Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Crack babies

Novice alpinists get loose in Takidani, a seminary for mountaineering skills

In the Taishō period, Hodaka became the arena for alpine and winter climbing, records Fukada Kyuya in “One Hundred Mountains of Japan”. In the seminary of mountaineering skills formed by its four three-thousanders, the youthful elite of the university mountaineering clubs ... vied to open up new routes.

Those who indulge in the Kool-Aid of alpine romanticism should watch out for the third cup - the one that, as the Japanese proverb has it, drinks you. In this case, I let a frontispiece go to my head. The grainy black and white photo showed dark rocky towers soaring out of drifting cloud. Why is hard to say, but the image was bewitching. But where was this place? I leafed through the Climbing Guide to Japanese Mountains Volume VII, where the photo appears, and found that it depicts the western cliffs of Kita-Hodaka, a prominent 3,000er in the Northern Japan Alps.

So this was Takidani, the Valley of Waterfalls. We gathered that it had a certain reputation in alpine circles. As soon as we could skive off work for a few days, we boarded the night bus for Kami-Kochi. The following afternoon we arrived at the Kita-Hodaka hut, which perches more or less atop our chosen climbing area. The hut crew gave us a warm welcome, but dinner was the standard fare – a smidgeon of scorched fish and a pinch of seaweed to help the rice down. Could we really survive a week on this?

Next morning, the hut was wrapped in drifting cloud but we set off anyway. In west-facing Takidani, you start at the top of the mountain and go down to the foot of the climb. So you sink into the shadow and climb back into the light. There’s something metaphysical in that. Approaches can be more testing than the climbs. B-Gully, which we were now descending, impressed us. The stones we dislodged at every step cascaded down the chute ahead, making a continuous rattle that sounded as dry as our throats. And, though we had our eyes fixed on our footing, we didn’t need to look up to sense the menace of the teetering pinnacles and boulders poised above our heads.

Had we but known, these gullies – labelled from A through D – are instinct with Japanese mountaineering history. When Yuko Maki ascended the Eiger’s Mittelegi ridge in 1921, the first major triumph by a Japanese alpinist abroad, he touched off an explosion of climbing exploration in his home country. On an August day four years later, two parties, one each from town and gown, started up Takidani from the valley. After clambering over three high waterfalls in the lower reaches of the sawa, they parted ways. The Waseda men went right and the Rock Climbing Club left, gaining the main ridge via the gully next to ours. They were the first to enrol in this seminary of alpine skills and I wager their throats were as dry as ours.

Leading to the start of our climb was a ledge that looked as if it would soon part company with the cliff. We edged nervously across it. According to the savants, Takidani is composed of granodiorite that originated in a pluton, a bleb of molten rock from the depths. In this, it resembles the granite cliffs of Yosemite or Mt Blanc. But there the kinship ends. Perhaps because the Takidani batholith cooled quickly, cracks seam its rocks. This makes them handy to climb but, by the same token, exposes them to the ruinous attentions of frost and water.

After the horror show of the gully, we were mildly surprised to find ourselves enjoying a climb on not altogether degenerate rock. Put up in 1932, Crack Ridge is one of Takidani’s easier classics. Some scrambling leads over a small gendarme onto “Kyu-megane Col” (maybe somebody’s glasses got smashed here). Soon afterwards, leaders must decide whether to play scissors, paper, stone for the privilege of leading the Janken Crack - or simply grab this Grade IV treat for themselves. A few more pitches led pleasantly up to the door of the Kita-Hodaka hut. We had been admitted to the seminary.

We emerged from the shadows in time for lunch in the sun. The morning mists had cleared and, below us, cumulus tops sprouted from a cloud sea. We spent the afternoon talking to Tsugita-san, a weatherbeaten guide, who pointed out other notable routes in the area. With one pitch of Grade IV under our harnesses, we felt a bit like brash young Skywalkers being instructed by the Jedi master. “What’s that gully like in winter,” I asked. “That gully is hell,” came the succinct reply.

Dinner was at five. An appealing concoction of choice meats and fish was waiting for us, with fruit for dessert. But we noticed that the other guests were eating the same standard fare as yesterday. What was going on? Fujimoto-san, our hut warden friend, murmured something to the effect that, as this was our second night, variety was the spice of life.

Next day, we decided on No.4 Ridge, the longest route in Takidani. Again, the way to the climb led down a rubble chute overhung by walls of spalling rock. Halfway down, we had to abseil a bad step. Then we had to attain the ridge itself, via a pitch of boulders embedded in a steep sandback. After that, several rope-lengths of aery ridge took us to a “Tsurum” – later we realised that this is the German word for tower in katakana-speak. Some Grade IV climbing up a headwall and an awkward move around a block saw us to the hiking path across the Hodaka range.

