Monday, 20 October 2014

The Kitadake Buttress (北岳バットレス)

Route name:  No.4 ridge ‘The Buttress’ (第四尾根 バットレス)

Mountain:  Mt Kitadake (3192m 北岳)

Map sheet:  41 [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


At 3192m, Mt Kitadake (北岳) has the distinction of being Japan’s second highest mountain after Mt Fuji (富士山). It’s east face is home to a series of gullies and a striking 600m rock face, known to all Japanese climbers simply as ‘The Buttress’ (バットレス).

There are several routes up it, but here we’ll concern ourselves with the central piece to the Buttress, the uber-classic No.4 ridge. First climbed in 1934, the No.4 ridge is a sharp arête that seems to hang suspended up the centre of the face drawing the eye to the summit. The purple rock is a type of chert, downward-sloping and largely friction-less, distinct from the more friendly rock types found in other areas of Japan’s alpine ranges. It’s not a good place to be in rain or poor weather, so make sure you have a stable forecast. For further reading on the geology and history of the Buttress, I strongly recommend Project Hyakumeizan’s excellent article on the subject.

In 2011 there was a major rockfall in the upper section, and the final pitch of No.4 ridge fell down. Consequently the finish to the route is now substantially harder and more satisfying. The area is far from 100% stable though, and more large rockfalls can probably be expected in the future. In short, if you haven’t climbed this route yet, hurry up before it gets consigned to the history books!

Getting there:
If travelling by train from Tokyo (東京) or Shinjuku (新宿), take a Chuō Line (中央線) train out to Kōfu (甲府) station. Ideally you want to be on the first Super Azusa limited express train in the morning. Next you need to take a bus from the bus stands outside Kōfu station via the Yashajin Pass (夜叉神峠) to Hirogawara (広河原). The bus ride takes approximately two hours. You will begin your approach from Hirogawara.

Description:
From the bus stop at Hirogawara walk up the road for a couple of minutes, then cross the suspension bridge over the river.


Walk up the trail for about 15-20 minutes and you’ll come to a junction, and the trail you take depends on where you’re planning to sleep.  If you’re going to spend the night in the Shiraneoike hut (白根御池小屋) then take the right fork, and you’ll arrive at the hut in a couple of hours.


If you’re planning to bivvy below the route, take the left fork, and follow the hiking trail up the river.


After a couple of hours the sawa opens out and you’ll arrive at a junction called Futamata (二俣). From here there is a steep trail heading up to the right to the Kitadake summit ridge, and another trail contouring in from the Shiraneoike hut. You need to keep going up the sawa, sticking to the trail on the right edge.

As you climb the sawa you will start to see the east face of Kitadake opening up on your right, with its various ridges and gullies falling down to where you are. The final approach to the Buttress ascends D-gully (dガリー), so keep your eyes open for a decent bivvy spot anywhere between the end of the water in the sawa and the entrance to the gully. Be sure to fill up all your water capacity though, as there is no water on the route itself.


D-gully access:
After an early start, hike up the trail until you reach the entrances to C and D gullies on your right. D gully provides the easiest and most direct way up to the foot of the Buttress.


Once you reach the rock, you need to climb 3 pitches up D-gully to reach a traverse ledge that will bring you to the start of the No.4 ridge itself.

Pitch 1: Climb an awkward rock step (in-situ piton to A0 the move if necessary) to gain entry to the gully, then climb about 30m with pitons at spaced-out intervals, to an in-situ anchor.


Pitch 2: Move up and diagonally right from the belay, then either break the pitch at an in-situ anchor or continue on and belay on your own gear.

Pitch 3: Climb the wet and slimy constriction above until D-gully opens out. Continue up and slightly right to the start of the traverse ledge.

Pitch 4: Traverse rightwards across the narrow scree-covered ledge, with occasional in-situ pitons. Continue around the rib and up to belay on the comfortable ledge at the start of the first pitch of No.4 ridge.



