THE SORRY STATE OF WINTER CLIMBING IN JAPAN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oyafudo: some great routes done – many more waiting

what can be done about it?

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

 

 

PREPARATION: PRE-EXPEDITION TRIPS – WHY BOTHER?

somewhere up a huge granite face, a long way from home, with no topo to point the way, in the cold, is NOT the place to find out how your stove works. or your bivy bag. or your aiders. or your tent. or your partner. likewise, a day at a crag or a night in your backyard isnt realistic either.

unexplored objectives, unique mix of gear, early efforts up high, lots of factors unknown: with enough to focus on already, it pays to hammer out any details you can well before

when youre spending good money and energy and have pinned your expectations on a result, its unrealistic to not fortify your ability with functional practice. climbing trips to serious objectives are not the place for cutting corners, and worse than cutting corners on gear is cutting them on capability. especially things easily rectified once dragged thru the mill of experience. its amazing to see what climbers let slip thru with no preparation, even obvious stuff. common bug-ridden elements include:

  • cooking, melting and eating: these things need to become automated second nature as 9 times out of 10 they happen in cramped, stressful, time-dependant conditions. you need the right tools and to know how to make it all work. there’s a reason manfacturers say not to cook in a tent and circumventing this warning is skill, not luck.
  • packing to climb: messing about in the dark with a hundred stuff sacks is dangerous, annoying and time-wasting. you need to know what you have, where it is and how to get to it. beyond minimizing rummaging when youd rather be sleeping, access to important gear can save your life.
  • setting up bivvys: alpine tents, tarps, chopping ledges, securing gear, being safe and maybe even comfortable are important skills that need trailling to understand.
  • sorting racks: the less known the route the more unique and complex the gear. weekends cragging – especially sport or in the gym – negate the frontline skills of forseeing, racking and using the array of gear a leader needs
  • exped-belays: unaccustomed climbers dont realize how different an expedition-belay is. the time, the jobs to do, the conditions, the environment, the safety are lightyears away from guidebook stuff
  • seconding: along with the belays, seconding is a real job as part of a real team. you have shit to do. as the leader is busy at the sharp end the second has the tail-end responsibilities
  • descent: you usually dont just walk off an expedition objective. getting off unknown mountains with your gear, on ‘exped’ anchors, as a team, is a VITAL skill.

EVERY ONE of these things is fundamental to staying on mountains. NONE of these things are hypothetical. ALL of these things are trainable. not having these skills refined and functional wastes energy when you need it most and compromises your position as a team member – if you cant get it right someone else is affected.

pre-exped ‘debugging’ trips are as much about assessing your condition as they are about nailing down the general ‘house keeping’ skill set and test running the equipment you plan to use. a debugging trip needs to take place close enough to an expeds schedule to apply the foundations you have built for the trip, but also with enough time left to fix as much as possible. debugging trips are where you get to try things out and make (some) mistakes with a safety net. its also where you find out where you fit into a team, and get to self-assess whilst others observe you.

there’s right and wrong ways to setting up bivvys and exposed mountainsides is the worst place to find out

the best preparation trips mimic as many of the stressors of the real, planned trip as possible – minus the things that can kill you if your mistakes are too big, ie altitude, conditions, expense, travel factors and overall time. as much as you want to emulate the technical factors you also dont want to burn so deep as to compromise your condition for the real thing. Steve House & Scott Johnston recommend prepartory trips prior to focal expeditions, over-compensating some factors like height gain and loads carried in environments that allow it, and assumedly to refine their clothing, nutrition and technical systems as well. factors to prioritze debugging for include;

