Thursday, 24 July 2014

Running and scrambling on Mt Kentoku

Mountain:     Mt Kentoku (乾徳山 2031m)

Map sheet:     26 [Yama-to-kougen-chizu (山と高原地図) series]

Time:     approx. 4 hours round trip



Getting there:

If travelling by train from Tokyo (東京) or Shinjuku (新宿), take a Chuō Line (中央線) train out to Enzan (塩山) station.   It takes around 90 minutes by limited express.  Next you’ll need to take a bus from just outside the south exit of Enzan station.

If travelling by car, head to Enzan, get onto Route 140 and then turn off onto Route 209 up to a car park near the Kentokuzan-tozanguchi (乾徳山登山口) bus stop and trailhead.

Description:


Mt Kentoku (乾徳山) is a rocky summit of 2031m in the Oku-Chichibu (奥秩父) mountains of Yamanashi prefecture (山梨県).  Although popular at weekends, it is rarely very busy.  The vast majority of Japanese hikers will take the bus further up the road to the Nishizawa-keikoku river gorge, leaving the trails on Mt Kentoku relatively free.


The ascent route I usually take begins with a short jog up the road from the car park at about 900m, then a right turn and a further 5-10 minutes up another road. You soon reach a metal gate across the road, used to prevent deer from passing through, and a few metres beyond this on the left lies the start of the trail up a ramp onto the forested hillside.


It’s a fairly steep power hike for a while, but the higher you get the more interesting the terrain becomes and the more runnable it is.


Eventually it opens out completely at the Ougi-daira (扇平) plateau.  Stop briefly to admire the views at the Tsuki-mi rock (月見岩), and then head into the final 30-minute run up through the forest and onto the rocky summit ridgeline above.

There are chains in-situ on some of the rock steps, but if you’re confident on rock then you won’t need any of them. In many places you can experiment with the line you take up the rock.







Eventually you’ll reach a final rock pitch with a large chain hanging down a crack and slab leading up to the summit itself.  This can be climbed easily without touching the chain by starting up the rock on the left, then crossing the slab at the thin ledge at half height, then continuing to the top up a well-featured groove.  The same route can be down-climbed as well if you’re okay with exposure on steep but well-featured rock.


If you’re really not into rock scrambling, you can bypass this entire section on a trail to the right, which many hikers use for descent.

On a cloudless day the views from the summit will extend over to Mt Fuji (富士山) and the Minami Alps (南アルプス), as well as Mt Kobushi (甲武信ヶ岳) and Mt Kinpu (金峰山) in the other direction.


The descent is where the real fun starts, as you get to experience the pure joy of scrambling down good rock to begin with, and then you can open the throttle all the way to the bottom of the mountain mostly on beautiful single-track trail.



Overall:

If you’re looking for a run with decent height-gain, joyous rock scrambling, runnable single-track and not too many people, you really can’t go wrong with Mt Kentoku!  Don’t forget to cool off with a dip in the river near the bus stop at the bottom.


Monday, 26 May 2014

The main ridge of Mt Shirouma (白馬岳主稜)

Route name:  Main ridge (Shu-ryo )

Mountain:  Shiroumadake (2932m 白馬岳)

Map sheet:  34 [Yama-to-kougen-chizu (山と高原地図) series]

Time:  2 days (1 day approach, 1 day for the climb and descent)

Grade:  Overall Grade 2+ alpine route



Getting there:

The Shu-ryo is a winter/spring alpine climb, and the optimal time of year for it is April.  Before then you will find a lot of snow, and access will be more difficult.  After the Golden Week holidays of late April / early May, the chances of finding the ridge in perfect condition will go down as temperatures rise and the snow cover begins to break up. Consider all this in your planning.

