Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Mt Tsurugi (剣岳) - Genjiro ridge (源次郎尾根)

Route Name: Genjiro ridge (源次郎尾根)

Mountain: Tsurugidake (剣岳 2999m)

Length: Approx. 1000m

Time: 6-8 hours to the summit

Grade: II-III / Overall Grade 1 alpine route

Of all the iconic variation ridge routes on Mt Tsurugi, there is something special about the Genjiro ridge. Viewed from the upper reaches of Tsurugi-sawa it appears impregnable; flanked by sheer walls of rock and vegetation, and rearing up over 1000m from the valley floor directly to the summit, through two gigantic rocky pinnacles. It presents a vision both terrifying and alluring, and viewed from this aspect, the crux of the puzzle appears to be just getting onto it in the first place.

But as is so often the case, those early pioneers of Japanese alpinism were able to root out an ingenious way through, and in July of 1925, the great Kinji Imanishi gifted us one of the most beautiful variation routes in the Japan Alps.

The Genjiro can be climbed either as a summer rock scramble, or as a spring snow ridge. Either way though, it’s a total classic, and should be high up on your radar!

Getting there:

Access to Tsurugidake requires getting up to Murodō (室堂) on the large plateau below the summit of Tateyama (立山) in the North Alps.  If travelling from Tokyo on public transport there are a couple of ways you can do this, none of them easy, but the quickest and cheapest way is as follows. Take a Chuō Line limited express Super Azusa from Shinjuku station to Matsumoto (松本), then change onto the Ōito Line (大糸線) for a local train to Shinano-Ōmachi (信濃大町). From there you’ll need to take a bus to Ōgisawa (扇沢, 45mins, ¥1330). At Ōgisawa, queue up at the ticket office and buy a return ticket for the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route (立山黒部アルペンルート, timetables here). This convoluted but impressive series of stages will take you through a trolley bus up to the famous Kurobe Dam (黒部ダム), followed by a funicular railway, a ropeway and then a final trolley bus through Mt Tateyama to Murodō.

From Murodō head out of the top station and find the most direct way through the maze of trails through Jigokudani, down to the campsite at the valley floor, and then up the trail on the other side to the Tsurugigozen (剣御前) hut up on the col. From there a short walk will bring you down to the Tsurugi-sawa camp ground (剣沢キャンプ場).

The approach:

After an early headtorch start, follow the hiking trail down Tsurugi-sawa. At the Tsurugi-sawa hut (剣沢小屋) the trail forks, with the left trail heading across to the normal ‘Bessan ridge’ hiking trail up Mt Tsurugi. You need to take the right trail down into the lower reaches of Tsurugi-sawa, and things begin to steepen a little at this point. The trail is not all that clear in the dark, but there are occasional paint marks on rocks to keep things honest.

At some point you’ll reach the top of the snowpack that sits year-round in Tsurugi-sawa. The later you are in the summer, the more you’ll need to pay attention to the condition of the snowpack. If it looks solid, the easiest thing is to put on a pair of crampons or spikes and just walk straight down it. Otherwise, the actual hiking trail clings to the right bank above the snowpack.

After an hour or so you’ll come to the entrance to the Heizotani (平蔵谷) valley on your left, dropping precipitously from the shoulder of the mountain. This also contains year-round snow, and in good conditions is a popular variation route to reach the summit. The enormous foot of the Genjiro ridge will have been silhouetted in front of you for some time now, and this junction with Heizotani is an alert that you are approaching the access point for the ridge.


The Japanese topo maps for the Genjiro show two ways to get up onto the ridge crest; the ridge route (尾根ルート) and the runze route (ルンゼルート). Regular readers of this site will know that “runze” means gully, and the runze route follows a steep gully of scree and boulders up from Tsurugi-sawa for hundreds of metres until the two routes merge near the apex point of this initial lower section. However, this is the usual access route in spring snow conditions, when the gully is full of snow, and constitutes a straightforward but steep snow slope. In summer conditions it is difficult, full of loose rock and steep polished slabby rock steps, with some hard climbing and scant opportunities for protection.

