anyone saying the era of real exploration is over is simply wrong
gangga VII, 5425m, north east tibetan plateau. south east coulouir, 5.7 M4 VI, 85degrees ice, 40 – 60 degrees snow, +/-500m, 9 pitches to 5340m. no summit…this time
over a month from September to October iceclimbingjapan lead another trip to the Sichuan/Tibet plateau to find & climb new peaks – new as in totally unclimbed.
based on 15 years of trips to remote parts of China ICJ teamed up with the master of Tibetan exploration, Tomatsu Nakamura, to get the inside knowledge on whats out there to do. from his vast base of data we settled on an objective that suited ICJs model of small footprint, highly mobile trips that shed many of the problems associated with the big, dinosaur industry ‘expeditions’ found elsewhere. the Gangga Massifs were chosen with their +/-5500m mixed peaks and relative easy access, which made for a streamlined ascent profile that fitted our window.
aside from that almost nothing was known. first we had to find the base of the mountain before thinking about climbing it – a big matter considering only half a dozen photos of the Gangga peaks existed, all of them from the same side. it didn’t help too that the area was known as a center for civil unrest, with access restrictions forming a large element in the planning…
SO WHAT’S THERE?
even several months of speculation didn’t touch on the amount of climbing out there. what turned out to be extremely complex topography uncovered decades worth of routes in just the one part of the Gangga we recced (approx. 10% of the range). characterized by a series of high cirques (+4500m) ringed with rock peaks theres climbing everywhere. from ideal boulders to 1200m big walls, ski routes, hard alpine, moderate ridges and huge ice lines theres endless possibilities.
basecamps mostly sit above 4000m, on grass yak pasture (nomads use the Gangga valleys connecting the Yalong river to the higher grasslands), with pristine spring water (ie very comfortable). high camps tend to be up the steep scree slopes that lead into the cirques thru openings in the walls (ie not so comfortable).
Gangga VII highcamp (4500m)
another common feature of the Gangga massifs geology are the formations of spires and pillars that form maze-like networks of couloirs between faces and snow fields, making for complex route choices requiring a broad spectrum of climbing ability. theres lots of steep snow plodding to be had – but it takes solid mixed alpine to get to.
WHAT DID WE DO?
Gangga VII SE face: SE couloir starts from the top of the visible snow/scree and emerges at the ice/snow that disappears round to the north side at the obvious notch on the right skyline. (note: the peak appearing to the left is a sub-peak foreshortened, +/- 5050m)
our permits were for the most distinct peak in the Gangga’s central massif, unnamed despite being so prominent, marked simply as 5425m in Nakamura’s images and sometimes referred to as Gangga VII. after looking into options from the accessible eastern side and balancing a large team of varied ability, we eventually settled on an ‘easy looking’ mixed couloir that twisted from the SE side thru pillars and faces around to the NE headwall – via several blind spots. other options included direct and variant routes on the SE face, a wandering mostly-rock line on the south face, linking pulpits of snow on the NE side and taking the SSW ridge from a notch in the west side of the cirque. all elegant choices that one by one got crossed off due to time, safety, logistics and ability. in the harsh light of reality – when theres been no one to go before – of all the gear used for climbing Occam’s razor is the right tool for the job.
top of Pitch 1
so the SE couloir it became and 2 attempts under very different conditions got us to within 4 or 5 pitches of the summit after 500m of steep final approach from highcamp and 9 pitches of mixed alpine up to WI4+ of ice and M4+. things ground down as they got steeper, difficult routes choices turned against us, the ice proved thin and an underestimation of the gear needed (twice as much thin gear next time…) meant we pulled out just before the transition to the (unknown) north side, at about 5340m.
mention must be made of Rob’s outstanding lead on pitch 8; run out above minimal gear and a stressful belay and the hardest moves capped with the last short screw left.
as a first attempt on an unattempted peak in an unexplored massif in an unknown range in a restricted corner of the Tibetan plateau things went exceedingly well. all members of the climbing team and support staff came home with the fingers and toes they left with as was the defined goal. the seamless efforts of the logistics staff maintained a perfect platform for the climbing, supplying excellent food, a comfortable BC, happy living atmosphere and unobtrusive local liaison. its no exaggeration that BCs in China are arguably the best anywhere – an even bigger deal considering theres no mass industry running to format with dollar-a-day locals.
