Hotaka; A mini-epic

Hotakadake, more accurately, Oku-hotaka, straddles the border between Nagano and Gifu prefectures and holds the honour of being the tallest mountain in both prefectures and the third tallest mountain in Japan. It is 3190m in height, 3 metres smaller than Mount Kita (3193m) and significantly below Mount Fuji (3776m).

Mount Hotaka ridgeline – Photo from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Hotakadake

There are a few different ways of gaining the summit of Oku-hotaka, but the most straight forward way in winter is to catch the Shin-Hotaka tourist ropeway and ascend to the ridge line and traverse one of Japan’s most dangerous hikes. The traverse in winter was a bit more than we thought we could handle in a day, we would probably need to bivy out on the ridge like this guy did.

A photo of the dangerous ridge taken from the summit

Another option is to ascend via a couloir that snakes up to a col behind the summit of Oku-hotaka. The col has a hut which, unfortunately, isn’t open in winter. From the hut to the summit is some ladder climbing and an easy ridge walk. And that’s what we did on 26th March 2018.

Nate and I left Hakuba at 330am to drive to the Shin-hotaka ropeway. Arriving at the parking lot at about 600am, we prepared all our gear and made our way past the ropeway station and up the uncleared road that leads to the summer trailhead for our route.

Walking up towards the Shin-hotaka ropeway from the mountaineers parking lot
Past the ropeway building – hopefully sometime in the future I’ll go the ropeway/ridge route
About two hours up the summer road
Nate and the valley where you start climbing

Once we got off the road and made it to the valley, we continued up the easy incline past a bunch of covered dams and saw a large valley that leads up (and around) to the ridgeline.

Nate and the obvious valley

So, without too much checking of the map, we continued ascending.

Joel hiking up the obvious valley

And Ascending…

and Ascending…

Just after the above photo was taken, we checked the map… !!! We had walked 300 vertical metres up the wrong valley… So, crampons off, skis on and back down to the valley fork we go.

Joel skiing through the old debris on our mis-adventure up the wrong way

We should have checked the map, the ravine’y looking fork to the climbers left leads up the correct way…

We needed to go this way
Through this

The walking track veers around a small cliff-band/constriction in the valley but from there on it’s just one long uphill walk to the col.

Keep going up
Eventually skins go back on and keep going up… and up..

At the transitions back to skins… One of my skis took an unfortunate solo-run down the couloir. Luckily it only went about 60 or so vertical metres… Would have ended any chance of making the summit if it had gone all the way down.

Nate being a champ and bringing my ski up for me
It looks close, but the col keeps being hundreds of vertical metres away

Eventually we make the hut at the col. I really struggled with the upper pitch, I’d come down with the flu and was at the height of my sickness this day and my body didn’t like going beyond about 1600 vertical metres.

The hut at the top of the col

From the hut, a series of ladders takes you up towards the easy ridge walk to the summit.

Ladders on the cliff face
Joel climbing up to the ladders
On the ladders
Nate approaching the top of the second last ladder

From there, easy walking.

Nate on the ridge walk (Oku-Hotaka small rocky prominence centre frame)
Joel nearing the top of Oku-hotaka
Nate on the summit of Oku-Hotaka

With all the delays, taking the longest way to the top, walking an hour the wrong way, me being sick, we reached the summit very late, at 430pm. There wasn’t much messing around as we wanted to descend the south face down to Kamikochi and the light was fading on this aspect.

A look down from the summit to Kamikochi
A wiki-commons photo (from late spring) of the south face with our line marked
A wiki-commons photo (from late spring) of the south face with our line marked

The upper part of the descent was great with a slightly re-freezing wet snow being prominent.

Nate dropping in with oku-hotaka summit in the background
Nate riding the summit slope
Nate descending towards the first constriction

At the first constriction of the face, really just a small creek line, Nate got caught off guard by his wet-loose slough that was mooching it’s way own behind him and was taken for a short ride over a rock in the middle of the line. The loose-wet was only size 1-1.5 and he managed to ride off it, he likely wouldn’t have been carried further than small bench feature below us. Nate was uninjured and after a quick gear check we continued, but obviously a little bit fazed by the unexpected incident

The constriction where the ride occurred
Joel skiing further down the face towards the couloir

Unfortunately, the sun had fallen behind the ridge line and the mid-slope couloir had been in the shade for about an hour, combined with the bed surface runnels from previous avalanches, this made the snow surface quite icy. We had to down climb through the steep-crux to safely descend.

Nate down climbing about 50m on the crux

We managed to put our skis and boards back on after the crux and skied down towards Kamikochi ‘village’. I think if we were two hours earlier, the ski descent would have been much more pleasant and the down climb unnecessary. Here is a youtube video of a Japanese fellow skiing the same line in nicer conditions.

By the time we reached tree-line it was well and truely dark and we had to use headlights for the rest of our evening walk. We reached the cleared but still snowy/icy veneered road of Kamikochi ‘village’ at about 630pm. Kamikochi is a mountaineering and hiking trailhead in the spring/summer/autumn for the region. Access by private vehicle is prohibited and you have to take buses (or walk) up to the village. There are a variety of accomodation options from fancier hotels / onsen inns to backpacker and camp sites. It was two weeks prior to the opening of the village, so despite there being a few intrepid campers and a few lights on in the lodges, the township was mostly deserted. We had a 7km walk out along the road down to the highway from here, so we pushed as much as we could on skis and boards and then walked down the final 3km stretch through several tunnels to the highway.

Oku-hotaka in the moonlight
The final tunnel to the main highway from Kamikochi

We arrived at the highway at about 930pm. There is only one taxi service running in the winter, from Swando, but they aren’t operating at this late hour, there is also a regular bus service, but the last bus is at about 615pm. There isn’t much traffic on this road late at night either so we stayed at an onsen hotel just downhill from the tunnel and the owner was kind enough to pick us up, which was much appreciated given the length of the day.

Sakamaki Onsen Inn

The next day we had the included Japanese style breakfast (Japanese breakfast never tasted so good as when you’re starving/exhausted).

Nate stoked

Enjoyed the onsen

Onsen never felt so good

And got the bus back to the Shin-hotaka ropeway to collect the car.