Life on the North Ridge

October 6, 2011 | Filed Under Uncategorized | 39 Comments 

The old man and I sat on the peak of the Gendarme, watching the early evening clouds boil around the summits of the North Alps. From our seat in the skies, the world below appeared as a sea of white foam dotted with an archipelago of dark mountain tops. The pyramid of Yari stood tallest of all those islands, an unmistakable black spear thrusting into the heavens. The old man pointed slowly towards that distant peak,

“There’s another route up Yari, you know. You won’t find it on any of the maps. You won’t find any old women or children up there, either. It’s a hard route for hard men. I’d reckon not one in a hundred thousand climb Yari from that side. They call it ‘The Kitakama’ ridge.”

From then on, it consumed me.

A year later, I started the climb from Nakabusa onsen, up the steep wooded slope to the Enzanso lodge. The fair weather of the weekend had drawn the crowds, now making their descent after taking in the views from the summit. It’s not for nothing that this is known as the Ginza of the Alps. By midday I’m at the top. The weather is fine, but at the ridge a sharp north wind cuts up from the valley on the other side. I pull on a jacket, and start the walk along to tonight’s destination, the hut at Otensho. Yari, and the Kitakama, are shrouded in billowing clouds until, quite suddenly, they part for an instant, the enormity of my quest revealed.

It was the first time that I had glimpsed Yari from this side. As impressive as it was from the other direction, nothing could match the view I was now afforded. A middle finger of rock thrust to the gods and man alike, it compelled the eye and made the roundabout peaks seem dwarfish and dull. And there, spilling off the northern side of the mountain, lay the Kitakama ridge, all broken black teeth and dismal spires. As quickly as it had revealed itself, the clouds again took the mountain. I hurried on along the ridge as the wind tugged and threatened.

The hut lies in a saddle between Mt Otensho and the Ushikubi peak, which boasts “Wonderful views of Yari and a 360 degree panorama” according to the map. It was already late afternoon, and I was considering where I might bivy for the night, when the owner emerged. He glanced at the ironmongery on my pack, the helmet and the rope, and asked simply “Kitakama?”. I nodded. He had a friendly smile and relaxed air, quite unlike that of many of the hut owners of the Alps, not a few of whom have gone mildly insane.

“You look well kitted out for it. And you seem strong enough. I get a few through here each year, and I try to check ‘em out. Once in a while you get a bumbly who thinks the Kitakama might be a pleasant stroll. I try to tell them to turn back. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they get halfway and make it back here in a terrible state. Sometimes they never come back, and I read about it in the newspaper later on… So, where to tonight?”

I tell him I’m looking for a place to bivy. He says that there’s no-one else at the hut tonight, and that I’m free to stay for the knockdown price of Y1000.

“As long as you make your own food. Oh, and if you can do me just one favour….”

If you ever stay at the Otensho hut, then know that the English instructions for the chemical toilets are original CJW prose.

The next morning, we climb the Ushikubi peak together to watch the sunrise. He points out the route up the Kitakama.

“Go down the Bimbozawa and cut left up the river to the Kitakama couloir. Careful on the Bimbozawa, it might be frozen this early in the morning. Follow the Kitakama col up to where it forks, and make sure you take the right-hand gully. The left hand is a death trap, people have died in there.”

Black clouds roll in from the north. The metallic tang of snow is sharp on the wind now, and presently we are peppered with flakes. The hut owner tells me not to worry, that the forecast is good for the next couple of days, and that this will shortly pass.

I thank him for his advice, and make my way to the notch in the next saddle where a small sign proclaims the entrance to the Bimbozawa. Literally ‘Poor Gully’, it lives up to its name. The top is a mess of creeping haimatsu pine, followed by a 750 vertical meter, boulder choked decent. It’s dry until the bottom section, where a sulfurous waterfall spills from the cliffs above. A crumbling rope leads down a steep, slippery slope at one point; I don’t trust it, so I use my own. It’s a grueling two hours of work before I reach the river of the valley floor, bruised and cut. I slap a bloody hand print on a nearby rock, a primeval marker, before diving my torn hand into the icy waters.

The clouds swiftly depart as I reach the entrance to the Kitakama col, leaving an azure ceiling flecked with mares’ tails. It’s a short climb to the fork, where I stop to fill my water bottle. This may be the last place to take on water until I reach the Yari hut on the other side; even so, I can only take three liters with me, a perilously small amount for such a venture.

