Saturday, 23 September 2017

Tanigawadake, Chuō-Kante (谷川岳中央カンテ)

Route Name: Chuō-Kante (中央カンテ)

Mountain: Tanigawadake (谷川岳)

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

Length: 10 pitches

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

Grade: V crux pitch / Overall grade 4- alpine route

The Chuō-Kante route ascends the prominent rib of rock on the right side of the Eboshi-sawa Oku-heki (烏帽子沢奥壁) wall, between the Henkei Chimney (変形チムニー) and the Ojou-heki (凹状壁) routes. First climbed in the summer of 1958, this 10-pitch odyssey provides steady climbing for the most part up a stunning natural line, and its crux pitch is one of the finest on the wall. Protection is often sparse, with some pitches containing barely any in-situ gear at all, so a trad rack is required here. Rock quality can be rather suspect, so care and good balance will serve you well. All of this adds up to a classic and universally valued outing up one of the finest and most storied of Japanese walls.

(Note: The photos in this article are assembled from several ascents of the wall, hence the varied weather conditions.)

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 bottom of Tail ridge, and ascend this all the way to the top, at the foot of the Tsuitate-iwa (衝立岩) rock face.

From here make a short but exposed rising traverse to your left up the steep slabs around the bottom of the Chuō-ryo (中央稜). You will soon reach an in-situ anchor (2 bolts), which is the shared start of both the Chuō-Kante and Ojou-heki routes.

Approximate pitch descriptions for the route are as follows:

Pitch 1: Traverse right from the anchor for 10m round the corner. Ascend another 20m on loose grassy rock. (30m III+)

Pitch 2: Climb up moderate but run-out terrain to a 2-bolt anchor. (40m III)

Pitch 3: Make steep moves to gain the Kante, then ascend it for about 20m to an anchor. (40m IV)

Pitch 4: Continue up the Kante for a rope length, ignoring an old intermediate anchor. (50m III)

Pitch 5: Climb up the shallow gully above to the base of a chimney. Climb the chimney on trad gear placements to an anchor just above. (30m IV+)

Pitch 6: Climb up and to the right, and belay a short distance below the obvious crux overhang. (40m III)

Pitch 7: Climb up to the lip of the overhang, and surmount this with a strong move up right on positive holds. Continue up to another leftward-rising crack. Climb this crack, with some layback moves, until you reach the belay at the top. (30m V+)

Pitch 8: Climb up and to the left. (30m IV)

Pitch 9: Continue up and to the left across the face. (40m III)

Pitch 10: 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)

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 make a sketchy traverse up and left across the muddy face, then down through the undergrowth to the top of the Nan-ryō (南稜) route. Pay attention on this section, as it 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 down-climb 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 fantastic and varied outing up a large natural line with great exposure. The climbing is interesting and engaging throughout, requiring both a trad rack and a head for alpine adventure. This route is a perfect stepping stone between the easier classic arêtes bounding the Oku-heki face and the longer and more demanding routes up the face itself.

For more classic routes on Tanigawadake and the famous Ichinokura-sawa valley, check out the book on Amazon in print or Kindle e-book formats.

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Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Kitadake Buttress - No.4 ridge Lower flank and Upper flank (北岳バットレス第4尾根下部フランケ~上部フランケ)

Route name:  Lower flank (下部フランケ) / Upper flank (上部フランケ) routes on ‘The Buttress’ No.4 ridge (バットレス第4尾根)

Mountain:  Mt Kitadake (3192m北岳)

Map sheet:  41 [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 4- alpine route

There can be few alpine days in Japan to rival the ascent of Mt Kitadake by any of the routes on its East face buttress. The classic No.4 ridge (4尾根) constitutes the easiest way to the top, and is consequently the busiest route on the face. On the plus side, this means it has the most solid rock and generally reliable in-situ protection. But once you stray from there onto other parts of the face, the adventure ramps up considerably.

The routes in D-gully and on the left flank of No.4 ridge are steeper and more consistently difficult, and bring into play important route-finding and protection skills. With slabs, overhangs, corner cracks and chimneys, a wide range of climbing skills is needed as well. And for all that, the level of satisfaction on reaching Japan’s second highest summit is raised accordingly.