It is far better to take the ridge route, which starts out from the same place but then cuts across and up the ridge on climber’s left, presenting a well-worn trail to follow. There now ensues several hundred metres of very steep and three-dimensional scrambling up dirt, tree roots, and rock as the ridge soars improbably up towards that same apex. But the well-featured scrambling and climbing make this section a real joy.

There are several spots containing in-situ protection where you might well feel inclined to get the rope out, and one very airy section of exposed but featured rock that might give pause for thought to some teams, but for the most part you’re on steep scrambling terrain.

Eventually you will approach the apex where the ridge meets the top of the runze, and from here on you are onto the Genjiro ridge crest.

Continue upwards over a couple of minor summits and crests, past several minor cols, through the haimatsu (dwarf pine) zone, until you arrive at the top of the first of the Genjiro’s mighty pinnacles (I峰). The views from up here are precipitous on all sides, and quite spectacular!

Continuing over the pinnacle, a steep down-climb brings you into a narrow and improbable col, with a sheer and uninviting ascent on the other side. As is always the case on this ridge though, what appears to be improbable from a distance always reveals a path through as you get closer. The climbing up the steep ridge crest of the second pinnacle (II) is some of the finest on the route!

As you hit the top of the second pinnacle the summit itself rears into view up in the distance, with the final stretch of the ridge foreshortened ahead. As you approach the edge of the pinnacle, you’ll reach an in-situ rappel stance. From here make a 30m rappel down the slabby face into the col that connects the second pinnacle to the upper mountain.

The way to the summit is now open to you. Follow the trail up the ridge crest, taking the path of least resistance through rock steps and minor pinnacles. The terrain steepens slightly towards the summit, but it is always well-featured, and eventually you will scramble out directly next to the summit shrine itself!

Take a moment up there to appreciate the dramatic architecture of Japan’s finest mountain, from the steep snow valleys to the pinnacles of the Genjiro and Yatsumine (八つ峰尾根) ridges, and the views out to the Toyama Bay.


From the summit, follow the normal ‘Bessan ridge’ hiking trail back down across the infamous “Kani-no-yokobai” traverse and over the tops of Mae-Tsurugi (前剣) and Ippuku Tsurugi (一服劔), until you reach the Kenzanso mountain hut (cold beer available!).



Long and committing, with no easy escape, the Genjiro ridge is the classic variation route to the summit of Mt Tsurugi. Somehow the improbable-looking terrain always reveals well-featured scrambling and climbing, and with the fortress-like summit as its direct terminus, this ridge puts out an irresistible call to all alpine climbers. Bring a 60m rope for the rappel, and a selection of alpine draws, slings and a basic trad rack.

For more classic route descriptions, along with topos, approach maps, photos and much more, get your copy of the new second book in the Climb Japan series from Amazon!

Tuesday, 18 August 2020

Mt Kentoku (乾徳山) - Hatatate-iwa central arête (旗立岩中央稜)

Route Name:  Hatatate-iwa Chuō-ryo (旗立岩中央)

Mountain: Kentoku-san (乾徳 2031m)

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

Length: 3 pitches (100m) + 1 extra pitch to summit

Time: 3 hours (+ 5 hours hiking)

Grade: IV+ crux

Mt Kentoku (乾徳), in the Yamanashi portion of the Oku-Chichibu mountains, is a perennial favourite among hikers and trail runners keen to escape the heat of the lower elevations during summer. The chains and rock steps of the final hour to its 2031m summit provide a few thrills of their own, but the area is also not without interest to multipitch climbers.

At the top of the mountain’s western flank sits a 3-pitch arête composed of good quality andesitic rock, ascending sharply to the summit area with fantastic exposure and airy positions. When combined with a final superb pitch to the summit itself, it all makes for a very satisfying day with a surprisingly alpine feel for such a modest elevation.

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.


Continue up the road from the trailhead car park for about 20 minutes, initially on smooth tarmac and then transitioning into rough dirt road. There are several turnings along the way, but they are all marked with signposts for Mt Kentoku.

Eventually you will come to the trail entrance ascending up on your right.


At first the trail ascends through the dark forest near a stream, but soon leaves that behind and begins to zigzag upwards quite steeply. Things begin to open out somewhat the higher you go, and after a little more than an hour you will come to a water supply. This is the last water supply on the mountain, so fill up here.