  • nights out: as many as possible, in a row. its usually the 3rd night that shows how good you are at it
  • load bearing: both approaches and on the vertical. can you actually move the stuff you need to?
  • nutrition: over several days. again – it takes a few days to realize the weaknesses in your intake
  • access skills: getting a months worth of supplies into BC is as much a team event as it is a necessary chore. not the best place to see a rope bridge, cable hoist or zip line for the first time
  • seconding: everyone needs ample time jugging, cleaning, belaying, organizing and suffering on the blunt end
  • systems: practice with your exped gear be it different ropes, chest racks, climbing in big boots, hauling, traversing, simu-climbing etc
  • organization: planning ahead and executing efficiency leads to better rest, time management and safety
  • communication: talking is the least useful form of communication. get as good as possible at reading signs so when you have to talk its only for important stuff.
  • descent: if nothing needs practise more its this, both as an individual and as a team. with gloves, by headtorch. even regular alpine descents are confusing.
  • being a team member: its easy to think its all about YOU. observe the ways your behaviour and abilities impact others so you can interact healthily.

spread over multiple weekends these elements can be accumulated, but combined in a short trip specific for the intention of up-skilling is far more effective. its not just the individual skills that matter, its the interplay and random throwing together that makes preparation realistic and not just simulated exercise.

ideally too, preparation trips should be fun. there will be enough genuine suffering on the real trip, preparation should be a time to immerse yourself in the enjoyable aspects of climbing, to whet your psyche as much as your skills. like avoiding burning out before you even start, dont crash your motivation or espirit de corps either. remember this is still a step on the up and up, not the final crux. realistically 100% of the final objective cannot be pre-empted, so the aim is to sharpen the bits that need it most.

when its cold, you’re tired, the ropes are frozen and theres a lot of rappels ahead, you wont be thinking about pointless details: its now when you need to be well prepared

dollar-for-dollar, preparation trips are the best money spend towards you goals as its here not that you get to play with your expensive toys, but that you get to refine what you dont need. gimmicky folding bowls, esoteric hardware, over-sized sleeping bags, silly clothes, flimsy electronics and bad food choices can get pin pointed and eliminated, freeing up cash for other things and simplifying what happens on the mountain.

in the end your capacity to acheive your objectives and return is at most 50% about you pulling 5.12 moves – the other 50% is how well you can sustain yourself in the place when its all occurring, including amongst your team mates. half that again is how well you perform, the remaining (25% in total) is how well you know yourself and your abilities so you can make the call.

NEW MT MIZUGAKI GUIDE BOOK

Japan’s not the easiest place to find the climbing in. theres hundreds of places but aside from a core few most are quiet and off the grid. Unlike other destinations with hard climbing histories, many of Japan’s serious routes in the 5.13 – 5.14 range are surprisingly obscure. Even the Japanese complain about the lack of good, collective info. Mizugaki has long been the slightly esoteric sister to Ogawayama. the trails are less trampled, theres usually no one else out there, and aside from a few boulderers even weekends tend to be quiet. despite significant routes by Dai Koyamada and Yuji Hirayama and visits by Steve House attention is (welcomingly) minimal.

perhaps the start of a new wave of publishing, the new guide to Mizugaki is the book weve been waiting for. besides being a well done book with good (as in really good) data and images, theyve picked a location still with hundreds of routes to be done. Somewhat more daunting than Ogawayama and more popular spots, presenting Mizugaki like this could just be the thing to see significant new routes go up this summer, which could then lead to winter attempts on the higher routes.

note its all in Japanese but easy to figure out the basics for non-readers, and comes in two volumes covering different parts of the mountain. note too both editions almost sold out in the first week. hopefully – unlike other classics of Japanese climbing guides – it will go into extra printings.

瑞牆山冬の壁 Mt MIZUGAKI WINTER WALLS

deep winter needs to be revelled in, not avoided. so when things get cold its time to hit the ‘winter only’ projects, and for a few years now that means mixed walls. mizugaki is the slightly esoteric sister to japans well known ogawa-yama rock area, all the routes are big, the granite spires high, relatively few routes done and much, much quieter. and whilst ogawa-yama sees climbing year round, mizugaki retains just minimal bouldering interest as the temps plummet to the -20s, the roads close and the snow gets deep.

records of winter ascents of the big routes are near non-existant. which makes it exactly what spikes iceclimbingjapan’s interest.

