Route Name: O-ren-dani right fork (黄蓮谷右俣)
Mountain: Kaikomagatake (2967m, 甲斐駒ケ岳)
Map sheet: 41 [Yama-to-kougen-chizu (山と高原地図) series]
Time: 2-3 days
Grade: Grade 3+ alpine route
As you pass by Mt Kaikoma on a Chuo Line train the eye is forcibly drawn into the depression that cleaves its north-eastern face from bottom to top, part gully and part canyon. Beginning almost at the foot of the mountain and ending right at the summit, the O-ren-dani is immense, and instantly recognisable. In summer a stream forms in its upper slabs, becoming a torrent as it tumbles down the mountain, and when winter arrives it freezes to form one of the most beautiful ice climbs in Japan.
Conditions are notoriously hard to predict. Get there too early in December and the ice might not be formed; get there too late and it might be buried under metres of snow, and avalanche prone. But if you can hit it just right, you can expect to be climbing on near-continuous water ice for about 1200m! Access is complex, requiring the climber to ascend two-thirds of the Kuroto ridge, and then lose about 800m of that hard-won altitude to get in to the bottom of the route. It is not a place to have anything go wrong, so you should be well-trained and prepared. But make no mistake… This route is a hands-down classic, and one of the most sought-after winter alpine climbs Japan has to offer.
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.
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. The descent trail into the O-ren-dani starts from the 5th station. You will be passing this spot again on your way down from the summit, so you could consider camping here and picking up your tent on your way back down after your climb.
If you are not planning to camp, then you will need to continue up the ridge for another hour or so to the Shichijodaiichi-goya hut (七丈第一小屋). The trail to the hut goes up and down very steeply, with a lot of ladders and chains to negotiate, some of them quite exposed indeed. Eventually you will round a corner at about 2400m and arrive at the hut. A night here currently costs about ¥4600 including unlimited water supplies.
Set your alarm bright and early, because it’s going to be a big day! The first hour of the day involves retracing your steps back down the chains and ladders to the 5th station. From there you are ready to drop down into the O-ren-dani.
When you arrive at the 5th station, turn left and follow the trail into the trees. At first you’ll be contouring slightly to your right, and you’ll soon come to a landslide gully. Cross the landslide carefully, and continue downwards until you find yourself on a forested ridge. You now need to descend this ridge, keeping towards its left side. Route-finding is not obvious in the dark, and there are no trail markers, so keep your eyes open and look for signs of passage from other climbers. There are a series of short cliffs down this ridge, which you’ll need to bypass. Eventually after about 1.5 hours and numerous false turns, you should come to a large rock formation near the bottom of the sawa (岩小屋). A few metres below this you will reach the river. There is a waterfall here, but it is unlikely to be frozen, so bypass it on the left via a short scramble with a fixed rope in place.
A short way beyond, you will arrive at the first icefall of the O-ren-dani, the 50m Bōzu-no-taki (坊主の滝). This could be climbed in a single pitch with a 60m rope, but that would put you out of hearing range with your belayer, so most people climb it in two pitches.
Continue up the sawa and you will reach the 15m Futamata (二俣) icefall.
After this, continue up the sawa at a gentle gradient for a little while. Up ahead you will see the turn off for the O-ren-dani’s left fork (左俣). Don’t go up there today, but head to your right and climb a short fall. Continue up an ice ramp until you reach another steeper fall.
This is the start of the famous 200m Oku-Senjō-no-taki (奥千丈の滝). This wonderful section just seems to continue on and on with perfect water ice on all sides of you. It is breathtakingly beautiful.
At the top of this section the O-ren-dani veers to climber’s left in the direction of Kaikoma’s summit, still about 900m above you. In good conditions you will be on water ice almost all the way.
After several hours you will reach the final obstacles barring the way to the summit, the Oku-no-Futamata-no-taki (奥の二俣の滝) and the Oku-no-taki (奥ノ滝) icefalls.
Once you’ve surmounted these, the O-ren-dani begins to open up a bit and you’ll find yourself front-pointing up steep snow slopes for several hundred metres. Eventually you will exit onto the final 50m of the Kuroto ridge below the summit. A short walk will bring you to the top, with some of the finest views in Japan!
From the summit you just need to descend the 2200m of elevation down the Kuroto ridge back to the temple and the car park.
Simply mind-blowing! Wild, remote, long and consistently exposed, the beautiful O-ren-dani is the prize of the South Alps. If you are lucky to find good conditions, you are guaranteed to have the experience of a lifetime here!