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Kitakama

The old man and I sat on the peak of the Gendarme, that towering granite spire, watching the early evening clouds boil around the summits of the North Alps. From our lofty seat, the world below appeared as a sea of white foam dotted with an archipelago of dark mountaintops. The pyramid of Yari stood tallest of all those islands, an unmistakable black spear thrusting toward the heavens. The old man pointed slowly toward that distant peak.

“There’s another route up Yari, you know. You won’t find it on any of the maps. There aren’t any old women or children up there, either. It’s a hard route. I’d reckon not one in a hundred thousand climb Yari from that side. They call it the Kitakama Ridge,” he said.

From that moment, Kitakama consumed me.

A year later, I started climbing up the steep wooden slope from Nakabusa Onsen to Enzanso Lodge. Fair weather had drawn weekend crowds, now making their descent after taking in morning views from the summit of Mt. Yari. It’s not for nothing this mountain is known as the Ginza of the Alps.

By midday I’m at the top of the slope. The weather is fine, but at the ridge a sharp north wind cuts up from the valley on the other side. I pull on a jacket and start the walk to tonight’s destination, the hut at Otensho. Yari is shrouded in billowing clouds until they part for an instant revealing Kitakama Ridge and the enormity of the mission ahead.

It was the first time I had glimpsed Yari from this side. As impressive as it was from the other direction, nothing could match this view. A defiant middle finger of rock thrust skyward, making the roundabout peaks seem dwarfish and dull.

There, spilling off the northern side of the mountain, lay the Kitakama Ridge, all broken black teeth and dismal spires. As quickly as it revealed itself, the clouds took it back, leaving only a terrible, faded image burned into my retinas. I turned my back and hurried along the ridge as the wind tugged.

The hut lies in a saddle between Mt. Otensho and Ushikubi Peak and, according to my map book, boasts “wonderful views of Yari and a 360-degree panorama.” It was already late afternoon, and I was considering dropping down to the valley where I might bivy for the night, when the hut owner emerged.

He glanced at the ironmongery on my pack, the helmet and the rope, and simply asked, “Kitakama?” I nodded. He had a friendly smile and relaxed air, quite unlike that of many of the hut owners of the Alps, not a few of whom had gone mildly insane.

“You look well kitted out for it, and seem strong enough. I get a few through here each year, and I try to check ’em out. Once in a while you get a ‘bumbly’ who thinks the Kitakama might be a pleasant stroll. I try to tell them to turn back. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they get halfway and make it back here in a terrible state. Sometimes they never come back, and I read about them in the newspaper later. So, where to tonight?” he inquires.

I tell him I’m looking for a place to bivy.

“There are bears in the valley, “ he says, “and they’re hungry this time of year.”

It seems more than an idle sales ploy. There’s no one else at the hut tonight, and he offers to let me stay for the cut rate of ¥1,000.

“As long as you make your own food. Oh, and if you can do me just one favor…” he adds.

Apparently he’d recently had trouble explaining the workings of the chemical toilet to a group of foreign hikers. Now the toilet features English instructions, courtesy of yours truly.

The next morning, the hut owner and I climbed Ushikubi Peak to watch the sunrise. A wan disc struggled above the horizon, but was soon swallowed by iron gray clouds. There, he pointed out the route up the Kitakama.

“Go down the Bimbozawa gully and cut left up the river to the Kitakama couloir. Careful on the Bimbozawa; it might be frozen this early in the morning. Follow the Kitakama col up to where it forks and make sure you take the right-hand fork. The left is a death trap, people have died in there,” he warns.

Black clouds now roll in from the north. The metallic tang of snow is sharp on the wind, as we are peppered with flakes. For a brief moment I consider calling off the climb. The hut owner tells me not to worry, the forecast is good for the next couple of days, and this will pass shortly.

I thank him and make my way to the notch in the next saddle where a small sign proclaims the entrance to Bimbozawa. Literally “Poor Gully,” it lives up to its name. The top is a mess of creeping haimatsu pine, followed by a boulder-chocked 750-vertical-meter descent. It’s dry until the bottom section, where a sulfurous waterfall spills from the cliffs above.

At one point, a crumbling rope leads down a steep, slippery slope. I don’t trust it, so I use my own. It’s a grueling two hours of work before I reach the river of the valley floor, bruised and cut. I slap a bloody handprint on a nearby rock, a primeval marker, before plunging my torn hand into the icy waters.

The clouds swiftly depart as I reach the entrance to the Kitakama col. It’s a short climb to the fork, where I stop to fill my water bottle. This may be the last place to take on water until I reach the Yari hut on the other side. I can only take three liters with me, which is not going to be enough.

I climb into the right-hand gully, up over boulders. In places, house-sized blocks of rock bar the way, so I take off my pack and haul it behind me while I boulder up. It’s strenuous work, especially after using so much energy descending Bimbozawa, and made no easier by the pack’s maddening tendency to get stuck halfway up.

The head of the col hovers in constant sight but never seems to draw nearer. The oppressive walls open out into a grassy slope just below the top of the gully. A warm slab of rock makes a welcome seat to take in the views across this lonely valley.

Too quickly, long-fingered shadows creep toward my sunny perch as mid-day passes. Shouldering the pack once more I travel the last few meters to the ridge proper where, for the first time, I gaze out over the soft contours of Mt. Washiba and Mt. Suisho to the north, and the yellow sand ridge that stands between us.

The wind blows colder here. Icicles hang from the cliffs, and the remains of the morning’s snow dot the ground. A little farther on, a rope of reasonably modern vintage snakes down a cliff face. I clip into the end of it, give it a few bounces. I mantle up to where the terrain becomes a little easier.

