Thief in the Fortress

March 5, 2010 | Filed Under Uncategorized 

The sound of my footsteps echoes across the empty Hayakawa valley. No other footprints in snow, no signs of life ahead or behind.

I really am all alone here.

A hundred square miles of wilderness, population density: One.

Pttac pttac, the sound of rockfall from above, and I dive for cover. Close into the cliff, I pull the heavy winter pack up and over the back of my neck and cinch the helmet a little tighter. Forty feet away, a volley of grapefruit sized rocks scar the fresh snow.

I really am very alone up here.

“Sorry, this is as far as I can go.”

I’d hoped he’d be able to take me as far as the Yashajin-toge pass. We’d made it to Ashiyasu, the last hamlet in the Hayakawa river valley before the walls of the South Alps, but the wheels of the taxi were starting to skitter on the pre-dawn ice. The walk-in to the bottom of the mountain was already long; this would add another 10km to it. In the cold and dark I watch the taxi trace its way back to civilisation. Time to pull on the harness and pack, start the climb.

On a long summer weekend, the flanks of these mountains are thronged with people. Buses whisk them smartly from Kofu station, up to Ashiyasu and through the tunnel at Yashijin, and safely to the start of the pleasant climb from Hiragawara or Kitazawa-toge. It’s hard to imagine, as I walk through the night on these icy roads, that such things could ever happen. A small signpost marks the begining of the old approach trail, the one they used before the road was built; I cut up it and through the forests, intersecting the road at intervals. As the dawn breaks, the small car park in front of the Yashajin tunnel appears. The snow is ankle deep and the tunnel is barricaded for the winter.

Mt Kitadake, the second highest mountain in Japan after Fuji, sits within these walls like the keep of an leviathanic castle. The Hayakawa river spills around its foot, an impassable moat, while Mt Aino, Senjo, Kai-koma and the Hou-ou-sanzan range spiral out around it. Formidable defenses, but with a small chink at Yashajin, where the range dips just enough that a determined burglar might steal his way in. So I went. The storms of the previous week has left a thick cover of snow on the ground, but also coated every branch and twig with a jacket of ice. In the early morning light they shine like chandeliers. A troop of monkeys screeches at my approach before they crash through the trees, sending shards of ice smashing to the ground, and filling the forest with sound of breaking glass.

The map marks the route from from the saddle of Yashajin down to the road below as a dismal dotted line. In reality, it is non-existent; landslide and disuse has all but torn it from the mountainside, and slick ice is all that remains. I pull out the rope and gingerly rappel down from tree to tree, emerging at last at the interior road on the other side of the Yashajin tunnel, and into the sunlight again. Then along the road and through its tunnels, each one as cold and dark as a meatlocker. A few kilometers further on, I cut up and over the icy slabs of Mt Karasu-no-zumi, down again to the lower road that snakes along the very bottom of the Hayakawa valley, and finally I’m there: the start of the Bokonzawa ridge that should take me to Kitadake’s summit. Ten hours of work to get here, and the climb hasn’t even begun. The siren-like call of a deer down by the river snaps me out of my melancholy. Shoulder the pack once more, put one foot in front of the other, and start to chew away at the mountainside again.

Remind me: why are we doing this?
Get up. Get moving.
It’s 1 a.m. It’s cold. It’s dark. It’s dangerous.
Whining about it won’t help. Get up.
You’re crazy.
Get up.

I wriggle out of the snowhole and shiver for a moment in the cold night air. The moon is no more than a faint glow beyond the ridge. The only light spills from my headlamp. A meter wide pool against the snow, I follow it up and through the trees. It’s deep enough for snowshoes here. I carve a knee-high, and then thigh-high, trail. The ridge steepens. I’m swimming through the snow now, gain a few feet then slip back down again. Six hours later I flop onto the hard ice of the crest of Bokonzawa-no-kashira. Brew some coffee, watch the sun breach the horizon and stain the mountains blood red, pink and then bronze.

