Tsurugidake: Hiking the Most Dangerous Mountain in Japan
Tsurugidake is considered the most dangerous mountain to climb in Japan, claiming many lives nearly every year. It is certainly the most thrilling mountain I have ever attempted.
Tsurugidake is within Tateyama National Park. It rises 2999m above valley floors, ocean waters, and distant volcanoes and peaks. The mountain itself takes on a domineering presence. Its sharp edges spike with loose fitting rocks. Its verticality makes climbing impossible without ropes or the series of chains, ladders, and bridges installed for those summiting without equipment. Two similar but increasingly smaller peaks stand before the summit as if rippling away from Tsurugidake. The first summit, the fake summit, and the final summit must be climbed in turn.
The first summit is a straightforward scramble up what seems to be a 1500m high pile of rocks. The only risky fear of this section, which continues to be a worry for the rest of the climb, is a climber going before you and sending a stone trundling in your direction. With soft footing, one reaches the first summit easily. From there we could see across the Sea of Japan to the Ishikawa Peninsula that juts into the sea’s depths, and to the east, an array of valleys, mountains, and volcanoes that became more and more vast the higher we climbed. To the south is the Kenzan-so lodge where we had stayed the night before.
Kenzan-so is nestled in the valley between Tateyama and Tsurugidake. It’s a fully equipped lodge that sleeps about 80 people, 20 to a room. Japanese style dinner and breakfast is served in a comfortable, log cabin setting. Kenzan-so is a great place to rest and recover before attempting Tsurugidake because getting to Kenzan-so in the first place is no picnic, as one must first traverse the wide-standing Tateyama.
Tateyama is comprised of three peaks and connecting ridge lines. The highest point on Tateyama is Onanji Peak at 3015m of elevation. Tateyama is one of Japan’s three sacred mountains along with Fujiyama and Hakusan. It has been worshipped since the Heian Period (794–1185 AD) as a “Land of Pure Bliss or Hell on Earth”. The numerous steamy, sulfuric streams that bubble up from underground on the Tateyama National Park floor give the area its hellish depiction, and the immense beauty of the Tateyama mountain range could certainly be considered heavenly.
In order to get to the base of the Tsurugidake climb, we spent a day climbing up and over Tateyama, traversing its ridge line (which, at the time, was being battered by wind and freezing rain), and dropping down into the valley below so as to arrive at Kenzan-so by early evening and be in perfect position for the next day’s climb.
After a night’s sleep in Kenzan-so, we awoke before dawn. We stepped outside into the cool air and watched the morning sun smear pink rays across a clear sky. Tsurugidake began to shine gold, and soon a rare cloudless sky shone blue above our heads. The day was perfect for climbing and we scrambled up the first summit in high spirits practically chewing our breakfast along the way. Atop the first summit we soaked in the views and examined what lie ahead.
As it turns out, from atop the first summit, Tsurugidake is not to be seen. The peak that stands in its way is twice as tall as the peak we had just climbed and obstructs the view of Tsurugidake’s prized peak. This second summit, known as the fake summit, is a jagged piece of mountain with intimidating sharp rocks and vertical angles. Slightly intimidated, we crossed the short ridge that connects the two preliminary summits.
Not more than 20m up we reached the first of many notorious chains that dangle from Tsurugidake. Bolted into the rocks, they fall vertically and run horizontally across the mountain to assist climbers through the most precarious aspects of the climb. Before this point we had scrambled up loose spree. Here the chain fell vertically down a large, smooth section of the mountain. This first section of chain was not terribly steep and – to my pleasant surprise – the chain was more of an assurance than it was actually assisting in the climb. But soon, after hoisting ourselves up and over several horizontally ascending clefts, we found a horizontally running chain.
The horizontal chains are bolted to the steepest aspects of the mountain and round cliff faces just above narrow ledges. They don’t assist in moving up the mountain; they keep climbers clinging to the side of it. I reached out and grabbed the chain before planting my feet on the small ledge. Face to the mountain, I shuffled my feet across the ledge. A high mountain breeze caught my hair and I started thinking about my position in the world: 2000m above the Sea of Japan, dangling from a mountain, with nothing but a chain to keep me from flying. My heartbeat quickened and vertigo set in. I rounded the corner and landed on wide, steady ground. I turned to view the ledge I had just crossed, but my breath caught in my throat.
There, off to the east stood the majestic, iconic, picturesque Mt. Fuji. Its flat, volcanic top was standing well above the clouds that surrounded its belly. All of a sudden the ledge I had just crossed seemed large to how small I felt. My eyes were scanning the largest peaks in Japan; from the west coast to the east; from the Sea of Japan to the Pacific Ocean. I turned on my heels and took an inspired step towards the summit. It turned out to be a fake summit, and there I stood choking on my pride in the shadow of Tsurugidake.
2999 meters of stone have risen near the Sea of Japan to make up Tsurugidake, and millennia of Siberian winds have shaped its drastic contours. Its permanent dominance is majestic and has been worshiped by priests and pilgrims for centuries. That day the mountain appeared to sway amongst the shifting clouds as tiny people clung and dangled to its rocky face. Any vertigo, physical strain, or exhaustion that is overcome on the initial pitches is nothing compared to what lay ahead.