the deep freeze: mid-winter conditions on the way out to Mt Mizugaki

after succesful failure in china/tibet last year Dan was back for more suffering as part of the process for future trips* in the pipeline. cold walls requiring a lot of unknowns and a lot of motivation and character to overcome them are the nature of these trips and mizugaki never failed to deliver. with a good weather window, 4 days and a mountain of supplies it was time to put ideas into motion.

from the start things were overwhelming: turning 4 days of winter wall gear into (barely) carryable loads.

thats what 35kg looks like.

the boulder chute: littered with randomly sized granite boulders and the excised darker parts of the psyche.

the base of the wall: icy, cold and unstable. a good place to move upwards from

cold walls are dry walls: smashing 3 days worth of ice to carry upwards. mizugaki is so cold and dry that deer chewed at the ice for liquid.

a tough approach by headtorch got us to the well frozen base of the walls, carrying loads of 35kg each and pushing thru waist deep snow to the cave we knew so well from summer. a few hours sleep and more slog for a few hours and we finally got off the ground onto the first of up to 11 pitches over 400m height gain. pitch one usually goes at 5.11d mid-summer, but in mid-winter it became an A2 blend of bolts, nasty ring rivets and small gear that became sketch A3- onto a face of thin cracks, tiny pro and snow melt. as the sun went and the temps dropped, A3- became A3+ as the melt refroze that made for scary stuff. by midnight we’d hauled the gear, set up the ledge and melted ice to settle in for a frozen night on the wall.

finally getting off the ground: the 5.11d first pitch brought us up into the warm sun…

…until day became night, everything refroze and the hard, cold work continued

living on the ledge: by midnight wed hauled 70kg of gear up a boulder chute, aided 2 pitches and hauled everything up to our first bivy

getting above the trees was a crucial factor for being above the shaded frozen base of the wall. up in the ledge the sun could reach us, and nothing beats a clear view across to peaks as the first espresso of the day gets milled.

mornings up high are always memorable, especially in winter where it brings you into the sun. the view across to Kaikomagatake, Yatsugatake and the central alps

even tho the night was long but the sleep was short and every muscle burned, the first espresso of the day brings everything back to equilibrium

with a full day on the face before us Dan geared up and set off on what the topo noted as a series of 5.7 and 5.9 cracks…..which no doubt in summer they are. several hours later after a few heartrate-raising falls, multiple hook moves in a row and a heroic battle across granite slicked by snow melt Dan pulled onto the first belay stance, a gradually melting patch of ice on an smooth slab of granite. the transition wasnt prolonged as he headed into a foot crack that outside of winter is a jaunt, but in winter requires lots of digging. the next stance was mostly free of snow but the sun was going fast so another quick transition lead out onto an exposed face and up a perfect hand crack on good gear, arriving just as things got dark.

Dan heading off on a crash course about hooks, marginal gear and high-stepping: from V12 bouldering to winter walls via high altitude expedition climbing, Dan’s progression curve with climbing is impressive

the belay stance above pitch 3: probably quite nice when the snows not melting and sliding off

 Dan leading off onto the steep hand crack that for a change wasnt choked with ice.

a long rap back to the ledge got us in tired and trashed, realizing that our window was far too short for the route. inverting the summer grades, the short easy pitches were terrifying efforts across iced slab, whilst the hard stuff became long aid pitches on thin techy placements – neither of which went fast, only compounded by days still only short with most of that below freezing.

happy with what we had, knowing wed attempted something with almost zero beta it was time to go. the weather was crashing anyway as the next morning showed us, with gusting winds howling across the spires and faces – as it usually does out there. retreat was long and grinding, with Dan arriving zombie-like with a thousand yard star after grim exploits deep in a gully and getting by on a damaged knee from a fall the day before.

retreat: exhausted but happy we were beaten by the clock and conditions and started the long haul out

aching and frazzled we resorted to dragging the haul bags thru the flat sections….

…or simply threw them down anything step enough

before we had time to cool down was Dan was flying back to Australia, trashed but not succumbed, with a haul bag full of dirty gear, a damaged knee and plans already forming for the next chapter.

turns out Dan had climbed, slept and walked out with a 30kg load thru waist deep snow with a torn medial cruciate in his right knee

*further plans in the cold wall project take us to sichuan and pakistan. please get in touch if suffering on frozen rock walls appeals.

