‘incredible’ is the word.

a long planned trip to Northern Honshu to coincide with a tiny climate window nailed it. all the waiting and hardwork came together to put us at the right place at the right time for glorious first ascents in truely esoteric territory.


campsite at Futakuchi: not the most inspiring but close to the climbing

 a long drive to the depths of the Tohuku mountains between  Miyagi and Yamagata got us finally to the lonely trailhead. a year of waiting, planning and re-planning centered us on the ideal climate for the areas low altitude and fluctuating weather.

futakuchi ice climbing coffee japan

inside is considerably nicer: my favourite bit of new climbing gear

after +40 nights this season in spartan bivvies, a BC tent we didnt have to haul gave us the comfort level we wanted for forays up into the cold valleys. whilst always honing skills with the obvious tools for ice climbing, comfortable conditions meant we could develop other skills that affected the outcome – like making espresso from snow melt.

futakuchi japan ice climbing the strange volcanic fluting that characterizes the south-facing side BanJi Yama escarpment in the Natori valley: note most of those routes are about 150m high

the main feature of the lower valley is the huge collection of fluted pillars that house ice and mixed lines in almost every grotto. dozens of lines – some connecting some not – that run the length of the main valley, all high and steep.

futakuchi japan ice climbing

whilst the north-facing escarpment has several 150m, fat ice falls

far up on the other side of the valley huge, fat ice falls drop down the escarpment.

futakuchi ice climbing japanfurther along the valley: endless ice, steep, streaked and thin. line after line of pure and mixed routes, almost none of it climbed

the far end of the escarpment that runs about 3km ends in a huge buttress thats streaked with countless thin lines around its faces. higher and more exposed theres enough hard climbing for years of first ascents

futakuchi ice climbing japanthe other side of BanJi yama: more ice of course

the headwall and farther side of the buttress hide lots more routes that connect between overhung rock bands

white dragon wall futakuchi ice climbing japan

part of White Dragon Wall: +60m, steep and perfect ice and rock – and almost totally unclimbed

the northern valley has different rock formations, with the fluting giving way to steep, bare walls. less visited than the southern valley, the walls are covered in thin but exceptional quality ice in vertical and delicate formations.

white dragon wall futakuchi ice climbing japan

further along White Dragon Wall

most sections have overhanging moves connecting thin shelves with fragile veils that are actually much better quality than they at first appear. the rock between is pocketed conglomerate perfect for hooked placements.

protecting it all tho, needs creativity….

white dragon wall futakuchi ice climbing japan

more steep and thin ice: note the time signatures between this and the previous image – lines like this go on regularly for miles.

shimo jiro white dragon wall futakuchi ice climbing japan

Shimo-jiro Left & Right (lower pitches) 50m, WI4+

we decided on this elegant, fragile corned route to start on, an obvious allusion to the White Dragon Wall nomiker. whilst not appearing hard, protecting it was going to be all about thin stuff and time spent in stances threading abalakovs, chopping, cleaning and tying off short screws – all of which turned out to be the case.

shimo jiro detail ice climbing japan

shimo jiro thin ice

close up of the ice in Shimo-jiro (right): thinly plastered, globules & thin columns – what earns it its ‘+’ grade.

shimo jiro ice climbing japan

topping out on the first pitch of Shimo-Jiro….

shimo jiro ice climbing japan

….to find upper pitches that were steeper, thinner and overhanging. next time.

from a good belay we were surprised to find at least another pitch above us – much more serious looking than the first. even getting to its base wasnt a simple transition, and with the snow getting heavier and a complicated rappel ahead off us we called it for another time. not an easy decision.

the return was a game of finding our trail in ever deepening snow, arriving at camp to rapidly deteriorating conditions. being a long way out on far-from-primary roads and over a mountain pass we made the call to leave while we knew we could, getting back to town just before the biggest snow storm to hit the Pacific coast in 35 years. a night in sendai greeted us with an overcast following day, only to find the freeway closed which meant several hours on uncleared secondary roads. theres always a price.

tohoku freeway blizzard closedthese things dont come easily: the Tohoku freeway closed from a snow storm. a further 4hrs to get home, but easily worth it.