a hell of a lot gets said about Tanigawadake – but almost none of it about this part. away from the constant stream of skiers, snow shoe groups and snow holers, way up another valley system altogether, are arguably the mountains premier pure ice routes. the confines of the topography and the lack of traffic make access less straightforward than the Ichinokura side, but being colder and less prone to collecting snow its maybe safer. maybe….

Japanese serious climbing at its most Japanese – crazed mixed stuff in quintessential style on an icon of risk. dont say you werent warned.

the 2 striking ice lines this year are strong but lean – getting on to them both requires a significant prowess at dry, mixed and alpine skill on the usual bizarro old school Japanese in-situ gear. a decent array of cams, beaks, pitons and wires will help a lot. in better years the ice extends to the ground, tho note its at the top of a large slope of potentially slipping snow. this is one place you want to get into and out of before things warm up. climbing-wise, these routes are not easy – little traffic doesnt pick them out and they are steep. regular years they apparently go at WI5. this year the ice alone might add a ‘+’ to the grade – along with the M-whatever it takes to get on them.

several other potential routes exist, mostly iced up crack systems, overhanging and grungy mixed. if you like your climbing on the wild side this is the place.

note: the objective hazards and lack of beta (even the old guide books barely mention this place) make this a serious place to go on an already notorious mountain. the Mikuni range is NOT like the Southern and Northern Alps and needs to be treated accordingly. any climber needs a lot more beta than whats here – weve intentionally kept things spartan – and should expect to have to find a lot out for themselves, just as we did. its not the place for everyone.


ice climbing rarely makes the mainstream press, and when it does its usually the superficial stunt stuff and tales of jacked-up craziness. taking a different direction, The Tokyo Weekender was keen to show the less exposed side of the sport, where it merges into a cultural and esoteric process and the trips into little-known parts of Japan for unusual reasons.

timely in its publication, the story details some of the long process that lead up to Will Gadd & Sarah Hueniken’s trip, describing some of the early trips to Tohoku and encounters with the parts of the country far from the crowded areas in central Japan.

tokyoweekender.com climbers-high-scaling-japans-frozen-heights/



note: none of the pictures have anything to do with the location or iceclimbingjapan


4 years ago we stood in the base of a volcanic valley in North East Japan, stared up at dozens of ice lines that dripped down the weird volcanic flutings, and knew in the hands of the right climbers it would work. we knew a smattering of routes had been done thereabouts, but we also knew huge sections of the valley walls had nothing done on them. asking around told us that decades before during a peak in Japanese climbing the hard mixed climbers of the day had done what they could for the era, putting up steep routes onto connecting ice with leashed tools as part of the wave of mixed athletic climbing. several M8 lines – test pieces for Japanese climbing – went up before things fizzled out and interest went elsewhere. What was done became obscure classics, novelties mostly forgotten, repeated rarely. meanwhile mixed climbing elsewhere surged and a core of hard climbers lead from the front, pushing both abilities and concepts ever-higher.

when iceclimbingjapan came into being we soon found limitations in the well known ice locations in Honshu and Hokkaido. interaction with international climbers in places like Shuangqiaogou and Hyalite, and discussions with Japan’s top climbers showed the idea was worth pursuing and over the intervening winters iceclimbingjapan made a series of trips up there, putting up new lines, mapping the blank areas and trying to make sense of the weather anomaly that allows ice to exist there at all. despite some uncommitted interest, nay saying and disbelief, those who actually went there all saw the potential and it was obvious it was much more than just throwing a rope up – most route possibilities were huge, bold and with a lot of objective issues – and it was clear this place would not be for everyone. during tent-bound and espresso-fueled pipe dream discussions we chewed away at ideas, and always one name kept coming up.

