Neophytes recapitulate alpine history on Japan’s second-highest mountain
Below us, a primeval sea-monster heaved itself out of the clouds. We'd traced our way over its back and now, ebullient with relief, we looked back at our line, a ridge route straight up the face of Japan’s highest alpine peak. All afternoon, the looming headwall had menaced us with imagined difficulties to come – but when we got there, we found we could skirt the cliff on easy slabs. Kita-dake’s frown had turned into an indulgent smile.
We'd seen this line as soon as we awoke from our road-head bivvy. We kept it in view as we sweated up the bouldery valley under the weight of our packs, pushing to make up for the late start. We were bleary from lack of sleep, but this was a line worth travelling for. There it was, soaring up the edge of the buttress, a ladder into the mid-summer sky.
Then we lost our line. Or rather it slid out of sight behind overhangs as we clambered up the talus slope. Bemused, as if by a fox, we cast about for a clue. The route description, photocopied from a guidebook short on detail, wasn't much help: find the ridge, it said, and climb it to the top.
A passing climber sorted us. You can go up there, he suggested, pointing to a white smear on a nearby wall, or you can take that spur yonder. We voted for the second option; it looked friendlier. We were deceived. The spur lured us into a steep thicket, booby-trapped with rotten logs and boulders looser than the morals of Kabuki-cho.
Half an hour later, filthy with sawdust and leafmould, we emerged onto scree. Across the gully, at last, we recognized No.4 ridge. We'd found our line again. The rest was easy. We started our climb from a cluster of rusty pitons and trodden-out cigarette butts that marked the first belay ledge. Accommodating crack-lines ushered us up easy slabs. As we moved higher, pitch by pitch, clouds started to boil up around us, but before they closed off the view, we glimpsed Fuji looming above the nearby ridgeline.
It may have been from that standpoint, somewhere near Hapomba Col, that the banker, mountaineer and writer Kojima Usui first set eyes on Kita-Dake in 1908. He settled on the English word "buttress" to describe the pyramidal spur that shores up the mountain's eastern cliffs. And, as Kojima was a founder of the Japan Alpine Club, the name stuck when he wrote up his trip in Sangaku, the club’s journal.
It took another twenty years for climbers to venture onto the Buttress. The first to try was Takahashi Kenji, in 1929, leading a four-man crew from Kyoto University. They climbed No.5 ridge – perhaps trundling some of those lubricious boulders – and North-East Ridge. They also named the cliff's salient features, such as the Matchbox, and numbered its ridges from one to five.
Nobody had yet plumbed the central reaches of the Buttress. That task fell to a Rikkyo University team led by Sakai Yoshikuni in August 1932. They tackled No.3 ridge, then traversed across to No.4 ridge and climbed its upper part. This left ridges Nos. 1 and 3 for climbers from Tokyo Shodai. Finally, Matsunami Akira pioneered Chuo-Ryo, the highest, most difficult line, in 1942.
Unaware that we were recapitulating Japanese alpine history, we worked our way upwards. Holds came easily to hand on the aery spine of this ridge and our climbing shoes gripped well on the lichenous rock. Amusing misunderstandings arose over climbing calls; there was a Mark in each of our two rope teams.
Suddenly, it was over. Perched on a convenient branch of creeping pine, we eased the climbing shoes from our sweaty feet. We packed away the gear, swung our packs onto our backs, and made our way up to the summit, now wrapped in drifting clouds. It was too late to get back to Tokyo, so we stayed overnight in a hut. Everyone else piled out at 4.30am to watch the dawn, but we slept on. The rising sun could have gone nova for all we cared.
Two months later, I was back on the Buttress. Or, to be precise, I was poised on a steep slab of magnificent porphyry, just above an overhang. A few feet away, a rusty but solid-looking piton beckoned with its promise of security and (if admissible) direct aid. But getting there would take an act of faith.
I scanned the slab again; perhaps I’d overlooked some thank-god hold (“gubba” in local parlance) or foolproof ledge. No: the move would have to be made on miniscule rills – what English-speaking guidebooks like to call “rugosities” – and faith in the properties of climbing shoe rubber soles. Suddenly, the autumn breeze blew chill.
The twin climbing ropes sagged from my Troll harness down to a stance below the overhang, where Yamada-san had them belayed on a figure-eight. He said nothing, but a twitch in the ropes as he took up slack told me that he expected action. We weren't well acquainted yet, but I was already tuning in to his extensive repertoire of non-verbal signals.
