Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Winter on Mt Yake (焼岳)

Mountain: Yakedake (焼岳 2455m)

Map sheet:  37 [Yama-to-kougen-chizu (山と高原地図) series]

Time: 5-6 hours round-trip

Mt Yake (焼岳Yakedake) is an active volcano at the southern end of the North Alps chain, standing guard above the village of Kamikōchi. It has two main summits, the North summit (北峰 2443m) and the marginally higher South summit (南峰 2455m), standing opposite each other on a jagged crater rim, with a beautiful lake at its centre.


A substantial eruption in 1915 partially blocked the flow of the Azusa river, resulting in the creation of Lake Taishō, which still stands today along the road to Kamikōchi. Yakedake actually erupted as recently as 1995, and there is still visible evidence of its active status in the form sulphur vents and fumaroles on the summit crater, and in particular around the North summit.

Although slightly higher, the South summit if officially off-limits, and only the North summit has a marked hiking trail on the maps. For this reason the North summit serves as the official hyakumeizan summit.  During the winter months, however, the mountain receives large amounts of snow and it becomes possible to reach the South summit quite easily. For the more adventurous, the snow cover even facilitates a circumnavigation of the crater rim to connect the summits, although care must be taken on this as there is substantial exposure in places. The mountain also offers many possibilities for backcountry ski touring.

In good weather all of this adds up to a beautiful mountain with stupendous views all around, easy access and multiple possibilities for winter adventures.


Getting there:
If travelling by train from Tokyo (東京) or Shinjuku (新宿), take a Super Azusa limited express train on the Chuō Line (中央線) out to Matsumoto (松本) station.  From there you need to change to the Alpico Line for a 30-minute train ride to Shinshimashima (新島々). The final leg of the journey is a bus ride from outside the train station at Shinshimashima to the Naka-no-yu (中の湯) bus-stop at the entrance of the Kama Tunnel (釜トンネル), which leads towards the alpine village of Kamikōchi (上高地), nestled at the foot of the Hotaka range in the North Alps.


If travelling by car from Tokyo, get onto the Chuō Expressway and then the Nagano Expressway to Matsumoto. Exit the Expressway and get onto Route 158. Stay on this road all the way to the Kama Tunnel entrance. You can park your car at the Sakamaki onsen, about 1.5km before the Kama Tunnel (¥500 for all-day parking), or in any of the numerous lay-bys along the road. The advantage of using one of the larger lay-bys is that you can pitch your tent for the night as well.

From the Naka-no-yu bus-stop, continue walking up Route 158 for another 200m and you will come to a turn-off on your right just before the 158 enters a tunnel. Turn onto this road and follow it up through a series of hairpin bends until you reach the Naka-no-yu onsen hotel.


Enter the grounds of the hotel (Tel: 0263-95-2407), walk up the steps and through the car port on the right side of the entrance and you will find the hiking trail to Yakedake begins behind the building.

Description:
Follow the hiking trail up the hill behind Naka-no-yu for several hundred metres and you will come to a car park (marked on the map). In winter this will be buried under snow. Ascend the small ramp to access the trail behind the fence on the uphill side of the car park, where you will find a large signboard detailing the current eruption alert level. From here the trail contours around the hillside for a couple of hundred metres.


Upon reaching an open area the trail rises up the forested hillside, steeply at first with plastic tape markings on trees.


Things continue like this for about 30 minutes until you arrive at a short downhill leading to a flat area. Continue gently up through the open forest ahead and you will eventually leave tree line and find yourself in a wide plateau near a dakekanba grove, with the North and South summits of Yakedake up ahead.


At this point you can either continue straight ahead to the North summit, or branch off steeply up the hillside on your left to gain the ridge to the South summit.

For the purposes of this article I will describe a route that first takes in the South summit, then circumnavigates the crater rim, then gains the North summit and descends the ordinary hiking trail from there.

Fork left up the hillside to gain the crest of the ridge above. From there simply follow the ridge along and eventually you will come to a final steep slope up to the South summit.


Looking back towards Mt Norikura (乗鞍岳) from below the South summit:

From the South summit, continue along the crater rim until you reach a steep drop-off, which is down-climbed facing inwards. From the bottom, continue round the rim for several hundred metres, ascending and descending the various pinnacles by the most logical route. The route is rather exposed in places, but the climbing is always fairly straight-forward and interesting.



See the footsteps down the snow slope:




Dramatic rock formations viewed from the crater rim:

Eventually you will need to descend into the main crater and traverse over to the snow slopes leading up to the col between the South and North summits.

From the col, head to your left to gain the normal summer hiking trail which winds around the fumaroles to gain the North summit from its northerly aspect. The juxtaposition of icicles and volcanic sulphur vents here is quite amazing.


Spectacular views north towards the Hotaka massif:

Looking across from the North summit to the South summit:

To get down, reverse the last hundred metres of your ascent and continue eastwards along the adjoining ridge until you reach a point where you can walk down the steep snow slopes into the bowl on your right, contour over to the summer hiking trail and descend back down to the dakekanba grove and pick up your trail from the morning. Now just reverse the hike back down to Naka-no-yu.