Will Gadd, the godfather of stoke, and Sarah Hueniken, the pillar of womans hard mixed climbing, gambled a big chunk of their winter to head into a part of Japan even most Japanese climbers know nothing about. their capacity to climb hard, develop lines, see potential where others dont and fuse possibilities into realities are the foundation that frontier climbing is based on. Will and Sarah both know they are ambassadors of the sport both to its adherents and on the industrial stage, and both get that coming to Japan will trigger more attention than simply putting up new routes in already well-know places. Will had been to Japan several times before and had a handle on what could be done. We threw ideas and logistics about but it took time to coalesce with the right people and an angle from the industry to see the value.

having a hotel with hot springs to return to each day keeps the psyche higher longer than a frozen tent

over 8 winters the idea ebbed and flowed, thru tragedies, tsunamis, changes in life and dozens of other projects. in late 2015, just as we stepped off the first winter attempt of Tibet’s Se’erdengpu big wall, Will’s email came thru; ‘This winter it’s on!’ and that means all systems into overdrive. Will knows the risks and variables that go with these things. several trips to Japan and a lifetime of trips to obscure places means that the vision warrants the uncertainty. like Spray ice, Niagra, Kilimajaro and the frozen mines deep under Sweden show when the work ethic, concept and risks align the results are always game-changing. to be part of the Gadd-Machine is to be strapped into a torpedo of potential that fuses insane ability with the alchemy of energy and inspiration that makes possibilities emerge where before none were obvious – at a rate even Red Bull barely keeps up with.

Raising the bar in so many ways is about more than just the climbing and demands quality documentation for all sorts of reasons. the climber-photographer interaction needs to function seamlessly far beyond the final act of just shooting the magic moment. compressed into the process of obscure locations, tight schedules and serial unknowns, capturing the process realistically demands an eye and a work ethic unwavered by the intensity of frontier climbing – a sense of humour and pragmatism is mandatory. when picking the team Will Gadd makes attitude the defining factor and everyone involved has to be 100% switched on the entire time and all channels need to be open, making John Price one of the handful of photographers up to the task. hooked on Japan long before this trip, John’s capacity to balance and integrate what others may find distracting allowed the perfect combination of his Rockies ice composition with Japan’s very different conditions.

to clarify the swirl of possibilities the plan was distilled simply: climb the most radical new routes possible. away from the expectations of well established mixed areas, in this case ‘radical’ meant the old school version of the term – fundamental and drastic changes from the root of the process. and with a resume covering ice bergs, spray ice and years at the leading edge of the grade game Will is the best guy to know what that means.

Tohoku as the location was the perfect stage for Will and Sarah. obscure and far from the well trodden ice locations of central Honshu they could get on with the job without the attention and complications their climbing celebrity brings. aside from a single day at Zao, we saw no other climbers the entire time. beyond climbing, Will’s connection to the region goes even deeper, back to the 2011 Great North Eastern Disaster where his immediate interest resulted in critical telecommunication equipment being sent over that directly impacted a wide spectrum of response applications and had very real outcomes. to be up in the region with Will had a lot more meaning than just putting up new routes, especially as we passed thru former nuclear exclusion zones, Sendai’s once destroyed airport and the quake-scarred Tohoku freeway. tourism of any sort hasnt been exactly thriving in that area recently so foreign visitors are already well outside the cube.

in Miyagi we met up with Aiichi Chiba, the name associated with climbing up there and author of the chapter for the area in the long-out-of-print guide to Japanese ice and mixed climbing. immensely strong, welcoming, knowledgeable and enthusiastic, Chiba-san resolved a lot of unknowns that set the course from which the final routes emerged. the connection between the old guard locals and the new wave linked things culturally, ethically and profoundly with a lot of positivity, and Chiba-san‘s connection became the element we needed to anchor things amongst the Japanese community both in Tohoku and Tokyo.

Chiba Aiichi, John, Sarah & Will in one of many morning car park gear up sessions

compared to central Japan, Tohoku is quieter, less populated, less commercial and wilder. forming a plan was dictated as usual by weather forecasts and predictions based on wind direction, altitude and travel time – nothing unusual aside from the fact barely any specific data existed. as true frontier climbing dictates, you cant just look on a website to answer all the questions so we had to get deep into the valleys to verify what was going on. initial recon in Futakuchi showed huge potential but the weather anomaly needed to catalyze the ice hadnt quite stabilized and the symphony of crashing ice was far from enticing. hours in slush, wet from warm snow, jet lagged and wondering if the gamble was worth it things became gloomy, buoyed only by possibilities in the forecasts and Chiba-san‘s optimism for other areas on the other side of the range. it wasnt what we came for but till conditions settled the idea of somewhere new was the best option.

