steep, fun and easy: ice climbing doent always have to be prolonged alpine ordeals. when rare conditions exist to just play on good ice is smart to take them

its been at least 5 winters since the ice at Minoto-guchi has been in decent condition. usually thin veils of fragile and bleached icicles, this seasons fantastic ice conditions combined with the late, massive dump of snow, has left fat blue ice long after its usually frazzled and collapsed.

accessible pillars of clear blue ice

quiet, fat, easy cacades: beats the hell out of busy icewalls for a day of fun

as easy as access gets in Japan, Minoto-guchi is a 10 minute walk up a nice valley, with good anchors and easy cliff top access making it perfect for easy days out (even tho some of the ice is steep and theres some hard mixed lines). its not huge, but whats there is fun and the whole scenario more relaxed than the bustle of Akadake-kosen.


haku-ryu heki white dragon wall ice climbing

the entrance to O Take tani, showing the start of White Dragon Wall

after the seasons first trip to Miyagi we were revved up to get back onto the White Dragon Wall (Haku-ryu Heki, 白竜壁) again. conditions had evolved since the first trip, warming up but also clearing, letting us recce more of the wall and stay at its base.

the view along part of the White Dragon Wall from camp

part fun, part development for next year, time was spent working out where to base from to have best access to the wall. having north and south facing walls, the valley has dozens of options, requiring extended time to see more than a single area. with ice falls every few meters along kilometers of valley logistics is pretty much determined by what the topography allows – in our case forming a ledge to stay on in the steep valleys side.

the base tent nestled into the lee of a convenient boulder; afternoon sun loosened the snow that shed down the slopes

we returned to Shimo-jiro to find it fattened out nicely, tho a bit bleached from the longer days. Shino-jiros left hand sister route (potentially called Wan Wan) had also thickened out well, as had the pillar and upper cascade that formed the second pitches.

Shimo-jiro now…

…compared to just over 2 weeks earlier

the flip side of great weather was that afternoon sun meant we had to be off the wall and slopes by about 12:30, as ice and snow came down in a process of shedding that had some hairy moments. with a cold plunge predicted this could be a good thing, cleaning out crap ice from early in the season and snap freezing the recent melt into good (but probably thin) lines. over the couple of days we got most of next winters access and planning sorted out, stay tuned for winter 2014/15s revised schedule.

Dave enjoying the good things in life as conditions warm up: life is simply more colourful with espresso


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!

yatsugatake ice climbing shuangqiao

yatsugatake ice climbing shuangqiao

yatsugatake ice climbing shuangqiao

some of the linked ice falls in the Sansahou Runze, yatsugatake.

ice climbing shuangqiao

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


tenjin project ice climbing japan

guerrilla climbing: steep, cool, with friends, in the dead of night.

ice climbing japan tenjin project

neither climbing nor photos are easy when all you’ve got to go by is the spot from a head torch

tenjin project ice climbing japan 3

a clear night at about -13 made for nice conditions. the added paranoia of getting spotted added to the pump of steep ice

polartec tenjin ice climbing japan

the right stuff: Polartec being used in 3 of its forms – Neoshell, Windpro & Powerstretch 

it wasnt huge and it wasnt grand, but it was a guerrilla-style caper with good friends for a long-awaited objective and we pulled it off and thats what i call fun.

after a bit of recon in the daylight we went back after dark and the plan unfolded perfectly – good enough to even swap the boots and tools around so everyone who wanted to could get a climb in. after much deliberation we decided to top rope it: the ice too steep, the top-out too sketchy, getting off the top logisticly a problem and shouting calls too risky for our cover. but what we sacrificed in boldness climbing we made up for dodging the security cameras.

a good little line too it turned out, well worth climbing in its own right. 15m of thinnish, partially hanging, vertical, nicely formed ice. slight vertical chandeliering made for great hooks but not too difficult for feet placements. the bottom 3m or so slightly overhangs once wed excavated the snow, and the top 3m thinned out to be a little hairy but worked out ok. i think it would go at maybe WI5- on lead as placing screws would be solid work.

thumbs up to nori & junko, beau and grassy, and the old guy who caught us scoping it out in the day, but after hearing the plan liked it so gave us the security beta and promised not to tell anyone.


January had perhaps the best winter weather window in the last 5 years, where we clocked up 22 climbing days across half a dozen locations. after a brief Tokyo hiatus to get office stuff done it was back out for 9 days of expedition development and making the most of the winter peak conditions.

ice climbing japan  gear up

another addition to our Car Park Gear-Up photo collection: getting a lot of stuff into shoulder-able loads

kaikomagatake ice climbing

lumping it all in: Kaikomagatake has broken many a team, often over the approach/load equation

ice mixed climbing kaikomagatake

steep ice and mixed climbing isnt rock climbing: getting good at the hard stuff requires a lot of time on top rope doing things you wouldnt risk on lead

ice climbing kaikomagatake

by the time you get onto the deep fat stuff you should be well honed and climbing well within your zone

ice climbing japan kaikomagatake

single pitch stuff is a no brainer, but multi-pitch routes soon become about the transitions between climbing, linking icefalls and rigging/derigging belays. staying warm and tangle-free over 8 pitches of varied climbing is about much more than clipping ropes and changing gloves, especially in a group of 3. the risk managment as the days goes on and complexity increases escalates – especially when you also need to rappel the route too.

