18 August 2014

SR600 Nihon Alps First Attempt -- Flood and Heavy Rain Warnings ... not just Warnings

I left Tokyo as planned on Friday in time to catch an 8PM train from Shinjuku to Kobuchizawa.  The weather forecast had shifted a bit, so it seemed there would probably be heavy rain on Saturday at least in Gifu Prefecture, and it would be cloudy and a bit cooler than feared.  I welcomed the thought of cloud cover -- no way I could complete this ride in straight-on summer heat.  And I added clip-on SKS raceblade fenders to my gear.

True the forecast looked both hotter and wetter than I would like to do this ride, but it is either this weekend or maybe late October.  No other chances this year for an SR600.
Start at Kobuchizawa Station -- proof of my 10:30PM departure. 
When I arrived at Kobuchizawa Station, in Yamanashi, the ground and roads were wet.  Indeed, I had seen the rain shower from the train a few minutes before.  As many people waited for taxi cabs at the station, we were greeted by hundreds, perhaps thousands.  No, not visitors to the summer festival whose lanterns were still visible, but mosquitoes.  I quickly applied some bug spray -- and left them behind at the area around the station.  I was not followed.
The quiet road awaits
I carefully descended down, down and down from the Station to Route 20.  Then onto the familiar climb several hundred meters elevation up Route 20 to Fujimi Pass, and the descent down the Nagano (north side) to Chino.  The traffic was heavy for evening, especially on the other side of the road heading South.  There must have been an evening event in Suwa/Okaya or Chino to form such a line of cars after 11PM on a Friday night.
Chino 7-11. No distinguishing features.
I stocked up on water and food as planned in Chino at the 7-11 just before the base of Route 152.

Then it was up onto the climb to Tsuetsuki Pass.  Within 5 minutes, I was in another world.  Yes, the occasional car would pass, but otherwise it was completely dark, except for the distant lights of Chino down in the valley from the occasional viewpoint.  It was sticky and damp, but not actually raining, yet.  Less than 5 minutes into the climb, I heard an animal shriek very loudly on the hill just above me to the right.  What was that?  Not a beer, or deer.  What kind of bird?  Or perhaps monkey?  I think I have never heard anything so loud in the woods.  But whatever it was, it did not sound like any predator I could imagine, so I ignored it and continued the climb.  I see only one or two small animals crossing the road as I climb, too far away to identify.

Finally, the top of Tsuetuki, at 12:30AM, at least 450 meters above Chino.  Some rain on the pass, and very humid.  Then a gradual, 15km-plus descent to Takato.  I had been warned to be on the look-out for deer on Akiba Kaido at night, but did not see any on this stretch.
TsueTsuki Pass -- in the dark
From Takato, there is a flat/slightly up stretch, much of it along Lake Miwa (behind a dam), before the village of Ichinose and then the 500+ meter elevation climb to Bunkui Pass.

The real rain started on the climb to Bunkui Pass.  Despite my lightweight rain shell, I was quickly soaked through.  I would remain soaking wet much of the next two days.  But even at night, in the mountains, it was a warm, Japanese summer rain.  The net effect on someone like me, who carries plenty of body fat, is POSITIVE.  It cools me.  True, I need to be careful to avoid chafing in the hands, saddle or feet, and need somewhat grippy tires, but this I can prepare for.  Otherwise, rain is far better than riding in the Japanese summer heat, and rare that I actually feel cold, even if soaked through.

