leashes suck. but theres 2 things that suck more; dropping a tool into the void where you cant get it back, and dropping a tool into the void where it hits someone else.
its training season which means its not about giggles, its about work. there are things to be acheived and that means doing stuff that doesnt always work and tools get dropped. the current project location is a longish roof/lip that sits in a tier above a 30m face thats very popular, and which also means dropping a tool is either a pain in the ass or potentially fatal to people below. so, hot on the heels of the already talked-about top rope belay system, is this leashless rig. most set ups have ‘biners and junk that get in the way, and most tools have less-than-perfect interfaces for leashes but this solves much of that. really, its like no one has put 2 and 2 together on this. add to this the way leashes twist around each other and theres a matrix of problems that never seems to get resolved. it annoyed me like it does many others, but function demanded a result and having a rack of leashes i sorted it out.
simple, elegant & functional
those are Blue Ice Boa leashes hitched to the swivel and hitch sling from a Black Diamond Double Springer. the Fusions (reknowned for having dubious attachment options) simply have 2mm cord hitched around the pommels with loops hanging off. the loops from the Boas hitch into these, via looping over the head of the tool. no little biners, no drilling into metal, nothing requiring tools beyond the scissors to cut the Springer leashes off the swivel. find a better system. you can even re-rig it to the heads of the tools in seconds for piolet stuff.
the interfacing bits: nothing fancier than some girth hitches, clove hitches and double fishermans
it is expensive. you need to spend on 2 sets of leashes unless you rig from other bits. but its more than worth it if leashes drive you crazy on the times when you have to use them.
note: this rig by no means is said to support a fall. anecdotally it has, but none of the parts is rated for such
yes, you read that correctly: dry tooling.
demonized in many places where its been mispracticed in the past, drytooling has a bad name amongst many climbers. destructive when done incorrectly in the wrong place (ie with double points and alpine tools on revered summer routes and/or fragile geology), drytooling is also an important aspect of mixed climbing, worthy of being done right.
thankfully, Japan has a liberal attitude towards drytooling with no one getting upset unless real damage is being done. along with this japan has huge tooling potential due to the vast amount of volcanic rock thats not great for rock climbing but is ideally steep, fissured and accessible.
in the right place and with the right tools drytooling is athletic, highly skilled and unique as a climbing form and bears no threat to popular climbing formations. ‘real’ drytooling makes use of features unsuited to regular climbing – hairline fissures, tiny pockets, vertical seams in roofs. not relying on friction too, drytooling can be done on grimey, slick and moisture affected rock, as its can also be suited to sharp and highly textured conglomerate too scatty to climb on with hands and offering no natural protection. true drytooling takes place where other forms of climbing cant (except possibly aid).
the Devil’s Work – drytool training on self-belayed top rope:
so, with next winter already orienting towards hard mixed climbing, drytooling makes up a significant part of the preparation process, meaning several tooling sessions over each training cycle, which means quite a bit of volume, which means getting the equation right so as not to damage somebody else favourite climb.
the keys to sustainable drytooling are:
- train properly: no mindless scratching around for no reason – climb within your ability (or at the edge of it) or go away. get good at placements before getting onto subjective routes.
- train on top rope: OH MY GOD! drytool AND top rope in the same sentence! yes, to get good takes volume and you need to take the falls and rest on rope instead of scratching around. its not the devils work, its respect for the geology.
- use the proper tools: not alpine tools and ideally not even pure ice tool – the right tools with the right picks have better geometry so rip less often, meaning fewer crap placements and a greater ability to rely on the thin/tiny stuff normal climbing doesnt
- use the proper crampons – or not at all: tooling is easier with crampons, so forgoing them and just wearing stiff boots is actually better training in many ways. keep your crampons for the right time, and when you use them, use monos as they do 50% the damage.
- train other aspects: weak climbers scratch about more. get strong, understand what youre doing and aim to be refined and focused. watch good toolers and you will see they do almost no damage because they make direct, precise placements. they dont flail about kicking chunks off the rock. good toolers switch up, reducing the number of placements and impact. simply put – the better the climber the less impact they make.
- understand how tools work: mixed tools have a wide spectrum of applications, not just hooking. the better you understand them the more you can shift from reliance on pockets and features that can rip.
- use your hands: theres no rule saying you must use tools 100% of the time. watch guys like Josh Wharton climb and see how they switch between hands and tools.
done right, drytooling is the missing link that helps keep progress between ice seasons. its also a discipline in its own right with a lot of skills that dont make it into ice climbing. getting good at tooling transfers over to other aspects of climbing by developing new ways of applying strength, power, balance and endurance.
