Mount Shirouma - 9620
Mount Shirouma - 9620
|Japan Alps 2 - Mount Shirouma|
My second climb in the Japan Alps was Mount Shirouma or Shirouma dake, which is the peak to the far right in this image below, located further back than the other three (I took this photo from Mount Karamatsu the day before).
Shirouma dake in many ways is the equivalent of Colorado's Snowmass Mountain in the Japan Alps. It is a tough looking shapely peak, forested approach, has a steep rocky ridge towards its summit, large perennial snowfield on its main route, tons of loose rock and associated rockfall risk, avalanche risk most of the year, water crossings to deal with, a long route and is a popular peak to climb, which sadly sees fatalities almost every year unfortunately similar to what Snowmass has seen.
Elevation of Mt Shirouma is 2,932M (9,620ft) with an elevation gain of +5,700ft from the trailhead.
Roundtrip distance was perhaps 12 miles but that's an estimate. The route includes the famous "Daisekkei" or translated into ‚Big Snow Valley.‚Ě I chose this mountain specifically because of this.
One positive about this mountain was that a gondola or ski life was not needed to start this route so I had more flexibility with this hike. However, I did need to take a bus or taxi to get here. There was a 6:00AM bus to the Sarakura trailhead leaving from Hakuba village bus stop, which was a 20 minute walk from my cabin I was in. I figured worse case if I missed the last bus back, I could find a taxi or hitch a ride with someone that might be at the trailhead, since I didn't have a car.
The weather, while fairly benign in the early morning, was expecting to take a turn for the worse later that day after noon time with a 90% chance of rain then, so I figured I had until then to get to the summit and back down to the safer section in the valley off the steeper loose rocks above. This was my last day here so I figured I'd give it my best shot and turn around if conditions got too sketchy since I really wasn't all that sure what to expect on this peak as I heard various stories about it differing dramatically in route descriptions and difficulty and even distance.
There were a dozen other eager hikers waiting at 5:30AM for the bus also. As usual for public transport in Japan, it left at 6:00am SHARP (clearly this was not Penn Station in NYC). The bus got to the Sarakura trailhead by 6:30am and after a few minutes searching around for the actual trailhead, I was on my way by 6:45am. The trailhead opening is located to the left of the hut/building between the hut and the restrooms.
The route starts up through the forest, then leads to an overgrown dirt road for a few hundred yards. The route passes through a brief section of nice forest on a gentle trail, often with boards and steps to prevent erosion and walking in mud pools due to the high volumes of rain this place gets. This place was very wet and again reminded me of the hiking upstate New York.
Streams and waterfalls abound on the hike up, both in the forest and along the route, similar to Mount Rainier, it seemed liked water was coming out of every orifice in the mountain. You'll need to cross a few of these.
The lower terrain is reminiscent of the Adirondacks in New York with its steep direct rugged and rocky routes, seemingly endless water supply drenching ravines and keeping streams flowing and thick forest below treeline.
There are not really any flat sections here and it's a gradual ascent which gets steeper as you continue. This is the flattest you'll see. Note the low fog, this would be a trend all day.
The forest soon gets thinner as you climb higher.
All local outdoor shops here and in Tokyo had these for sale. I heard these everywhere and everyone had at least one on their pack. Bells with high pitches and low pitches, like the noise a dog collar makes when adorned with metal trinkets or bells. It sounded like a hundred Golden Retrievers were following me the whole day. Little children had at least three of them on their packs.
After an hour hiking, you'll come to a hut/building which is a climber registration station and a spot to get some last minute gear and drinks. They rent instep crampons here and have a restroom so a lot of people congregate here to gear up for what's ahead. This is also located nearby a campsite and acts like a staging area for the rest of the climb up.
After another brief section of the route which travels through the forest, you will soon enter a clearing which leads to the second portion of the climb where you enter the snowfield. There is a large clearing here also, where everyone puts on their crampons and gets their ice axe out.