Finally, the top.  No cars at all after Ichinose -- and indeed, none on the road the next 50 kms or more, until well after I rejoined Route 152 south of Shirabiso!  The views on this road are spectacular, a river off to the left, so it is a shame to ride it in the dark, or the rain/clouds, or in my case, both.  I could see one or two lights from campsites somewhere off to the left, far from the road, but little else.
Bunkui Pass Elev 1424 meters - a "power spot" of some kind -- the real rain has started
It is a long, gradual and relatively straight descent down the south side of Bunkui, but a much narrower road than after Tsuetsuki, and totally dark.  The rain continues.  I go slower than normal.  And lucky I do so, as two big deer with white rear-ends materialize in front of me in my headlamp beam as I get near the bottom of this hill.   They scatter quickly heading down the road and then, past the end of the guardrail, jumping off to the left hand side. Where am I now?  At the "鹿塩郵便局".  Kashio--literally "deer salt" post office.  Then I pass the "大鹿町役場".  O-shika -- literally "big deer" town hall.  No wonder there are deer around!  This makes much more sense than the deer in the park in Nara.

Now starts the longest uphill I will face until Norikura.  From O-shika, I climb the very narrow (and wet) Route 152 up to Jizo Pass, Elevation 1314 meters.  Of course, this "pass" is just a bend in the road and the climb continues.
Not really a pass, just a turn in the road on the long climb.
Around 1500 meters elevation I must take the left fork in the road and climb up to Shirabiso Pass (Elev 1833).  After a couple of rests on this climb, I arrive at 630AM.  The view of the Minami Alps from here is spectacular and so I had planned to arrive shortly after first light.

Well, the view is not much today.  Just clouds.
Spectacular vie.  6:30AM.
Then I must attack a 700 meter stretch of road along the ridge top, to climb 80 meters up (yes, it is steep!) to the Shirabiso Highland hotel.  I walk up the hill, too steep for more climbing on the bike, and go to the hotel.  Things are stirring inside.  But the restaurant is not open.  The "front" confirms -- no food except for guests.  One motorcyclist is packing up at the side where I have left my bicycle.  He is a bit surprised to see me.  "Anata genki desu ne!"  Yes, I must be "genki" to have climbed up this mountain at this hour.  And come to think of it, I have not seen any cyclists since before Chino.  But instead of "genki" I just feel exhausted.  I eat my 4th mini-sandwich packed from home, and 2nd onigiri purchased in Chino.  Then a loudspeaker blasts.  I jump.  The announcement--for hotel guests--breakfast is now prepared and available in the dining room!  Rise and shine!  I just love these loudspeakers in the villages ... and, it would seem, in the hotels.  What a great way to get in tune with nature on the crest of a spectacular ridge.

Now for the descent -- I should get 30 minutes or more of rest on the bicycle as I head down the forest road to the South and eventually get back onto Route 152, 1000 meters below me.

No rest.  The descent is wet, technical, narrow and very steep.  I passed at least 15 cars parked at Shirabiso Highland, and other 10-15 at a campsite just along the ridge, so I know that cars do come up and down this road.  Plus the motorcycle is ahead of me on the descent, at least a few minutes.  I am on the brakes almost the entire time, worried whether I can stop quickly enough if I should happen upon a car or hazard.  I am out of the saddle with my arms fully extended and butt off the back of the bike to avoid toppling over headfirst on the steeper bits of downhill.  I rest halfway down at a viewpoint, finally able to see across the valley.  There is a village here perched on the steep slope that reminds me of cliff hanging villages elsewhere in the world.  Amazing that it still exists here, not having plunged down the hill in an earthquake or (rain induced?) landslide.
View across the valley half way down Shirabiso.  From one of Shinshu's 100 sunset spots (just like Nozawa Onsen)!
My arms are aching by the time I reach the bottom.  The brakes do not work as well as I would hope in the wet.  I can almost feel the brake pads (and wheel rims) wearing away.  Usually on these long rides I pack a spare set of brake pads (required on some 1000-1200km Japan Audax events!).  But this time, with almost new pads, and never having actually used spares during an event, I forgo them.  By the bottom of the hill, the rear pads are getting noticeably thin and I regret my decision.

This would be a spectacular descent in good weather, but now it is just painful, and long.  And I am wondering -- if any SR600 requires 10,000 meters of climbing, couldn't they have cut out Shirabiso, taking the RIGHT fork at 1500 meters elevation, and saved us all a lot of pain and suffering?

