Monday, 7 May 2018

The Hida ridge of the Gendarme (ジャンダルム飛騨尾根)


Route Name: Hida ridge (飛騨尾根)

Mountain: Gendarme (ジャンダルム 3163m)

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

Time: 2-3 days round-trip

Difficulty: Grade 3 alpine route (IV crux pitch)


The Gendarme (Jandarumu, ジャンダルム) is the name given to a distinctive and prominent rocky summit on the dramatic ridgeline between Mt Okuhotaka (奥穂高岳) and Mt Nishihotaka (西穂高岳) in the North Alps of Japan. At 3163m it sits just shy of the 3190m altitude of Okuho, but the ridge that connects them is both serious and thrilling at any time of year, making the Gendarme’s summit a highly desired prize among Japanese hikers and climbers.

High up on the Gendarme’s western aspect is a steep ridgeline of such aesthetic grandeur and isolation that it simply demands to be climbed by anyone who spends enough years operating as an alpine climber in Japan. It is named the Hida ridge (飛騨尾根) and is instantly recognisable to anyone who has gazed south from the top of Okuho. From the precarious summit of the Gendarme the upper Hida ridge plunges down in a series of vertical steps between terraces forming, in the words of one well-known commentator, a truly “compelling line to the sky”.

In summer/autumn it can only be accessed from above, and so aspirants must traverse to the Gendarme and then scramble down the gully just south of its summit until a traverse gains access to the T3 terrace. From here the final few hundred metres of the ridge can be climbed back to the Gendarme.

A full integral ascent of the ridge from bottom to top requires snow to smooth out the access from below, and the optimal time is from early April to early May. With an altitude gain of over 1800m this is an enormous route. It covers the full spring alpine spectrum from long, steep and exposed snow slopes through to hours of rock-climbing in crampons at altitude and, with a serious and involved traverse from the Gendarme to Okuho, the summit of the Gendarme is by no means the end point.


Getting there:
This itinerary is a round trip from Shin-Hotaka Onsen (新穂高温泉). 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 can take a bus to Shin-Hotaka Onsen.

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 Hirayu, and then turn off onto Route 471. Eventually you will come to a bridge across a river and turn right onto Route 475. This will take you all the way to Shin-Hotaka Onsen.

Park in the large free car park by the river, accessed on the left from about halfway through a long avalanche tunnel.

Description:

DAY ONE
Exit the free car park by the tarmacked path at its northern end and walk for about 5 minutes until you join the road and reach the Information Centre. Don’t forget to leave your planned itinerary here, with emergency contact details and your projected return date/time.

Continue walking up the hill and you’ll soon pass the Hotel Hotaka and then the Shin-Hotaka Ropeway (新穂高ロープウエイ). Pass through the barrier at the end of the road and walk up the rindou.


The road is initially tarmacked but soon turns into dirt and gravel as it gains height alongside the river past a series of dams.


After about an hour a series of switchbacks will bring you to the Hotaka Hira-goya hut (穂高平小屋), situated in a lovely open alpine meadow. Continue on past the hut as the road becomes rougher and gradually gains height. After another hour you will reach the signed turn-off for the hiking trail on your right up to Mt Okuhotaka, at the entrance to Shiraide-sawa (白出沢).


Take this path up through the forest. It is not very distinct when under snow, so keep your eyes open for the trail.


Just as it appears to be taking you up into neighbouring Nishiho-sawa (西穂沢), the trail disappears into the forest on the left and traverses across the bottom of the Tengu ridge. Once past the ridge you’ll enter Shiraide-sawa and continue ascending the steepening snow field until you reach the fork with Tengu-sawa up on your right.



This junction, just short of the Shiraide Ōtaki waterfall (白出大滝, not yet visible from here), is a good spot to set up basecamp as you’ll be coming back down past here the next day. Choose your location wisely so as to avoid any potential avalanches that might come down Tengu-sawa or Shiraide-sawa above.


