Toyohashi Alpine Club - Mountaineering in Japan
Kita-dake, Toyama Prefecture
Report by Darren DeRidder
Party: solo climb
The wind was cold. It blew up from behind me, from down in the gully below, and curled up around inside my collar. Even with my fleece and gore-tex on, it was cold climbing in the shadow of the ridge. The chunk-chunk sound of my footsteps broke the silence as I slowly and laboriously raised one cramponed boot after the other and kicked into the ice and frozen snow. My mountaineering ax scratched against the stones as I poked it down into the snow, and the forged steel adz and pick felt like a block of ice in my wool-gloved hand. "Don't stop!", I told myself, "Just keep going, even if its slow." So I kept on, one foot in front of the other, barely moving forward it seemed.
A person came down from above, moving quickly over the snow and ice. Probably one of the staff of the mountain hut over the ridge. I was surprised to see another person here. This gully was more direct than the trail which cut across the base of the buttress, but it was also too late in the season to be free of ice, hence the crampons and ice pick. I'd been walking alone like this for the last couple of hours. "Well, at least I must be going in the right direction," I thought.
The plan was to get up this gully and onto the ridge, then skirt the summit block of Kita-dake and head for the hut on the opposite shoulder of the mountain, then climb up and over the top in the morning. This had been suggested to me by a couple I met beside the stream down lower, where I stopped for a rest. I agreed; the route up the gully was quicker and it was the one I had originally planned on using, but to try for the summit yet today and then make it down to the hut on the eastern side would be cutting it too close. I had left work the night before, outfitted in my climbing gear, carrying my backpack, with my bemused coworkers looking on. I left my shirt and tie and shoes in a bundle in the staff room. There was something else I had left in there...my food. I had only a couple of Calorie-Mate bars along. I thought maybe I could get some food at the hut.
Slow and steady plodding got me on top of the ridge. I looked down the other side of the mountain for the first time, and saw the hills and valleys stretching out below. The wind was picking up and some clouds moving in. I wanted to get to the hut as soon as possible. My watch wasn't working; it was too cold and the batteries wouldn't function. I didn't know how much time I had left.
Once on the ridge I lost all sense of orientation and became completely lost. This was complicated by the fact that there were only two ways to go: up or down. Actually, a signboard in Japanese was the source of my confusion. I shouldn't have attempted to read it and just gone by my map. In the end, I pulled out the map and in an instant saw the situation exactly. All I needed to do was orient the map properly, with the gully behind me, and the summit on the right, and I could tell that I needed to continue on towards the summit before veering off to the left for the shoulder hut. As I walked along, skirting the summit block, the wind rose in it's intensity until even balancing was tricky. I was also feeling very tired. About that time a fellow came walking past me at a very brisk pace, and I exchanged a few words with him. He worked at the hut and was on his way there. He recommended the lower of two possible trails since the one that ran along the true crest of the ridge was more exposed to the wind. I followed his advice and took the lower trail. Even so, the wind was very strong, and very cold.
Ahead I could see the hut. Finally I made it. The large wooden sliding doors were all shut, and there was no-one around outside. I heaved the door open and stepped into the "boot room". There was another door into the lobby of the hut, which was heated with a kerosene stove. After being in several mountain huts, I've come to enjoy the smell and the warmth of those kerosene stoves, and the atmosphere inside the huts, when they aren't overcrowded. It definitely wasn't overcrowded at this time of year. It was late October and this was the last weekend the hut would be open. Not that it mattered...I was staying in my tent. Actually, if I'd been a week later, I wouldn't have been robbed $8 for the tent site! I thought about finding a reasonably level spot elsewhere to camp, but with the fierce wind, the spot I chose, just below rise and surrounded by low pine scrub, provided much needed shelter. Still, setting up the tent was a struggle as the wind whipped the fabric back and forth in my hands.
At the front desk in the hut, I asked about getting some food. The fellow pointed out some instant noodles at the souvenir counter. They were also expensive. $6 for a cup of instant noodles. Well, I was cold and hungry. I forked over my yen, and got handed the dry bowl of instant noodles. No, there wasn't any hot water for them. I would have to make that myself. ..."Oh, you don't have a stove? Well, O.K., just this once... we'll give you some hot water. No, you can't eat your noodles inside, you have to go outside..."
Unimpressed, I went back out into the boot room and put on my ski jacket under my goretex. The noodles were good. Best I've tasted. I'd made it to the hut much earlier than I thought. My clock still wasn't working, but the only thing to do was to secure the fly on my tent, lash things down to some rocks, and get in my sleeping bag. It was going to be cold. I was tired and sleep came quickly. Through the night, the wind battered my tent and I woke in alarm several times as it shook in the freezing gusts. Each time, I went back to sleep, assured that my tent was still on solid, level ground.
I awoke to faint morning light coming through the walls of my tent. Ice crystals that had formed inside my tent from condensation drifted down onto my face and dusted my sleeping bag. I heard some noise outside. People were getting an early start. I dove out for a look at what the morning looked like. Poking my head outside, I was greeting with a stunning sight. Mount Fuji, previously hidden by cloud, was now clearly visible, and loomed large on the horizon, rising out of a sea a mist and cloud, the sky behind was ablaze with the glow of a sunrise about to happen. I grabbed my camera, but it was frozen. I tried warming the battery in my armpit, but the sun had already risen above the horizon by the time I got it going.
After packing up in a hurry, I moved along towards the summit. Again there was a cold wind although it wasn't as fierce as the previous afternoon. Ahead of me a man in a yellow jacket was making his way along the ridge towards the summit. I tried to keep up with his pace, but with all my camping gear in my pack I had a hard time. In a few places the trail was exposed and offered some interesting situations, but as with nearly all Japanese Alps, these tricky spots had been festooned with cables and chains for hanging on to, making it completely simple to pass.
I moved slowly up the summit block and then all at once I found myself walking out onto the small flat area at the top. There were several people here enjoying the fruits of their labours, namely taking in the views. The fellow in the yellow coat happened to be a photographer and he was kind enough to take my photo at the summit beside the jumbled collection of signposts marking the summit.
I descended the opposite ridge on the east side. There was quite a bit more snow here and once again I put on crampons for part of the way down to the second hut. At the hut there was a large balcony overlooking the valley and the snow gulley I had climbed up the day before. Taking water from a large ice-topped barrel of rain-water beside the hut, I leaned against the railing and enjoyed the scenery while I having a drink. What I really wanted was some food, but it would be only a few more hours down to the trailhead.
At the hut I struck up a conversation with a friendly Japanese fellow who happened to be an ice climber. We decided to go down together and talked along the way. He offered me some granola bars and when he found out I didn't have any food, he gave me a couple more. This particular trail was very rugged and very steep. Parts of it were washed out, and there was a lot of scrambling over fallen trees and roots. I couldn't imagine trying to come up this way and was very glad for having chosen the snow gulley for my ascent.
Before long we were back at Hirogawara waiting for the bus. Private cars are not allowed this far. From there it was back to the train station in Kofu, where I had slept in a heated cubicle on the train platform with a couple old Japanese men two night before, waiting for 6:00am train after having taken the overnighter from Nagoya. Being the second highest mountain in Japan, Kita-dake was a good climb to have done, I thought.