Route name: Lower flank (下部フランケ) / Upper flank (上部フランケ) routes on ‘The Buttress’ No.4 ridge (バットレス第4尾根)
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 4- alpine route
There can be few alpine days in Japan to rival the ascent of Mt Kitadake by any of the routes on its East face buttress. The classic No.4 ridge (第4尾根) constitutes the easiest way to the top, and is consequently the busiest route on the face. On the plus side, this means it has the most solid rock and generally reliable in-situ protection. But once you stray from there onto other parts of the face, the adventure ramps up considerably.
The routes in D-gully and on the left flank of No.4 ridge are steeper and more consistently difficult, and bring into play important route-finding and protection skills. With slabs, overhangs, corner cracks and chimneys, a wide range of climbing skills is needed as well. And for all that, the level of satisfaction on reaching Japan’s second highest summit is raised accordingly.
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.
If travelling by car you need to get to Narada onsen and park your car in the large car park there. From Narada the road is closed to private vehicles, but there is a bus service between there and the trailhead at 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. Let’s assume here that you’re going to spend the night in the Shiraneoike hut (白根御池小屋) or its campground. You’ll need to take the right fork, and a couple of hours of steep hiking will bring you to the hut and the pond it gets its name from.
After an early start, hike up the trail from the hut for about 30 minutes until things open out into the main sawa and you reach the Futamata (二俣) trail junction. Continue up the trail on the right edge of the valley for another half hour until you get to the entrances to C and D gullies on your right, with the cliffs of the buttress looming up above.
A faint trail ascends the ridge between the two gullies up to the foot of the rock.
As the route in question here lies on the D-gully side of No.4 ridge, you’ll want to approach via D-gully. Either climb the gully itself by three easy pitches up to the large ledge, or climb the rib on the left of D-gully (in-situ pitons) before heading into D-gully for the last easy pitch up to the ledge.
This wide ledge traverses the face and is the access round to No.4 ridge, as well as to the Lower flank route. There is a dodgy old anchor in place at the foot of the route, consisting of two rusty pitons which may need hammering back in depending on how the previous winter has been. Now you’re ready to start the climb itself.
Lower flank route:
Pitch 1: There’s nothing quite like getting the crux pitch out of the way at the start! Climb the slab on small crimpy holds, then make a delicate traverse rightwards to the belay anchor in the corner. (50m 5.10a)
Pitch 2: Climb directly up the steep open-book corner to a bulge. Surmount this on the left, then carry on up the crack to belay on a ledge. (35m IV+)
Pitch 3: Continue up the corner to a piton belay. (40m IV+)
Pitch 4: Finish the corner, then ascend steep broken ground to belay on the right side of D-gully’s back wall. It’s possible to link pitches 3 and 4 into one long pitch of 60m. (20m IV)
Pitch 5: An unprotected rising traverse leftwards takes you out into no-mans-land in D-gully. Continue left along a slight ledge, and dip down at the end to belay on pitons below the start of the D-gully oku-heki (Dガリー奥壁) route. (40m II-III)
Upper flank route:
Pitch 6: Route-finding on this pitch is not very clear, but you need to climb up and to the right for about 40m until you reach a piton belay at the bottom of an overhanging chimney. (40m III)
Pitch 7: This is the crux pitch of the upper flank route. Climb the chimney’s right edge to reach the overhang. Pull through this and then continue steeply up the corner to belay on a ledge. (20m V)
Pitch 8: Climb the corner directly below No.4 ridge. (40m III+)
Pitch 9: Continue up the corner to belay at the foot of the Matchbox abseil from No.4 ridge. From this point you are onto the upper pitches of No.4 ridge. (40m III+)
Pitch 10: Make steep but easy moves up the crack between the Matchbox rock and the main face, then climb a delicate section up the arête to belay on a ledge a few metres below the start of the traverse pitch. (45m IV+)
Pitch 11: Climb the last few metres of the arête to gain the start of the traverse. Now head to climber’s left along the beautiful knife-edge to belay below the final chimney crack at the top of D-gully. (40m III)
Pitch 12: Climb the awkward and slightly over-hanging chimney crack, with plentiful in-situ pitons nowadays, to exit D-gully onto the easy ground above. (35m IV+)
From here you just need to scramble up about 30m of easy slabs and you’ll come to a path that will take you up the final slopes to exit the East face onto the summit ridge hiking trail in about 15 minutes. The summit lies just a short way up the trail on climber’s right.
From the summit follow the hiking trail north and down to the Kitadake Katanogoya hut (北岳肩ノ小屋), which sits on the shoulder of the mountain and is renowned for its sunrise views. Continue beyond the hut and you’ll reach a junction, with one trail heading off to the large satellite peak on the left and another dropping steeply down to the east.
This latter trail will bring you all the way back down to your starting point at the Shiraneoike hut. From there you just need to reverse the hike back out to the trailhead bus stop at Hirogawara.
A consistent and very satisfying route, and a step up from the neighbouring No.4 ridge in every way. Bring nuts and cams and expect to use them, and be prepared for a long and physical outing.
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