JANUARY 2015 JAPAN ICE CONDITIONS UPDATE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

ON ITS WAY: JAPAN ICE CONDITIONS

you couldnt ask for better: rain and melt then a sharp drop into deep freeze. what weve waited all summer for.

already theres been two significant freezes and now the definitive freeze is on its way. a bout of rain and snow in the days before then a plunge into serious cold.

compared to previous years this comes a few weeks ahead of the norm, with temperatures colder and the precipitation between more consistant. add it all up and this could be the best early season ice in almost a decade with lower ice forming well before the shortest days and the snow really arrives.

with 14 weeks of winter ahead its time to nail down a plan and make it happen. dont say you didnt see it coming

瑞牆山 Mt MIZUGAKI; SUMMER WALLS

mizugaki-yama is the quintessential Japanese mountain; high spires of teetering granite, gravity-defying conifer trees, trickling waterfalls and narrow gorges emerging from a sea of quiet deciduous forest and layers upward drifting mist. straight from an old ink painting, Mizugaki is as much an icon of Japanese-ness as it is of serious climbing. whilst crowds flock to Ogawa-yama, Mizugaki to the south remains quiet, the trails still faint and hundreds of lines still unclimbed.

esoteric and quiet; Mt Mizugaki is a good location for finding the soul of japanese climbing

more accessible than Kaikomagatakes alpine faces and less confronting than the big routes on Byu-bo Iwa, Mizugakis spires and walls are home to multi-pitch routes that link cedar covered ledges via long granite cracks and bold faces, making it an obvious choice for summer multi-day routes staged either from the base or wall-style, bivvying on the ledges. mizugaki is a good place to learn and refine alpine technique, with only the short stuff bolted, leaving the bigger routes either totally free or relying on just ancient bits of dubious iron-work.

 alpine-style climbing on Mt Mizugakis longer routes; getting fluent in the methods that will be applied to bigger things

most of Mizugakis climbing is at the harder end of the spectrum with a lot of 5.12s & 5.13s. big routes stretch to around 11 pitches, with a lot of pitch-length cracks and deep off-widths – which combined with the hard grades make for a good Clean Aid training ground.

steep lines and hand-width cracks; Mizugakis granite spires has hundreds of options for training and development

 no heavy gloves, down jackets, frozen hands, sharp tools or icy ropes; to make winters efficient theres a lot of preparation thats easier done in summer.

packing & carrying in all the gear is one thing, using it is another; alpine aid is a fine balance between resources and skill, with complex routes needing a wide of applied abilities

days & nights on the route; when routes get long the ability to live happily in adaptable conditions equals the ability to climb

summer climbing trips up onto Mizugakis faces tend to be relaxed, staying in caves and on pine needle-softened ledges. being at cloud level at about 1900m makes for ever-changing conditions as mist and cloud swirls between the spires, the sun bakes the exposed granite and views down the valley open up.

 a long way from winter; long days mean early starts and time to take things in. sometimes getting the coffee right is as important as chosing the route.

of course there are casualties: the testimony to great rock is often the effect it has on your gear

FULL METAL ALPINISM: JAPAN IS NOT WHAT YOU THINK

simply put; the world knows almost zero about climbing in japan. even the most educated climbing geeks struggle to name a single route in japan, with even the names of japans peaks eluding them.

the mark of a climbing culture is what its members achieve out in the world of ‘big’ climbing – ie on vanguard routes where their climbing peers can evaluate just how good the climbing is – and tho Japanese climbers have a history of high end results, the climbing that formed them is largely unknown.

can’t read Japanese? then chances are Japan’s alpine climbing is a totally unknown world to you

a degree of this hole in the climbing worlds collective knowledge goes down to language; japans climbing information is mostly written in Japanese of course, but the real reason is the Japanese attitude towards climbing. the climbing industry is simply quieter in showing it. indeed Japan has sponsored climbers and significant producers of sponsoring companies, but the heroes of Japanese climbing are not athlete-celebrities telling us what to wear on Vimeo. so, in an attempt to answer the many emails iceclimbingjapan gets asking ‘what is Japanese alpine climbing all about?’ a condensed version is provided here.