Kitadake looks close enough to touch. I dig another snow hole, stash my gear and mark it on the GPS. Under a flawless blue sky I make good time across the ice, the ironmongery at my hips beating a hard rhythm in the thin air. The snow hangs impossibly fluted and perfect across the face of Kitadake’s eastern flank, the infamous Buttress. I’m so close now, but as I crest a small knoll what I see stops me in my tracks.

I’d heard tales of the Happonba, the eight rocky spires which crown the knife-edge ridge just above Bokonzawa. Each year they take another life or two. Four people fell to their deaths here on a winter ascent a couple of years ago. Cornices of snow cling thickly to the rocks, some lying to the left and some to the right, testament to the variability of the winds that blow up from the cols on either side. It looks desperate. I watch the spires for some twenty minutes, wondering if I should go back, call it quits. Instead, crablike with axes and front points buried in the snow, I inch out and around the first spire across the sixty degree ice. Then up to the tip of the next spire. It’s a two vertical kilometer fall on each side and thirty centimeters in between. I bang in a piton, back it up with a sling, and start rappelling slowly over the spires. The wind dies, the sun beats down, and rivulets of sweat trickle down my spine. After an hour of careful work, I’m on the other side and Kitadake fills my eyes.

Before long I’m back on my front points again, hauling myself up and over the mountain’s southern shoulder and onto the hard ice of its western flank. Here too, the ground falls away for a kilometer or more. I test each placement before committing to it. A slip here would be unthinkable.

And then, quite suddenly, there’s nowhere left to climb. I bash the ice from the face of the summit marker. It reads, simply, “3192m Kita-dake”. Fuji sits serenely above a sea of clouds to the east, but my eye is drawn to the wisps of vapour that are starting to rise from the Hayakawa valley below. The day is still bright and cloudless above, but the weather is starting to turn and this is no place to be caught. I retrace my steps with great caution. Back at the Happonba I clip the ascender to the rope I’d left and weave back over the spires. They seem easy now. Was I too cautious before? The answer comes in a flash; the cornice I’m standing on crumbles away and drops into the shadows of the col below. I fall with it for a second before the rope jerks tight, the icy maw of the col stretching away beneath my feet.

At the snowhole at Bokonzawa the cloud has already moved in, and the temperature is plummeting. There’s no telling what the weather will do the next day, but there will be no sunset shots this evening. I decide to abandon camp and make my way down to the previous night’s snowhole and the safety of the forests below. If nothing else, it cuts a few hours from the next day’s walk out. Slipping and skidding through the deep powder, I make it back and collapse into my sleeping bag some nineteen hours after setting out.

The business hotel in Kofu boasts a proper onsen hot spring on its roof.  I lie back in its waters, and my head starts to spin as the cold beer makes its way through me. Knuckles bruised and throbbing from being bashed against the ice. There’s a mysterious puncture wound in my right thigh. Another toenail lost, every muscle aches.

These are small prices to pay for the treasure I’d gained.


52 Responses to “Thief in the Fortress”

  1. George Baptista on March 5th, 2010 10:50 am

    I showed my wife Izumi these photos and the first words out of her were, “ahh.. suberitai.. mechakucha suberitai….”

    I often think she’s nuts. But then I slowly found myself tracing over the terrain, looking at the various lines, chutes and faces. “I could drop there, aim for that safety zone, then traverse left and into the fall-line…”

    Daydreaming like this is so easy to do from the comfort of my warm kotatsu, I remind myself. Thanks for actually going out there and getting after it. I’ll be re-reading this trip again and again.

  2. Hendrik M on March 5th, 2010 12:53 pm

    You’re a very brave man, Chris. I don’t think that what most of us other outdoor bloggers do compares to your adventures. Or maybe it is your skill with the camera? Those photos are once again magnificent, the photos of Fuji at sunrise and in the distance, splendid. And I’m glad that all ended up well, and that you will be able to make our days a bit more exciting and beautiful when we go on another climb with you. Just remember to pay a visit to the local shrines.

