Friday, 17 July 2015

Mt Makihata (巻機山) – Nukubi-zawa (ヌクビ沢)

Route name: Nukubi-zawa (ヌクビ沢)

Mountain:  Mt Makihata (巻機, 1967m)

Map sheet:  15 [Yama-to-kougen-chizu (山と高原地図) series]

Sitting close to the Gunma/Niigata prefectural border, approximately midway between Mt Tanigawa (谷川岳) and Mt Echigo-Komagatake (越後駒ヶ岳), it’s no surprise that Mt Makihata gets buried under metres of snow every winter. By the end of the annual rainy season in early July, most of that snow is gone and the mountain’s verdant natural beauty and carpets of alpine flowers become a popular draw for hikers looking to tag another hyakumeizan (百名山) summit.

But not all the snow melts. With steep walls on either side shading it for much of the day, and the impressive Tengu (天狗岩) rock formation guarding its upper reaches, the Nukubi-zawa (ヌクビ沢) river course holds its snow almost year-round.

Whilst not an alpine variation route, the Nukubi-zawa is a step-up from an ordinary hiking trail. It may require some basic rope skills and equipment depending on conditions, which could vary wildly from month to month and year to year. It would be prudent not to try it during the rainy season, but from mid-July onwards it’s game on.  The later you leave it, the less snow and the more dry rock you’re going to find. But for my money early summer is where it’s at, when you can enjoy a cool breeze wafting down the snow fields while all around the earth is baking.

Getting there:
If travelling from Tokyo by public transport, you need to take a shinkansen to Echigo-Yuzawa. From there, take a local train to Muikamachi (六日町). From there take a bus to the village of Shimizu (清水), and get off at the final destination. From the end of the bus route you’ll need to walk up the zig zags of the road for about half an hour until you reach the trailhead car park of Sakurazaka (桜坂).

If travelling from Tokyo by car, take the Kanetsu Expressway all the way to Niigata prefecture, through the tunnel that bisects Mt Tanigawa, and get off at the Shiozawa (塩沢) exit. Drive through scenic country roads to Shimizu, up to Sakurazaka, and park as close to the trailhead as you can.
The trail starts next to the large map board at the end of the top car park.

Take the hiking trail from the car park, and very soon you’ll come to a junction with a signpost. The trail on the right is the normal hiking trail, which you’ll be descending from the summit. Take the left fork and walk along an overgrown trail for 5-10 minutes until you find yourself walking up a stream.

Keep going and you’ll soon reach another signed junction.

This time you’d be better to take the trail on the right, which traverses the hillside up above the river.  The trail crosses quite a few slopes that have collapsed, but as of 2015 it poses no problems.

After about 45 minutes you’ll come out of the trees and drop into the Nukubi-zawa itself, almost directly under the massive Tengu rock.

There is another trail a few minutes further down the Nukubi-zawa, which heads up the sawa on the left and then climbs onto the ridgeline above the Tengu rock. It’s rarely taken though, and I can’t vouch for the condition it is in.

From here onwards the trail alternates between rocky riverbed and snow fields.  The rock is beautiful, and the snow is a total joy to walk up.  Pay attention to those places where things transition from snow back onto rock, as the snow is invariably thin and overhanging on its upper edge. In one or two places you might need to scramble around the sides and drop back down into the riverbed above, depending on what the conditions dictate.

Eventually the snow fields peter out, and a scramble up a stretch of loose rock (red paint marks in places) brings you onto the final trail to the main ridgeline, just below the 1931m summit of Mt Waremeki (割引岳).  Mt Makihata lies another 20-30 minutes up the trail on the right.

Mt Waremeki summit marker:

For some reason the summit marker of Makihata has been placed at a non-descript trail junction, while the true high point is visible about 5-10 minutes further on. The high point is surrounded by fields of delicate alpine flowers though, so perhaps this was a conscious decision to protect the ecosystem from so many pairs of hiking boots.

