Climbing Yarigatake, Japan's fifth-highest peak, is no small feat
Yarigatake translates into “Spear Peak” for a good reason. Its sharp, steep, pyramidal profile points skyward, and, with the exception of Mount Fuji, it’s the most photographed mountain in Japan.
In 1892, British climber Walter Weston became the first reported foreigner to climb Mount Yarigatake (pronounced Ya-ree-ga-takay) in Japan’s Northern Alps.
One hundred and ten years later, I followed in Weston’s footsteps to that same summit at 10,433 feet.
I’m not an experienced hiker, but I have climbed Japan’s two highest peaks — Mount Fuji (12,385 feet) and Kita Dake (10,470 feet) — and Aino Dake (at 10,460 feet, the fourth-tallest mountain in the country). There are 24 peaks that exceed (9,840 feet) in Japan, and I’ve done three so far. Twenty-one to go.
In October, I made my first foray into those rugged mountains to experience the “Roof of Japan.” Accompanied by Spence Palmer, a seasoned climber and co-worker, I was out to “bag” another 10,000-foot summit.
The plan of attack was to start at Shin-Hotaka Onsen, hike to the saddle (a low spot on a ridge between two peaks) at Sugoroku, climb the Nishi-Kama Ohne ridge to the Yarigatake hut and then make a push for the summit.
Around noon, our van pulled into one of the seldom-used gateways to the Japan Alps, the Shin-Hotaka Onsen area. The trail we’d be taking starts there, but we weren’t hitting it until the next day.
On our first day, we acclimatized our climbing muscles and lungs by catching a cable car to Mt. Hidari Mata (7,068 feet) and spent a couple of hours hiking to the Shin-Hotaka hut at 8,052 feet.
That night, we hunkered down in a Toyota van, trying to get some sleep in the limited confines of the 4-foot bench seats. Shortly after 5:30 a.m., with the sun peeking over the eastern wall of the valley, we strapped on our 35-pound packs and headed for the trailhead. I asked how long of a day we could expect.
“About six hours’ trail time,” Spence said, referring the map’s prediction to our destination. It was almost 7 a.m. when we took that first step on our three-day climb. By Spence’s reckoning, I estimated our time of arrival at 1 p.m. at the Sugoroku campsite. Little did I know that we were still an hour away from the “official” trailhead at Wasabi Daira.
Around 8 a.m., we came to the trailhead at the Wasabi Daira Hut, where we took a short break. We bought two cups of coffee that were served up in fancy cups and saucers. Sitting at hand-strewn log tables and tree stump stools, I couldn’t believe we were embarking on a hike into the wilds of the Northern Alps.
On our way up the route, Spence pointed out cairns (a French word denoting “piles of rocks” that mark the trail). At the trailhead, the rocks were painted with white O’s, indicating which direction a hiker should follow. I thought they would be more effective if they had arrows.
“Are they always marked with a white O?” I asked.
Spence said it varies a bit. Sometimes, yellow or red paint would mark the way, and other times, it would be yellow, blue, white or red streamers.
As far as trail marking in Japan goes, it boils down to using just about anything to guide hikers into the upper reaches of the mountains. I think I saw an old pair of underwear hanging from a branch along the trail once. It was nice for Spence to point this out, because moments later, he was out of sight, and I was hiking solo.
The trail led out of the rocky landslides onto a beaten dirt path that “switch-backed,” or zigzaged up the mountain. I spent the time focusing on the task at hand. “One foot in front of the other,” continually ran through my mind as well as some cheesy cadence lines I still remember from Navy boot camp.
Halfway through the first day and ascending at a pretty good pace, I saw clouds gathering behind me. We had checked the weather forecasts religiously before heading out, and overcast skies were promised for our three-day hike. As the clouds moved in around me, they brought in some mist.
“No problem,” I said. I passed another climber as he strapped his pack cover over his backpack. I figured he was being overly cautious. The mist continued to thicken, though, and I decided it was time to join the cautious.
Within 20 minutes, it started to rain, and then I noticed a pattering noise all around. Tiny pieces of ice were bouncing off of my new North Face jacket. While the hail continued, I tried to be optimistic.