Overall:
Yakedake is a good mountain at any time of the year, but rather limited in summer. In winter the possibilities expand hugely, as the snow offers passage across terrain that would be otherwise impassable. Connecting both summits via the crater rim can provide a fun bit of alpine problem solving, with some excellent positions and unique views.



Thursday, 31 March 2016

West ridge of Mt Kasumizawa (霞沢岳西尾根)

Route name: West ridge (西尾根)

Mountain: Kasumizawa (霞沢岳 2645m)

Map sheet: 37 [Yama-to-kougen-chizu (山と高原地図) series]

Time: 1-2 days round-trip

Difficulty: Grade 1 alpine route


As you exit the Kama Tunnel on route 24 on your way to the renowned mountain hot spring resort of Kamikōchi, you find yourself in a beautiful valley with two large mountains towering above you, one on either side of the road. On your left is the great fire mountain, Mt Yakedake (焼岳 2455m), with its active sulphur vents and jagged crater. On your right is the slightly higher Mt Kasumizawa (2646m), gateway to the Hotakas. There is only one marked hiking trail to the summit of Mt Kasumizawa on the maps, from the Tokugo Pass (徳本峠) to the east. Walter Weston attained his first view of the Hotaka range from this pass in 1891, and was rightly impressed. The views into Dakesawa (岳沢) are second to none, and until the Kama Tunnel was built much later than Weston’s day, this was the only way to access the area.


But here we are interested in the opposite aspect of the mountain, which rises steeply from route 24 and is only really accessible in the snow season. Kasumizawa’s West ridge gains 1100m from the roadside in just 2.5km. With moderate rock and snow difficulties in its final few hundred metres and that mind-blowing view across to the Hotakas, I would strongly recommend this outing for anyone looking to step up to some of the larger alpine objectives in winter conditions.

Getting there:
If travelling by train from Tokyo (東京) or Shinjuku (新宿), take a Super Azusa limited express train on the Chuō Line (中央線) out to Matsumoto (松本) station.  From there you need to change to the Alpico Line for a 30-minute train ride to Shinshimashima (新島々). The final leg of the journey is a bus ride from outside the train station at Shinshimashima to the entrance of the Kama Tunnel (釜トンネル), which leads towards the alpine village of Kamikōchi (上高地), nestled at the foot of the Hotaka range in the North Alps. The tunnel is barricaded during the winter months, so the entrance bus stop is as far as you’d be able to go by bus.


If travelling by car from Tokyo, get onto the Chuō Expressway and then the Nagano Expressway to Matsumoto. Exit the Expressway and get onto Route 158. Stay on this road all the way to the Kama Tunnel entrance. You can park your car at the Sakamaki onsen, about 1.5km before the Kama Tunnel (¥500 for all-day parking), or in any of the numerous lay-bys along the road. The advantage of using one of the larger lay-bys is that you can pitch your tent for the night as well.

Description:
Get your head torches ready as you pass the barricades and enter the Kama Tunnel. It is 1315m long and rises through the pitch black at a steady gradient. As you exit the tunnel you’ll see a new tunnel under construction straight ahead, but for now just follow the road on the left. About 3km from the start of the Kama Tunnel you’ll come to a signpost on your right, at the bottom of the West ridge.


Turn right at this sign and walk up the rough rindou for a couple of minutes and you’ll soon see a thin path heading up the steep sasa-covered slope to an electricity pylon on the crest of the ridge.


On reaching the pylon turn right and begin your ascent of the West ridge. The first few hundred metres rise in a series of short steep ascents, and you’ll most likely find ice on the ground, making it slightly treacherous and tiresome. There’s plenty of sasa grass to grab hold of though, and it’s not difficult.


After a couple of hours things begin to steepen somewhat and the forest starts to thin out a bit. You’ll start to notice a significant snow cornice on the edge of the ridge on climber’s right.

Mt Norikura in the distance:


Eventually you’ll exit treeline and find yourselves on a sharp snow ridge. The exposure starts to build up now, and you’ll soon arrive at the crux of the route, a rock tower that bars access to the final summit slopes.



The rock tower is well-featured, and in 2016 there was even a (rather unnecessary) fixed rope hanging down it. There are in-situ rappel anchors at the top as well, in case you feel uncomfortable down-climbing it on your return journey.



A short sharp traverse from the top of the rock tower along an exposed snow ridge brings you to the final slopes, and you’ll see the snow-covered summit up above you. This upper part of the mountain is completely open, and the views and air around the 2646m summit are amazing, including the corniced ridgeline leading across to the subsidiary peaks of K2 and K1.




Summit:

Mt Yakedake across the valley:

Now you just need to reverse the whole thing!

