April 2013 – The avalanche fair

The beautiful line of Shuuryou

The beautiful line of Shuuryou


The Shuuryou, literally translated as “the main ridge”, is one of the classic winter alpine variation routes up to the summit of Shiroumadake, the popular mountain just a little bit short of 3000 meters above sea level, standing at the northernmost end of the Japanese Northern Alps.
It is no particularly difficult climb, but the line of ascent is very beautifully set, shooting up uninterrupted for some 1500 meters of elevation change right through the middle of the very impressive east face of the mountain.
My partner and guide on this climb was the young, but among Kansai climbing community already well regarded mountain guide Oonishi Ryuusuke, whom I have befriended in a funny coincidence, when, both of us working for two rivaling outdoor stores, we came to shop and attended to each other in our respectable stores in a span of two days.

While approaching to the base of the mountain, we meet two backcountry skiers on their way down. “Where are you headed,” one of them asks. “All the way to the top,” replies Ryuusuke. “What are the snow conditions up there?” “Well, a lot of small avalanches are sliding to the Daisekkei from sides, but the couloir itself seems stable,” the man replies. “But we saw a bear there.”
A bear? That is not exactly what I wanted to hear. Of all the wild animals out there, bear is the last one I would like to meet.

The bear tracks

The bear tracks


Sure enough, when we reach the Hakubajiri hut, or at least the place where we suspect it to be buried somewhere underneath the tons and meters of snow, we find a long trail of unmistakably bear’s footprints crossing the whole width of the valley. This is the first time I am seeing something like this and to be honest, the size of the bear’s paws and the length of its stride is quite intimidating. If it is still around, will it come when we will be making food in the afternoon or later at night? Neither of us is having a good feelings about this and we spend a lot of time observing the surroundings carefully, watching for any suspicious movement.
But apart from this, the landscape and weather is fantastic. The sky is mostly clear and we are now breaking our one tent camp right under the gigantic east face of the mountain. The Shuuryou is clearly visible line, undulating its way up the mountain like a snake in many small humps. It seems so long and high. How long can it take us to get up there and down again, I am thinking as we are going to sleep.
Reaching the bottom of Shiroumadake east face

Reaching the bottom of Shiroumadake east face


Evening

Evening


I am having a good sleep tonight, feeling warm and apart from a few forced visits outside, it is a calm, dreamless night. Just at one moment something suddenly hits my head over the wall of the tent. We both wake up immediately, thinking the one same thing. The bear!
But nothing of that sort. Just a piece of snow fell on to the tent from the small wind breaking wall we built behind.
and morning

and morning


Sunrise comes sooner than we anticipated and the headlamps attached to our helmets thus don’t get any use. We start on our way up the ridge along some older avalanche chute covered with snow debris and climb through bushes to avoid the risk of being caught in another slide on these rather dangerously inclined slopes.
Ryuusuke, being the considerably more experienced among the two of us, leads the way and has to break the trail all the time by himself, something I would like to help with, but somehow lack the courage to ask, for this is technical terrain after all, although I am not finding it in any way difficult.
The weather is even better than yesterday with flawless azure sky and the snowy mountains around glittering in the bright sunshine. I cannot help myself and keep looking to the left at the beautiful northern spur of the Shakushidake. Will I ever be able to climb something like that? I know I am being deceived by the distance and that the rock there is known to be extremely rotten, which denies any possible climbing pleasure. But it looks so nice! Maybe some day in winter, when the loose rocks are cemented by the frost and ice.
The amazing Shakushidake

