Caught in an avalanche, K2 in a day without oxygen
After a night bus trip from Tōkyō (東京), we arrived at Kamikōchi (上高地) on Saturday morning for the first long week-end of Japan’s “golden week”. There was heavy snow fall for the season. It looked like if we were in the middle of the winter. In altitude 50cm of fresh snow was forecasted. For these 3 days we had a tight schedule. Climb up to the base of the rock faces on the East ridge of Myōjindake (明神岳東稜) the first day, finish the ridge and climb to the summit the next day and push all the way to Mae-Hotakadake (前穂高岳) and Oku-Hotakadake (奥穂高岳) and go down to Karasawa (涸沢) the second day, and the last day climb the North ridge of Mae-Hotakadake (前穂高岳北尾根) and be back down at Kamikōchi for the 13:45 bus. No time to dawdle.
Despite the weather the place was of course packed with lapinists, skiers, hikers and few brave tourists to take advantage of the opening of the road to Kamikōchi and enjoy snow before the summer. But from the Myōjinkan (明神館) lodge, there was no trace heading to Myōjindake. Everybody was going towards Karasawa or Yarigatake (槍ヶ岳).
Once we exit the forest we quickly ended up doing the trace in fresh snow up to the knees in snow gullys.
It’s from the Miyakawa (宮川のコル) that things were starting to get serious. The route to reach Hyōtan-ike (ひょうたん池) pound, traverse Kamimiya (上宮川谷) valley. Above that, two steep gullies, loaded with fresh snow. It didn’t smell good. But even if there was 50cm of fresh snow, it was very humid and heavy snow. We estimated that there will be few chances that we trigger an avalanche ourselves were we had to cross. I let Tomo take his turn in making the trace and took some distance behind, just in case. But I was worried a bit and couldn’t stop looking above us. That’s were I saw it. It started from the rock faces of the first gully, right above us. The powder snow cloud was formed in an instant and started to come down the gully in even less time. I shouted to Tomo who hadn’t see anything: AVALANCHE.
Two things saved us. First, as it started on the rock faces above us, the avalanche spread on the sides when it reach the part where the gully gets wider, thus loosing power. Second, even if the slopes were loaded with fresh snow, it was too humid and heavy and the avalanche had lost too much power to blast everything away. When it hit us, it felt like a short hail storm.
We kept going to protect ourselves under a big rock face separating the two gullies. To go up to Hyōtan-ike pound, we had to traverse the second gully which was larger and steeper. After hesitating for a long time, between me who was worried about getting caught in a bigger avalanche and Tomo who was worried about the condition of the rock faces with all the snow, we decided to give-up and turn around.
But that was not an easy decision to take. Back to the Miyakawa pass, two rope parties were climbing in our traces to climb the same route. Our avalanche story didn’t seem to bother them at all and they kept climbing without asking much more question (readin reports on the web afterwards it looks like gave up too at the same place though). So we hesitated again. Are we worrying too much ? But we decided to stick with our decision and went back down. Back at Myōjinkan lodge, almost all mountain skiers were giving up and we learned that access to the peaks was limited. The Karasawa lodge staff had close the access tot heir lodge from the Yokoo (横尾谷) due to the avalanche risk in the Karasawa curl. After giving Myōjindake East ridge, we also had to give up Mae-Hotakadake North ridge. Drinking a hot chocolate at the lodge we were having our second council of the day. So what are we doing now ? Where can we go which can be fun but with very little to no avalanche exposure ? We are the the only party to have this discussion.
After walking all the footpath of the map with the eyes and arguing their safety for about an hour, our choice was made. On the other side of Kamikōchi valley, just before Kasumisawadake (霞沢岳) summit there is a peak called K2 on the map. Views on the Hotaka range were promissing with all the fresh snow and the nice weather forecast for the next day. And we could pretend to have climb the K2 in a day without oxygen… Ridiculous ! But we needed something to lought about and motivate us. As we installed our base camp next to Tokugotōge-goya (徳本峠小屋) lodge we left early the next morning for what is normaly the second highest summit on Earth. While we though it was an easy backup plan, we clearly under estimated the K2! Even we benefit from the trace of parties ahead, doing the trace in fresh snow up to the knees after we passed them was quite tiring on this long itinerary.
On top of that, the weather was so nice despite the strong wind, that we had the view on Myōjindake East ridge for the entire day
- And what if we had kept going yesterday ?
- Maybe we would be climbing the ridge by this great weather right now.
- But would we have been able to climb the rock faces with all the snow ?
- Anyway we would not had had enough time to complete the traverse all the way to Oku-Hotakadake.
- We would have had to go back down by some gully and it is avalanching everywhere with the heat.
Even if everything was telling us we had took the right decision, spending the entire day looking at the ridge made beautiful with the fresh snow was like a torture.
In several ways the K1 (The first peak before Kasumisawadake), the K2 and Kasumisawadake summits had to be earned.
But it was a good backup plan. The views on Hotaka range from the top of K1 and on Yakedake (焼岳) and Norikuradake (乗鞍岳) were breathtaking and we were almost alone. With all the snow of the previous day, it was a middle of the winter landscape under a perfect blue sky. Exceptional conditions for the season.
It’s exhausted, but full of new projects, that me came down from the K2 to our base camp. Not only we will be back next year to take our revenge and climb the East ridge of Myōjindake and the North ridge of Mae-Hotakadake, but we also discovered several interesting lines from Kamikōchi heading directly to the top of K1 and K2 and after some research on the web discovered that there are nice ice falls here in winter and a nice line heading to the 2260 meters peak just South of Myōjindake.
So we didn’t climb any of the routes we planned but we left the Northern Alps our eyes filled with beautifully landscapes and our back pack full of new projects.
As you understood it, the itinerary heading to Myōjindake East ridge, is expose to avalanches. The most dangerous part is the traverse of Kamimiya valley from the Miyakawa pass up to the Hyōtan-ike pound. Early january this year, two climbers died here in an avalanche. But depending on conditions the climb in the gully heading to the Miyakawa pass can also be exposed. Stay on the sides. All members of your party should be equipped with a beacon, a shovel and a probe and trained on how to use them. These devices do not prevent avalanches! They are used to rescue your partners caught in an avalanche. So even if you are equipped and trained, it is your responsibility, to evaluate on the field the ever changing snow conditions, the avalanche danger, which is the safest route and if it is wiser or not to go back and cancel your outing.
Once on the ridge, be careful with cornices. It might be possible to put protections on some trees in some places. The crux is the rock faces. The first boulder that blocks the ridge is by-passed on the left. You then arrive at the base of a face that is climbed following a dihedral on the right. There are some pitons and maybe old ropes to pull on if you need it. Having some small to medium friends might help.
On the itinerary from Tokugotōge to Kasumisawadake, the main danger are the cornices sometimes quite big. The climb to K1 is steep. If the snow is hard or it is icy be careful to use your crampon well.
You will find all useful information (access, lodges, maps, security) regarding the Yarigatake (槍ヶ岳), Hotakadake (穂高岳) et Kamikōchi (上高地) area mountains in this article.