Story 32: Kitakama Ridge, Mount Yari

  • Miscellaneous
February 10, 2015

Kitakama Ridge, Mount Yari
Naoto Izumo
R&D Division 5, A&D Company, Limited

This edition of the Development Stories series moves from discussion of products to my most memorable experience mountain climbing. I am hoping that this chronicle of my experience can offer some insight into the parallels and differences between mountain climbing and product development.

36 years ago in early April, while I was still a university student, I made my second attempt of a traverse of the challenging Kitakama Ridge on Mt. Yari in the Northern Alps of Japan with my friend Kunio Tanabe. In November of the previous year I had planned a traverse of this route with two colleagues from my university's alpine club. Sadly, this first attempt ended in failure after we accidentally burned our tent to the ground in the middle of a snow storm and had to retreat back down the mountain. It was a bitter pill for me to swallow, so since that time I had been seized with the desire of standing on the summit

New snow had fallen the day before we started our hike. When we reached the terminus of the bus route at the Takase Dam, which also served as the starting point for the Kitakama trail, we were the only passengers still on the bus. When we got off the bus, the driver kindly advised with a worried look on his face, "You won't get very far with the amount of snow that is piled up today, so you'd be better to call it quits and go home!"

Being extremely determined to succeed in my efforts this time, I used the classic diversion tactic of telling him we would only go as far as we could before we turned around.

As we were seeking experiences which were out of the ordinary by climbing a steep, snow-covered ridge 3,000 meters high in the Northern Alps, we felt we were resolved to face adversities such as carving a trail through the deep fresh snow in order to get to the top.

The Kitakama Ridge is well-known in Japan for claiming the lives of highly-skilled mountaineers such as Buntaro Kato or Akira Matsunami. Perhaps the main reasons for this are the steepness of the terrain, including the valleys of Senjozawa and Tenjozawa, as well as length of the ridge, which can easily drain your energy on a long and challenging traverse. However, perhaps the most difficult problem the traverse poses is that until you have made it to the top of Mt. Yari, there is nothing that could possibly be called an "escape route", so it is a route with only two options of charging on to the summit or returning to the start of the ridge. It therefore has no safe zones to retreat to if the weather turns bad, which presents many perils in such an environment.

The two of us were both studying physics at our university and were in the alpine club, where we had already had several mountaineering experiences. But my experiences already stretched back much further, having been addicted to mountain climbing since my third year of junior high school when I first climbed Mt. Daisen in Tottori Prefecture close to my home town. Six years later I had come to spend as many as 80 days a year devoted to mountain climbing, such was my passion for the sport. As far as winter climbs go, I had already completed climbs of Mt. Daisen, Mt. Fuji, Mt. Yatsugatake and Mt. Tanigawa and other peaks in the Northern Alps area. Just the previous week I had completed a two-day hike on the Daisen main range, going as far as Mt. Karasugasen. So naturally, our decision to take on the Kitakama traverse in snowy conditions was made with the full understanding that it would be a difficult challenge for the both of us at that time.

After the two of us got off the bus we were faced with an intense fight through more than one meter of fresh snow which was covering the track – more than I had ever encountered in my life before. This long trudge continued until we reached the confluence of the Senjozawa and Tenjozawa rivers. It took two full days and nights to get there and finally approach the start of the ridge. At that point we had already used a lot more time and energy than we had anticipated. I also still remember a surprise encounter we had on the way when we ran into a troop of about 30 monkeys and got quite a shock.

The Kitakama Ridge starts with a series of steeply-inclined crags which need to be scrambled over. By the end of the third day we had finally reached the true start of the ridge at Peak 2, where we camped for the night. Less snow accumulates on the ridgeline, but climbing over the rocky ridge in our weakened state made the danger of falling a constant presence. Therefore we decided to rope up to each other, with one person securing an end of the rope on the steeper sections and the two of us climbing simultaneously on the gentler slopes.

On the fourth day we eventually made it to Kitakama Col, which could be considered the halfway point on the ascent, and made our camp there. My climbing partner Kunio was in bad shape and had not been able to eat since the third night. His hand had become so swollen that he was not able to take off the strap of his watch. Even with my amateur levels of experience I could understand that the strain on his body was reaching its limits and I realized if Kunio could not keep on moving there was no way we could return home safely. But after questioning whether it would be better to continue on to the top of Mt. Yari or return to the safety of the river valleys we came to the conclusion that it would be more dangerous for us with our shaky feet to descend the steep slopes we had just climbed. We therefore made the decision to press on to the top of Mt. Yari. Starting the fifth day we continued our progress up the ridge, however we soon realized we had made a mistake and had underestimated the dangers of advancing into unknown areas in our weary state.

