forgotten walls: crucible of japans hard alpine history

summers peaked and it seems autumn is a bit early, so after a
long, hot season thoughts are shifting to winter projects.

spliced together from forgotten topos, conversations with some of
Japans top climbers, old photos and ideas from around the world, this winter is
looking like it will be all about alpine walls.

japan alpine wall climbing

 winter aid routes on big granite walls: the foundation of Japanese alpine climbing

we spent the last few seasons following leads to locate routes
that formed japans best climbers. despite the names attached to them, many of
these routes have slipped into obscurity – to the point that besides japans
elite and a generation now in their 60s, most young climbers wont have heard of
them. and its not that the routes were superceded by anything other than shifts
in climbing trends, as indoor, bouldering and weekend locations like ogawayama
opened up.

as far as walls go these are not the biggest, not the coldest and
not the sketchiest, but they are some of the most obscure. between 300m and 525m,
Japans alpine walls are similar in length to the South and West faces of Yosemite
and most of the routes in Zion, but getting vastly less attention still rate
due to their obscurity and risk – theres no scenic tourist road at the base of
any of these. tho some routes go back to the 1930s, most were initially aided
in the 60s during the early summer, on nasty gear and little of it, using fixed
ropes for mini-sieges, then forgotten about as climbers turned to more sport
oriented routes. these days they are still remote, with often difficult access,
and most of them nothing more than rusted lines of rivets and pitons described
sparingly in long out-of-print topos. a handful have become esoteric summer
free routes, but the vast majority are nothing more than dotted lines on hand
drawn topos. most will never have seen winter repeats.

digging up these old routes is a mix of history and cryptography.
little is recorded and what is uses obscure descriptions of things that may
have changed. in the decades since these routes were recorded conditions have
changed, and in most cases winter conditions were simply not factored in.

several recon trips have turned up just how unvisited these walls
are, with trails long washed away and the few remnants of climbing debris being
weathered beyond identification. in some places we found old tools, biners and
hardware worn down after decades of snow and ice tumbling them. a common relic
was the rings from Japanese split rivets that had been stretched into oval
shapes by winters of snow slowly pulling them out.

japanese wall topo

cryptic and beguilingly simple. Japanese topos are exercises in understatement.

in winter these are routes not to be taken lightly. most are above
2000m and cold, with several meters of snow and access down narrow ravines on
frozen streams. most areas see almost no visitors between November and April
when the rivers freeze.

japan wall aid climbing

japan has lots of granite, which means a mix of ice-scoured, seamless gullies and sharp, complicated roofs. note this is the A2 roof shown in the 5 pitch of the topo above, simply described as ‘hanging’.

most are decent granite, with complex crack systems and sets of
roofs that show testament to japans active geomorphology. several walls are
high up and exposed, sitting above big couloirs with +2000m drops to the frozen
streams in the valley floor, and many have gullies ground smooth from ice and
rain to leave tiny seams only passable with the thinnest of gear.

50 years ago japan was fairly isolated in the climbing world. the
pre-war climbing tradition that had Japanese teams climbing all thru the Himalayas
– often under the radar disguised as Buddhist pilgrims – had been dormant
during the decades of conflict with Russia, china and the west. whilst the west
got busy after the war, sending expeditions to the Himalaya, japan was
rebuilding, taking almost 2 decades before it was affluent enough again to take
climbing seriously. tho some serious routes were put up in these years, it was
the cultural explosion of the mid-60s – fuelled by glimpses of what was
happening in Yosemite and the Alps – that galvanized a new generation of
climbers. most were young, motivated by a new economy and inspired by the
Americans and pushed deeper into japans mountains looking for walls. still
isolated culturally, but with a long mountain tradition of their own, these
guys put up routes on homemade gear, sometimes scrounged from maritime supplies,
that seem crazy in retrospect. whilst Chouinard and Robbins were spawning the
future of American hardware, Japanese climbers were aiding entire 400m walls on
hooks, wooden chocks and iron-mongery made for farming tools. the death tolls
for places like ichi-no-kura where much of it was tested speak for itself, with
about 30 deaths a year for much of the 60s and 70s.

by the 80s Japanese climbers were taking their version of climbing
back to places like the Karakoram, Pamir and Tibet. meanwhile the remote alpine
walls theyd grown up on were becoming overlooked as new climbers took to the
booming climbing phase more in the gym and bolted short routes close to the cities.
occasional trips went out to free some of this near-forgotten lines, with a
surge of interest in the early 2000s, and its worth noting that the few that
got converted did so at grades in the 5.11/5.12 range, some by no less than
Yuji Hirayama and Yasuhiro Hanatani.

japan climbing alpine walls

mid 90s photo on the lower pitches of one of the classic alpine walls in the Northern Alps

our aim here is to expose the element of hard Japanese climbing
actually inside japan. everyone knows
about the Giri Giri boys, the north side of K2, Japanese routes at Trango and
in Alaska – so its time to show the crucible  where a big part of the Japanese alpine
mentality was forged.

its serious work. organizing and gearing up for this series of
trips isn’t just a matter of jumping in the car. not knowing the condition of
the routes means rethinking whats there and being prepared for everything from
clean aid and big wall methods to steep ice, alpine mixed and lots of hauling
loads. in piecing it together weve found more info on Tajikistan, Antarctica and
Baffin island than we have on Japans hard alpine routes….

japan wall winter

byou bo iewa. not the usual image of Japanese climbing. image found on shizennnonakade.com

expressions of interest are welcome, but this is not for everybody.
despite the modern conveniences of Japan,
once off the grid these objectives are as much uncovering history as they are
breaking new ground. the skill set for these routes is broad, demanding
familiarity with more than just roadside ice and climb-by-numbers route following.
a functional ability in the dark arts of skyhooking, seam-nailing, guerrilla mixed
and winter ledging is a basic prerequisite.

trips to these walls will be done micro-exped style, requiring a
minimum of about 10 days – all totally unsupported, in temperatures down to
-25c.

teams will be small, so numbers will be limited, but anyone excited
by old topos, exotic places, rediscovered routes and serious climbing is
encouraged to get in touch.