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
‘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.
c.2650m, 7th pitch, A2 on the B Flank of Kaikomagatakes SE faces. 1972. image lifted from http://ito.tadashige.suwa-net.com
Japans serious alpine walls are alive and well
summers peaked and it seems autumn is a bit early, so after a
long, hot season thoughts are shifting to winter projects.
spliced together from forgotten topos, conversations with some of
Japans top climbers, old photos and ideas from around the world, this winter is
looking like it will be all about alpine walls.
winter aid routes on big granite walls: the foundation of Japanese alpine climbing
we spent the last few seasons following leads to locate routes
that formed japans best climbers. despite the names attached to them, many of
these routes have slipped into obscurity – to the point that besides japans
elite and a generation now in their 60s, most young climbers wont have heard of
them. and its not that the routes were superceded by anything other than shifts
in climbing trends, as indoor, bouldering and weekend locations like ogawayama
as far as walls go these are not the biggest, not the coldest and
not the sketchiest, but they are some of the most obscure. between 300m and 525m,
Japans alpine walls are similar in length to the South and West faces of Yosemite
and most of the routes in Zion, but getting vastly less attention still rate
due to their obscurity and risk – theres no scenic tourist road at the base of
any of these. tho some routes go back to the 1930s, most were initially aided
in the 60s during the early summer, on nasty gear and little of it, using fixed
ropes for mini-sieges, then forgotten about as climbers turned to more sport
oriented routes. these days they are still remote, with often difficult access,
and most of them nothing more than rusted lines of rivets and pitons described
sparingly in long out-of-print topos. a handful have become esoteric summer
free routes, but the vast majority are nothing more than dotted lines on hand
drawn topos. most will never have seen winter repeats.
digging up these old routes is a mix of history and cryptography.
little is recorded and what is uses obscure descriptions of things that may
have changed. in the decades since these routes were recorded conditions have
changed, and in most cases winter conditions were simply not factored in.
several recon trips have turned up just how unvisited these walls
are, with trails long washed away and the few remnants of climbing debris being
weathered beyond identification. in some places we found old tools, biners and
hardware worn down after decades of snow and ice tumbling them. a common relic
was the rings from Japanese split rivets that had been stretched into oval
shapes by winters of snow slowly pulling them out.
cryptic and beguilingly simple. Japanese topos are exercises in understatement.
in winter these are routes not to be taken lightly. most are above
2000m and cold, with several meters of snow and access down narrow ravines on
frozen streams. most areas see almost no visitors between November and April
when the rivers freeze.
japan has lots of granite, which means a mix of ice-scoured, seamless gullies and sharp, complicated roofs. note this is the A2 roof shown in the 5 pitch of the topo above, simply described as ‘hanging’.
most are decent granite, with complex crack systems and sets of
roofs that show testament to japans active geomorphology. several walls are
high up and exposed, sitting above big couloirs with +2000m drops to the frozen
streams in the valley floor, and many have gullies ground smooth from ice and
rain to leave tiny seams only passable with the thinnest of gear.
50 years ago japan was fairly isolated in the climbing world. the
pre-war climbing tradition that had Japanese teams climbing all thru the Himalayas
– often under the radar disguised as Buddhist pilgrims – had been dormant
during the decades of conflict with Russia, china and the west. whilst the west
got busy after the war, sending expeditions to the Himalaya, japan was
rebuilding, taking almost 2 decades before it was affluent enough again to take
climbing seriously. tho some serious routes were put up in these years, it was
the cultural explosion of the mid-60s – fuelled by glimpses of what was
happening in Yosemite and the Alps – that galvanized a new generation of
climbers. most were young, motivated by a new economy and inspired by the
Americans and pushed deeper into japans mountains looking for walls. still
isolated culturally, but with a long mountain tradition of their own, these
guys put up routes on homemade gear, sometimes scrounged from maritime supplies,
that seem crazy in retrospect. whilst Chouinard and Robbins were spawning the
future of American hardware, Japanese climbers were aiding entire 400m walls on
hooks, wooden chocks and iron-mongery made for farming tools. the death tolls
for places like ichi-no-kura where much of it was tested speak for itself, with
about 30 deaths a year for much of the 60s and 70s.
by the 80s Japanese climbers were taking their version of climbing
back to places like the Karakoram, Pamir and Tibet. meanwhile the remote alpine
walls theyd grown up on were becoming overlooked as new climbers took to the
booming climbing phase more in the gym and bolted short routes close to the cities.
occasional trips went out to free some of this near-forgotten lines, with a
surge of interest in the early 2000s, and its worth noting that the few that
got converted did so at grades in the 5.11/5.12 range, some by no less than
Yuji Hirayama and Yasuhiro Hanatani.
mid 90s photo on the lower pitches of one of the classic alpine walls in the Northern Alps
our aim here is to expose the element of hard Japanese climbing
actually inside japan. everyone knows
about the Giri Giri boys, the north side of K2, Japanese routes at Trango and
in Alaska – so its time to show the crucible where a big part of the Japanese alpine
mentality was forged.
its serious work. organizing and gearing up for this series of
trips isn’t just a matter of jumping in the car. not knowing the condition of
the routes means rethinking whats there and being prepared for everything from
clean aid and big wall methods to steep ice, alpine mixed and lots of hauling
loads. in piecing it together weve found more info on Tajikistan, Antarctica and
Baffin island than we have on Japans hard alpine routes….
byou bo iewa. not the usual image of Japanese climbing. image found on shizennnonakade.com
expressions of interest are welcome, but this is not for everybody.
despite the modern conveniences of Japan,
once off the grid these objectives are as much uncovering history as they are
breaking new ground. the skill set for these routes is broad, demanding
familiarity with more than just roadside ice and climb-by-numbers route following.
a functional ability in the dark arts of skyhooking, seam-nailing, guerrilla mixed
and winter ledging is a basic prerequisite.
trips to these walls will be done micro-exped style, requiring a
minimum of about 10 days – all totally unsupported, in temperatures down to
teams will be small, so numbers will be limited, but anyone excited
by old topos, exotic places, rediscovered routes and serious climbing is
encouraged to get in touch.
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