We traversed the snow surface just below Doppyo, one of the main peaks on the Kitakama Ridge. However, our pace had dropped significantly by then and we seemed to spend a very long time not getting very far at all. Up until that point the weather had remained comparatively stable, but reading the weather map and forecast we had got from the mountain radio broadcast, bad weather was forecast from the following day. While thinking that it would be good to knock off the summit of Mt. Yari before the rocky ridges became covered in more fresh snow, once we got to Kitakama-daira, a flat area on the shoulder before the final summit, we had reached the limit of our strength and had to pull up our tent there for our fifth night.

Looking out of our tent the next morning, just as the weather forecast had predicted, about 20 cm of fresh snow had fallen overnight. If attempting to climb steep faces covered in snow without a defined route there is a high danger of not being able to spot loose rock on the face. We continued upwards towards the spear tip-like summit while roped together as the gradient slowly increased. For the last precipitous climb to the summit I lead a route on the rope while Kunio belayed from below. Snow was sitting softly on top of loose rock and debris, leaving me with an extremely unpleasant feeling as I climbed.

The gradient was quite steep, but as I judged the rock face to be about Grade III+ in difficulty for the first 20 meters I did not place any protection in the rock to catch me on the rope in the case of a fall. After 20 meters the face became significantly steeper, leaving me with no way forward. While I searched around on my left and right for a new route around the buttress above me, I placed my left foot on a large rock which dislodged from the rock face and threw me completely off balance. While several words flashed into my mind which can't be reprinted here, I started to fall backwards back down the slope. In the short moment I spent falling down the face while bouncing off rocks several times I experienced flashbacks from my past and resigned myself to ending my short life then and there.

In the lead up to that fall, Kunio had looked a lot more likely to fall than me with just the slightest misstep, as he had already reached the limits of his endurance and would have already likely perished if we hadn't been roped together. I had caught him on the rope several times before my fall, so I did not expect him to have the remaining energy under those conditions to stop me if I fell. As I continued my fall down the mountain, feelings of remorse also entered my head as I imagined Kunio getting dragged behind me all the way down to the bottom of Tenjozawa Valley with the rope being tied to him as well. I suddenly then felt a strong impact on my body as I was flipped around to face down the mountain and my fall stopped on a steep bank of snow. The rope tightened around my waist where it had been tied and at that moment I understood that Kunio had caught my fall with the other end of the rope. I guess that that whole incident only lasted two or three seconds, but in my mind it felt like an eternity.

Having my fall stopped had been completely unexpected, but in the next moment I felt an extreme pain in my left leg. As this fall was longer than I had ever experienced – nearly the whole length of the 40 meter rope – and I had hit several rocks on the way down I thought I must have broken my leg. Then my fears grew even further as I realized we would not be able to return to safety if I could not walk on a broken leg. Pivoting on the stretched rope, I slowly moved my body around so that I was again facing upwards. I then tried lightly putting my left foot down into the snow below me. At that moment I was overwhelmed with anxiety that excruciating pain would surge up my leg. The pain didn't arrive, so I next tried firmly bracing my legs in the snow. Blood had even managed to ooze out of the spat tied to my left leg, so while it was apparent that my leg was not broken it was clearly a very deep wound. Nevertheless, the relief that I had not broken anything and could walk definitely outweighed any concern over the size of my wound.

After climbing back up to where Kunio was belaying from, we soon reached the summit of Mt. Yari, with Kunio taking the lead for the last pitch of the climb. Although there was of course a sense of accomplishment at summitting a difficult mountain, the conditions were whiteout, so there were no views to be enjoyed at all. There was also a strong sense of apprehension over whether we would be able to make it back down safely. We immediately started heading down from the summit using a ladder attached to the face and decided to stay in an emergency shelter on a shoulder just below the top of Mt. Yari. Throughout this long day we had only managed to travel a tiny distance from our camp at Kitakama-daira in the morning to just over the other side of the summit. I have memories of the emergency shelter being not too dissimilar from the inside of a freezer, with several icicles hanging from the ceiling.

The injury had left a hole nearly 5cm long in the bone of my shin and the inner part of the bone could be seen. It is likely that the sharp edge of my ice axe cut through my leg while I was falling. Considering the severity of the injury, the bleeding was only serious straight after the fall and had basically stopped by the time we reached the shelter. As I had seen many falls myself, I was aware that they were followed by the shakes later in the evening. I too felt quite psychologically damaged by my experience that day and the nervous shaking of my body did not stop at all right through the night, meaning I could not get a wink of sleep.