the approach to Zao Ice Garden

long established as the place to go in Tohoku, Zao Ice Garden has enough stunning vertical ice lines for the potentials for overhanging mixed to be overlooked. despite an easily accessible cave with wild lines itching to go, none had been done. the obvious feature is a beautiful 30m blue pillar whos beguiling presence belied huge objective dangers that almost put an end to the trip and seriously affected group psyche. when things slip under the Gadd/Hueniken radar the shock waves are real and dont settle quickly, but the potentials opened up by the process of analysis and rethinking are amazing. in hindsight, the process of adjusting our perspective – as hard as it was – became fundamental to the routes that were done. without this the chance of just copy-catting the process and results of the Rockies may have been too easy. Japan deserves its uniqueness and to see how Will and Sarah switched the paradigm was as big a deal as watching them sequence the moves.

Sarah Hueniken making the step onto the hanging dagger on Fun Chimes M9, 40m, Zao Ice Garden, Yamagata

Fun Chimes (40m, M9) went up as the first route out there to engage the hanging ice and the roof of the cave. placements into the roofs iced-out cracks is true 45o overhanging ice climbing and the signature move out onto the suspended dagger is the set up for the thin frost, earth and ice above. its a Canadian-style mixed line reworked with Japanese features and doable enough to set the potential for the rest of the crag into motion. with a healthy Yamagata scene, chair-lift access and Chiba-san’s thumbs up, for the Ice Garden to become a Mixed Garden would be a straightforward and positive thing. from this our psyche started to lift and the temperatures stabilized, and this put our original ideas for Futakuchiback on the table.

Will’s idea of a rest day

that Futakuchi ever comes in is a result of a weather pattern that in normal years is solid but this winter was hard to predict. when it happens it happens and if youre not good to go it can pass you by. hourly scrutiny of the forecasts showed the pattern emerging later than usual and entering the final days available we scraped in at the start of the main cold plunge. literally overnight it all tightened up, froze and consolidated and the ideal lines could be tried, proving doable. its one thing to walk from the car and get on a world class vanguard route, its totally another to pull together the wherewithal, experience, attitude and work load and jump into a weird weather window and make it happen. its not just athleticism that sets great climbers apart from the rest.

Frozen Gold WI7, 100m

at the other end of the spectrum from Fun Chimes – which went up as a cool, fun, direct line linking charismatic features – Frozen Gold was the product of intensity, guile and vision. at over 90m and deep inside a volcanic flute formation, its an imposing line however you look at it. bizarre golden mantles are linked by small blobs that get smaller and line up directly beneath a large suspended icicle with nowhere to hide. at 75m you pull 2m out over air from the underside of the ice. situated at the valley head of a large buttress, dozens of these huge flutings exist, most with ice formations in the back and many much bigger. that none have been done previously is testament to the psyche needed to make them reality.

Will between the ice tiers on the first pitch of Frozen Gold WI7

neither of the 2 new routes came easily yet both went up in record time even with the extra levels of diligence put into making them safe. the nature of the underlying geology meant bolts were used where screws couldnt be, and the first ascents of both went unrehearsed and were photographed – profound for an M9, off-the-scale for a WI7 and an indication of the tightness of the whole operation. when Frozen Gold was done we stomped out, got in the car and drove directly to Tokyo. blitzed on coffee as we soared thru the tunnels and suspended freeways across Tokyo, Will jumped straight into his Arc’teryx presentation 6hrs after pulling the icicle on the FA of Frozen Gold. John had edited the images in the car on the way and the impact on the small audience was direct. Will didnt mince his words when telling them what was possible.

Will Gadd at the Arc’teryx store in Tokyo, 6hrs after doing the unrehearsed first ascent of Frozen Gold WI7

Sarah getting into the transition from frozen wilderness to digital wilderness on the Yamanote Line, Central Tokyo

in the end the world is left with 2 mixed routes that push the edges of skill, composition, location, style, vision and definition. these are not standard mixed lines where a sequence of dry moves end with a few moves on ice. harnessing the unique conditions and formations we found in Japan, the boundaries between ice and mixed are blurred and in flux. as Will stated at the Arc’teryx presentation, they are among the top routes he has done and the potential for more is vast. both routes exist in places with dozens if not hundreds of options right around them, and with the lid off the possibilities, both present the development of a unique type of ‘Japanese mixed‘. after a long time at a ceiling of old school M9 and WI6, Japan now has the doors open to what lays beyond.

