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Alone in the Lion’s Den

High on the flanks of Gunma Prefecture’s Mt Komochi, the striking outline of Lion Rock (Shishi-iwa) is visible from the Kan-etsu Expressway. Its six pitches of compact andesitic face-climbing make it the perfect place to escape from Tokyo in spring and autumn.

Approaching the car park on this particular day I note with apprehension that mine is the only car. As I’ve come to rope solo the route, I decide that’s what I signed up for so I might as well embrace the solitude.

After an hour of steep hiking, Shishi-iwa appears through the thinned-out birch forest above. Usually there would be several parties gearing up or on the route, but not today.

I set my bottom anchor on a tree at the base of the first pitch, stack the rope in my pack, attach my self-belay device and I’m off. The first pitch of the route always feels tricky, reliant on friction, and it takes time to get my head into the right space. After a brief pause I make the crux rock-over, follow a steep groove rightwards, and I’m at the anchor. I fix my rope, rappel and clean the pitch, then re-climb. Rinse and repeat.

The second pitch laybacks up an enormous detached flake, there but for the grace of god. At the top I mantel over onto the narrow dirt terrace below the crux thirrd pitch. This pitch is consistently steep and fingery, delightful face climbing, and today it feels smooth as I clip one bolt after another. At the crux undercling I throw my right leg out wide and gently shift my weight across, then after a few more vertical meters I’m on the sloping shelf sorting out my anchor.

The friction slab of the fourth pitch goes without incident, and soon I’m midway up the fifth. A minor route-finding error sends me up the wrong way, and I endure a tense moment at the top. The sixth and final pitch is steep but short lived, and I dispense with the rope altogether. A final scramble and I’m on the summit. The views are sensational and I relax into the moment. Feeling the sun on my back and the sting of andesite in my nostrils, I decide to linger in the Lion’s Den a while longer…

For full route descriptions of some of Japan’s finest alpine climbs, check out Tony’s book 10 Classic Alpine Climbs of Japan,” available on Amazon in print or e-book.

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