Now you’re in position and ready to start ascending the route proper.

No.4 ridge:


The first five or six pitches are obvious enough, and there are plenty of anchors along the way. Initially the route weaves its way up through trees on decent rock, either on the arête itself or the right side of the arête, at grade III-IV.


As you climb higher the route exits treeline, and the air and exposure kicks in. It’s a fantastic place to be!



Eventually you’ll arrive at the belay beneath what used to be the crux pitch of the route. Climb the face for a few metres to gain the thin rightward slanting grade V crack line. Nowadays the rock here is quite polished, and the holds are thin, but there are in-situ pitons in the crack, allowing you to aid through if necessary. Once you latch the jug hold at the top, you just need to swing out right and climb up onto the arête, and it’s done.


The rest of the pitch is airy and steep, but well-featured, right on the crest of the arête. Protection is very spaced out, but there are a couple of rock spikes that will take slings. Belay at the rappel anchor on top of the famous Matchbox rock (マッチ箱).



From the top of the Matchbox, a 20m rappel will bring you down to an anchor on the upper slabs of D-gully.


From this anchor you can gain the belay at the site of the rockfall in a long pitch of almost a full 50m rope length. Climb the steep chimney crack on your right along the bottom edge of the Matchbox (grade IV), and then continue up the arête on delightful thin moves at grade III to the belay. It is on this pitch that you’ll be able to take the classic photo of the upper section of No.4 ridge with the Matchbox below you.


As previously mentioned, the final pitch of the route used to continue up the ridge on straight-forward grade III terrain, but in 2011 the entire triangular rock that housed this pitch collapsed, leaving a blank vertical face barring the way. Fortunately there was an alternative way through this upper cliff, in the form of the last pitch of D-gully out on the slabs to your left.


Accessing this last pitch involves an airy horizontal traverse across a knife-edge blade of rock to gain the D-gully slabs, and then you continue on for another 10m to reach an in-situ bolt belay on the slab. It looks outrageous, and is incredibly exposed, but there’s nothing on it harder than easy grade III.

From there, the route now has one final sting in its tail; the exit pitch of D-gully, an overhanging off-width crack. Ascend the slabs to gain entry to the crack, then climb up in a very awkward position past a couple of loose bendy pitons. When the crack runs out, make a very strenuous move out to your left, with terrible feet, to gain better holds to the top. If you can climb it free, this pitch goes at grade VI, but if you can’t manage that, it can be aided at III A1. Be careful with those first two pitons though, as you really wouldn’t want to fall on them.

Now you just need to scramble up a final 20m of grade II rock to the end of the climbing. From here to the top, follow a trail up through the bushes for about 15 minutes and you will gain the summit ridgeline and the hiking trail, just a few metres down from the top of the mountain.


The views from the top of Kitadake are spectacular in all directions.



Getting down:
From the top you have the choice of two hiking trails to descend, one heading north and down to the Kitadake Katanogoya hut (北岳肩ノ小屋), and the other heading south to the junction with the trail across to Mt Ainodake (間ノ岳), Japan’s 4th highest peak. From the junction, the trail swings east for about half an hour to another junction at the start of the Happonba ridgeline, with great views across the Buttress.


Take the descent trail heading north down chains and ladders to regain the sawa and your bivvy gear, then continue down the trail you came up on the day before to return to Hirogawara.


Overall:
A spectacular route, with superb climbing up a striking natural line, finishing on the second highest summit in Japan. This route might be the most famous alpine rock climb in all of Japan, and deservedly so. Bring a trad rack and about 12 quickdraws, and don’t forget your A-game for that final pitch out of D-gully!

Sunday, 5 October 2014

North ridge of Mt Maehotaka (前穂高岳北尾根)

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



Getting there:

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.

Description:

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 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.

P8 summit:

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.

Byobu-iwa:

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!

Maeho summit:

Looking back down the North ridge:

The Okuho-Nishiho ridgeline:

Getting down:
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.

Overall:
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.