Dinner at the hut was memorable: larks tongues to start, followed by asparagus wrapped in parma ham, the whole presented in a sauce of maître d’hôtel Ono’s invention. Perhaps I exaggerate, but only a bit. M. Fujimoto hovered discreetly in the background, offering now and then to recharge our bowls.

That night, Typhoon 19 arrived like a motorbike gang riding into town. It was time to cultivate the gentle arts of the fester. Fortunately, Richard had brought with him “Seven Years in Tibet”, by Heinrich Harrer, the Eiger first ascensionist. Strange how that mountain runs through this tale.

In mid-morning, the door swung open to admit two very wet mountaineers escorting a dripping convoy of six obasans. The leader turned out to be Hasegawa Tsuneo, the first to climb the three great north faces of the European Alps – including the Eiger – solo and in winter. Curious to find foreign climbers on Kita-Hodaka, he brought his bottle of whisky over to our table. The level dropped steadily while he regaled us with tales of alpine derring-do.

Next morning, we had what Eric Newby would caption as a “hideous awakening”. The typhoon was still raging, not only outside but also in our heads. Nothing daunted, Hasegawa-san led his obatarians out into the rain. As we’d run out of reading material – the red hordes having booted Harrer out of Tibet – Richard decided to go down while I opted to take the air on the Dai-Kiretto. Out there, conditions were like Brighton Pier on a day when the Met Office has guaranteed there will be no hurricane. At times, rain came driving upwards in sheets. I overtook Hasegawa-san’s party somewhere underneath Minami-dake, then ran for shelter at the Yari-daira hut down in the valley.

Next month, we came back to do another route. I’d been reading “Yamagutsu no oto” by Yoshino Mitsuhiko, another Eiger north face man. Once again, we may have taken a sip too many of the alpinistic Kool-Aid. Under its influence, we decided to attempt a route that Yoshino had pioneered on the Grepon, a rock tower. So, for a second time, we found ourselves edging our way down a crumbling canyon.

It was as well for our nerves that neither of us had read Inoue Yasushi’s “Hyoheki” (Ice Wall). In this novel, the plot revolves around a mountaineering accident based on a real-life case. Like many a famous work of fiction, “Hyoheki” was first published chapter by chapter in a newspaper. This may have led Inoue to engineer a somewhat hasty denouement when the contract ran out. In any case, he eliminates his hero by sending him on a solo mission to Takidani. After climbing from the valley, Uozu Kyota reaches D-Gully. This is the last entry in his fictive diary:

3:30pm: entered D-Gully – frequent stonefall – thick ‘gas’ (mist)
c4:35pm: hit by a stone underneath the “Turm” – I’m hurt – take cover beneath an overhang under some ridge coming down from Karasawa-dake – must have lost consciousness.
7pm: awake again – have lost a lot of blood from my leg. Lower body as if paralysed, no feeling. Still thick fog. Losing it now and then.
The reason for this accident is that I went on despite the fog and didn’t take account of the unusually bad stonefall. In short: negligence.
Quite a few famous climbers have lost their lives in avoidable accidents. Now I’m following in their footsteps.
No more fog, now bright moonlight. It’s 2:15am. No more pain, I’m not cold.
It’s quiet. Infinitely quiet.

The Grepon reared like a stone cobra over our heads. We uncoiled the rope and set about the first pitch, a loose and grassy rake. Immediately, we had a problem. Our previous routes in Takidani had been so well furnished with in-situ pitons that the wedges and camming devices we’d brought with us had seemed superfluous. So this time we’d left most of the gear behind. Only to find here that pitons were far and few between, not to mention rusty and unreliable. Keyed up by the lack of protection – the rope hanging free for adventurously long spans between the pitons – we climbed straight ahead where we should have forked right.

This mistake left me standing on a pedestal below an overhang. This the guide book sanctioned as an A0 move – one justifying a pull on the in-situ pitons. I did not have much time to regret pulling on the loose knife-blade peg before entering free fall. This was bad. Hitting the sloping ledge below harder than I’d ever hit anything before was, in a sense good, because a fall into space would certainly have ripped out the rusty pitons to which Richard was belayed. Then we would both have gone to the bottom of the cliff. When I recovered my senses, I found that I couldn’t move. This was, again, bad. A few seconds later, though, I realised that the paralysis was caused only by the rope having wound itself round my limbs. This was better than it might have been.

