“Okay, don’t panic! There is a stone about 20 cm below your left foot, and a cavity for your left hand behind that rock. Yes, slightly lower. That’s it! You can put your weight on it.”
I don’t see anything but the mountain ridge on the horizon above that rock I need to descend from and a lethal ravine below my feet, while hanging on my arms trying to divide my weight at best. My legs start shaking when I feel the stone underneath my right hand moving! My 12+kg backpack drags me down and bruises my hips and shoulders, limiting my degrees of freedom. I really wish I had a parachute or a zip line… For a few seconds, I don’t see how I can help myself down safely and I fear for my life.
I am hanging about halfway in the Daikiretto, the notorious ridge line hike in the Northern Japanese Alps. The “hike”, or scramble may be a better description of the exercise, takes us from the Yari-dake side down then up a dramatic mountain crack in the direction of the Okuhodaka peak.
Yesterday was a tough day already! After setting off the evening before from Kamikochi for a 10-km, 2-hr hike to the 横尾キャンプ場 camp (yes, heading to the right spot is indeed a challenge!) or Yokoo-sanso and an early start, we had to battle up a 1750-m positive elevation gain over only 11km to reach the Yari-dake camp. Following the crystal-clear waters of a stream, then walking on snow fields before going straight up on rocky paths where water became scarce, we reached the base of the spear-like peak in the early afternoon. The camp was dotted with a few light and small colourful mountaineering tents at more than 3000 m looking like a high-altitude base. We quickly pitched our over-sized 4-season tent to conquer the 5th highest peak of Japan using a set of metal ladders and chains taking us to 3180m.
The Matterhorn of Japan is among the 100 famous Japanese mountains, and we were not the only ones on that rock!
The night was good despite a little rain and the 10°C, the sunrise fantastic, seeing Mt. Fuji (3776m) on the horizon above the clouds and picturing the thousands of people who must be up there looking in our direction at that same moment!
Today, after following the mountain ridge for two hours, we dove into the Daikiretto. About three hours are needed to cross its only 2 km, and we are lucky as an early departure allowed us to not see too many hikers on it (most hikers avoid that dangerous section killing about 12 every year). Indeed, beyond the technicality of the trail, overtaking Japanese male hikers is regularly a challenge for us, two white females, as they tend to not give way… The way down is very scary at times. The way up seems easier, even though a bit more demanding on our bodies given the load we are carrying. We pull ourselves up or climb down using rusty ladders, chains, ledges, rocks, anything! Scary, yes! And a ton of fun!!
We are very happy to eventually reach the cheerful Kita-hotaka-goya mountain hut serving hearty meals and beers! We indulge ourselves to a well-deserved lunch, pretty proud of our accomplishment while enjoying the spectacular view on the impressive 300m big cut we have just conquered among the many guided groups of Japanese hikers. In shorts and technical T-shirts, we are impressed by how geared up the local hikers are, almost all with brand new boots, pricey back packs and the latest long-sleeved technical clothing.
Clouds start coming in, and at the sound of thunder that is still far away, we decide to move fast to reach Okuhodaka-sanso. We underestimated the path, as it is very similar if not tougher than the Daikiretto. Going at a fast pace with our tired muscles, while staying extremely focused as one misstep would be deadly and turning around is jus not an option, makes this section even more challenging. It is another two hours, juggling with the clouds on the West side of the ridge and the sun on its eastern slope to end up in the hut after covering only 11km for a rather “flat” day: only 53m lost, i.e. 1144m of elevation gain and 1197m of loss!
After our second night camping at 3000m, we ascend Okuhodaka-dake, the third highest peak of Japan at 3190m. Then, a long and tricky trail which seems to never-end takes us down, back to Kamikochi in 11km and 1975m of negative elevation. We were quite happy to have made it back just on time before the rain and not too far from physical exhaustion!
While preparing our trip to Japan, we were hesitating between spending time in the Japanese Alps or going up Mount Fuji, the sacred mountain and highest peak of Japan. After spending three days and a half in that mountain range and talking to many hikers who did Mt. Fuji, we are convinced our decision was the best one for us: we were very lucky with the weather and enjoyed magnificent vistas on adventurous, challenging and exhilarating trails, seeing the sunrise on the perfect cone of Fuji.
Claire & Marcella
Past the obvious weather checks and packing as light as possible advice, here are a few more tips for this specific hike:
- this hike is detailed in the Lonely Planet Hiking in Japan: descriptions and hiking times make sense; pricing is off (add 50 to 100% on average, as of 2015 summer season);
- it does specify that no special skills are required for the Daikiretto: let’s say that climbing skills could come in handy as it is more scrambling than hiking; and it is indeed a demanding hike, so being in shape helps!
- make sure you can attach your hiking poles (very useful) tightly to your back pack and that they don’t stick out too much (this can be very dangerous on the Daikiretto);
- mittens for the chains and ladders can be useful;
- past the first 12km, water can be found only at the lodges where you can buy it (or snow patches);
- if you want to do it the light way, booking ahead, it is possible to sleep at the mountain huts, and to have dinner and breakfast there;
- Yarigatake hut is extremely popular and we were told a 1-year prior booking was advised;
- campsites are first come, first served;
- we recommend you to do that loop in that same direction (Kamikochi > Yari-dake > Daikiretto > Okuhodaka-dake > Kamikochi) to balance the elevation better;
- maps can be bought at the visitor’s centre in Kamikochi: we used maps.me and a picture of the general map.
- Check out this interactive map (quick tutorial) for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area!
Check out our helicopter view of our GPS track: