the second week of February is statistically the coldest of the year. the days are getting longer again with the sun higher in the sky, which combined with the cold plunge and the mid-winter weather pattern usually means a window of good ice. this season held true. after an enthusiastic dispatch from CLIMB JAPAN (cheers Tony, next coffee’s on us) about the icefalls in Oyafudo, Nagano, we changed course for the fat ice center of Japan.

hefty routes often result in hefty packs: expecting all sorts of weather and a comfortable base, the pack in was a big element of the trip to Oyafudo

the easiest route in the valley: at WI5, despite being fat and blue, it takes psyche and the right zone to pull off 40m of steep ice

the Oyafudo basecamp: comfortable. long days of steep approaches and hard ice demand easy living

Oyafudo’s WI6 ice pillars: hanging from the surrounding escarpment, the number of international quality, hard routes make this a kind of hidden gem of world ice climbing

Oyafudo isnt the place for easy climbing. almost nothing goes below WI5, pitches are usually >45m, everything’s steep and much of the mixed pro is ‘local’. you have to be on form. after 2 days on the lactic threshold it was time to head back to Yamanashi before the impending snow dump and psyche-out got the upper hand. Down at Lower Kaikoma things were cold, but the passing snow and mid-winter conditions resulted in good ice with the mixed lines on Espresso Wall being thin, hard with lots of exposed granite seams

Espresso Wall is still uncovering new lines: snow, cold, sun and cleaning shows up more and more thin lines and pick-width seams

after several trips lugging heavy packs wed opted for a lighter approach, taking bivy tarps instead of the big base camp tent. always a gamble, we got the pitch just right and weathered out the strong winds, snow and -14c night in relative comfort.

not quite the same as the Oyafudo base camp, but livable none the less: at under 1kg, two tarps on hard snow makes a lot of room

despite the minimal materials and cold temps, using the right gear inside makes it all doable: cold weather stoves and 4 season insulation make all the difference

 at -12c, a degree of creativity to keep the important things insulated makes minimalist nights out less than suffering


northern honshu’s Sendai area has the best ice & mixed climbing in Japan. possibly asia. ‘best’ means the largest range of routes worth coming across japan or around the world for. these are not fun little local routes, rather they are committed, steep / overhanging and technical routes a good distance from the car. you have to work for them, they dont come easily.

working it out: some routes are long forgotten, most are unclimbed, all need time to figure out, clean and assess.

the White Dragon Wall Project is now in its 3rd winter, with the first trip done. 5 days in the valley showed us 3 things – that early conditions on the White Dragon Wall are fluctuating wildly, that conditions on the opposite wall are the best weve seen them with more route than ever, and that viewed from the opposite wall the White Dragon Wall is waaaaay more extensive than previously thought.

early images here, the good ones are on the way time & supplies: the equation for going to work new areas out boils down to hard work and preparation. choices made in the car park resonate for the whole trip.

 the process of working routes out means getting what you need to where you will use it. when that beta isnt clearly defined you have to cover as many options as possible

 extended stays mean eating properly and taking the time to relax. multi-day efforts need more sophisticated energy consumption than just snickers bars and instant coffee

our week-long base in the valley. comfortable and protected.


tho when the snow front hit things looked a bit different.


despite a good range of well known ice routes the mixed lines at lower kaikomagatake are almost never climbed. obvious and striking and right by the access road, the hardish mixed lines are short, direct, bold and powerful – earning them the name Espresso Wall.

thin, techy & steep: Reed tapping his way thru the middle section of Espresso With Ed . who says you cant climb delicate ice in horizontals?

riding a precise weather window we sunk a few days into cleaning, developing and sequencing a couple of Espresso Wall’s lines. navigating the freeze-thaw oscillation to avoid the legion of hanging ice on Espresso Wall’s mostly-overhanging face, we got 2 routes climbable, going at about WI5+ / M4 and WI5 / M6.

pumped out, frantic and athletic: Reed approaching the only rest on Espresso With Reed, just to the right of Espresso with Ed

due to being ignored over the years, everything on Espresso Wall needs careful cleaning on rappel and top rope. granite blocks teeter on slick ledges, all the cracks are full of grass and thick icicles form rapidly as soon as the sun goes then shed when it comes back. the sound of crashing ice forms the ambient soundscape of Espresso Wall. also a good thing, the absence of any action means the entire face is bolt, peg and rivet free.

debris at the base of Espresso Wall after a days cleaning

around the sessions on Lower Kaikomas esoteric routes theres lots of time for getting onto the Japanese classics. known mostly for the gully routes, Lower Kaikoma has little of the crowds that throng to yatsugatake, and is several degrees warmer with earlier direct sunlight.

warming up on Lower Kaikoma’s signature ice fall – albeit on the rarely climbed left pillar mixed line

one of Lower Kaikoma’s granite boulder caves that adorn the gully routes

cold, twisting and a good mix of snow, rock and ice: Lower Kaikoma’s gully routes combine trad alpine climbing with quintessential japanese landscapes

the ‘Kaikomagatake Hilton’: south facing and at only about 1400m, Lower Kaikoma gets early sun that makes it comfortable to bivvy

hard mixed climbing doesnt have to mean hard living: when the days warm up and there’s too much ice crashing down, the wait till the sun goes need not be wasted





crossing the pacific for the first time, our first foray into the north american ice climbing scene was a blast. representing teton bros. and polartec, iceclimbingjapan touched base with the soul of american ice climbing at the bozeman ice festival.

downtown Bozeman, Montana: where heel spurs, shotguns, baggy pants and ice climbers gather peacefully

where the mountains meet the prairies, Bozeman is as much stoner cowboys, snowboarder hooligans and big city game hunters as it is serious ice climbers. home to Joe Josephson, Doug Chabot, Conrad Anker and Jack Tackle (plus a legion of transient climbers and home to the Alex Lowe legend), Bozeman and Hyalite were the perfect hosts to our entourage from Japan.

Hyalite Canyon and peaks in the distance

Bison: pretty much says it all

strikingly similar to the ice area in Sendai, Hyalite is layer upon layer of tiered icefalls and squiggled gullys. fat cascades fill the lower ampitheaters, steep cliff lines are hung with daggers and thin twisting routes lead up to the high icefalls that loom overhead. there is ice everywhere.

iceclimbingjapan’s Nae Yagi on a warm up icefall on Unnamed Wall in Hyalite

and on her usual terrain: M10 route to the right of Bingo Cave, with House of Flying Daggers in the background

days in the canyon tended to start early to avoid the festival crowds, and by mid-afternoon we were usually back in town and deep in the festival, where the UIAA championship circuit was the focal point for competition climbers from across Europe, Russia, Asia and North America.

moon over Hyalite: serene and luminous before the festival crowds arrive. apparantly at the right time coyotes actually do howl in the distance…

Yamagishi flaying the rope for a pre-dawn warm up in the Mummy ampitheater

Westy crossing a snow gully on the way towards Zack Attack (WI5)

Marat figuring out the M sequence at the start of a thin and barely connected The Matrix WI4, upper Mummy area

Mens difficulty finals outside the Emerson in downtown Bozeman

 coffee, coconut oil and organic food: the perfect diet for fuelling a whirlwind trip to one of ice climbings meccas.

many thanks to the good folk of Bozeman, especially Marat and Westy for showing us around. the staff of the Lewis & Clark Motel deserve special mention for cheerful service to the no doubt annoying demands of ice climbers keeping weird hours, stomping snow thru their lobby, eating all the cake and brewing espresso in the rooms. special thanks goes to Graham from Cilo gear for the tour of small town Montana that included Bison watching, excellent conversation and the quintessential American experience – outrunning an oncoming train across the rails in a speeding car.




you couldnt ask for better: rain and melt then a sharp drop into deep freeze. what weve waited all summer for.

already theres been two significant freezes and now the definitive freeze is on its way. a bout of rain and snow in the days before then a plunge into serious cold.

compared to previous years this comes a few weeks ahead of the norm, with temperatures colder and the precipitation between more consistant. add it all up and this could be the best early season ice in almost a decade with lower ice forming well before the shortest days and the snow really arrives.

with 14 weeks of winter ahead its time to nail down a plan and make it happen. dont say you didnt see it coming


leashes suck. but theres 2 things that suck more; dropping a tool into the void where you cant get it back, and dropping a tool into the void where it hits someone else.

its training season which means its not about giggles, its about work. there are things to be acheived and that means doing stuff that doesnt always work and tools get dropped. the current project location is a longish roof/lip that sits in a tier above a 30m face thats very popular, and which also means dropping a tool is either a pain in the ass or potentially fatal to people below. so, hot on the heels of the already talked-about top rope belay system, is this leashless rig. most set ups have ‘biners and junk that get in the way, and most tools have less-than-perfect interfaces for leashes but this solves much of that. really, its like no one has put 2 and 2 together on this. add to this the way leashes twist around each other and theres a matrix of problems that never seems to get resolved. it annoyed me like it does many others, but function demanded a result and having a rack of leashes i sorted it out.

simple, elegant & functional

the basics

those are Blue Ice Boa leashes hitched to the swivel and hitch sling from a Black Diamond Double Springer. the Fusions (reknowned for having dubious attachment options) simply have 2mm cord hitched around the pommels with loops hanging off. the loops from the Boas hitch into these, via looping over the head of the tool. no little biners, no drilling into metal, nothing requiring tools beyond the scissors to cut the Springer leashes off the swivel. find a better system. you can even re-rig it to the heads of the tools in seconds for piolet stuff.

