Friday, 16 June 2017

The Obelisk (オベリスク) of Jizōdake (地蔵岳)

Mountain:  Jizōdake (地蔵岳)

Massif:  Hōōsanzan (鳳凰三山)

Map sheet:  41 [Yama-to-kougen-chizu (山と高原地図) series]


The Hōōsanzan, or the three peaks of Mt Hōō, sit on the eastern edge of the South Alps of Japan in the centre of Honshu island. Like their neighbour to the north, Mt Kaikomagatake (甲斐駒ケ岳), they are made of granite and this gives their exposed summit ridgeline a distinctive white colouring. From a distance, this gives them the appearance of being snow-covered, even in mid-summer.


From south to north the three peaks of Mt Hōō are Yakushidake (薬師岳 2780m), Kannondake (観音岳 2840m, the highpoint of the massif) and Jizōdake (地蔵岳 2764m). The ridgeline connecting them is one of the most beautiful of the Japan Alps, and is easily accessible from Tokyo for a day trip or an overnight stay in one of several mountain huts. It is highly recommended, either as a hike or a trail run.

Perhaps the most interesting of the three peaks, however, is Jizōdake. On its summit is a rock formation that is unique and visible from the valley floor and from a Chuo Line train, and which has become something of a symbol for Yamanashi prefecture. It is known as the Obelisk (オベリスク), and in addition to its striking appearance, it has the distinction of being the first recorded recreational rock climb in Japan. It’s first ascensionist was none other than the venerable Rev Walter Weston, who is credited with introducing the Japan Alps to the world through his 1896 book “Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps”.


The circumstances of the 1904 first ascent of the Obelisk are quite interesting, so it’s worth quoting the passage on it from the English-language version of Fukada Kyuya’s “Nihon Hyakumeizan”:

A tall chimney is formed where the rock pillars lean together. After an inspection, Weston realized the only chance of success lay in getting up the convex angle of the lower pillar. He got his companion to press his ice axe against his feet to steady him as he stood on a small ledge, then began to bombard the top of the crack formed by the stone pillars with a stone tied to the end of his eighty feet of alpine climbing rope. After half an hour of disheartening effort, a lucky shot went home. Grasping the rope in his left hand, he then fought his way upward until he reached a protruding block where the rope could afford no further help. The he committed his whole weight to the obstruction above and, after a struggle, hauled himself onto the top of the lower rock. From here to the actual highest point was comparatively easy, for though the way up was almost vertical, the holds were good, and Weston was able to finish his climb in good style. This may be our country’s first act of alpinism, and it is certainly its first recorded rock climb.

The author nearing the top of the Obelisk:


The view south to Kannondake from the top of the Obelisk:

The good news for any aspirants today is that it is not a very difficult climb. However, it should be pointed out that just as what goes up must come down, getting to the top of the Obelisk is by far the easier half of the journey. In normal years there is a fixed rope hanging down the final crack that Weston aided up, but as of 10 June 2017 at least, the fixed ropes have all been removed. What remains now is two short sections of in-situ chain, the lower of which appeared to be secured by nothing more than one of its links jammed into a constriction in the crack. There is a gap of several metres between these two chains, and the move to gain the upper chain requires a level of commitment that may be beyond anyone without a reasonable amount of rock-climbing experience and a good head for exposure. Even with those two qualities it is doubtful that the experience of climbing back down will be a pleasant one. If in doubt, it might be better to leave it for another day and come back with a rope, a belayer and a couple of small cams just to be safe.



(NB: For more of Fukada Kyuya’s description of the Hōōsanzan and the Obelisk of Jizōdake, pick up a copy of Martin Hood’s excellent English translation of the “Nihon Hyakumeizan”.)



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Monday, 27 March 2017

Matsuki-sawa (松木沢) ice-climbing - Kuro-sawa (黒沢) gully

Route Name:  Kuro-sawa (黒沢)

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:  WI3+ / Overall grade 2 alpine route


Tucked in behind the Nikkō mountains, near the former copper mining village of Ashio, the Matsuki-sawa valley is a place of contrasts. This area was an important source of copper for the Japanese government from the Meiji era right up to the 1970s, when operations were ceased. It suffered many environmental disasters along the way, and the landscape at the head of the valley is still deeply and visibly scarred by this history.

