Thursday, 1 April 2021

The Sekison arête (石尊稜) on Mt Yatsugatake (八ヶ岳)

Route name: Sekison-ryo (石尊稜)

Mountain:  Yokodake (横岳) in the Yatsugatake range (八ヶ岳)

Map sheet:  33 [Yama-to-kougen-chizu (山と高原地図) series]

Time:  4-6 hours (in good conditions)

Length:  4 pitches + 4-500m simul-climbing

Difficulty:  Grade 1+ alpine route / IV crux



The Sekison arête cuts steeply up the West face of Yokodake to the right of the Sanjahou-runze ice gully, and is the type of route that can shrink or grow in stature and experience according to the conditions of the day. In dry or consolidated conditions, it will be an easy romp up some of the most ‘big mountain’ terrain in the area. But in deep unconsolidated fresh snow it can provide the sort of day normally expected on a much bigger and wilder route. As such, don’t let the grade lull you into under-estimating it; check the weather and snow conditions in the week prior to your ascent, and plan accordingly.

With rock pitches at the bottom and top, the middle section is a stunning snow arête that snakes up through the wide bowl of the upper West face, providing views across the whole sweep of the face to both left and right. Don’t forget your camera, because in snowy conditions this route is surely one of the most photogenic in the area!


Getting there:

If travelling from Tokyo, take a Super Azusa Limited Express train from Shinjuku to Chino (approx. 2.5 hours). Outside the JR station at Chino take a bus to Minotoguchi (美濃戸口, approx. 45 minutes). This is the gateway to the Akadake-kōsen side of Yatsugatake. From the carpark start hiking up the trail that is signposted to Akadake. The walk-in takes up to 3 hours by map time. It is split into 3 stages. The first hour brings you past a series of buildings and on a little further to a hut with a water source, which makes a good resting point for 5 minutes. The trail splits here, with the right fork going up Minami-sawa (南沢) to the Gyouja-goya hut (行者小屋). This is the quickest approach if you are planning a single day round-trip ascent. If you are planning on staying in the Akadake-kōsen hut, you need to take the left fork up Kita-sawa (北沢). The next hour follows the rough dirt road until it finishes at a bridge across the sawa. From the other side the path narrows and meanders alongside the sawa for another hour or so until you reach the hut at Akadake-kōsen. This hut and its campground serve as basecamp for all the routes in the area, as well as for the popular Ice Candy artificial ice wall.


Description:

As you exit the Akadake-kōsen hut by the front door turn right and follow the trail to the end of the hut and then up through the forest. Cross the bridge and keep going until you reach the foot of the first of the zigzags that head up to the Nakayama ridge. This is the entry point for both the Sanjahou-runze and the Sekison arête.




Enter the sawa and keep going for several hundred metres, slowly gaining height and keeping right at any forks you come to. Eventually you will arrive at the foot of the arête, marked by a piece of tape on a branch. In deep snow conditions you may find it easier to continue for another hundred metres or so and then strike up left to gain the arête slightly higher.




Once on the arête, continue up through easy but exposed terrain until you reach the foot of the first rock step. There is a good tree to belay from about 6m below the rock.

Although this slabby rock step only gets grade III/IV on topos, it is quite simply nasty. If buried it will require laborious cleaning of snow at every move, just to reveal what scant hand and foot holds are available. There are several ways it can be tackled, and some say that left is easier. We went right, and found it deeply unpleasant.



After about 50m you can belay on trees below the top.

From here there follows about 200m of steep and exposed snow climbing up the magnificent lower arête, protected by slings on trees wherever possible, until you reach the top of a sort of pinnacle. In good conditions it can be simul-climbed, but be prepared to pitch it if necessary.






From here make a short down-climb and cross a knife-edge section of about 20m, and then simul-climb up the arête for another 200m to the bottom of the second rock step. This section of arête goes through some of the most picturesque scenery of the day, and has the atmosphere of a much bigger and more serious climb.




There is an in-situ anchor at the bottom of the rock step. Climb up the initial chimney then make steep moves out to the right on the arête. Continue up until you reach the top where the route continues to the right through a rock cleft.



Climb another pitch through this cleft and up into the gully above until your rope runs out. From there you will just have another 10-20m to the top. Again, depending on conditions, you could consider simul-climbing this upper section through the gully.



As the angle eases you will arrive at the top just short of the main hiking trail from Yokodake. The views from up here are absolutely stunning!




Descent:

Once at the hiking trail, you have several options:

(i) The quickest way to get back down is to head south in the direction of Akadake and descend the hiking trail down the Jizo-one ridge to the Gyouja-goya hut.

(ii) You could head north to traverse Mt Yoko over to Mt Io, and then descend from there back to the Akadake-kōsen hut.

(iii) If you wish to summit the highest peak in the Yatsugatake range, simply continue southwards on the trail and up to the top of 2899m Mt Aka. Continue over the summit and down to the Bunzaburo ridge trail and follow it all the way down to the Gyouja-goya hut.