the interfacing bits: nothing fancier than some girth hitches, clove hitches and double fishermans

it is expensive. you need to spend on 2 sets of leashes unless you rig from other bits. but its more than worth it if leashes drive you crazy on the times when you have to use them.

note: this rig by no means is said to support a fall. anecdotally it has, but none of the parts is rated for such


to climb seriously requires training, and of that an amount needs to be on-wall. a gym and weekend sessions are fine, but real progress is made with enough specific sessions and the problem here is finding a partner. if youre lucky you will have an accomplice who will belay for the long hours required to get the volume in, but if you dont – or dont want one – then a system of soloing is needed. bouldering? it will only get you so far. when reality comes in +/-50m pitches you need long enough sequences to function.

despite a bad reputation, roped soloing need not be the game of russian roulette its made out to be. both solo leading and solo top roping – if done right like anything – can be safe. theres even a train of thought that removing as many people from the equation reduces human error.

for the moment this is about top rope (TR) soloing for training. it differs from recreational TR soloing in that its meant to be hard, which means falling, which means having a system both bombproof and easy to use. yes, it will work for recreational TR soloing too, but the same cant be said for the reverse scenario – a lightweight recreational system is the wrong idea for training.

the basics

this system uses 2 independant ropes, both ideally around 10mm for safety and ease of use. it is assumed the ropes have bombproof, independant anchors at the top of the route, and are weighted but not secured at the bottom. wandering or overhanging routes may have the rope redirected via regular quickdraws.

the basic process has the climber climbing from the bottom along a static rope which feeds fluidly thru the safety devices. falls are arrested with minimal impact shock loading to the ropes and safety system. escape from the arresting system is both safe and fast.

it is recommended the route is rappelled before climbing to check for risks like loose rock, ropes running over edges, direction of pull on anchors, direction of fall etc.

the system: belts-n-braces safety yet easy enough to use for relentless training sessions

the nuts & bolts

  • 2 x 10mm ropes or doubled single rope

  • sit harness:

  • chest harness (rigged or manufactured)

  • capture or oval locking karabiners

  • Trango Cinch

  • Petzl Micro Traxion rigged with an extender cord to the toothed cam

  • additional gear includes a safety tail and prussick loops/ascenders

all up its not a cheap set up, tho all devices also fulfil many other functions. other versions like Gri Gris and lead solo devices can also work, but have been found to be both not as smooth, as easy to manipulate or as low-bulk/low weight.

how & why

this set up uses a Trango Cinch as the primary arrest device because of its smooth rope action due to having a less acute curve that the rope passes thru to arrest. it also sits better when suspended with a chest harness and is clipped between the harnesses loading loops. as a secondary arrest device a Petzl Micro Traxion is used because of its ease for disengaging when rigged below the Cinch. both devices are attached via capture or oval biners so to minimize cross loading.

in use, the Cinch takes the primary loading as it moves up the rope above the Micro Traxion, which, unsuspended, trails below by gravity. when loaded by a fall the Cinch grabs the rope, taking the majority of the load, whilst the Micro Traxion usually grabs a minor part of the load that is engaged from rope stretch. the Cinch arrests by a camming angle that locks the rope when loaded. it doesnt use sharp teeth, so is considered less potentially damaging to your rope. the Micro Traxion does have teeth so grabs aggressively, but is considered fine for a back up if the Cinch were to fail. under load the Micro Traxion requires another device (the Cinch) to assist in disengaging. the Cinch itself requires no disengaging, being the device also used to rappel off the route.

at no time is the climber completely disengaged from the rope


the ease of flow of the Cinch is the key to this set up. as the climber ascends there should be no need to pull rope thru the device, even if the device has been weighted, assuming there is adequate weight at the bottom of the rope. minimal play in the movement of the Cinch means little shock loading can occur, and gravity has the Micro Traxion trailing far enough below the Cinch to avoid entanglement.

rigged for TR solo: note the coiled rope used to weight the bottom, the directional quickdraw at the base of the overhang and the bomber tree for an anchor


occasional upward yanks can be applied for ‘watch me’ moves, to further reduce slack in the system and minimize loss of height gain if rests are taken. likewise paying small amounts of slack into the system for overhanging or wandering routes is easy to do one-handed by tilting the orientation of the Cinch and disengaging the Micro Traxions teeth with the pull cord.


training means falling. and falling on this TR solo system is little different to falling on a belayed top rope. the use of a Cinch suspended from a chest harness entails very little impact, and the high center of gravity hugely reduces the chance of inverted falls or inversion from a swing.

disengaging the system under load

lets say you peel off a hard move on an overhang and are left suspended in space. you dont need purchase against the wall to disengage the system and rappel to the ground. begin by checking and arranging the loaded pieces to confirm everything is fully engaged and locked (ie no nasty surprises once you disengage something). if the system feels dubious, tie an alpine butterfly backup knot 1m below on the same rope the Cinch is on.