so after a long time transmitting requests to help resolve Japan’s ice climbing deficiencies the wheels are now in motion; 2 new world-class routes put up by A-list athletes, dozens of new options thrown open, approval from the heart of Japan’s climbing scene and documentation by one of the best photographers for the job. repeats will be welcomed and new routes encouraged.


japan, asia & the world now have 2 new routes, both unique in their style, concept and location. with minimal working, maximum work ethic and a frontier mentality, Will Gadd & Sarah Hueniken forged both lines under crazy pressure during an express trip to the Tohoku region. with nearly zero beta and under dangerous conditions both routes were put up ultra-fast and climbed unrehearsed. both routes are on thermally affected geology that demand a blend of fixed and natural protection. both routes were done in a period of strange conditions with very lean ice at the start of the season.

FUN CHIMES 40m, m9, bolts and natural, Zao Ice Garden

Sarah Hueniken stepping onto the hanging dagger of Fun Chimes

weird spray features, thin pillars, hanging daggers, overhanging iced cracks and frozen earth; Fun Chimes runs the true spectrum of ‘mixed’ climbing. a 15m frozen crack links a short ice section to 15m of delicate vertical picking via a frozen crack and hanging feature. bolts reduce the risks of nasty falls, vocal ice and otherwise-unprotectable icerockearth.


FROZEN GOLD 90m/3 pitches, WI7, bolts and natural, Futakuchi

Frozen Gold: 100m of vision, gall & skill

a monster route with a monster vision, Frozen Gold earns its WI7 grade by blending bizarre skills, extended stress, lean ice, grim fall potential and objective uncertainty. years of ideas distilled into a vanguard route that Will rates in the top 5 he’s done. thin and globular ice in slightly overhanging sections, initially punctuated with narrow mantels and before a long pitch on decreasingly sized blobs then a final swing out onto a big frozen squid and some easy fat ice to the top.


weird weather, strung out and feeling fat? Industrial Mixed could be the answer to many first-world-problems.

athletic, sustained, pumped out and questionably trouble-making, the Old Yuwatado Bridge line is bomber safe and conveniently located. heel hooks, rag dolls and figure 4’s & 9’s all the way to either a swing off, pull over onto the top or down climb. eye protection recommended.


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.





 Норихиде Ямагиши (Norihide Yamagishi, Китай), Пол Менсон (Paul Manson, США) и Эд Ханнам (Ed Hannam, США)

we have no idea what this actually says – presumably a translation of the Alpinist site – nor if Yamagishi and paul know if there photos are being used, but its kinda cool – tho its not quite correct Paul & Ed are American.. .




abridged draft from the forthcoming Wilderness article (Japan)

in November 2015 Dan Da Silva and I attempted the west face of Se’erdengpu with three objectives, in order;
1) to prove a previously overlooked stable weather window after the monsoon
2) to find a usable alpine route to access the walls corner crack system, the highest point to begin the wall
3) to climb the crack system, as free as possible.

West face of Se'erdengpu.
West face of Se’erdengpu.

as far as big walls go, the west face of se’erdengpu is maybe China-Tibet’s most well known. which doesn’t say much. china-tibet has lots of walls and doubtless many times more as yet undocumented, but being on the fringes of the climbing world theres not much interest in them.

se’erdengpu is just under 5600m, with 2300m vertical gain from the road, over 1100m horizontal. half that gain occurs in 800 horizontal meters, then its nearly 1000m of clean granite wall and a few hundred meters high alpine mixed to the summit.
the peak has never been summited by a direct line up the wall, tho theres been numerous valiant attempts, no less by Polish virtuosos who went for a direct line up the face, and Pat Goodman who went to free the only obvious feature system up the walls shallow corner.
both groups got hosed off in bad weather at the tail end of the Asian monsoon.

over 12 years the Shuangqiaogou valley has gone from the best kept sec...
over 12 years the Shuangqiaogou valley has gone from the best kept secret in ice climbing to a China-Tibetan alpine disneyland. well managed, accessible and renovated since the quake theres still a lifetimes worth of serious climbing to do.