  3. JapanSoc on March 5th, 2010 2:14 pm

    i, cjw has more fun up a mountain…

    You know the drill: amazing snow, photos and text from the guy who has more excitment in one day than most of us will manage in a year……

  4. Joe on March 5th, 2010 3:00 pm

    Holy f****** s*** Chris! Spell binding account.

    And those images. The blues!

  5. Our Man in Abiko on March 5th, 2010 3:45 pm


  6. Heather Long on March 5th, 2010 4:09 pm

    Wow…just wow….

  7. The Envoy on March 5th, 2010 4:47 pm

    “Another” toenail lost?

  8. locohama on March 5th, 2010 5:33 pm

    Vhris, you’re Amazing…you are by far having the most interesting adventure in Japan. And I simply love the way you write about it!!!I’m gonna have to steal this as my new litany against laziness and complacency and to tap into my inner cjw:
    Get up. Get moving.
    You’re crazy. Get up.

    Thanks for sharing…seriously!

  9. Jason Collin Photography on March 5th, 2010 9:05 pm

    You mentioned this one would be an epic Chris, and no doubt it was.

    You should get a gold medal somehow from the Winter Olympics. I mean, is there any purer winter sport than summiting a mountain?

    The lead photo, perhaps the best photo you’ve made yet.

    What impresses me the most though, is not the images themselves, but the act of taking the time, getting out your Nikon, and shooting. Under such physical exertion, it takes a true photographer to make the effort to make and share these images. That is what a photographer does, always makes the effort to get the shot. I am extremely impressed and I have not said that more than five times in 10 years.

    How good does it feel to be so completely far away from the nonsense that the world of Men has created? To be in that pure of nature must be an incredibly, well, purifying experience. I can sense it through your tale.

    If I have the chance to meet any Nikon representative at an upcoming local camera trade show, I will mention your site for sure and say look, look what a humble D80 can do in the most extreme conditions possible!

  10. mikesblender on March 5th, 2010 11:35 pm

    I was literally on the edge of my seat reading this… Amazing stuff Chris

  11. Philip on March 6th, 2010 2:25 am

    I’m gonna look at this together with my wife when she gets home. You have transported me far away from my daily thoughts.

  12. hanameizan on March 6th, 2010 3:53 am

    Your italicized subconsciousness is accurate:
    “It’s cold. It’s dark. It’s dangerous. … You’re crazy.”
    but also magnificently beautiful and sublimely scary.

    That 7th photo on Happonba. I thought, “No, he’s Photoshopped it by 90 degrees”. But your legs are vertical and you seem to have set the snow sliding. And *then* you stopped to pull out the camera? Barking.

    BTW, is there no longer that tiny doorway for hikers in the boarded-up tunnel at Yashajin?

  13. Jeff on March 6th, 2010 5:57 am

    I’m always thrilled when this blog pops up in my feedreader… Superb!

  14. Mike on March 6th, 2010 6:18 am

    Glad to see you made it back safely Chris, and with a bagful of ace shots too! Looking forward to the spring/summer when a few of us can get together and go hiking :)

  15. Harvey on March 6th, 2010 10:16 am

    Everytime I read this blog I get goosebumps.



  16. Tony on March 6th, 2010 12:14 pm

    First-rate set of photos. Thanks for sharing them. You’ve definitely got a real talent with the camera.

    Would be nice to see you get off the hiking trails and do some proper climbing once in a while as well..


  17. Sandra on March 6th, 2010 2:00 pm

    Amazing. I hope these are going into a book.

  18. Mikael on March 7th, 2010 3:13 pm

    Pretty epic, perhaps even more so than usual. As I’ve said before, I feel your climbs are pure in style, sound in judgment amazingly documented and kick-ass gnarly! Big respect.

    Nikon should definitely take heed of how well their equipment performs in your care. I recently dropped my craving for a Nikon dslr (for a while at least) and got a Pana GF-1. Pretty impressed so far with the size of the gear compared to the image quality, and can’t wait to take it out to get some proper fresh air to see how it performs.