once confirmed, grab the rope running downwards thru the Micro Traxion and pull it upwards using the action of the pulley for leverage, simultaneously disengage the Micro Traxions teeth by yanking on the extender cord attached to the biting cam and lock it open. note it only takes a second of applied strength to do this. remove the Micro Traxion from the rope.

this will leave you suspended from the engaged Cinch, which is then used to rappel the rope. note: at this point confirm the correct rope (the one going thru the Cinch) is used to brake the rappel.


a system like this makes it as easy as it ever will be to get realistic training time beyond the limitations of bouldering. applied structurally within a smart training program TR soloing is good for 4X4 and endurance sessions that few belayers are enthusiastic about, along with projecting hard sequences and testing things like aid placements, new gear and speed. in the end the set up here with a 60m rope is a smaller load to carry than a mat and opens up far more options. the more fluent you are with the system the more fluid the training session can be. expect to spend one or two sessions working it out and a few more getting comfortable, after which the gains in vertical-time are big.

the system here works just as well for drytooling as it does for aid and free. ice? thats not impossible; the angle of function of the Cinch and the grab of the Micro Traxion makes this as good a set up as can be for the medium. as with any pursuit on ice, its the effect of cold on ropes and hardware that adds the extra element of risk, and tho this system has been used on ice its a scenario needing extensive specifics before recommending.

note: all the usual stuff applies. copy this at your own risk. iceclimbingjapan and the people who represent it are not responsible for the outcomes of using these or similar methods. top rope soloing carries risks associated with height, impact forces, entanglement, equipment failure, friction, rock fall and a multitude of other factors, of which the outcome can include death or serious injury. anyone using these or similar techniques accepts this, and acknowledges that the use of equipment in this way may contravene the expressed recommendations of the manufacturers.


yes, you read that correctly: dry tooling.

demonized in many places where its been mispracticed in the past, drytooling has a bad name amongst many climbers. destructive when done incorrectly in the wrong place (ie with double points and alpine tools on revered summer routes and/or fragile geology), drytooling is also an important aspect of mixed climbing, worthy of being done right.

thankfully, Japan has a liberal attitude towards drytooling with no one getting upset unless real damage is being done. along with this japan has huge tooling potential due to the vast amount of volcanic rock thats not great for rock climbing but is ideally steep, fissured and accessible.


in the right place and with the right tools drytooling is athletic, highly skilled and unique as a climbing form and bears no threat to popular climbing formations. ‘real’ drytooling makes use of features unsuited to regular climbing – hairline fissures, tiny pockets, vertical seams in roofs. not relying on friction too, drytooling can be done on grimey, slick and moisture affected rock, as its can also be suited to sharp and highly textured conglomerate too scatty to climb on with hands and offering no natural protection. true drytooling takes place where other forms of climbing cant (except possibly aid).

the Devil’s Work – drytool training on self-belayed top rope:

so, with next winter already orienting towards hard mixed climbing, drytooling makes up a significant part of the preparation process, meaning several tooling sessions over each training cycle, which means quite a bit of volume, which means getting the equation right so as not to damage somebody else favourite climb.

the keys to sustainable drytooling are:

  • train properly: no mindless scratching around for no reason – climb within your ability (or at the edge of it) or go away. get good at placements before getting onto subjective routes.
  • train on top rope: OH MY GOD! drytool AND top rope in the same sentence! yes, to get good takes volume and you need to take the falls and rest on rope instead of scratching around. its not the devils work, its respect for the geology.
  • use the proper tools: not alpine tools and ideally not even pure ice tool – the right tools with the right picks have better geometry so rip less often, meaning fewer crap placements and a greater ability to rely on the thin/tiny stuff normal climbing doesnt
  • use the proper crampons – or not at all: tooling is easier with crampons, so forgoing them and just wearing stiff boots is actually better training in many ways. keep your crampons for the right time, and when you use them, use monos as they do 50% the damage.
  • train other aspects: weak climbers scratch about more. get strong, understand what youre doing and aim to be refined and focused. watch good toolers and you will see they do almost no damage because they make direct, precise placements. they dont flail about kicking chunks off the rock. good toolers switch up, reducing the number of placements and impact. simply put – the better the climber the less impact they make.
  • understand how tools work: mixed tools have a wide spectrum of applications, not just hooking. the better you understand them the more you can shift from reliance on pockets and features that can rip.
  • use your hands: theres no rule saying you must use tools 100% of the time. watch guys like Josh Wharton climb and see how they switch between hands and tools.

done right, drytooling is the missing link that helps keep progress between ice seasons. its also a discipline in its own right with a lot of skills that dont make it into ice climbing. getting good at tooling transfers over to other aspects of climbing by developing new ways of applying strength, power, balance and endurance.