on the shoulders of these frontier ascents Dan DaSilva and I pieced together a plan that combined what we considered the most useful elements of the previous efforts with what we had already learned from other FA trips to the region. we took Marcin’s big wall style, Pat’s free idea for the corner and the Kellog-Johnson alpine ethic to strip it all back, and devised a caper that gave us 10 days unsupported to make it happen. our secret weapon that saved it all from being just a suicide mission was our weather predictions. hopefully this would let us hit the wall at the high point of the snow, saving us the time and gear needed of going straight onto the wall. hopefully too it would give us some protection from the exposure if our weather predictions turned out wrong…

snow will have been falling above about 4500m since September but most will have burned off – except for the shaded spots as we eventually found out.
its worth noting here that despite being west facing, in November all sun is blocked from the face by a huge south western buttress (itself with insane 900m granite lines on it) besides a 15 min flash at 5:00pm just as it drops below the horizon.

getting that pile of gear up onto that wall unsupported was a concept ...
getting that pile of gear up onto that wall unsupported was a concept of hell we had already accepted.

the key to our plan was the monster approach. coming from Chengdu at 100m and just one night in the valley at 3300m, we planned to acclimate on the approach as we carried gear upwards, keeping a fairly textbook ascent schedule whilst getting the work done. being unsupported this mean 30kg each loads every day up steep scree and boulders covered in snow. at about 4500m this became class 3 climbing on 60o mixed terrain and the final 200m to our first ledge needed pitching and hauling. from the road this took 4 days with 2 nights in a cave at 4400m.

the easy day...
the easy day…
the cave at the snowline. comfortable enough with a bit of digging.
the cave at the snowline. comfortable enough with a bit of digging.
above the snowline things was an aggravating field of covered boulders...
above the snowline things was an aggravating field of covered boulders that bought out the dark parts of the soul.
ascending into the cold but stable area in the shadow of the awesome w...
ascending into the cold but stable area in the shadow of the awesome west buttress – itself having dozens of big lines.

the upper slopes where the snow met the wall was where we came undone.
what appeared as perhaps a 65o snow slope showed itself to be a bowl corner filled with deep unconsolidated snow. spindrift and snow had collected in there since things cooled down and constant shade from the buttress had kept it dry. no sign of the granite slab beneath poked thru and at about 250m from top to bottom it was way beyond what our ropes would let us fix across. even without the loads it had all the indicators of a death trap.

the pitching and hauling began hundreds of meters lower than expected ...
the pitching and hauling began hundreds of meters lower than expected as things got steep thru bands of rock.
ferrying 120kg in multiple loads up thru the mixed sections at about 4...
ferrying 120kg in multiple loads up thru the mixed sections at about 4600m was as fun as it sounds

the way around meant getting a camp in at the base of the wall (+/-4950m) and traversing the top of the snow, then pitches that followed the exposed rock across the top of the snow field, then what we found to be a line of ice that delivered us to the corner. a substantial detour that looked like interesting climbing but would be a game changer on time. fleetingly we considered a direct route up the sea of granite, but without a full aid and wall rack decided we wouldn’t get far, and anyway that was the Polish line.

realizing that the portaledge would now become a base we set it up to be comfortable in a blank, cold totally vertical world. still unsure as to what our predicted weather window might behold, we needed a capsule that inspired confidence in Tibetan-strength conditions. reports of earlier attempts included 12 day storms and sudden massive dumps of snow, so our setup had to be bomber squared. an already Spartan rack and no existing ledges demanded the only 2 bolts we placed, hand drilled with a light weight titanium hammer on aider-less lead by Dan into bulletproof granite. a 90 minute endeavor when at 5000m and one of the stand-out efforts of the trip. with 1500m of air below us the security was welcome.

Dan reaching the wall.
Dan reaching the wall.
Dan heading out onto the granite to get an anchor in.
Dan heading out onto the granite to get an anchor in.
the only warm, horizontal place amidst a sea of ice and frozen granite
the only warm, horizontal place amidst a sea of ice and frozen granite
morning vista above the clouds. Dumu(L) and Abi(R) peaks.
morning vista above the clouds. Dumu(L) and Abi(R) peaks.

from our ledge the traverse went easy. good enough gear dug thru to the rock and quality snow, plus it was nice getting in climbing time that didn’t push against altitude and acted as both a gain and rest day. what didn’t work for us was the rope it used – at about 90m it meant fixing it till we could ferry across gear to the base of the crack would either not happen (so reclimb it every day), or take on the next pitches with just our second 70m and 35m rappels. with 1500m of air below soloing it didn’t appeal.