Back on Route 152, I start to make better time.  Just as I approach the village of Wada, where there are signs advertising an onsen/michi no eki, I hear a "ping" from my rear wheel.  One drive side spoke broken.  I pull into the town, remove the broken spoke and adjust the wheel.  The onsen looks open, but no food available at this hour, so I continue on Route 152 and then 418.  Then a right turn onto Pref Route 1 past a reservoir, then up a short, brutally hot and seemingly steep hill past Anan Town Hall, PC 4.
Anan town hall -- almost at the top of a painfully hot, steep little climb
At the top of the hill I turn onto Route 151, which I will take north all the way into the outskirts of Iida.  Up and down and up and down.  Not so steep, yet very fast down sections, but just as many uphills.  I remember this section of the route from last years Kanagawa Audax Okitsu Classic 600 event.

... But the Okitsu 600 continued north up the valley beyond Iida. This time, I must make a left turn and go to "Central Iida".  I guess Iida must have been a castle town, since its "center" is not down by the river, but over 100 meters (elev) up the gradual slope to the west.  Finally Iida Station, my next PC.  It is hot, I am tired, I would like a restaurant. ... but nothing good and fast looks open this Obon weekend near the station, so I grab some Circle K pasta and lie down for 15 minutes on a bench.  Then onto the climb into the western hills.  The weather looks ominous.
Proof of passage -- Iida Station
Ominous weather.  That is the hill I will climb toward Iida Pass and Odaira Pass.
I am grateful for the cloud cover, even some light rain, on the climb.  Then the heavy stuff begins.  I finally get to Iida Pass, then a dip of 100-150 meters (my Garmin's altimeter seems no longer to work).  Then a second climb up to Odaira Pass (a/k/a Kiso Pass).  Just as I start into the dip, the heavens open up.  Wow.  Within seconds, the road is covered in water.  I am drenched (again).  My pace slows and I can barely see through the rain.  This is more like swimming than cycling.  At one point I pass some minshuku and a few homes or shacks.  At one old building, a man is standing on a covered porch watching the rain, and me.  My Garmin dies. Odd that the battery is out so quickly after I charged it a bit before Iida.
An overflowing stream on the climb to Odaira Pass.
I press on and eventually get to a nature park just before Odaira Pass.  My rear wheel is acting up again. Just over the pass I find a covered bench and table, as the rain lets up.  I check the wheels.  Another spoke is broken, also rear drive-side and only one live drive-side spoke remaining between the two broken ones.  ... But with a 36 spoke wheel, I still have 34, and with 5 or so minutes of adjustments, it is still rideable, unless I get one more break.  I really need to check the tension completely before a long ride like this, instead of assuming it is okay just because the wheel is straight.
No view here, ... but just to the east side there would be on a nice day.
The Garmin ... stays dead, at least through the end of the ride.  Back to wet cue sheets and maps protected by plastic.  The rain must have done it in -- I might as well have put the device in a tub of water.  Amazing that, with a simple very thin plastic bag, my iPhone makes it through the entire ride.  The Rixen Kaul ballistic nylon rear bag also does very well, with a simple rain cover and plastic bags for "must stay dry" items inside.

From Odaira Pass I descend again, down, down to the west.  I find my first "nice" weather yet this trip.  Cooler, drier, and even a tiny bit of blue sky visible ... for some minutes.   It is around 530PM.  I am more than 250 kms into the ride, and have done almost half the climbing, and I have used only 19 out of 54 hours.  For the first time I think I may just make it!
At Gero Station -- 745PM.
But more rain falls as I join Routes 256/257 for the last stretch to Gero.  I stop at a bakery/ice cream/coffee shop roadside for a snack, and end up getting a mini-dinner as the only customer.  The baker/shop master is quite happy to help and chat once I tell him a bit about my adventure.  I spill my coffee all over the table when, trying to open up the bread, the plastic wrap pulls away suddenly and my hand grazes the cup.  Lots of apologies from me and a fresh cup appears.  A mini pizza is heated up in the microwave, a bit soggy but hot.  The baker's wife emerges from the back of the house to witness the spectacle.  They are gracious and tell me to "go-yukkuri".  I cannot stay long, I say, and 5 minutes later am back on the bicycle, taking the last baked goods in my pocket and uttering more apologies about the earlier coffee spill and the pool of water that has gathered under me on the floor where I sat.  At least it is not a carpet.