If travelling by train from Tokyo (東京) or Shinjuku (新宿), take a Chuō Line (中央線) train out to Hakuba (白馬) station on the edge of the North Alps (北アルプス).  The quickest way is to take the Super Azusa all the way, but depending on the time of day you might have to take an Azusa to Matsumoto (松本) and then change for a local train on the JR Ooito line to Hakuba. Next take a bus from outside Hakuba station to Sarukura ().  Note that in 2014 the bus service only started running on 26th April, in time for the opening of the hut at Sarukura and the start of Golden Week.

If travelling by car, there are parking spaces outside the hut at Sarukura or in a larger car park just before the hut.  Note though that the road to Sarukura is usually closed by a locked barrier at Futamata (二股) until the day before the Golden Week holidays start, which would add an extra hour's walk to day one of this itinerary.

Description:


DAY ONE

After spending the whole morning getting to Sarukura, you’ll be pleased to hear that basecamp for the Shu-ryo is reached in a gentle hour’s walk.  In summer there is an obvious trail to follow, but in winter/spring it’s buried under the snow. If you’re standing in the car park in front of the hut at Sarukura, the path goes round the side of the hut on the left.


About 20 metres beyond the hut, head up the slope for 5-10 minutes until you hit a forest road, or rindou. Follow this road to your right and it will take you up the valley into the mountains, contouring above the river. You will pass several concrete dams, and eventually your path will converge with the river as the terrain widens out into a large snow bowl as you approach the foot of the Shu-ryo.


The Shiroumajiri (白馬) hut is located here, but you wouldn’t know it, as in spring it is still buried under tons of snow.  Be aware that there is a high risk of avalanches in this area and particularly from the Daisekkei (大雪) above, so choose your camp spot wisely. There is a rise in the centre of the valley, about 100m from the start of the Shu-ryo’s approach slopes, and this is a good area to camp, away from the valley sides.


DAY TWO


The ridge itself is a series of rising peaks and bumps, numbered in sequence from P8 at the top of the approach slopes all the way up to P1, the summit itself. Connecting these peaks is a thrilling knife-edge snow ridge, with a total height-gain from basecamp to summit of approximately 1400m.

Depending on the line you choose, it should take up to a couple of hours to climb the initial slopes and gain the ridge itself at P8.




Once on the ridge, the way to go is obvious.


Take care to stay well away from the cornices on climber’s right between P8 and P7.


Up to about P5 you can find tree anchors if you need them, but from there onwards you are on your own as things open out.  Around this point, as the character of the route morphs into a pure snow climb, the exposure begins to mount on all sides and the ridge takes on the atmosphere of a much bigger climb. The knife-edges become sharper, the drops on both sides larger, and as you get into the East face proper and approach P3 and P2, the ridge begins to rear up more steeply.






In good years it’s quite common that parties will not need to get the rope out until P3 or P2, but conditions can vary from year to year and depending on how early or late in the season you are there, so be prepared to pitch these latter sections on your own snow belays if necessary.


Eventually you will arrive at the small flat area on top of P2, the final resting spot before the crux section of the route; the headwall for which the Shu-ryo is deservedly famous.


This final slope is approximately 60m high, and steepens up to an angle of about 60 degrees in its upper half.  It is always overhung by an enormous cornice. If you’re lucky, a previous party will have already dealt with this and carved an exit. If not, you will have to deal with it yourselves.


Some parties choose to climb the exit slope in one full rope length, but there are rock anchors available around halfway up the slope if you prefer to split it into two pitches. There’s no right or wrong way to do this, but my personal feeling is that if you do it in one, the leader is going to be a LONG way above the belayer by the time they reach the cornice, and if they do slip, we’re talking about a very long fall with just an ice-axe belay in the snow 50-60m below. Depending on the time of day you reach this spot (we were there at 09:30am with the sun full bore on this snow slope), the snow could be extremely slushy.  To conclude, it seems prudent to me to climb it in 2 pitches if you’re there when the snow is soft and wet, and perhaps just a single long pitch if you arrive later in the day when the sun has already dipped behind the mountain to the west and the snow has firmed up a bit.

Placing a snow stake before the final cornice will also add a measure of security in the event of a slip.