Mt Makihata summit marker:

The panorama from the summit on a clear day is second to none, taking in all the surrounding Niigata and Gunma hyakumeizan (Tanigawa, Hotaka, Shibutsu, Echigo-Komagatake, Hiuchi) and even some of the Nikkō giants (Oku-Shirane, Sukai).

From the summit, head back to the main junction and take the trail down to the hut on the shoulder, and then jog back down to the car park.

A superb natural line up this beautiful mountain, and without doubt the way to go if conditions are favourable. I advise giving it a full day after heavy rains for the slopes to drain, to ensure that the river is not too high, and be prepared to turn back if it’s not in condition.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Tanigawadake, Henkei-Chimney (谷川岳変形チムニー)

Route Name: Henkei Chimney (変形チムニー)

Mountain: Tanigawadake (谷川岳)

Length: 12 pitches

Time: 4-6 hours to the top of the last pitch

Grade: V+ (IV+ A1) crux pitch / Overall Grade 4 alpine route

Getting there:
From Tokyo take the Takasaki Line to Takasaki (about 1.5hrs). Change for the Jōetsu Line to Minakami (about 45mins), then take a local for 2 stops to Doai. From the underground platform at Doai station, climb a 489-step staircase from hell to reach ground level. Exit the station and join the main road, turning right and walking under a railway bridge. Follow this road for about 20 minutes up to the Visitors Centre.

Walk up the road from the Visitors Centre for about half an hour until you get to the entrance to Ichinokura-sawa (一ノ倉沢). Head up the sawa until you reach the foot of Tail ridge, and ascend this all the way to the top, at the foot of the Tsuitate (衝立岩) rock face.

From here make an exposed rising traverse to your left across the steep slabs in the direction of the Nan-ryō terrace. About two thirds of the way across you will come to the belay anchor at the bottom of the first pitch of the route.

Looking up the face from the first anchor:

This route is essentially a separate line for the first five pitches, after which a thinly protected but straight-forward traverse pitch brings you to the upper half of the neighbouring Chuō Kante (中央カンテ) route. From there the two routes join, sharing the same crux pitch high up on the face.  The difference though, which is what gives this route its slightly higher overall grade, is that where the first five pitches of Chuō Kante contain nothing harder than grade IV, this route passes through the magnificent Henkei Chimney.  This dark and wet overhanging off-width chimney at the top of the fifth pitch goes free at V+ or aided at IV A1, and is quite simply a superb piece of climbing.

Approximate pitch descriptions for the route are as follows:

Pitch 1: Climb up the face on well-featured rock, taking care not to dislodge any loose stones on people below. (35m III+)

Pitch 2: Ascend up to a sort of rock flake, which turns out to be loose in its entirety, and climb it without pulling it off the mountain. Continue up for a few more metres to the belay. (30m IV)

Pitch 3: Climb the crack rising leftwards. (25m IV+)

Pitch 4: Climb easy ground up and to the right to an anchor below the chimney. (20m III)

Pitch 5: Climb up to the base of the chimney. Ascend the chimney using a variety of styles and holds, and be sure to behold the magnificent position and exposure on the final moves at the top. Belay at the anchor just out of the chimney. (20m V+ / IV A1)

Pitch 6: A straight-forward but exposed traverse to the right, to join the Chuō Kante route. Take care with loose rock. (30m III+)

The traverse pitch:

Pitch 7: Up and to the right. (40m IV)

Pitch 8: Again, up and to the right. (40m III-)

Pitch 9: Climb up to the lip of the overhang, and surmount this with a strong move up on positive holds. Continue up to another leftward-rising chimney crack. Climb this chimney crack, with some layback moves, until you reach the belay at the top. (30m V+ / IV+ A1)

Pitch 10: Up and to the left. (30m IV)

Pitch 11: More up and to the left. (40m III)

Pitch 12: Ascend a few metres and traverse left, then climb up a steeper but well-featured section to gain the shoulder. The anchor at the top of the route is here, with the Eboshi (烏帽子岩) rock feature directly up on your right. (40m IV)

Arriving at the top:

Looking down at climbers on top of the neighbouring Chuō-ryo:

From the anchor on top of the route, make a free-hanging abseil on two 50m ropes down the overhanging corner on the other side. When you touch the ground, stay connected to the ropes and continue across the slab, paying attention to loose stones, and several metres down the overgrown grassy slope on the other side of the gully to reach a dodgy piton anchor.