Then only 3 "short" climbs, the highest to 697 meters elev., on the way to Gero.  By the time I get to Gero Station PC, it is 7:45PM.  2+ hours behind plan, but still plenty ahead of the clock to sleep a few hours here and then finish within the limit.  More rain.  An email from my wife about road closures and floods in Takayama, just north of here and my next stop.  Well, I may not make it, but if I get a few hours sleep I can try. I tell the innkeeper my plan, and he says I should just leave my key in the room if I head out after 11PM.  Reception will be closed/locked when I depart.

An email from my wife alerts me to WARNINGS.  There is flooding in Gifu.  Record rainfall in Takayama.  In one place almost 170mm of rain in an hour (almost 7 inches).  And much much more over a 24 or 48 hour period.  Roads closed.  Evacuation notices for several thousand residents already.  And the rain is going to continue at least through Sunday.

I am up at 1130PM on the road around 1145PM.  The SR600 Route take the less-traveled local route 88 out of Gero along the west side of the Hida River, instead of parallel Route 41 along the Eastern shore.  No convenience stores on this side.  So I will need to live on my energy bars for the next few hours.  As I continue, more hard rain.  Unseen rivers roaring down the valley in the dark on one or the other side of the road, or coming down a hill and under the road.  Then no more houses around, just a pitch dark road up the hill through a forest, with water everywhere.  Gifu Prefecture Route 98.

It seems to take forever, this climb.  I get off and rest, walk, ride again.  The energy bars are not doing it for me.  I should have gone off course and gotten at least a convenience store pasta.  Finally, around 215AM, I get to the shrine just before the top of Kuraiyama Pass.  Elev 1015 meters.  640 meters up from Gero.
At Kuraiyama Jinja Photo #6
At Kuraiyama Jinja Photo #7
Finally, Kuraiyama Jinja Photo #8.  Gate and shrine visible!
The rain is harder than I can imagine.  I fumble repeatedly to get a photo of my bike at the shrine gate for the "proof of passage".  If it is raining this hard, I cannot imagine I will make it to Takayama, or beyond to Norikura, at least not on schedule.  I wait under the eves of the shrine, in pitch blackness, for the rain to let up.  15 minutes.  30 minutes.  The rain continues.  The wind picks up so I am now getting wet from sideways blowing water.  I put on my arm covers and full fingered gloves, crouch in a fetal position.  An hour.  No improvement in the weather, so I decide the only thing is to head back down the hill to Gero.

The road looks different than when I came up.  It is still pitch dark, but now it is strewn with debris and running streams where a few hours earlier it had been reasonably clear.

Down in the valley, I pull over for one stop en route, in a sheltered, dry and enclosed bus stop, to warm up a bit during an intense squall, then I cross the river onto Route 41.
This enclosed, dry bus stop would have been a better place to hide out than the shrine up the hill!
Back at Gero, I go straight to my hotel room, unlocked still.  After a hot bath I sleep a few hours.