One of the many attractions of the Shu-ryo is that you top out right on the summit itself, near the concrete summit marker. The feeling of pulling over that cornice and topping out onto the relatively flat summit area is priceless.



On a clear day you will be able to see all the way across to Tsurugidake (剱岳) and as far out as Yarigatake (槍ヶ岳) to the south.  Congratulate yourselves on a great climb before you begin the walk down.


Getting down:

There are a few ways you could get down from the summit, but all except one take substantially longer and more effort and will not bring you back to your tent. The quickest and easiest way down to your tent is to go down the Daisekkei (Great Snow Valley 大雪), but this is very avalanche-prone in spring and if you choose to take this route down, treat it with full respect and get it done as quickly and as safely as you possibly can.


From the summit, head south to the enormous Hakuba-sansou (白馬山荘), about 10-15 minutes below.  Continue down the same way until you reach the next big hut at the top of the Daisekkei.  The route swings to the east now on climber’s left and drops down into the Daisekkei. If you’re fast you can be through all this and back to your tent in about an hour from the summit, but it may take you quite a bit longer. Keep your eyes and ears open and alert for avalanches.


From Shiroumajiri and your tent, all that remains is to reverse the hour’s walk back down to Sarukura.

Overall:

Easily one of the most aesthetic itineraries in Japan, the Shirouma Shu-ryo is the classic snow line.  It has both ambience and exposure, and for a route of only moderate difficulty it demands fitness, a head for heights and the ability to protect yourselves on steep snow. This is without a doubt one of the classic climbs of the Japan Alps!

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Winter on Mt Asama

Mountain: Asama (浅間山 2568m)

Location: Joshinetsu Kōgen national park (上信越高原国立公園)

Map sheet: 19 [Yama-to-kougen-chizu (山と高原地図) series]


[Note: All photos in this post were taken on an ascent in early March 2014]

An ascent of Mt Asama would be worthwhile at any time of year, but there's something particularly special about standing up there alone on that windswept and barren crater in the middle of winter.  Perhaps it's the way the icy snow masks all that ugly andesite and dacite, rendering it smooth and pristine.  Or perhaps it's the sensation of getting towards the heart of something as you approach the innermost of Asama's three craters.  Or perhaps it's just the sheer thrill of standing atop an active volcano at the most challenging time of year.

The mountain is made up of three craters, each formed during a separate eruption.  Working outwards from the centre you have Mt Maekake (
前掛 2524m), which is essentially a semi-circular band of cliff to the west of the main crater, and then Mt Kurofu (黒斑 2404m), another band of cliff just in front of the Asama 2000 ski ground and dropping down to meet Asama's main cone at a point known as the J-Band.

Looking across to Mt Kurofu, the outermost of Asama's three craters:

Asama's most recent eruption was in February of 2009, when ash fell as far away as Tokyo to the distant south.  It is currently at level one out of three on the scale of alert, which means there are currently no signs of an imminent eruption.

Volcanic activity levels explained (in Japanese):

However, where active volcanoes are concerned, all bets are off, and everyone who ascends Asama takes their chances.  The true summit of the mountain on the central crater is always off-limits, although many hikers do go up there.  To do so is to take a genuine risk though, as there are poisonous volcanic gases coming out of the crater at almost all times, and people have been overcome up there.  It's up to you to make your own mind up though... The true crater is just a short walk away from the saddle at the foot of the final hike up to Mt Maekake (the 2nd crater), and is a mere 44m higher.

For safety reasons Mt Maekake is generally accepted as the hyakumeizan summit.

Getting there:
There are a couple of ways to access Mt Asama from Tokyo, and I think the easiest is to take an early morning shinkansen from Tokyo station up to Sakudaira (桜平) station.

From just outside the station you can take a bus in the direction of Takamine-Kogen (高峰高原) and get off after about 45 minutes at the Asama-tozan-guchi stop (浅間登山口).  You'll see a road heading up on your right, and the first part of your hike goes up this road.