From this anchor you have the option of un-roping and making a sketchy traverse up and left, then down through the undergrowth to the top of the Nan-ryō (南稜) route, and many Japanese parties probably do this. Frankly speaking though, I would strongly recommend belaying this traverse. Having climbed a 12-pitch V+ rock route to get there, it would be ridiculous to slip and fall from here, and I think it would be all too easy for this to happen. It’s your call, but whatever you choose, be really careful… This is a dangerous spot.

Once you get to the top of the Nan-ryō, you can traverse across to the top of the line of rappels which is the standard rappel descent.

It will take you about five rappels on double ropes to reach the terrace at the start of the Nan-ryō. From here you can either unrope and downclimb or do one more rappel to easier ground.

Now you just need to traverse back across to the top of Tail ridge and descend back out of Ichinokura-sawa to the road.

A long and steep route up the striking face between the Nan-ryō (South ridge) and Chuo-ryō (Central Arête) routes, with huge exposure and great climbing.  The two crux pitches are both absolutely priceless.  Bring double ropes, a full rack of slings and quickdraws, and a few small/medium cams. As always with routes in Ichinokura-sawa, be alert at all times and pay close attention to not dislodging any of the many loose rocks onto people below.

Friday, 15 May 2015

The East ridge of Mt Kashimayari (鹿島槍ヶ岳東尾根)

Route name:  East ridge (Higashi-one 東尾根)

Mountain:  Kashimayari-ga-take (2889m 鹿島槍ヶ岳)

Map sheet:  35 [Yama-to-kougen-chizu (山と高原地図) series]

Time:  1-2 days

Grade:  Overall grade 3 alpine route

Mt Kashimayari is one of the finest of Japan’s North Alps giants, and one of its most distinctive.  It is situated on the long ridgeline that runs north to south from Mt Shirouma in the Hakuba area down to Ōgisawa, entry point for the famous Alpen Route through the Kurobe Dam to Mt Tateyama.  Its immediate neighbour to the north is Mt Goryu, and the kirettō ridgeline that connects them contains some of the most dramatic and exposed hiking in the area.

Mt Kashimayari has twin summits connected by a bow-shaped col. The South summit (南山頂 2889m) is the higher of the two, and the hyakumeizan highpoint, while the North summit (北山頂 2842m), with its East ridge, Tengu ridge (天狗尾根) and precipitous North face, is home to some of the most dramatic alpine climbing routes in the area.

In snow conditions, from late winter (March) through to around Golden Week (end of April), the East ridge (東尾根) provides one of Japan’s most aesthetic and satisfying alpine climbs.  Not for the faint-hearted, this is a serious and committing ridge with near-constant exposure along its entire length.  The ridge shelves steeply off to the left, and unstable cornices along the crest ensure that aspirants spend their whole ascent on these inclines with the void below never really leaving your field of vision. It’s an exhilarating feeling, and really does warrant this route’s classic status.

Getting there:

If travelling on public transport, take a train to Shinano-Ōmachi (信濃大町) station, and then take an Ōmachi city bus bound for Gen-yū (源汲方面) and get off the bus at Kashima (鹿島) bus stop, not long after the Jiigatake ski resort (爺ガ岳スキー場). From there it is about an hour’s walk to the car park at Ōtanbara (大谷原).  If you don’t have time to wait for one of the infrequent buses, you could also consider spending approx. ¥5500 on a taxi.

If you have a car, you need to drive to the trailhead at the end of the road at Ōtanbara.  There is a toilet block and a car park with space for 10-15 cars.

Ōtanbara car park:


(Note: All photos in this article are from a spring ascent on 18 April 2015.)