looking back down the traverse from near the end of our lead rope.
looking back down the traverse from near the end of our lead rope.

quickly our equation was drying up – hauling / ferrying the traverse would be hard enough, but even on the return wed still need to cross it as we didn’t have the rope to rap the sketchy snowfield.
and then a remarkable thing occurred.

coffee plays a big role in any trip Dan and I do, and part of this is engaging the bowels. on a wall like Se’erdengpu this means finding a safe spot to do so, and during a morning sortie as I hacked out a safe ledge the mountain gods gave us a rare blessing.
there, about 30m across a steep snow slope, poking thru the snow, was what appeared to be an abandoned fixed line. closer inspection and a bit of chopping revealed 100m of 10mm static line in reasonable condition, anchored at a bolt directly below what we assume is the Polish line.
it spanned our traverse perfectly, leaving our lead ropes for the next pitches.

Dan swapping out our scavenged rope across the traverse.
Dan swapping out our scavenged rope across the traverse.

the next day saw us get in a full 65m pitch of quality M4+ mixed climbing that turned part of the corner in towards the top of the sketchy snowfield. gear was again small and needed digging for, with 15m between placements. enough to feel very exposed above the death trap snowfield. beaks and small offsets were the staple, with any ice not deep enough to take more than half a screws length. at over 5000m nothing happened fast, and passing into the walls corner where the sun hadn’t hit for months already the ever-present cold and short days were a constant factor. having the fixed traverse back to the ledge was a welcome convenience.

beyond the traverse the angle got steeper and the sheet of snow over t...
beyond the traverse the angle got steeper and the sheet of snow over the rock thinner, but no direct sun made for solid conditions.
beautiful big pitches of pristine granite and thin but solid snow.
beautiful big pitches of pristine granite and thin but solid snow.

beyond the end of the fixed traverse pitches took us out above the snowfield, crossing a line of rock and alpine ice too steep for snow to settle on to a stance directly under the corner crack system. for the first time we were able to look up into the walls features rather than obliquely at them. no direct sun making it so deep into the part of the face it had an absence of shadows that created an illusion of featurelessness. from a place that a week earlier we thought we could walk to we had a revealing view of just how imposing the wall actually is. ‘cracks’ that appeared as maybe off-widths or at most body-width we now found were huge chimneys behind pillars hundreds of meters high – not slabs or flakes. these chimneys were wide and deep enough to have entire icefalls in the back of them and could be bivvied within. distant thin smears of ice turned out to be entire rope-lengths of iced rock face, and what we thought to be piles of fallen rubble were in fact pitches of large granite slabs. the scooped out ‘corner’ of the wall was way bigger than expected, forming a large amphitheater of 70o snow where it met the base of the wall. id never been so wrong on the sense of scale, feeling like wed suddenly been shrunk in a 50s sci-fi movie. our paltry rack of gear of mostly smaller stuff and just a few ice screws – already being consumed fast – started looking pretty anemic for the task.

inside the corner we got our first views up into the huge features that soared up the deep inside of the wall. the ice falls in the back of the crack were big enough to be entire ice climbs in their own right and the pillar they hid behind alone was a 200m protuberance from the main wall. above this was a series of smaller pillars which the crack split around, coming out into the sunny part of the wall 400m above us. the climbing looked straightforward on almost only rock, with features big enough to be climbed around. in line with what we had predicted over the months of planning, it fitted exactly with the gear we had bought for it and Dan’s prowess on bold rock routes would put it all into motion

looking into the corner. as a scale, the left pillar is about 300m hig...
looking into the corner. as a scale, the left pillar is about 300m high, the ice line about 150m, the horizontal snowline about 200m across.

from our existing highpoint we knew the next pitchs would be a big deal. we had briefly considered climbing further towards the end of the previous day but a few moments silently staring up at it ended that. steeper, icier, more exposed rock and more complicated to retreat from it deserved a fresh day. it didn’t help that it would also take us above the high point of the snowline and into the huge space of the inside corner. this was the highest scraping of snow that followed broken fissures in the darkest corner of the face for a long pitch before terminating at the sea of pristine granite. on all sides was vertical and overhanging rock – to the right a 50m drop back to the top of the snow, to the left 300m of dropped back down to the scree we had left a week ago.
essentially we were pushing it out so we could place the bar as high as we could with all that we had left.

