Saturday 5 October 2013

Mt Yarigatake, Kitakama Ridge (槍ヶ岳北鎌尾根)

Route Name: Kitakama ridge (北鎌尾根)

Mountain: Yarigatake (槍ヶ岳 3180m)

Map sheet: 37 [Yama-to-kougen-chizu (山と高原地図) series]

Difficulty: Mostly rock scrambling, but lots of exposure, plenty of fixed gear if you prefer to use a rope

Mt Yari (The spear) has four major ridges extending out from its rocky summit pyramid, each following one point of the compass.  These four ridges are Higashikama (東鎌), Yarihotaka (槍穂高), Nishikama (西鎌) and Kitakama (北鎌) to the east, south, west and north, respectively. Viewed in its entirety from Kagami-daira on the ridge between Mt Kasa and the Sugoroku hut, the Kitakama ridge is breathtakingly elegant.  The eye is naturally drawn from the Kitakama Col, up over the Doppyou and along to the shoulder, before shooting up the summit pyramid to the point of Yari's spear.  It is quite simply one of the most beautiful sights in Japan.

During the golden years of Japanese alpinism it claimed the lives of several famous climbers, in the process attaining a reputation that, rightly or wrongly, it still holds today.  If Mt Yari is dubbed 'the Matterhorn of Japan', I would argue that this is not strictly on account of its shape or stature, but is rather due to the startling similarity of the terrain on its Kitakama ridge and summit pyramid to that of the classic ridgelines of the Matterhorn, and its perfect elegance from a distance.

The approach:
There are several ways to approach the Kitakama, but the most common are as follows:

1. From the Takase dam, several hours walk before the huts at Yumata-onsen-seiransō (湯俣温泉晴嵐荘).  This is a common approach for a winter/spring ascent.

2. From Kamikochi, up the normal hiking trail to Yarigatake, but heading up to the Minamata Col on the right 1.5hrs map time after the Yarisawa hut.  From the Minamata Col, head straight down the slope on the other side and along for an hour or two to the Kitakama-deai.

3. From Nakabusa-onsen, up to the Enzan hut on the Omote-Ginza ridgeline just below Mt Tsubakuro, along past Mt Otensho and down Bimbozawa to the Kitakama-deai.

The transportation will be slightly different for each approach, but for this article I'll focus on number 3, from Nakabusa-onsen.

From the hut above the carpark at Nakabusa-onsen (1450m), the path rises on a well-marked trail up a series of steep zig-zags.  After 3 hours map time you'll arrive at the Kassen-goya hut.  Continue up for another hour of map time and you'll reach the Enzansou hut (燕山荘) at 2704m.  This beautiful hut lies just a few minutes below the summit of Mt Tsubakuro (燕岳) to the north, and was built in 1921, making it one of the oldest in Japan.

Trailhead at Nakabusa-onsen:

In the zig-zags:

Kassen-goya hut:

Enzansou hut:

The views from here are simply stunning, and if you're lucky enough, you'll get one of the finest sunsets around behind Mt Washiba (鷲羽岳) and Mt Suisho (水晶岳) across the valley!

From the Enzansou hut, head south along the Omote-Ginza ridgeline for 1h50m map time.  

Looking back at the Enzansou hut:

You'll come to a descent with a short chain/ladder section at the bottom, and shortly after this there'll be a fork in the trail below Mt Otensho (大天井岳).  Take the right fork for half an hour to the Otensho hut.

The entrance to Bimbozawa lies about half an hour beyond the Otensho hut, and is marked by an old wooden signpost.

 Binbozawa entrance:

It takes anywhere from 1.5 to 3 hours to cover the 700m descent of Bimbozawa, depending on your pace.  It's not difficult, and the trail is pretty clear as long as you keep looking for it.  About 2/3 down you'll hit water, and generally the trail stays on the left side of the sawa from there.  At one point near the bottom there is a slab with a green fixed rope hanging down it, but it's not high and the rope is quite unneccessary.

Eventually you'll reach the exit of Bimbozawa, marked by a large piece of pink tape hanging from a branch (note: It goes without saying though that this pink tape might not be there forever, so don't rely solely on this to know where you are.)

As you enter the main Amagami river valley, turn left and walk up for around half an hour along the boulder-covered river bed.  There are reassuring cairns in places along the riverbed, but it's easy to follow.

You will shortly reach the Kitakama-deai, a broad area in the riverbed with spaces for tents among the boulders.  Many people choose to camp here, and then climb the ridge to Yari the following day.

