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Alpine Climbing in Japan: Legends of the Genjiro Ridge

For a long time Tsurugidake was regarded as the dwelling place of demons. No place for men. Its razor-sharp ridgelines and sheer cliffs were too difficult, too dangerous. It was literally the last blank spot on the map of Japan, an unknown. That is until 1907, when a rivalry between a military map-making expedition and the Japanese Alpine Club brought about its first ascent. Or so they thought…

Alpine Climbs Japan Genjiro

Legend has it that when the Japanese Alpine Club arrived at the 2,999-meter summit they found the remains of a spearhead several centuries old. Nobody knows the identity of the lone visionary who braved the valleys of hell to slay those ancient demons and leave this spearhead there at the top of the world.

Of all the iconic alpine variation routes on Mt. Tsurugi, there is something special about the Genjiro Ridge. Viewed from the upper reaches of Tsurugi-sawa it appears impregnable; flanked by sheer walls of rock and vegetation, and rearing up over 1,000 meters from the valley floor directly to the summit, through two gigantic rocky pinnacles. It presents a vision both terrifying and alluring, and viewed from this aspect, the crux of the puzzle appears to be just getting onto it in the first place.

But as is so often the case, those early pioneers of Japanese alpinism were able to root out an ingenious way through, and in July of 1925, the great Kinji Imanishi gifted us one of the most beautiful variation routes in the Japan Alps.

My own adventure on the Genjiro began with a 2:45 a.m. alarm call in the tent at the Tsurugi-sawa Campground. I always find sleep an elusive luxury the night before these things; and after the previous day’s tortuous approach from Tokyo, involving multiple train connections, the trolley buses and ropeways of the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, and then the slog with heavy packs over the Bessan Col, this night was no exception. At such times a good strong cup of coffee insulates the fragile psyche from the mental construct of what we are about to attempt.

Cinching our harnesses and shouldering backpacks, my climbing partner Riccardo and I set off down the faint trail into the lower reaches of Tsurugi-sawa by the light of our head torches. We soon reached the top of the year-round snowpack, recently classified as a glacier, but opted to stick to the trail hugging the slope above, rather than tangle with the hollow mess of late-summer conditions we could see below us. 

After some time, the steep snows of the Heizotani Valley appeared on our left, as the dawn turned the sky salmon pink. It was time to begin the search for the elusive access point to the foot of the Genjiro.

Alpine Climbs Japan Genjiro

The Japanese topographic maps show two ways of accessing the ridge: the “Ridge Route” and the “Runze Route.” The latter is the way to go in spring snow conditions, when the gully (runze) is full of snow, presenting a steep but straightforward snow slope. In summer conditions it is very difficult, steep and full of loose rock, with some hard climbing and sparse protection; much better to take the ridge route, which offers a well-worn trail, easy to follow. An hour later, having learned this lesson the hard way, we eventually located the ridge route and were off to the races.

This initial climb was unremittingly steep but well featured, and we soon got into a decent flow, punctuated by one short section with in-situ pitons that required the rope. As we began to get above the trees and into the haimatsu (dwarf pine) zone, we encountered one particularly exposed slab that prompted Riccardo to reflect on the limits of his free-soloing comfort zone. Eventually, after several hours of grind, we emerged onto the summit of the first of the Genjiro’s grandiose pinnacles.

The depth of the exposure around us was dizzying, and my eyes were constantly drawn to the ramparts and pinnacles of the famous Yatsumine Ridge, across the open air of the Chōjirodani Valley. Continuing over the pinnacle, a steep down-climb brought us into a narrow and improbable col, with a sheer and uninviting ascent on the other side. As is always the case on this ridge though, what appears improbable from a distance always reveals a path through as you get closer. Picking our way up the near-vertical arête on the other side, we were struck by how much we were enjoying ourselves.

From the top of the second pinnacle the fortress of Tsurugi’s summit reared into view, as I approached an in-situ rappel anchor on the cliff edge above the col that connects the second pinnacle to the upper mountain. I arranged the rope, slid down the 30 meters to the col, and then sat down to eat and drink while I waited for Riccardo to make the abseil.

The way to the summit was now open to us and, mindful of the ever-present chance of afternoon thunderstorms in the Alps in summer, we hustled across to the final ridgeline. The ridge seemed to steepen in reverse correlation to our energy levels, and after what felt like endless scrambling, I glimpsed the summit shrine above me, and climbed out of the void and onto the small perch of Tsurugi’s summit.

Alpine Climbs Japan Genjiro

Wispy afternoon cloud swirled gently around us as we chatted to a couple of hikers, and arranged our summit photos. The weather looked stable, and the pressure was off, so I indulged in some time to rehydrate and reflect on past experiences there; like the magnificent 12-pitch left arête of the Chinne, just beyond the head of the Yatsumine Ridge.

Alpine Climbs Japan Genjiro

As the afternoon wore on, we slowly picked our way down the normal “Bessan Ridge” hiking trail, across the infamous “Kani-no-yokobai” traverse, until we arrived at the Kenzansō Hut. Back on relatively flat ground once again we donned our face masks, the new reality of these coronavirus times, and sprawled out on the steps of the hut to enjoy an ice-cold beer.

It had been a truly wonderful and memorable day with a good friend. And as we sat reminiscing about the Genjiro, I was filled with both gratitude and admiration for Imanishi-san and all of his contemporaries from the Golden Age of Japanese alpinism, and for the body of classic routes they left behind. 

Alpine Climbs Japan Genjiro

Other Hikes Near Mt. Tsurugi

If alpine variation routes are not your thing, there are plenty of other less technical options around the Murodo Plateau.

  • Enjoy the history and drama of the famous Kurobe Dam, traversing the North Alps on the mind-blowing infrastructure of the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route.
  • Take a relaxing stroll around the hiking trails of Jigokudani, with an onsen at one of the huts.
  • Traverse the three peaks of Tateyama, one of Japan’s three famous holy mountains.
  • Enjoy the hike up neighboring Mt. Dainichi, with unbeatable views across Toyama Bay.
  • Spend a night at the Tsurugi-gozen Hut on the Bessan col, and photograph Mt. Tsurugi at sunset and sunrise.
  • Challenge your mind and body with an ascent of Mt. Tsurugi by the normal “Bessan Ridge” hiking trail.

Learn more about Tony Grant’s latest book in the Amazon Store, “10 Classic Alpine Climbs of Japan (Volume 2).” Tony’s newest book is packed with invaluable information for climbing enthusiasts.

Read More Stories from the Autumn 2020 Issue

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