Remember the reality show on TV about expeditions on Mount Everest (Everest Beyond the Limit) with Russell Brice? They often made reference to "Crampon Point" on their hike up the mountain. That's what I was thinking about when I saw this spot located right before the snow field began. This stopped many hikers in their tracks as many seemed to never have used crampons or an ice axe before. Many hesitated or even turned around here. I was a bit concerned for the many who seemed equally concerned themselves.
This was the "daisekkei" orgreat snowfield. Assuming one has basic snow travel skills, ascending the snow was not bad and was fun actually. It was long though and gained ~2,000 vertical feet with a slope that maybe reached 35 degrees in spots, so while not super steep it will test your cardio training. I suspect in winter, the snow and ice extends further up into the mountain and probably gets steeper higher up.
This was the crux of the route and the defining feature of this climb.
Alarmingly there were several crevasse-like cracks and fissures opening up. I called them "cracks" since technically this is not characterized as a glacier so aren't crevasses proper. Some of these are huge and would swallow a truck. For those ascending this section in the dark and not paying attention, could be in for a bad surprise. It's possible to be walking on terrain situated above these openings so care needs to be taken to avoid slipping. Oddly, while everyone had crampons of some sort on, very few carried an ice axe. I was happy I had mine, but the surface was rock hard ice in most spots.
I felt like I was on another continent while hiking up and climbing Mount Shirouma compared to green slopes and valleys of Karamatsu the day before (located further south of Shirouma). Shirouma's long snowfields, deep cracks and huge crevasse-like openings, large separations resembling bergschrunds where the ice sheets are peeling off the mountain and otherwise eery foggy overcast morning made it more reminiscent of Patagonia or Alaska than Japan. Very cool.
The low lying fog and clouds made for a spooky setting as in the valley here where the snow and ice was, there was little wind so was silent. All you heard was the crunch of crampons as climbers made their way up the snowfield. Often the low fog was thick such that so you heard climbers but didn't see anyone.
The shot below was on the return when there was a break in the clouds showing the color of the hills
Navigating around the danger zones on the rocky, moraine-like area on the sides of the valley where possible. It was possible to keep this to class 2 and class 3.
While the daisekkei is not a very difficult section, it's not without its risks; you need to watch out for constant rock fall as the image below illustrates as the snow is littered with rocks from the gulleys and cliffs surrounding the snowfield.
I should add that the ice was so hard I can barely get purchase with my axe pick beyond a half inch down so not sure how successful a self arrest would be until the surface softened up.
To minimize the rock fall risk you want to hike up towards the middle of the ice/snow field, however especially lower down, this exposes you to the gaping crevasses/cracks in the ice. I imagine the strategy here will change depending on the season and conditions but at least when I did it, the solution was to move back on the rock sections at the sides when possible and when available (climber's left on the ascent) when cracks appeared then move back towards the middle of the ice to continue your ascent.
Luckily, there were such reachable sections in those areas. If these rock sections are not available where the danger spots arise , I imagine this will be either be un-climbable or long temporary ladders will need to be used, with care since there didn't seem to be a viable alternative around the daisekkei from this side of the mountain. The local police have closed this mountain down in the past due to danger on this route.
Views ascending the icefield / snowfield near the middle and then near the top where the slope mellows out a bit:
For anybody attempting this Mountain I would definitely say crampons, ice axe and a helmet are required gear here with poles very helpful. If you didn't bring all the above with you, there are a couple shops in town you could buy or rent them from and they actually rent instep crampons at the Sarakura trailhead for 700 Yen ($6.30 today).
Cracks continued up the slope, so care needed to be taken to follow a safe path.
Exiting the daisekkei - snowfield
Views near the top where the ice and snow was separating from the upper mountain. Exit points back to terra firma need to be well below this section for obvious reasons of safety.