imposing: Gangga VII as seen from the approach
SO WHATS NEXT?
as always, further, cooler and more efficiently. back in Chengdu we met up with Tomatsu Nakamura and started laying down the next trips ideas and organizing the next lot of logistics. the team has been solidified, access and BC locations have been mapped and equipment is being arranged. initial interest is centering around a healthy blend of walls, mixed lines and high altitude ice, with short recce trips further into other parts of the Gangga range (including the whole undocumented western side).
fresh food, good coffee, clean water and variation: BCs in China are healthy, happy and relaxing, meaning good recovery and sustainability in remote places
this years trip established the groundwork for pulling the climate data, access, bureaucracy, supply and resources into line with the demands of climbing, creating a ‘light & fast’ model that functions extremely well. yes, climbing in China has its idiosyncrasies, but beyond that is a level of function that can open up serious expedition climbing like its never been done before. when you have the inspiration and know how to do it of course.
as always, interest & inquiries for 2015 are welcome from both independant teams and individuals. numbers will be limited but several trips can run and several teams can climb from a shared BC
interest for the 2015 China expedition season is already pouring in, with several objectives lined up as things take shape. the right questions are being asked at the right time – with 9 months to confirm and put the wheels of preparation into motion – so a distilled version is offered here.
unclimbed +/-5500m peaks. there for those who have the motivation. photo Tom Nakamura
its been decades since significant new expedition climbing destinations have opened up. as expedition ability has evolved in the cauldrons of Alaska, Baffin and elsewhere, true exploratory climbing to unexplored ranges has been a little thin. many climbers have glanced over China (with exceptions of course) but dismissed it as too hard to organize – which has been a good thing, leaving vast areas untouched.
the tightening up of protocols for climbing in China deterred many, but in effect has done exactly what was intended – preserving the high peaks of China from a rush of crass commercialism. now the high peaks of China are there only for those with the motivation to approach them as true expeditions. theres no ‘sign-and-climb’ safaris here.
China realistically has several hundred >5000m peaks that are unnamed, unexplored and more often than not, unseen. climbing here reignites the same ideas about furthering the greater body of climbing knowledge as climbing in Nepal and Pakistan did half a century ago. these opportunities come often….
what a trip to China involves
trips start by landing in Chengdu – a large modern city totally unlike most entry points to high altitude climbing areas. consistantly in the top 5 chinese cities to live in, Chengdu is a major player with international flights, a subway, an easy layout, international hospitals & supermarkets and embassies. hotels are comfortable, and being the capital of Sichuan the food is world reknowned. along with 3000 years of heritage theres a large Tibetan quarter and as the self-proclaimed center of Chinas outdoor industry theres even a gear district. Unlike Kathmandu & Islamabad, things like gas canisters and energy bars are not hard to find in Chengdu, so we stock up here.
Chinas roads go to above 4500m so we do the trip up onto the plateau over two days. after leaving the Sichuan basin the roads go thru alpine forest and huge gorges as we ascend, eventually coming above the treeline then crossing over high, barren passed strafed with prayer flags and following the rivers where settlements are. usually we stay another day in medium sized Tibetan towns sorting redtape before heading out into the blank areas around the peaks. depending on the objective this may involve horses and yaks to get stuff to BC.
Chinese basecamps are comfortable and well supplied. at around 4000m we are low enough to acclimate to quickly, with the added advantages of theres no dhal baat and anything edible is permitted. the cooks that oversee the BC logistics take food very seriously and resupply of fresh food for longer trips is regular, meaning the level of recovery is greater. far from the uninhabites moodscapes of southern tibet or Baltoro, most BCs are on grassland and sometimes take advantage of existing rock structures left by the semi-nomadic tribes that cross the area between the lower forests and the upper reaches of the Yangzi and Yellow rivers.
the climbing itself is unique to the objective. the general area is the extreme fringes of the monsoonal pattern so rain helps carve up the geology as much as the movement of snow and ice. above 4000m freeze level starts hitting from around late September as the weather gets drier and clearer. day/night temps can vary as much as 20c. unlike further south towards Yunnan, snow doesnt build year round, making for more exposed rock including huge alpine walls. some peaks have glacial approaches whilst others have alpine grassland right to the base of the scree.
