Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Winter on Mt Yake (焼岳)

Mountain: Yakedake (焼岳 2455m)

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

Time: 5-6 hours round-trip

Mt Yake (焼岳Yakedake) is an active volcano at the southern end of the North Alps chain, standing guard above the village of Kamikōchi. It has two main summits, the North summit (北峰 2443m) and the marginally higher South summit (南峰 2455m), standing opposite each other on a jagged crater rim, with a beautiful lake at its centre.

A substantial eruption in 1915 partially blocked the flow of the Azusa river, resulting in the creation of Lake Taishō, which still stands today along the road to Kamikōchi. Yakedake actually erupted as recently as 1995, and there is still visible evidence of its active status in the form sulphur vents and fumaroles on the summit crater, and in particular around the North summit.

Although slightly higher, the South summit if officially off-limits, and only the North summit has a marked hiking trail on the maps. For this reason the North summit serves as the official hyakumeizan summit.  During the winter months, however, the mountain receives large amounts of snow and it becomes possible to reach the South summit quite easily. For the more adventurous, the snow cover even facilitates a circumnavigation of the crater rim to connect the summits, although care must be taken on this as there is substantial exposure in places. The mountain also offers many possibilities for backcountry ski touring.

In good weather all of this adds up to a beautiful mountain with stupendous views all around, easy access and multiple possibilities for winter adventures.

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 Naka-no-yu (中の湯) bus-stop at 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.

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.

From the Naka-no-yu bus-stop, continue walking up Route 158 for another 200m and you will come to a turn-off on your right just before the 158 enters a tunnel. Turn onto this road and follow it up through a series of hairpin bends until you reach the Naka-no-yu onsen hotel.

Enter the grounds of the hotel (Tel: 0263-95-2407), walk up the steps and through the car port on the right side of the entrance and you will find the hiking trail to Yakedake begins behind the building.

Follow the hiking trail up the hill behind Naka-no-yu for several hundred metres and you will come to a car park (marked on the map). In winter this will be buried under snow. Ascend the small ramp to access the trail behind the fence on the uphill side of the car park, where you will find a large signboard detailing the current eruption alert level. From here the trail contours around the hillside for a couple of hundred metres.

Upon reaching an open area the trail rises up the forested hillside, steeply at first with plastic tape markings on trees.

Things continue like this for about 30 minutes until you arrive at a short downhill leading to a flat area. Continue gently up through the open forest ahead and you will eventually leave tree line and find yourself in a wide plateau near a dakekanba grove, with the North and South summits of Yakedake up ahead.

At this point you can either continue straight ahead to the North summit, or branch off steeply up the hillside on your left to gain the ridge to the South summit.

For the purposes of this article I will describe a route that first takes in the South summit, then circumnavigates the crater rim, then gains the North summit and descends the ordinary hiking trail from there.

Fork left up the hillside to gain the crest of the ridge above. From there simply follow the ridge along and eventually you will come to a final steep slope up to the South summit.

Looking back towards Mt Norikura (乗鞍岳) from below the South summit:

From the South summit, continue along the crater rim until you reach a steep drop-off, which is down-climbed facing inwards. From the bottom, continue round the rim for several hundred metres, ascending and descending the various pinnacles by the most logical route. The route is rather exposed in places, but the climbing is always fairly straight-forward and interesting.

See the footsteps down the snow slope:

Dramatic rock formations viewed from the crater rim:

Eventually you will need to descend into the main crater and traverse over to the snow slopes leading up to the col between the South and North summits.

From the col, head to your left to gain the normal summer hiking trail which winds around the fumaroles to gain the North summit from its northerly aspect. The juxtaposition of icicles and volcanic sulphur vents here is quite amazing.

Spectacular views north towards the Hotaka massif:

Looking across from the North summit to the South summit:

To get down, reverse the last hundred metres of your ascent and continue eastwards along the adjoining ridge until you reach a point where you can walk down the steep snow slopes into the bowl on your right, contour over to the summer hiking trail and descend back down to the dakekanba grove and pick up your trail from the morning. Now just reverse the hike back down to Naka-no-yu.

Yakedake is a good mountain at any time of the year, but rather limited in summer. In winter the possibilities expand hugely, as the snow offers passage across terrain that would be otherwise impassable. Connecting both summits via the crater rim can provide a fun bit of alpine problem solving, with some excellent positions and unique views.


  1. Great that you have written up the varied charms of Yake-dake in winter - and thanks for the ski-tour link and plug. Maybe it's worth mentioning, especially for would-be ski-tourers, that the ascent route(s) are on the lee (eastern) side of the mountain, and so more prone to deep snow accumulations. Great for powdery descents but also (ulp) for avalanches....

    1. Very good point, PH... We felt that the most likely place you could come unstuck would be in the bowl that the normal hiking trail to the North summit ascends near the top, and which we had to cross on our descent. On the day we were there everything was very well-consolidated and safe, but it certainly has all the potential in different conditions, and there was some slight avalanche debris low down that pointed to a previous slide. I'm assuming that's the way most BC skiers head up, and there were tracks that day too. Individual judgement definitely required on the day that anyone goes...

      It also looked as though there was a ton of ski-touring potential to the south as well, off the South summit... And it also looked from our vantage point as though there's a continuous ridgeline all the way from Route 158 to the summit of Norikura, which would likely also yield a fantastic BC ski trip... So much to do out there! :)

  2. I seem to remember that our guidebook - published by a shadowy "Mountain Ski Research Association" recommended taking a line up the ridge that leads to the south summit. And that is, indeed, the way we went up and came down. Possibly a little less steep than the path up from Kamikochi to the north summit (which I've only done as an autumn hike) .... But there are steep slopes on both routes. Yer pays yer money,,,

    1. That's the way we went up on this particular day too.

  3. Ah yes, Norikura - that was where we once diverted, when we judged too much new snow was falling on Yake-dake ... a good alternative. Higher, but less steep for most of the way.