Friday, 28 October 2016

Myoujo-san P6 South face (明星山P6南壁) - Free Spirits (フリースピリッツ)

Route Name:  Free Spirits (フリースピリッツ)

Mountain:  Myoujo-san P6 South face (明星山P6南壁)

Length:  15 pitches (approx. 500m)

Time:  6-8 hours to the top of the last pitch

Grade:  Crux pitch V+ (5.9) / Overall grade 5- alpine route

Free Spirits… A name to conjure with… Two simple words that perfectly embody the ambience of this magnificent route, whilst also seeming to capture the essence of the whole endeavour of climbing. Is there a finer rock climb in all of Japan? If so, I am yet to find it!

Weaving its way improbably up the steep and exposed limestone face of Mt Myoujo (明星山) in Niigata’s Jade canyon (ヒスイ峡), this route has everything you could wish for… 15 pitches and 500m of pure joy, with sustained difficulties and intricate route-finding. Despite the modest altitude, the South face of Myoujo is most definitely alpine in character and requires the full spectrum of skills and experience to navigate safely. There is a lot of loose rock here and in-situ protection is often absent, meaning you’ll need to divine the route in places, and place your own trad protection whenever possible.

This route is deservedly famous and universally praised among Japanese climbers, and a powerful experience of one sort or another is guaranteed!

Getting there:
Your ultimate destination is the car park just past the Kotakigawa Hisui-kai tenbō-dai, or Kotaki river Jade gorge viewpoint (小滝川ヒスイ峡展望台). This viewing platform overlooks the South face of Mt Myoujo across the gorge, and the nearby car park has a toilet block and space for a dozen or so cars.

If travelling by car from Tokyo, expect a drive of around 5.5 hours each way if traffic is good. The easiest route is up the Kanetsu Expressway, then left onto the Joshinetsu Expressway just after the Kamisato Service Area (上里SA). Follow this all the way until it merges with the Hokuriku Expressway near the coast, and head west as far as Itoigawa (糸魚川). At Itoigawa head left onto Route 148 and follow this to Kotaki (小滝). Once there take a right turn onto Route 483 through Kotaki village. Just after the Suzuki liquor shop (鈴木商店) turn right onto a smaller road and follow it all the way to Jade Canyon and your destination. It should take around half an hour or so from Itoigawa to the car park.

If travelling by train, take the Shinkansen to Itoigawa, and then either a taxi straight to your destination, or a local train to Kotaki followed by a taxi. You could also walk there from Kotaki station in around an hour if so inclined.

Walk across the car park to the edge and you will find a rough trail disappearing down the hillside among the trees.

Scramble down this trail for around 10 minutes to reach the riverside, then turn right and walk along the river for about another 5 minutes until you come to a series of large boulders. To reach the start of the climb you need to get across the river. Usually there is an in-situ Tyrolean traverse to facilitate this, but if you’re unlucky and there’s no rope in place you’ll need to find the safest spot to wade across; at some times of the year it may be impossible due to high water.

Once safely across the river, walk up several metres to your right and you’ll reach the start of the first pitch.

Approximate pitch descriptions for the route are as follows:

Pitch 1: Climb up and to the left through vegetation and rock to reach a belay anchor. (40m III)

Pitch 2: Ascend a few metres and then continue the leftwards traverse. The belay anchor is up on the wall above. Do not be tempted too far left by another anchor around a rock rib, that is for a different route. (20m IV-)

Pitch 3: Climb a tricky corner crack up and right. (30m V+)

Pitch 4: A short ascent is followed by an interesting and exposed downwards traverse to climber’s right, then a final climb up and right to the belay. (30m IV+)

Pitch 5: This is arguably the crux pitch of the route, and ironically the next belay anchor is almost directly above, but you’ve got to bypass the roof by the line of least resistance to get to it. Follow a thin traverse up the break at V- until you reach a slightly overhanging chimney. Climb the chimney, then make a downwards traverse out to the right to gain a belay beneath more overhangs. (35m V+)

Pitch 6: Climb a steep chimney for several metres, then make delicate moves around the rib to your right, and continue up steeply to belay beneath more overhangs. (30m V+)

Pitch 7: Climb the overlap and then continue upwards to a belay beneath yet more overhangs. (40m IV+)

Pitch 8: Ascend to your left around a triangular rock feature, and then climb a steep crack and groove system on trad protection, finishing up very loose rock to belay on the edge of the Chuō band terrace. (30m V)

