Monday, 20 October 2014

The Kitadake Buttress (北岳バットレス)

Route name:  No.4 ridge ‘The Buttress’ (第四尾根 バットレス)

Mountain:  Mt Kitadake (3192m 北岳)

Map sheet:  41 [Yama-to-kougen-chizu (山と高原地図) series]

Time:  2 days (1 day approach, 1 day for the climb and descent)

Grade:  Overall Grade 3 alpine route

At 3192m, Mt Kitadake (北岳) has the distinction of being Japan’s second highest mountain after Mt Fuji (富士山). Its east face is home to a series of gullies and a striking 600m rock face, known to all Japanese climbers simply as ‘The Buttress’ (バットレス).

There are several routes up it, but here we’ll concern ourselves with the central piece to the Buttress, the uber-classic No.4 ridge. First climbed in 1934, the No.4 ridge is a sharp arête that seems to hang suspended up the centre of the face drawing the eye to the summit. The purple rock is a type of chert, downward-sloping and largely friction-less, distinct from the more friendly rock types found in other areas of Japan’s alpine ranges. It’s not a good place to be in rain or poor weather, so make sure you have a stable forecast. For further reading on the geology and history of the Buttress, I strongly recommend Project Hyakumeizan’s excellent article on the subject.

In 2011 there was a major rockfall in the upper section, and the final pitch of No.4 ridge fell down. Consequently the finish to the route is now substantially harder and more satisfying. The area is far from 100% stable though, and more large rockfalls can probably be expected in the future. In short, if you haven’t climbed this route yet, hurry up before it gets consigned to the history books!

Getting there:
If travelling by train from Tokyo (東京) or Shinjuku (新宿), take a Chuō Line (中央線) train out to Kōfu (甲府) station. Ideally you want to be on the first Super Azusa limited express train in the morning. Next you need to take a bus from the bus stands outside Kōfu station via the Yashajin Pass (夜叉神峠) to Hirogawara (広河原). The bus ride takes approximately two hours. You will begin your approach from Hirogawara.

From the bus stop at Hirogawara walk up the road for a couple of minutes, then cross the suspension bridge over the river.

Walk up the trail for about 15-20 minutes and you’ll come to a junction, and the trail you take depends on where you’re planning to sleep.  If you’re going to spend the night in the Shiraneoike hut (白根御池小屋) then take the right fork, and you’ll arrive at the hut in a couple of hours.

If you’re planning to bivvy below the route, take the left fork, and follow the hiking trail up the river.

After a couple of hours the sawa opens out and you’ll arrive at a junction called Futamata (二俣). From here there is a steep trail heading up to the right to the Kitadake summit ridge, and another trail contouring in from the Shiraneoike hut. You need to keep going up the sawa, sticking to the trail on the right edge.

As you climb the sawa you will start to see the east face of Kitadake opening up on your right, with its various ridges and gullies falling down to where you are. The final approach to the Buttress ascends D-gully (dガリー), so keep your eyes open for a decent bivvy spot anywhere between the end of the water in the sawa and the entrance to the gully. Be sure to fill up all your water capacity though, as there is no water on the route itself.

D-gully access:
After an early start, hike up the trail until you reach the entrances to C and D gullies on your right. D gully provides the easiest and most direct way up to the foot of the Buttress.

Once you reach the rock, you need to climb 3 pitches up D-gully to reach a traverse ledge that will bring you to the start of the No.4 ridge itself.

Pitch 1: Climb an awkward rock step (in-situ piton to A0 the move if necessary) to gain entry to the gully, then climb about 30m with pitons at spaced-out intervals, to an in-situ anchor.

Pitch 2: Move up and diagonally right from the belay, then either break the pitch at an in-situ anchor or continue on and belay on your own gear.

Pitch 3: Climb the wet and slimy constriction above until D-gully opens out. Continue up and slightly right to the start of the traverse ledge.

Pitch 4: Traverse rightwards across the narrow scree-covered ledge, with occasional in-situ pitons. Continue around the rib and up to belay on the comfortable ledge at the start of the first pitch of No.4 ridge.

Now you’re in position and ready to start ascending the route proper.

No.4 ridge:

The first five or six pitches are obvious enough, and there are plenty of anchors along the way. Initially the route weaves its way up through trees on decent rock, either on the arête itself or the right side of the arête, at grade III-IV.

As you climb higher the route exits treeline, and the air and exposure kicks in. It’s a fantastic place to be!