Getting there:
If travelling by train from Tokyo (東京) or Shinjuku (新宿), take a Chuō Line (中央線) train out to Kōfu (甲府) station. Ideally you want to be on the first Super Azusa limited express train in the morning. Next you need to take a bus from the bus stands outside Kōfu station via the Yashajin Pass (夜叉神峠) to Hirogawara (広河原). The bus ride takes approximately two hours. You will begin your approach from Hirogawara.

If travelling by car you need to get to Narada onsen and park your car in the large car park there. From Narada the road is closed to private vehicles, but there is a bus service between there and the trailhead at Hirogawara.

From the bus stop at Hirogawara walk up the road for a couple of minutes, then cross the suspension bridge over the river.

Walk up the trail for about 15-20 minutes and you’ll come to a junction, and the trail you take depends on where you’re planning to sleep.  Let’s assume here that you’re going to spend the night in the Shiraneoike hut (白根御池小屋) or its campground. You’ll need to take the right fork, and a couple of hours of steep hiking will bring you to the hut and the pond it gets its name from.

D-gully access:
After an early start, hike up the trail from the hut for about 30 minutes until things open out into the main sawa and you reach the Futamata (二俣) trail junction. Continue up the trail on the right edge of the valley for another half hour until you get to the entrances to C and D gullies on your right, with the cliffs of the buttress looming up above.

A faint trail ascends the ridge between the two gullies up to the foot of the rock.

As the route in question here lies on the D-gully side of No.4 ridge, you’ll want to approach via D-gully. Either climb the gully itself by three easy pitches up to the large ledge, or climb the rib on the left of D-gully (in-situ pitons) before heading into D-gully for the last easy pitch up to the ledge.

This wide ledge traverses the face and is the access round to No.4 ridge, as well as to the Lower flank route. There is a dodgy old anchor in place at the foot of the route, consisting of two rusty pitons which may need hammering back in depending on how the previous winter has been. Now you’re ready to start the climb itself.

Lower flank route:

Pitch 1: There’s nothing quite like getting the crux pitch out of the way at the start! Climb the slab on small crimpy holds, then make a delicate traverse rightwards to the belay anchor in the corner. (50m 5.10a)

Pitch 2: Climb directly up the steep open-book corner to a bulge. Surmount this on the left, then carry on up the crack to belay on a ledge. (35m IV+)

Pitch 3: Continue up the corner to a piton belay. (40m IV+)

Pitch 4: Finish the corner, then ascend steep broken ground to belay on the right side of D-gully’s back wall. It’s possible to link pitches 3 and 4 into one long pitch of 60m. (20m IV)

Pitch 5: An unprotected rising traverse leftwards takes you out into no-mans-land in D-gully. Continue left along a slight ledge, and dip down at the end to belay on pitons below the start of the D-gully oku-heki (Dガリー奥壁) route. (40m II-III)

Upper flank route:

Pitch 6: Route-finding on this pitch is not very clear, but you need to climb up and to the right for about 40m until you reach a piton belay at the bottom of an overhanging chimney. (40m III)

Pitch 7: This is the crux pitch of the upper flank route. Climb the chimney’s right edge to reach the overhang. Pull through this and then continue steeply up the corner to belay on a ledge. (20m V)

Pitch 8: Climb the corner directly below No.4 ridge. (40m III+)

Pitch 9: Continue up the corner to belay at the foot of the Matchbox abseil from No.4 ridge. From this point you are onto the upper pitches of No.4 ridge. (40m III+)

Pitch 10: Make steep but easy moves up the crack between the Matchbox rock and the main face, then climb a delicate section up the arête to belay on a ledge a few metres below the start of the traverse pitch. (45m IV+)

Pitch 11: Climb the last few metres of the arête to gain the start of the traverse. Now head to climber’s left along the beautiful knife-edge to belay below the final chimney crack at the top of D-gully. (40m III)

Pitch 12: Climb the awkward and slightly over-hanging chimney crack, with plentiful in-situ pitons nowadays, to exit D-gully onto the easy ground above. (35m IV+)

From here you just need to scramble up about 30m of easy slabs and you’ll come to a path that will take you up the final slopes to exit the East face onto the summit ridge hiking trail in about 15 minutes. The summit lies just a short way up the trail on climber’s right.