“At least hail doesn’t make things wet,” I thought.
Hail might not, but snow sure does.
Looking to my left, my eyes focused on a single flake of snow falling from the heavens. I asked myself, “Is this a joke?”
It was October after all and still in the 60s and 70s in Tokyo. I stopped in my tracks and surveyed the sky. Sure enough, snow was falling in light flakes and was starting to blanket the area. Spence and I had been so concerned about rain we hadn’t considered hail or snow.
I met up with Spence around noon at Kegami Daira or what is known as “Field of Mirror Lakes,” a hut area on our approach to the saddle at Sugoroku surrounded by shimmering ponds. Spence had been there a while, and we sipped tea as we watched the snow continue to dust our route.
We didn’t linger. Because of the rapidly accelerating snowfall, our leisurely hike up the mountain was now a march against time. We only had four hours of daylight left, and visibility was decreasing. We had to make our destination before sundown or risk being encased in a possible whiteout.
Back on course, the snowfall became heavier. The unplanned weather didn’t make for any additional obstacles on the trail, but occasionally my pack top would rub against overhanging trailside shrubbery, sending a cascade of snow down my back. The situation was approaching critical. With less than an hour of daylight left, I turned a trail corner and, through the fuzzy curtain of falling snow, saw the hut at the Sugoroku saddle. A wooden plank about 300 feet long led the way to the cabin, and the warm interior of the hut was a welcome break from the cold. We had finally met our first goal.
Spence had set up his cooking gear on a small wooden table in the entrance hall. With his pack and jacket off, he seemed perfectly at home in the cabin, a scene straight out of an L.L. Bean catalog. Coffee was on the boil and not a minute too soon.
“It’s gonna snow more tonight, then get really cold,” he said.
The sub-temperatures would freeze the snow and erase the trail to the Yarigatake hut. Since the next portion would entail climbing an exposed ridge to the summit, I wondered if we were ready.
Spence had spoken with Sugoroku’s hut master, learning the weather forecast and sharing our intended route. The hut master also expressed reservations in Japanese: “Do you have ice-climbing gear?” — crampons (spikes attached to the bottom of boots for purchase on ice) and ice picks.
We had neither, but Spence didn’t seem overly concerned. “I’m not too worried about it,” Spence said. Maybe he wasn’t, but …
‘Left and up’
Our original plan was to set up our tent at Sugoroku’s campsite, but because of the snowfall, we decided to shell out the 5,000 yen ($41) per person to grab a room and a warm bed in the hut. We resolved to wake up before dawn and hit the trail if we wanted to make it to Yarigatake’s campsite the next day.
Since this was near the end of climbing season, we had a six-person room to ourselves. The mountain huts in Japan are actually oases in the wilderness. This hut could accommodate up to 300 people, but on this day, we counted about 20 hikers total in the hut. The facility provides futons, pillows and hot meals, for a price. Costs for hut rooms range from 5,000 yen to about 8,500 yen (up to $70), depending on if you’re eating meals provided by the employees.
After a long day of hiking with very little to eat, it was time for major relaxation and a hot meal. We hauled our cooking gear and food down to a “cooking room” at the back of the hut. With a full, warm stomach, I hit the rack. Spence set his watch alarm for 4:30 a.m., so we could pack up, have coffee and hit the trail before the sun did. Darkness enveloped me as I dropped off into a dead sleep, and morning came too quickly.
“Remember,” Spence said the next morning at the trailhead, “we gotta keep moving today to make the peak. So I’m going to keep going at my pace, you keep going at yours.”
Spence and I switched some gear before we started hiking. I gave him the tent, pegs and cooking gear; he gave me his sleeping bag and some extra food. The idea was that he would get to the campsite before I did and set up camp. Once the tent was up, we’d drop our packs and make a final push for the summit.
Spence gave me one final piece of advice: “When you get to where the trail splits, go left and up, not right and down.” I nodded in understanding. “Left and up,” he said again. And with that, he was gone.
The day before’s flurries left about 2 inches on the ground over a thin veil of ice, and I followed the trail by looking for Spence’s boot prints. The first hour and a half was a steady uphill climb. The snow had sputtered to a halt, and the brisk, clean, morning mountain air filled my lungs.