Despite all this, once you enter Matsuki-sawa you will likely be struck by the beauty and ambience of the place, with its steep craggy cliffs and alpine feel. It’s an impressive place, and made even more beautiful by the absence of the hordes of hikers that are to be found in Japan’s more well-known mountainous areas. From hiking to sawanobori, multi-pitch rock-climbing to alpine ice-climbing, the area is an adventure playground and a real reward to those who make the effort to find it.

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).


Description:
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 to reach the entrance to Kuro-sawa (黒沢). Initially you will be on a good dirt road until you reach 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. You will be able to see the first few icefalls from here. Scramble down to the river and cross it by whatever means available, then hike up the approach trail on the other side.


The first icefall (F1) does not always form very well, and is rather gentle anyway, so this can be bypassed by sticking to the trail up on the right.

F1:

This trail will soon enter the sawa, and then several hundred metres of hiking up the frozen river will bring you to the main icefalls.

F2 is approximately 30m high, and can be tackled straight up the middle or close to the rocks on its left side. There is a bolt anchor at the top of it on the right. Many thanks to Mathieu for replacing the previous rusty old anchors with these solid bolts.

F2:


The F3 icefall is located directly above F2, and is the tallest fall along this route. There are plenty of ways this can be tackled. Most parties climb it in two pitches, an initial 40m pitch leading to an old bolt anchor on the rock above the centre of the icefall, then a shorter 10m pitch up the narrower section to the top, with a solid bolt anchor on the right. With 60m ropes you could climb it in a single direct pitch if you like.

F3:


After this you need to hike quite steeply for about 10 minutes up the sawa to reach F4, a 30m icefall in a sort of gorge-like constriction. There is a tree anchor just back from the top of this one.

F4:

To descend, just rappel the icefalls on good in-situ anchors and hike back down and out.


Overall:

An excellent route in a beautiful location, with good quality icefalls of a satisfying length and a moderate difficulty. Recommended even as a one-day hit, it could also be combined with one of the neighbouring sawa routes to provide a very nice weekend of ice-climbing. February is the optimal month to find good ice conditions in here.


Are you interested in climbing classic alpine and winter routes in the Japanese high mountains?

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Monday, 13 February 2017

The South ridge of the Daidoushin pinnacle (大同心南稜)

Route name: Daidoushin Nanryo (大同心南稜)

Mountain:  Yatsugatake (八ヶ岳)

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

Time:  3-4 hours

Difficulty:  Grade 2+ alpine route / IV A1 crux


The Daidoushin pinnacle (大同心) is one of the most recognisable features of the Akadake-Kōsen (赤岳鉱泉) area of the Yatsugatake range. Along with its smaller sibling, the Kodoushin pinnacle (小同心), it sits high up on the face above the Uradoushin and Daidoushin gullies, below the summit of Mt Yokodake (横岳 2760m).


Its conglomerate rock is notoriously loose, so summer ascents of any of its routes cannot be seriously recommended. In winter, however, the cold temperatures hold things together a bit better and it can be climbed with a little more sang-froid. Winter brings its own challenges though, and the southern and western flanks of the pinnacle are usually exposed to bitterly cold winds. The low temperatures mandate climbing in boots and crampons, which raises the intensity level of the climbing, and with the pinnacle situated high up on the western aspect of Mt Yokodake above the Uradoushin-runze and Daidoushin-runze ice routes, the exposure on those walls is immense and thrilling.


In pure grade terms, the easiest climbing route is the 4-pitch South ridge. You’d better bring your A-game though, as the crux final pitch up the overhanging prow to the top will need both free-climbing and aid-climbing skills, as well as a cool head.

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:
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.  Here you have a choice to make in terms of how you wish to approach the start of the South ridge. There are three options as follows:

(i) 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 can be easily ascended in about an hour to its apex at the foot of the Daidoushin rock pinnacle. From the top, traverse the descending ramp around the south side of the pinnacle until you reach the bottom of the first pitch of the South ridge.

(ii) Head into the Daiduoushin runze and continue up it until you reach the Ōtaki icefall. Ascend this and then continue up to the top of the runze where it swings to the left into the mixed gully behind the Daidoushin pinnacle. From here head up and left for a few metres to the bottom of the first pitch of the South ridge.

(iii) Continue along the trail to the entrance to the Uradoushin-runze and ascend this to the top of the Daidoushin-ryo. From the top, traverse the descending ramp around the south side of the pinnacle until you reach the bottom of the first pitch of the South ridge.