I climb into the right-hand gully, up over the grinding boulders. In places, house-sized pieces of rock bar the way, compelling me to take off my pack while I boulder to their tops. Hauling the pack up behind me is strenuous work, made no easier by its maddening tendency to get stuck half way up.  It’s hard work, especially after using so much energy descending the Bimbozawa. The head of the col hovers in constant sight, but seems to draw no nearer, until presently the oppressive walls open out into a grassy slope just below the top. A warm slab of rock makes a welcome seat with views across this lonely valley. Japan is such a crowded nation, and yet in this little corner of the land, I am the only member of my species in this valley and probably the next.

Too quickly, long-fingered shadows creep towards my sunny seat as midday passes. Shouldering the pack once more, I take the final few meters to the ridge proper and for the first time gaze out over the soft contours of  Mt Washiba and Mt Suisho to the north, and the Yellow Sand ridge that stands between us.

The wind blows colder here. Icicles hang from the cliffs, and the remains of the morning’s snow remain dotted over the ground. A little further on, a rope of reasonably modern vintage snakes down a cliff face. I clip into the end of it, give it a few bounces and it seems secure enough. I’m able to mantle up and round the knoll to the left, where the terrain becomes a little easier. The line of the ridge leads due north for a few hundred meters, before swinging round to the west, for which I’m grateful; climbing on the north side of the ridge, the afternoon sun brings heat even as the chill wind whisks it away.

There’s no path to speak of. The scant accounts I’d read of the climb suggested that “route-finding was paramount” and that faint traces of sporadic track may be apparent. The recent typhoon, however, seemed to have scoured the mountain clean of any human activity, so my route would lie with gut and intuition. After traversing several sections, I spot a shiny brass-coloured new piton sticking out the rock. Secure, I anchored my rope to it and moved out across a thin ledge, slinging a solid rock flake on the other side before traversing back to undo the far anchor. Soloing like this is a slow game. Further on, a short chimney was marked by an ancient piece of knotted rope, and a rusting piton more ancient still. It moved horrifically in its crack as I tugged on it. I ignored it, took off my pack again and shimmied backwards up the crack, again hauling my pack up behind me. From the top it occurred to me that I should perhaps have cut the old rope off or kicked the piton out, death-traps that they were, but I was now too high above to reach either.

By mid-afternoon I’d reached a spire with a small, flat top, and pleasing views of Yari and the surrounding mountains. I decided to call this home for the night. I built a small wall from rocks to keep the bitter wind at bay, huddled behind it and watched the sun dip into the clouds that cloaked the horizon.

Yari seemed to fill the sky now, demanding attention. For a long time I gazed out along the ridge, trying to make out the lines of the peaks and spires that graced its length, imagining the route of the next day.  Finally, the sun disappeared somewhere into the Sea of Japan, and a pale half moon rose to throw its light over Yari’s flanks.

I noticed with alarm that my breath was clouding the air, and that the frost had already started to settle on my sleeping bag; I hurriedly tucked it into my bivy sack. I had a notion to make a small fire, maybe put some warmth into me before heading to sleep, but after half an hour of pointless scrabbling around in the dark for firewood, I realised that I was simply getting colder. The mercury hit minus eight as I burrowed into my sleeping bag, where I lay looking up at the planetarium sky that wheeled overhead, the milky way streaked with shooting stars.

Sleep came in dark, dreamless fits. The wind swung in the night, making a mockery of my carefully built wall, seeking out the small breathing hole in the bivy bag and chilling my cheeks and nose. Around midnight, the need to pee exceeded the need to stay warm. Clambering out in my underclothes, I stood shaking like a loon on this little peak in the sky and unleashed a stream at the setting moon. The thermometer now read minus twelve, and I was more grateful than ever that I’d brought the winter sleeping bag.

An abrupt, sharp red line across the horizon marked the morning, and with it a cloudless sky. By the time I’d finished the contortions of dressing while still in my sleeping bag, I was reasonably warm again. I drank a liter of Earl Grey tea as I watched the sun creep above the distant mountains, throwing beams of copper light over Yari’s dark, austere face. Packing quickly, I noted a lightness to the rucksack that was at once welcome and worrying; it meant I was out of water.

