Sunday 3 December 2023

Matsuki-sawa Gendarme (松木沢ジャンダウム) – ‘Direct route’ (直上ルート)

Route Name:  Direct (‘Chokujou’) route (直上ルート)

Location:  Matsuki-sawa Gendarme central wall (松木沢ジャンダウム中央壁)

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

Time:  1 day

Length:  6 pitches

Grade:  5.8


There are relatively few multipitch climbing venues within a few hours of Tokyo where you stand a good chance of having the route all to yourselves; and even fewer where you can climb largely on natural trad protection. The Matsuki-sawa Gendarme ticks both these boxes.

Historically there have been a host of routes put up on the walls of this beautiful fortress up above the river on the flanks of Nakakura-yama (中倉山). But over the years, many of them have fallen into disuse because of loose rock. The Chokujou route takes a direct line up a system of cracks, offwidths and slabs right in the heart of the central wall. With largely solid rock throughout, and requiring almost exclusively trad protection, it’s a fun and challenging adventure that should be high on your list.


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).


Description:

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).

You’ll need to follow this road for around 1.5 hours. As you reach the old Matsuki village you’ll see the Gendarme up above on your left, and will eventually reach the end of the road at a dam parallel with the Gendarme.

From here, cross the bridge over the river and head up the slope above, following a faint climbers trail with cairns and occasional pink tape on tree branches along the way. When you reach the rock face, walk along the bottom to the left until you locate the chimney which is the start of the first pitch.

Approximate pitch descriptions for the route are as follows:

Pitch 1: Climb the vertical chimney crack on natural pro and continue up over a slight bulge to a piton belay. (25m 5.7)


Pitch 2: Continue straight up the corner crack system above (offwidth in places) to the bottom of a steep flared offwidth. Climb this and exit leftwards to a bolted belay. (3m 5.8)



Pitch 3: Climb the bulge on climber’s right, then continue up the run-out edge leftwards, being very careful not to dislodge any loose rocks. (50m 5.6)

Pitch 4: There are three parallel cracks systems that all go at a similar grade. Take your pick and climb the steep but featured wall above to a bolted belay. (30m 5.6)


Pitch 5: Climb the crack system trending up and rightwards, then climb a slab to your left to a bolted belay. (50m 5.5)

Pitch 6: This pitch can be avoided by heading up the loose gully round the back. But if you want to take it on, climb the line of weakness up the vertical face of the Fist rock (Kobushi-iwa, 拳岩) which constitutes the summit of the central wall. There are few options for protection, and the exposure here is massive, but there are enough holds to get through it. The final overhang is exhilarating! (20m 5.8)




Descent:

From the top of the Gendarme you could continue scrambling up the ridge behind to gain the main summit ridge of Nakakura-yama, and then descend the long hiking trail from there back down.

Alternatively, just descend the Gendarme back to the road you walked in on. To do this, head down on your right and follow a steep and loose trail that weaves its way down through several gullies, with in-situ ropes in a few places. Be careful with loose rock and scree, and consider rappelling the sections with fixed ropes unless you are happy with the condition of those ropes.



It should take around 30 minutes to reach the bottom of the Gendarme, and then you just need to descend the hiking trail back to the dam and the road, and then a walk back to the carpark.


Overall:

An exciting direct route up the centre of the Matsuki-sawa Gendarme, in an area that blends both industrial history and natural beauty. Bring 50m double ropes, a full set of nuts and cams, and around 12 quickdraws.


For more route descriptions, topos and general info on Japan's fantastic climbing, pick up your copies of the Climb Japan books on Amazon!




Friday 2 December 2022

The East ridge of Mt Ryuōdake (龍王岳東尾根)

Route Name: East ridge (東尾根)

Mountain: Ryuōdake (龍王岳 2872m)

Length: Approx. 500m

Time: 3 hours to the summit

Grade: II-IV / Overall grade 1 alpine route

Map sheet: 36 (山と高原地図 map series – /立山)

Ryuōdake, or the dragon king mountain, sits above the Murodō plateau opposite and just slightly southwest of the Tateyama massif. It’s a fairly minor peak, but with spectacular panoramic views of Tateyama and the North Alps. Combined with easy access on good hiking trails, this all makes it a popular choice for a day hike out of Murodō.

But its rather grandiose name begins to make more sense once you see its beautiful crenelated East ridge come into view from the Ichinokoshi pass below Tateyama. The ridge presents a thoroughly enjoyable outing on a mix of terrain, covering slabs and cracks in the lower half, and chimneys and airy scrambling across the upper pinnacles.

It's a perfect place to practise moving together roped up and placing running protection, stopping to set anchors and belay pitches where needed; all vital skills in the alpine climber’s toolbox. And all in one of the most picturesque settings imaginable.


Getting there:

Access 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.


The approach:

From Murodō head out of the top station and follow the gently rising trail to the southeast in the direction of the Ichinokoshi pass (一の越峠), reached in around an hour’s map time.

Ryuōdake and its East ridge are clearly visible from the pass. To get to the start of the climbing, continue down the trail on the other side of the pass for about 10 minutes, then cut across on your right to reach the foot of the ridge.


Description:

At first the ridge is just a hike, but pretty soon you’ll reach the first rocks. In the lower half of the ridge, it is possible to avoid any climbing altogether if you wish to, by following the path of least resistance up a sort of thin trail on the right side of the ridge. But that’s not really what you’re here for, so my advice is to get involved as soon as you can.

The first piece of climbing possible is a short but steep crack up a boulder, then continuing up slabs and cracks above.





The higher you go, the more choices you can make around your precise route, and there is plenty of scope for more interesting climbing, including several steep and demanding sections. There is some in-situ gear, but protection is generally cams and slings around rock horns.

Eventually you’ll reach the upper section, the traverse of the pinnacles of the dragon’s back. Keep following the obvious route, mostly simul-climbing punctuated with several pitches.






After about 3 hours of delightful climbing, a final scramble leads directly to the rocky 2872m summit. The views up here are second to none.



Descent:

There are several ways off the mountain and back down to Murodō. After an initial 10-minute scramble down off the summit pyramid, either take the trail to the northeast for 20 minutes directly back down to the pass (cold beer available at the hut), and then reverse the trail you walked up in the morning. Or take the trail to the northwest over 2831m Mt Jōdo (浄土山) and then down the other side to reach Murodō in around 45 minutes.


Overall:

A fun and engaging outing on good rock, in an area of outstanding natural beauty. This route could also be a great place to introduce novice climbers to some of the techniques of alpine climbing. Bring a 50m rope and a basic trad rack with plenty of slings and alpine quickdraws.


DON'T FORGET to pick up your copies of the first two books from Climb Japan on Amazon, complete with topos, route descriptions, photos and more of some of the best alpine routes in Japan!



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!