Wednesday, 25 May 2016

The book is now out in print version...

Good news for all of you who are planning on hitting some of Japan's classic alpine routes this year...

The print version of the book is now out on Amazon, and contains photo topos for an extra 25 classic climbs. You can find it here.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Rock-climbing on Shishi-iwa (子持山獅子岩)

Route name:  Shishi-iwa (獅子岩)

Mountain:  Mt Komochi (1296m 子持山)

Rock type: Andesite

Time:  2-4 hours

Grade:  Crux pitch of 5.8

Shishi-iwa, or Lion rock, is an andesitic outcrop approximately 100m tall on the shoulder of Gunma’s Mt Komochi. Comprised of solid rock with excellent friction, its south-eastern aspect is home to a bolted 5-pitch rock climb that is deservedly popular. The top of Shishi-iwa offers unparalleled 360 views of the Kanto plains and nearby Mt Akagi (赤城山) and Mt Haruna (榛名).

Getting there:
You will need a car to access this route. If driving from Tokyo (東京), take the Kanetsu Expressway and exit at Shibukawa (渋川). Then take route 17 heading north. You will reach a junction signed for Shikishima station (敷島駅) on the right. Go straight across, but then turn left about 10m beyond the junction. Continue until you see a big red torii gate and turn right under it. Carry on to the car park at the end of the road.

From the car park you need to cross the river and walk up the road for a few minutes until you reach a large map board.

Take the trail on the right, initially up a long series of wooden steps, then over a small arched bridge. The large rock face above the bridge is called Byoubu-iwa (屏風岩), and is home to a handful of aid routes.

The trail continues up on the right, and ascends for about 30 minutes until you reach a signpost.

Take the small trail contouring off to the left. After about 100m you’ll come to another fainter trail heading steeply up the hill on your right. Take this trail and in a couple of minutes you will reach the base of the first pitch of Shishi-iwa.

The route is well bolted, with good bolt anchors between pitches, so just head up the line of bolts and you can’t go wrong. Approximate pitch descriptions are as follows:

Pitch 1: Climb the slabby face to an anchor below the large flake. (30m 5.7)

Pitch 2: Climb face moves to the bottom of the flake, then layback to the top. (30m 5.7)

Looking down Pitch 2:

Pitch 3: Climb the face straight up, crux move midway, then anchor on the ledge on the left. (25m 5.8)

Looking down Pitch 3:

Pitch 4: Climb the slab to the upper face. (20m 5.7)

Pitch 5: Ascend a short step to finish on a wide ledge. (20m 5.7)

Pitch 6: Finish up a slab to the summit of Shishi-iwa. (15m 5.7)

Summit of Shishi-iwa:

View across to summit of Mt Komochi:

Getting down:
From the top of Shishi-iwa you need to climb down an in-situ chain ladder to the wide ledge that runs around from the top of pitch 5.

From the ledge you can either head left and hike up to the summit of Mt Komochi, about a kilometre away, or head straight down the hiking trail. Take care not to kick down any of the many loose rocks in the first 15 minutes, and you will soon regain the junction where you branched off to the start of the climb. Now reverse your approach hike back to the car park.

A top-quality little route, with excellent climbing on solid friction rock. This is a good place to practice slab climbing, and could be nicely combined with a visit to the nearby onsen resort of Ikaho (伊香保温泉) near Lake Haruna.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

The East ridge of Jiigatake (爺ヶ岳東尾根)

Route name:  East ridge (Higashi-one 東尾根)

Mountain:  Jiigatake (2669m 爺ヶ岳)

Map sheet:  35 [Yama-to-kougen-chizu (山と高原地図) series]

Time:  1-2 days

Grade:  Overall grade 1 alpine route

Mt Jiigatake is a triple-headed peak in the North Alps, situated above Kashima village to the east and Ōgisawa to the south. It is the last great peak on the long North-South ridgeline that takes in Mt Shirouma (白馬岳), Mt Karamatsu (唐松岳), Mt Goryu (五竜岳) and Mt Kashimayari (鹿島槍ヶ岳) before swinging to the west. See here for a video of a summer run along this ridgeline in a continuous single push.