with so many objectives and such civilized access its easy to spend weeks and weeks looking into potential routes – only the dropping temperatures and ever-present redtape limit what can be done in a season. for long trips occasional forays into town to keep things sane are possible, with hotsprings, massage, restaurants and internet cafes to keep life on track.
returning to Chengdu is easy and can involve alternative routes thru other areas hiding new climbing potential. the descent from the high plateau is usually comfortable and the luxuries and sophistication of Chengdu a welcome distraction before flying out.
trips to 5000 – 6000m peaks requires equipment somewhere between regular winter and big wall gear
who are these trips for?
first ascents in unheard of places are not for everyone. if the safari-like process of summiting is all that matters and you want a contingency of support staff to make things as comfortable as possible then the obscure ranges of the Tibetan plateau will be a disappointment. there will be almost no climbing scene to fraternize with at basecamp, no well trodden trails and no mass-industry to answer every matter that arises.
these trips are for climbers who enjoy the process of working it all out; the route finding, the organization, the on-mountain processes and the bigger picture of going into undocumented places. unlike commercial ‘pay to climb’ trips that are guided along well-established schedules, iceclimbingjapan trips are real expeditions and require every climber to be part of the process.
the profile of a climber who ends up on an unclimbed peak somewhere near Tibet includes;
having a head for organization
a high degree of team awareness
a functional ability to self-schedule
an applied ability to use the right resources for the job
a clear perspective of undertaking complex activities in alien cultures
a comprehension of their contributing to the tradition of mountaineering
iceclimbingjapan specializes in unclimbed peaks. direct consultation with Tomatsu Nakamura, explorer of the Tibetan Plateau and Alpinist correspondent, provides a huge resource for peaks that are almost unknown. options exist for alpine ascents, big walls and technical routes, on peaks ranging from c.5500m to 6500m.
whatever your objective is, it will involve all the elements of exploration. despite iceclimbingjapan pulling together all the logistics, the lack of comprehensive cartography and local information pertaining to climbing still leaves inevitable gaps that need to be considered; in this part of the world simply getting to the base of a route is a significant objective, and all that is acheived – summit or not – furthers the greater data base of international climbing.
what you need
TIME: climbing in unexplored areas takes time – time to do it and time to prepare. whilst some peaks can be attempted with a 3 week schedule, most require about a month, especially if they have glaciated approaches. ground logistics in China are usually very good, with good roads going to high altitudes – but beyond the roadhead things things change; the absence of a developed ‘sherpa industry’ and the obscure nature of unexplored regions means approaches are hard to quantify exactly. but thats the nature of true expeditions.
MOTIVATION: these are not ‘sign up and climb’ trips. all members need a high degree of motivation and independant ability, integrated with a perspective that caters to the exploratory nature of these trips. unlike trips to well trodden areas, not all of the process is known. a climbers motivation but be as much to explore as to climb, and must cope with the uncertainties that entails.
RESOURCES: whilst nowhere near the outlay of an 8000m trip, expeditions to unclimbed areas still entail ‘exped level’ costs and equipment. costs depend on team size, location, duration and specific logistics. iceclimbingjapan’s logistics covers everything to the mountain then a lot of whats needed on the mountain itself, but individual climbers need to have the right gear and make the right food choices for themselves.
what you get
iceclimbingjapans in-country logistics partner makes the perceived impossible happen. permits, accomodation, food, transport, liason, redtape and consultation are all arranged to support the on-mountain process. iceclimbingjapans unique and extensive background in the region pulls together a range of styles and possibilities that adapts to each trip, far removed from the normal commercial climbing experience.