  19. KamoshikaBob on March 8th, 2010 12:17 am

    ditto to the comments above.

    That top picture is definitely one for the book.

    My other reaction to this blog is, “How good is your life insurance?” and how does Yuka react when she hears or sees these stories?

    I can see that you are careful, and tend not to take “unnecessary” risks, but as much as I look forward to great pics and thrilling narrations, I would hope that you are prepared for the worst, as well.

    Come to think of it, we all need to be prepared for the worst… whether we think we take risks or not.

  20. Alex Rogers on March 8th, 2010 12:31 am

    Chris, great blog entry and sublime photos. The title shot encapsulates “Japanese mountaineering” – down to the contrails reminding you how close humanity is even in such a wonderful wilderness area. Thanks again, I love seeing a new entry in your blog.

  21. Woody on March 8th, 2010 2:02 pm

    Hey man, someone posted this on tumblr, and I found it to be very impressive.

    but as an action photographer, I cant help but ask – how do you manage to have your camera out? are you using an R-strap (easy grab strap) or are you just stowing the camera and just pulling it out manually every time you want to take a shot?

    regardless, keep up the good work!

  22. john c on March 8th, 2010 10:26 pm

    Awesome. Your mum and dad told us they needed a brandy after reading that :o )

  23. Matt on March 9th, 2010 12:57 pm

    I’ve been a keen reader for some years but this might just possibly be my favourite yet. Incredible reading. I’ve often thought how good this place would be to ski and your photos show the truth of it – the open face of ai no dake and the many couloirs off the ridge between ai no dake and kitadake – but the reality of the access has always put me off. It’s inspiring to read about your successful winter ascent.

  24. Matt on March 9th, 2010 11:26 pm

    Gday Chris,
    Firstly, thanks for your comment at my blog.
    Now I’ve gotta say this – you are hardcore!
    Your hiking, photography and writing is truly inspirational.
    Next time you venture to these southern shores i do hope we can meet.
    Thank you for your wonderful blog.

  25. Vladimir on March 10th, 2010 5:11 am

    Amazing. Snow. Tons of snow.
    Reminds me a bit Les Ecrins in France – concentrated nature beauty, deadly if you overdose it.
    I hope you regularly go to some shrine to appease The Murphy. Otherwise I would say a word for you in mine, so we all can continue reading this blog – the Invisible Hand at work.

  26. Rockie on March 10th, 2010 6:55 am

    The newest entry is always my favorite, but this one REALLY IS my fav!! Tremendous.

    Curious, however… Might be a lame question but what GPS device do you use? Thanks as always for allowing me to live vicariously through you during the winter as I continue to hibernate with the bears, awaiting spring, so I can hike in the saftey of blossomed trees.

    /golf clap

  27. Project Hyakumeizan on March 10th, 2010 7:45 pm

    Wow, that must have been a big push, especially the “russelling” through deep snow. Just wondered if skis would be possible, along the sawa leading up underneath the Buttress. Or perhaps too avalanche-prone?

  28. CJW on March 11th, 2010 10:51 am

    Hey George – you know, I was thinking of you guys when I looked at those lines up there. Beautiful, completely untouched, I doubt a single board touches those slopes all season long.

    Hi Hendrik – I never feel that brave :-) And of course, the local shrine was the first and last stop on the journey. Got to keep the gods on your side..

    Joe – just nailed that little window of good weather – the sky was *liquid* those couple of days!

    OMIA – glad you enjoyed it, buddy.

    Heather – pretty much my feeling most of the weekend. The views at Bokonzawa were jump-up-and-down amazing.

    The Envoy – occupational hazard. I’ll never be a footwear model..

    Loco – I live for those moments. Giving lazy CJW a good kicking. He deserves it from time to time :-)

    Jason – sometimes it *is* a drag to get the camera out. When I’m behind schedule, or it’s cold, or I’m tired. But then I think “half the reason I’m here is to take photos”. And those moments, for some reason, turn out the best shots. And getting away from civilization for a couple of days? Best thing ever. If you do ever meet a Nikon rep, then please pass on my thanks for making a camera so comprehensively CJW proof..

