Thursday, 15 March 2018

The Kodoushin Crack (小同心クラック)

Route name:  Kodoushin Crack (同心クラック)

Mountain:  Yokodake (横岳), Yatsugatake (八ヶ岳) range

Map sheet:  32 [Yama-to-kougen-chizu (山と高原地図) series]

Time:  3-4 hours

Difficulty:  Grade 2 alpine route / IV crux

The Kodoushin pinnacle (a.k.a Shodoushin) may be the little brother of the Daidoushin pinnacle, but it is no less striking. Perched high on the west face of Yokodake above the Akadake-kousen, it is hard to imagine an alpine climber staring up at it from the hut and not impulsively wishing to stand on top of it.

By dint of good fortune, a striking natural chimney cleaves the front of this conglomerate pinnacle from bottom to top, providing about 100m of vertical climbing. It can be done year-round, but to extract the full experience from it you really need to go there in the winter season, when the rock is frozen in place and gloves, boots and crampons are a necessity.

To satisfy your inner alpinist, continue on behind the pinnacle where a final mixed pitch leads directly onto the 2829m summit of Yokodake, making this one of the most aesthetic days of climbing to be had in the Yatsugatake massif.

Getting there:
If travelling from Tokyo, take a Super Azusa Limited Express train from Shinjuku to Chino (approx. 2.5 hours). Outside the JR station at Chino take a bus to Minotoguchi (美濃戸口, approx. 45 minutes). This is the gateway to the Akadake-kōsen side of Yatsugatake. From the car park start hiking up the trail that is signposted to Akadake (赤岳).

The walk-in takes up to 3 hours by map time. It is split into 3 stages. The first hour brings you past a series of buildings and on a little further to a hut with a water source, which makes a good resting point for 5 minutes.

The trail splits here, with the right fork going up Minami-sawa (南沢) to the Gyouja-goya hut (行者小屋). You need to take the left fork up Kita-sawa (北沢). The next hour follows the rough dirt road until it finishes at a bridge across the sawa. From the other side the path narrows and meanders alongside the sawa for another hour or so until you reach the hut at Akadake-kōsen. This hut and its campground serve as basecamp for all the routes in the area.

From the Akadake-kōsen hut go up the steps near the door and take the path straight on towards the ice routes (Daidoushin runze, Uradoushin runze, Jougosawa) on the left-hand side of the face below the summit of Yokodake (横岳). Follow the trail for about 5-10 minutes through the forest and you will come to a signpost pointing right into the bottom of the Daidoushin runze (大同心ルンゼ), or gully.

Head into the Daidoushin runze and follow the stream for about 10 minutes and you will come to a trail heading up on your left along the lower section of the Daidoushin-ryo. Follow this up through the forested ridgeline.

The trail is gentle at first, getting steeper as it progresses, eventually exiting treeline and ascending several easy mixed steps to its apex at the foot of the Daidoushin rock pinnacle. From the top, traverse the descending ramp (大同心バンド) around the south side of the pinnacle until you reach the bottom.

Carefully cross the top of the Daidoushin-sawa on your right, and then climb the steep snow slope for around 100m until you reach a wide flat terrace at the foot of the Kodoushin pinnacle.

There is no fixed anchor here, but this terrace marks the start of the first pitch of the Kodoushin crack.

Approximate pitch descriptions are as follows:

Pitch 1: From the terrace climb up the face and trend left to gain entry to the chimney crack at about 15m height. Continue steeply up the crack through several bulges to reach a bolted belay anchor. (40m IV-)

Pitch 2: Continue straight up the chimney crack, through several bulges, until you reach a comfortable bolted belay terrace. (30m IV)

Pitch 3: From the belay climb a steep crack on your right, then make an exposed traverse out to the left to gain the final few metres of steep rock that will bring you over the lip and out of the face. There is an anchor here if you wish to break the pitch, but you can equally continue on for 10m up easy ground to another anchor just below the top of the Kodoushin pinnacle. (25m III)

From this top anchor, scramble up several metres of easy terrain to gain the top of the Kodoushin. Now walk along the narrow ridge that joins the Kodoushin to the Yokodake face, then ascend easy ground to belay on bolts at the foot of the final rock face directly below the summit of Yokodake.