Route topo:

Once at the bottom of the first pitch, it’s time to gear up and start the climb. Approximate pitch descriptions are as follows:

Pitch 1: Climb the line of weakness up the rock to an in-situ anchor on a long ledge. (35m III)

Pitch 2: Traverse to climber’s left around the arête, then climb the bulgy chimney directly above to belay at an in-situ anchor on the arête itself just past a pinnacle. (35m III)


Pitch 3: Continue up for a few metres, then traverse out across a ledge to a bulge at the end. After the bulge ascend frozen turf ledges to a bolt belay at the foot of the final rock prow up the dome. (12m II)

Looking down pitch 3:

Bolt anchor before the final pitch:

(Note: If you don’t fancy the final pitch to the top, the route can be escaped from here by descending the ramp to climber’s right to the short chimney at the top of the mixed gully. The top of the pinnacle can be gained by climbing this chimney and going around on the right to loop back along to the top on easy ground.)

Looking across to the Shoudoushin pinnacle, and Mt Akadake beyond:

Pitch 4: From the belay climb steeply up on the left side of the prow for a few moves to in-situ pro. The pitch continues up the prow through rock ranging from vertical to overhanging, via a mix of aid-climbing on in-situ pitons and free-climbing in the transitions between aid sections. The exposure on this pitch is immense. Eventually you will reach an in-situ anchor at the top of the prow. (40m IV A1)



Aid-climbing up pitch 4:

Looking down from the final anchor:

From the top anchor, continue up easy mixed ground to the top of the pinnacle.

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

1. Descend back 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:
An interesting route through steep and insecure terrain on the most recognisable rock feature in the area, with some wild positions culminating in an outrageous aid pitch to the top. Whilst not for the faint-hearted, this is an excellent and challenging way to get to the top of the Daidoushin in winter!


Are you interested in climbing classic alpine and winter routes in the Japanese high mountains?

If so, pick up a copy of the book on Amazon (available in print or Kindle e-book formats) and help Climb Japan at the same time. Thanks for your support!


Monday, 6 February 2017

The Daidoushin-sawa Ōtaki (大同心大滝) on Mt Yatsugatake (八ヶ岳)

Route name: Daidoushin-sawa Ōtaki (大同心沢大滝)

Mountain:  Yatsugatake (八ヶ岳)

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

Time:  2-3 hours

Difficulty:  WI4+ icefall


The Daidoushin-sawa Ōtaki (大同心沢大滝) is a stunning frozen waterfall that makes up the centre-piece of the Daidoushin-sawa gully in the Akadake-kōsen area of Yatsugatake. At 50m high it is the tallest icefall in the surrounding area, making it visible on the hike up to the Akadake-kōsen hut.

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:
As you exit the Akadake-kōsen hut by the front door, take the steps opposite the hut to gain the trail that provides access to the ice routes (Daidoushin-sawa, Uradoushin runze, Jōgosawa) 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-sawa (大同心沢).


Head into the Daidoushin-sawa and continue up for about 30 minutes or so and you will come to a small frozen waterfall which can be easily soloed. A short way past this and around the corner you will find yourselves looking up at the 50m Ōtaki.


The first third is not too steep, but after that things steepen until the final 10m vertical pillar at the top. It can be climbed in a single pitch from the bottom, but it’s possible to belay on the left side near the start of the final pillar if you prefer. If you’re planning to top-rope the Ōtaki, make sure you’re climbing on double ropes.



At the top of the pillar the angle eases as you pass through a notch in the rock with an in-situ chain anchor running down the left wall. Beyond this you will emerge into the bowl-like upper sawa.

Descent:
Many people just come for the Ōtaki itself, and after climbing it they will rappel off the chain anchor and hike back out the way they came in. If the snow conditions are safe and consolidated, however, you may wish to continue to the top of the Daidoushin-sawa. From the top of the sawa, you have two choices.

(i) You can climb the mixed gully behind the Daidoushin pinnacle to access the main summit ridge, from where you can either turn left and reach Iodake in about an hour, or turn right and hike over Yokodake to Akadake.

(ii) You can ascend the ramp leftwards under the south face of the Daidoushin pinnacle to access the top of the Daidoushin-ryo descent ridge, which can then be followed all the way down. You will emerge into the lower Daidoushin-sawa about 10 minutes above the hiking trail at its entrance, and then a left turn will lead you back to the Akadake-kōsen hut.

The Daidoushin-ryo descent ridge:

Summary:

A beautiful and challenging frozen waterfall with easy access from the hut. Bring double ropes and plenty of ice screws.


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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.

Description:
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)

Descent:
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.

Overall:
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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