The Kitakama ridge continued: unknowingly, we take a break on a col that was the scene of a famous mountain tragedy ...
Perched on the roots of a mountain birch, we ate our cheese butties and looked down on the wooded col. The dappled sunlight filtered through the trees, suggesting to us a sylvan idyll - until we noticed, scattered among the weeds, the rusting tins, empty gas cartridges, and shreds of tent fabric that hinted at desperate struggles against the elements. This col, we surmised, could be a happening place.
Indeed it can. In the summer of 1949, a search party moved south from here, scanning the snow for tell-tale clues just like the ones in front of us. Soon they found an abandoned cooking pot, then a shovel and a glove. Acting on this evidence, another group struggled up the trackless valley to the west of the Kitakama. And there they discovered the bodies of the two climbers, still huddled in the melting snowbank of their last bivouac.
Matsunami Akira was born in 1922 at Sendai, in the same year that the Kitakama ridge was first climbed. He made a name for himself as a mountaineer before graduating from middle school, even soloing a route on the fearsome cliffs of Tanigawa's Ichinokura-sawa. Because it was convenient for the Northern Alps, he applied to Matsumoto's elite high school, but was detained on Hodaka by a snowstorm on the day of the entrance examination.
That forced a change of plan. Moving to Tokyo, he joined the famous Tosho-keiryūkai club and passed the entrance exam for Tokyo Agricultural University, already a hotbed of mountaineering activity.
Now began the heyday of Matsunami's career. While some top climbers specialise in a particular cliff or region, he was everywhere, putting up new routes on Tanigawa, on Yatsugatake and in the Southern Japan Alps. The first winter ascent of No 1 Ridge (topo below) in Takidani in February 1939 was a milestone in the advancement of Japan's alpine climbing standards.
When the war came, he was drafted into the army for two years, being demobilised in 1946. Those were hungry and bleak years in Japan's burned-out cities. They didn't quench Matsunami's spirit. In July 1948, he made the first ascent of Kitadake Buttress's Central Ridge (Chuo-ryō), a climb that most mountaineers still prefer to admire from a safe distance.
Around the same time, he conceived his boldest plan yet. With just one companion, Arimoto Katsumi, he would traverse the highest mountains of the Japan Northern Alps from end to end, in mid-winter. They would start by climbing the Kitakama, cross the narrow and exposed Dai-Kiretto, and scale the heights of Oku-Hodaka before descending at the foot of the Yake-dake volcano.
As if the route's length and technical difficulties were not enough, Matsunami and Arimoto decided to do without pre-placed dumps of food and fuel. Nor would they call on support parties, as was common practice for winter expeditions. That meant they'd have to carry twenty days' food and fuel on their own backs, as well as all their climbing and camping gear.
The weather was against them from the start. Matsunami went into the mountains ahead of Arimoto, planning to lift one load of supplies to the ridgeline before his friend joined him. While he was camping on the Kitakama, a day of unseasonable heavy rain soaked his tent. Then the temperature plummeted, freezing the canvas into an icy block.
When Arimoto came up to Yumata, the climbers decided to leave the tent behind; it was now too heavy to carry. Instead, they would dig snowholes or huddle under a flysheet ("zelt"). This was a fateful decision. On December 30, they crossed the suspension bridge at Yumata, heading for the Kitakama. The next day, they made their first bivouac on the ridge, shivering under the flysheet as it was lashed by hail and sleet. It was the worst night out that either had yet experienced.
On New Year's Day, the storm strengthened into a full blizzard, piling a foot of new snow onto an icy crust. Neither crampons nor snowshoes would work in this pother, but the pair made it as far as Kitakama col - where we were now sitting - into which they dug a snowhole. Then they did their best to dry out their sodden clothes over the roaring stove, until it started sputtering and misbehaving.
The storm pinned them in their snowhole for the whole of the next day. Until Matsunami could fix the stove, they had to burn petrol in an open can to stay warm and melt snow. Soot blackened the walls of the snowhole, but their clothes stayed sodden. Now they had to decide whether to go on or go down. Just at this critical juncture, the climbers looked out of their snowhole and saw a starry sky. Then Matsunami managed to jury-rig the stove.
Next morning, they went forwards. With Arimoto breaking trail, they made it to the foot of the Doppyō, a large pyramid-shaped peaklet on the ridge, by the evening of 3rd January. As the weather seemed to moderate the following morning, they succeeded in climbing the obstacle only to be caught in a blizzard of renewed ferocity as they came down the other side.
It was on this afternoon, in hindsight, that the jaws of the trap sprang shut. In the snowhole that evening, Arimoto discovered that he had second-degree frostbite to his feet. Later, the gale blew in the door of their shelter, covering the climbers with spindrift and soaking and freezing them anew.
With retreat to the north blocked by the bulk of the Doppyō, the climbers decided to jettison as much gear as possible - these would be the telltale relics found by the search party - and stake their lives on a dash towards Yari. But when they struggled out of the remains of the snowhole into the relentless blizzard, they found the straps of their crampons frozen into a solid tangle.
Without crampons, they were forced to start step-cutting their way along the icy flanks of the ridge. Blinded by the buffeting gusts of spindrift, Arimoto slipped and fell into a gully on the western side of the ridge. As he was too exhausted to climb back, Matsunami went down to join him. Unable to regain the ridge, they forced a way downwards through chest-deep snowdrifts. At 3pm, they dug another snowhole.
On January 6th, the blizzard still raging, Matsunami begins to sense there is no way out. His whole body is freezing; he's at the end of his strength. Arimoto can no longer move. Somehow, he himself could probably get down to Yumata, but that would mean leaving Arimoto alone. He can't do that, so he decides to stay and die. It is six o clock when he makes the decision to die with Arimoto, he records.
"Mother," he writes in his diary, scribbling with a pencil stub gripped in frost-bitten fingers, "thank you for your love - I'm about to join my father. We can't do anything more. Please forgive me. Ask Inoue-san to fix everything." He writes to Inoue, and puts in a note to other friends too: "Arakawa-san - sorry I couldn't return the sleeping bag."
And then: "We die, we dissolve into water, we flow into the sea, we feed the fish, then we become some body again; we just borrow our shape and go round for ever. Matsunami." He stops writing and wraps the diary in a waterproof pouch, and that is where the search party finds it, next to his camera, six months later.
We allowed ourselves ten minutes on that greenwood col. Then Donald nodded at the cumulus clouds that were starting to boil off nearby ridges: "We'd better get a move on," he said. I bolted down the remains of my cheese butty, got to my feet and swung the faded army-green pack to my shoulders. Yes, we'd better get going. We knew little of the Kitakama's illustrious history, but the scattered gear in front of us told its own story. We didn't want to spend the night out on this ridge.
Main source for the account of Matsunami Akira's last bivouac is his diary, which is reprinted with other of his mountain writings in "Fūsetsu no Bibāgu" (風雪のビバーグ Snowstorm Bivouac), a Japanese mountaineering classic. The book also contains an account of the search parties sent out after Matsunami and Arimoto were reported missing.
Photo of Matsunami above is copyright of this blog. Photo of Matsunami and Arimoto together on the Kitakama expedition is copyright of Yama to Keikoku illustrated history of Japanese mountaineering (目で見る日本登山史 by 川崎吉光、山と渓谷社). This photo was recovered from Matsunami's camera, after the accident. Aerial photos of Yari-ga-take and the Kitakama ridge are copyright of Ohmori Kohichiro from Kusatsu Kita-Arupusu (Japan Northern Alps from the Air).