Because of the bus times, it will be quite tricky to do this in a single day.  I was up and down the mountain reasonably fast for the winter conditions (6 hours round trip from bus stop to summit and back down to the Asama hut), but I still would have missed the last bus down, necessitating a hut stay.  As it turned out though, I managed to hitch a lift back to Sakudaira the same afternoon from a very friendly Japanese couple that I met on my way down the mountain.  Best to plan for the overnight stay and treat this scenario as a welcome bonus though...

The hike:
A lot has already been written about this hike in summer, both by Wes and Matthieu, so I'll keep the description brief and to the point.  Matthieu's article is particularly informative, and details the huts on the mountain as well as the security situation.

Depending on your pace, a short walk of between 30-60 minutes should see you up the initial road and outside the Asama-sansou hut (浅間山).  This hut has an onsen, so you could do a lot worse than spend a night here after this climb.


Continue round the back of the hut and you'll pass through a sort of gate with a ticket booth (closed in winter, of course) and the signpost in the photo above.  Past here the trail turns into a dirt road, which will be snow-covered in winter.


Follow this road across a small bridge and round to the right, and continue up and along the trail through the forest for up to an hour until you come to the first of two torii gates.

The 一ノ鳥居 torii gate:

At this point the trail splits for a little while before both options meet up again at the second torii gate.  The left fork crosses the river and heads up from there, and the right fork stays on the right bank up to the Fudoutaki waterfall (不動).  I took the left trail, but either way it will only take you about 20 minutes to reach the junction just before the second torii.

Looking back at the meeting point of the two trails:

The 二ノ鳥  torii gate:

Continue up the valley as the forest begins to open up, and you'll pass some very impressive rock formations on the right, as Asama finally peaks into view.


Continue upwards into an area called Kamoshika-daira (カモシカ), and eventually you'll reach the Kazankan hut (火山Tel: 0267-22-1700).  This hut was closed when I passed through, but it's a fantastic place to spend a few minutes admiring the rock formations below, and to stash any gear you don't need for your summit push, to collect on your way back down.

Kazankan hut:

The view from the hut's terrace:

Now you're ready for the final push to the summit.  Ascend a short slope behind the hut, and continue up through the forest across a large gently rising plateau until you come across a (likely almost buried) signpost.  This is the junction where a trail forks off to the left up to Mt Kurofu.  That trail is buried in winter though, so it's not at all clear where it goes.  You need to continue straight ahead for the summit though.



After a short time you'll leave the forest and things will open out beneath the Maekake crater rim, with stunning views all round.  If you've been using snow shoes up to now, this is probably around the point where you'll take them off and put your crampons on.  You'll need to make a rising traverse up a gradually steepening slope.  Take a little care on this section as the trail will probably be banked out with icy snow, and the higher you go the further you'll slide if you slip.


Eventually you'll reach flat ground between the main crater and the Maekake crater, and you'll see a couple of iron emergency shelters.  In theory these are to be used if you're unlucky enough to be there when an eruption occurs, but in winter they're generally choked full of snow.

Emergency shelters below the summit:


If you're planning to stick to the rules and forgo the main crater, continue past these shelters and ascend the snow slope on your right up the Maekake crater.


A short walk will see you at the hyakumeizan summit post of Mt Maekake (前掛 2524m).  The views from here are quite simply breath-taking!



The main crater just across from Maekake:

The Yatsugatake massif to the south:

The route you took to get here:

Now all you have to do is reverse the whole thing.  Cheers!


If you're really lucky on your way down you'll encounter one of the Kamoshika that the forest is famous for.  If so, try not to startle it, and enjoy the proximity to one of these magnificent creatures.


Overall:
What can I say?  A fine mountain at any time of year, but particularly beautiful in winter.  Take the usual precautions and gear you would for any winter climb above 2500m (ice axe, crampons, warm clothing, hot drinks and plenty of food, possibly snowshoes, avalanche gear etc.), and check the conditions and wind direction up there on the day before deciding whether to go for the main crater or not (I didn't).  I'm certain you will not be disappointed!