Summary:

Like the famous phenomenological images where different people will either see a duck or a rabbit, or a young woman versus an old lady, this classic route will doubtless engender differing reports. Those who catch it in consolidated conditions will say it’s easy. But those who find it under deep fresh untracked snow will hold a far greater respect for the sort of experience it can provide. For my partner and I it was extremely memorable, and I recommend it unreservedly. Take plenty of slings for protection, and don’t forget your camera.


*** NEWS ***

Remember to order your copy of Volume 2 of the "10 Classic Alpine Climbs of Japan" series from Amazon today.



Saturday, 6 March 2021

Kaikomagatake (甲斐駒ケ岳) – Shinozawa Shichijō-baku (篠沢七丈瀑) icefall

Route Name:  Shinozawa Shichijō-baku (篠沢七丈瀑)

Mountain:  Kaikomagatake (2967m, 甲斐駒ケ岳)

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

Time:  1 day

Grade:  WI4 / Overall grade 4 alpine route




Mt Kaikoma is the venue for a number of big and serious alpine climbs in all seasons. It sits like a fortress at the north-eastern end of the South Alps, on the cusp of civilisation and yet simultaneously large and remote, with no short or simple way to its summit. Even its ordinary hiking trail up the Kuroto ridge is long and tiring, particularly with a backpack full of winter camping and climbing gear, and this requisite effort and commitment is what makes any climb on Kaikoma special and noteworthy.

The famed Oren-dani ice routes are located on the northern side of the Kuroto ridge. But over on the opposite southern side lies a gully named Shinozawa, home to the magnificent 3-pitch Shichijō-baku icefall. Marginally steeper than the Ōtaki of the Oren-dani left fork, and with a slightly higher Japanese technical grade, Shichijō-baku can be climbed in a single long day up and down from the car park for those wishing to push the pain levels.

It generally forms in late December, and will stay in condition until early March. Depending on conditions, getting off from the top can involve simul-climbing and placing running protection across some steep and exposed terrain, giving the day a full alpine flavour.



Getting there:

If travelling by car from Tokyo (東京), take the Chuō Expressway to Sutama (須玉) and then exit onto route 141. A combination of local roads will bring you within about half an hour to the Hakushukankōjiro camping ground (白洲観光尾白キャンプ場). The car park here is the end of the road and the access point for the Kuroto ridge of Mt Kaikoma and all climbing routes on the east side of the mountain.



Description:

THE APPROACH

From the car park, walk past the barrier and continue along the rough road for about 5-10 minutes until you reach the Chiku-Komagatake shrine (竹宇駒ケ岳神社), an ancient holy site for shugendō religious practice. From the shrine, cross the suspension bridge over the river and follow the path upwards through the initial zigzags.

After about 30mins the path will veer to the left and contour up and round onto the crest of the ridge. Keep going, and after about 2 hours of map time you will reach a junction where your trail is joined by another approach trail that came up from Yokote-Komagatake shrine. You are now on the Kuroto ridge proper. Keep following the path up through the forest, with red paint markers on the trees to show you the right way.

After about 1.5 hours the ridge will begin to narrow until you reach an airy knife-edge section with chains. Cross this with care, and after another 15-20 minutes you will reach a small shrine at 2049m. From here on you will begin to encounter ladders fixed on the steep sections.



Keep going for another hour or so and the trail will descend for about 100m to a col. This is the 5th station on the ridge. In the past there was an emergency hut here, the Gogome-goya (五合目小屋), but this hut no longer exists.

Continue across this col and up a series of steep ladders and chains to the top of the next section of the ridgeline. After about 25 minutes you will come to a short horizontal bridge. This is the entry point for the descent to access Shinozawa.



From here climb down steep snow slopes for several hundred metres to the entrance to Shinozawa, where the Shichijō-baku icefall comes into view on your right.




THE CLIMB

The main icefall is around 80m in height, and is generally climbed in 3 pitches. The first pitch is relatively moderate, around WI3, ending at the start of the more vertical upper middle section.





The middle section is the crux, and is both steep and sustained WI4-5.





From the top of the main icefall a more moderate third pitch takes you up at around WI3 to belay on some trees off the right edge of the gully.




If conditions allow, it is sometimes possible to continue up the easier frozen slabs above, followed by a long snow slope to top out on the Kuroto ridge around the level of the 7th station hut. But the more usual descent is made either by rappelling the icefall and reversing your approach, or traversing off across an angled band on climber’s right.

This is very exposed and steep in banked out conditions, and protection can be placed on occasional trees. Two 50m rope-lengths will bring you to the point where the angle eases and the rope can be removed. From there simply regain your descent tracks and climb back out to the bridge on the Kuroto ridge, and begin the long 3–4-hour slog back down to the car park.



Overall:

A magnificent piece of frozen architecture, austere and demanding. The long approach and descent turn this into a fantastically satisfying day combining the skill sets and techniques of ice-climbing and alpinism. Bring 10-12 ice screws and quickdraws, and a selection of slings.



*** NEWS ***

 Don't forget to order your copy of Volume 2 of the "10 Classic Alpine Climbs of Japan" series from Amazon today.