I rejoined a worried Richard at the belay ledge and we improvised some bandages for a cut hand. Apart from that, the damage was light. Then we made three abseils from dubious pitons and rock spikes back into the shadows of C-Gully. The reason for this accident is that we strayed off route and didn’t take account of the poor in-situ protection. In short: negligence. Quite a few famous climbers have lost their lives in avoidable accidents, and we nearly followed in their footsteps.

We went back to Takidani several times after that, but usually to address routes on the Dome. These are close to the hut and one can abseil into the start of the climbs. Although the climbs themselves may be steeper than Takidani’s ridge routes, they feel safer – almost a soft touch – because they don’t involve a descent on foot into those crumbling gullies. And the Dome’s ledges are aery places. From them, the resting second can sweep his gaze over the distant rainhat of Kasa-ga-dake, then glance down more than a thousand metres to the white thread of the Gamata river. Altitude diminishes the roar of the thundering torrent to the faintest murmur. “On belay,” sounds from somewhere above and the reverie is over. One more pitch and we will climb back into the light.

One August, we camped in Karasawa, the cirque below the Hodaka range, and set out before dawn to do a climb in Takidani. We were still on our way up to Kita-Hodaka when the sun rose into a narrow slot between the horizon and a cloud deck. Having dyed the cliffs ahead a deep shade of blood-red, its rays were soon quenched by the encroaching stratus. The hint was taken – red sky in the morning – and we decided on a shorter route. Crack Ridge might do. Again we delivered ourselves into the maw of B-Gully. “This is a dangerous place,” Fujii-san kept muttering as the stones rattled down ahead of us, and I felt guilty at bringing a father of three here.

Then it got worse. The suspect ledge leading to the base of the climb had vanished, fulfilling its threat to part company with the mountain. This forced us to climb the gully’s wall, then abseil into the start of the climb. By now the clouds had come down – thick ‘gas’ – and it was snowing. But continuing up the ridge was still preferable to B-Gully. Fujii-san led the Grade IV crack without drama but seemed to take a long time setting up the belay. Cold water seeped into my shoes as I listened to the merry ring of a peg hammer from above. Clearly, my companion didn’t trust the in-situ pitons. Sensible man. For a moment, the mists parted and we glimpsed the neighbouring rock towers, clouds swirling around them. The scene looked familiar. So it should have. Once again, I was looking at that frontispiece to Volume VII of the Climbing Guide to Japanese Mountains. Only this time we were right inside it.


By the outbreak of the second world war, most of Hodaka's ridges, faces, and gullies had been explored. As Matsukata Saburō wrote, "Some nook or corner of the mountain still concealed a narrow ledge, a dance floor for a tengu, defended by sheer precipices on three sides and backed by a cliff, inaccessible to all but the true alpine adept. And, if you could only get there, the edelweiss would be blooming in sheets all around. Those were the kind of day-dreams we indulged in." Yet only a mountain on the sheer scale of Hodaka could harbour dreams like these. (Nihon Hyakumeizan)


Climbing Guide to Japanese Mountains Vol. VII Yari-ga-take & Hodaka-dake
(日本登山大系/槍ヶ岳、穂高岳)− top picture is from this book

Hyoheki (氷壁) by Inoue Yasushi, also translated as “Die Eiswand” by Oskar Benl, bless him

Nihon Hyakumeizan by Fukada Kyuya, in a forthcoming translation as “One Hundred Mountains of Japan”

Climbing Guide Books 6: Hodaka (穂高岳の岩場) Hakusan Shobo  


Anonymous said...

Thoroughly enjoyed reading this, Captain, a great account of what was clearly a set of memorable climbs.

Hodaka was looking grand in the sun the other day with the last of the snow on it.

The Wandering Hermit said...

love that one with the silliouthe of the man against the mountain and the clouds.. beautiful work and interesting read.

Peter said...

If only your posts were in a book that I could carry instead of on my iPhone. This was as exciting as parts of Into the Void. I looked down into those vertical splits only three and a half months ago. It's a part of Japan that I will never experience first hand as you did because it's simply not my purpose for climbing. But your descriptions took me into one of those places on earth that few get to experience intimately and for that I am a little envious.

It was interesting for me to read that Takidani is composed of granodiorite as much of the Hotaka massif is Hotaka ryolite (I snatched a small stone from Takesawa below Mae Hotaka some years ago and it sits on a bookshelf next to some Warusawadake chert). I have some material about the geology of the area in Japanese and I want to look it over in more detail. I have read that the area has a number of poutine that were injected into the upper mantel some 2 million years ago and are now located between 1,700 and 2,400 metres, thinking about the Kurobe pluton in particular.

Once again, an awe-inspiring read!