Just to begin the climb up Tsurugidake one must cross the lack of a ridge that connects the fake summit to Tsurugidake. In place of the fallen ridge is a meter wide, railingless, steel bridge. A sharp breeze blowing in from the sea cuts across this gap in the mountains, leaving no space for unsurefootedness. The climbing then begins as the previous two summits had: scrambling up spree. But soon the slope turns upward and the chains fall downward. Here starts the most technical aspect of the climb: getting around, up, and across a large fin. The fin acts as a jagged ridge, but walking atop it would prove futile. Instead, assisted by chains, one climbs up the fins face, nearly to the top, where the footing is better. This allows one to move across the fin with their face to the rock and their back to all of Eastern Japan. The jagged ridge eventually tappers off and widens and we found ourselves on sturdy ground but awestruck and face-to-face with towering verticality.
This wall we now faced was the point of highest exposure on Tsurugidake; thus, many climbers opt to top-rope the 12 meter section with the ropes and harnesses they had packed beforehand. Having not packed a rope or harness, I clung to a chain that ran between my legs, leaned back slightly, and methodically placed my foot on the ascending, zigzagging medal pegs that had been hammered into the rock. At this point we are only a few hundred meters from the top of Tsurugidake, meaning that we are clinging to an exposed rock face 2600m above the ocean. From this vantage point, the ocean appeared to be lapping the side of the mountain itself, so that if I had released my hands from the chain, I had the vision, upon looking down, that I would plop into a watery grave.
Clinging to the chain, and shimmying up the he exposed rock face took us to yet another series of horizontal clefts. Once again we hoisted our heavy bodies up and over each cleft, step by step. At this point though, the smiling faces of people rested and on their way back down were showering us with smiles and encouragement. After hoisting ourselves over the final stone step, it was a short walk on wide, steady ground past a small shrine to the top of Tsurugidake.
That day the sky was clear and the green valley floors spread their vegetation up and over smaller hills below, all the way from the Sea of Japan to the Pacific Ocean. The Sea of Japan splashed against the banks of the mountain range we stood upon and against the Ishikawa Peninsula where Hakusan, one of the three majestic mountains in Japan, stood in clear sight. Tateyama, the majestic mountain we had climbed the day before, was seen in close proximity to Tsurugidake. But the days clear blue sky allowed us to see the most majestic of the majestic three, Mt. Fuji, in all its sculpted proportionality, twinkling above the horizon. Japan, from atop the death-defying Tsurugidake, was breathing with life.
I had no idea I could summit a mountain like Tsurugidake. During the climb I had gone from pride to utter exhaustion, from humility to ecstasy, from fear of heights to fear of leaving the “Land of Pure Bliss”. Tsurugidake both haunts and uplifts as it lingers in my mind like a lost lover. I am simultaneously wishing to return and stay away; to remember and to forget the same and different aspects of the journey. Undeniable are these conflicts in love, and until now I only knew them in fading memory, but Tsurugidake will outlast my lifetime and many others, giving to each climber a solid, unwavering, secure love affair.
The retreat from Tsurugidake took over five hours. We scampered down the first section smiling and encouraging the upward coming climbers. But soon we were back at the fin, hanging from a chain for dear life. This time though, in the interest of traffic, we were sent around the backside of the fin. Once getting around and down the fin, we stood looking over the top of a ladder. From this vantage point it looks as if the latter would take us directly into the sea. In reality it took us from one small landing to another, about ten deep breaths and we were down. From here to the base of Tsurugidake one crab walks down steep declines, shimmies across cliff faces, and bounds down scree fields. Two-and-half hours later and we were back at Kenzan-so. If you could afford it, I imagine splurging for another night at Kenzan-so, so as to sip beer all afternoon in the shadow of Tsurugidake, would be the way to go. Alas, we picked up our packs and began the three hour trek out of Tateyama National Park.
To get to the trailheads of Tateyama National Park takes some time. Once at the park, though, there are an enormous amount of opportunities for outdoor adventurers of all skill levels. Several leisurely paths crisscross the valley floor where sulfuric pools bubble and spit hot water. It is also possible to begin a week long trek upon a series of ridges that stretches from one side of Japan to the other. But these trailheads cannot be accessed by car. One must first get to Tateyama Station where you take a cable car (720 yen, one way) to Bijodaira Station. Then from Bijodaira Station you take a 50 minute bus ride (1710 yen, one way) to Murodo. From Murodo the trails of Tateyama National Park spread in every direction. The cable car, bus ride, and leisurely stroll around the valley floors make for an enjoyable day as well, especially in autumn when the leaves are changing. And in spring the bus ride takes you through the famous Tateyama Snow Corridor; 20 meter high snow walls that frame a section the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route. The Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, which includes the cable car and bus ride to Murodo also includes a scenic ropeway ride and the Kurobe Dam. The Alpine Route is open from April 15 – November 30th (2017). A one way trip takes 6-8 hours and costs 10,850 for adults and 5,430 for children. There are packaged deals available on this website.