Pitch 9: Cross the Chuō band and climb easy but loose terrain, taking care not to knock any stones down, and anchor wherever you can at the start of a rightwards ascending ramp. (20m II)

Pitch 10: Climb the ramp on your right for a full rope length and belay beneath overhangs. (50m III)

Pitch 11: Climb an intimidating and run-out vertical crack on your left, then ascend rightwards on better holds to a belay anchor. (30m V-)

Pitch 12: Climb upwards a little way until the rock blanks out beneath the enormous roof of the upper face. Now make an outrageously exposed traverse around the rib on your left. As you round the rib you will see that the traverse continues for some way on a tiny handrail of holds, quite simply spectacular! Eventually you will reach a belay on a ledge. (30m IV)

Pitch 13: Climb the smooth steep slabs above with just enough holds to facilitate progress. With a series of bolts a metre apart, the smooth section can be aided if necessary. Then climb up and rightwards on better holds to belay on a large ledge. (40m V+)

Pitch 14-15: Continue up and to climber’s left, following the line of least resistance, until you reach the ridgeline at the top of the face. (60m III-IV)

There are two options for descent back to the car park.

(i) If you can locate the top anchors of “Jade”, to the right of “Free Spirits”, you can abseil that line on bolted anchors back to the river.

(ii) If you’ve had enough of the void by this stage, there is a ‘walk-off’, but it’s rather steep and overgrown, and not at all easy to find. Essentially you need to start scrambling down towards climber’s left from the point where you met the ridgeline, and follow the most well-travelled path down the ridge. At some point, you’ll start moving rightwards. There are plenty of trees, and these can be abseiled from if you feel the need. Eventually you should come across a fixed rope and then a more well-trodden path lower down marked by pink tape on tree branches.

From here simply follow the tape markers, and you will safely reach a water pipe that crosses the gorge. Turn right here and follow an overgrown but flat path alongside the river for several hundred metres and you will reach a bridge. Cross the bridge, then walk back along the road all the way to the car park. From the top of Free Spirits to the car park should take up to about 1.5 hours.

It is hard to avoid superlatives when discussing this route. Long, exposed and consistently steep, it weaves an ingenious and at times improbable line up one of the largest faces in Japan. It is the stuff dreams are made of! Bring double ropes, a full set of quickdraws (predominantly extendable ones), a trad rack of nuts and cams, and a sense of wonder.

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Sunday, 11 September 2016

Multi-pitch climbing on Jōyama (城山) - "Battlerunner" (バトルランナー)

Route Name:  Battlerunner (バトルランナー)

Mountain: Jōyama ()

Rock type:  Andesitic tuff

Length: 4 pitches (approx. 100m)

Grade: 5.10a

Jōyama () is a small rocky mountain at the top of the Izu peninsula in Shizuoka prefecture, and is a well-known rock-climbing venue with several hundred routes. Sitting across the river from the town of Ōhito, its South face is home to some of its longest and best multi-pitch routes. The rock quality on this slabby face is first-class, and predominantly requires good balance and footwork as you float upwards from small pocket to pocket.

One of the most popular and striking routes at Jōyama is Battlerunner (バトルランナー), a 4-pitch outing that takes a direct line up the middle of the face through the large roof at mid height. With great climbing and plenty of exposure it really is one of the finest routes around at its grade!

Getting there:
If travelling from Tokyo on public transport, the simplest way is to take a shinkansen from Shinagawa (品川) to Mishima (三島), and then change for a local Izu-Hakone-Sunzu train for Ōhito (大仁). From there you can either walk to the trail-head in about half an hour, or take a local taxi.

If travelling from Tokyo by car, head down the Tōmei Expressway (with a convenient Starbucks located at the Ashigara service area south of Mt Fuji), transfer onto the Izu Chuō-do toll road, and stay on as far as Ōhito. Once on local roads in Ōhito, make your way across the Karino river (狩野川) and down to a small car park opposite the trail-head.

From the trail-head a short walk of about 15 minutes will bring you to a signed junction in the trail.

Head right from here up a short scrambly path and you will come out at the bottom of the South face. It’s a good idea to put your helmet on whilst near the base of the rock in case of falling stones from above.

There are a few bolted single pitch routes along the base of the face, and in high season (Oct-May) it can get quite busy.

Battlerunner starts about midway along and heads up towards an overlap just below and to the right of a tree-covered terrace.