the basics for planning include;
3 week to 9 week schedules
multiple peak & route possibilities
costs cover all logistics from Chengdu and back again, except personal on-mountain equipment & food*
all team climbing equipment supplied**
all permits, chinese insurance & chinese taxes included
liaison staff, logistics staff & translators provided
all accommodation pre-booked
visa support letters provided
basecamp-only & on-mountain options
*some personal climbing hardware can be supplied at additional cost
**additional costs for specialized big wall equipment and objectives with glacial approaches requiring fixed ropes
China has unique logistics that once demystified opens up unprecedented possibilities
the expedition process
the basic schedule needs to be confirmed by the end of June and full payments in 90 days before departure. by this time the objective needs to be nailed down, the daily itinerary decided and the team consolidated around the expedition process. with this done we can arrange the paperwork that results in visas and logistical consolidation. China is not like Nepal, with a stack of pre-applied permits just needing the names on them, instead each permit is individually evaluated according to its specifics in a process as opaque as it is thorough.
long before this tho every climber needs to prepare for a style of climbing thats very open – no one can tell you whats exactly needed. covering this skill base means getting fluent in several branches of alpinism, and whilst mastery is not needed in all of them a solid base in general alpine climbing with a functional knowledge of technical rock, ice, big wall and descent is expected, as is being equipped to apply it all.
on a first ascent trip to China there wont be a contingency of in-situ locals to pick up any slack – the expedition is under its own steam to get to and climb. this means no miles of fixed ropes, pre-placed high camps, shuttled supplies or morning cups of tea handed thru the door. what you use on the mountain you carry on the mountain and that requires a degree of team dynamic often absent from industrial climbing trips.
west of Chengdu is a huge area that begins at the edge of the Yangzi basin and extends far up to the high altitude rainshadow of the Tibetan plateau. encompassing forest, grassland and high alpine, to the south lays the jungled ravines of Himalayan Yunnan and to the north the deserts and steppe of Qinghai then the southern Gobi. collectively known as Kham and Amdo, the region buffered Tibet from China, acting as a cultural conduit thru its narrow ravines and high passes.
all down the length of the region are +5000m peaks, with most being unclimbed. previous attention has focused around Minya Konka and Siguniangshan, but beyond these focal points little has been climbed, mostly due to travel restrictions and a process with the authorities too difficult for most climbers. whilst the rest of the worlds big mountains are congested and perhaps over-travelled, Tibetan Sichuan is virtually unknown, with large villages still taken speechless at the sight of foreign faces and the idea of climbing mountains completely alien.
totally off limits till the 90s, most roads lead into eastern Tibet and the areas that are open today are controlled and limited – perhaps not a bad thing after seeing the crush of tourism in less regulated places. nomads still cross thru the valleys connecting the lowlands and high plateau, Khampa cowboys still ride thru town, monasteries are not tourist attractions and the approaches to mountains are along herders trails not trekkers highways. after leaving Chengdu its unlikely to see another foreigner.
Its no secret that western Sichuan has occasional flares up between the Chinese authorities and locals after centuries of facing off that span raiding armies from Lhasa, CIA-trained guerillas, gun fights well into the 90s and ongoing tensions centered on the monastic community, but China in general is a safe destination and unlike Pakistan and Nepal, foreigners are not seen as elements of leverage for upset locals.
historically the Khampa areas have been regarded as bandit-ridden and conduits for smugglers but aside from petty concerns like pick-pocketing in markets this doesnt seriously affect passing groups of climbers so long as precautions are taken. all climbing trips to peaks require a liason officer and a translator/camp co-ordinator to keep things on track.
it doesnt end here. in the bigger picture of whats possible in China, Sichuan is really the start point – further west into deep Tibet, Qinghai and Xinjiang lay peaks and ranges that are mostly unseen, leading eventually to the northern side of the Karakorum. like Sichuan these areas are slowly becoming accessible, more a process of demand rather than supply. having spent 15 years in these parts of China, talking to the right people and being in the right places iceclimbingjapan has the wheels in motion for objectives rarely realized in the last half-century.
got what it takes and interested? inquiries and ideas via the bookings & contact tab
true expeditions – trips where you aren’t certain what to expect – need a wide spectrum of preparation. only having a general idea of what you will encounter means having a higher degree of applied capacity than is needed when you know what every step will demand. perhaps the primary thing to prepare for is hybridized ability – the ability to mix things up as seamlessly as possible. the objective here is to produce a climber who can approach an objective and be as little fettered by their knowledge and ability as possible.