The Deai marks the entrance to the Kitakama-sawa.  Walk up the boulders in this sawa, and after about 10 minutes you will come to a fork.  If you realise you've been going for much more than 10 minutes and haven't found the fork, turn around and go back to try again.  It really is not far up the sawa.  It is vital that you take the right fork!

Take this right fork, and then head up an easy but steepening trail to gain about 700m in height.  After between 1-1.5 hours you'll pull over onto the Kitakama Col.  There is room for one or two small tents here.  Take a moment to savour being here, as this is the start of your climb.

The climb:

Plaque at the Kitakama Col:

The first hour or so from the Kitakama Col follows a very clear hiking trail, up a mix of mud, tree routes and easy rock.  It is steep in places, as you are ascending to the base of the Doppyou peak, but is easy to follow.

Enjoy the views across to the crumbling yellow weetabix rock of the Iou ridgeline to the northwest, and to the perfect triangular pyramid of Mt Jonen to the southeast.

Once you arrive at the Doppyou traverse, things get more interesting.  A path will take you on a rising traverse up to the bottom right corner of the Doppyou.

From there you'll need to make a short exposed move round the corner, and then across a very narrow but well-featured ledge.  There is a piton at the start of this move, in case you feel you'd like a belay across the traverse.

Once over the ledge, continue on to the foot of a short chimney with fixed gear.  Don't pull on the rope, it is in terrible condition, and the climbing is easy enough.  Climb this chimney, then continue along and up onto the pinnacles, following the clearest trail you can find.

The ridge continues north, then swings round slightly to the northwest, before turning north again.  I won't describe this section in too much detail, as I dont want to detract from your sense of enjoyment of the route.  In brief though, continue along the trail for a couple of hours by choosing the path that appeals most to you.  In many places there are paths skirting round the pinnacles on the west (climber's right) side of the ridge, but you can stick to the ridge top the whole way, scrambling up and over all the pinnacles if you like.  We found that a much more enjoyable way to do it.  The climbing is always involving and interesting, but never too difficult.  If you prefer the security of a rope, there are plenty of options for natural protection, and abseil points at the top of all the downclimbs.

Eventually you will come to the historic Kitakama-daira, a flat area on the shoulder below the final summit pyramid.  There is room here for a couple of tents.  Be warned that this is no place to be caught in bad weather or a storm, and good climbers have met their end here in such circumstances.

Looking up from Kitakama-daira to the summit:

From Kitakama-daira continue scrambling up large jumbled boulders to the start of the final climb up the left arete of the summit pyramid.  The climbing on the pyramid looks complex from below, but is never difficult, and a path always presents itself up the rocks.

About 3/4 up you will come to the first of two chimneys.  There is fixed gear hanging down it, and you can climb it via the easier left crack and then a traverse across into the main chimney, or tackle it straight on up the vertical right crack.  It's well featured with holds, but as always on this ridge, if you prefer a rope, there is plenty of scope for gear, both fixed and natural.

A short way above the first chimney you will reach what many regard as the crux of the Kitakama... The final chimney to the summit.  The exposure is tremendous, but the chimney is well-featured, and a few bridging moves will bring you to the top, from where a final short scramble will bring you out onto the summit of Yari from behind the shrine.  If there are any hikers on the summit, prepare to be photographed and treated with astonishment as you pop into view!

A classic North Alps climb, rich in the history of Japanese alpinism, and highly rewarding.  The climbing is never particularly difficult, so it's not the most technically challenging of the classic alpine ridges, but the Kitakama is remote and serious and there is plenty of potential to get into trouble out there if you're not prepared.  This route is typically done in 2 or 3 days, but nowadays it is also not uncommon to complete it in a single push in under 24 hours from trailhead to trailhead.  Choose your strategy according to your strengths, and then revel in the pure joy of following in the footsteps of the greats, along one of the most beautiful and aesthetic ridgelines in Japan!


  1. Tony, how long does it take from Kitakama-Deai to the peak? Either over all the pinnacles or skirting around. Interested in going this weekend but Grace (you might know her) has some schedule limitations.
    Andy Duggan

  2. Hi Tony, I just bought your book where this ridge is also in - i am intriguied.... how difficult is this ridge in winter? would you do it as a 2 day or a 3 day climb? thanks

    1. Hi Paul. First of all, thanks for your support... I hope the book comes in useful.

      The Kitakama would be pretty full-on in calendar winter, due to its remoteness and the amount of snowfall the area gets... Think Himalayan-level difficulty... I'm not aware of any but the most hardcore of Japanese alpinists attempting it in mid-winter. Conversely, in spring conditions from around April onwards, with consolidated snow, longer daylight hours and warmer temps, it's still serious but not overly difficult.