Due to the amount of snow on the mountain in late winter, this route is typically climbed over two days, with a night spent in the tent on one of the pinnacles in the lower half of the route. If you’re a fast party, and you find good snow conditions as we did, it can be done comfortably in a day up and down.

From the car park at Ōtanbara, cross the bridge and walk along the rindou for about 20 minutes.  You’ll go past a small hydro plant on the riverside, and the road will switch back at one point. You’ll soon notice the ridge up on your right, and you’ll come to an entry point where it’s possible to ascend up to the ridgeline.

Head up the steep slope until you gain the ridge, then head left up the crest of the ridge in the trees. This continues for a couple of hours until you leave treeline, and eventually you’ll arrive on top of the Ichi-no-sawa-no-atama (一の沢の頭) pinnacle at 2004m.  There is space for a couple of tents up here if needed.

On Ichi-no-sawa-no-atama pinnacle:

From here onwards you are into the climbing on the East ridge proper. Continue along a very sharp ridge, treading carefully on top of the cornices in some places where no alternative exists.

After some time you’ll arrive at the Ni-no-sawa-no-atama (二の沢の頭) pinnacle, where there is again room for a couple of tents.

Up to now the gradients have been relatively gentle, but from here on things are going to get much steeper.

Upper East ridge:

Descend down the far side of the pinnacle and up over the next, then ascend a steep snow slope until you arrive at the foot of the first rock step.  The drop-offs to climber’s left are really quite substantial now, so take care as you climb.

First rock step:

Looking back from first rock step:

View across to Mt Jiigatake:

The first rock step is pretty straightforward.  There is a piton anchor at the foot of it, and a 50m rope will suffice.  First climb up well-featured rock, with in-situ piton protection, then get onto the snow and climb mixed ground to an anchor near the top.  You can unrope again here, but be aware that there is still a bit of easy mixed terrain remaining, and you’ll exit this onto a steep snow slope with no real resting points until you gain the crest at the top.

Continue along the crest here, over a sharp snow pinnacle and down the other side.

Looking back from far side of pinnacle:

Scramble up a loose blocky rock section with care, and anchor at the foot of the chimney that cuts its way up the second rock step.

This rock step bars the way to the final stretches to the summit, and goes at about grade IV. Naturally, grade IV in boots and crampons with a full pack containing camping gear requires slightly more focus than it would at the local crag, and the chimney does overhang at one point, just to add a bit more enjoyment and a sense of position.

From the anchor at the top of the chimney, you’re back on snow, and a short but slightly tricky traverse ensues to get back onto easier ground; tricky largely because it's steep and the snow will almost certainly be soft in the sun by this stage.  Continue up to the junction where the Tengu ridge (天狗尾根) joins the East ridge, and then carry on up to a small flat spot at the top of the North face. From here a final 50m ascent brings you to the North summit of Kashimayari.

Final slope to North summit:

Looking back at the final slopes:

The views from here are quite simply outstanding.

Kashimayari North summit marker:

Getting down:

From the North summit, walk carefully down the slope to the col between the North and South summits. From here you have two choices:

1. Continue over the South summit, down to the site of the hut below the North summit (2631m) of Mt Jiigatake (爺ヶ岳). Then ascend a little more in the direction of Jiigatake before branching off to the west onto the Akaiwa-one (赤岩尾根) descent ridge.  This ridge is a marked trail of 3 hours map-time in summer, and will take you all the way down to the rindou about an hour away from Ōtanbara.

2. Climb from the col between the North and South summits directly down the steep snow slopes to the east (front-pointing necessary in the upper section), and descend  as quickly as you can all the way down this snow valley to the rindou at the foot of the Akaiwa-one descent ridge.  Be very aware of avalanche risk if you choose to do this, and make sure that the sun has already dipped to the west behind the summit ridgeline.

Green line shows direct descent route:


What can I say?  This ridge speaks for itself.  It would be a true classic anywhere in the world.  Bring your A-game, and enjoy this perfect way to the summit of this perfect mountain!