when even the locals dont know about the peaks youve got a lot to be responsible for: unnamed and certainly unclimbed peaks near the NE Tibet border. photo lifted from Google
in an age of focused specialization, over specializing in one form of climbing having ignored others is the antithesis of real expedition climbing. its simply not always possible to find a realistic route that fits a narrow band of ability. retreat or diversion simply because a few pitches cannot be aided, climbed delicately or drytooled is a failing on a trip to a truly unexplored area. the ability to shift between climbing styles and blend it all into a single ‘climbingness’ is the mark of an expedition alpinist. moving from steep snow, across bleak rock, onto tech mixed and sections of ice – in every combination – streamlines route choice and the climbing timeline.
not every team member needs to be a specialist in every style of climbing – but a functional understanding by all members that allows easy ground to be covered and the demands understood is a given. indeed generations of Soviet and Eastern European climbers demonstrate well the way cross-trained teams can function.
basic standards to attain make the climber a known quantity, meaning they know whats going on and can swap leads on less difficult stuff so the more specialized members can rest. these standards too mean theres a functional body of knowledge amongst the group which is vital for contingency.
all these standards are assumed to be done with expedition accoutrements such as a large pack, gloves, big boots and full rack. standards apply to both the physical ability and technical ability
solo ice to WI3 & simu long sections to WI3
free climb to 5.9
mixed climb/drytool to M4
solo/simu Scottish grade IV
aid climb to A2/C2 (including a working knowledge of basic nailing and hooking)
jug full, overhanging rope lengths
mixing the whole lot up happily
developing these standards doesn’t happen randomly. covering such a broad skill set means getting out and developing the skills intentionally. first ascents of unexplored objectives is not the place to try aiding on micro-cams or cleaning on jugs for the first time. or even second and third time.
youve just got to get out there and do it: expedition skills dont happen by accident, they are acquired thru dedicated effort and intention that require time and experimentation. energy spent on the little stuff pays off at the sharp end
this means days on less-glamorous walls working thru methods and trying them on increasingly more demanding test pieces. time trials on the same routes is a good way of indicating improvement, as is multiple reclimbs of the same routes with different racks of gear and/or in different styles, which includes different boots and the weight on your back. like triathlons, the transitions are as important as the defined sections. shifting between free, aided and tooled disciplines as the routes demands change is where good exped climbers differ from average ones.
it’s a symptom of inefficiency having to switch leads and rebelay two short pitches when a single pitch that covers both ice and a hair-line fissure up an otherwise blank wall could be combined. likewise its time-wasting and potentially dangerous having to stop and reboot (literally) to free climb a section that could well be aided or drytooled.
genuine expedition climbing is all about hyper-efficiency; being able to look at a peak and not discount sections of it simply due to acquirable skills. as opposed to ‘safari’ and commercial climbing, the beta on unclimbed peaks is obviously minimal, usually being a handful of general photos and maps that are not specific – that’s the whole idea. add to this the logistics that wont be refined and the approach that will itself be an adventure in unknown-ness, and the further you go into the process the more potent a climbers ability becomes. you can for granted the same factors that mean a peak is unclimbed also mean you will be climbing without a net.
expeditions don’t follow strict formats. theres a general set of requirements, but how they fit together is unique – its what makes them different to the ‘alpine safaris’ that commonly get passed off as expeditions these days.
the Da Xue Shan range in western Sichuan; want to shrug off that the feel of being a tourist?
for a true trip off the grid theres dozens of matters that the standard commercial formula wont cover and that test the mettle of unseen climbing skills, ie the logistician. take away the heavily industrialized process that connect the alpine fantasy to the actual climbing and theres a world of matters that would be mundane in any other context. suspend the basic formula that in places like Nepal answer all the questions about supplies, access, route and organization and the true soul of an expedition comes out. simply suspending the English language is often enough.
when the mountains unclimbed, the area unexplored, the maps are hazy and the locals have no comprehension of what its all about you start confronting what it means to be a climber. things take on a different gravity when you have to do all the logistics as well. success is not about how well you climb, but how well you build the pyramid of logistics that get you to the base of the route.
some of the things that need answers are;
porterage; without a localized industry of locals to carry stuff how do you get everything to where you want it?
culture; where climbers have never existed how do locals and their infrastructure relate to it?
