THE SORRY STATE OF WINTER CLIMBING IN JAPAN

white dragon wall: hard mixed routes like this cover large parts of japan

japan has a good reputation for hard rock climbing, hard bouldering. well known climbers regularly put up world class efforts across japan and foreign climbers often come and repeat them. when japanese climbers go overseas they take this with them and do things like speed records in Yosemite and vanguard boulder problems likewise japanese alpine climbers and mountaineers put up consistently hard routes in the big ranges and pull off impressive mountaineering stunts. its a rare year for the Piolet D’or to not include japanese names.

but at home, in japan, the state of japanese winter climbing is dire.

during the 60s, 70s and 80s hard japanese climbers put up thousands of serious routes across the country. from horrorshow death routes in places like Tanigawadake to desperate short mixed routes in the north. with over 20 peaks above 3000m and another +30 over 2500m – most with >1500m of prominence – plus a massively carved topography exposing spires, walls and ravines – there was a lot to choose from. over this time an attitude of hard climbing intent fomented as teams and individuals, often connected with universities, bounced off each other to put ever more committed lines, often in remote areas. that many died cannot be denied and a visit to the granite boulders around the base of Ichi-no-kura is a sobering experience, where dozens and dozens of brass plaques are placed directly below the face of the mountain claimed to have the highest death toll in the world. with research some of those names will also be found listed as the first ascents of lines and variations throughout the country, as well as in places like the Karakorum and Patagonia. for over 20 years climbers in Japan pushed the standards of difficulty wherever they went, and of those who survived many can still be met in the mountains, climbing well into old age.

directly from this era sprang the likes of the Giri Giri boys, Hirata & Taneguchi, Hanatani and Manome and the other ‘last generation’ of Japans elite alpinists, now all in their 40s and wondering what comes next. these climbers brought Japanese style out of the reputation for siege tactics and suicide routes by rebelling against an earlier tradition of climbing hierarchy that makes the battles for Yosemite appear trivial in comparison. consistently and daringly they took what they learned in Japan and reinvented it for the international stage with stunning success. in the mix with the Eastern Europeans, Italians and Americans they were climbing at the edge.

the roof at  Mizugaki: dozens of horizontal mixed lines to match the Canadian stuff.

but some time around the turn of the millennium it all ground to a halt. the attitude lapsed and within Japan the idea of climbing hard stuff evaporated. overseas Japanese climbers still did good stuff, but it was the same names getting better – no one new was joining by coming up thru the ranks. there were no wonder-kids like Will Sim and David Lama, no precocious teenagers wanting to tag along. within Japan these days its rare to hear about serious new alpine routes, variations and hard repeats. despite an explosion of gear shops, outdoor media and busy car parks at the trailheads, the locations of Japans serious climbing areas are quiet, guidebooks are out of print and the trails to access where the good stuff have been forgotten. its like one day the notion got turned off. the old guys stopped telling and the young guys stopped asking.

the issue isnt that Japan ran out of hard climbing options. a visit to any of these places reveals decades of new climbing still to be done, not to mention link ups, variations, winter attempts, free versions, faster versions, solo versions, non-stop versions and new interpretations of existing routes. climbers like Hanatani and Hirayama have done isolated versions of some of this, but the idea itself hasnt gained traction. unlike in Europe and North America where the spirit of alpinism burns hot and fire-brand young climbers compete (sometimes suicidaly) to put up edgier and edgier routes, cheered on by and enraging their mentors of the generation before whos ideas they are extending. the energy in places like Vail, Black Rock, the Ruth Gorge and Lofoten is palpable and real – and no doubt parallel to what went on in Japan when things were moving forward. that it all fizzled out is the dropping of a baton that effects climbing everywhere.

what happened is a multi-faceted thing that at one end is a young climbing scene without the idea dangling before them, and the other end is a community of older climbers with a dead tradition behind them. between the two is a large climbing media – local and international – that does NOTHING about it. in climbing centers elsewhere the associated media acts as a recorder, collator, distiller and deseminater of the sport of climbing. sometimes cloaked with a thick layer of advertising and hyperbole, at other times dryly documented, it is considered fundamental to push to idea of climbing better and better. in Japan this process is pale and ill-directed. that foreign climbers know nothing of japans climbing potential is only in accordance with the lack of knowing within japan itself. talk to any aspiring Japanese alpinist and they know far more about the exploits of Ueli Steck and Tommy Caldwell than they do of the hard climbers at home.

thin, desperate and  high: areas like White Dragon Wall have a unique Japanese style

of course the easy blame goes on ‘lazy kids of today’, risk adverse cultures and long work hours – but other sports arent suffering. hiking, skiing, surfing and trail running are exploding off the shelves, as are other forms of climbing – its just winter alpinism thats failing and that anomaly points the finger at the players. what could be happening is that the elements that oversee the climbing scene, the media, the retailers, the top climbers and the gear companies – same as everywhere – promote the idea of serious climbing. instead they pander to an introverted, exclusionist crowd have already decided climbing hard is not for them. the very idea of seeking out aspiring young climbers doesnt exist as an aging scene of mediocre guidebook junkies chooses not to see them. the process where young climbers have the inspiration and opportunities before them to get better and more creative is not cultivated nor seen as interesting.

where the international climbing scene fits in is in its lack of recognition of a significant contributor to world alpinism. both foreign and japanese climbers are to blame. when international climbers visit japan they do nothing of interest, maybe a day at a crag between awkwardly translated presentations at the Patagonia and Mountain Hardwear stores. it can be counted on one hand the number of sponsored climbers who have actually come here to climb, despite the good reports. the exotic culture and language divide these days is not enough excuse – plenty of hard skiers can do it. the japanese climbing media is a large part of the problem, bottle-necking anything about climbing in japan and denying what happens in japan exposure outside. the external outlets that could cover japanese climbing simply dont and the people whos job it is to collate it are not doing their jobs.

why it matters is that world alpinism , like any scene, is a constant interplay of ideas from disparate elements opening up new possibilities. in the 80s Japanese climbers brought unique ideas to world climbing that saw major efforts on the worlds hardest routes, and tho not all had perfect outcomes they were a huge part of the climbing-scape that was the cauldron from which contemporary climbing emerged. perhaps second only to the Polish, japanese expeditions filled a crazy outer edge that pushed possibilities ever higher in places like K2 and the Latok group and the eastern Himalaya.

Kaikomagatake: crucible of Japanese hard alpinism, dozens of ice, mixed and wall routes awaiting new ascents.

whats this got to do with foreign climbers? for decades Japanese climbers have contributed to the evolution of climbing around the world. as a world sport its always been the way for ideas from different countries to catalyze another, and on this is built the world of climbing. right now japan is at a low ebb and needs resuscitating. international climbers that come here will find a unique climbing world that is well entrenched but not overrun. despite generations climbing, japans mountains are not crowded and sold out to tourism. unlike climbing meccas elsewhere the effects of attention havnt damaged the very thing climbers come to see. most foreign climbers are astounded at the lack of permits, fees, camping restrictions and inflated prices. the flip side of this is that Japanese alpine areas are undeveloped by western standards. very few cable cars bring the peaks down to size, climbing here is still usually a matter of multiday efforts. in the years since japanese hard climbing went into hibernation the alpinists world has moved on and evolved, and japan has been distant to a lot of it. standards in mixed, wall and style have exploded, rendering a lot of serious japanese climbing ripe to be picked up on. in some ways things were pushed as far as they could go 30 years ago, to a threshold that ability, gear and ideas couldnt breach at the time. right now Japan is ripe for things to fire up again.

Oyafudo: some great routes done – many more waiting

what can be done about it?

the problem needs to be addressed from both sides; make Japan more accessible for foreign climbers and foreign climbers need to harden up and come here. in turn this will spur interest from the young locals. iceclimbingjapan knows thru years of experience that foreign climbers are treated warmly everywhere they go and the thirst for interaction from the young Japanese climbers is enormous. winter after winter we talk with Japans top climbers and the very idea that foreigners want to climb here stirs a significant climbing scene to know more. the goal is to rekindle the process of Japanese hard climbing before it blinks out. the landscape, the culture, the logistics are already here – whats needed is the fire. the goal in not to transplant the climbing fervor of Alaska, Chamonix and Scotland, but to bring some of the attitude from those sorts of places to show the young japanese a way forward. like everything here, the ideas will be fused, rewoven and spat out in their own peculiar way and winter climbers everywhere will benefit.

 

 

YATSUGATAKE: IS THE ICE CANDY WALL OPEN?

conditions at Yatsugatake have finally stabilized and the Ice Candy ice wall is fully functional. as usual the shape has been altered a bit for the season, and its still thin – but as the ice is less picked out and still forming our opinion is its at its best. now is the time to head out and get your couple of hundred meters of top-roped volume in to get in fighting form for the mid-season hard climbing. dont let this season slip by.

fat enough to be fun, lean enough to be interesting. Akadake-kosen’s Ice Candy wall on Dec 20th.

