Posted by: tsubakuro | February 26, 2013

Back to the Central Alps

Here’s another old post from an old blog. This is about my climb on Kiso Komagatake and Houkendake in May of 2008.

Things didn’t look good. I had come four and a half hours by train to take the bus up to the cable car going up to the Senjojiki Cirque where I would begin my climb and now I was being told that due to the strong winds this morning the cable car wasn’t running and so the buses weren’t running up there either. All hope was not lost, however. The bus driver told me that in an hour and a half they might resume operations. I passed the time by exploring a forest nearby; enjoying some very creamy soft ice cream and watching the clouds clear away and reveal more of the mountainsides. At last I heard the cable car was running again and the bus would come by 12:40.

Up at the cirque it was still cloudy and visibility was limited to 50 metres. There was still thick snow everywhere. I had expected a little green to be showing but that would not happen for several weeks it seemed. After doing a test run in order to check the softness and iciness of the snow and how well I could find the route in the clouds, I began trudging through the snow, passing remnants of small avalanches. I couldn’t see any trail marker and only a faint trail of brown crusty snow told me where other climbers had gone perhaps the weekend before. I tried to follow that route and though I had never gone up this way before I had seen enough photos to have a good idea about where I was. But still I relied a lot on intuition.

Climbing out of a cirque is like climbing out of a bowl: as you near the top the route becomes steeper. Near the end each step requires kicking one’s feet in three or four times to ensure secure footing. A slip could mean sliding down several metres in heavy icy snow where it is easy to get stuck suddenly and flip over head first. I still haven’t bought the proper boots and crampons because of the great expense and my spring crampons hardly helped. But they helped enough. I finally made it to the rim of the cirque and as a sign appeared out of the mist I knew I had found the right route.

In the area were a few lodges, and all but one were closed for the season with snow still going up to the roof on the shady side. It didn’t matter so much because I was going to stay in my tent, but it was nice to have a place in which to sit quietly by a stove drying my socks and reading a book while the clouds remained obscuring the view outside. It was a windy night in the tent but I knew the weather was going to improve by the next morning.

At 4:00 AM I awoke and looked outside. Orange light was already visible and I could see the clouds had cleared off though some still lingered over distant mountain tops. Once I set out for the ridge to find a suitable viewpoint for a morning shoot I felt how strong the wind really was. Near the edge of the cirque it blew hardest and nearly knocked me off balance at times. The stream of melt water I had splashed through the day before was frozen hard enough I could walk on it. The morning looked good with the light, the snow and the ice but the wind was making it very hard to find a place to set up my gear. I finally found shelter over the lip of the cirque and behind some weathered granite boulders. Here I could shoot with my 35mm and medium format cameras in peace but I didn’t take out the large 4×5 camera. It was still too blustery.

Sunrise was not a blaze of colour but the subtle hues of pink and orange that fell on the snowy range were very beautiful and I was not disappointed. Later I photographed patterns in the ice of the melt water and got nearly blown off the mountain when I climbed up to a nearby ridge to check out the view. At one point I looked up and saw these wraith-like clouds blowing past. They twisted and contorted their shapes and made smooth arcs and curled claws. The clouds moved swiftly and it was all I could do to just run with the camera in my hand and keep up with the rapidly changing shapes. They were like a skin of cloud, a cob web, gas from a nebula. And then they were gone. Others came by some minutes later but not as impressive as the first show.

After that I climbed over the nearest peak called Nakadake and then finally found my way up to the top of Kiso Komagatake – 2,956 metres, the highest mountain in the Central Alps of Japan and one of Japan’s Hundred Famous Mountains. It was my 23rd of these hundred mountains and since 23 is my favourite number I dedicated the climb to my as yet unborn son. I won’t be climbing my 24th until after he is born.

There is a long and interesting history about Kiso Komagatake but I will not go into that here. After going back to my tent site I refreshed myself with food and drink and then climbed up the granite peak of Houkendake, the symbol of the Central Alps. Only one part was really dangerous – a steep chute of snow between the granite boulders. I made sure each step was secure in the snow before taking the next step. If I slipped here it would be a fast trip swooshing down the snow into a steep and rocky ravine tens of metres below. Life-threatening for certain. Since I didn’t have the right footwear I checked with each step how to slide if I did actually slip. While sliding in the snow one has a certain ability to manoeuvre and I wanted to know exactly what I would do in case of an emergency. I could twist and roll myself over to grab some rocks for example. While coming down Nakadake I actually came to an iced-over patch of steep snow where I knew I couldn’t keep my footing. So I let myself slide and directed an outstretched foot to a rope and iron pole sticking out of the snow. I was able to successfully break my slide before hitting my hip into a rock.

I made it across the snow without incident and climbed to the highest boulder on Houkendake, and there I relaxed and looked almost straight down to the cirque below. Far below were Komagane City and the Ina Valley. Across the valley and getting lost in the rising haze were the South Alps with Mt. Fuji sticking up in the background.

Then it was time to head back. I crossed the snow patch without incident and returned to my tent site. I packed and went down the steep snow slope of the cirque and returned to the hotel. And from there on it was all cable car, bus and three trains to get back home. The only really unpleasant part was getting on a train in Tokyo as it was rush hour and the trains were packed. I missed two trains because there was no room to get me and my gear on board. But I made it home and the shower sure was good.

Some of the photographs from this hike were included in my book The Japan Alps and are also in my photostream on Flickr.



  1. Great post! I especially enjoyed your description of the “wraith-like clouds,” and of the challenges of climbing out of a cirque. I checked out your photostream on Flickr; some fantastic shots. You must be carrying a ton of equipment, but you’re bringing back some great landscapes.

    I’m headed to Senjojiki in a couple of days, and possibly into similar weather – though this being autumn not spring, I don’t expect much snow on the ground. Ours will be a considerably more laid-back adventure: mostly walking around inside the Cirque, and just a Canon G9 and my Olympus e-p5 and lenses.

    Thanks for the inspiring post!

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