Tuesday, 9 August 2022

Tsurugidake (剣岳) - Yatsumine ridge (八ツ峰主稜)

Route Name: Yatsumine main ridge (八ツ峰主稜)

Mountain: Tsurugidake (剣岳 2999m)

Length: Approx. 1000m

Time: 8-10 hours to the summit

Grade: III-III+ / Overall Grade 1 alpine route

FA: 02 Aug 1923 Kazuo Okabe, Sosaku Saeki


If there is a more beautiful ridge in the North Alps of Japan than the Yatsumine on Mt Tsurugi, then I am yet to find it. Classed as one of the three great ridges of Japan (along with the North ridge of Mt Maehotaka and the Kitakama ridge of Mt Yari), it is a highly sought-after prize, and a big day out.

Running roughly parallel to the Genjiro ridge (源次郎尾根), it forms a crenelated wall up the northern edge of the Choujiro-dani (長次郎谷) valley. As the name suggests, there are eight major pinnacles to be overcome along the way, as well as more minor ups and downs. Each is equipped with an abseil anchor, although in summer conditions some can be downclimbed.

The ridge can be climbed in its entirety from the ‘1-2 col’, the gap between the first and second pinnacles. But this requires clear access up a gully, and is not safe in early summer conditions, when the lower reaches are still choked with old and heavily-crevassed snow. Most people access the ridge midway from the 5-6 col and climb the upper half (上半).

My advice, if you’ll permit me… Wait for good weather, clear views in all directions, and savour every minute of it!

 

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 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. Continue down past it for another 20 minutes, and you’ll reach the Choujiro-dani deai (長次郎谷出合), the entrance to the Choujiro-dani and the access for the Yatsumine.

Enter Choujiro-dani and start ascending the snowfield. At first the valley is quite narrow, with steep rock walls hemming you in on both sides. Pay attention to the possibility of rockfall here.


After around half an hour you will pass the access to the gully on climber’s right that leads up to the 1-2 col. If conditions in there look good, go for it. Otherwise, continue up the snowfield for another hour or so.

As you gain altitude and the valley opens up, you will see the Genjiro ridge high up on your left, and the battlements of the Yatsumine on your right. Up ahead sits a large plateau of rock named Kuma-no-iwa, around two thirds of the way up the valley, and with space for several tents on top.



The 5-6 col is up on your right, accessed by a fairly steep slope. You will recognise it by its position to the right of the line of rock buttresses that make up the south side of the roppou-mine (VI), the number 6 pinnacle.

Given letters of the alphabet right to left from A-face to E-face, these buttresses are home to a host of popular multipitch rock climbs of all grades. Many climbers choose to access the ridge by first climbing one of these routes, but the easiest option is to go directly to the 5-6 col and begin your climb from there.

Let’s pause the Yatsumine here for a moment though, and climb one of these face routes.


A-face “Uozuko route” (Aフェース魚津高ルート)

Scramble up to the foot of the A-face, and gear up on the ledge at the bottom of the groove that forms the first pitch. Approximate pitch descriptions are as follows:

Pitch 1: Climb the groove past an initial bulge up to a small corner overhang. Overcome this on the right to access a crack system, then continue up leftwards to reach the belay ledge on the arête. (40m IV)


Pitch 2: Climb steeply up the arête in a magnificent airy position on largely positive holds, to reach an old piton anchor. (40m III)


Pitch 3: Continue up the arête until the angle eases, then scramble up the line of least resistance to the top of the A-face. (40m II)


The A-face stands separate from the main ridge of the VI, so you’ll need to descend most of the way down to the 5-6 col. Make an exposed scramble down about 15m, then rappel off an anchor in the haimatsu (dwarf pine) to reach a system of ledges above the col. From here you can scramble across to reach the normal ascent route on the Yatsumine.

 

Yatsumine upper half description:

As always, I don’t want to describe the main ridge too closely and detract from your own sense of enjoyment and discovery.

From the col, just find the line that looks the most travelled, and start the climb up the VI. The first hundred metres or so are quite steep and exposed, but well featured. There are in-situ pitons and belay anchors if you need them, but there’s nothing more difficult than grade II-III.



Eventually, the angle begins to ease and it should take around half an hour of scrambling to reach the top. There is an abseil anchor in place, but this one is reasonably featured and can be downclimbed.



Next, cross a few minor pinnacles on the right side of the ridge, then begin the steep climb up the VII. The climbing always looks improbable, but turns out to be well-featured and engaging.


