I didn’t mind waiting for the 3 o’clock, Hirogawara bound bus in Kofu. I had no idea if I’d still be in Japan in three weeks time and the moment felt like someone had just pressed a pause button on the tape of my life. I was present, aware of all things around me, bit sad and sentimental, but at peace within. I pushed all the risk and safety related worries out of my head. I stopped counting the expenditures. If this was my last shot at doing something I’m really passionate about, I was determined to get the most out of it.
Forehead leaning onto the Thermarest attached to the backpack on my lap, more asleep than conscious, to me the rocking of a small bus on a mountain road felt distant and comforting. Until at one point I raised my head and saw the night had turned into bright new day. The bus arrived at the Hirogawara bus terminal.
A handful of nuts mixed with oats, dried fruits and chocolate served me as a breakfast. Actually, a pack of this ‘trail mix’ was the only food I was carrying, together with 2,5 liters of pure water. Plain water is all I ever drink anyway. Ultralight, or ultra-simple was the motto of this trip. Apart from several layers of protective and insulating clothing, I had no spares. No stove, no cooking utensils, no tent, no shelter. Just a bivy bag, a mat and an alpine down jacket.
This simple style is something that feels the most natural to me. Something I am working on and developing with every new purchase. How paradoxical it sounds, buying stuff in order to be able to get away with less stuff.
Leaving even a sleeping bag behind for an alpine climb was new to me, but I was eager to try it out after seeing Ryusuke getting away with it last month on Tsurugi. By far the heaviest burden in my backpack was the climbing gear and 50 meters of 9 mm Millet rope. I even dared not bringing rock-shoes with me this time. A bit risky decision, but again, my ideal of pure climbing is all in one footwear from approach to the top.
Going through the preparations quickly and in silence, I was trying to keep as low profile as a single gaijin in a group of Japanese can. I didn’t want the attention of the authorities, to be asked about my destination, itinerary and the tozan todoke. Striding confidently through the tozanguchi gate, I greeted the elderly official inside with big smile and a nod. And I was gone.
Trouble with alpine climbing in Japan lies in the general need to battle wild bushes and endless haimatsu conifers in order to just get to the beginning of every climb. Not so on Kitadake. One of the regular hiking courses traverses right below the buttress, making the approach work pleasantly easy business. The buttress itself is about 600 meters high top to bottom, one of a kind in Japan, massive behemoth consisting of four or five distinct rocky spurs. The classic route follows the iconic fourth spur, 400 meters long climb on rock of up to grade V.
My feelings about this route were mixed. I was burning with excitement, eager to get my hands on the rock. At first, I even thought it to be shame to only climb two thirds of the buttress and kept looking for a line which would cover the whole length. But when I really got to see it with my own eyes, it was obvious the fourth spur was the way to go. The dominant, perfect line. Then there were pure worries and fear. This was to be my first big solo alpine climb and to brave grade V in mountain boots on such a long route sounded nuts even in my own head. Part of me was looking for an excuse not to embark on this climb. Perhaps the weather would turn too cloudy and I could simply walk the hiking course all the way to the top. Excitement and fear, the cocktail of emotions, always present on my climbs.
The weather turned out splendid, even too good perhaps and the summer sun kept scorching me all the way from Hirogawara to the base of the climb. The sunshine was too intense to even sit somewhere for a break. Thanks to that I completed the approach in less than half the map time. The uppermost parts of the buttress were hidden in a cloud sticking to the mountain, but that didn’t concern me much. Such clouds are common and the forecast was good.
One party was gearing up for climbing when I arrived at the Otaki gully where the proper climbing begins, but as it turned out, they were not aiming at the same route and we were thus saved the hassle of deciding who climbs first, who climbs faster. One more party could be seen higher up on the Pyramid face, but I didn’t meet them during the day.
Just by the sight of it, I gave up climbing the lower gully direct and traversed the first diagonal ledge to a small ridge on the left. Some 30 meters higher I entered the upper gully and climbed another 25 or so meters to the level of the big traverse band on the Pyramid face. So far it was all grade III climbing, easy enough to proceed rope-free. The Pyramid face was towering above me, forbidding and severe. Slab after slab, divided by thin bands of grass. The most obvious way of getting to the right side of the face, where the proper arête and the line of ascent lies, led traversing over 20 meters long, outward-sloping, scree covered ledge, shaded by overhanging rock. At the beginning, the band divided into two vertically separate ledges. At first I tried the upper one, seemingly less traveled one, climbing carefully over extremely brittle rock. It ended in pretty exposed terrain with little space for maneuvering, so I decided to turn around. The lower ledge was much easier to traverse. The only element of concern was the scree. The party I met earlier was now climbing some 30 meters lower, straight in the fall line of anything I could potentially dislodge. I proceeded with utmost caution.
