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
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
Interest in Sendai’s White Dragon Wall is gathering for next winter, with about half of the prime season already booked. interest is coming in from around the world as the project expands and the buzz of quality routes in an exotic location gathers.
this is Japanese climbing distilled to its essence – streamlined, hard, esoteric and bold.
a section of the weird volcanic fluting that hides ice in each shute
when is the season?
iceclimbingjapan will devote late-January to mid-February almost solely to the White Dragon Wall area. During this time we will run regular trips in there, keeping a consistent presence and equipment in the area, climbing as much as possible.
whats the climbing like?
Mostly hard, ranging upwards from WI4 on thin ice, to M9 and above and whatevers beyond that. most walls are steep and overhanging, with the ice very good quality but wind-thinned and featured – tho some routes have monster, fat icefalls. much of whats there is in multiple pitches spanning multi-stepped escarpments. theres dozens of pillars, hanging features and isolated wedding cakes. the rock its all on is chunky conglomerate in most places, volcanic, and excellent for tool placements. in many places the icefalls are weird colours. most pitches have good trees for anchors. bolting is a possibility.
approaches are between 10mins and 1hr from the valley floor, mostly steep. until late season snowshoes are not needed. some river crossings are required. primary access is along established roads and trails.
this is not the place for beginners. the potential for first ascents is near-unlimited.
what gear is needed?
agressive tools, mono-points, double ropes and binoculars. a good selection of short screws (10 & 13cms), spectres and 60cm slings. rock gear would center on beaks, short blades, tri-cams & wires. as yet theres few if any bolts in there.
trips are days out from a basecamp so a large pack for hauling in then a day pack for climbing. the wind can be howling in some valleys so shell layers for there. nights are about -10c.
for the 2014/15 season iceclimbingjapan is providing an INTERNATIONAL CLIMBERS SERVICE where you can basically show up and climb. Fly in with your hand luggage and we will have waiting a full set of gear ready to go – crampons & helmet to salopettes & down jackets.
whats in there?
mile after mile of steep and profound ice. a lot of the routes are inside the fluting of bizarre volcanic formations, others are dripping from overhanging walls. both sides of all valleys are iced.
some routes are +150m seams of ice, others are classic alpine mixed, others are North American-style wedding cakes. Many are scary to even look at, being very exposed at the top of the ravine walls. currently there are about 30 routes logged – most from over a decade ago. conservative extimates put the number of potential routes at about +150 – not including mixed and dry lines.
how much is it?
￥99,000 per climber for 3 days/2nights
International Climbers Service ￥25,000 per climber (sizes and stocks apply)
trips to White Dragon Wall and the surrounding valleys are being limited to about 6 over the 2014/15 season, with the minimum trip being 3 days. maximum group number is 3 clients. additional days (maximum of 5) are ￥35,000 ea
this price includes
- all specialized gear
- 24hr trip support & organization
- qualified and experienced instruction
- all trip logistics
- transport from rendezvous to trailhead
- translation & communication
- permits, registration & site fees
- specific winter camping equipment
- cooking equipment & gas
WHAT IS NOT
- personal clothing (unless using the INTERNATIONAL CLIMBERS SERVICE)
- personal food & drinks
- transport to the rendezvous
- personal gear rental (packs, sleeping bags, insulated clothing etc)
- personal insurance
‘White Dragon Wall, Sendai, Japan 2015’ T-shirts will be available for ￥3500 if pre-ordered (designs to be announced)
whats the big deal?
its rare to have access to a truely world class, emerging climbing destination in its formative days – especially one thats so high quality and so easy to get to. with so much potential for first ascents of quality routes, places like these usually stay amongst in-circles for decades, only being talked about once all the definitive stuff has been done.
for anyone whos wanted to climb ice in Japan, this is the window.
where is it?
accessed from Sendai, Miyagi. White Dragon Wall’s location is being kept quiet for now. Due to where it is and the people involved a high volume of traffic is not what is wanted up there, being neither the infrastructure, contingency or development yet to have the place flooded with outsiders. Having a short season and being dangerous in some areas, things need to be sorted out before more than a few parties can be in there at the same time. It would compromise a lot of hard work to upset the status quo with an accident or unwanted behaviour right now.
one of dozens of options along White Dragon Wall – unseen, unclimbed, unnamed
iceclimbingjapan bookings & contact
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.