    Mike – glad you enjoyed it!

    Philip – hey, great to hear from you! Hope you & the family are well, and let me know if you’re ever over in Japan. That’s a long-overdue trip.

    Hanameizan – I couldn’t do the Happonba without getting at least one shot for you :-) Hmm, a door in the Yashajin tunnel? That would have saved some time – the back edge of Yashajin-toge, down to the road, was dire.

    Jeff – thrilled you liked it, too!

    Mike – you’re on. When better weather arrives, we should definitely get a few of us together & go explore the higher bits of Japan.

    Harvey – surprisingly snug, a well built snowhole. I almost resent it when summer comes..

    Tony – glad you liked the photos. Proper climbing? Heh, it’s always proper if you enjoy it :-)

    Sandra – maybe someday. For the time being, we’ll call them “internet exclusives”.

    Mikael – it was a little more epic than usual – the minami Alps are pretty remote in winter. As I mentioned above, that Nikon takes a heck of a bashing, but it’s done a great job. Interested to see how you get on with the Pana, that’s a nice bit of kit. And a lot less weight to carry…

    Hi KamoshikaBob – I have great insurance, and hope never to use it. Yuka’s very cool about it. When she read your comment, she said “how could I ever get in the way of something that makes you so happy?”. And she’s started to join me on a few outings as well. The other thing I’ve added to the gear pile this year is a Spot personal locator beacon – just as soon as Spot send me one that actually works, I’ll be using it. I think it’s a wise thing to carry, especially if you’re on your own.

    Alex – good to hear from you! It was odd watching those planes go over, and I got buzzed by a helicopter at one point as well, an instant reminder that I was still in Japan..

    Hey Woody – glad you liked the post. Re your question, my new weapon this year is the Spider Holster ( It’s not perfect, but it is the best solution I’ve found so far.

    Hi John – heh, like they need any excuse for a brandy!

    Matt – it would be great to ski, but you’re right about the access. I certainly wouldn’t want to be hauling boards or skis over the Happonba in winter. One way you might do, were you so inclined, would be to drive up to Narata and climb Notori-san, and up to Aino that way. Still a big few days and a lot of trekking in & out though…

    Matt number 2 – always a pleasure to see your Shikoku posts. We’re hoping to get back down there some time this year, and we’ll try to cross paths. Sachiko (of fame) keeps phoning us to ask when we’re going to go visit her next..

    Vladimir – absolutely, the shrine was visited both before and afterwards, and plenty of thanks was given. Definitely doesn’t pay to anger the gods..

    Rockie – always good to hear. The GPS is a Garmin C60x. I like it, but there’s a lot more it can do than the basic functionality I use it for. I think if I were to buy again, I’d go for a simpler model – I really just want to know where I am, where I’ve been and where I’m headed to.

    Project Hyakumeizan – the joys of “russelling”. I was mentioning to Peter Skov that I might try some kanjiki next time, as I wonder if they might be better suited to Japanese terrain. They’re certainly lighter than snowshoes. Maybe it’s a defining feature of Japanese winter mountaineering that you’re forced to start low and “russell” before you hit the good stuff higher up…? Re skiing under the Buttress, I wouldn’t like to try it. I could see avalanche debris almost all the way down to Hiragawara. I added a little more with my cornice break!

  29. Billy W on March 13th, 2010 7:29 am

    That first shot is so money!

    I mean, tell the truth, you’re getting paid for the shots you take, right? I mean, if you say it’s all a labor of love, no money needed… then, you’re my Japan avatar. You know, the guy I would be in another life. Haha.

  30. Red Yeti on March 14th, 2010 10:40 pm

    Stunning climb Chris.

    And breathtaking images (can I say “of course”?)