Once finished with the traverse, a crack I was familiar with from photographs appeared in front of me. Rupture in a smooth, almost vertical slab, it looked like the perfect crack, fun to jam ones fists into. But now when I saw it in real, for a solo climber like myself, its appeal faded quickly. It was wider than my biggest Friend, bare of any pegs or bolts. I had nothing to throw at it and was not at all excited about the prospect of climbing it free using just my hands and smearing. One unsuccessful attempt at a lichen covered face to the left bore no fruits either. Finally, to the right the rocks were a bit overgrown and there I managed to make my way past the crack with confidence. A confidence, which led me to one of the biggest misjudgments in climbing so far.
Looking upwards from the small terrace on which I stood, the rock face was steep, but rich in cracks and holds, seemingly no more than grade III again. I decided to continue rope free. About 6 meters higher I got into precarious position. Good steps were gone, good holds scarce. There was just one 4-5 centimeters wide crack right in front of me and any move forward felt quite committing.
Every climber has an individual comfort zone in which he feels secure to climb rope free. For me right now, that is when I have at least one bomber hold at all times. A hold, which I can confidently count on even in case some another pops out underneath my feet. My climbing style is based around this. I am trying to move fluently, not shock-load anything, test everything. I don’t make a move unless I am sure I can hold myself even in case something goes wrong. In my analytical mind, I am constantly imagining how the next move could go wrong, what forces would be at play and how to counter them. It may sound like negative or pessimistic way of thinking, but it is not. It is logical, calculative and it keeps me alive. I would never jump onto a difficult move I am unsure about, telling myself ‘I can do this, I can do this’. That is stupid. If I cannot be sure about the next move, there has to be protection in place in case something doesn’t go as planned.
This was such a moment, but there was no protection in place. Light panicky sensation went through my body, releasing a dose of adrenalin on its way. I was quite high on exposed rock and turning around was not possible. Quickly, I clipped one double sling into my harness, produced the Friend #3 and placed it high up in the crack. Then I clipped myself into it with the sling. I tried to continue climbing, but the move felt too insecure and the panic was paralyzing me. I grabbed one more Friend and pushed it into the crack. After releasing the trigger, one of the cams rotated around the axle missing the rock and jammed. Damn, I thought. The crack was wider inside than outside, making it difficult for anything to fit. Adjusting it as good as was possible, I managed to make a working placement after all. One short sling was not enough, so I extended it with one more draw.
Then I moved higher, as much as the slings allowed me. My new position was even more exposed than the previous one. On the left side, I had one good under hold about waist height and one good foothold right below it. On the right, my boot was just smearing, although on reasonably sloped piece of rock. My right hand was free to work with. At first I moved the upper Friend to my new level, only this time the placement was not so secure. Whatever I did, the inner cams were at the edge of their span. I lowered my body as low as I was able, trying to reach the second Friend, but in wain. Feeling too vulnerable, I tried to place a third Friend in a thinner part of the crack higher, but it was still too small. So I chose one small Rock and placed it even deeper into the crack. It took some trying and fiddling, but it seemed to hold. With a sling and another draw I created an equalized anchor between it and the Friend. Honestly, it was a mess.
Once more I tried to reach the lower Friend, stretching my shoulder and arm as much as I was able. I could grab it, but couldn’t pull it out in the proper direction and it jammed again. When I stood up again, my left hand was pumped, calfs hurting, it was a difficult situation to calm my mind in. I switched hands on the under hold, braced my shoulder against an overhanging rock, moved the feet a bit to relax them and looked down. Suddenly I realized I am no longer shadowed by the bushes. I was now almost 100 meters above the base of the climb and at least double that from the snowfield below. I could see the other party climbing deep below as well as people on the regular trail climbing up to the Happonba col. Some of them were looking in my direction. I felt very exposed and vulnerable. I didn’t want anyone to watch me right now. It had been at least 20 minutes since I started this pitch and my hands and fingers felt weak and stiff. Then the tunnel vision of intense focus took me over again and I was back at work.
I unclipped the lower friend from my harness and let it hang there, collected all my courage and energy and made the next series of moves. It went all right and I reached easier ground at last. About my head high, the face was leaning back a bit and there were solid holds. I took apart the protection, but again, unable to retrieve the Rock, I left it hanging in its place. Then finally, I was able to climb the easy runout to the next ledge.