Getting home was an adventure.  When I mentioned in the morning that I should go to the station and check on trains, the hotel manager told me I could take a 10:26AM express train, and pointed me to a "home center" on the edge of town where I could get a bike cover or tape and XL garbage bags, to try to wrap my bicycle and board a train.
Hida River
Hida River -- I wish I had taken a video to show the incredible water volumes.
I go to the Home Center on the edge of town, return to the station, and get the bike wrapped, one wheel in each bag, another for fenders, and several for the frame.  I struggle with the packing tape I bought (next time: get electrical tape that is easy to tear).  But there is a growing crowd of holiday travelers with little suitcases as more and more vans, buses and taxis pull up from the onsen.  There appears one JR official with a microphone.  The 10:26AM express is cancelled.  Other trains also are cancelled.  There should be a 10:05AM local train -- 3 hours to Mino-Ota, then on to Nagoya ... but it is already 10:15AM and no local train in sight.  One woman on a mobile phone is telling her husband they will not get out at all today unless he drives to pick them up.  I see the crowd, and think of spending 3 hours or more standing on the local train line with all these folks, my wet plastic bags and clothes.  Not attractive.

So I unpack the bike and do what I should have done already, when I headed to the home center.  I head down Route 41 along the Hida River.  Only 110 kms from Gero Station to Nagoya Station.  Several massive downpours along the route.

As I just pass from Minokamo though into Aichi Prefecture -- Kani-shi and Inuyama-shi and beyond, Route 41 becomes a fast limited access highway.  Another prolonged thunderstorm hits, and quickly the road has 3-5 cms of water.  People are looking out their car windows toward me at stoplights, wondering who is crazy enough to be riding FAST on a bicycle in this weather.  I have not seen a road cyclist since just outside of Iida on Saturday.

Finally, Nagoya Station, time to dry and pack the bike to the extent practical, and a quick (1hr 40min) standing room trip to Shinagawa via Shinkansen.  By the end I rode 450 kms and climbed around 6000 meters ... in how much precipitation?  More than on the Hokkaido 1200!  Much more!

More news about the rain and flooding in Japanese (with video) at the linked site (unless and until the link goes dead).  Record setting amounts of rainfall.  Over 20,000 were evacuated from their homes in Takayama-shi.
Gifu Record Rainfall, Flooding and Water Damage -- from NNN via Yahoo Japan
Many, many road closures, including, for a time, Route 158 -- the road between Fukui to the west and Norikura/Nagano to the east of Takayama.  Nomugi Pass was closed.  Norikura on Sunday morning?  I am not sure.  But I did trade messages with Tanaka-san, our Fleche team leader, who was stuck in Takayama on Sunday and ended up not able to make it back to Gero by bicycle.  So I think I made the right decision when I turned around.
Page 1 of Gifu Road Closure List, August 17 1:30PM
UPDATE:  The Garmin Edge 800 seems to be drying out.  I could get it to start by resetting back to the factory settings.  Lost all my data, I fear.  I really would like to get another year or two of usage out of this GPS unit, since I am optimistic that eventually the iPhone/Android apps and dynamo hub-based chargers will be good enough (and the phones will have long enough battery life) to make the Garmin somewhat eclectic and buggy unit superfluous.

UPDATE:  The aero bars worked okay, except after 200 kms I really did miss the room along the bar tops covered by the armrests.  I removed the armrests and found this gave me the best of both worlds -- I can stretch out onto the mini aero bars, but still get full use of the bar tops.  This is potentially a winning set-up for brevets where aero bars are not prohibited and yet I do not need the front Ortlieb bag.  PBP does not allow aero bars.  Some local Audax rules also may not....


mob said...

Wow. I am glad to see that you are still alive, that didn't look like much fun. Did you met any other rider along the road?

David Litt said...

Hi MOB: Well, parts of it were fun, parts were a real struggle, but I never felt in any danger. As Greg Lemond once said, cycling does not get any easier, you just get faster. Well, for me the rides and climbs just get longer ... and the weather gets worse.

Other than 2 road cyclists returning to Iida from Odaira Pass as I climbed, I do not recall seeing other road cyclists, though I did see locals on bicycles in many places, of course.