The ridge crest is a very airy place here, and after an initial abseil from the VII, a scramble brings you to another abseil anchor.

This one takes you into a notch, with a short climb up the other side, then a further 15m abseil into a tight col below the VIII.

The climb up the VIII requires first traversing along a narrow ledge with good handholds, but leaning back over the void. It looks and feels quite dramatic. A chimney leads up on climber’s right, and after an exposed 50m you will arrive at the summit of VIII. Many parties opt to rope up for this section.


Make a 50m abseil off the back of VIII to the col below the final climb up to the Yatsumine-no-kashira (八ツ峰ノ頭). This steep and dramatic pinnacle sits on the main summit ridge, and signals the end of the Yatsumine ridge itself.


From here, a couple more hours of complex scrambling will bring you to the main summit, or honmine (本峰), of Tsurugidake and its summit shrine.




Descent:

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!).

Overall:

An enormous, complex and varied itinerary on Japan’s finest mountain. This ridge is so satisfying, it simply has to be experienced!


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




Wednesday, 23 June 2021

Daidoushin (大同心) West face – “Unryo” (雲稜ルート) route

Route name:  Daidoushin “Unryo route” (大同心雲稜ルート)

Mountain:   Yatsugatake (八ヶ岳)

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

Time:  3-5 hours for the route itself

Difficulty:  Grade 4+ alpine route / 5.9 or IV/A1 crux


Anybody who has spent time at the Akadake-kousen in the Yatsugatake range will have looked up at the Daidoushin pinnacle and its striking West face, perched high up there near the summit of Mt Yoko. Consistently vertical to overhanging in its lower half, and made up of the snappy conglomerate rock typical of this range, this face is intimidating from below, and only gets more so as you approach it.

Its first ascent in April of 1959 must have been an audacious achievement. It was initially climbed as an aid route, and typically remains so in winter today. The gloves, heavy boots, crampons and ironmongery of winter, coupled with tricky route-finding and the deep freeze of winter Yatsu, all conspire to force the winter climber into his aiders. It remains to this day the big prize of Yatsugatake winter mountaineering.

The route received its first free ascent in May of 1981. The face itself retains many of its challenges even in summer conditions, and the prudent will still carry their aiders at the ready just in case. But bare hands and sticky rubber rock shoes turn it into something more akin to a steep and featured rock climb; albeit one with head-spinning exposure and loose breakable rock.

If you go for it, remember that this is alpine climbing and treat the route with the respect and caution that its place in Japanese climbing history accords it. And enjoy one of the most dramatic and stunning natural lines in the country.


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 (赤岳). 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). 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.


Description:

From the Akadake-kōsen hut go up the steps near the door and take the path straight on towards Iodake (硫黄岳).

Follow the trail for about 10 minutes through the forest and you will come to a signpost pointing right into the bottom of the Daidoushin-sawa (大同心).

Head into the Daidoushin-sawa and walk upstream for about 10 minutes and you will find a trail heading up on your left along the lower section of the Daidoushin-ryo ridge. This ridge can be easily ascended in about an hour from the hut to its apex at the foot of the Daidoushin rock pinnacle.

Once you reach the top of the Daidoushin-ryo, make a traverse along narrow grassy ledges to reach the anchor at the bottom of the first pitch.



Approximate pitch descriptions are as follows:

Pitch 1: Climb the initial crack, then continue up the vertical wall above to the overhang. Climb past the overhang, traverse left slightly and then continue up steeply to reach a bolted anchor in a niche. (45m 5.9 or IV/A1)



Pitch 2: Climb straight up for a few metres, then bear up and leftwards towards the triangular rock face above. Tricky moves over a bulge get you onto the face, then traverse out left and climb the rib on small holds to a bolted belay. (45m 5.9 or IV/A1)


Pitch 3: Climb up and right around the corner from the anchor on steep grass. Enter the wide rocky chimney above and continue up past a curious rock shaped like a fish tail, until you reach a bolted anchor. (40m IV)


Pitch 4: Continue up and over a rock step to gain a ramp traversing rightwards across the bottom of the Dome (ドーム). Belay on bolts at the bottom of the final pitch up the southern prow of the Dome. (40m IV)



Pitch 5: Another magnificent pitch! Climb up the left side of the prow initially, then move across to the right side and continue up vertical rock to exit at a bolted belay. (40m 5.9 or IV/A1)

From the top anchor the summit of the Daidoushin can be reached with a short scramble.


