Mt. Shirouma & the 'Daisekkei'
Hakuba has long been known as a major center of Japan's mountain culture, and looking up from the endless rice paddies and pastoral homes towards the expansive row of peaks standing imposingly yet majestically beyond the humble village below, it is easy to understand why. A singular glance is enough to seed an intense, almost instinctive desire to set foot on those distant rocky summits, to unravel their mysteries and enjoy their immense beauty from an up-close-and-personal vantage point, and through the senses beyond just sight. Perhaps this raw exploratory impulse is what drove the eventual establishment of permanent climbing trails throughout the valley, gradually linking the world below to the lofty land above the trees. Amongst the now numerous routes, one in particular has achieved almost legendary status within the domestic mountaineering community - and is known simply as the 大雪渓, or daisekkei.
What does 大雪渓 mean?
Translated to English, daisekkei gets reduced to a purely descriptive moniker essentially meaning "large snow valley". While this portrays an adequate picture of the physical environment, it loses the deep, nuanced, intangible seductiveness that worms into the heart and mind of the Japanese who hear it. For the uninitiated to understand why this is, it's important first to paint a more complete picture of this special place.
What is the 大雪渓 exactly? When is the climbing season?
Though not technically a glacier, it is a permanent frozen fixture of the landscape, occupying part of the deep v-shaped rift spilling out of the rocky ridge between the peaks of Mt. Shakushi (杓子岳) to the south, and Mt. Shirouma (白馬岳) to the north. As a matter of simple stats, the daisekkei snowfield is routinely reported to extend 3.5 km in length, span 100 m in width and have a total elevation difference from top to bottom of 600 meters - making it the largest in Japan. Yet, it should be mentioned that these numbers apply to the conditions that can be expected during the main summer mountaineering season from mid-July to the end of August. By this time, the monthlong rainy season and consistently warm temperatures have resulted in a greatly increased snowmelt giving rise to a huge decrease in the snow volume and surface area of the snow patch from its winter max. This conveniently reduces the technicality of the route - enabling even casual hobby hikers to safely ascend and descend with basic 4-point crampons underfoot, as the snow on the steepest, upper portion of the valley (approximately 49% gradient) has receded and been replaced with a marvelous field of alpine flowers and a manageable trail of stone and dirt by summer.
In the spring however, even until late June, the snowfield exerts complete dominance over the area, doubling in width and continuing unbroken for almost 5 km, accounting for a full 1,200 meters of altitude change from start to finish. Tackling these precipitous slopes on soft snow in spring, even with 12-point mountaineering crampons and an ice axe is a daunting, formidable and possibly dangerous challenge, and should be avoided by those without proper equipment and with no or limited experience. And though the daisekkei has its own near-mythical reputation amongst backcountry skiing enthusiasts during this period, July to September is when it is the safest and most accessible to the broadest audience.
This fact is not lost on the average weekend warrior, whose numbers explode during that time. Truth be told, during peak times an off-putting number of people can descend upon Shirouma's slopes. It's not uncommon at times to spy an unbroken chain of hikers, like an army of tired ants, slowly snaking upwards as far as the eye can see. The two huts built in startlingly close proximity to each other, a mere 100 vertical meters (Hakuba Sanso) and 200 vertical meters below the summit (Shirouma Chojo Sanso) happen to also be the two mountain huts with the largest capacity for customers in all of Japan, with room for 1,200 and 1,000 people respectively. They are rarely, if ever that full, and not everyone climbs Mt. Shirouma via the daisekkei - but it still gives you an idea of the immense popularity of the mountain and this particular route.
Why is the 大雪渓 SO popular?
An escape from the heat
You must first understand, that the island nation of Japan is hot, very hot in summer. The mercury may not rise to the level seen in desert regions across the globe, or even other Southeastern Asian countries, but the humidity is truly oppressive, and the vast majority of the country lives at or near sea-level in jungles of the concrete type. A place like Mt. Shirouma offers an escape from the day-to-day madness of densely-populated mega-cities and the sweltering summer heat - which is made even worse by an urban lifestyle that requires wearing a suit, cramming into packed commuter trains, and suffering in un-airconditioned offices five days a week. A trip to the mountains is starting to sound pretty good, right?