ice climbing kaikomagatake

ice climbing amidadake

a shift to Amidadake across the valley bought a change in style, this time faster, lighter and covering double the distance

ice climbing amidadake

after enough time working it out and building confidence, short steep stuff becomes solo-able and a much faster (ie warmer) process getting to the bigger stuff further in

alpine climbing amidadake

the ice is of course what we come for – but its usually the snow between that gets the pulse up. 12 pitches over several kms makes for a lot of transitions between low angle trudging and steep agility.

alpine aid training tanzawa

after 9 days in the cold relocating to a lower, warmer place to focus on alpine aid basics was a welcome change

alpine aid climbing training tanzawa

alpine aid is a stripped down and guerrilla version of ‘true’ aid; racks are lighter, theres less cams and moving parts, rope systems simpler and clothing heftier – all better developed somewhere comfortable before being used high up

alpine aid climbing training tanzawa

…especially things like high-stepping onto hooks in big boots

aid alpine training backwards toucan

…and using gear in ways that push the design; yes, thats a Pika Toucan touqued in backwards

alpine aid stacked micro wires

stacked micro-wires are another thing best worked out on top-rope before done on lead…

alpine climbing japan

mixed alpine climbing is about a varied skill-set executed with confidence and focus. it takes time to develop and needs attention and committment. getting to the top is one thing, getting home is another.

all photos by ‘Green Machine’ Cam Bowker & ‘Aero-press’ Rob

Cams blog with lots more photos at http://cameronbowker.com/japan-2014/


its a good ice year in Japan – cold, dry and clear. plans exist for higher stuff, but with such a window it would be folly to let the chance of good lower ice slip past. from about 1250m conditions have ripened ice all across central Honshu, making this the finest year in ages for the stuff that gets less attention.

ice climbing japan conditions

the forecast: perfect

ice climbing japan car park gear up kaikomagatake

gearing up in the car park

all good trips start with the ‘car park gear up’ – sorting food and deciding what luxuries can be given up. the process is much easier when the carpark is almost empty, most people deterred by the forecast of low temperatures

kaikomagatake ice climbing japan

kaikomagatake from the approach: always foreboding, looking up into the 1000m alpine routes that keep things in perspective

as its own massif, Kaikoma hides dozens of lower valleys that lead up to the main peak, some are warm, south facing with fat early season ice, others are remote and gruelling with thin cascades hundreds of meters high. roads allow access to about 1000m before the walking starts

kaikomagatake ice climbing valley ice

blue ice on granite: some of the valley ice

 lower kaikomagatakes valleys are steep and narrow, with their upper terraces getting enough sun to allow the melt to creep down into the floor. the blend of spring and snow water makes for clear and blue ice that forms well over the granite

kaikomagatake ice climbing inside cave japan

mixed sections thru caves

in the summer Kaikoma gets a wide temperature oscillation that generates a lot of boulder piles, which freeze safely over winter to make for constricted routes thru squeezes, caves and narrow sections. shifting trickles from snow build up makes for interesting ice lines, sometimes thru boulder caves

kaikomagatake ice climbing japan belay

interesting mixed sections thru contorted passages

 as most runzes are below the treeline, belays are often off solid trees, making exit-rappels easier in the short winter days…

ice climbing japan nasty old anchor


…except where theres no trees and the nastiness of old japanese anchor building comes out. unsavoury anchors are a part of japanese climbing, sometimes crazy, sometimes just badly informed, its vital to carry independant anchor gear when confronted with stuff like this.  we cut several meters of aging crap from dubious anchors over the course of the trip

kaikomagatake ice climbing japan

the rarely forming ‘Iran’: 25m WI 5+, M5, this year thin and squeezy

 lines below the trail dont often form well, getting too much melt with not enough cold. but this year, already in condition, the serious mixed lines ‘Iran & Iraq’ are climbable. starting from fat ice pillars, both routes then thin out into thin smears and granite placements – all steep – that make for entertaining climbing

mixed ice climbing japan kaikomagatake

‘Iraq’: 20m, M9. this year very thin and highly sketchy, scary climbing

amidadake ice climbing japan

Amidadake from the approach

tho just over the ridge, with longer routes and with a much shorter approach, the Amidadake ice routes get much less attention than the main Yatsugatake ice area due to the lack of a lodge.

ice climbing japan amidadake dirt bagging

dirt bagging it at -8c in the carpark before the approach: ‘the way we roll’

amidadake ice climbing japan

the night slog in, snow starting to fall

amidadake ice climbing japan hillberg tent

the following morning, after a damp night at -15c

 about 25cm of snow fell over night, catching us on the approach and continuing thru to the small hours. the next day was devoted to thawing frozen gear and body parts. having the right tools for the job matters when its far below zero oC, so a tent with a large vestibule makes things a bit easier

amidadake ice climbing japan


between the Japanese Alps and Hokkaido lays a huge, mountainous region with ideal ice forming condition – its just little ventured into during winter. all across the region we have come across reports of isolated icefalls that only the locals know about and amongst these is an area near Sendai.

futakuchi keikoku ice climbing

it took a lot of looking and trawling thru old guidebooks but we found it: the  area map