Approximate pitch descriptions are as follows:

Pitch 1: Delicate slab climbing with good bolts up to the overlap, then climb the bulge direct and continue up to a semi-hanging bolted belay below the first small roof. (25m 5.8)

Pitch 2: Surmount the first roof then continue up steepening 5.9 slabs to a bolted belay below the large roof. Climb the roof directly by a mix of underclings and crimps, to get established on the wall above. Another 5-6m will bring you to a bolted belay. (35m 5.10a)

Pitch 3: Climb easier but more run-out slabs to a bolted belay below the final pitch. (20m 5.7R)

Pitch 4: Ascend the final delicate and run-out slabs, and anchor just below the tree-covered ledge. (20m 5.9R)

Because of the risk of knocking loose rocks down on the people below, the best way to get down is to rappel straight back down the line of the route rather than attempt to walk/scramble off from the top anchors. This can be done in two rappels with 60m ropes.

Note – The above is a fairly standard way of splitting the pitches, but it is equally possible and maybe even preferable to end pitch 2 at the bolted belay under the roof, and then climb the roof and pitch 3 in one.

With impeccable rock quality, superb balancy slab climbing and powerful moves through the crux roof, this route deserves the three stars it gets in all the Japanese guidebooks! A set of about 10-12 quickdraws will suffice.

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Thursday, 8 September 2016

Tachioka-yama, Hidari gan-ryou route (太刀岡山左岩稜)

Route name:  Hidari gan-ryou (Left rock arête 左岩稜)

Mountain: Tachioka-yama (太刀岡山)

Map sheet:  26 [Yama-to-kougen-chizu (山と高原地図) series]

Length: 9 pitches (230m)

Time: 4 hours to the top of the last pitch

Grade: 5.9

Tachioka-yama is a minor peak of 1295m tucked in across the valley behind Kayagatake (茅ヶ岳), its higher and more famous neighbour to the north-west, known to many as the mountain on which Fukada Kyūya passed away in March 1971. The area around the mountain is very beautiful on a sunny day, with picturesque farming villages hanging on to lush green forested hillsides.

The main event is a dramatic triangular rock face on the mountain’s western aspect with, as luck would have it, a spectacular multi-pitch outing up its left arête that offers a variety of climbing styles up impeccable rock and with sensational exposure at a comfortable climbing grade. Running the whole gamut from trad cracks, friction slabs, run-out face climbing and knife-edge ridges, this route comes highly recommended.

Getting there:
If travelling by car from Tokyo you need to follow the Chuō Expressway out to Yamanashi prefecture and take the exit for Futaba Service Area (双葉). Find your way onto Route 6, then turn left onto Route 101. Follow this road for about 9.5km until you come to a junction on the right with the Shosenkyo Line road. Keep going straight on past this and the road changes into Route 27. A further 2km through rural villages will bring you to the Tachioka-yama trailhead car park on the left (太刀岡山登山口駐車場), with the rock face of Mt Tachioka visible up on the right across the river.

The approach to the start of the climb is short and easy. Walk up the road from the car park for about 100m and you will come to a break in the barrier on the right and a short gravel path down to the river. A makeshift bridge will get you over the river.

Now follow the trail as it zigzags up the hillside, and in about 5-10 minutes you will arrive at a rock band. There are various routes up this rock band, but for the ‘Hidari gan-ryou’ route you need to skirt to the left along the foot of the rock and you’ll soon reach the bottom of the first pitch.


Pitch 1: Climb the initial corner crack up to a narrow ledge, then climb the main crack to a bolt belay. (20m 5.9)

Pitch 2: Climb the corner cracks to the big tree, then continue up beyond for another 8m to a bolt belay. (20m 5.7)

Pitch 3: Climb the chimney cracks to gain the slabs above, and continue up on the arête. (20m 5.8)

Pitch 4: Scramble up the arête to your right. (20m 5.5)

Pitch 5: Gain the arête on the right of the belay, and climb up featured but run-out terrain to the scissor rocks. Cross the gap between them and continue up the arête. (20m 5.8)

The scissor rocks:

Pitch 6: Up the arête. (40m 5.6)

Pitch 7: Up the arête. (45m 5.6)

Pitch 8: Up the arête and along the famous knife-edge, to finish on the large terrace at the top of the walk-off. (30m 5.6)

Pitch 9: Climb the face on your left by its weakest line, with trad pro in the first half then bolts to the top of the pinnacle. (15m 5.8)

From the top of the pinnacle abseil back down to the terrace from a solid bolt anchor.

The descent trail starts from the end of the terrace down steeply through the trees. After about 20-30m head to your left and traverse along a faint path and continue down this until you reach a proper hiking trail. Follow the trail down past the Koyama rock face and on down to the river. Go through the metal gate and cross a bridge, then walk back up the road to the car park.