Mt. Shirouma tops out at an elevation of 2,932 m, which is nearly 2,900 m higher above sea level than Tokyo (40 m on average). In general, temperature is said to drop roughly 2 degrees Celsius for every 300 meters of elevation gained, so to a salaryman in the nation's capital baking in his business suit on a 34-degree Celsius Friday, spending the weekend somewhere beautiful AND 20 degrees cooler sounds like a winning proposition. But again, Japan is a country of mountains, with 25 of them rising to even higher altitudes, so what sets Shirouma apart? The daisekkei.
While summit temperatures are undeniably cooler whichever mountain you climb, on standard approaches you still have to endure the heat at lower elevations on your way up. While you'd certainly be scrambling to remove layers climbing anywhere else in August, in the daisekkei you may actually want to add them. You're obviously walking on snow, but additionally, the same geographic feature that allows the snow to accumulate enough to remain all year (a deep, exposed gap in the mountain), also provides the perfect channel for the wind to flow freely. The effect is almost like natural air-conditioning.
The novelty factor
There is a definite novelty factor in being somewhere with snow when the daily high temperatures could put you in legitimate risk for heatstroke. It doesn't make sense, it shouldn't be real - but it is, and the season-bending wormhole-like wonder of the daisekkei delivers a truly unique experience to all those who set foot on it in summer. These special circumstances also make for outstanding photographs: the sharp, vibrant contrasts of green and blue against white are undeniably pleasing to the eye.
Exceptional natural beauty
The area is just amazingly beautiful. I've been all throughout the mountains of Japan and nowhere has been able to capture and keep my interest quite like the northern section of the Northern Alps, where Mt. Shirouma is located. This is true enough that I when I decided to hit the reset button on life, I headed straight here. It's hard to put into words what sets this area apart, especially since I am an equal-opportunity lover of all things alpine. But there is something extra, and it is evident once you're here - in any season.
If you've gone hiking in a country like the U.S. with vast, uninhabited wilderness areas where you are forced to be entirely self reliant and may not encounter another soul for days on end, the paragraphs above about how congested the daisekkei can get probably seem a little confusing. It's cool, unique and beautiful, but come on. Well there are several other factors contributing to the crowds, including the population density of Japan, the relatively high percentage of people who engage in outdoor activities, etc... but one of the biggest reasons has to be ease of access. Not only is the Sarukura trailhead just 10 kilometers from central Hakuba Village, but direct highway buses are also constantly carrying excited visitors back and forth from Osaka, Kyoto, Tokyo and other major hubs during the summer. In this way Japan has done for hiking what Henry Ford did for automobiles, by streamlining the process and making the product available to the masses.
My personal motivation for hiking is usually to get away from it all. The more remote the area, and the less people around the better. In fact, in nature I notice that the more I feel alone, the more I feel alive. That can be a tall order in Japan in general, and in the daisekkei specifically - but even so I am able to find enjoyment each and every time I climb there. It's a different experience from a remote wilderness trip, no doubt - but there is still plenty to get excited about.
Can I climb the 大雪渓 out of season?
As mentioned at the top of this post, it is possible to climb the daisekkei out of season, but this requires having more gear and more experience and taking on more risk. A whole new set of challenges and potential dangers face out-of-season climbers, including avalanches, hidden crevasses, increased potential for rockfalls caused by the snowmelt, and more. An off-season climb does however allow for the rare chance to return that remote wilderness feeling to the daisekkei, as you will likely encounter far, far less people on the trail. If you are considering spring climb, make sure you are properly equipped, experienced, and definitely consider going with a guide.
Note: All photos featured in this post were taken during an off-season climb at the end of May, unless otherwise stated.