I traded texts with Tanaka-san, our Fleche team leader. He went on a planned overnight ride with some friends and hoped to go over Nomugi Pass (just S of Norikura) on Saturday and back over Norikura on Sunday. Nomugi was closed due to rain so they went instead to Takayama Saturday ... and got stuck. They tried to ride South through to Gero on Sunday but the main road (R41) was closed. So they headed over Kuraiyama Pass (Gifu route 98) where I had gotten stuck the night before ... and that road was also closed, North of the pass. They ended up staying at a small inn North of Kuraiyama Pass, awoke at 2AM and rode over the pass to Gero, caught the first train home Monday (which was delayed by 2 hours ...). So there were some others on the roads.

the ups and downs of a belgian amateur cyclist in tokyo said...

What an amazing tour de force! I did part of your route a couple weeks ago in comparatively splendid weather conditions but completely broke down when I reached Jizo-toge (you're right not a toge at all!) Luckily Ludwig was there to come to my rescue for the remainder of the ride up to Shirabiso Highland Hotel. Well done...very impressed!

David Litt said...

Hi Tom:
Yes, I saw you went all the way from Tokyo to Shirabiso, in crazily hot weather. I could never manage the heat. I would take the rain over the heat any day, though you get better pictures in daylight with blue sky.

My trip in October 2009

following earlier rides down Akiba Kaido by Ludwig, and of course Sergey/Thomas of TCC


the ups and downs of a belgian amateur cyclist in tokyo said...

Thanks for the links David! I'm planning to go again soon now that I have a decent rinko bag and finally mastered the technique for mapping a route online and then transferring the file to my GPS (I'm a terrible slow adapter when it comes to these things)

Manfred von Holstein said...

Wow, what a thrilling account of an epic ride! Knowing most of the roads I could really feel with you - although I have to admit I still cannot quite imagine what it would be like doing all of this in rain. I'm just learning to accept rain on mountain hikes, but I think this is still easier than cycling in the rain. Apart from the horrific weather that weekend though, this is a truly challenging course. Norikura and Mugikusa are real killer climbs just because of their length and also the high temperature difference. Not that I would doubt you wouldn't have made them... I wish you better luck next time!!

dominic h said...

I rode up Mugikusa Toge only yesterday in glorious weather. Very quiet and a wonderful descent. I was a lot slower and using easier gears than in 2010 when I returned from Etape though!

Anonymous said...

Wow. Amazing ride and terrific blog post. Thanks.

djconnel said...

Great report! The spring 2015 Bicycle Quarterly describes another attempt at this challenging route. Indeed there are certain parallels.

This report is inspiring. In San Francisco I have recently been involved in two regional events with high no-show rates due to forecasts in each case of 2 mm of rain for the entire event. 180 mm in an hour is almost incomprehensible. Nicely done!

David Litt said...

Hi DJ: Thanks. I will look forward to getting my Bicycle Quarterly (I finally gave in and subscribed recently).
As for people who skip an event because of a wee bit of rain in the forecast ... I guess that works in California where you will still manage to complete even some longer events, but they will not do well most places. I did not get a full "dry" event of 1000km or longer until my 7th attempt -- riding them in US, Canada, UK, France (PBP 2011) and of course Japan.

Unknown said...

Really enjoyed reading this. Hope you get chance to go back for "revenge".

David Litt said...

Hi andrew paul: No revenge yet. Instead I did the SR600 Fuji in 2015, and would love to do either this Nihon Alps SR600 or the Kita Kanto SR600 in 2016. Nihon Alps is difficult because the road over Norikura opens so late (not until late May or June?) and then it is likely wet or quite hot on parts of the route. I think a dry 3-day weekend in late September/early October would be the best time to try it, but I could not find the time this year. Next year!

Unknown said...

Cheers, I actually read both. Joe posted the links on the Tokyo International Cyclist webpage. The other problem with Norikura is the weather. I've seen the road closed and hillclimb cancelled a few times. Once even when Utsukushigahara HC went ahead on the same day. Good luck for 2016!