It was a beautiful morning, and I felt refreshed and ready to tackle that snow-covered ridge. After the initial switchbacks, I hit the ridgeline I’d follow for the rest of the day. The morning was cloudy, and I knew I was missing out on some incredible scenery. No worries, though, I needed to keep focused on the task of getting to the summit of Yarigatake.
As the sun became brighter, it burned a hole through the clouds, and I had a clear view of the entire ridgeline. I broke out my camera and snapped a few photos. Off in the distance, Yarigatake’s summit punctured through some high clouds. It seemed — and it was — miles away.
When Walter Weston saw Yarigatake for the first time he wrote, “Its peak was like a church’s steeple at a great distance.” I had to agree.
According to my map, from Sugoroku to the point of “left and up” was about four hours. I had already spent three hours following Spence’s boot prints in the snow. From the trail split to the campsite was another two hours.
I navigated the split — up and left was apparent because down and right would have led off the mountain and below the tree line.
But what didn’t seem right was the two-hour trail time from the split to the campsite.
I could see the Yarigatake hut ahead, and even Spence, making his way along the ridge, was in view. I couldn’t believe I had gained so much distance on him. I relished the idea of catching up to him.
I should’ve known better.
The trail became steep, and then even steeper. The snow became thick, and then thicker. I trudged along at a snail’s pace, sometimes through near-knee-deep snow. After what seemed to be an hour, I glanced back at the distance I had covered, and it looked to be only a hundred feet or so.
“I’ll never make this in two hours,” I said, reversing my earlier opinion.
I had one advantage: I didn’t have to break a trail through the deep snow. Spence had done the post-holing all the way to the hut and allowed me to conserve some energy for that last push.
I was now on the final ridge, looking at where we would set up camp. It got steeper. I wished for the crampons and ice pick Sugoroku’s hut master suggested.
Worse, my CamelBak was out of water, so I ate snow for hydration. I didn’t know if this was a good move or not, but I needed something. I didn’t want to become dehydrated at high altitude. (I was later told it was a bad idea because I may have caused hypothermia.)
For the final approach, I set goals for myself: “Ten more steps, and then take a rest.”
When I finally reached the campsite, I was thrashed. The final ridge had wasted me, and I hadn’t had water in a while. My body needed to take a break. Spence was already at the campsite, and the tent was nearly set.
“I can’t summit today,” I somehow managed to force through my labored breaths.
“What?” Spence asked quizzically.
“I’m finished, done, thrashed,” I said. “I can’t do any more.”
He looked at me, smiled and said, “Hey man, drop your pack, take a break, and I’ll cook up some coffee and ramen.”
I had already made up my mind, though, and I knew my body was shutting down. Making a summit push was the last thing I was going to do. The coffee and ramen came soon after. I rested, drank the coffee and devoured the ramen. It was the most delicious meal I’d ever had.
After getting some fuel in me, I re-evaluated the situation. Here I am, about 20 minutes from the peak of Yarigatake. I have to summit. If I don’t, I’ll never forgive myself. A second wind came to me as the caffeine kicked in, and my stomach went to work on the noodles.
“Let’s do it,” I said.
The final section to make the summit of Yarigatake requires some rock-climbing skills, of which I have none. We’re talking a three-point, hand-and-feet, clinging-on-for-dear-life rock climbing at an altitude of more than 10,000 feet. I thought I had conveyed this shortcoming to Spence, but he took off up the peak anyway, leaving me by myself. This didn’t bother me much; if I died, it would be on his conscience, not mine.
I saw Spence above, guiding a lost woman up the rocks toward the summit. I was just behind them. Successfully negotiating the rocks, I faced the last hurdle: a 20-foot steel ladder bolted to the mountain.
Pulling myself up the last rung, I realized I could relax just for a minute, as I had completed the climb of Yarigatake. There was no longer any more “up.”
I stood on the exact spot where Walter Weston stood in 1892 on the “point of the spear” and looked out over distance: innumerable jagged peaks jutted through the blanket of thick white clouds.
