Life on the North Ridge

October 6, 2011 | Filed Under Uncategorized 

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.

————————————–
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.

Comments

39 Responses to “Life on the North Ridge”

  1. gen on October 6th, 2011 2:31 am

    Glad you’re back in fine form (and back from this trip too.)

  2. George on October 6th, 2011 2:46 am

    That’s what I call, “Doing Things The Hard Way”.

    The time you were on the ridge was probably the coldest days of autumn so far. I have a feeling you are being understated in how severe it was at night.

    Next time we visit the Otensho hut, we’ll look for a certain Englishman’s writings on the wall, er, toilet..

  3. TonyG on October 6th, 2011 2:46 am

    Beautiful stuff Chris. Lovely photos and a description of your climb that makes us all feel we were there with you. It’s certainly a very aesthetic ridge. One of my friends climbed it in winter, and had the bizarre experience of finding himself on the hardest bit of climbing right before the end, and being able to hear the voices of people on the summit and the hiking trail, but feeling a million miles away from them at a distance of mere metres :-)
    I think this ridge is going to have to go on the To Do list for next year…
    Cheers. Tony

  4. Hendrik on October 6th, 2011 1:49 pm

    Exquisite stuff Chris, especially the short piece about your conversation with the old man at the hut – I so could imagine it, and picture him giving you advice, and climbing with you up there in the morning to watch the sunrise, epic stuff indeed. Thank you.

  5. Chris Highcock on October 6th, 2011 9:59 pm

    Absolutely stunning photos and such a good write up.

  6. casey on October 7th, 2011 1:28 am

    beautiful pictures and prose, as usual makes me want to climb up a mountain…i realized that staring at the milky way from the top of a mountain is something i need to do in this lifetime

  7. Jason Collin Photography on October 7th, 2011 4:06 am

    Another great report. I was really surprised when you wrote two old ladies were already at the top! I guess there is a much easier route to the summit?

    How often do these hut owners get down to sea level? Is it extended time up in their huts that makes most of them crazy, as you wrote?

    Thanks for pulling the D80 (?) out at night, and well done.

    It’s hard to find a place where even Jimi cannot help.

  8. Project Hyakumeizan on October 7th, 2011 5:29 pm

    Welcome back to the blogosphere – long overdue – and congratulations not only on the climb but on what must be the first account of the Yari Kitakama in English – which is also long overdue, for such a splendid route.

    PS: yep, I think I remember the step in the gully (a dry waterfall, in fact), where you hauled your sack. Much easier to tackle on the true right bank of the sawa, where only a move or two on rock is needed (the rest being bush-pulling at about Vegetation A-zero grade…:)

  9. Willie on October 8th, 2011 1:00 am

    Wow, well done indeed. It was worth the wait. I’d eyed off this ridge a couple of years ago whilst on Washiba and wondered what it was like. A bit out of my league as yet I’d say…I’ll stick to obsessing with some unfinished business I’ve got over on the Nishi Ho Ridge.

  10. Martin Rye on October 8th, 2011 8:41 pm

    There was a lot of points where it could have gone wrong. The wrong gully that could have led to harm or worse. The risky chimney move with little rope to spare. We read that and marvel. Cold swollen hands to melt secure footholds and dehydration tell of a price paid to make the summit. Well done Chris.

  11. Alistair on October 10th, 2011 8:22 am

    What a life! Some of your accounts, especially this one, remind me of Bonatti soloing around the Alps. You remind me of the time I popped onto the top of the cobbler from Punster’s Crack to the consternation of a group of old ladies! I’m inspired to get the bivvy bag out and wander over the Cuillin!

  12. Goat on October 10th, 2011 9:58 pm

    Chris, phew, so happy you’re back – wherever “back” may be – and writing/photographing again. Don’t know if you’ll remember me, but my friend Chris Lynch and I had some occasional cyber-contact with you while in Japan in 2008 while we prepared for an adventure over there…

    I’ve been checking in quite often post-disaster and wondered if you would resume blogging – great to see good old Yari again too.