Overall:
Moderate technical difficulties coupled with a long and steep ascent and descent make this route a superb introduction to the North Alps winter variation routes. The fact that the summit is only accessible in winter from this side of the mountain adds substantially to the route’s appeal. A 30m rope will suffice and, if you’re comfortable with exposure, will most likely stay in the pack.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

A winter ascent of the Nishikuro ridge of Mt Tanigawa (谷川岳西黒尾根)

Route Name: Nishikuro ridge (西黒尾根)

Mountain: Tanigawa-dake (谷川岳)

Map sheet:  16 [Yama-to-kougen-chizu (山と高原地図) series]


Time: 3-4 hours to the top


Mt Tanigawa (谷川岳) sits along the prefectural border between Gunma and Niigata, and as the moist winter air from the Sea of Japan meets its summit ridge it lets loose colossal amounts of snow. The cornice that forms along that summit ridge can be the size of a house, and the area is renowned for avalanches when temperatures rise towards zero.

Tanigawa is home to some of the most demanding winter alpine climbs in Japan, many of which require serious skills, judgement and courage. For those looking to step up from the easier hiking trail at the southern end of the ridgeline, the Nishikuro ridge (西黒尾根) is an excellent way to reach the summit and sample the way conditions can be on Tanigawa, but with more moderate difficulty. In good consolidated snow it is quite straight-forward, dramatic at times but with little technical difficulty. In the darkest depths of winter though, you should be prepared for deep untracked snow and a level of adventure that belies its modest technicality.

Getting there:
From Tokyo take the Takasaki Line to Takasaki (高崎, about 1.5hrs). Change for the Jōetsu Line to Minakami (水上, about 45mins), then take a local for 2 stops to Doai (土合). 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.

Description:
From the Visitors Centre you need to walk up the road to the mountain rescue hut and then continue on for two more switchbacks, and you will soon reach the trailhead for the Nishikuro ridge.


The first 10-15 minutes past the trailhead take you up a fairly steep forested trail until you crest the ridge below a large electricity pylon. Continue past this pylon up the tree-covered ridgeline for several hundred metres. Depending on the year or the stage of winter you’re hiking in, this section may well require snowshoes to make any progress at all. Eventually you’ll come to a short descent down to a level section with a striking cornice on climber’s left.


Continue upwards as the ridge begins to narrow and the trees start to thin out, and you’ll come to a sort of saddle at treeline. From here on you’re on the upper ridge, and things will become more interesting and more exposed.



First you need to traverse a few pinnacles, and a couple of minor rock steps with in-situ chains provide some added interest on this section. The ridge gets quite narrow in places, with mounting exposure on both sides and a large cornice on your left.

Looking back at the corniced ridgeline:

Beyond those pinnacles things broaden a little more, but the angle of the slope increases as you begin the ascent of a long snow slope past some rocks. The trace will most likely bypass these rocks to climber’s right, but taking them directly provides an enjoyable little scramble.


Now you’re really getting into the final steep upper section of the Nishikuro ridge so just keep going upwards, but once again, be very aware of the cornice on your left.



Eventually things will begin to level off for a short while, and then you’ll pop out onto the main summit ridge in front of a large cairn with signposts, just 50m horizontally from the hut. This cairn marks a trail junction, with the left route heading down the more gentle ordinary hiking trail to the Tenjindaira (天神平) ski piste, and the right route heading up to the summit.


Turn right and continue upwards, and you’ll soon arrive at the 1963m summit of Tomanomimi (トマの耳). This is as far as most hikers go, and on a good day the views are pretty special.

Tomanomimi:

If you want to reach the true 1977m highpoint of Mt Tanigawa you’ll need to continue along the ridge for another 15 minutes to the top of Okinomimi (オキの耳). It really is worth the extra effort to get there, and the view back along the ridge to Tomanomimi is the classic money shot for winter hikers on Tanigawa.

Okinomimi:

Looking across to Ichinokura-dake:



Descent:
There are three options for getting down, as follows:

(i) Continue along the ridge to the summit of Ichinokura-dake (一ノ倉岳), and then swing towards the west to Shigekura-dake (茂倉岳) and hike all the way down to Tsuchitaru (土樽) station. Be aware that very few people do this, so beyond Ichinokura-dake you’ll almost certainly be breaking trail through deep snow.

(ii) Head back over Tomanomimi to the sign-posted trail junction near the hut, and continue straight on down the ordinary path to Tenjindaira (天神平), and take the ski gondola back down to the Visitors Centre.

(iii) Descend the way you came up, straight back down the Nishikuro ridge. If your aim is to train for winter mountaineering then this is the recommended descent, as it will require you to negotiate your way down some steep and exposed snow slopes in the upper half, and will put an important 1000m of descent into your quads.

Overall:
An excellent winter hike to one of the most fabled and exciting summits in the area, elegantly bridging the difficulty gap between the easier hiking trail from the ski gondola and the more serious winter alpine routes in Ichinokura-sawa and Yuno-sawa to the north. I’d recommend carrying snowshoes, even if you end up not using them. Treat this route as an opportunity to train for harder things, as well as an excellent winter ridge hike in its own right.