Route name: North ridge (北尾根)
Mountain: Mt Maehotaka (前穂高岳 3090m)
Map sheet: 37 [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 3 alpine route
The start point of this itinerary is Kamikōchi (上高地) in the North Alps (北アルプス). If travelling by train from Tokyo (東京) or Shinjuku (新宿), take a Super Azusa limited express train on the Chuō Line (中央線) out to Matsumoto (松本) station. From there you need to change to the Alpico Line for a 30-minute train ride to Shinshimashima (新島々). The final leg of the journey is a bus ride of about an hour from outside the train station at Shinshimashima to the alpine village of Kamikōchi, nestled at the foot of the Hotaka range in the North Alps.
The Hotaka range, at the southern end of the North Alps chain, is one of Japan’s premier rock-climbing and scrambling destinations. Dramatic cliffs, dizzying drop-offs and knife-edge ridges abound. The range consists of five main peaks; Kitahotaka-dake (北穂高岳 3106m), Karasawa-dake (涸沢岳 3110m), Okuhotaka-dake (奥穂高岳 3190m), Nishihotaka-dake (西穂高岳 2909m) and Maehotaka-dake (前穂高岳 3090m). The first four form a continuous ridgeline, and provide some of the most spectacular hiking experiences that Japan has to offer. To the east of this ridgeline is the famed Karasawa valley (涸沢), a steep and rocky valley that attracts photographers from all over the country during the autumn colours season. Karasawa is like a mini Annapurna Sanctuary, hemmed in on all sides by steep mountains, and it is the ridge that forms its western flank that we are interested in here.
Maehotaka-dake (Maeho from here on) stands off to the east of the main Hotaka ridgeline, directly in front of Kamikōchi village. From the summit a jagged ridgeline tumbles down all the way to a rocky behemoth called Byobu-no-atama (屏風の頭) at the head of Karasawa. Along the way there are 8 rocky pinnacles, ending with the summit of Byobu, and these give rise to the characteristic shape that lends its nickname among Japanese climbers - ‘Godzilla’s Back’.
The North Ridge is a seminal Japanese variation route, and most climbers in Japan will tread the scales of Godzilla’s back at some point in their career.
There are two ways to approach the climb, so let’s split this description into 3 parts, covering the two approaches separately and then the climb itself from 5-6 col to the summit, as follows:
1. Approaching up the Panorama hiking course (パノラマコース) from the Azusa river to the Byobu col (屏風のコル) at the start of the ridge itself, and climbing the first three pinnacles to the 5-6 col (the col between P5 and P6).
2. Approaching up the normal hiking trail into Karasawa, and then accessing the ridge at the 5-6 col.
3. The climb from 5-6 col to the summit.
Both approaches are good outings, although the former is more rewarding and complete in my opinion. Most people seem to favour the shorter version though.
1. The Panorama course approach
From Kamikōchi bus station, hit the hiking trail along the Azusa river. After 30-45mins you’ll reach the Myoujin hut (明神). Keep going and after another 30-45mins you’ll reach the large hut with campground at Tokusawa (徳沢). Keep walking for another 10-20mins and you’ll reach a suspension bridge across the river. Cross this bridge and turn right for a few hundred metres. You’ll soon reach a kind of fork, where the road turns down towards the river and a sort of ramp leads off up to the left, usually roped off. You need to take this left route to access the start of the Panorama course.
Walk up a clear trail for just over an hour and you will reach a junction. The steeper left trail leads up to a small lake below Mt Myoujin (明神岳), but you want the right hand trail. Continue up rightwards, over an intermediate ridge and a small river crossing, and you’ll come to the final stretch of the trail leading up to the Byobu col. It will take up to 2 hours from the trail junction. Be aware that there is no water on the ridge, so be sure to fill up at the last opportunity with enough to get you through the night and the next day’s climb until you reach the river in Dakesawa (岳沢) on your descent.
There is space at the col for a tent, and this is a good spot to break your journey, ready to climb the ridge the next day.
To begin your ascent the next day, continue along the ridge over a small bump and you’ll soon reach a junction. The Panorama course trail continues down on the right into Karasawa, but your route continues improbably directly ahead on the ridgeline.
P8: As you’re still very much in tree line, the ascent of P8 involves a lot of bush-whacking and yarding up steep slopes with plenty of branches for support. Expect to get soaked if there is dew on the ground. It typically takes about an hour to reach the open grassy top.
P7: This pinnacle is more of the same, but with a little more rock-scrambling thrown in. The climbing is never very difficult, but there are a few steeper sections with a little more exposure.