    Cheers!

  13. tracy on October 11th, 2011 3:24 am

    Recognized as one of the finest alpine climbs Japan has to offer, pulled off through a solid effort and a comfortable margin of ability that Frank Smythe would have applauded.
    Well done mate!

  14. hanameizan on October 13th, 2011 8:46 am

    As ever, inspiring photos and write-ups. It can’t be easy to crawl out of your bivy when it’s south of -8C and take those photos.

    As I looked across at Kitakama from the snug warmth of a tent on the safe Suisho ridge this last weekend, I wondered what possesses you.

    Thanks for so clearly showing that it’s no place for me and the dog to kill ourselves.

  15. colette white on October 14th, 2011 3:51 pm

    i wonder what posses him too Hanamiezan. And I’m his mum! So much for genetics.

  16. Billy on October 15th, 2011 4:54 am

    In spite of the harshness of your experience, the photos give me a relaxed feeling as I sit in my apartment on a cloudy Tokyo day…

  17. CJW on October 15th, 2011 9:27 am

    Gen – me too. And me too.

    George – from a guy who thinks the easy way off Hotaka is jumping off the ridge with a board strapped to his feet, I’ll take that as a compliment!

    TonyG – thanks! I know how your friend felt, you can very clearly hear people on top but (unless they happen to peer over the edge) they can’t see you. It did cross my mind to yell up for a rope at one point…

    Chris – many thanks :-)

    Casey – definitely. It makes all the effort worthwhile.

    Jason – yes, there are a few regular trails up to the Yari hut, which is then a quick punt to the summit. Very popular at this time of year, with the autumn colours turning in the valley below. As for the hut owners… I’m not sure if it’s the extended time in the mountains, or their natural temperament (you’ve got to be a little “different” to want to run a hut) but more than a few of them seem a little touched. That said, there are some great guys as well. And indeed, it’s a harsh mountain that can blot out even Jimi…

    Project Hyakumeizan – good to be back, and I do believe this might be the first account in English of the Kitakama ridge. I look forward to your rendition, too! You’ve remembered the gully correctly and the step – one of those where you get to the top and think “a move to the other side would have saved 10 minutes and a lot of hauling…”

    Willie – glad it was worth the wait :-) The Nishi-Ho ridge is a great climb, too, a lot of fun. Some gnarly little sections on that one, too.

    Thanks Martin. Risk management was certainly the order of the day, as was route finding. It felt like a summit well made.

    Alistair – aye, it’s not a bad life, is it :-) A night on the Cuillin sounds like a chilly endeavour, but a splendid one!

    Goat – been a while! Here’s a funny thing – I was actually thinking about your blog at one point on this climb. I had no idea you were writing again, but now I know that you are, you’re on my RSS feed. Good to see you back too!

    Tracy – cheers mate. Although in parts it felt more Frank Spencer than Frank Smythe, typically where the pack got stuck halfway up every haul. Looking forward to hearing how it goes for you this weekend!!

    Hanameizan – actually, the getting up was easy – it beat lying down. Probably a ridge better viewed from afar.

    Mum – I’m betting two uncles, a brother and a cousin that genetics might be partially to blame!

    Hey Billy – they give me the same feeling as I sit in my apartment, the equatorial sun beating down. It’s hard to think that only a few days ago I was on the top of a freezing mountain.

  18. David on October 15th, 2011 10:36 am

    Another epic adventure. I can’t believe I missed your post by one week. Great to read you again!!!

  19. Michael on October 16th, 2011 5:02 am

    Fantastic report Chris. An account of something I can only barely begin to imagine the difficulty of and without a doubt a long way from the simple hiking trails I attempt myself. I see now that the climb we made last year was little more than a stroll in the park for you ^^;.