Another 15-20 minutes will bring you out into Kokushi-ga-hara (国師ヶ原), a beautiful area of open grassland on the side of the mountain, reminiscent of a high alpine pasture in miniature, with a lovely hut (Kougen hyutte, 高原ヒュッテ) several minutes off the main hiking trail. This area looks to be a fantastic place to spend a night, with great views across to Mt Fuji, if you wanted to turn this trip into a weekend.

Continuing through this grassland, the trail then ascends fairly steeply for another half hour and opens out completely at the Ougi-daira plateau (扇平). You will soon arrive at the distinctive Tsuki-mi rock (月見岩), named for its apparent charms as a spot for moon-gazing.

From here follow the trail to your left into the final hour of hiking and scrambling towards the summit area. As you go up through the forest things become more scrambly and finally, after passing several rock steps with in-situ chains, you will come to a rock with a blue sign declaring it to be Amagoi-iwa (雨乞岩). This is a good place to gear up and stash your backpacks, as the arête you’ve come to climb tops out right here.

To access the start of the route, walk back down the hiking trail the way you came for about 50m and you will find a cleft in the rock face with an in-situ rappel anchor at the top. Make a 25m rappel down through the chimney below to a comfortable ledge at a second in-situ anchor.

Now make one more rappel down the loose gully below. Double ropes would be best for this one, or just be careful as you will reach the end of your rope halfway up a fairly steep and exposed rock step, and will need to downclimb.

Once below the rock, you now need to traverse down and to climbers right across the face. There is a faint sort of trail, and you will need to cross several rocky ribs and pass under a wide face with several harder climbing routes on it. Keep going for about 100m until you pop out into a scree gully with a rocky arête starting up on its right edge. Be aware that you are not in the right place unless you are looking at precisely this scenery:


You are now at the start of the wonderful 3-pitch Hatatate-iwa central arête. Approximate pitch descriptions are as follows:


Pitch 1: Climb the initial slabby face on small holds up to the overhang, and pass this on the right side. Gain the sharp arête and climb it for several metres to the anchor. (40m, IV+)

Pitch 2: Continue up the arête on exposed but well-featured rock to the top of a sort of tower. From here traverse across a spectacular knife-edge arête to belay wherever you choose on a mix of in-situ gear and trad gear. (40m, III)

Pitch 3: Climb the final wider face to the top of Amagoi-iwa to rejoin the hiking trail. (20m, III)

Now continue up the hiking trail to the foot of the final headwall with the lightning fork crack and chains hanging down it. To access a final pitch of excellent climbing, traverse out across the West face to a sloping terrace.

Pitch 4: Climb the knife-edge arête on its left edge, past an overhang, then continue up the easier but exposed final section of arête to belay just short of the summit post. (50m, IV+)

On a clear day the views from the summit are really something special, although expect to be sharing it with plenty of hikers.

To finish off, just collect your backpacks and reverse the hiking trail back to the trailhead, for the car park or bus stop.


This route probably gets far less attention than it deserves, due to the 3-hour 1000m approach. But for those who find joy in exposure, natural lines and beautiful friction rock in an alpine setting, this really is a fine outing in the classic style. Bring plenty of slings and quickdraws, and a rack containing a variety of small cams and aliens.

For more classic route descriptions, along with topos, approach maps, photos and much more, get your copy of the new second book in the Climb Japan series from Amazon!

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Tanigawadake, Central arête (谷川岳中央稜)

Route Name: Cental arête (Chuo-ryo 中央稜)

Mountain: Tanigawadake (谷川岳)

Length: 9 pitches to the summit of the Tsuitate-iwa

Time: 3-4 hours to the top of the last pitch

Grade: V- (IV A0) crux pitch / Overall grade 3 alpine route

Getting there:

From Tokyo take the Takasaki Line to Takasaki (about 1.5hrs). Change for the Joetsu Line for about 45 minutes to Minakami (水上), 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.

This route is a 3-star (***) classic in all guidebooks, and for my money, has to be the most striking feature on Tanigawadake! No matter who looks up Ichinokura-sawa from below, their eyes will be drawn towards the striking arête that forms the left edge of the Tsuitate-iwa (衝立岩), the triangular monolith that rears up from the top of Tail ridge. It is an absolute must for any Tanigawa climber.

