GOLDEN WEEK – BE CAREFUL

golden week is here. the highways are jammed, the trains are booked out and the carparks are full.

Yatsugatake’s Ice Candy. perhaps in Honshu’s most stable winter environment at 2200m in a shaded amphitheater, its usually still pretty solid in late April. photo from the Akadake Kosen blog.

every year it seems winter gets a bit shorter – certainly shorter than when the aging guidebooks were written – so those old favorite late spring routes are now really early summer ones. every year sees a few more accidents as climbers find out the hard way. the snow pack isnt what it once was, the slopes arent as stable as they once were, the rock isnt as frozen as it usually is, the 24hr  temperature fluctuation can be broader.

add to that the undeniably weird weather over the last winter and theres real unknowns out there. be careful where you camp. be careful where you climb. be careful of the bigger picture.

WILL GADD & SARAH HUENIKEN / 2016: JAPAN’S FRONTIER CLIMBING

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.

NEW TOHOKU ROUTES: FUN CHIMES M9 & FROZEN GOLD WI7 (+ ONE MORE)

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.

OLD YUWATADO BRIDGE IM7 (INDUSTRIAL MIXED), 30m

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.

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.

 

 

大谷不動とエスプレソ壁 OYAFUDO, ESPRESSO WALL & MID-WINTER BIVYS

the second week of February is statistically the coldest of the year. the days are getting longer again with the sun higher in the sky, which combined with the cold plunge and the mid-winter weather pattern usually means a window of good ice. this season held true. after an enthusiastic dispatch from CLIMB JAPAN (cheers Tony, next coffee’s on us) about the icefalls in Oyafudo, Nagano, we changed course for the fat ice center of Japan.

hefty routes often result in hefty packs: expecting all sorts of weather and a comfortable base, the pack in was a big element of the trip to Oyafudo

the easiest route in the valley: at WI5, despite being fat and blue, it takes psyche and the right zone to pull off 40m of steep ice

the Oyafudo basecamp: comfortable. long days of steep approaches and hard ice demand easy living

Oyafudo’s WI6 ice pillars: hanging from the surrounding escarpment, the number of international quality, hard routes make this a kind of hidden gem of world ice climbing

Oyafudo isnt the place for easy climbing. almost nothing goes below WI5, pitches are usually >45m, everything’s steep and much of the mixed pro is ‘local’. you have to be on form. after 2 days on the lactic threshold it was time to head back to Yamanashi before the impending snow dump and psyche-out got the upper hand. Down at Lower Kaikoma things were cold, but the passing snow and mid-winter conditions resulted in good ice with the mixed lines on Espresso Wall being thin, hard with lots of exposed granite seams

Espresso Wall is still uncovering new lines: snow, cold, sun and cleaning shows up more and more thin lines and pick-width seams

after several trips lugging heavy packs wed opted for a lighter approach, taking bivy tarps instead of the big base camp tent. always a gamble, we got the pitch just right and weathered out the strong winds, snow and -14c night in relative comfort.

not quite the same as the Oyafudo base camp, but livable none the less: at under 1kg, two tarps on hard snow makes a lot of room

despite the minimal materials and cold temps, using the right gear inside makes it all doable: cold weather stoves and 4 season insulation make all the difference

 at -12c, a degree of creativity to keep the important things insulated makes minimalist nights out less than suffering