Eventually you’ll arrive at the belay beneath what used to be the crux pitch of the route. Climb the face for a few metres to gain the thin rightward slanting grade V crack line. Nowadays the rock here is quite polished, and the holds are thin, but there are in-situ pitons in the crack, allowing you to aid through if necessary. Once you latch the jug hold at the top, you just need to swing out right and climb up onto the arête, and it’s done.

The rest of the pitch is airy and steep, but well-featured, right on the crest of the arête. Protection is very spaced out, but there are a couple of rock spikes that will take slings. Belay at the rappel anchor on top of the famous Matchbox rock (マッチ箱).

From the top of the Matchbox, a 20m rappel will bring you down to an anchor on the upper slabs of D-gully.

From this anchor you can gain the belay at the site of the rockfall in a long pitch of almost a full 50m rope length. Climb the steep chimney crack on your right along the bottom edge of the Matchbox (grade IV), and then continue up the arête on delightful thin moves at grade III to the belay. It is on this pitch that you’ll be able to take the classic photo of the upper section of No.4 ridge with the Matchbox below you.

As previously mentioned, the final pitch of the route used to continue up the ridge on straight-forward grade III terrain, but in 2011 the entire triangular rock that housed this pitch collapsed, leaving a blank vertical face barring the way. Fortunately there was an alternative way through this upper cliff, in the form of the last pitch of D-gully out on the slabs to your left.

Accessing this last pitch involves an airy horizontal traverse across a knife-edge blade of rock to gain the D-gully slabs, and then you continue on for another 10m to reach an in-situ bolt belay on the slab. It looks outrageous, and is incredibly exposed, but there’s nothing on it harder than easy grade III.

From there, the route now has one final sting in its tail; the exit pitch of D-gully, an overhanging off-width crack. Ascend the slabs to gain entry to the crack, then climb up in a very awkward position past a couple of loose bendy pitons. When the crack runs out, make a very strenuous move out to your left, with terrible feet, to gain better holds to the top. If you can climb it free, this pitch goes at grade VI, but if you can’t manage that, it can be aided at III A1. Be careful with those first two pitons though, as you really wouldn’t want to fall on them.

Now you just need to scramble up a final 20m of grade II rock to the end of the climbing. From here to the top, follow a trail up through the bushes for about 15 minutes and you will gain the summit ridgeline and the hiking trail, just a few metres down from the top of the mountain.

The views from the top of Kitadake are spectacular in all directions.

Getting down:
From the top you have the choice of two hiking trails to descend, one heading north and down to the Kitadake Katanogoya hut (北岳肩ノ小屋), and the other heading south to the junction with the trail across to Mt Ainodake (間ノ岳), Japan’s 4th highest peak. From the junction, the trail swings east for about half an hour to another junction at the start of the Happonba ridgeline, with great views across the Buttress.

Take the descent trail heading north down chains and ladders to regain the sawa and your bivvy gear, then continue down the trail you came up on the day before to return to Hirogawara.

A spectacular route, with superb climbing up a striking natural line, finishing on the second highest summit in Japan. This route might be the most famous alpine rock climb in all of Japan, and deservedly so. Bring a trad rack and about 12 quickdraws, and don’t forget your A-game for that final pitch out of D-gully!


  1. Ah, having enjoyed CJW's psychovertical account, I am now regaled with a detailed report on the latest climbing conditions on this classic route - congratulations on a great documentation of the route. Many thanks for showing where the 2011 rockfall occurred. Is this the reason, by the way, that you made the approach to the ridge via D-Gully. In the old days (i.e. pre-rockfall), we used to use C-Gully, on the north side of the ridge. But perhaps C-Gully is now vulnerable to new rockfall...Any idea what the local take is on this?

    1. Thanks for the comment, PH... Let me take this chance to tell you how much I've enjoyed all of your articles about Kitadake and the Buttress... Thanks for sharing those!

      To be honest, I've no idea about the relative threats to the approach gullies from rockfall... In a previous visit to the Buttress back in September 2006 (had to rappel the pyramid face from halfway up No4 ridge in torrential rain, not fun) I took the C-gully approach to the start of No4 ridge. I seem to remember it being okay, but perhaps a bit looser than D-gully... You'd remember better than me though, if you've used it a few times... I only switched to D-gully because I'd heard it was a bit easier, but I actually think they're pretty comparable really... As far as I know, D-gully might be the more common approach, and is the one written up in the Japanese '74 Classics' guidebook, but there was certainly a party that used C-gully on the day Chris and I were there.