost vertical again, the grade seemed similar to the previous pitch, but the flake promised some really good holds and the foreigner dared to proceed rope free to save himself the hassle. It went well.

The second pitch

The second pitch

He was climbing confidently over the next few easy pitches, spiraling the lower buttress up and around, to the overgrown shoulder above.

From the shoulder, 70 meters high rock face rises dominantly to the sky, blocking all other horizons. The foreigner jumped onto it with excitement and vigor. He was climbing a straight line, caring little for the old pegs popping from the cracks here and there, for he was still proceeding rope-free, enjoying the movement on every step upwards. The rock was friendly to him, rough, with lots of grain. The holds and steps felt secure. In just 12 minutes, he topped out onto the sharp ridge connected with the Central band at half the height of Chinne, only one short pitch separating him from the terrace and the crux section of the route.

The 70 meter face

The 70 meter face

Looking back

Looking back

The view that opened up in front of him made a deep impression on the foreigner. He knew it from pictures, but nothing can beat the real thing. The spire of Chinne thrusts into the sky like a middle finger into the face of gravity and the tower of Cleopatra Needle is not far off.

Chinnne and Cleopatra Needle

Chinnne and Cleopatra Needle

This was supposed to be the test piece. Grade V with overhang in the alpine, hundreds of meters above the snowfields of San no mado col and in mountain boots.

Ready for the crux pitch?

Ready for the crux pitch?

His mind was calm though. Perhaps it was because he has already accumulated some experience after all and was now looking at it not through the eyes of emotion, but through calculating reason. Studying the spire rising from his feet, he was visualizing the sequence of moves.
“Just to get to the overhang is tough enough”, the words he had read in one account resounded in his mind. But he had an idea already.
Big boulder dotted with old pitons served him as a belayer. He made sure this one was strong and well equalized. Then he approached the spire and touched it’s rock. It was now half past three.

Silent belayer

Silent belayer

Both hands grabbed the edge of the spire, boots found a corner to lock into and in a layback move he was off the ground. Actually he found this part of the spire to be quite reasonable. The holds were good and felt just about enough in count. He clipped in one draw, then second and soon arrived below the hang. Having to pay out the rope between the moves, he was proceeding slowly.
Apart from one old piton, small Friend was utilized to further protect the hang.

The two Nagoya climbers were standing by their camp, holding their breath, dinner getting cold in the dishes, as they were watching every move of the solitary foreigner perched high onto the edge of the mountain. As far as they could say, he had used aid to overcome the hang. First grabbing on one sling, later stepping into it. Above the hang, they could see him taking a selfie, celebrating success on the crux move. Only they knew what he didn’t, that it was too early to celebrate success.

Above the hang

Above the hang

The foreigner thought he will be able to cut the pitch above the hang and retrieve his gear. Left with only one quickdraw, to his horror, he found himself in very steep and shallow corner with only one rusty piton and a daring line to climb.
For the next 40 minutes this terror continued, as he was climbing in snail’s pace, moving his one draw from piton to piton, petrified by the thought that if one of those pegs failed, there would be no protection all the way down to the hang. And since he had already climbed twice the length of the pitch from ground to the hang, frankly, the protection was as good as none.
He knew this sensation all too well. Technically the moves were not so hard. If his mind was calm, he would be able to climb this without much fuss. But solo climbing in the high mountains is a different ballgame. The experience is all that much intense. Yet exactly that was what he was coming for.
The liberation came 25 meters into the pitch in a form of two reasonably sound pegs quite close together, which the foreigner, desperate by the torment, reinforced with one more Friend. The equalization was not perfect, but enough to trust it with the weight of one’s life.
When he abseiled down, it was 16:30 and the day was just about to leave.

Now back up!

Now back up!

Jummaring back up was a slow and exhausting business, asking for a lot of patience. With only one small Ropeman ascender the foreigner was moving in 30-40 centimeter long steps. Step into the loop, stand up, move and brake the Reverso, sit into the harness, move the Ropeman… the sequence was repeating itself.

Arriving back at his poor belay, the foreigner revamped the anchor in order to be able to withstand an upwards pull. Then he started climbing again. Two or three meters higher, when he was ready to clip into the next piece of protection, he realized how poor decision it had been to let the rope hang free below. He thought the climbing will be easier without its weight in his pack. In fact the weight of the rope was now pulling tight on the clove hitch on his HMS carabiner, rendering it almost impossible to manage with only one hand. An absolutely crucial requirement for climbing.
Holding onto the protection, he tried to adjust the flow of the rope by clipping it with a carabiner onto one shoulder strap of his backpack in such a way, that it would come over his shoulder, the same way as if the rope was feeding from the pack like normally. The effect of this was disastrous. The weight of the rope was pulling the pack brutally onto one side, making it impossible to focus on anything else than its viciousness.
With the rope now presenting one more enemy to battle, the foreigner was clambering higher ever slower.

Long pitch

Long pitch

In the meantime, the sun setting on the other side of the mountain started painting the sky with colors of dusk. As fast as the light of the day was leaving, the cold of the night was coming to take its place.

Dusk is coming.

Dusk is coming.

At 18:17, just as the two climbers from Nagoya were finishing their preparations for the night, they glimpsed a flickering light high up on the spur. It was the foreigner, by now more than ten hours on the move, battling tirelessly on the sharp end. He has by now overcame the hardest pitches, but the Chinne still held few of its last defences.