Although slightly shorter than its neighbours to the north, Jiigatake is a large mountain and its eastern aspect is both dramatic and beautiful. Its East ridge poses a lengthy outing of moderate difficulty, requiring less commitment than neighbouring Mt Kashimayari’s East ridge, but with impressive scenery and views nevertheless. Typically climbed in late winter and early spring, many people opt to do this route in two days, camping mid-way along the ridge, but it is perfectly possible for a fit party to do it in a day; and in many ways preferable not to be carrying all that gear on your backs.

Getting there:
If travelling on public transport, take a train to Shinano-Ōmachi (信濃大町) station, and then take an Ōmachi city bus bound for Gen-yū (源汲方面) and get off the bus at Kashima (鹿島) bus stop, not long after the Jiigatake ski resort (爺ガ岳スキー場).

If travelling by car, take the Nagano Expressway and exit at Azusagawa (梓川), just past Matsumoto (松本). Get onto route 147 heading northwest, and turn left at Kita-Ōmachi onto route 45. Shortly afterwards turn right onto route 325 and follow this past the Jiigatake Ski Area (爺ガ岳スキー場) into Kashima village (鹿島). Park up by the side of the road when you get to this sign.

(Note: All photos in this article are from a spring ascent on 19 April 2016.)

From the road, walk up the driveway and past the house into the woods behind. You will immediately come across a sign for the East ridge pointing up the trail ahead.

Walk up the trail until you reach the first of a series of concrete dams. Follow the trail as it heads up right of the dam and onto a ridge.

The first 45 minutes is steep but fairly open as you pick your way up this ridge. Soon you will transition into a zone of sawa grass, and the trail will become much more overgrown. Look out for pink tape to follow as you thrutch your way up an hour of full-body bush-whacking.

Eventually the trees will begin to thin and the ridgeline will become sharper, and you will exit treeline.

Up ahead you will see the three summits of Jiigatake, still several hours away. There is space for a tent at various points along this ridge, if you are planning to break the outing up into two days.

For the next hour or two you will be ascending along the crest if the ridgeline, paying attention to any cornices. Elevation is gained incrementally as the ridge ascends and descends between bumps and pinnacles.

The crux section of the climb is a moderately exposed 10m knife-edge snow ridge, which you might consider roping up for depending on conditions. After this the ridge continues up to a tree-covered knoll, from where it takes a right turn. There is a signpost here for the central summit.

Looking back to the crux section at centre of picture:

Signpost pointing to Central summit:

The final 30-minute stretch of ridge ascends gently at first, then steepens as you approach the 2669m central summit.

Looking back down the East ridge from near the summit:

Central summit marker:

Getting down:
If conditions are good, you may wish to just reverse the East ridge to get back down to your start point in Kashima village.

Alternatively you could choose to descend the Aka-iwa ridgeline. To access the Aka-iwa head north from the Central summit, past the North summit, and down to the col about 10 minutes short of the Tsumetaike hut (冷池山荘) before the ascent to Mt Kashimayari. You will come across a signpost marking the top of the Aka-iwa ridge.

The descent trail traverses across a face initially to access the top of the ridge, and it can feel a little exposed in poor snow conditions.

The top half of the ridge is open, steep and exposed, but eventually after descending for about an hour you will come to a flat area marked on the map as Takachihodai (高千穂台).

The trail continues down for another hour or two, consistently steep and with a lot of ladders in place. Eventually you will find yourself traversing to your left at the bottom of the ridge, and you will soon reach the river. Cross this river near one of the dams by the safest way you can find (it will differ depending on the year). A further hour’s walk down the rindou on the other side will bring you first to a small hydro plant by the river, and then to the suspension bridge that leads to the car park at the Ōtanbara (大谷原) trail head. Kashima village is another hour down the road.

If you can find it in good conditions, this ridge will provide a fine variation climb directly to the highest summit of this beautiful mountain. The later you leave it, the more awkward it will become as snow conditions deteriorate. It’s an excellent outing though, with spectacular views of the East ridge of nearby Mt Kashimayari!

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.