Thursday, 31 March 2016

West ridge of Mt Kasumizawa (霞沢岳西尾根)

Route name: West ridge (西尾根)

Mountain: Kasumizawa (霞沢岳 2645m)

Map sheet: 37 [Yama-to-kougen-chizu (山と高原地図) series]

Time: 1-2 days round-trip

Difficulty: Grade 1 alpine route

As you exit the Kama Tunnel on route 24 on your way to the renowned mountain hot spring resort of Kamikōchi, you find yourself in a beautiful valley with two large mountains towering above you, one on either side of the road. On your left is the great fire mountain, Mt Yakedake (焼岳 2455m), with its active sulphur vents and jagged crater. On your right is the slightly higher Mt Kasumizawa (2646m), gateway to the Hotakas. There is only one marked hiking trail to the summit of Mt Kasumizawa on the maps, from the Tokugo Pass (徳本峠) to the east. Walter Weston attained his first view of the Hotaka range from this pass in 1891, and was rightly impressed. The views into Dakesawa (岳沢) are second to none, and until the Kama Tunnel was built much later than Weston’s day, this was the only way to access the area.

But here we are interested in the opposite aspect of the mountain, which rises steeply from route 24 and is only really accessible in the snow season. Kasumizawa’s West ridge gains 1100m from the roadside in just 2.5km. With moderate rock and snow difficulties in its final few hundred metres and that mind-blowing view across to the Hotakas, I would strongly recommend this outing for anyone looking to step up to some of the larger alpine objectives in winter conditions.

Getting there:
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 from outside the train station at Shinshimashima to the entrance of the Kama Tunnel (釜トンネル), which leads towards the alpine village of Kamikōchi (上高地), nestled at the foot of the Hotaka range in the North Alps. The tunnel is barricaded during the winter months, so the entrance bus stop is as far as you’d be able to go by bus.

If travelling by car from Tokyo, get onto the Chuō Expressway and then the Nagano Expressway to Matsumoto. Exit the Expressway and get onto Route 158. Stay on this road all the way to the Kama Tunnel entrance. You can park your car at the Sakamaki onsen, about 1.5km before the Kama Tunnel (¥500 for all-day parking), or in any of the numerous lay-bys along the road. The advantage of using one of the larger lay-bys is that you can pitch your tent for the night as well.

Get your head torches ready as you pass the barricades and enter the Kama Tunnel. It is 1315m long and rises through the pitch black at a steady gradient. As you exit the tunnel you’ll see a new tunnel under construction straight ahead, but for now just follow the road on the left. About 3km from the start of the Kama Tunnel you’ll come to a signpost on your right, at the bottom of the West ridge.

Turn right at this sign and walk up the rough rindou for a couple of minutes and you’ll soon see a thin path heading up the steep sasa-covered slope to an electricity pylon on the crest of the ridge.

On reaching the pylon turn right and begin your ascent of the West ridge. The first few hundred metres rise in a series of short steep ascents, and you’ll most likely find ice on the ground, making it slightly treacherous and tiresome. There’s plenty of sasa grass to grab hold of though, and it’s not difficult.

After a couple of hours things begin to steepen somewhat and the forest starts to thin out a bit. You’ll start to notice a significant snow cornice on the edge of the ridge on climber’s right.

Mt Norikura in the distance:

Eventually you’ll exit treeline and find yourselves on a sharp snow ridge. The exposure starts to build up now, and you’ll soon arrive at the crux of the route, a rock tower that bars access to the final summit slopes.

The rock tower is well-featured, and in 2016 there was even a (rather unnecessary) fixed rope hanging down it. There are in-situ rappel anchors at the top as well, in case you feel uncomfortable down-climbing it on your return journey.

A short sharp traverse from the top of the rock tower along an exposed snow ridge brings you to the final slopes, and you’ll see the snow-covered summit up above you. This upper part of the mountain is completely open, and the views and air around the 2646m summit are amazing, including the corniced ridgeline leading across to the subsidiary peaks of K2 and K1.


Mt Yakedake across the valley:

Now you just need to reverse the whole thing!

Moderate technical difficulties coupled with a long and steep ascent and descent make this route a superb introduction to the North Alps winter variation routes. The fact that the summit is only accessible in winter from this side of the mountain adds substantially to the route’s appeal. A 30m rope will suffice and, if you’re comfortable with exposure, will most likely stay in the pack.

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