Looking up the steep Tengu-sawa:


DAY TWO
This is a very long day, so aim to be on the move by 3AM at the latest. From your tent head upwards into Tengu-sawa and climb it for 2-300m. Just before the point where the sawa forks, climb up the steep snowfield in the re-entrant on climber’s left to gain D ridge. Once on the ridge crest continue front-pointing up the snowy ridgeline for several more hundred metres.


You will see the lower Hida ridge (C ridge) above you running from left to right. To access the bottom of it you need to make an exposed traverse across the intermediary sawa and then climb up steep mixed terrain onto C ridge.


At this point the lower Hida ridge is in the dwarf pine (Haimatsu) zone, so for the first hour up the ridge you will be bush-whacking through this.



Eventually though you will get above the haimatsu and onto the rocky ridge itself, and this is most likely the point where you will want to get the rope out and start pitching.


There are no fixed anchors on the Hida ridge, and in-situ pitons are sparse, so you will need to make your own judgements around where to end each pitch. In total I counted 13 pitches between the start of the steeper rock-climbing and the summit of the Gendarme, which suggests around 500m of pitched rock-climbing in crampons. The rock is generally between grade II (5.5) and grade IV (5.7) and offers excellent trad placements as well as plenty of spikes for slings.






The higher you climb, the steeper the ridge becomes and the more involved and exposed the climbing as you surmount each section of ridgeline between the rising terraces. Eventually you will reach the easier summit rocks, from where a short scramble will bring you to the top of the Gendarme and its famous steel Angel. The views in all directions are jaw-dropping.



On the 3163m summit of the Gendarme:

From the summit of the Gendarme to the summit of Okuho looks a mere stone’s throw, but it will likely take several hours and is very involved and serious in places. To get off the Gendarme you need to locate the rappel anchor just below the top on the north-eastern aspect. A rappel on double ropes will gain the snow slope below. You now need to traverse the knife-edge snow ridge and climb up to the top of the Donkey’s Ears formation (Roba-no-mimi, ロバの耳). Consider belaying this section as the exposure is astronomical and you will most likely be doing it on soft afternoon snow.



You will find another rappel anchor on the other side of the Donkey’s Ears below the top. A full 50m rappel will get you down and across to the top of a short chain section. Take care pulling your ropes down.


From here traverse over to the start of the long rock scramble back up towards the Horse’s Back (Uma-no-se, 馬の背).


From the top of the ascent a short knife-edge snow traverse brings you to the bottom of the Horse’s Back. Climb this razor-sharp rock ridge, then traverse a narrow connecting snow ridge, and then easy snow slopes will bring you to the 3190m summit of Okuho.



Continue off the other side of the summit down the normal hiking trail for about 30 minutes. Eventually you will reach the final snow slope that will take you down to the ladders to the Okuho-Sansou hut. There is a rappel anchor if you’d rather rappel down this exposed snow slope.

If the hut is open (Golden Week onwards) you might wish to consider staying the night and descending Shiraide-sawa to your tent the following morning when the snow is firm and frozen. If not, you now need to drop off the col to climber’s left behind the hut and descend the steep 1200m of Shiraide-sawa back to your tent at the entrance to Tengu-sawa. At one point the trail heads off out of the sawa on the right and descends down the ridge to bypass the Shiraide Ōtaki waterfall. Once you exit this section, a short descent will bring you back to your tent.

DAY THREE
All that remains is to reverse day one back to the road and along down to Shin-Hotaka Onsen and the car park.

Overall:
An immense itinerary, both in stature and in satisfaction. Take 50m double ropes and a basic trad rack, as well as double axes. Be prepared for the seriousness of this outing, and the deep connection it will foster between you and one of the most striking bits of topography in the country. This climb is one of Japan’s true alpine gems!



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Monday, 2 April 2018

The Northwest arête of the Daidoushin pinnacle (大同心北西稜)


Route name: Daidoushin Hokusei-ryo (大同心北西)

Mountain:  Yatsugatake (八ヶ岳)

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

Time:  4-6 hours (7 pitches)

Difficulty:  Grade 5+ alpine route / IV A1 crux


(Note: All photos in this article are from an ascent on 11th March 2018.)