Getting down:
From the summit follow the hiking trail north and down to the Kitadake Katanogoya hut (北岳肩ノ小屋), which sits on the shoulder of the mountain and is renowned for its sunrise views. Continue beyond the hut and you’ll reach a junction, with one trail heading off to the large satellite peak on the left and another dropping steeply down to the east.

This latter trail will bring you all the way back down to your starting point at the Shiraneoike hut. From there you just need to reverse the hike back out to the trailhead bus stop at Hirogawara.

A consistent and very satisfying route, and a step up from the neighbouring No.4 ridge in every way. Bring nuts and cams and expect to use them, and be prepared for a long and physical outing.

Would you like to climb more of Japan's classic alpine routes? Take a look at Climb Japan's 5-star rated book "10 Classic Alpine Climbs of Japan" on Amazon:

Friday, 16 June 2017

Climbing the Obelisk (オベリスク) of Jizōdake (地蔵岳)

Mountain:  Jizōdake (地蔵岳)

Massif:  Hōōsanzan (鳳凰三山)

Map sheet:  41 [Yama-to-kougen-chizu (山と高原地図) series]

The Hōōsanzan, or the three peaks of Mt Hōō, sit on the eastern edge of the South Alps of Japan in the centre of Honshu island. Like their neighbour to the north, Mt Kaikomagatake (甲斐駒ケ岳), they are made of granite and this gives their exposed summit ridgeline a distinctive white colouring. From a distance, this gives them the appearance of being snow-covered, even in mid-summer.

From south to north the three peaks of Mt Hōō are Yakushidake (薬師岳 2780m), Kannondake (観音岳 2840m, the highpoint of the massif) and Jizōdake (地蔵岳 2764m). The ridgeline connecting them is one of the most beautiful of the Japan Alps, and is easily accessible from Tokyo for a day trip or an overnight stay in one of several mountain huts. It is highly recommended, either as a hike or a trail run.

Perhaps the most interesting of the three peaks, however, is Jizōdake. On its summit is a rock formation that is unique and visible from the valley floor and from a Chuo Line train, and which has become something of a symbol for Yamanashi prefecture. It is known as the Obelisk (オベリスク), and in addition to its striking appearance, it has the distinction of being the first recorded recreational rock climb in Japan. It’s first ascensionist was none other than the venerable Rev Walter Weston, who is credited with introducing the Japan Alps to the world through his 1896 book “Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps”.

The circumstances of the 1904 first ascent of the Obelisk are quite interesting, so it’s worth quoting the passage on it from the English-language version of Fukada Kyuya’s “Nihon Hyakumeizan”:

A tall chimney is formed where the rock pillars lean together. After an inspection, Weston realized the only chance of success lay in getting up the convex angle of the lower pillar. He got his companion to press his ice axe against his feet to steady him as he stood on a small ledge, then began to bombard the top of the crack formed by the stone pillars with a stone tied to the end of his eighty feet of alpine climbing rope. After half an hour of disheartening effort, a lucky shot went home. Grasping the rope in his left hand, he then fought his way upward until he reached a protruding block where the rope could afford no further help. The he committed his whole weight to the obstruction above and, after a struggle, hauled himself onto the top of the lower rock. From here to the actual highest point was comparatively easy, for though the way up was almost vertical, the holds were good, and Weston was able to finish his climb in good style. This may be our country’s first act of alpinism, and it is certainly its first recorded rock climb.

The author nearing the top of the Obelisk:

The view south to Kannondake from the top of the Obelisk:

The good news for any aspirants today is that it is not a very difficult climb. However, it should be pointed out that just as what goes up must come down, getting to the top of the Obelisk is by far the easier half of the journey. In normal years there is a fixed rope hanging down the final crack that Weston aided up, but as of 10 June 2017 at least, the fixed ropes have all been removed. What remains now is two short sections of in-situ chain, the lower of which appeared to be secured by nothing more than one of its links jammed into a constriction in the crack. There is a gap of several metres between these two chains, and the move to gain the upper chain requires a level of commitment that may be beyond anyone without a reasonable amount of rock-climbing experience and a good head for exposure. Even with those two qualities it is doubtful that the experience of climbing back down will be a pleasant one. If in doubt, it might be better to leave it for another day and come back with a rope, a belayer and a couple of small cams just to be safe.