The amazing Shakushidake


First beautiful section of the ridge is behind us

First beautiful section of the ridge is behind us


In the meantime we have reached an altitude, where the Shuuryou becomes what it is known and loved for, sharp and steep crest, meandering up to the sky. At the same time, first small wet avalanches can be seen sliding here and there on the steep slopes around. And the snow under our feet is starting to get bad.
It is slushy, breaking away in wet slides and sticking to our crampons so much, that sometimes we have to clear them at every step. Not the snow conditions you want to have on a knife ridge.
When we have about half of the climb behind us, the situation around is already pretty bad. It is warm enough to climb just in a softshell, the sun is getting higher and its rays stronger by every minute. The avalanches around have reached such frequency, that they are pretty much constant. Nothing really big and not in our line of ascent, but we will also have to get down today.
It is actually funny. If I were here alone, I would surely be very nervous at least, but because Oonishi-san is leading the way, I am feeling completely safe, trusting his expertise. I am actually having a really good time and enjoying the climbing in such a fantastic weather. But I can see and feel from his notes, that he is worried. So far we have been climbing in quite a leisurely pace. We could certainly at least double our speed if really necessary, but Ryuusuke says that while we are not going fast, we are not slow by any means either, so I do not push the idea. He is breaking the trail after all, thus it must be more tiring for him.
Having good time

Having good time


The climb goes on and with it goes time. 4 mine, 3 mine, 2 mine, the steep up-thrusts on the ridge are alternating with gentle sections, sort of peaks, as we are getting higher.
At one point a car-sized block of snow detaches itself from the corniced summit rim and triggers an avalanche of snow boulders, sweeping the center of the gully on the right of our ridge. What a sight that is!
Many small avalanches are also being started by our own work on the ridge. Even a small piece of snow we knock down the slope quickly snowballs and grows to a shape of a huge ammonite, before collapsing again and breaking into many more pieces, that just multiply the effect onto bigger area.
Almost there

Almost there


Finally, at 10:45 am, only the last wall stands between us and the summit. The grand final of the whole climb, some 30 meters high, convex wall, steadily growing from flat to at least 65 degrees, crowned by a small cornice.
We take a break before tackling it, setting up a rather dubious belay on the only two points where it is possible to place some protection. But I have a good belay position and feel confident that I would be able to hold Ryuusuke if a slide should occur.
Getting ready for the final wall

Getting ready for the final wall


He battles the difficult and unstable snow, fighting for every step upwards, sending down whole armies of the ammonites. Until our 50 meters of rope run out. Because he is just some 5 meters from the top, I only move closer to him onto the slope and set a quick belay in this new position. Only this time it is much worse position, right in the path of anything he sends down.
The last 5 meters are taking my friend a lot of time and hard work in very steep snow. Twice he sends down a big wave of snow. I am watching it falling right on me, gaining speed and volume with every meter. Than I brace in my position and let the slides ride over my head and back, filling my clothes with cold, wet snow. These two slides are more of a thrilling sensation than anything really dangerous, but I cannot help but wonder about what would happen if the final cornice were to collapse with Ryuusuke.
Ryuusuke at work

Ryuusuke at work


But now he stands bellow the upper lip, reaches over it and pulls himself up. Nothing fell down and after a while, it is my turn to climb. Only now I can comprehend how much work he had done here. I am up the final wall in an instant, basically frontpointing it up over the ladder of good footholds.
Looking down from summit, all the length of Shuuryou

Looking down from summit, all the length of Shuuryou


Another great thing about this route is that the moment you are done with the wall, you are standing right on the very top of the mountain.
From the top I can see all the way to Tateyama and finally, for the first time this up close, Mount Tsurugi, the one that has been haunting me for so long. I am so excited by the views, that I forget to help Ryuusuke coil the rope and come to do so just as he is almost finished. But he doesn’t seem to mind and we shake hands and celebrate the summit together.
Then, without further ado, we start on the descent.
Mount Tsurugi

Mount Tsurugi


The other side of the mountain is snow-free

The other side of the mountain is snow-free


I can see Ryuusuke is nervous as we enter the Daisekkei. He walks carefully, sending down the ammonites of snow to see if a slide will occur. But nothing happens and soon we are going straight down in high speed. I think we both want to be out of here as soon as possible.
When looking up from here to the Shuuryou, Ryuusuke points out that the whole side of the ridge had been swept by avalanches. “Did we do that?”
Descending the Daisekkei

Descending the Daisekkei

Click the following link to watch a short movie from this adventure on vimeo:
Shirouma movie