The first hour was over easy ground, simple climbing up and down over easy blocks of solid rock. Then came the first serious down climb, a crumbling tower with loose shale, simple enough but a tiring fight against the constantly shifting ground, and punctuated with occasional and unnerving rockfall. The thermometer still showed minus ten on the shaded north side, and the wind ripped in fearsome gusts.

Back on the ridge, I traversed to the sunward side and basked there for a few minutes, letting the heat come back to my hands. An easy crack lead down to a short traverse, and then to a chimney bedecked with aging slings and rope loops at its top. I climbed up it and added one of my own slings to the collection, before rappelling down into another chimney on the other side. The rock here was smooth, white limestone, loose and riddled with cracks. My rope ran out five or so meters from the bottom, and a rising sense of panic started to grip my chest. I forced myself to take slow, deep breaths and tried to consider my options. A rope-free down climb was out of the question. Swinging out, though, I could just make out a line a little further along. I pulled off the prussic loops from my harness and laboriously climbed back up to the anchor, traversed over and found a shorter, safer route to the scree below.

Across the talus the going was easier, but the windward side of the ridge was another world . Dark and bitterly cold, the spires loomed above, black against the early morning sky. I pulled out the iPod, but even Jimi couldn’t hold up against the shrill tear of the wind. The far off peaks of Mt Tsurugi and Mt Tateyama lay to the north, already cloaked in snow, and glorious in the bright late autumn sunshine.

An icy rime covered much of this side of the mountain. Time and again I had to melt it from the next foothold with my bare hands, which were now swollen and red with altitude and exertion. The pads of several fingers had split on the granite and the cold; every sharp edge now seemed to seek out those very wounds. Yari was close now, and towered over everything below it, an oppressive, omnipotent and uncaring god. At that moment I realised that, as much as I loved the mountains, they did not think one iota of me. At length the last gully of the Kitakama lead me wearily back to its ridge for the final time, out of the darkness, out of the cold.

A flat section of ground marks the Kitakama-daira, where the remnants of old camps lay scattered around; grotesquely twisted, ancient metal tent poles; a few rusting tin cans stuck between rocks; the remains of a broken whiskey bottle. With the end in sight, I moved rapidly over the broken blocks that mark the base of Yari’s summit pyramid. A quick traverse to the south side and fifty meters of easy climbing up the face led to the base of two chimneys; the whole face here is studded with ancient pitons, rusting, useless and mostly unnecessary. The southern chimney gleamed in the sun, but with my pack on and climbing solo, I found couldn’t wedge my way up it without perilously overhanging the valley below. Reluctantly, I returned to the sunless northern chimney, noting reluctantly the rotting rope that draped down it, and the rusting piton that held it at the top.

Again, the pack proved problematic, but I was loathed to remove and haul it. To the right, however, I spied a better line and quickly squeezed my way upwards to the ledge at the top. Here, though, the rock rose again above me, overhanging, severe. A single nut was wedged into a crack just above head height. Surely not this way, I thought… I moved to the right, and rounding the corner of the ledge found a series of diagonally sloping cracks. My fist dug deep and tight into the first of them, my left foot hopping to a solid placement behind a blue fin of rock. Left hand reached high and found a thin hold that just took the pads of three fingers. A quick, coordinated pull and the right foot was neatly jammed high in the crack. With one more push I was there. A solid flake led up the last few meters where I clambered onto the summit, much to the surprise of the two old ladies who reposed there.

Too dehydrated and exhausted to speak, I could only motion in the general direction of the ridge when they asked where I had come from. They shrieked and jabbered as they peered over the edge, quickly pulling back and gripping their fists with fear. At the little shrine on the summit, newly refurbished, I pulled off my helmet and gave long thanks to the gods. The mountains were arrayed in every direction, crystal clear in the cold air, from Fuji in the south to Tsurugi in the north.

I’d survived.

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Epilogue

At the Yari hut below the summit, I stripped off my layers and took off my hat for the first time in three days. A couple asked me where I’d climbed from, and I told them; the wife had read Nitta Jiro’s account of Kato Buntaro, the famous climber of the early 20th Century. She knew that he’d met his death on the Kitakama, and excitedly insisted on a photograph. I stood there, wild haired and bemused, drowning in the warmth of the sun and human company.

The old man on the Gendarme was only partly right. The Kitakama is, without doubt, a hard, hard route. And while there may be no children or crones up there, it had in turns made me as scared as a babe in arms and as weary as an old woman, struggling to take the next step.