SHUANGQIAO GOU ICE CONDITIONS

for those headed to the Shuangqiao valley this winter, freeze level has started hitting the valley floor. mixed with recent precipitation and consistent conditions ahead the ice will starting it formation. give it another 6 weeks and things should be just right.

Shuangqiao gou climbing requires a few steps of redtape to arrange – some permits, transport, lodges etc – if you’re headed this way get in touch asap

ALBERT LEICHTFRIED IN SHUANGQIAOGOU

Austria’s top shelf climber, meteorologist and IFMGA assessor Albert Leichtfried is the latest in a string of international climbers to visit Shuangqiaogou in western Sichuan. Albert is amongst the few well known climbers to have visited Japan for the ice, back in 2008 (www.albertleichtfried.at/index.php?id=63&L=2&g2_itemId=7907), and its good to see him still getting to the emerging areas.

new M10 line ‘Mei Mei’. image taken from www.albertleichtfried.at. photo by Elias Holzknecht

even after a decade of trips to Shuangqiaogou, with early routes going up by the likes of Guy Lacelle and Craig Luebben, its great to hear climbers like Albert still in awe at the scope possible, and putting up multiple new routes during short trips.

大谷不動とエスプレソ壁 OYAFUDO, ESPRESSO WALL & MID-WINTER BIVYS

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

甲斐駒ヶ岳下のルンゼ LOWER KAIKOMA GULLY ROUTES

despite the volume of random single pitch ice falls, lower kaikomagatake is known for its several gully routes known as ‘runzes’ in Japanese. Presenting a mix of mixed alpine, steep ice, ice & rock steps, snow pitches and even a few cave pitches, these gullys go for 8 or 9 pitches and make a good days climbing.

always entertaining: even for climbers with a solid history of climbing, digging thru lower kaikomas cave pitches never grows dull lower kaikomagatake’s gully ice is usually crystal blue and hard, making for well protected routes…. ….most of the time

下甲斐駒変 LOWER KAIKOMA ESOTERICA

every winter odd little trickles of ice form around lower kaikomagatake, but this year those trickles are fatter more developed, in step with the general excellent ice conditions. shifting and transient, these ice falls change daily and will be gone by mid-winter, but for now they provide a fleeting chance for thin, technical climbing on delicate formations.

delicate and varied: dozens of options

measuring between 15m and 45m, most falls are steep with mixed sections on decent granite. most routes are below the treeline and rapped into. unlike a lot of ice falls, the majority are best in the afternoon.

the easy access, good anchors and short routes are ideal training material for bigger stuff requiring more commitment. the routes are quick to get pumpy with delicate moves and a lot of cleaning, so a good place to go hard and fast and develop upper threshold technique.

warming up; when the ice is steep and varied it pays to have a good warm up set to help performance and recovery between days climbing

JANUARY 2015 JAPAN ICE CONDITIONS UPDATE

weve said all along this winter was a good one for ice, and now after the first quarter its time to update

裏同心 Ura Do Shin F8: weve never seen this in before. in the old days it was WI4, this year about M5. a very rare opportunity

as the ice has fattened with an early weather pattern that brought mid-winter freezes occillating with warm spikes to form the best ice in years, recent snow dumps have covered some areas already, the well known Yatsugatake area especially so. where early freezes had made the ice good, associated early snow has covered it up meaning some areas are already choked, avi-prone and over-baked. oh well.

gully routes in some places that look like this in the first week of December…

….look like this now. thankfully most other places are not the same.

the good news is that other areas have had little of the bulk snow, but just enough that combined with the early freezes to make ice forming well in places weve not seen it before. in these areas lots of esoteric and quality ice up to several pitches high presents itself as a rare objective.

so far the weather patterns have been accurate to about 85%, and ahead looks like more deep freezes. heading towards mid winter the conditions for less-frequented stuff look excellent though colder than normal. beyond that into the second half of winter we are expecting the fattest ice yet for peak season.

fuji, where we have been focussing, is covered in a total layer of hard ice that starts well below 1400m. again, unusual.

 

THANKYOU HYALITE & BOZEMAN

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.

 

 

ON ITS WAY: JAPAN ICE CONDITIONS

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