After the summit of P7, continue along the ridge to a small rocky pinnacle above the 7-6 col, with an in-situ rappel station. A short 15m rappel will bring you to the col.
P6: Looking across at P6 from P7 can be a bit unnerving. It looks highly improbable, but trust me, there is a route up there. From the col you need to climb a short vertical rock-step (in-situ gear if you need it, but you probably won’t). Next ascend the narrow rocky ridgeline until you reach the bulk of P6 itself, and then just follow the line of least resistance up the face.
Near the top you’ll exit treeline and climb rock and jumbled boulders to the summit. A short and careful walk down will bring you to the famous 5-6 col.
2. The Karasawa approach
Start the same way as for the Panorama course, but continue along the Azusa river trail for another 50-mins of map time from the suspension bridge to reach the Yokoo hut (横尾). From here you need to cross the large and obvious suspension bridge and walk up the hiking trail into Karasawa.
To get into Karasawa the trail has to wind its way around the bulk of Byobu-no-atama (屏風の頭the folding screen). The enormous rockface of Byobu-iwa (屏風岩) is home to many hard classic rock climbs.
After a couple of hours you’ll reach the Karasawa hyutte (涸沢ヒュッテ) at 2300m, where you’ll probably want to sleep for the night (plenty of camping available).
After an early start the next morning, head up behind the hut into Karasawa and follow a boulder trail up along the base of the north ridge. It takes about an hour from the hut to the 5-6 col, and it’s a straight-forward walk up, but make sure you access the ridge from the right scree slope. You’re looking for a large boulder with an arrow and “5.6 コル” in red paint.
When you reach the 5-6 col you’ll join the ridge proper at the level of treeline, and from here on the climb is on rock.
3. 5-6 col to summit
P5: Keep to the ridge and scramble your way to the top, no rope needed. Enjoy the views in all directions as things start to open out.
Climbing on P5:
P4: This is where things begin to get really interesting. The terrain becomes steeper, and the route is less obvious. You basically need to find your own line up to the top, following the line of least resistance.
Some might feel more secure with a rope on here, and there are anchors in place if you need them, but despite the steepness and mounting exposure, you’re still only really on steep scrambling terrain in summer.
Climbing on P4:
Mt Kitahotaka, with Mt Yari in the background:
As you crest the top of P4 you’ll be hit with your first up-close views of the stunning crux P3 pinnacle.
P3: The ascent of P3 is the crux section of the ridge, and this is where most climbers will be getting the rope out. There are plenty of anchors on it, and no shortage of in-situ pitons to clip into, as well as ample opportunities for placing your own trad gear. It’s entirely up to you how many pitches you want to split it into. Some topos show up to 6 pitches. We climbed 3 pitches and then simul-climbed to the top, placing runners along the way, as the climbing eased off in the upper half.
The crux section is near the bottom, and offers two alternatives, one being a chimney at grade IV, and the other being a slab and slanting crack at grade III. You can anchor at the same place above them, so take your pick.
Crux pitch detail:
Chimney in upper half of P3:
Approaching the top of P3:
P2: In reality this is just a short scramble from the top of P3. At the summit of P2 there is a rappel station, and a short 15m rappel will bring you down to the col between P2 and the summit of Maeho. Enjoy the position and exposure as you near the end of your climb.
P1/Summit: A short and straight-forward scramble will bring you up to the rocky 3090m summit of Maeho. If the weather is good, take it all in… These are some of the finest views the Japanese mountains offer!
Looking back down the North ridge:
The Okuho-Nishiho ridgeline:
From the summit marker, scramble down the trail following white paint markers for about 15-20mins to join the main hiking trail. From here you could head right along the Tsuri-one (吊り尾根) ridge trail to Okuho if you have time, but the quickest way down is to head directly down the steep trail into Dakesawa (岳沢).
2 hours of map time will bring you to the Dakesawa hut (岳沢ヒュッテ), which sells plenty of food and drink. It’s a well-known knee-crushing descent though, so take care. From the hut it’s another 2 hours of map time down an increasingly gentle trail, at first along the sawa and then through the forest. Eventually you’ll come out at the famous Kappa-bashi bridge at Kamikōchi, reknowned for its views of the Hotaka range.
The bus station is a short stroll from there.
A stunning and iconic ridgeline, transitioning through various alpine zones, requiring enough focus to keep things interesting but never stressful. This route is a key piece of the architecture of the Hotakas, and should be high up on the list for all Japan climbers. Bring a 50m rope, a selection of medium sized trad gear and 120cm slings, and about 6-8 extendable quickdraws.