Descent:

From the top of the Daidoushin you have a couple of options:

1. Continue over the summit and down to the col between Daidoushin and the main ridge, then climb easy slopes to gain the main ridge hiking trail, and either continue left to Mt Iodake, or right over Mt Yokodake towards Mt Akadake.

2. Descend the steep gully behind the pinnacle (in-situ rappel anchors if you need them), climb the ramp back up to the top of the Daidoushin-ryo, and descend the ridge you came up back to the entrance of the Daidoushin-sawa and on back to the hut.


Summary:

A historic milestone on Yatsugatake, and a prize in any conditions. The West face of Daidoushin is steep and intimidating, so bring all the tricks of your alpine game and enjoy your passage up the most stunning piece of rock in the massif. Double ropes are a must, along with a full rack of quickdraws and slings, nuts and cams up to 2.


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Wednesday, 16 June 2021

Tanigawadake (谷川岳) - Nan-ryō Flank (南稜フランケ)

Route Name:  Nan-ryō Flank (南稜フランケ)

Mountain:  Tanigawadake (谷川岳)

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

Length:  6 pitches (+ 200m simul-climbing to the summit)

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

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



The Nan-ryō Flank route takes a line up the steep face on the side of the Nan-ryō (South arête), at the far edge of the Eboshi-sawa Okuheki (烏帽子沢奥壁) in the stunning Ichinokura-sawa (一ノ倉) valley on Mt Tanigawa.

It is one of the more serious routes in the area, characterised by consistently steep and involved climbing, long runouts between pieces of old in-situ protection, and consequently notable route-finding challenges. Every single pitch is grade V and the crux is V+. At the time of the first ascent in July of 1964 this was the hardest pitch grade in Japan, although nowadays there are plenty of more technical routes around.

But the Nan-ryō Flank retains its seriousness and alpine character, and should not be undertaken lightly. In the Japanese guidebook Kikuchi-san finishes his entry for this route by saying “Please approach it with sufficient confidence and experience as a route where a fall is absolutely unacceptable”. I do not disagree.


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:

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 foot 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 an exposed rising traverse to your left across the steep slabs in the direction of the Nan-ryō terrace. Just before the final scramble up to the terrace you will find the bottom anchor for this route.



Approximate pitch descriptions for the route are as follows:


Pitch 1: Climb steeply up past an in-situ piton at around 6m, then continue up and around the edge. Take the line of least resistance as it weaves up the face to a bolt anchor. (30m V)

Pitch 2: Make initial steep moves over a bulge from the anchor, then continue up runout terrain bearing slightly left to belay beneath the large overhang above. (40m V)


Pitch 3: Traverse to the right under the overhang, then climb straight up the face making delicate moves on thin edges. (40m V+)

Pitch 4: Traverse the band left from the anchor and carefully climb the initial slabby face with no available protection. From the terrace above traverse delicately left and climb the rock rib to the anchor. (40m V)


Pitch 5: Climb the face above with an in-situ RCC bolt, then make an exposed traverse leftwards through grass and bushes to reach the horse’s back upper section of the Nan-ryō route. (40m V)

Pitch 6: Climb the corner crack above, then continue up the final face to the anchor at the top of the Nan-ryō. (40m V)



(Note: If you continue straight up on pitch 5 instead of making the traversing exit from the face you will end up on the old YCC route, and be required to make a more difficult exit from the face from an extremely exposed anchor stance directly below the roof at the top. Avoid this unless you want to amplify your adrenaline levels significantly!)


Descent:

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 downclimb 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.


Alternatively, if you wish to extend the day and take in the summit ridge too, you could continue up to the top of Ichinokura-dake (一ノ倉). This involves about 2 hours of fairly steep and exposed scrambling and bushwhacking, and I would recommend keeping a rope on and simul-climbing together, with the leader placing running protection as you go.


From the summit of Ichinokura-dake, traverse the main ridgeline over the summits of Okinomimi and Tomanomimi, and either descend the Nishikuro ridge (西黒尾根) or, if you have time before the last cable car of the day, head down to Tenjindaira (天神平).


Overall:

A magnificent visionary achievement on the part of the first ascensionists, which remains undiminished in character to this day. Heed Kikuchi-san’s warning about this route though, and only try it if you really do feel confident about it, as it will be unforgiving of any mistakes. Climb confidently as if you are free-soloing, and be really careful with your route-finding.


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