The Daidoushin pinnacle is the embodiment of winter mixed climbing on Yatsugatake; steep, exposed, strafed by bitterly cold winds, and with rock quality that varies from reliable to vertical mud. Even its easiest route, the South ridge, is a marked step up in difficulty compared to the adjacent routes in the Akadake-kousen area. Over on the shaded northern aspect of the pinnacle its Northwest arête, or Hokusei-ryo, is a further step up.

To overcome the challenge that it throws down, you will need fitness, endurance, confidence and a skill set that covers both free- and aid-climbing. By the time you rope up for the first pitch you will have already gained close to 1500m of elevation. You will then be faced with 7 pitches of climbing up steep terrain, with never more than 2 or 3 pieces of in-situ protection for each rope length, and occasionally less than that. On volcanic conglomerate rock that doesn’t readily accept trad gear, you should be prepared to feel like you are free-soloing for much of this route… and you will be doing it in crampons on icy and snow-covered rock, clearing the holds as you climb.

A route like this requires an investment in time and effort. You will need to prepare well for it. This is not an early-season tune-up route, this is the goal that you will have been building up to over several seasons. The kind of route that could stand as a threshold between a previous version of you and the next version of you. But like all thresholds in life, if you’re going to cross it, make sure the time is right for you. This is dangerous climbing.

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 carpark 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.

Description:

(Topo from Jan 2013 issue of "岳人" magazine)

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 15 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. This ridge is the normal descent ridge from the adjacent Uradoushin runze (裏同心ルンゼ) ice route, but it can be easily ascended in about an hour to its apex at the foot of the Daidoushin rock pinnacle.


From the top, descend carefully to your left for about 100m along the west face of the Daidoushin pinnacle until you come to a small tree with a pink tape marker on it. Above this tree you will see the corner crack of the first pitch.


Approximate pitch descriptions are as follows:

Pitch 1: Climb frozen turf to gain the steep crack, then follow it to the anchor just over the top. (30m IV-)


Pitch 2: Traverse along the terrace around the back to access a wide gully behind the NW arête. Inside the gully continue up steep snow and mixed terrain to belay on a single Petzl bolt. (50m II-III)


Pitch 3: Climb mixed terrain for a full rope-length, over several tricky rock steps, to a bolted belay on the arête at the foot of the steep middle section. (50m III+)


Pitch 4: Climb the groove initially, then continue up the steep run-out wall to finish up a difficult and exposed section of frozen grass and rock to a bolted belay on a small triangular stance. With just two protection points and difficult climbing, this pitch is arguably the psychological crux of the route. (35m V)


Pitch 5: Climb the rock face above for 15m, then traverse right to gain a narrow gully. Exit at the top of this gully onto steep mixed ground until the angle begins to ease off a little as you enter a zone of dwarf pine. Belay on the thickest tree you can find at the end of a full rope length. This pitch is extremely run-out. (60m IV+)

Pitch 6: Follow the arête up easier ground for about 50m to belay at the foot of the final dome. (50m I-II)

Pitch 7: This pitch is the technical crux of the route. Climb the initial rock wall, with in-situ bolts for aid, then transition into a steep off-width crack. At the top of the off-width, climb mixed ground for another 10m to the top of the Daidoushin pinnacle. (30m V+ (IV/A1))


Descent:
From the top of the pinnacle you have a couple of options:

1. Descend to the col, then climb easy mixed slopes to gain the main ridge hiking trail, and either continue left to Mt Iodake, or right over Mt Yokodake towards Mt Akadake.

2. Descend the mixed gully behind the pinnacle (in-situ rappel anchors if you need them), climb the ramp back up to the top of the Daidoushin-ryo, and descend the ridge back to the entrance of the Daidoushin-runze and on back to the hut.


Summary:
Serious run-out climbing exposed to the wind on the cold shaded aspect of the Daidoushin. This sensational route is one of the great winter test pieces of the Yatsugatake range, and should only be attempted by those with the proper skills and training.


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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.

Description:
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!




Descent:
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.


Summary:
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.



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