This front-loaded route gets its main difficulties out of the way in the first three pitches and then rewards you with a romp up a magnificent arête on excellent friction rock. Bring a trad rack, and be prepared for high quality climbing across a range of styles. A three-star route in anybody’s book!

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Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Multi-pitch rock on Mt Mitsutōge (三ツ峠山)

Mountain:  Mitsutōge (1785m, 三ツ峠山)

Map sheet:  31 [Yama-to-kougen-chizu (山と高原地図) series]

The large cliff face just below the summit of Mt Mitsutoge has long been used as a training ground for Japanese alpinists. There is a wide range of routes at all grades, as well as a lot of aid climbing from the old days. With a relatively short drive from Tokyo, a simple 45 minute approach hike, and amazing views of Mt Fuji just a stone’s throw away, this is a recommended venue for practising the skills required for multi-pitch climbing. The routes described here are two of the finest!

Getting there:
If travelling by car from Tokyo (東京), take the Chuō Expressway to Ōtsuki (大月), and then turn left in the direction of Kawaguchiko (河口湖). From Kawaguchiko you need to cross the bridge over the lake and follow route 137 until you reach the right turn onto the Misaka-michi road just before the entrance to a 3km tunnel through the mountain. This mountain road winds up towards Mitsutōge, until you reach the Mitsutōge-tozanguchi (三ツ峠登山口) at a sharp hairpin bend. There is space for about 6 cars down there, and you can find more parking up at the toilet block a few minutes further on at the Mitsutōge trailhead.

From the toilet block, follow the signs for Mt Mitsutoge’s summit. The hiking trail zig zags up a rough dirt and rock road for about 45 minutes until you reach the first hut below the summit. The rock face is visible directly beneath the summit from the hut’s terrace. A trail drops down quite steeply from the hut, with steps and hand rails, and a 5-10 minute hike will bring you along the bottom of the rock face.

Walk along the rock until you reach a small alcove with two inscription stones on a rock shelf. Both ‘Gaku route’ and the ‘Chuo-Kante’ start from here.

The routes:

1. Gaku route (岳ル―ト)

This route was apparently bolted and climbed during the making of the film “Gaku” (), based on the manga comic of the same name. It is essentially a harder variation of the same section of the wall that the Chuo-Kante ascends, but more striking and far less busy.

Pitch 1: Climb the steep bulging wall left of the inscription stones, with good Petzl bolts, and belay on one of the large in-situ anchors on the wide terrace above. (25m 5.10a)

Pitch 2: Ascend the steep slab above to a bolt belay in a small alcove beneath a left-slanting rock rib. This slab can be avoided on the left if necessary. (20m 5.10a)

Pitch 3: From the belay go around to the right, then climb up a groove and onto the rock rib. Continue up it and climb through a bulging notch to a bolt belay on the edge of the terrace shared with the Chuo-Kante. (30m 5.9)

Looking down Pitch 3:

Pitch 4: Climb up the right edge of the stunning fin of rock above, with superb exposure. From the top of the fin, head left and climb a short overhang to establish yourself in a corner crack. Follow the crack up to a belay on a ledge at the top. (35m 5.10a)

Looking down the initial rock fin of Pitch 4:

Looking down the final corner moves:

2. Chuo-kante route (中央カンテ)

This is the old established classic up this area of the rock face, and features enjoyable climbing up a beautiful natural crack line. For the most part it can be protected on trad gear, so bring a set of nuts and cams.

Pitch 1: Start on the right side of the inscription stones, and ascend the easy face on large holds to belay on the wide terrace above. (25m III)

Pitch 2: Head straight up for a few metres from the belay, then head left up the groove and crack to belay at the start of the obvious corner crack line of the 3rd pitch. (20m III)

Pitch 3: Climb the beautiful corner crack, past a vertical section and upwards to gain the terrace. (30m IV+)

Pitch 4: From the back of the terrace climb the splitter crack for about 10 metres to gain a small ledge. From here there are numerous options, but the most interesting is to continue leftwards up the arête until you reach the belay ledge at the top. (35m IV)

From the belay ledge at the top, which is shared by both routes, you can reach the bottom again in two rappels if you have 50-60m double ropes. Otherwise you’ll need to do more rappels, but there are plenty of rappel anchors to choose from.

This is classic mid-grade multi-pitch climbing up a wonderful cliff with good friction. Combine both of these routes in a single day to get 8 pitches of quality climbing, with amazing views across to nearby Mt Fuji.