(NB: For more of Fukada Kyuya’s description of the Hōōsanzan and the Obelisk of Jizōdake, pick up a copy of Martin Hood’s excellent English translation of the “Nihon Hyakumeizan”.)

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Monday, 27 March 2017

Matsuki-sawa (松木沢) ice-climbing - Kuro-sawa (黒沢) gully

Route Name:  Kuro-sawa (黒沢)

Location:  Matsuki-sawa valley (松木沢)

Map sheet:  13 [Yama-to-kougen-chizu (山と高原地図) series]

Time:  1 day

Grade:  WI3+ / Overall grade 2 alpine route

Tucked in behind the Nikkō mountains, near the former copper mining village of Ashio, the Matsuki-sawa valley is a place of contrasts. This area was an important source of copper for the Japanese government from the Meiji era right up to the 1970s, when operations were ceased. It suffered many environmental disasters along the way, and the landscape at the head of the valley is still deeply and visibly scarred by this history.

Despite all this, once you enter Matsuki-sawa you will likely be struck by the beauty and ambience of the place, with its steep craggy cliffs and alpine feel. It’s an impressive place, and made even more beautiful by the absence of the hordes of hikers that are to be found in Japan’s more well-known mountainous areas. From hiking to sawanobori, multi-pitch rock-climbing to alpine ice-climbing, the area is an adventure playground and a real reward to those who make the effort to find it.

Getting there:
If travelling from Tokyo (東京) by car, take the Tōhoku Expressway as far as Utsunomiya (宇都宮), then change onto the Nikko-Utsunomiya road until it turns into Route 120. Turn left onto Route 122 and stay on this until it meets Route 250, then turn right onto Route 250. Keep going straight on up the Ashio (足尾) valley on this road until you reach its end at the small car park above the Akagane Water Park (銅親水公園).

From the car park, you need to walk a little further up the road you drove in on, go past the barrier blocking the road, and cross the bridge to get over the river on the left. Walk along the road as it doubles back round to the left and then swings northwest again towards the entrance to Matsuki-sawa (松木沢).

Once into Matsuki-sawa you need to keep walking for about 1.5 hours to reach the entrance to Kuro-sawa (黒沢). Initially you will be on a good dirt road until you reach the Matsuki village.

From there onwards the road becomes less maintained, and in several places has been completely covered in boulders from landslides and rockfall from the mountainside on your right. On the left side of the valley large rock faces begin to appear, and the summit ridge of Nakakura-yama (中倉山) can be seen high above. This ridgeline eventually leads over Koushin-san (庚申山) to Nokogiri-yama (鋸山) on the main ridge before the summit of Sukai-san (皇海山), and is a dramatic and high-quality hike in its own right.

Eventually you will arrive at a large concrete dam next to the Kuro-sawa valley coming down the mountainside on your left. You will be able to see the first few icefalls from here. Scramble down to the river and cross it by whatever means available, then hike up the approach trail on the other side.

The first icefall (F1) does not always form very well, and is rather gentle anyway, so this can be bypassed by sticking to the trail up on the right.


This trail will soon enter the sawa, and then several hundred metres of hiking up the frozen river will bring you to the main icefalls.

F2 is approximately 30m high, and can be tackled straight up the middle or close to the rocks on its left side. There is a bolt anchor at the top of it on the right. Many thanks to Mathieu for replacing the previous rusty old anchors with these solid bolts.


The F3 icefall is located directly above F2, and is the tallest fall along this route. There are plenty of ways this can be tackled. Most parties climb it in two pitches, an initial 40m pitch leading to an old bolt anchor on the rock above the centre of the icefall, then a shorter 10m pitch up the narrower section to the top, with a solid bolt anchor on the right. With 60m ropes you could climb it in a single direct pitch if you like.


After this you need to hike quite steeply for about 10 minutes up the sawa to reach F4, a 30m icefall in a sort of gorge-like constriction. There is a tree anchor just back from the top of this one.


To descend, just rappel the icefalls on good in-situ anchors and hike back down and out.


An excellent route in a beautiful location, with good quality icefalls of a satisfying length and a moderate difficulty. Recommended even as a one-day hit, it could also be combined with one of the neighbouring sawa routes to provide a very nice weekend of ice-climbing. February is the optimal month to find good ice conditions in here.

Are you interested in climbing classic alpine and winter routes in the Japanese high mountains?

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