Kaikomagatake: more than one climber has noted how its not what they expected of Japan’s mountains

first off, Japan has a lot of climbing. +/-80% of the country is covered in mountains, with dramatic topography hewn by a blend of volcanic, erosive and seismic activity that lends itself to rock types and formations that cover most climbing demands. japan has 21 mountains over 3000m with another 33 over 2500m, most with starting base levels below 1000m giving a lot of climbing in excess of 1500m height gain.

being a deeply featured landscape with profound weather conditions, Japan’s mountains are complexes of ravines and narrow ridges, hiding a huge area of ice and alpine potential. few peaks have an obvious set of faces and approaches, more often having dozens of options that follow an array of features deep into rarely visited regions. its normal for even the most-visited peaks to have entire faces and sides that go unaccessed for years.

approaches in Japan can be the decisive factor: steep, complex topography keeps Japan’s alpine objectives remote and esoteric, requiring more than just a passing degree of interest

walls

japan has about a dozen walls of +250m, with a handful reaching 450m. tho little of these rank as the common idea of big walls, most of them sit within alpine topography that makes them closer to an Alpen or Alaskan comparison than to Yosemite. huge approaches lead to exposed granite faces that go to summits via complicated routes. theres little of the developedment that surrounds famous wall areas in the US and Europe, most japanese walls are remote require total self-sufficiency.

rock

below Japans walls is a large cannon of multi-pitch routes dispersed across the entire country. routes between 3 and 12 pitches cover the huge amount of stripped faces from high alpine buttresses to the endless sea cliffs. routes are found in nearly every corner of Japan, with an impressive collection of 5.13 upwards routes put up by Japans core of hard climbers. Japan has relatively little of the focal valleys as found in Europe, being closer to the US style that centers climbing around peaks and the UK version of isolated crags. despite a huge amount of attention go to places like Ogawa-yama, most of Japans rock potential is untapped, with enormous possibilities in all across the country for new routes. even Mizugaki-yama on the back side of Ogawa-yama sees minimal attention considering the vast amount of rock of exceedingly good quality and easy access. if japan is known for any sort of climbing its bouldering, with guys like Dai Koyamada doing as much at home as he does around the world. every weekend finds a legion of pad-carrying boulderers jamming up the train carriages out to the bouldering areas, draining the 7-11s of coffee and onigiris on the way.

ice

that Japan is barely known as an ice destination is an anomaly. with the right climate, latitude and topography it should be obvious to anyone looking at a map that Japan ticks all the boxes. from remote valleys and alpine faces, to road-side cascades and ice-park style areas, ice can be found all over the upper half of the archipelago between November and April. as an untapped repository of ice routes, Japan conceals areas comparable to the famous locations in Europe and Nth America with comparable areas to Lofoten, Hyalite, Alaska and parts of the Alps – minus the crowds.

classic alpine

the connected alpine routes of japans high ridges and buttresses are an entire culture onto their own, having been the center of Shinto and Buddhist activity for centuries. even the hard technical routes are usually approached to some extent via ancient trails that lead to shrines and ascetic practice areas, with some peaks like Kaikomagatake retaining some of the active Shugendo facilities.

classic mixed ridges and gullies flank dozens of Japans alpine peaks, ranging from suicidal lines to straightforward semi-technical routes.

the Yatsugatake massif: one of several centers for Japanese Alpinism. photo: Kylie H.

mixed

more than once Japanese mixed has been likened to Scottish mixed – tho with better weather and more reliable temperatures. strafed and rimed rock on exposed buttresses with no bolts are all over Japan. this tho belies the ‘athletic mixed’ climbing also found yet barely developed that awaits exploration across the winter-affected regions. volcanic geology and cold conditions results in endless extreme rock formations that are connected with sections of ice. much of it is unclimbable in summer, making for true mixed lines.