Looking up to the summit of Yokodake:

One final 30m mixed pitch of grade III (slightly run-out, but with good crack placements for small cams) will bring you onto the flat summit of Yokodake. On a clear day the views up here are second to none and extend for well over 100km in all directions!

The quickest way down from the top of Yokodake will be to head north off the summit down the hiking trail (in-situ chains on the steep sections) to the col on the ridge above the Daidoushin pinnacle. Carefully descend the steep slope on climber’s left towards the Daidoushin, and scramble down to a rappel anchor at the top of the final chimney of the Daidoushin-runze.

Make a short rappel down this on one rope, and you will find a solid bolted rappel anchor on the wall just around the corner on climber’s right. From this anchor a 60m rappel on double ropes will get you down to the bottom of the gully.

From here simply reverse the way you came in, initially along the traverse ramp below the Daidoushin, and then back down the Daidoushin-ryo descent ridge to the entrance of the Daidoushin-runze and on back to the hut.

If logical lines up stunning natural features are important to alpine climbers, then this route should be high on the list of all Yatsugatake winter alpinists. They really don’t come much better! Bring 60m double ropes, around 12 quickdraws and slings, and a couple of small cams.

For full route descriptions of 10 of the finest alpine climbs in Japan, in your backpack or on your phone, pick up a copy of the book in print or Kindle format on Amazon!

Thursday, 1 March 2018

The Tengu ridge of Akadake (赤岳天狗尾根)

Route name: Akadake Tengu ridge (赤岳天狗尾根)

Mountain:  Yatsugatake (八ヶ岳)

Map sheet:  32 [Yama-to-kougen-chizu (山と高原地図) series]

Time:  1-2 days

Difficulty:  Grade 1 alpine route / III+ crux

If the presence of the Akadake-Kousen hut is what makes the North side of Akadake such a popular winter playground, perhaps it is the absence of any such development that makes the South side of Akadake so remote and alluring. You will find no crowds here; in fact, you will most likely see nobody at all.

The unmanned unheated Deai-goya hut serves as erstwhile basecamp to the ice and alpine climbing on this wilder end of the massif. It is well-situated, for just 10 minutes further up the valley lies the foot of the famous Tengu ridge.

Rising over 1200m from the valley floor to its terminus just short of the summit of Akadake, the Tengu ridge is a big outing, and reserves most of its difficulties for its upper reaches. At the point where the tree cover ends, the ridge rears up in a series of rocky pinnacles and gendarmes that are absolutely stunning when viewed in profile from one of the adjacent ridgelines. The last two pinnacles form the climax, and together they constitute the eponymous Tengu.

Despite only moderate technical difficulties, if you get there too early in the season deep untracked snow can endow the Tengu ridge with Himalayan proportions. But if you can hit it in good conditions, this elegant ridgeline constitutes the very essence of classic winter mountaineering.

Getting there:
If travelling by public transport from Tokyo, take the Super Azusa Limited Express train from Shinjuku to Kobuchizawa (小淵沢), and then change to the local Koumi line train. Get off at the small resort village of Kiyosato (清里), and then take a taxi 10 minutes up the road to the Utsukushimori car park (美し森駐車場).

If travelling by car from Tokyo, take the Chuo Expressway and exit at Nagasaka IC (長坂IC). Turn left onto route 32, go under the Expressway and continue a short way to a large crossroads, and then turn left onto route 28. Route 28 will take you all the way to Kiyosato station. Follow the road round to the left just below the station and head up the hill on route 11 towards Utsukushimori-yama (美し森山). At the traffic lights continue straight as the road turns into route 615. You will soon reach the Utsukushimori car park (美し森駐車場) on your left. This is the trailhead for this outing.


(i) The approach
Take the small flight of concrete stairs behind the building in the car park, and then turn left and start walking up the snow-covered road.

After about an hour you will reach a sort of junction where a trail heads off diagonally downhill on the left, but you should keep contouring along on the road. Soon the road will turn into a hiking trail through the forest and up the river past a number of concrete dams.

Eventually you will arrive at the unmanned Deai-goya hut. In good crisp conditions with a trace in place this can be done in about 1.5 hours, but it can take up to 3 hours in deeper snow. Many people choose to split this climb into two days by spending the night here and getting an early start to climb the ridge the following morning. Unless you are very confident in your speed and fitness, and have good snow conditions, this might be your recommended strategy for the Tengu ridge.