The 3-star line of the Chuo-ryo:

The Cental arête (left edge):

After making sure you get an early start, walk up the road from the Visitors Centre for about an hour to the car park at the entrance to Ichinokura-sawa (一の倉沢). Start walking up the sawa, scramble through the narrow gorge section, and after about half an hour you'll come to a seemingly impassable waterfall. A path rises up its left edge, with a fixed rope near the top. Follow this up for a while until you come to a rappel station. Make a 50m rappel to get back down to the sawa. (Note: In spring you can simply walk straight up the snow pack to the bottom of Tail ridge, making the approach far simpler.)

The rappel:

From here you can gain access to the start of Tail ridge. Continue up to the top, with occasional fixed ropes.

Looking up Tail ridge:

On Tail ridge:

The bottom belay anchor of the Chuo-ryo is literally at the top of Tail ridge.

Pitch 1: Climb up and leftwards following the pitons. A short crux section at about 30m brings you to the belay anchor. (40m IV)

Looking down pitch 1:

Pitch 2: Make a short, exposed but easy, traverse around to the left side of the arête and then follow a sort of wide chimney to a belay. (25m III)

Pitch 3: Make a short and exposed traverse back onto the arête, then climb a steep groove.

The traverse on Pitch 3:

Deciding exactly where this pitch ends can be confusing, but there is a belay station in-situ. The crux is a thin section of IV just below the anchor. (25m IV)

Looking down pitch 3:

Pitch 4: Climb up and rightwards until you gain access to a chimney. Climb up with in-situ piton protection. The chimney narrows and overhangs near the top, but an undercling allows a high move to be made out of the chimney on the left, from where easier climbing leads to the anchor, a spacious ledge with an incredible view. If you are unable to free-climb it, the top moves can be done A0 with in-situ pitons. (25m V- / IV A0)

Pitch 4 (steep from the outset):

Pitch 5: An easier pitch follows up and leftwards to a belay on a pinnacle at the top of a wide chimney. (25m III)

Pitch 6: Continue up past the pinnacle. At this point the climbing becomes very exposed. The holds are all there, and it is not excessively difficult, but the exposure adds to the sense of difficulty. Don't be put off by the length of the pitch... there is a good anchor up there with ring bolts and pitons. (40m III+)

Pitch 7: A long pitch up loose but easy ground for a rope-length to a belay (in-situ piton anchor available, but cams also possible) on the left side of the arête. (50m II)

Pitch 8: Continue up for another rope-length to an anchor on a ledge just before the traverse into the final groove to the top. (50m II)

Looking down pitch 8:

Pitch 9: Make a short traverse to the right, then climb the loose steep groove to the saddle at the top.

Looking down the loose final pitch:

You are now on the summit of the Tsuitate-iwa pyramid! The views across the valley to nearby Asahi-dake are incredible.

It is possible to continue up the broken and exposed ridgeline above to the top of the Eboshi-iwa rock, and from there continue on to the summit of Ichinokura-dake. This would be a stunning itinerary, but is very long and rather complex.

The simplest and by far the most common way to descend is to rappel the Chuo-ryo. It is recommended to do this in a long series of short rappels on a single 50m strand of rope, to avoid getting ropes stuck and to minimise the chances of knocking down loose rocks from above when pulling your ropes down. This makes for a long descent back to the top of Tail ridge, but it is safer and there are rappel anchors (of varying quality) at regular intervals to facilitate this.

The last rappel:

Once back at the start of the route, simply scramble back down Tail ridge and continue down the sawa below back to the car park at the start of Ichinokura-sawa.

You can now buy yourselves a cold beer in celebration of climbing one of the most classic lines in the area.

An outright 3-star classic and a must-do on the wish list of any Tanigawa climber. Good quality rock on the whole, superb positions and exposure, and good rappel anchors. Take a small selection of nuts in addition to quickdraws, but don't be surprised if you don't use any of them. Climb it, now...

Don't forget to pick up a copy of the book on Amazon for more great alpine routes in Japan!