A shot of local hiking fashion in Japan. I have to say that everyone was outfitted with the latest in clothes, gear and packs head to toe! Interestingly, shorts with tights underneath was a popular option with probably 75% of climbers.
The section after the snowfield turns back into a rocky route up the ravine and valley. Most of this section had a decent trail or at least identifiable rocks on which to make your way up. In some spots for reasons to protect the alpine plants, rope guided hikers away from fragile terrain. Other places, frequent rockfall closed sections of the mountain which were re-routed around safer sections. In one case, you needed to cross a waterfall and stream, so you'll get wet, but since it was so cloudy and on and off raining, it didn't seem to matter today.
Much of the above section traversed rock and boulder fields of varying sized rocks. This one area below crossed underneath a couple of precariously positioned large boulders that particularly given all the rainfall that had been coming down, felt like they were going to come tumbling down the mountain any minute. In short, keep your head up when hiking and don't hike with earbuds in. Pay attention here.
The below shot was one of the cooler moments of the day, as the incoming cloud/fog filled in the fluted flanks of the mountain from the bottom up as a large group of guided colorfully dressed climbers moved past.
As I climbed up the steep valley and headwall, the views along the way did not disappoint despite the precipitation and low lying cloud cover obscuring most everything higher up:
The Mountain Hut soon comes into view. This actually completely surprised me as due to all the fog and lack of visibility, I didn't even see it until I picked up my head and it was right in front of me, hence my name of "Ghost Hut".
The rock terrain continued as did the low visibility, which was a shame as I was told the views from up here were fantastic.
Some of the terrain here really reminded me again of the loose rock on Snowmass Mountain
The next hut on the mountain located at a junction further up. This is right under a key junction closer to the summit. I found it odd that a hut was located so close to the summit and ridgeline of the mountain.
Continuing up the mountain, you'll come to a trail junction:
Time to practice my Kanji skills:
To get to Shirouma dake, turn right here
This wooden stake below then appeared in the middle of a fork in the route, it was unmarked, had no writing/characters on it and I had no idea which way to turn, right or left‚¶
After some deliberation and looking at the map which gave no guidance at this level of detail, I opted to wait for a few minutes hoping I'd see someone come down either way; luckily that worked and somebody came down the left side and when I asked, the summit was indeed that direction. Given the poor visibility I really didn't want to make a wrong decision there winding up who knows where, especially with the weather slated to turn worse by midday. This brought new meaning to my "survival Japanese" .
After another 20 minutes or easier terrain, I see a marker which upon closer inspection was the summit marker and stake!
It's a shame there was such low visibility since I was told Shirouma had some of the nicest views in the area, but unfortunately, not today as views were limited to about 100ft.
Since there was no view to take photos of, I tied up my shoes tight and turn around to head back down.
It started raining about 15 minutes after I left the summit and most of the remaining hike down was in cloud cover.
The views of the lower route opened up a bit when I was in the middle of the icefield and made me feel like I was in the Cascades or Alaska. Just stunning. Taking a rest, rockfall continued as I heard rocks careen down gulleys in the distance.
Other than getting wet in the rain, the remainder of the hike down was uneventful. I made it back to the trailhead just in time to catch the bus back to town and was so glad I was able to climb Shiroumadake on my last day.
For those seeking to climb this or other mountains here, do your homework beforehand to make your life easier since not much detail is in English for these peaks. You will plenty of information in Japanese at local outdoor gear shops in both the mountains or in Tokyo though. Topo Maps, while in Japanese are still helpful despite not being able to read everything and with some careful analysis of the kanji, compass and altimeter, you can usually figure out where to turn when faced with those key decisions along a route. Everything is in metric, so converting meters to feet and kilometers to miles on the fly is important to plan for timing among other things.
One other thing I noted on both climbs this week was that despite the hundreds of people using these mountains each week (maybe even each day), I did not see a single piece of garbage anywhere on the peak or the trail, not even a cigarette butt. The respect Japanese have for the mountains and environment impressed me.
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