(ii) The climb
Continue on past the hut for about 5-10 minutes and you will reach a fork in the river, where the Akadake-sawa comes in from the right. This place is the Akadake-sawa-deai, and the Tengu ridge rises from this fork. You need to cross the river here, but don’t go up onto the ridge just yet. Instead, continue up the Akadake-sawa.

After about 10-15 minutes you will see a re-entrant on your left. Climb this to gain the Tengu ridge, and then start ascending the lower ridge.

The first hour climbs up through the trees, initially at a gentle gradient and gradually steepening. Eventually you will pop out of the trees onto a narrow open section of ridgeline with excellent views along the ridge to the first rocky pinnacles in the distance, and to the East faces and ridges of Gongendake and Asahidake to your left.

After a short descent you will once again be in tree cover. The gradient begins to steepen in earnest now, and after some time you will arrive at the beginning of the difficulties.

The first obstacle on the ridge is a curious rock called Kani-no-hasami (カニのハサミ), or the Crab Scissors rocks, named for their resemblance to a crab’s pincers. Go around to the left of these along a rocky ledge, and then climb a 10m rock face to regain the ridge.

The next obstacle is a large rock wall about 30 high. This can be climbed on the left, but most people turn this on the right. A line of fixed rope heads out along a very narrow and exposed ledge, with some awkward moves on rock at the end of it to gain a steep snow gully. Climb this gully to the top and then continue along the ridgeline.

The next large pinnacle is turned via a ledge on the left followed by a steep but well-featured climb up a rocky face.

From the top of this, head around to the right and you will at last be confronted with your first view of the famous Dai-Tengu (大天狗) and Ko-Tengu (小天狗) pinnacles up ahead.

When you reach the Dai-Tengu, traverse across the angled snow slope and build an anchor on the tree closest to the rock face at its right edge. From here climb a single pitch of III+ rock to gain the right side of the Dai-Tengu. There are in-situ pitons on this rock wall, and a bolt anchor at the top of it.

From the anchor, continue around the right side of the Dai-Tengu to the col between it and the striking Ko-Tengu.

To get past the Ko-Tengu, traverse out on ledges on its left side, and then pick the easiest line up the steep rocky slope to arrive at the foot of the pinnacle on its far side. If you wish to climb to the top of the Ko-Tengu, there is an in-situ anchor on its summit to facilitate descent.

Now just continue up the corniced ridgeline a short way until you reach the end of the Tengu ridge and the junction with the hiking trail. The 2899m summit of Akadake lies about 40 minutes further up the hiking trail, with chains and ladders in all the most exposed sections along the way.

From the summit of Akadake there are a couple of options for returning to Utsukushimori car park:

1. Re-trace your steps back along the hiking trail for about 10 minutes until you reach a junction, with a trail heading off to climber’s left. This is the Shinkyoji ridge trail (真教寺尾根), and will get you back to Utsukushimori in around 4 hours in good snow conditions. The first hour is very steep, with sections of down-climbing and chains. The rest is more amenable, with an initial uphill to the top of Ushikubi-yama (牛首 2280m), followed by seemingly endless downhill, past the ski resort at the bottom of the ridge, through the forest and then down a series of wooden stairs that eventually deposit you at the car park.

2. Re-trace your steps all the way back to the top of the Tengu ridge itself, and then continue scrambling along the precipitous hiking trail, and down a steep rocky gully. At the bottom of the gully the ridge levels off a bit. Carry on a short way to the Kiretto-goya hut (キレット小屋), then continue a bit further until you reach the minor summit of the Tsurune (ツルネ). From here take the Tsurune East ridge (ツルネ東稜下降) all the way back down, then continue until you reach the Deai-goya hut. From there you just need to hike back out the way you came in to the road and on eventually to the car park.

In unconsolidated conditions this would be an extremely serious and physical outing, and is best avoided. But in good conditions, generally later in the winter season, it is a top-draw classic winter mountaineering outing up one of the most striking and beautiful ridgelines on Akadake. The technical difficulties are moderate, and a light rack of slings and carabiners will suffice. The main challenges centre around navigation and the enormous scale of this route. Completing it in a one-day round-trip from the car park is a wonderful challenge, and a very big physical undertaking.