The ridgeline leads due north for a few hundred meters before gratefully swinging around to the west. The afternoon sun heats up the north side of the ridge even as the chill wind whisks it away.

There’s no path here of which to speak. The scant accounts I’d read of the climb suggested “route-finding was paramount” and you may find faint, sporadic traces of a track. The recent typhoon, however, seemed to have scoured the mountain clean of any human activity, so I’d have to rely on intuition.

After traversing several sections, I spot a shiny brass-colored piton sticking out of the rock. I anchor my rope to it and move out across a thin ledge; I sling a solid rock flake on the other side before traversing back to undo the far anchor. Soloing like this is a slow game.

I come upon a short chimney marked by a tattered piece of knotted rope and a rusting piton that moved horrifically in its crack as I tugged on it. I ignored it, took off my pack again and shimmied backwards up the crack.

Once at the top it occurred to me I should have cut off the old rope or kicked out the piton, but now I was out of reach of either.

By mid-afternoon I’d reached a spire with a small, flat top with pleasing views of Yari and the surrounding mountains. I decided to call this home for the night. I built a small wall from rocks to keep the bitter wind at bay, huddled behind it and watched the sun dip into the clouds that cloaked the horizon.

Yari seemed to fill the sky, demanding my attention. I gazed out along the ridge, trying to make out the lines of the peaks and spires, imagining tomorrow’s route. Finally, the sun disappeared into the Sea of Japan, and a pale half moon rose to throw its light over Yari’s flanks.

I noticed with alarm frost had already settled on my sleeping bag so I hurriedly tucked it into my bivy sack. I had a notion to make a small fire to warm up with before heading to sleep, but after half an hour of scrabbling around in the dark for firewood, I realized I was getting colder.

The mercury hit minus eight as I burrowed into my bag, looking up at stars shooting across the planetarium overhead.

Sleep came in dark, dreamless fits. The biting wind made a mockery of my wall, seeping into the small breathing hole in the bivy bag and chilling my cheeks and nose. Around midnight, nature called. I clambered out, shaking like a loon on this little peak. The thermometer read minus 12, and I was more grateful than ever I’d brought the winter sleeping bag.

Abruptly, a red line across the horizon signaled morning, and with it a cloudless sky. I drank a liter of Earl Grey tea, the last of my water, as the sun creeped above distant mountains, throwing beams of copper light over Yari’s austere face.

The first hour was over easy ground and solid rocks. Next came the first serious down climb, a crumbling tower with loose shale, simple enough but a tiring fight against constantly shifting ground and occasional unnerving rock falls. The thermometer still showed minus 10 on the shaded north side, and the wind ripped in fearsome gusts.

Back on the ridge, I traversed to the sunward side and basked there for a few minutes, letting the heat come back to my hands. An easy crack led down to a short traverse and then to a chimney topped with aging slings and rope loops. I added one of my own to the collection before rappelling down into a chimney on the other side. The rock here was smooth, white limestone, loose and riddled with cracks.

My rope ran out five or so meters from the bottom, and a rising sense of panic started to grip my chest. I forced myself to take slow, deep breaths and considered my options. Climbing down without a rope was out of the question. I laboriously climbed back up to the anchor, traversed over and found a shorter, safer route to the scree below.

Across the talus the going was easier, but the windward side of the ridge was like another world, dark and bitterly cold. The far-off peaks of Mt. Tsurugi and Mt. Tateyama lay to the north, already cloaked in snow, glorious in the bright, late autumn sunshine.

An icy rime covered much of this side of the mountain. Time and again I had to melt the next foothold with my bare hands, which were now swollen and red with altitude and exertion. The pads of several fingers had split on the cold granite and every sharp edge now seemed to seek out these wounds.

Yari was close now, oppressively towering above. At this moment I realized that as much as I love the mountains, they don’t think one iota of me.

The last gully led me wearily out of the darkness and cold and onto the ridge for the final time. A flat section of ground marked Kitakama-daira where camp remnants lay scattered around.

With the end in sight, I moved rapidly over the broken blocks that mark the base of Yari’s summit pyramid. A quick traverse to the south side followed by 50 meters of easy climbing up the face led to the base of two chimneys, studded with ancient pitons, rusting, useless and mostly unnecessary.

The southern chimney gleamed in the sun, but with my pack on and climbing solo, I couldn’t wedge my way up without perilously overhanging the valley below. Reluctantly, I returned to the sunless north chimney, noting the rotting rope that draped down from a rusting piton at the top.

The pack again proved problematic, but I was loathed to remove it. I spied a better line to the right and quickly squeezed my way up to the ledge at the top. Here, though, the rock rose again to a severe overhang. A single metal nut was wedged into a crack just above head height. “Surely not this way,” I thought.

I rounded a corner of the ledge to the right and found a series of diagonally sloping cracks. My fist dug deep and tight into the first, my left foot hopping to a solid placement behind a blue fin of rock. Reaching high, my left hand found a thin hold for the pads of three fingers.

A quick, coordinated pull and my right foot was neatly jammed high in the crack. With one more push I was there, clambering onto the summit, much to the surprise of the two old ladies who reposed there.

Too dehydrated and exhausted to speak, I could only motion in the general direction of the ridge when they asked where I had come from. They shrieked and jabbered while peering over the edge, then quickly pulling back and gripping their fists.

At the little shrine on the summit, I pulled off my helmet and thanked the gods. The mountains were arrayed in every direction, crystal clear in the cold air, from Fuji in the south to Tsurugi north.

I’d survived Kitakama.

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