scheduling; when the route, approach, logistics and resources are all big unknowns how do you construct a timeline?
equipment; take away the certainties of porterage and access, then add the uncertainties of an objective with almost zero beta and what do you take?
team; unknown routes in unexplored places take a wide spectrum of applied skills, focus and sustained motivation amongst a cohesive group.
pull all this together to form a basic idea and you’ve got enough to work with.
theres plenty of places the climbing industry hasnt entered yet. even with recent interest western Sichuan still has decades worth of new ascents
genuine expeditions take a lot of effort and expense so the elements need to be dialed in before theres any questions about the climbing. can you even get there? forget what colour your baselayer is or how many pull ups you can do until you’ve answered the basics on the place you want to go – something that safari ‘expeditions’ to heavily touristed areas have made format.
the key to true expeditions is patience, adaptability and cash. you need to be able to apply all three in vary degree to every element. your gear needs to cover a wide range of possibilities, your scheduling needs to be snafu-proofed, your group needs to be dynamic, you need a creative attitude to everything from the authorities to the local food, you need the fitness levels to fill the logistical gaps, you need the money to keep the stress levels manageable.
do you want fries with that? the details like food are part of what sets climbing ‘safaris’ apart from real expeditions
for those who dwell upon the established formulas of climbing it appears that the age of expeditions is long over. to many only the splitting of sports industry hairs is left to pursue. but for those who look into the wider aspects of climbing – the greater applications of putting inspired people into unexplored places – theres still lifetimes worth of climbing to be done. it just takes a perspective reeled back in from the pedantic formulas that pop-climbing is broadcast as. theres plenty left to do if your perspective can cover it, and when it does happen – whether it’s a FA on a Japanese icefall or a high altitude FA somewhere like Tibet – its touching on the archetype of climbing that its all about.
simply put; the world knows almost zero about climbing in japan. even the most educated climbing geeks struggle to name a single route in japan, with even the names of japans peaks eluding them.
the mark of a climbing culture is what its members achieve out in the world of ‘big’ climbing – ie on vanguard routes where their climbing peers can evaluate just how good the climbing is – and tho Japanese climbers have a history of high end results, the climbing that formed them is largely unknown.
can’t read Japanese? then chances are Japan’s alpine climbing is a totally unknown world to you
a degree of this hole in the climbing worlds collective knowledge goes down to language; japans climbing information is mostly written in Japanese of course, but the real reason is the Japanese attitude towards climbing. the climbing industry is simply quieter in showing it. indeed Japan has sponsored climbers and significant producers of sponsoring companies, but the heroes of Japanese climbing are not athlete-celebrities telling us what to wear on Vimeo. so, in an attempt to answer the many emails iceclimbingjapan gets asking ‘what is Japanese alpine climbing all about?’ a condensed version is provided here.
Kaikomagatake: more than one climber has noted how its not what they expected of Japan’s mountains
first off, Japan has a lot of climbing. +/-80% of the country is covered in mountains, with dramatic topography hewn by a blend of volcanic, erosive and seismic activity that lends itself to rock types and formations that cover most climbing demands. japan has 21 mountains over 3000m with another 33 over 2500m, most with starting base levels below 1000m giving a lot of climbing in excess of 1500m height gain.
being a deeply featured landscape with profound weather conditions, Japan’s mountains are complexes of ravines and narrow ridges, hiding a huge area of ice and alpine potential. few peaks have an obvious set of faces and approaches, more often having dozens of options that follow an array of features deep into rarely visited regions. its normal for even the most-visited peaks to have entire faces and sides that go unaccessed for years.
approaches in Japan can be the decisive factor: steep, complex topography keeps Japan’s alpine objectives remote and esoteric, requiring more than just a passing degree of interest
japan has about a dozen walls of +250m, with a handful reaching 450m. tho little of these rank as the common idea of big walls, most of them sit within alpine topography that makes them closer to an Alpen or Alaskan comparison than to Yosemite. huge approaches lead to exposed granite faces that go to summits via complicated routes. theres little of the developedment that surrounds famous wall areas in the US and Europe, most japanese walls are remote require total self-sufficiency.