culture

Japanese climbing culture is relatively free of the bickering and aggressive navel-gazing found elsewhere. the culture as a whole is both respectful of climbing as a pursuit, and tolerant of new ideas on style. perhaps the absence of industry pressure to define ‘climbingness’ alleviates the egos that flare over matters of style and apparent ethics.

despite having climbing concurrent to the rest of the world, Japanese climbing is still very ‘Japanese’. a degree of recent climbing styles have been copied from the west with many Japanese climbers having travelled to climb, but much of the base culture is deeply rooted in Japans own attitude to the mountains.

Japan’s mounatins have been active places for centuries, going into and climbing them has a cultural element different to the West

even amongst teenage boulderers, an attitude of organic attachment exists to the mountain geography – for many Japanese being in the mountains is as important as what happens in the mountains, and the sense of being out there is to be cultivated with certain ways of doing things. the Japanese don’t try to extend their ultra-urban attitudes into the mountains by bringing home with them, they recognize ‘mountain time’ as being almost the default setting. this is noticed in all sorts of ways, from the attention given to eating when in the mountains, to the distinction between where the mountains begin and civilization ends. many Japanese climbers have distinct psyches they switch into when in the mountains, sometimes seen as a ‘purer’ version of the self, with appetites and reactions allowed to flow more organically than the weekday Tokyo personas they so dilligently maintain.

the future

international attention on Japan as a climbing destination is still a fair way off. Japan is not a 3rd world destination needing a hand from the western climbing industry to develop and exploit its potential, and nor is it a place with nothing else to offer. Japan is more than happy to remain obscure, with its climbing available only to the few willing to find it. foreign interest indeed exists, with a small number of motivated climbers dropping by each year happily knowing they dont have to compete with hustlers and crowds to climb what they want. japan is free of difficult redtape, extorionate fees and the climbers bubble that exists elsewhere. despite world-class climbing the usual accompaniments that go with it are happily absent and for those who like that its a true alternative.

being able to climb hard with minimal hassle gets rarer and rarer every year, making Japan an ever-more valuable destination to escape the pressure of a climbing world saturated with exploitation and the race-for-the-prize. that entire vallys of alpine climbing remain unspoken of and intact speaks as much for the blinkeredness of the worlds climbing media as it does for Japan’s ability to keep things well managed despite trends elsewhere.

ALPINE WALL TRAINING

winters looming so its been time to hone the sort of skills needed for trips in the pipeline. time spent on walls is always valuable, especially when its all about working stuff out, and usually thats easier done when its not -15c. this trip covered a lot of ground over almost 3 weeks, with time at Mizugaki yama, Yatsugatake, lower Kaikomagatake and then down to Tanzawa, each spot having its own stuff to work on.

rurp aid climbing walls alpine japan

theres nothing quite like a RURP, especially hanging from it when its in the underside of a lip

stacked wires clean aid alpine walls training japan

…tho stacked wires come pretty close

clean aid ball nuts alpine wallls japan
weird tools for weird placements: ball nuts fill a gap where nothing else besides nailing will

over the time we spent only 2 nights in hotels (the 2 nights when typhoons hit hardest), with the rest spent in portaledges, bivvys, tents and in-situ shelters. days were spent covering the logistics for foreign expeditions, playing about on dodgy aid placements, drilling systems, lugging huge loads, hauling water, reconning locations and refining the processes of extended periods being self-sustained – all the things that make the difference at the sharp end.

alpine walls clean aid hanging stove portaledge japan

living on a wall makes you rethink everything: hanging the stove between portaledges

clean aid training trip bivvy japan
after long, steep approaches its a luxury to stay right at the base of a wall

clean aid japan alpine wall training

getting onto the wall is only one part of a complex process, especially in a foreign country where you have to make all the decisions yourself. to succeed takes time spent not just on the sharp end, but getting a handle on the elements of a trip that dont get the romance and thrills that many overlook. by the time your clipped in above the ground youve already covered a lot of ground