    Agree with the earlier commenter re. your amazing ability to take images whilst in truly precarious positions. Glad you took them – even more glad your returned safely to show us them!

    Very interesting looking device that Spider Holster. It’s making me wonder how I might improve my own “camera harness” that I used on the GR5 last year…

  31. Sonya on March 20th, 2010 11:22 pm

    Beautiful mountain blog from Japan! I actually included your blog in a “10 Mountain Blogs You’ll Love” post on

  32. wes on March 24th, 2010 10:07 am

    What a nice surprise to find this post after a lengthy holiday. Glad to see you finally made it to the summit of Kita-dake in the winter. I guess that leaves Shiomi-dake as next, or perhaps you’ll wait until next season?

    Looking forward to the next installment.

  33. Peter Skov on March 26th, 2010 5:43 am

    I am not surprised this post has so many comments. While your photographs never fail to please and excite, your writing is what truly inspires me and the photographs are more of a compliment to the writing than vice versa in my opinion.

    I have wondered about the possibility of a winter ascent on Kita but the challenge is beyond my abilities at present. I took particular interest in this post because, as you know, I plan to pay Shiomi a visit this coming Sunday/Monday. My plans are not for visiting the summit, however. I hope to reach Hontanidake and Eboshidake and shoot the views from there. As I distinctly recall, the approach to the Shiomidake from Sanpuku Touge includes a rather steep scramble just below the summit. I don’t have the gear to attempt that route in winter. I’ll go as far as the ascension snowshoes take me and test the powder ice waters from there with great caution. Your words here have told me very clearly what to expect.

    Nice summit self portrait and thanks as always for the humble but brilliant post.

  34. Clint Koehler on March 27th, 2010 11:03 am

    Your photos seem to be gaining a clarity that is difficult to achieve even with a DSLR. I read on your last post that you are using shooting in RAW and using Lightroom, whatever it is you are doing, you are blowing me away and getting better and better shots as time goes on!

  35. Chris Highcock on May 17th, 2010 9:37 pm

    The blog is quiet? Hope you are OK


  36. Administrator on May 17th, 2010 10:15 pm

    Hi Chris – all OK, and thank you for your kind concern! The blog was a bit sick for a while (the victim of one of Yahoo’s botched automated Wordpress upgrades again), but I got around to fixing it last week finally. In the meantime, mountains have been climbed, and there should be a new post or two going up shortly…

  37. Julien on May 20th, 2010 1:01 pm

    I was getting worried too! Noticed a lot of links were broken while trying to get my mountain fix through your site… so I was hoping that it was just a technical problem.

  38. Philip Werner on July 5th, 2010 1:38 pm

    Great ridge photos. I’m missing winter.

  39. CJW on July 5th, 2010 2:03 pm

    Hi Philip – I’m missing winter too. But I have discovered the antidote. I’m off to New Zealand for 2 weeks of ice climbing from this Friday :-)

  40. Chasing Fuji | ANy FIdelity will do. on September 23rd, 2010 4:35 am

    [...] For a fascinating account of a winter ascent of Mt Kita (with stunning pictures), see I-cjw‘s Thief in the Fortress. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)On climbing Mt FujiCycle Log: Competition Phase [...]

  41. Kita-dake (北岳) « Hiking in Japan on February 4th, 2012 2:41 am

    [...] When to go: This hike can be done from around Golden Week to early November. The road to Hirogawara is closed in the winter, so it’ll be pretty difficult to get here unless you hike a long way to the trailhead. That being said, there are exceptions! [...]

  42. Vytautas on March 1st, 2013 11:37 am

    Hi, very impressive! I am thinking about similar journey in March or April. Currently I am in Hamamatsu. Could you recommend how to get there?

  43. CJW on March 2nd, 2013 2:36 am

    Vytautas – get to Kofu & either get the bus to Ashiyu, hire a car or get a taxi.

  44. Vytautas on March 27th, 2013 4:32 am

    Thanks for the tip and all the information on this site, just did that. Amazing views from the summit!

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