below Japans walls is a large cannon of multi-pitch routes dispersed across the entire country. routes between 3 and 12 pitches cover the huge amount of stripped faces from high alpine buttresses to the endless sea cliffs. routes are found in nearly every corner of Japan, with an impressive collection of 5.13 upwards routes put up by Japans core of hard climbers. Japan has relatively little of the focal valleys as found in Europe, being closer to the US style that centers climbing around peaks and the UK version of isolated crags. despite a huge amount of attention go to places like Ogawa-yama, most of Japans rock potential is untapped, with enormous possibilities in all across the country for new routes. even Mizugaki-yama on the back side of Ogawa-yama sees minimal attention considering the vast amount of rock of exceedingly good quality and easy access. if japan is known for any sort of climbing its bouldering, with guys like Dai Koyamada doing as much at home as he does around the world. every weekend finds a legion of pad-carrying boulderers jamming up the train carriages out to the bouldering areas, draining the 7-11s of coffee and onigiris on the way.
that Japan is barely known as an ice destination is an anomaly. with the right climate, latitude and topography it should be obvious to anyone looking at a map that Japan ticks all the boxes. from remote valleys and alpine faces, to road-side cascades and ice-park style areas, ice can be found all over the upper half of the archipelago between November and April. as an untapped repository of ice routes, Japan conceals areas comparable to the famous locations in Europe and Nth America with comparable areas to Lofoten, Hyalite, Alaska and parts of the Alps – minus the crowds.
the connected alpine routes of japans high ridges and buttresses are an entire culture onto their own, having been the center of Shinto and Buddhist activity for centuries. even the hard technical routes are usually approached to some extent via ancient trails that lead to shrines and ascetic practice areas, with some peaks like Kaikomagatake retaining some of the active Shugendo facilities.
classic mixed ridges and gullies flank dozens of Japans alpine peaks, ranging from suicidal lines to straightforward semi-technical routes.
the Yatsugatake massif: one of several centers for Japanese Alpinism. photo: Kylie H.
more than once Japanese mixed has been likened to Scottish mixed – tho with better weather and more reliable temperatures. strafed and rimed rock on exposed buttresses with no bolts are all over Japan. this tho belies the ‘athletic mixed’ climbing also found yet barely developed that awaits exploration across the winter-affected regions. volcanic geology and cold conditions results in endless extreme rock formations that are connected with sections of ice. much of it is unclimbable in summer, making for true mixed lines.
Japanese climbing culture is relatively free of the bickering and aggressive navel-gazing found elsewhere. the culture as a whole is both respectful of climbing as a pursuit, and tolerant of new ideas on style. perhaps the absence of industry pressure to define ‘climbingness’ alleviates the egos that flare over matters of style and apparent ethics.
despite having climbing concurrent to the rest of the world, Japanese climbing is still very ‘Japanese’. a degree of recent climbing styles have been copied from the west with many Japanese climbers having travelled to climb, but much of the base culture is deeply rooted in Japans own attitude to the mountains.
Japan’s mounatins have been active places for centuries, going into and climbing them has a cultural element different to the West
even amongst teenage boulderers, an attitude of organic attachment exists to the mountain geography – for many Japanese being in the mountains is as important as what happens in the mountains, and the sense of being out there is to be cultivated with certain ways of doing things. the Japanese don’t try to extend their ultra-urban attitudes into the mountains by bringing home with them, they recognize ‘mountain time’ as being almost the default setting. this is noticed in all sorts of ways, from the attention given to eating when in the mountains, to the distinction between where the mountains begin and civilization ends. many Japanese climbers have distinct psyches they switch into when in the mountains, sometimes seen as a ‘purer’ version of the self, with appetites and reactions allowed to flow more organically than the weekday Tokyo personas they so dilligently maintain.
international attention on Japan as a climbing destination is still a fair way off. Japan is not a 3rd world destination needing a hand from the western climbing industry to develop and exploit its potential, and nor is it a place with nothing else to offer. Japan is more than happy to remain obscure, with its climbing available only to the few willing to find it. foreign interest indeed exists, with a small number of motivated climbers dropping by each year happily knowing they dont have to compete with hustlers and crowds to climb what they want. japan is free of difficult redtape, extorionate fees and the climbers bubble that exists elsewhere. despite world-class climbing the usual accompaniments that go with it are happily absent and for those who like that its a true alternative.