There I could rest and breathe freely again. There I could digest the lesson I’d just received. It’s not that the climbing would be too difficult. It was just over my threshold of confidence while unprotected. It was a place, where had my fingers slipped in the jam or boots on the smear, a fall would be inevitable. That scared and paralyzed me. From there on, wherever I was not 100% sure I can climb the pitch by looking at it, I set up the roped belay.
But first I had to retrieve the gear I had left behind. Rope was called to work for the first time and one short rappel saw me picking up the dead from the battlefield. At one point, while unclipping all the slings from each other, maybe because my mind was half preoccupied by holding myself mid rappel above an abyss, I let go of one quickdraw, thinking it is still attached to another sling on the other side. It was in fact attached to another draw, but that one was loose. I heard a clinking sound of something hitting the rock, but thought it to be the Rock I had still attached to myself and let go of at the same time. I realized the unfortunate loss only another pitch or two higher, when I had reached the fourth spur terrace. It was too late to start any search and rescue. I was too far, left with only three alpine draws. And the real climbing was all just to begin.
Starting from the terrace, one of the crux pitches of this climb begins. 6 meter tall dihedral with a finger crack and quite smooth walls, grade V-, followed by 60 meters of grade III climbing over the upper part of the Pyramid face, up to its Head. I set up the anchor on two ring bolts and went on testing the walls. Unable to make any use of the crack in my boots, I had very little to hold onto. It didn’t seem impossible, but very daring indeed. I ended up traversing along the wall far to the right, where the route seemed at least one grade easier and climbed past the dihedral onto the ridge above. There I created another anchor and abseiled back down to the terrace, retrieving the draws and Rocks I’d used.
That is the catch with roped solo climbing. And for some, one of its beauties also. Once you successfully climb a pitch, you still have to abseil down again to pick up the gear and release the lower anchor. Then climb or jumar back up again, meaning you’re covering the distance twice. Since I was now technically on top rope, I had another go on the dihedral. I managed to step and hold onto it, make several more moves, getting me to about a half its height, after which I gave in to the calling of my body to take it easy, grabbed the rope and pulled myself up onto easier ground.
The remaining 60 meters to the Head, along with the next pitch circumventing and ascending it from the right were fun and pleasant climbing over broken slabs with thin bands of grass, easy enough to do rope-free again.
By now I’d entered the sticky cloud and could not see much around. Good old alpine conditions. The spur had changed into a knife ridge, with steep slabs falling to the mists on the left side and broken, brittle cliffs cutting the right side. There was one of the huge gullies of the buttress to my right and I wanted to see it. I wanted to see the Great chimney and the overhanging face of the Central spur. I wanted to see the scenes on which true climbing heroism takes place. But the cloud thought otherwise.
The true crux of the climb was now looming above me. The 5 meter, grade V, wide and smooth corner with a crack in the face of the Matchbox, a huge boxy rock sitting high up on the spur, the highlight of this climb. No way around this time. Climbing this free would be 5.10a perhaps. I can just about lead 5.10a on sport routes in rock shoes, so for me at this point, this was going to be full aided pitch. Fortunately there were plenty of pitons driven into the crack and the progress turned easier than I thought. It was fun in fact, not scary at all. The pitons were in close intervals, so I was able to pay out only short amounts of rope on every step, feeling secure.
After assembling the anchor, I preclipped one draw and stepped onto the face. There was just about one wrinkle I could place the tip of my left boot on and not much else. I clipped another draw and the rope into the next piton, adjusted one more sling and placed my right boot into it. Pushing outward to the sides on tiny holds with my fingers, I stepped up on the sling and quickly clipped in the third draw. Then I had to employ some acrobatics to reach back down and pick up the first draw, because I had used all three already. Pulling on the upper draw, I got myself to the upper edge of the face and clipped the last draw. The runout onto a steep ridge was the scariest and most insecure part of the pitch, without any more protection.
The routine of building an upper anchor, abseiling down, releasing everything, climbing back up and coiling the rope into the pack in order to be payed out again started feeling fast and natural. The progress felt good.
Short bit of climbing over the ridge got me to the top of the Matchbox, from where it is necessary to abseil to the steep face on the left. The abseil seems short, but that is only an illusion caused by the steepness of the buttress. Somehow the face seems to be running away under your feet as you are trying to reach it.