No easy way out

No easy way out

With night on his neck, the foreigner was desperate to reach the top of the spur. The solo climbing rope-work was so time-consuming and mentally exhausting, that he prayed in his mind for not having to take the rope out single one more time. He remembered the gravity-defying sharp summit ridge waiting for him. He was imagining it behind every corner. But the spur was rising higher and higher. Seventy meters higher, to be precise. What he was doing here was very bold climbing. Or, as someone else would say, very reckless, irresponsible climbing. Beyond the standard grade III, acceptable rope-free.
Though the passing of time felt very slow to him, in a striking contrast to the previous pitches, he covered the last 70 meters in just about ten minutes. Ten minutes in which all surroundings had turned from gloomy dusk into pitch black.

Summit ridgeline reached!

Summit ridgeline reached!

Now back on familiar ground, he was stumbling through the darkness over the scree slopes, up the gully leading to the Hoppono ridgeline. This familiarity with the environment and the general winding of the Hoppono route did him great service. He was moving slowly and steadily while climbing and traversing the endless ledges on the way back to the Tsurugi summit. The weariness had come to him at last. The only thing he could see were rocks and rocks again, moving fast in the narrow cone of his headlamp searching for the right way all around. This narrow and always changing vision was making him dizzy. Only constant small sips on water from his camelbak seemed to be effective in countering this dizziness.
“What would happen if I ran out of water”, the thoughts ran through his head. He knew he had to keep moving. No matter how slowly. As soon as he would stop walking, the cold would get to him. He had enough clothing and gear to sit out the night if necessary, but it would be one hell of a bad, cold, sleepless night.

At one point he had a glimpse of bright light coming from about the same elevation as he was, far to the north-east.
“That must be the hut on top of Mount Shirouma”, he thought. And with the sight, the idea to try to seek shelter in the Tsurugi-sanso hut came to his mind. It was the closest hut, situated right in a pass below the Besan ridge. Coming here straight from work over the last night, with only short few hours of sleep, the vision of warm futon felt tempting beyond measure. One more sleepless night in the cold would be too much torture.

Back on the top of Tsurugi

20:13, back on the top of Tsurugi

The descent felt endless. Hours after hours of searching for the white and yellow markings, the guiding angels sleeping on the stones.
With every meter he descended, the clouds grew thicker, the gasps of wind stronger, the air colder. Millions of tiny frozen dropplets of haze were dancing in the beam of his light, rustling as they were hitting the thin wind-breaking nylon shell he was wearing.
Tendons in his hips were whining in pain with every upwards step as he was climbing the last small peak in the fifteenth hour on feet practically without break.
Then the warm, yellow glow of the mountain hut windows appeared quite near and in the next couple of minutes, right as the clock hands rolled over 11 at night, he stepped through the front sliding door into the dimly lit structure.

The corridors were silent and empty, the front counter locked. The scent of sleep could be felt inside the building. Suddenly a torpid female figure appeared, plodding along the back wall of the front hall, only to disappear in the rest room, without even noticing the late guest. He went on with his business of reorganizing the backpack and putting on another layer of clothing. A big gasoline stove stood in the middle of the hall, but it was dead cold.
After a brief look around, with nobody to be found, the foreigner eventually laid down on one of the wooden benches in the corridor in order to get some sleep. Unfortunately not much of it could be gained. There was a steady breeze of cold air flowing through the corridor and the bench felt cold as ice. It was the same situation like the previous night, when he tried to sleep on a bench in front of the Tateyama ropeway station, only to be kept awake all the precious few hours by the coldness of the base. He didn’t bring any matt on purpose, expecting to spend the night outside, where any other position than sitting hunched up on the rope somewhere between rocks would be impossible anyway. Now he was paying the price for that decision by the second night with close to none good sleep. Sitting on the rope, bent double, half unconscious, he somehow went through the night, until at around 3 AM a party of early risers descended from the sleeping floor in order to start on their way to climb to the top of Tsurugi for the sunrise.
“My room is empty now. You can go there if you want”, one of them spoke to the foreigner. Now he was the torpid figure, plodding up the stairs. He collapsed onto the tatami and immediately slept dead.

When he woke up three hours later, the wooden room was shining gold, lit by the rays of morning sunlight entering through the single east facing window. Through the window he glimpsed a sight of golden autumn landscape covered in delicate layer of hoarfrost melting into dew, glittering marvelously in the low angle sunshine. The sky was flawless blue and the air was crisp and chilly outside.
The hut was now steaming with action, everybody getting ready for a new day full of adventures. As he descended into the front hall, a lively, smiling young lady from the hut’s staff greeted him with a loud “Ohayou gozaimasu”. The foreigner explained to her his story and how he got here briefly, asking if he should pay something. She smiled beautifully, raised one finger to her mouth and said: “Let that be our secret.” She was a fairy that crosses the path of every weary adventurer at some point in time. Like the first good meal, no matter how simple, blows even the most luxurious dinner out of water after days spent in languish in the open, like the first warm bath feels almost like reincarnation after nights spent in the arctic cold of winter mountains, seeing a smile of a lovely young lady has the same special and magical impact on the heart of a young man, bringing him uncomplicated joy into the moment.

Morning hoarfrost

Morning hoarfrost


How glad he was that he decided to postpone his return to Murodo to this day. How glorious the mountains looked! He was walking slowly on his return journey, embracing the strokes of cool winds, revering the miraculous sanctuary which nature is.
Morning Tsurugi

Morning Tsurugi


Countless times the foreigner kept looking back at the mountain that has given him so much. The relationship between him and the mountain had changed. No more desire, no more superficial lust. An intimate knowledge had turned all those emotions into gratitude, respect and love. He has now stood on the summit four times already, climbed all the routes he wanted to climb. “Is there a reason to come back again”, he was asking himself. “Yes”, was the eventual answer. To visit an old friend. To climb here in winter…

Gratitude

Gratitude

Down to Murodo

Down to Murodo

Raichousawa

Raichousawa

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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


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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