For more of Japan's classic alpine climbing routes, order a copy of Climb Japan's guidebook on Amazon, in book or e-book formats!

Friday, 23 February 2018

Matsuki-sawa (松木沢) ice-climbing - Natsukoya-sawa (夏小屋沢) gully

Route Name:  Natsukoya-sawa (夏小屋沢)

Location:  Matsuki-sawa valley (松木沢)

Map sheet:  13 [Yama-to-kougen-chizu (山と高原地図) series]

Time:  1 day

Grade:  WI4 / Overall grade 2+ alpine route

The Matsuki-sawa valley, near the old copper mining centre of Ashio, is not only a beautiful and remote location with a fascinating recent history, but is home to a handful of the best frozen sawa ice climbs in the Tokyo area. The Kuro-sawa gully is probably the most popular classic in the area, but its immediate neighbour Natsukoya-sawa is a little harder and slightly more sustained, packing 7 icefalls into the same approximate route length.

Mid-February usually offers the best conditions here, and whether you choose a one-day climb or a full weekend combining it with one of the neighbouring routes, you are unlikely to be disappointed with this excellent outing.

Getting there:
If travelling from Tokyo (東京) by car, take the Tōhoku Expressway as far as Utsunomiya (宇都宮), then change onto the Nikko-Utsunomiya road until it turns into Route 120. Turn left onto Route 122 and stay on this until it meets Route 250, then turn right onto Route 250. Keep going straight on up the Ashio (足尾) valley on this road until you reach its end at the small car park above the Akagane Water Park (銅親水公園).

From the car park, you need to walk a little further up the road you drove in on, go past the barrier blocking the road, and cross the bridge to get over the river on the left. Walk along the road as it doubles back round to the left and then swings northwest again towards the entrance to Matsuki-sawa (松木沢). Once into Matsuki-sawa you need to keep walking for about 1.5 hours until you reach the entrance to Kuro-sawa (黒沢). Initially you will be on a good dirt road until you arrive at the Matsuki village.

From there onwards the road becomes less maintained, and in several places has been completely covered in boulders from landslides and rockfall from the mountainside on your right.

On the left side of the valley large rock faces begin to appear, and the summit ridge of Nakakura-yama (中倉山) can be seen high above. This ridgeline eventually leads over Koushin-san (庚申山) to Nokogiri-yama (鋸山) on the main ridge before the summit of Sukai-san (皇海山), and is a dramatic and high-quality hike in its own right.

Eventually you will arrive at a large concrete dam next to the Kuro-sawa valley coming down the mountainside on your left. Continue past the dam for a short way and then drop down to the river. Cross the river by whatever means you find easiest, and then walk upstream along the left bank. Natsukoya-sawa is the second sawa entrance that you will meet.

You will be rappelling down and back out the same way, so leave any gear that you don’t want to carry up the route here at the entrance.

F1 and F2 are fairly short and not too steep, easily soloed. They provide a nice warm-up for the climbing above.

After about 80m you will arrive at the crux F3 icefall. It is about 20m high and vertical, and depending on conditions, it can be quite chandeliery and serious for its relatively short stature. There are trees to anchor from just above it.

Now continue a short way around an S-shaped bend in the sawa, and climb F4 via its two steps, each about 8m in height. As usual for this route, you can anchor to a solid tree beyond the top.

The next pitch continues up the stream bed and around a corner where it hits F5, a superb narrow 20m runnel with rock walls on either side, with a tree anchor at the top.

F6 is quite gentle and follows a broader section of the stream up for about 40m with no real difficulty until the bottom of F7.

F7 is a short-lived but plumb vertical icefall of about 8-10m. Above F7 the gully continues, but the ice is finished and there’s no real reason to continue.

To get back down, simply rappel off the tree anchors at the top of each icefall (in-situ cord on most, but consider replacing it with your own if unsure). A doubled-over strand of 60m rope should be long enough to get you down any individual rappel.

An excellent route in a beautiful setting, much more akin to alpine climbing than to single-pitch ice cragging. Climb it in a one-day hit, or make a weekend of it by combining it with one of the neighbouring routes.

If your goal is to climb one of Japan's most classic alpine routes, make sure you pick up a copy of Climb Japan's guidebook on Amazon!