I recall that our original plan was to continue the traverse along to the Oku-hotaka peak, however both the slowness of our progress and the weakness of our bodies made it quite apparent that we would not be able to make it that far. But the fastest descent we could make down to Kamikochi – following the Yarizawa stream – was also highly prone to avalanches at this time of year. Such a descent could only be viewed as reckless or preposterous by people who engage in winter mountain climbing. There were, however, no other options left for us to descend from the mountain safely.

Accepting this fact, we departed from the emergency shelter at 3am the next day, with the hope that we could avoid avalanches while the snow was still firm in the middle of the night. We descended the steep upper slopes of Yarizawa in one burst. On the way down we found large blocks of snow piled up on each other – the debris from a previous avalanche – at the confluence of the Yarizawa and Edazawa streams. We realized from this evidence that it had been a wise move to descend through this area under the safety of the night, as avalanches that take the entire snow pack with them could be triggered on this slope with possibly just the first rays of sunlight in the morning.

Having passed the danger zone and thinking that we would like to make it to the bottom by the end of the day, we continued heading down the mountain, walking down from Yokoo to Tokuzawa. From Tokuzawa we found a path had already been made through the snow; we also encountered an adventurer who was climbing the mountain by himself. However for the rest of the descent down to Kamikochi we did not come across any signs of human life. We reluctantly aimed to walk all the way to Sawado – where the local bus picks up hikers – by nightfall, but about 3.5km upstream from our destination the last remnants of light were gone. Since 3 o'clock that morning until 8 o'clock at night we had walked approximately 40km through the snow over the course of 17 hours. The last section of that walk did not have any snow on the ground in front of us and I still remember feeling disturbed by the sensation of walking on hard ground after one week of walking over snow. It took a bit of work to reacclimatize myself to my regular gait.

On our eighth day since starting our journey we finally made it to Sawado and got on a bus and then train to Matsumoto and checked in to a hospital. I was told by the doctor that the wound had suppurated so was unable to be stitched. Instead, he sterilized the area and wrapped it in gauze.

After that challenging experience I continued mountain climbing until the present day. In my university days I had seen fellow climbers go missing or have serious accidents, so I became hesitant to take people with me when I went into the mountains. The urges within me to devote my now much more restricted free time to heading to the mountains that I wanted to climb also grew and from that time onwards I aimed to climb solo whenever there was any danger involved in the climb. I also received the sad news several years later that one of my friends who had joined me on my first attempt on Kitakama Ridge had met his end in the mountains.

The mountains, where people can encounter nature at its most extreme, are an environment which can let you experience many challenges and hardships. They also give you many things to ponder. Since that grueling experience on Kitakama Ridge I have journeyed into the mountains countless in the 36 years since. There have also been many occasions when I have had to make an emergency bivouac in severely exposed areas. However, my expedition up Kitakama Ridge when I was 23 years old sticks out in my mind as the longest and most strenuous.

Our safe return from Kitakama Ridge was incredibly good fortune for the two of us, due to a series of lucky circumstances. The main mistakes that I thought deserved reflection were (1) despite failing in my first attempt in late autumn of the previous year, my next attempt was not during the warmer months, but rather in the early spring with large amounts of snow still accumulating, with a partner who also had no experience of successfully traversing the dangerous ridge; (2) while we had the chance to turn back when our circumstances deteriorated, and indeed should have, we made a mistake with our judgment and pushed on to the summit, disregarding the associated dangers; and (3) the reason we chose April to attempt Kitakama Ridge was as a preliminary look at midwinter conditions, not treating the mountain at this time of the year as a serious proposition. However on the other hand, I can still look at this experience as extremely significant in my life and an event which helped shape the person I am today.

After this mountain expedition I did not rely on lucky coincidences to get me back down a mountain safely in challenging conditions, but instead became extremely precise in my goal-setting and planning, prepared sufficiently and developed the right frame of mind to achieve these goals, approached targets with an adaptable framework and ensured my passion was maintained as a basis for rising to any challenge. Over the years I have understood that these are the essential elements required for success when embarking on a mountaineering adventure.

When planning and developing new, unprecedented products, as well as achieving all of their sales targets, the same components needed for success in mountaineering also apply. These are the common points I have managed to find between my job and my private passion. Of course the main difference between these two pursuits is that even if your newly-developed product bombs, it does not quite have the finality of making a fatal mistake on a mountain. In particular, for companies which are devoted to creating exciting and innovative products, I believe that a rational approach that can adapt itself to any setbacks it encounters, while nurturing a passion for product development and achieving set goals, is essential for success. Further, when selling new products in new markets, I have also found it is essential to establish and implement the same methods of goal-setting and developing a strategy based on a strong passion for your work in order to achieve success.

 Looking at the Kitakama Ridge and the Doppyo from the river bed near Yumata Photographed April 8-9, 1978
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