…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
sichuan ice: great little doco that really shows how things are in the Shuangqiao valley. photo lifted from the Petzl page
finally, a decent film about ice climbing in the Shuangqiao valley, sichuan, china.
after half a dozen trips along the Sichuan-Tibet border to climb ice – including 4 to the Shuangqiao valley – its great to see quality documentation of what its really like in there. things have changed over the decade weve been going there; the quake, ethnic unrest, tourist development, upscaled regulation and interest from the growing number of chinese climbers – so its good to see things still have an air of the fronteir about them.
from the early days (and Petzls first big trip that featured Guy Lacelle and Craig Luebben) it was obvious that Shuangqiao had a generations worth of ice to be discovered, and as things have grown exploration of the sichuan-tibet escarpment further north and south of Shuangqiao is showing just how extensive the ice really is.
if this sort of thing excites you, get in touch. trips for the 2014/15 ice season are being arranged now. details on the CHINA and EXPEDITION tabs
to get good just going climbing is not enough, and is often part of the cause of plateaus that climbers whinge about. good climbing takes years of progress and to keep that on track you need to minimize base performance loss during the in-season. during winter it makes no sense to do a lot of heavy training as it only compromises the real thing out on the mountain – but it works well to keep your training edge sharp so that when the seasons gone theres minimal ‘shoulder lapse’.
the stone that keeps the edge sharp…but not the edge itself
as its too late to make big progress for the season you are in, this type of training is about very short term goals that spill over to long term progress, ie fine tuning movements and stressors you will use next week, so you can climb in ways that set the goals for the next season (or three). these sessions require a high focus level, a high level of full body precision and a high level of complexity, but also minimal recovery and minimal lack of relevance. this is not really foundation stuff, its strupping the blade.
a good session to both do and use as a base for other sessions is ‘The Hole’. it has little heavy lifting and doesnt creep too far into your body reserves, but it does rev the system in confronting ways and it related directly to the stresses of steep climbing and hard approaches.
3mins ski machine – mid pace
3mins rope pull – mid pace
3mins run – fast pace
1min on/1min off x 3 GHD sit w/ 16kg KB
25ea left & right side GHD extensions/twists w/ 16kg KB
barbell standing row 50% – 100% body weight; 5kg increments in sets of 3, the following between sets:
dumbell standing row 2 x 30% BW, 5ea alternate left & right
push row, 5ea, same DBs
1min barbell standing row 50% BW non-stop, followed by:
30sec dead hang
5 x ring dips
5 x chest-to-bar pullups
90secs barbell standing row 50% BW non-stop, followed by as above
2min barbell standing row 50% BW non-stop, followed by as above
5mins rope pull easy pace
the warm up primes the system for working in constant motion, with a focus on everything going thru the large torso muscle groups. the first part recruits, synchopates and begins to stress the necessary muscle and structural groups, with the DB rows to stabillize imbalance recruitment and the pushrows to antagonize. the second part stresses the systems with demands from multiple systems – each set having its own prime stressor, then the hang widens the hole, the ring dips enforce stability when blown out and the pullups put the whole lot back into context just when youd rather be resting.
all movements relate directly to climbing and all stress factors will be familiar. ‘The Hole’ keeps shifting, and when standing rows are done right (launch with the legs, push with the back, pull with the arms) they mimic well the movements of being on steep ground. from this simple set of exercise can be extrapolated a multitude of variations – so long as the alternate stressor (dynamic and static), stability and integrative are kept in check.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
further 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
the 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
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.
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….
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 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.
close up of the ice in Shimo-jiro (right): thinly plastered, globules & thin columns – what earns it its ‘+’ grade.
topping out on the first pitch of Shimo-Jiro….
….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.
these things dont come easily: the Tohoku freeway closed from a snow storm. a further 4hrs to get home, but easily worth it.
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.
it took a lot of looking and trawling thru old guidebooks but we found it: the area map