being able to climb hard with minimal hassle gets rarer and rarer every year, making Japan an ever-more valuable destination to escape the pressure of a climbing world saturated with exploitation and the race-for-the-prize. that entire vallys of alpine climbing remain unspoken of and intact speaks as much for the blinkeredness of the worlds climbing media as it does for Japan’s ability to keep things well managed despite trends elsewhere.
just back from another great early season trip to yatsugatake.
this time was spent testing the latest Neoshell products from Teton Bros by getting onto some of the more obscure routes that are only accessible early in the season and climbing fast to see just how well these textiles and designs really perform: and lets just say they are impressive.
the key to breathability isnt just the textile, but the design – vents in the right places, cuts that allow humidity to be dumped, features that let you custom the way things flow. Teton Bros is good at nailing all that, and even before Neoshell came into the equation had designs that let trapped heat escape when and how you wanted it. combine the two and you have a very good bit of gear.
click here to read the full review, and here if you’re interested in getting your hands on one yourself.
good gear needs good places to test it, the routes it all got tested on being more examples of fine japanese ice sat along beautiful frozen streams thru conifer forest in some places, or up steep snow blown gullies in others. all great routes and all leading to alpine pillars and mini-cirques of more ice that are still yet to peak in form. its great knowing theres still so much of winter left ahead!
some of the linked ice falls in the Sansahou Runze, yatsugatake.
and some of the lower ice below the snow line
and meanwhile, back at Akadake Kosen, evenings were spent discussing Pakistan and China logistics with no other than Yasushi Okada from the Giri giri boys. i try generally not to be one to name drop – but hey, when its a giri giri boy whos picked up a piolet d’or and he wants to talk Pakistan…
kaikomagatake holds a special place in Japanese alpine climbing, being the step away from the popular stuff across the valley at Yatsugatake. theres several areas amongst the maze of valleys leading in to the peak, with the north east side forming the ‘lost kingdom’. this last trip we went into the lower and middle kaikoma areas, taking advantage of this seasons minimal snow.
kai komagatake’s NE face
this is the easily accessable area around the road in from Nagasaka that includes several classic ice routes like gun-ma taki.
twin ice pillars in lower kaikoma (WI4)
single ice pillar in lower kaikoma (WI5?)
ice chandeliers in lower kaikoma
gun-ma taki F1 (WI4)
middle kaikoma fast becomes another world. dropping to the valley floor and pushing up the river to take the right fork climbers are soon greeted by the true ‘lost kingdom’, with ice falls right to river level along either side of the river that soon becomes frozen enough to walk on.
ice falls along middle kaikoma
section of frozen over river
tanuki suicide WI5-, M4+, 120m
undoubtably seen but with no record of being climbed, weve called this route ‘Tanuki Suicide’ after the splattered remains of a tanuki that looked like it had fallen at least 60m onto the top of the first pitch.
tanuki suicide: WI5-, M4+, 120m. lots of variations, we took the lower left (out of view) then upper right
the namesake dead tanuki at the first belay
pitch one is a short ‘Scottish-style’ line up a mix of good ice, crap ice, frozen turf and wet rock, to a decent belay if you consider spectres OK for such things.
pitch two is a stressful blend of trashy ice, running water over polished granite, a bit more frozen turf, and eventually onto good ice. protection is grim – a single decent piton, spectres into soil and a tied off tree root, the belay is decent tho, with screws into ice but better with threads if the suns straight on.
looking up into the 3rd pitch
pitch three is nice soft ice, steep steps, more running water and tied off roots, but ends at good trees to belay.
all in all it sounds ghastly – and on lead its a real head game – but its also fun as hell. not often you get to place spectres, screws, threads, tied off roots, pitons and sling pillars on a single root – with almost all of them nasty. most of the climbing, tho steep at times, is sun-exposed enough to get good sticks – but not enough to hold screws, so earning the grades for risk.
tanuki suicide topo: click to enlarge
c.2650m, 7th pitch, A2 on the B Flank of Kaikomagatakes SE faces. 1972. image lifted from http://ito.tadashige.suwa-net.com
Japans serious alpine walls are alive and well
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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….
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
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.