Cured by the previous frightening experience, I clipped myself into an anchor on two bolts down on the face. The slabs above me didn’t look particularly easy. There was a huge crack between the face and the wall of the Matchbox, but I was unable to utilize it to my advantage. Tiny steps and bands were all I could work with. Since I had only three draws at my disposal, the first one I actually placed was already quite high from the anchor. I was now standing on a 3 – 5 centimeters wide ledge and above me, the slab was so smooth I couldn’t find any remotely secure holds. To the right, the huge crack had quite jagged edge. I couldn’t reach it anyhow, but I remembered one method Walter Bonatti used on his first ascent of the Dru when there was no other way forward. I had one 240 centimeters long sling in my kit, which could be used like a lasso.
It took me number of throws, trying to catch any of the rock features into the sling, but in the end the technique worked! I got strong enough purchase and managed to pull myself over the blank section of the slab.
From there on all got a bit easier again and I finished the pitch another 20 or so meters higher on the face. Some topos on the internet grade this section as IV, some as III. I do not know. It was not IV hard, but also not a straight III easy. Anyway, the routine could not be cheated. Abseil, release the anchor and up once more the whole length.
It was another 20 or more meters of free climbing over the face onto a rock shoulder at the edge of the C-gully. One razor-sharp traverse over the shoulder led me right onto some slabs below the final wall. I was hesitant for a moment about whether to protect the traverse or not. I was not too fond of the hassle, but in the end I decided to use the rope. The catch with traverses is that you cannot abseil them on the way back and have to climb them three times altogether, while protecting yourself is complicated. The actual climbing turned out quite easy and secure, but still the work took me at least 20 minutes before I could start planning the next pitch.
There it was, right above me. The chimney in the final vertical wall. IV+ grade, slightly overhanging inside… and decorated with beautifully blossoming alpine flora. While setting up the anchor, I was overwhelmed by the environment surrounding me. The buttress was falling down into the mists below my feet for hundreds of meters. The walls around felt dark and cold. My hands had that earthly smell. Body was tired. I was having a real alpine experience like I had always desired. I was totally in joy in this place.
Ready for the last test piece, I clipped into the first red bolt and entered the chimney. Squeezing in, I clipped another draw above on the right. Fortunately the protection was good. The next move up forced me into lean backwards position. The walls of the chimney were wet and slippery and clipping the third draw was a battle in the cramped space. It may sound straight enough, but trust me, paying out the rope, moving the clove hitch on your carabiner while feeling the other hand you are hanging on loosing strength and fingers their grip on the wet surface is not simple. It is quite an adrenalin experience in fact. My boots were very uncooperative on the slippery holds and the arms soon got pumped. I grabbed the highest sling to pull myself onto and finally reached an easier stance. From there it was quite easy. And that was it. I was at the top of the last pitch. Well, almost it. Remember, there is still the rappel and one more turn on the way up.
It was half past four when I packed the rope and started climbing to the true Kitadake summit. The normal route leads straight up to the ridgeline, where it joins with the trekking path and climbs for the last 10 or 15 minutes to the summit. I didn’t want to follow this route. I wanted to stay on the buttress until the end and immediately started traversing to the right, where the central ridge creates the spine of the mountain.
Swallowed by the fog, I was wandering over the steep grassy slopes, up and higher, into a gully surrounded by black walls, never certain about what will come next. There I ran out of water and the fatigue caught me. It was a long day already. Lots of elevation gained and lost and gained again. Suddenly I saw a strange long loop of weary rope hanging from the wall of the central ridge, swinging deathly in the fog. It resembled a lure for a stranded climber. Lifeless piece of ancient cord, definitely weak and impossible to trust. The walls from which it hanged were dark and difficult. There was no way I would follow such route.
I kept climbing steadily along the ridge, until the walls leaned back enough for me to be able to climb them free. Little by little I traversed to the right and higher onto the ridge, until all of a sudden, I glimpsed shades of blue in the fog above. A horizon could be seen straight up. Wave of new energy pushed me forward and the next moment I arrived from the buttress straight onto the summit of Mount Kita. And what a fascinating view awaited me there! What a reward! While the buttress side of the mountain was enveloped in clouds, the western side was clear and right in the golden hour!
I was alone at the top, enjoying the magical evening. Standing atop the second highest mountain in Japan, I had no intentions of leaving. The colors of blue slowly turned into gold, then orange, until finally the sun disappeared behind the Chuo Alps completely.
It was the cold that woke me several hours later as I lied on the wooden bench in my bivy bag. As I opened my eyes, there was the whole vastness of the universe expanding above, filling all of my vision. Thousands and thousands of stars that were shining upon this land in the days of the samurai, that are shining upon me now and that will shine without the slightest change even when our days are long gone.
Hours went by and with it the heavenly river flew through the night sky. For this I go to the mountains. Those who have not experienced this cannot understand. The state, where spiritual experience overshadows all bodily discomforts.