  20. wes on October 17th, 2011 12:03 am

    Great to see you taking advantage of the weather and your periodic trips back to Japan. Fantastic weather to boot as well. I shudder to think about what that route would be like in the cloud…

  21. CJW on October 17th, 2011 4:47 am

    David – good to be back, too! The degree of epicness was rather greater than I had expected, especially that final section…

    Michael – it was a Myogi-esque climb, but without the trail. Or the fixed ropes. Or the people…

    Hey Wes – the weather was just perfect, although the temperatures and the bitter, bitter wind made it somewhat of a challenge. I read one account of some guys who did it in drizzle, and all the way along I could only think “they must have been utterly insane”.

  22. Vlad on October 17th, 2011 8:35 am

    You are finally back! What an amazing post! Again.
    Thank you for sharing your adventures, you can’t even imagine how inspiring they actually are. We are definitely lucky to have you writing this blog.

  23. iainhw on October 18th, 2011 8:06 pm

    Great write up and photos. Hopefully, one day I’ll follow in your footsteps when it’s a bit warmer.

  24. Cordelia on October 25th, 2011 3:43 pm

    Your pictures and the way you write about your climb are amazing – every time I read one of your posts I start itching to get out of Tokyo again!

    Will you ever write a post on your winter gear? I’m a first year studying 日本画 at a college in Tokyo, and joined my school’s mountaineering club this past spring. We’ve been climbing nearly once a month since then, and over Christmas we’ll be climbing Kai-koma-ga-take in the snow.
    We’ll be going up the todai-gawa valey, and then ascending. This is a route we climbed in early October as well, and while the upperclassmen have much more experience, I’m both nervous and excited to be climbing in the winter for the first time.

    One of the things I’d be most interested in hearing is what you do for layering pants and shirts. The senpai in our club all wear a heavy weight base layer shirt over a three season base layer, with a t-shirt over that, followed by a fleece, another fleece or a down jacket when it’s especially cold, and a gore-tex shell jacket on top of that. Same for pants, base layer, base layer, shell. Nearly everything is Montbell, but their sizing isn’t always the best for me, so sometimes I’m on my own looking for clothing. I’m curious whether we’re using a typical amount / typical types of gear, or if odd traditions have built up over time within our club.

    Apologies for the excessively long comment!

  25. Joe D. on October 30th, 2011 5:11 pm

    Wow. Those are AMAZING views. We don’t see that in the city too often ;) Japan looks wow. Wish I could hike it.

  26. Kyler Kelly on December 12th, 2011 7:21 pm

    Hello,

    I’m an animator. I recently completed a film that was screened at the Banff Mountain Film Festival. It’s called “The Summit”. It is about the hardest decision that mountaineers can face.

    I’m searching the web hoping to find people who would find it interesting to watch.

    It is available at http://vimeo.com/33530996

    Photography like your own, and stories of the mountain inspired me to make this film.

    Thanks

    Kyler

  27. Janna on March 5th, 2012 9:44 pm

    Wow, amazing pictures, riveting writing and heartfelt words at the end.

    Thank you for sharing your journey with us.

    Greetings from Australia,
    Janna

  28. David on March 15th, 2012 9:00 am

    Starving for the tell of a new epic adventure!

  29. Japanese Mountaineering Photos from CJW | Jeffrey Donenfeld on September 11th, 2012 1:19 am

    [...] Selection from “Life on the North Ridge“: [...]

  30. vincent François on September 24th, 2012 5:48 pm

    hi cjw!
    we are two french climbers (both of us uiagm mountain guides)and we’ll be in Japan from the 8th of october to the 6+th of November 2012. We’d like to go for easy climbs (we can’t bring too much climbing gear…) in the Japanese Alps, mostly long ridges with beavy, and we’re looking for informations about that.
    If you can help us, it would be great from you to leave us a message, or to indicate any guidebook (we don’t read japanese at all!) or usefull website.
    Thanks a lot already for your beautifull pictures and texts.
    best regards
    Vince

  31. Ray on November 6th, 2012 3:34 pm

    Great blog matey. That’s quite some outing. Absolutely stunning photos. Thanks for sharing them.

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