Dan belaying on The Corner Pitch
Dan belaying on The Corner Pitch

the climbing itself was scary but good. scoured and perpetually frozen, the rock and ice was stable, the placements for tools and crampons delicate and shallow but positive, with occasional pockets that collected spindrift and allowed for rests. if it had been at 2000m it would be a classic, mid-grade mixed line, requiring a good degree of tinkering and a grandiose view of expansive granite and peaks stretching back into Tibet. personally the buzz of climbing like that beats any summit as the oscillations between fear, focus and exhilaration get tighter and form their own unique feeling that doesn’t exist anywhere else ive ever been.

where the rope and our time ran out.
where the rope and our time ran out.

I yelled down to Dan to untie as much rope as possible from the belay, giving an extra few meters. He yelled back that he already had.
Dan, who had a better view from the belay, called it as it was; pushing further would exponentially raise the risks. it was time to go.
any further progress would mean either getting onto a big wall with a single 70m rope or shuffling enough gear up with us to stay up there – one was insane, the other needed time we didn’t have. of all the things that could turn us around we agreed they were acceptable, its not like we hadnt tried.

if things went smooth just maybe we would make the ledge in time for t...
if things went smooth just maybe we would make the ledge in time for the afternoon band of sun.

crossing the traverse for one last time we released the Polish rope as we went. anchored at the ledge, it would become the first rope down of the descent – just as it had done for the climbers who left it before us.
the mountain gods, always less eager to give than to take away, had granted us our one reprieve with the rope, and we both felt that after 10 days straight our stretch of perfect weather would suffer a glitch sooner rather than later. having achieved 2/3 of what we came for, so didn’t push our luck.

as we kicked about getting comfortable the first of the snow could be heard on the fly. by midnight the gentle sprinkle was combined with prolonged angry deluges as winds high above us forced spindrift down the face. we could feel it flowing between the rock and the back of the ledge, and occasional glimpses outside the shelter showed nothing but a directionless whirl of snow. at just on 5000m its likely we were in the upper half of a cloud mass where rising air from the valley met a pillow of cold being pushed down the wall.
due to the angle of the wall we had been the only place for any of it to collect, but due to the cold it was sugary and easy to dig thru in the morning.

knowing its time to leave
knowing its time to leave

the last chamber of coffee was good to fire us up, as cold hands went to work dismantling the ledge and packing gear. the plan was anything valuable or needing care would be carried, all else would be dropped down the face. multiple carries were unimaginable.

by midday we had rappelled, down climbed, lowered off and stumbled 500m down to the cave we had stayed in on the way up, just at the snowline. the nights snow had gone all the way to the valley floor but had burned off as the day cleared. it had taken several iterations of kicking the big haul bag down, more frequent as the angle eased and the boulders got bigger. eventually we ended up dragging it across the scree, into a frozen river bed then down over a series of iced drops. the final low angle few hundred meters to the road was along easy boulders and thru some squelchy forest, which did in a final series of silent carries. we dumped the whole lot into a pile just as temperatures dropped below freezing and the sun went under the 4500m horizon. waiting for our ride we sat and stared into nothing, standing to shuffle some warmth into ourselves as it grew colder.

a few hours later we were sitting in the warmth of a Tibetan family room as a little girl stared from behind a chair as the two hairy, bad smelling, unintelligible foreigners ate everything that was set before them.


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


if a climber leads a life of virtuous vertical achievement they are eligible for mythical elevation to alpinist paradise – the land of virgin peaks, where unlimited climbing pleasure awaits, all is permitted and the only limitations are those of the self.

whatever is desired – from big walls and huge ice to aesthetic boulders and endless mixed alpine – is available, the price of entry is to swap the mundane for the unknown. for climbers that have not considered the idea of paradisical climbing the notion may be obscure.