Friday, 27 February 2015

Mitsutoge (三ツ峠山) ice-climbing – Shijuhataki-sawa (四十八滝沢)

Route Name:     Shijuhataki-sawa (四十八滝沢)

Mountain:     Mitsutōge (1785m, 三ツ峠山)

Map sheet:     31 [Yama-to-kougen-chizu (山と高原地図) series]

Time:     Approx. 6 hours to the summit

Grade:     WI3+ / Overall grade 2 route

Getting there:
If travelling by car from Tokyo (東京), take the Chuō Expressway to Ōtsuki (大月), and then turn left in the direction of Kawaguchiko (河口湖).  Leave the expressway at Tsuru (つる), and turn right onto Route 705.

Continue along this road, crossing a bridge and eventually winding up into the mountains, until you eventually come to the following billboard map sign just before a single lane bridge.

There is a car park about 50m down the road near the bus stop before this map sign, and there is space for one car to park in front of the map sign.  If you have a four-wheel-drive car with plenty of clearance, you could consider continuing up the road to the trail head itself, but parking is limited up there and the road is very icy in winter.


Topo map from the out-of-print ice-climbing guidebook:

If you parked at the car park, you need to cross the bridge and continue up the road for about 20 minutes until you reach the trail head. It is well sign-posted, and the trail heads off left from the road.

For the first 30 minutes or so the trail wanders uphill gently, crossing one sawa before heading up on a raised ridge past about 5 or 6 concrete dams.  Eventually you will reach a large tree with a couple of signboards attached to it.

This tree marks the entry point for sawanobori climbers in summer, after all the concrete dams, and if conditions are good you can also enter here. If there is a lot of snow, or the lower reaches of the sawa are not frozen at all, continue up the trail for another 10 minutes or so until you reach the first frozen falls, then drop in.

The first couple of falls are quite short, and there are trees to belay from if you do get the rope out.

Looking back in the lower section:

After a short time you will approach the 25m Ō-taki (大滝) icefall. The Ō-taki is rarely in full fat condition, and usually has water gushing down the centre. If the ice is in climbable condition, parties usually climb it on the right edge.

Upper part of Ō-taki in poor condition:

If the ice is not climbable, as on our ascent, don’t worry… There is a straight-forward scramble on the left which bypasses the Ō-taki.

Now you are into the really nice climbing, and you immediately enter a steeper canyon with a series of stepped icefalls. There are tree belays if needed, so it’s up to you how you break up this section.

After several more icefalls, we started to encounter deeper snow, and the sawa itself became buried and the lower sections of most icefalls were rather banked out. If you catch this route in early season conditions, you’ll probably be climbing a continuous ramp of moderate stepped ice.

Eventually you will reach the final steep slopes up to the summit ridgeline. These slopes continue for several hundred metres of height gain, and we had to break trail for the entire way. A final easy mixed section through steep forested slopes brought us out on the summit ridge. From there it is just a few minutes’ walk to the main summit of Mitsutōge (Mt Kaiun, 開運山, 1785m), with stupendous views across to Mt Fuji.

To descend back to your car, you need to take the hiking trail along the summit ridgeline to the northernmost of the 3 summits of Mitsutōge, Mt Osutaka (御巣鷹山, 1775m), and then strike out on your right down the hiking trail. The trail is very steep for a lot of the way, with some exposure, and is a bit more engaging than most hiking trails in Japan.

After about an hour you will come out into the sawa just below the Ō-taki icefall, and cross over onto the other side. There are ropes in places to secure passage, and once through the tricky sections, it is a straight-forward walk back down to the rindou and the trailhead. From there, a further 10-15 minutes down the road will bring you back to the car park.

It still amazes me that such a quality ice route exists so close to Tokyo! Despite the man-made eyesore of the communication towers on the summit, Mitsutōge is in fact a mountain of great nuance and subtlety if you look in the right places, and has a lot to offer to climbers of both rock and ice. With 1000m of height gain between car and summit, this outing is not a small day by any means, but it is a fantastic route and well worth the effort. About six or seven ice screws and a 50m rope should suffice.