Wednesday, 13 January 2021

The Nakayama ridge (中山尾根) on Mt Yatsugatake (八ヶ岳)

Route name:  Nakayama-one (中山尾根)

Mountain:  Yokodake (横岳) in the Yatsugatake range (八ヶ岳)

Map sheet:  33 [Yama-to-kougen-chizu (山と高原地図) series]

Time:  4-6 hours

Length:  9 pitches

Difficulty:  Grade 2 alpine route / IV+ crux

The Nakayama ridge is a stunning mixed arête of snow and rock that rears up steeply through the southern end of the west face of Mt Yoko in 9 pitches, finding its terminus near the top of the minor peak of Hinodake (日の岳). Slightly harder and longer than the Shu-ryo (主稜) on neighbouring Mt Aka (赤岳), this route is a local classic and well sought-after, so expect other parties on the route if climbing on a weekend. Its two rock steps present the main challenges in full winter conditions, but the angle and exposure are fairly consistent all the way to the top.

The route is generally exposed to the prevailing winds, and gets little sun until around midday. With close-up views across to both Mt Aka and Mt Amida (阿弥陀岳), as well as a clear view along the length of the famous west face of Mt Yoko, the Nakayama ridge provides some of the most spectacular positions in the area.


Getting there:

If travelling from Tokyo, take a Super Azusa Limited Express train from Shinjuku to Chino (approx. 2.5 hours). Outside the JR station at Chino take a bus to Minotoguchi (美濃戸口, approx. 45 minutes). This is the gateway to the Akadake-kōsen side of Yatsugatake. From the carpark start hiking up the trail that is signposted to Akadake. The walk-in takes up to 3 hours by map time. It is split into 3 stages. The first hour brings you past a series of buildings and on a little further to a hut with a water source, which makes a good resting point for 5 minutes. The trail splits here, with the right fork going up Minami-sawa (南沢) to the Gyouja-goya hut (行者小屋). This is the quickest approach if you are planning a single day round-trip ascent. If you are planning on staying in the Akadake-kōsen hut, you need to take the left fork up Kita-sawa (北沢). The next hour follows the rough dirt road until it finishes at a bridge across the sawa. From the other side the path narrows and meanders alongside the sawa for another hour or so until you reach the hut at Akadake-kōsen. This hut and its campground serve as basecamp for all the routes in the area, as well as for the popular Ice Candy artificial ice wall.


Description:

As you exit the Akadake-kōsen hut by the front door turn right and follow the trail to the end of the hut and then up through the forest. After about half an hour and a couple of zigzags you will arrive at a signpost on a small flat area. This is the access point for the Nakayama ridge. This could turn out to be a long day, so aim to arrive here by sunrise.


Enter the forest behind the sign and head uphill, doing your best to follow the occasional tiny coloured tape markers on tree branches.

The further you go, the steeper the angle becomes until eventually after about half an hour you will exit treeline onto a small mixed arete that leads up to the base of the first rock step.


Looking back from the 1st rock step:

Pitch 1: You will notice a line of petzl bolts leading directly up the front of the rock step. This is the summer line of ascent and is quite smooth and slabby, very problematic in crampons and gloves. The usual start in winter is to traverse about 8-10m to the right and enter a chimney that leads up leftwards to join the petzl bolts higher up. The first 5m is unprotected until you reach the first bolt, but from then onwards there are bolts at regular intervals. Finish at an anchor on a small ledge. (35m III+)

Pitch 2: From the belay ledge, climb left up a blank wall past a petzl bolt to gain a small tree. Continue up the steep snowy face, from the solace of one small tree to the next, until you gain the arete. Belay at a large tree just off the arete below a small rock step. (40m III+)

Pitch 3-5: Continue up the arete on a mix of snow and rock scrambling, belaying on trees as necessary, until you reach the anchor at the foot of the second rock step.


Pitch 6: Climb steeply up the initial chimney until you reach a small scoop. Now head up the crack on the left, making a series of very steep layback moves to gain the top. (50m IV+)


Pitch 7-9: Continue up the arete on steep mixed ground until you pull over onto a small pulpit on a sharp pinnacle that marks the top of the arete, at the start of the obvious traverse band.




From here you have the option to continue to the summit of Hinodake via another grade IV pitch, but most teams opt to traverse across the obvious and airy band to gain the normal hiking trail that leads down to the Jizo col between Mt Yoko and Mt Aka. The views from this area are simply spectacular!



Descent:

Once at the hiking trail, you have several options:

(i) The quickest way to get back down is to descend the hiking trail down the Jizo-one ridge to the Gyouja-goya hut.

(ii) You could head north to traverse Mt Yoko over to Mt Io, and then descend from there back to the Akadake-kōsen hut.

(iii) If you wish to summit the highest peak in the Yatsugatake range, simply continue southwards on the trail and up to the top of 2899m Mt Aka. Continue over the summit and down to the Bunzaburo ridge trail and follow it all the way down to the Gyouja-goya hut.


Summary:

A fantastic route with varied climbing, sustained exposure and amazing views of the surrounding peaks and faces. Bring full winter gear including double ropes and a small trad rack, dress for severe cold, and enjoy every bit of this local gem!


*** NEWS ***

Don't forget to order your copy of Volume 2 of the "10 Classic Alpine Climbs of Japan" series from Amazon today.