Tomatsu Nakamura’s map showing peaks in the Gangga range over 5000m

its been centuries since any part of China was associated with paradise.  perhaps the last time was during the Han Dynasty when Daoist hermits wandered off to the western mountains, deeming them rarified and therefore a better place to refine the body and mind. then a few years ago Tomatsu Nakamura published his expedition findings in the AAJ and Alpinist, using the word ‘paradise’ for those same western ranges, and providing a peek to a new wave of travellers wanting to pursue frontiers of the body and mind.

distant and virtually unknown: the main western Gangga massif as seen from Ganzi town – as close as anyones come to climbing them. central peaks 5688m, 5670m, 5650m

until recently the Gangga massifs and other ranges of North Eastern Tibet were off limits to climbers, with even Chinese climbers being turned away. beneath the radar, guerilla ascents were made of course (and who would ever do such a thing…?), then climbers like Mick Fowler and Paul Ramsden, finding ways thru the Chinese governments new redtape, started getting access to entire new regions of unclimbed peaks. it was the stuff of alpine dreams – hundreds of unattempted peaks, with relatively good access and a relatively stable infrastructure to work with – but the message was slow to emerge. a conservative climbing media, inward looking fraternity and warped China view has kept interest in these places distant and esoteric – and thats a good thing.

why repeat the mistakes of over-indulgence from the past?

forget it: even when the authorities granted permits the local monks locked it down. Kawarori as seen from about 5200m on Gangga VII

two of the gems in the crown of NE Tibet’s virgin peaks are the Kawarori and Gangga Shan massifs – steep, complex peak systems with acute prominence from the river valleys, laying just on the fringe of the monsoon pattern to gather enough precipitation for ice to form well, flanks to collect snow and grass to cover the approaches. annoyingly, the Kawarori peaks have proved off-limits after agressive reproachment by local monks, but the three massifs that make up the Gangga range remain accessible to those with the permits and nouse. perhaps even oddly so; indeed the Gangga range is so obscure even the locals dont know or dont care about them, making them unnamed, unvisited and unmapped. and it is here that the 55 virgins await.

Gangga VII 5429m: the only attempted peak in the entire range, as seen from Ganzi town

according to Nakamura’s map there are at least 40 peaks over 5000m, with 7 peaks over 5500m – ie 2 x the Central Alaska and St Elias Mountain ranges combined, minus Denali. several clusters of peaks have glaciated slopes whilst others have huge cirques full of scree. about three quarters of what is there has simply never been viewed from close range. even the nomadic groups that have crossed from the higher plateau to the Yalong rivers plains for centuries avoid the central part of the massifs, using passes at about 4500m. even the peaks right by the county-level access roads have not been climbed, nor have the endless  miles of +/-300m crags, the thousands of house-sized boulders or the hundreds of icefalls, many within an hour from the road. and whilst there is amazing road access to one part of the range – along the valley between the central and eastern massifs – the rest is a large unknown with distant photos and satellite images showing extensive glaciers and deep ravines. of the plateau-sides of the ranges absolutely nothing is known.

walls and peaks in the central and eastern Gangga massifs. none climbed, named or surveyed. peak on the left 5055m.

but like all paradises, entry is not guaranteed. the Gangga range sits firmly within Tibetan territory and thus has never been open without a price, and despite a straightforward process of permits and access in this era of convenience few rise to the occasion. getting to the Gangga range is more a psychic process than a physical one. in the tradition of Hassan i sabbah, entry requires giving oneself over to new processes more so than just wanting to climb. where there is no concept of climbing the procedure from civilization outwards has none of the tourist bubble and industry convenience the well known alpine destinations have. your reasons for being there are not understood, let alone catered for, none of the decisions have been previously made, the basic questions unanswered. very few climbers will aspire to this, and even less will ever face it.

5098m, Eastern Gangga massif

5241m(L) & 5053m(R) Eastern Gangga massif

5410m (C) & 5400m(R) Central Gangga massif

5207m (L), 5232m (C, behind) & 5457m (R) Central Gangga massif

no porters rush to carry your bags, no signs point the way, no one in town knows or cares what you want to do, no one is concerned if you dont come back, your reasoning appears abstract, the things you want to locals cannot provide. as the old sufi saying goes “it cannot be found by looking, nevertheless, all those who have found it looked”. and the closer you get the less the ideas about summiting matter. first you need to find the base of the mountain – climbing is a priviledge, the notion often being lost in todays climbing world where exploration is a distant reason most will not perceive. to stand on the top of a new route is a world away from standing at the base of a new mountain, knowing nothing above you has been touched. 

5567m (L) & 5690m (R) Eastern Gangga massif