I straddle the ridge, one foot dangling 200 feet above Nagano Prefecture, the other 300 feet above Gifu Prefecture. Sweat drips down my chin into the abyss below. If I think too much about how far down it is I know I'll be paralysed in place. So I swing my left foot over the ridge to plant it in the foothold. It rattles and crumbles, slips back out. Clutching to the ridge for my literal life, I blindly run my foot along the rock face, searching for a new place to plant it. A freezing wind blasts through the empty air, chilling the sweat soaking through my shirt.
There, clinging to a silent wall of rock in the Japanese wilderness, I think only one thing: “So, this is why the Daikiretto kills…”
The Daikiretto (大キレット) is a knife-edge ridge, perched sky high in the lofty peaks of the Kita Alps between Nagano and Gifu in Central Japan. Between the two 3000+ meter high mountains of Minami Dake And Kita Hodaka, the route plunges down into the deadly Daikiretto, a lethal traverse that twists its way above the two hanging valleys far below. It holds the dubious title of being the most technically challenging ridge for a hiker to tackle without requiring technical equipment to do so. For this reason alone it holds a fabled reputation amidst Japanese mountain-climbing enthusiasts: in the same way a musician dreams of playing Carnegie Hall or Wembley, so too does the hiker dream of crossing the Daikiretto — whilst simultaneously fearing that day.
Because make no mistake: the Daikiretto is lethal. It can be easy to dismiss the Japanese as being obsessive over safety as they tell you how dangerous it is, or to scoff at your fellow hikers who wear helmets as they pass you on the way up to the ridge. But not this time. The reputation is, if anything, downplayed: the Daikiretto claims lives. Regularly.
And as I hold onto the sheer rock face, I realize the hype is real. That it would be so easy to become another statistic.
Because the Daikiretto can be cruelly deceptive. True, seen from a distance it looks terrifying, but in the moment, as you descend one step at a time, you wonder what everyone was getting so worked up about. This isn't so bad, you think as you clamber across ladders and hold onto thick chains. The ridge starts off with reasonable slopes on either side and lots of reference points (a handy feature of hiking in the Kita Alps are the marks spray-painted on rocks: ‘O’ for safe and ‘X’ for stay away). But it slowly pulls those away, the slopes turning to cliffs and more and more ‘X’ marks surrounding you until you reach the point I did, somewhere beyond the Hasegawa Peak (a mini-peak amidst the ridge, labelled as ‘Hピーク’, see the photo below). The way ahead? A climb down a cliff, where one false move will not be forgiven. In that moment it dawns on you why the Daikiretto inspires such awe and fear amongst those in the know.
I find my footing at last and drag myself, shaking from what I hope is the cold, to a flat rest area — the only rest area on the 4-hour traverse. The way ahead looks like a sheer ascent. The ordeal is far from over.
Somewhere around the gnarled rock formation known as Hidanaki (飛騨泣き, which tellingly has the kanji for crying in its name), where I am literally shimmying up a crevasse with my feet and hands, I can see why they say the Daikiretto is one of the world’s most dangerous ridges that doesn’t require ropes or carabiners: because it is pushing right up against that tipping point.
Finally, when I pull my aching limbs up to the platform outside the Kita Hodaka Hut, marking the end of the Daikiretto, the undercurrent of terror that ran through me for the past few hours has been replaced by a sense of hard-earned satisfaction. Traversing The Daikiretto is a hair-raising experience, a true man vs nature adventure where there’s a very real sense that you could lose. For experienced climbers, it is a must. But you have been warned.