Yamada-san had turned up at our hiking club’s monthly meeting, looking for people to climb with. His employer, a pump manufacturer, had brought him back to Tokyo after a sales assignment in Gunma. While in that mountainous prefecture, he’d honed his climbing skills under local tutelage – it was alpinists from Gunma who made a winter ascent of Chris Bonington’s famous Everest South-West Face line. One of them was photographed smoking a cigarette on a belay stance at 8,000 metres. Perhaps the route wasn’t hard enough for them.
I’m not sure what Yamada-san was looking for in our easy-going club. Maybe he didn’t know himself. “Do you do alpine?” he asked me. “We do,” I replied, thinking of our recent visit to the Buttress. “Then how about Pyramid Face next weekend,” Yamada suggested.
One should carefully check the guide-book before accepting such invitations. But too late now. We made our approach with dispatch. Instead of the slow night train, we arrived in Yamada-san's hard-driven Subaru and walked far up the valley to a bivvy site close under the cliff. The October day would be short and we needed to get an early start. Instant noodles and espresso-style instant coffee were tipped down before sunrise and then, with the upper tiers of the Buttress steeped in the orange light of dawn, we half-ran up the talus slope. Frost pillars pushed out of the earth beside the path.
As we roped up under the route, an angry hornet hummed past us. Or so I momentarily thought, until disabused by the snap of a ricocheting stone. So that's the drone of falling rocks, I realized, just as advertised in the mountaineering classics. In those innocent days, we scarcely gave a thought to the possibility that stones could hit people. Or, if they did, surely our neat grey carbon-fibre helmets, then at the height of fashion, would deflect all incomings.
Yamada-san led off, which left me two or three pitches later to confront The Move. Still no comment from below; the twin ropes remained motionless. You have to trust your feet, I told myself, edging a red-and-grey Boreal climbing shoe – remember those? – onto a rill. Trying to convince myself it wouldn’t slip, I slowly eased my weight onto my left foot, then stretched upwards towards the piton, scrabbling at my harness for a quick-draw as it came within reach. Could I have been so remiss as to weight the piton as I clipped the rope in? Never mind, now the abyss below could yawn in vain …
It wasn’t until we’d finished the route – early enough this time to get back to Tokyo – that I realized that a test had been set. A fail mark would have been awarded for backing off or, worse, falling off the pitch. As it happened, our easy-going hiking club seemed to have made the grade: Yamada-san would climb with us.
That winter, the weatherbeaten white Subaru criss-crossed Honshu in search of snowy mountains to ski-climb. In spring, we honed our rock skills on local crags, then moved out to sawas and the Japan Alps in high summer. Yes, we did alpine. To make that official, Yamada-san formed a club, affiliated to the Japan Workers Alpine Federation, the only such organization that would let us in. So it was that we became Alpine Workmen.
We went back to the Buttress every summer. We may even have studied it intensively. The rock, by the way, isn’t porphyry at all, but rather a purple-dyed chert, laid down in some deep-sea trench of yore. Unlike Yari, with its ignimbrites or the granodiorite towers of Takidani, Kita-dake is the very model of an alpine-type fold mountain. So it has “preserved the heritage of its sedimentary strata intact, while Hodaka, Yari, and Shirouma, like rebel angels, have invoked plutonic forces to raise them aloft.” Actually, Hyakumeizan author Fukada Kyuya said that about another mountain in the Southern Alps, but it fits Kita-dake too.
The geology has some practical implications. Curving away down the face, the sedimentary strata overlap like giant tiles, creating a series of overhangs for climbers to surmount. Sometimes the upper layer of rock has started to spall away at these steps, leaving massive blocks to impend over the abyss with no apparent means of support. We approached such places tentatively, as if tip-toeing into the presence of unexploded bombs.
A particularly fine and intimidating set of overhangs looms over the top of the buttress, next to No.4 Ridge. This is Chuo-Ryo, the Central Ridge. “How about it, then?” Yamada kept asking. This time I checked the guidebook before committing myself. “The concave overhang is surmounted using artificial techniques,” I read. A glance at the topo revealed that the first pitch was graded IV+, A2 (5.10a), a shorthand for tangled etriers dangling and twisting from dubious pitons. I told Yamada I would study his proposal intensively, but before that could happen the bottom of the route crumbled into space one winter night. Honour was saved.
The Buttress has certain protocols. One is to start early, if you want to stay above the cloud that boils up on most afternoons. Another is to keep clear of D-Gully, the natural conduit for stones dislodged by climbers above. Clearly, we’d not taken these rules sufficiently to heart when I found myself stymied in D-Gully one afternoon, unable to move up or down. Cloud cut off all views, so that we hovered, Andy and I, in a grey bubble, the cliffs fading into nothingness above and below.
Spreadeagled across the gully’s angle, with legs trembling under the strain, I took in the blue bell flower growing out of a crack within inches of my nose. Above it, just within reach, winked a rusty piton. I considered the options. I could try to climb free, in which case I might slip, or I could grab the piton. Around that time, the mountaineering magazines carried an advertisement for a certain brand of climbing rope. Under a picture that showed a climber peeling backwards from a cliff, the tagline read “Special moments”. We couldn’t afford one of those here.
Yes, I could grab the piton, and afterwards the blue bell-flower would still nod in the breeze, secure in its earthy crack. But the climbers might be at the bottom of the cliff. We’d been lucky to avoid that fate a couple of years back in Takidani, when a pin pulled out during an aid move. And here was no friendly ledge to break the fall.
‘Watch me,’ I called down to Andy, superfluously. Then I stuffed a toe in the earthy crack, and udged upwards, hand fluttering upwards over the stone, bypassing that temptress of a piton, seeking the fingerhold that should, that must be there. I found it, a neat indentation in the wall, hidden from below, and moved my feet up. A ledge, running sideways, liberated me from the slimy corner and I set up a belay. When Andy came up, he pulled out the suspect piton with one tug of his hand.
Two years later, we judged ourselves sufficiently proficient – we’d survived, anyway – to organize a mass ascent of the Buttress. Two cars, carrying eight Workman Alpinists, converged on Hirogawara, where our patron joined us, a Himalayan veteran (G2, not by the normal route), from Gunma. The carpark was empty: on this last-but-one weekend in October, Yamada-san had chosen to call the weather forecast’s bluff.
We walked into a boulder field and pitched the tents. A pleasant evening round the camp fire ensued, faces overheated by the nearby flames and backs dampened by the autumn drizzle. By Gunma standards, we kept the drinking within modest limits. October days are short.
At 4.30am, when we started up the stoves, Orion reclined on the neighbouring ridge like a Roman patrician at a banquet. It was still dark when we started walking, and we were already pushing through the stunted mountain birches under the cliff when the sun peeped over the eastern hills. Here we split up to tackle three different routes.
I headed for No.4 ridge, to give Araki-san and Yoshiko their first experience of alpine climbing. A couple of stones bounced down the white rake of C gully as we started out, adding to the authenticity of the occasion. Two pitches up, a short traverse to the ridge proper took us through another stand of birch, leaves yellow and sere.
As we climbed higher, Fuji floated into view over the lower mountains to the south. Today it juggled lenticular capclouds like straw rainhats, stacking one on top of another. Yoshiko led a section of white rock, stepped like a staircase, and then a harder move took us onto the dinosaur’s back, a spine of rock leading to the mountain’s upper reaches. My companions laughed at the novelty of the height and the exposure.
While we abseiled down to the purple slabs below, ready to start the final three pitches to the top, Yamada-san’s rope appeared behind us. Topping out at the withered branch of creeping pine, I noticed that, since our last visit, some predator appeared to have taken a chunk out of the ridge below. The rocks seemed to be eroding away even faster than we could climb them. I glanced at my watch. Not even 2pm yet. Perhaps the Buttress had taught us something about time discipline over the years.
In July, the faint trail to the summit passes through a flower meadow, but yellowing grass was all that remained now. On the summit rocks, already rimed with ice, I called Yamada-san on our two-way radio to let him know that we would start down. The rain set in again after we’d reached the camp site and picked up the tents.
Back at the cars, Araki-san offered to drive but was soon snoring in the left-hand seat. Conversation flagged as we drove up into the gathering gloom. I glanced in the mirror: Chiemi huddled in a corner, nodding off, Yoshiko asleep sitting bolt upright, a samurai daughter. Soon we would be on the motorway and I could delegate the driving to the Subaru’s cruise control.
A week later, I went back with another aspirant. We started too late and, as we crossed the pass into the Southern Alps, a snow-squall blotted out the peaks. We wandered about trying to find the previous week’s campsite, while the fitful moonlight made everything look different. In the morning, snow had dusted every ledge and rill on the Buttress. The alpine season was over; winter had come to Kita-dake.
With its clean-cut lines, Kita-dake is the all-surpassing aristocrat of the Shirane Sanzan ... That spire-like summit block towering into the skies, that pyramid without a hint of the facile, that elegance unsullied by frivolity, all these add up to a spell-binding beauty. Fuji is there for everybody, but this is a mountain for philosophers.
- Fukada Kyuya: One Hundred Mountains of Japan
Nihon Hyakumeizan by Fukada Kyūya in a forthcoming translation as One Hundred Mountains of Japan
山の地膣学講座 北岳、深海底からの手紙 by 佐藤岱生 in 岳人 9.93号
日本のクラシック。ルート７ バットレズ弟四尾根 in 山と渓谷 １０．１９９３号