Oddly enough, summiting the mountain is rather anti-climactic. You may think the culmination of your efforts is felt in a rush of wonder as you glance at the world below. This wasn’t the case for me, anyway. The summit was simply a bunch of rock similar to the rock I’d climbed all day.
I had more important things on my mind: eating and sleeping.
Not to mention, the immense dimensions, wind and height filled me with a primitive, child-like instinct: “me get down from scary place.”
We snapped a few photos, sat for a moment and then descended the rock toward our tent.
The sun went down, and the air immediately chilled. What was a sunny, comfortable afternoon became a cold uninviting night. We took advantage of a room in the hut that allows hikers a place to warm themselves and use their cooking stoves. After sharing stories and food with our fellow climbers, we headed to the tent for our last night on the mountain. I hit my sleeping bag at 7 p.m., and in seconds, I was out cold.
My shivering body woke me from a deep sleep sometime in the middle of the night. With the sun warming the other side of the Earth, it was damn cold up at 10,000 feet. I hadn’t planned on the sub-freezing temperatures and was now paying the price.
The wind raked the tent constantly, and the frigid breeze pierced through the lining. I grabbed my sweat-soaked socks from a drying line inside the tent only to find they were no longer wet, but frozen. Stuffing them in the bottom of my sleeping bag, I hoped my body heat would defrost and dry them out.
Bad became worse.
I had to go to the bathroom. “I’ll just hold it until the morning,” I thought. I couldn’t.
Wearing only my thermals and a jacket, I stumbled out of the tent, jumped bare-footed into Spence’s ice-covered sport sandals and ran. It was the most awful environment I’d ever encountered.
The wind blew at what seemed 60 mph and made the temperature a tundra-like 10 degrees. I was outside for only 30 seconds, but it was the longest 30 seconds of my life.
Falling back into the tent, I dove back into my bag and shivered wildly. The bag — which earlier seemed like a cold meat locker — was a tropical paradise compared with the arctic-like temperatures outside. The socks were still cold, but I put them on anyway. I shivered, and shivered, and shivered.
Spence’s watch beeped several times during the night/early morning, and I hoped it was signaling 5 a.m. so we could rise, break camp and get the hell out of there. But it was not to be. I spent the next four or five hours lying in my bag trying to get warm and get some shut-eye.
Finally, the watch alarm went off. The all-encompassing darkness of the mountain night begins to lift, and the sun brightens the inside of the tent. We make a beeline to the hut for some hot coffee, so we could prepare for the return hike to the car.
Bidding Yarigatake a fond farewell, we hit the trail back down the mountain.
“We’ll be out of this cold in 20 minutes,” Spence said as we slipped and slid down the steep rocky course toward the distant tree-line. The downhill trail was simple and well marked. It would be this way all the way down to Shin-Hotaka Onsen. Spence, of course, had moved on ahead.
Yesterday’s trail of snow and dirt was exchanged for rocks — large and small. About 30 minutes down the mountain, I looked up to see the snow-covered trail we had used just the day before. The snow had all melted. The morning of misery was shaping up to be a beautiful day. The sun warmed the mountainside, and I took off my jacket.
The day became a blur from that point: “One foot in front of the other,” stepping on rock after rock — and cursing at the rocks. I took my time and soon found the trail led to a rock roadway. The last stretch.
About an hour away from the van, I saw Spence. He was coming toward me. He said he had made it to the vehicle about three hours ago and was beginning to worry about me. I didn’t realize I was that far behind.
He offered to take my pack, but I refused. You’ve carried it this far, what’s another hour?
Before long, the van was in sight. I had a fresh pair of everything in there. I wanted to sprint toward it but thought I might fall apart if I did.
Spence popped the van’s back open, and I hoisted my pack in. Relief rushed over me as the weight disappeared, but I don’t think it was completely because of the 35 pounds coming off my back. It was at the point that I realized the trek was finished. My three days “in the bush” were over, and I was alive to tell the tale.
Lots of people wonder why mountain climbers do it; why they spend their vacations torturing themselves in primitive conditions. I think the answer is as unique as the climber. Spence and I never talked about the “why;” the “how” seemed much more important. And, now that it was over, the “where can we get a big steak?” was the top priority.
Spence Palmer contributed to this story.